Monthly Archives: May 2015

Oriental Cuckoo on Helgoland?

Jochen Dierschke

A strange cuckoo has troubled our minds the last days on Helgoland. Could it be an Oriental Cuckoo, a species not yet recorded safely in Europe outside its Russian breeding grounds?

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The Cuckoo in question (picture by Thorsten Stegmann). Note the dark upperparts, the tiny appearance and the barring on the underparts.

 

On May 25th, local warden Felix Timmermann checked in early morning ID features of birds for his forthcoming trip to the Ural mountains, including the voice of Oriental Cuckoo. Only an hour later, he heard a Hoopoe-like call. The call sounded like the introduction part of Oriental Cuckoo song, but the bird remained unseen. Felix informed me, but I had no time to check due to a breeding bird survey on the neighbouring dune island. The next morning, only a few hundred meters away, another Hoopoe-like call (three syllables) was heard, but again no sighting of the bird.

In the morning of May 27th, a “strange Cuckoo” was seen by several birders at the 2nd site. I became a bit excited and went to see the bird. When I saw it, I realized several features consistent with what I knew about the ID of Oriental Cuckoos, so I tried to take pictures, especially in flight. The bird then flew to the other side of the island and was relocated there and gave excellent views. A check of the literature suggested that we needed to trap the bird. In the evening we erected mistnets close to his favoured site, but although we played the female call, which is supposed to be good for trapping cuckoos, the bird was not seen again. Also next morning we tried to trap, but it seemed that the bird had finally taken of, with a lot of caterpillars in his belly.

Looking in the literature, it became evident that not a single feature is unique to Oriental Cuckoo (except the song), but a combination of the features pointed towards Oriental:

Size: The bird looked tiny and short-billed in the field

Upperparts: Rather dark for a Common Cuckoo; some retained tertials and secondaries indicate a 2nd-year bird.

Underparts: The belly-streaking was not as dense in Common Cuckoo. On the pictures we counted 7-8 complete black bars from belly to breast. The width of the black bars varied between postures, but certainly they can be more obvious in Oriental. The vent and undertail coverts produced a large, unbarred peachy-buffish patch. Only the longest undertail-coverts were more whitish with black bars.

Underwing: The bird showed a White’s Thrush like underwing pattern with a broad white stripe. The lesser underwing-coverts were unmarked and buffish. The primary barring was rather bold, but the exact number of white bars could not be counted, as the bases of the primaries are partially covered by the greater coverts.

As Common Cuckoo is quite rare on the island in spring, it seems unlikely that several birds were involved in the sightings. So, we face a Cuckoo which calls like an Oriental, looks at least to me like an Oriental – but is this enough for a 1st record for Europe outside the Russian breeding areas? The Finnish birds have not been accepted, as there were some features odd for Oriental, like a call of three syllables, wing length (see Lindholm & Linden 2003, Alula 4: 122-133). Also the Helgoland cuckoo uttered a call with three syllables. However, this might be just a disturbed introduction of the song.

Oriental Cuckoo has not been safely recorded in Europe outside the Russian breeding grounds. However, it certainly should be on the radar of European birders!

Any comments on the ID of the bird – good or bad news – are very welcome!

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The Helgoland Cuckoo in flight from below. Note the obvious underwing panel, especially the unmarked lesser underwing-coverts. Note also the barring and the pattern of the undertail coverts.

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Note the retained juvenile tertials and the pattern of the undertail coverts.

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Mammal of the Month: Orca

Dan Brown

Killer Whales or Orcas are highly social, intelligent and stunning animals. For those of us living in the UK we stand an excellent chance of seeing these ultra-predators close-up off the Scottish coast and now is the time to do it! 
Bull Orca off Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Bull Orca off Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

There is no better time than now to feature the most effective marine predator on our planet. It’s half way through Orca week up in Caithness and this time of year generally marks the start of Orca season up north. Whilst you might not think it, the UK is actually a brilliant place to catch up with the largest, most attractive and charismatic of Dolphins. We tend to think of them as a Norwegian, Antarctic, Argentinean or British Columbian specialty, but they are very regular in the UK and with a bit of time and luck you stand a very good chance of seeing them.

