Monthly Archives: September 2016

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain.  Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua off Galicia, NW Spain

By Dani López-Velasco

One of the main aims of the ID paper Dick Newell, Steve Howell and myself published in British Birds in 2013 (Newell et al, 2013) was to help build a clearer picture of the identification of South Polar and Great Skuas by using a new approach. That is, using the timing of primary moult as an aid to identification. Furthermore, we found some new features, which we discussed in detail, and also refuted some common assumptions. As a summary, the breeding seasons of Great and South Polar Skuas differ by six months but the moulting periods of adults of each species overlap broadly with the moulting period of first-cycle birds of the other species. Consequently, if a bird can be aged, its wing moult is often diagnostic for identification. The other main purpose of the paper was to reassure field birders that, given good views and photos, the identification of a South Polar Skua in the Western Palearctic was feasible. A handful of recent records of “good” South Polars in European waters have come to light, and we hope that, by increasing birders awareness, more will follow.

In Spain, there have already been at least 4 presumed South Polars seen well from land, all in Estaca de Bares, Galicia, NW Spain, arguably the best seawatching spot in Europe. Furthermore, a further 3 birds have been photographed at sea off Galicia.

The following record, of a presumed second cycle (or older) South Polar is worth publishing. In early September this year, 2016, and during a good seawatching day, the intrepid birder Victor Paris ventured out on his kayak just in front of Estaca, about 1 mile offshore. In good weather, but rough seas, He had a very enjoyable time photographing the skuas that flew overhead. Amongst all the Great Skuas that flew past was the bird depicted in this post, that he tentatively identified as a South Polar after reviewing the pics.

The moult score (45) of this individual, with a growing p10, in early September, is strongly suggestive of a second cycle (or older) South Polar.  However, a late moulting second calendar year Great Skua, completing its first primary moult, could show a similar moult score in early September. Based on our research, and after analysing a lot of photos, we couldn´t find any evidence of any 2cy Bonxie in early autumn showing a plain back (relatively plain, dark, back feathers and scapulars) and smooth and uniformly colored underparts showing no spotting/streaking in the flanks. All of the 2cy Bonxies we analysed showed at least some obvious pale, coarsely marked scaps as well as some pale spots in the flanks.

Although the entire back of this bird can´t be seen properly due to the angle, at least part of it is visible in some pics. It shows the expected plain looking, uniformly dark colours of a South Polar, lacking any coarsely marked scapulars, typical of 2cy Bonxie, that should be even visible from that angle –compare with some of the bonxies below-.  Furthermore, the entire underparts are really smooth looking, showing the same uniformly cold-toned tones, without any pale spots or marks in the flanks. The very dark, almost black axillaries are also supportive of SP, (although note that some Bonxies can show similarly toned axillaries), as is the hint of a golden nape collar and the compact structure, better judged in the more distant pics of the bird approaching. The white peppering around the eye is interesting. Although more commonly found in Great Skua, it´s also shown by some South Polars, like an almost identical bird depicted below.

All classic SPS features  are visible on these high-quality images, including very smooth-looking and uniformly cold-toned underparts without any markings on the flanks,  hint of a golden nape collar, very dark axillaries and relatively compact structure. Part of the back is visible in two of the pics, showing no hints of the pale markings that are expected on any 2cy Bonxie at this time of the year. Note also growing p10, typical of a second cycle or older SPS in September.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older. 8th September 2016, 1 mile off Estaca de Bares, NW Spain. Photo by Victor Paris.

This is a relatively late-moulting 2cy Bonxie , with P10 still growing in late August. Classic bird, with dark upperwing but typically showing scattered pale scapulars and back feathers, as well as pale markings on the warm-toned underparts.

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Great Skua, 2cy finishing primary moult. August, off Massachussets. Photo by Luke Seitz

Three more examples of 2cy Great Skuas from late summer-early autumn, finishing primary moult and showing typical coarse markings on the back:

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Ashley Fisher

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Ashley Fisher

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Gary Thoburn.

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Gary Thoburn.

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Jose Ardaiz.

Great Skua, 2cy. Photo by Jose Ardaiz.

South Polar Skua – a very similar looking to the Galician bird, even showing some white peppering around the eye:

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older, off California, September. Photo by Martin Lofgren.

South Polar Skua, second cycle or older, off California, September. Photo by Martin Lofgren.

A typical South Polar showing a very similar head pattern to the Galician bird:

South Polar Skua, Antarctica. Photo by Gorka Ocio

South Polar Skua, Antarctica. Photo by Gorka Ocio

So, all in all, although the ideas in the paper could be regarded as a working hypothesis, where we invite people to provide more evidence to support or refute our conclusions, it seems clear that this certain individual ticks all the boxes for a second cycle South Polar. So everyone, especially avid seabirders in Ireland and Portugal, watch out, pay attention to all suspicious looking bonxies, and, above all, take photos!