Equally stunning close-up or set amongst stunning coastal scenery

Equally stunning close-up or set amongst stunning coastal scenery

They’ve had a bad reputation in the past; a ferocious predator, a killer of whales and even Great White Sharks, but reality is somewhat different. Yes they do hunt whales, including Blue Whale calves, and yes they can cause the entire Farallones population of Great White Sharks to vanish over-night, but there has yet to be a human fatality involving a wild Orca. They are exceptional social and intelligent, in fact the populations along the west coast of North America have one of the most stable societies known among non-human animals. Their social structure is matrilineal within which is clearly defined hierarchy. The matriline is the most basic of social tiers and is most often what we see in British Orcas, ie a group of up to ten or so animals keeping very close company. These groups very rarely break apart, and if they do its only ever for a few hours. The next social tier up is the pod. This consists of several (normally 1-3) matrilines of related animals, but these may separate for several weeks at a time. In the Northern Isles we frequently see several groups of animals appear at roughly the same time, these are likely to be separate matrilines from within a pod. The third social tier is the clan which brings together all pods with similar vocal dialects, a direct reflection of maternal ancestry and an excellent example of a non-human cultural tradition. The final social tier is the community which is defined by pod association patterns and not clan membership. It has been shown that pods may associate with other pods from different clans but very rarely associate with pods from different communities.

A matriline off Caithness recently

A matriline off Caithness recently

Many groups of animals have been defined by their feeding preferences and their movements are often directly related to seasonal abundances in food. Those Orca appearing around the Scottish coast now will predominantly feed on seals and other marine mammals, however later in the summer the same individuals they have been shown to hunt Eiders around the Faeroes and then Herring off Iceland during the winter.

Researchers documenting Orcas off Shetland

Researchers documenting Orcas off Shetland

In the North Atlantic there has been a significant amount to research into the various social groups. Work is still on-going and more information can be found on the Icelandic Orcas Facebook page. Many of the individuals have been photographed well enough to allow individual recognition, and if you are lucky enough to get any images of Orcas these could prove useful in determining the movements of the North Atlantic populations.

'Mousa' a well-known female Orca (characterised by the nicked fin) that spends the summer around Scotland and the winter in Iceland.

‘Mousa’ a well-known female Orca (characterised by the nicked fin) that spends the summer around Scotland and the winter in Iceland.

Orcas are not boat shy!

Orcas are not boat shy!

Globally they can be found in every ocean where distinct populations exist based on behaviour, patterning, and size. Recent research into the genetics of these populations may well reveal the presence of several different species and certainly if you’ve been lucky enough to encounter Orcas around the Antarctic then you may well have noticed the yellow colouration to the normally white patches, these are probably Type B Orca, whilst a similarly coloured but smaller animal will probably be Type C Orca. The population occurring around New Zealand, Type D Orcas are particularly distinct in having a more bulbous forehead (melon), a much reduced white eye blaze and a very sickle-like dorsal fin. This recent video by the Sea Shepherd off New Zealand nicely illustrates the latter features. Of course we should probably give these true Birding Frontiers names such a Sickle-finned Sea Panda, and Dwarf Sea panda, suggestions welcome 😉

It would be good to get this combo in the UK!

It would be good to get this combo in the UK!

A young bull with a typically triangular dorsal fin

A young bull with a typically triangular dorsal fin

The ID of Orcas is very straightforward although just occasionally slow moving, distant groups of Risso’s Dolphins may be mistaken for Orcas with their tall dark dorsal fins. Hopefully any half decent view of the body of head should reveal the correct identity.

The only confusion species - Risso's Dolphins have tail dark fins and can be confused with Orcas at a distance.