Congratulations to Victor Paris for this exciting sighting in unbelievable conditions. I mean, who would have ventured out in a kayak, in rough seas, to photograph migrating skuas….? Such efforts are usually eventually rewarded.

References

Newell, D., Howell, S., and López-Velasco, D. (2013). South Polar and Great Skuas: the timing of primary moult as an aid to identification. British Birds, 106: 325-346.

Juvenile Red-necked Stint in Norway!

By Yoav Perlman

On September 23rd, Sigmar Lode, a Norwegian birder, was on his favourite patch at Nærland, Rogaland, in southwestern Norway. He had American peeps on his mind, especially after the decent arrival in Ireland and UK in preceding weeks. Just before leaving, he spotted a small 1cy peep, that structurally was clearly not a Little Stint. Sigmar had two Semipalmated Sandpipers at the same site 4 years ago, so naturally that was his first thought. He knew he needed photos, especially of the webbing between the toes. He fired off some OK shots, but they did not show any webbing! Then he got some more shots of the bird, and thought he saw something like webbing between the toes . Sigmar was happy – that are only few Norwegian records of Semipalmated Sandpiper. He uploaded his images on Facebook and his initial ID was generally accepted.

A few days later, sharp-eyed Tor Olsen, Oddvar Heggøy, Bjørn Olav Tveit and Geir Kristensen noticed further photographs of the bird by Trond Ove Stakkeland that emerged online – these excellent sharp photos shown here courtesy of Trond:

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

NO WEBBING!

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

Juvenile Red-necked Stint, Norway, September 2016. Image by Trond Ove Stakkeland

[First a quick hats-off to Tor – he is a member of the Norwegian Rarities Committee (NSKF). He has had a great autumn so far – he found an (apparent) Alder Flycatcher just over a week ago – the bird was trapped, and DNA samples will hopefully confirm the ID]

Back to the stint: Tor and his peers Oddvar Heggøy, Bjørn Olav Tveit, Kjell Mjølsnes, Simon Rix, Egil Ween and Geir Kristensen reviewed the new images and became certain this is not a Semipalmated Sandpiper, but rather a juvenile Red-necked Stint! It was a real team effort that led to this outstanding ID. Also Harry Hussey from Ireland was involved in the ID process. When Harry sent the photos to me I had no access to literature but my jaw dropped instantly. I will use Martin’s language – BOOM! Or to be more precise FLIPPIN’ MEGA BOOM!

Red-necked Stint is another rare bird in Norway, with four previous accepted records, typically of adults in June – July. But a record of a non-adult is almost unprecedented in the WP – the only other record involves a juvenile Red-necked Stint found dead on Fair Isle in August 1994.  So this is possibly the first European record of a living juvenile! Finding a WP young Red-necked Stint in the field remained the Holy Grail of bird identification for many years. I know it’s easy in retrospect, but looking at these photos – it really is possible to ID them in the field. This record needs to be accepted first by the Norwegian rarities committee, but my vote would be YES!

There are two main confusion species – Little Stint and Semipalmated Sandpiper. A good review of the identification of juvenile peeps was written by the late Russell Slack in 2006 – here on Birdguides. Identification of this bird as Red-necked Stint involved both a ‘holistic’ view of structure and jizz, and meticulous scrutiny of feather tracts. I will try to summarise the main features that caught the Norwegian team’s eyes:

General structure

Compared to Little Stint, this bird in shorter-legged, and longer reared. In some literature it is mentioned that wings always projects beyond tail tip, but there is much variation in this feature and the short projection of the primary tips beyond the tail is alright for Red-necked Stint. Red-necked Stint is also longer-reared than Semipalmated Sandpiper. Semipalmated has longer legs than flat-bottomed Red-necked, and has a shorter wing projection beyond tail, giving a less long-reared impression. Red-necked has a unique combination of a long rear and a rather full chest.

Bill structure

This bird has a short bill, thicker than Little Stint but thinner and not as blunt-tipped as Semipalmated. It must be noted that all peeps show huge variation in bill length and structure, very much related to sexual and age-related variation.

Check these longs legs and long, thin bill of a typical juvenile Little Stint:

Juvenile Little Stint, Ashdod, Israel, September 2010. Photo by Yoav Perlman

Webbing between toes

Practically none! Again, some Semi-p’s show less developed webs, but the Norwegian bird had less webbing than any Semi-p can show. Many thanks to Steve Duffield for this excellent semi-p shot below – he has lots more on his website. Note here the toe webbing and powerful, blunt-tipped bill:

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gualan, South Uist,Outer Hebrides. Photo by Steve Duffield.

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gualan, South Uist,Outer Hebrides, August 2016. Photo by Steve Duffield.

Moult

This bird has already replaced some scapulars and mantle feathers to 1st-winter plumage (which is essentially similar to adult winter plumage). This is typical for 1cy Red-necked Stint, but would be very unusual for Semipalmated – semi-p’s rarely start moulting (or molting…) before mid October. Some Little Stints already moult in September, but their moult would be on average less developed, and their replaced winter-plumaged feathers are not as pale grey and plain as shown by the Norwegian bird, but have more prominent shaft streaks.