The only confusion species – Risso’s Dolphins have tail dark fins and can be confused with Orcas at a distance.

Sadly Orcas are still being captured for our entertainment. Russia appear to be the biggest problem makers yet venues in the States still support the use of captive Orcas for our entertainment, something that will hopefully change under the weight of public pressure. Thankfully they are still widespread and relatively common and here in the UK there is a very good chance of encountering them in the wild given a bit of patience and making sure you’re in the best areas.

When and where to see Orca

Orcas can be encountered at any time of year around the Northern and Western British coasts, however the best time is late Spring and Summer around the Northern Isles and Caithness.

Orca Watch is currently running, based at Duncansby Head, Caithness and will be daily until Saturday. Start times for meeting are as follows:

Weds 27th 11am, Thurs 28th 12pm. Fri 29th 1pm & Sat 30th 2pm

Keep an eye on the Caithness Swatch Facebook page for up to date sightings. So far this week they have had Orca, Humpback Whale breaching on two days, Minke and other common cetaceans.

Other good spots in Caithness include Noss & Dunnet Head, as well as Strathy and Stoer Points in Sutherland. The advantage of the Caithness coast is the linear nature of it making tracking these animals relatively easy. Other hotspots such as Orkney and Shetland have many islands and voes for cetaceans to get lost in, as well as proving difficult for the observer to track them.

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You cant beat looking down on Orcas from the Scottish coast!

You cant beat looking down on Orcas from the Scottish coast!

On Orkney, Scapa Flow and the Southern Islands seemed to be particularly favoured.

Female and calf in Scapa Flow, Orkney

Female and calf in Scapa Flow, Orkney

Play-time for a juvenile Orcas in Scapa Flow

Play-time for a juvenile Orcas in Scapa Flow

On Shetland, Mousa Sound, Yell Sound, and Sumbrugh Head all have regular sightings, and a trip with Shetland Nature offers an excellent chance of connecting with Orcas.

Orcas are not shy of being close to the coast which often allows for amazing views (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Orcas are not shy of being close to the coast which often allows for amazing views (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Elsewhere the Hebrides and Western Ireland, as well as the Minch all have occasional sightings.

Further afield The Strait of Gibraltar, the Lofted Island off Norway and Iceland are the top three places in the rest of Europe for catching up with Orcas.

A juvenile Orca off Caithness two weeks ago

A juvenile Orca off Caithness two weeks ago

More juvenile Orca fun!

More juvenile Orca fun!

And finally…

No doubt you will all have seen these before but some excellent videos showing the amazing hunting, social and inquisitive element of Orcas:

Try and ignore the backing music but a great example of Orcas hunting Dolphins

Orcas deliberately beaching themselves in Argentina to hunt sealions

Fun or hunting!?

The inquisitive side of Orcas!

 

Time for a change

By Steve Blain

It was time for a new digiscoping camera earlier in the year, but which one to go for? I couldn’t decide whether to go for another compact camera, or to move up to a micro four-thirds.  A lot of research later and talking to a few friends for advice I made the leap and purchased a Panasonic GX7 and 20mm f1.7 lens.

I will follow this post up soon with one about my current set up and how it connects to my scope – it’s very straight forward.  Needless to say I am very pleased with it and how it performs.  Below are some of the shots I’ve taken during the last couple of months – all of them link through to larger images so please click on them and take a closer look.

All shot using a Swarovski ATS 80 HD with either the 30x fixed eyepiece or the 25-50x zoom.

Yellowhammer, Broom GP

Robin, Biggleswade

Corn Bunting, Biggleswade Common (shot at ISO 2000)

Dartford Warbler

Little Gull, Broom GP

Grasshopper Warbler, Willington GP

Meadow Pipit, Biggleswade

Meadow Pipit, Biggleswade

Meadow Pipit, Biggleswade

A Quiet Spring so Far? Not if You’re a Photographer.

posted by Justin Carr.

As a birder it may have been a quiet spring for birders here in the UK the lack of a prolonged spell of easterly winds has meant a lack of rare and scarce birds reaching our shores. But being a Photographer/Digiscoper I always have something to keep me occupied when the birding is a little steady. Over the last few weeks I have enjoy some local birding as well as a couple of trips to my favorite migrant hotspot Spurn. Here are a few shots, Digiscoped as always.

Arctic tern

Arctic tern

This Arctic Tern was at Lakeside Doncaster, note the grey markings on its forewing making it possibly a 2nd summer bird a rarely seen plumage in the UK as immature birds tend to stay on their wintering grounds.

Swallow

Swallow

Red necked Grebe

Red necked Grebe

This Red necked Grebe had a good stay at Hornsea mere.  Thanks must go to Garry Taylor who rang me up to say he had really close views that morning.

Mallard also Hornsea mere

Mallard also Hornsea mere.

This shot of this Mallard demonstrates the shallow depth of field Digiscoping creates giving an interesting look to the image.

Redshank Old moor RSPB.

Redshank Old moor RSPB.

Tundra Ringed Plover Hatfield Moors

Tundra Ringed Plover Hatfield Moors.

Well Spring isn’t over yet so lets pray for easterlies over the next couple of weeks.

All shots Digiscoped on a Swarovski ATX 85.

Balearic Woodchat Shrike – badius

A New Feature?

by Martin Garner

I was very pleased to catch up with the Balearic Woodchat Shrike at Wykeham, North Yorkshire earlier this week. As ever when vagrants get studied closely it raised a question for me. Is there another feature of badius not yet described?

Here’s the boy. Balearic Woodchat Shrike was, at one stage considered possibly not identifiable with certainty by BBRC. A thorough review by Brian Small and Grahame Walbridge (read the paper: Balearic Woodchat Shrike paper ) found and affirmed key characters. Some are visible here on this 1st summer male like the rather thick, slightly bulbous bill, the lack of white at the base of the primaries and possibly pertinent the narrow black band on the forehead (though bearing in mind this will get broader in adult plumage. But there is another feature…

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Nick Addey

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Nick Addey

The TAIL

Critical in separating Eastern Woodchat Shrike (niloticus) from nominate senator is the amount of white in the tail. (Read the paper Eastern Woodchat Shrike paper)

What if the same applies to badius versus senator? I found no reference to this in a quick search of the key literature.

The Wykeham bird appears to have moulted most of its tail (apart from possibly the outermost t6) to black adult type feathers and yet it also appears to lack the prominent white at the base of some of the outer tail feathers. The outermost tail feathers t6 is obscured and may be a juvenile feather, but I would have expected to see at least some white obvious at the bases of say t5 and t4 if the pattern had been the same as nominate senator (BWP says bases of t2-t5 are white with almost half the feather on t4 being white and much of base of t5 also white). Instead the tail looks essentially all dark.

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Nick Addey

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Nick Addey

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Brett Richards

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Brett Richards

The tail looks black and does not appear to be a retained juvenile tail- apart from perhaps the outermost feather t6?  But then in flight you can see the more extensive grey over the uppertail coverts with small white rump patch and all dark-looking tail (T6 is mostly hidden under t5).

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Dave Aitken

2cy male Balearic Woodchat Shrike, Wykeham. North Yorkshire, May 2015. Dave Aitken

Ideally I would need to review specimens and see more inflight spread tails of various Woodchat taxa. What do you think? Go ahead have your say...

Compare with this bird recently on the Isles of Scilly-  a male nominate senator taken by Martin Goodey.

2cy male nominate Woodchat Shrike, Scilly, May 2015. Martin Goodey

2cy male nominate Woodchat Shrike, Scilly, May 2015. Martin Goodey

2cy male nominate Woodchat Shrike, Scilly, May 2015. Martin Goodey

2cy male nominate Woodchat Shrike, Scilly, May 2015. Martin Goodey

Eastern Woodchat- niloticus

and to complete the set- the even more extensive white at the base of the tail feathers found in niloticus– very rare in NW Europe with no British records… yet!