General plumage patterns

Compared to Little Stint, the Norwegian bird has much less distinct saddle V’s, and the fact that it has less black on the scapulars and coverts creates a much less patterned impression.Also the juvenile coverts are very pale and uniform, which is spot-on for Red-necked Stint. The beautiful grey smudge across the breast-sides and into the breast, with indistinct streaking, is also typical for Red-necked Stint. Little Stint has fine, normally warm toned streaks on the breast sides. Semi-p has also more defined streaking on the breast.

The Norwegian bird shows a nice brown cap, warmer toned than normal Semi-p’s. However, I found much variation in this feature checking online images, so I am not sure whether this is an important feature. Semipalmated normally shows dark and well-defined ear coverts, but see the South Uist bird above… I also don’t like the split supercilium stuff- really variable and depends on position of the bird. IMO very difficult to interpret from photos.

Scapulars pattern

Semi-p is known for its anchor-shaped dark tips to juvenile lower scapulars. Little Stint has typically very full, dark scapulars (see in the photo above). The Norwegian bird showed a typical pattern for Red-necked Stint:  thin dark shaft streaks and limited V-shaped dark tips, resembling Semi-p but generally the scapulars are paler and more uniform.

Call

I don’t know if anyone heard or sound-recorded the Norwegian bird, but it should be the best way to identify peeps. Red-necked Stint has a call very different from Little Stint – to my ears lower pitched and softer, somewhat recalling Dunlin. Listen here and here. Little Stint has a higher-pitched and clearer flight call. Semipalmated Sandpiper has funny, drawn-out and soft calls.

So to conclude:

The brilliant ID skills of the Norwegian team allowed this breakthrough in WP Birding Frontiers! They demonstrated that with good views and understanding of the important structural and plumage features, it is possible to identify non-adult-summer Red-necked Stints in the WP. Hopefully their confidence will motivate more keen birders to find further juveniles. Now is the time!

Stejneger’s Stonechat in Falsterbo

By Yoav Perlman

This stunning (putative) Stejneger’s Stonechat was ringed at the migration hotspot of Falsterbo Bird Observatory in southern Sweden on September 20th. The bird was caught in the reedbed area north of Falsterbo lighthouse. Björn Malmhagen from Falsterbo participated in the recent and hugely successful Spurn Migfest and had a great time it seems. Björn was also involved in the identification of a stonechat at Spurn a few days ago, first thought to be stejneger’s but later identified as European Stonechat. It’s great to see the partnership formed between Spurn Bird Observatory, Falsterbo BO and Cape May BO.

Björn sent me these educational images, comparing the Falsterbo bird, 1cy female, with an almost identical bird he had ringed in China exactly a year earlier. Incredible. Feathers of the Falsterbo bird were sent for DNA analysis by Martin Stervander at Lund University, Sweden. So hopefully ID will be confirmed soon.

Of the maurus group, stejnegeri is the eastermost form, and not the easiest to identify, especially from European Stonechat. But in recent years more focus has been given to this taxon after several western European records (see previous posts on Birding Frontiers here and here).

Distribution map of stonechats, from Hellström and Wærn (2011). British Birds 104: 236-254

Distribution map of stonechats, from Hellström and Wærn (2011). British Birds 104: 236-254

In these excellent composite images by Björn, the key features can be seen. This is what Björn wrote to me about his impression of the bird in the field: “The bird gave an overall dark impression with a deep rusty rump and uppertail-coverts lacking any dark markings. The underpart was light orange – in colours closest to a western bird – in contrast to a whitish throat.”

The strong bill is also evident here. Width of bill of the Falsterbo bird at the proximal edge of the nostrils was measured to 5.2 mm which, according to Svensson (1992), places this bird outside the range of maurus (4.7–5.7 mm in stejnegeri, compared to 4.0–4.9 mm in maurus). Compared to other Siberian Stonechats, primary projection is not that long – wing measurement was 69 mm.

Composite of Stejneger's Stonechats from China and Sweden. Photos by Björn Malmhagen

Composite of Stejneger’s Stonechats from China and Sweden. Photos by Björn Malmhagen

The pattern of rump and uppertail coverts is crucial for ID. Note the richly toned rump, unlike that buff-whitish rump of other maurus. Also, note the dark centers to longest uppertail coverts – typical for stejnegeri (more than half of individuals were found to have such a pattern – see another excellent article by Magnus Hellström and Gabriel Norevik in BB (2014)):

Composite of Stejneger's Stonechats from China and Sweden. Photos by Björn Malmhagen

Composite of Stejneger’s Stonechats from China and Sweden. Photos by Björn Malmhagen

Many thanks to Björn and his brilliant team from Falsterbo BO for sharing this with us.