Notice also the BIG white area over rump and uppertial coverts of niloticus.

male Eastern Woodchat Shrike (niloticus), Eilat, March 2012. Martin Garner

male Eastern Woodchat Shrike (niloticus), Eilat, March 2012. Martin Garner

tail of male Eastern Woodchat Shrike (niloticus), Eilat, March 2012. Martin Garner

tail of male Eastern Woodchat Shrike (niloticus), Eilat, March 2012. Martin Garner

The New Garden: Full Of Eastern Promise

By Terry

OK so it’s not, strictly speaking, my “garden”.. but I am claiming the area of scrub next to my new apartment block in suburban Beijing as my new patch.   And in just 10 days since I moved in, and only three visits, I have racked up a list of species that would do Fair Isle proud.  
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The new local patch.

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My new apartment block viewed from the patch

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This area of poplars has already produced Taiga Flycatcher and Little Bunting.

At the beginning of May I moved apartments to a suburb in northeast Beijing.  It’s close to the metro, a new shopping centre, a good mix of Chinese and western restaurants and, importantly, it provides easy access to some of Beijing’s best birding spots such as Miyun Reservoir and Wild Duck Lake.  A bonus was discovering a relatively wild area of scrub close by and, in just three short visits, it has produced some quality birds.  Yet more evidence that the migration through China’s capital is on a scale that is hard to beat.  At this time of year, almost any green patch will attract birds.  Birding in Beijing continues to surprise and delight.

My first visit to the new local patch was when I was simply walking to the closest metro station, without binoculars.  I stumbled across an Oriental Scops Owl roosting close to the path.  Astonishingly I managed to photograph it using only my iPhone.

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Taken using only an iPhone, this ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL was the first species I recorded on the new local patch!

Not surprisingly, this chance occurrence prompted a more dedicated birding visit and so, during an early morning hour before breakfast the following day, I logged Oriental Turtle Dove, Dusky Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, Eye-browed Thrush, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Taiga Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Olive-backed Pipit and Little and Yellow-throated Buntings.  Not bad!

2015-05-05 Olive-backed Pipit, Wenyu He

Olive-backed Pipits have so far been a common migrant at the local patch with up to 10 present at any one time.

 

2015-05-07 Taiga Flycatcher, Shunyi2

Taiga Flycatcher is a common migrant through Beijing in spring and autumn. Their ‘rattle’ is a frequent accompaniment to a walk through any green space in early May.

 

A second dedicated visit produced singing Two-barred Greenish Warbler, more Olive-backed Pipits, Richard’s Pipit, Common Rosefinch and a flyover Oriental Honey Buzzard.

2015-05-05 Richard's Pipit, Wenyu He

A flight call is usually the first sign that a Richard’s Pipit is on the patch.

 

And on my way to the metro station this morning I encountered a stunning Radde’s Warbler, singing its heart out next to the path.

So far I have recorded 38 species and I am certain I am only scratching the surface.  My target for the end of May is 50 species…  and my (ambitious?) target for the end of the year is 75. Will I make it? Watch this space!

 

A forest ghost: The Eurasian Lynx

Mammal of the Month: Eurasian Lynx

Dan Brown

The Lynx is a near mythical beast, a shadow within the forests, and has always been subject to intensive persecution. Thankfully it is now increasing in Europe and plans are afoot to reintroduce it to the UK. This spring has also seen the opening of the first Lynx hide in Europe!

Not only is it mammal of the month but Lynx is most definitely mammal of the moment.

They are a stunning animal. Sleek with a stumpy ink-dipped tail, some spotted, others plain, long wispy-tipped ears and piercing yellow eyes set in a wizened face. They are very much ghosts of the forest, seemingly impossible to see, the ultimate prize for the mammal watcher, unlike their Iberian counterparts which are comparatively easy to see given some time in the right place.

A large male Lynx pads along a forest track

A large male Lynx pads along a forest track

and a Roe Deer in the same location for scale

and a Roe Deer in the same location for scale

Lynx are a predominantly solitary animal that are mainly active at dawn and dusk, however they can be encountered at any time of day, and can often be comparatively fearless of humans. Home ranges vary between 20km2 and 2000km2 depending on the habitat. The largest of the Lynx species, Eurasian Lynx is a predator of ungulates especially Roe deer and in Scandinavia semi-domesticated Reindeer.

Satellite-collared female Lynx in Norway

Satellite-collared female Lynx in Norway

Closely followed by its cub. This animal will likely remain with the female for only another month or two

Closely followed by its cub. This animal will likely remain with the female for only another month or two

In Europe the Lynx is distributed in the more remote or mountainous areas such as the Alps (following reintroductions), Carpathians, Balkans, and throughout Scandinavia though it is generally scarce, suffering at the hands of hunters and other human pressures. Formally they were distributed right across the Western Palearctic and hopefully they may once again be.

Commercial hunting interests serve to maintain populations in countries such as Norway and Sweden but the populations there could still be larger, and the emphasis is very much on protecting populations for sport rather than conservation. Due to this interest there are a number of good websites set up for Lynx, Brown Bear and Wolf including Skandobs. This is well worth a look if you like pics of Lynx!

This stunning animal was followed by two more a few hours later

This stunning animal was followed by two more a few hours later

It has been immensely satisfying for us at BiOME Consulting to work on Lynx over the last few years and start to get a feel for what different animals do. Over the last eight months we have monitored a site in Norway which has revealed the presence of up to four Lynx including a satellite tagged female and cub as well as a large male, whilst our long-term studies in Estonia have shown the regular movements of Lynx across our land. After three years of trialling and testing different attractants to draw Lynx in, we have now opened the first Lynx watching hide in Europe (for more info see BiOME Nature). Whilst its not a guaranteed it definitely offers the highest chance of seeing Lynx (as well as plenty of other mammals and birds), anywhere in Europe. Estonia probably ranks as the best country in the world to see Lynx whether from the hide or by night driving the forest and meadow tracks and densities here have been shown to be very high. Our first in-field experience occurred in Estonia where one proved how fear-less they are as it remained sitting for 30 minutes only 200m away from us and proceeded to clean itself before slinking off into the night totally unperturbed by our presence.

A view from the new Lynx hide in Estonia showing the typical meadow and woodland habitats favoured by them here

A view from the new Lynx hide in Estonia showing the typical meadow and woodland habitats favoured by them here

It’s been 1300 years since the last Lynx prowled the British countryside but now there’s a movement to bring these stunning animals back. The Lynx UK Trust has proposed the reintroduction of Lynx into Britain a move that, so far, seems to widely supported. There are the usual objections from farmers and some folk who seem to think that the introduction will ‘medel’ with the environment, but as far as I can see it will do nothing but good. Lynx are not a major threat to livestock preferring to hunt within forestry thus controlling deer numbers. In fact its likely that more sheep are knocked down by cars or killed by dogs every year than will be taken by Lynx but there isn’t a call to ban either of those! They also predate Foxes too which is far from a bad thing in many areas, and will hopefully help get them on-side with land managers. The presence of these keystone predators in the ecosystem is critical and was illustrated nicely in Yellowstone, USA, where the reintroduction of Wolf packs caused a complete change in the environment by reducing the number of large grazers as well as mid-sized predators creating an all together healthier ecosystem from freshwater streams and grazing meadows right through to forests and mountains.

For more information on the proposed re-introduction see The Lynx UK Trust.

Eurasian Lynx - one of the   most elusive European mammals

Eurasian Lynx – one of the most elusive European mammals