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Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels – Book review

by Dani Lopez-Velasco

Pterodroma Petrels: Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds

by Bob Flood & Ashley Fisher


If I were asked to describe the new Pterodroma guide in just a few words, it would be simple: It´s an extraordinary piece of work that, amazingly, has even surpassed the impressive quality of the previous Multimedia Identification Guide, and thus is a must-have for any serious birder, no matter what their interest in petrels is.

On their second ID Guide to be published in the series North Atlantic Seabirds (the first one being Storm-petrels & Bulwer´s Petrel; with 2 others to be published in the future), Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher stick to the same general and highly innovative idea of combining moving video footage with photos, illustrations and text. All together, this guide approaches well the idea of how a “perfect” field guide should be.

The book,  which is over 300 pages long, and its accompanying 2 DVDs cover 9 species of Pterodroma Petrels: Trindade, Kermadec, Atlantic, Great-winged, Bermuda, Black-capped, Soft-plumaged, Fea´s (with Cape Verde and Desertas Petrel treated as two different subspecies of Fea´s Petrel, but both with their own accounts)  and Zino´s Petrel. To aid ID, species/taxa are presented in an order that places similar-looking species side by side, which I find very useful.

The first few pages are an overall introduction to the guide, in which the authors comment on various aspects of the book. The first section, Species Covered, reviews the taxonomy and status of nine Atlantic Pterodromas. Then comes an Overview about morphology, biology, conservation and other interesting Pterodroma issues. On the extensive, 30 pages long, Identification section, there´s  a whole deal of general information on the authors´s approach to Pterodroma ID, and aspects like jizz, size, plumage, flight behaviour and structure, which will be covered under each species account in the next section, are all fully addressed in great detail. I particularly liked this section, and I strongly recommend everyone going through it at least a couple of times.

The fourth section, Species Accounts, describes each species in great detail, starting with a range map (including approximate months in which the species is supposed to be in each area of its at-sea distribution), followed by taxonomy,  other names, conservation status, population size, Atlantic range (including number of records for some of the rarer species), main characteristics and molt.


The amount of information under each species is truly impressive, and its clear that the authors have done a great deal of work to put all the available and disperse published information together. I am sure even the most acknowledged petrel experts will learn quite a few things after studying this section. I was surprised to learn that, for example, after the authors´s thorough review of at-sea sightings of Trindade Petrels in the North Atlantic, they found out that there´s an obvious reversal in morph ratios when comparing at-sea records  (most of them referring to dark morph birds) with Trindade island birds (the only known breeding colony in the Atlantic, where almost 2 thirds are pale morph birds!). Some explanations, like another unknown colony in the Atlantic dominated by dark morphs, are given, but as for now the puzzle remains unsolved.

Also of great interest is the information and plates on the 2 forms of Black-capped Petrels, mostly based on Steve Howell´s et al research. Everyone should take good note of this, as in the near future both forms might end up split. And If you are lucky enough to come across one of these highly desired pterodromas while on a pelagic in the WP (in the Azores most likely, as Killian Mullarney already did a few years ago…), you will want the bird to be properly identified to form level, which is not always as straightforward as it could seem.

I found few mistakes/errors in this section and they were only minor ones, for example, the Spanish Black-capped Petrel was seen c. 200 miles to the NWest of Fisterra, (thus in the Atlantic), not to the North East, as its written under the WP records section, as that would have meant it had been seen inside the Bay of Biscay, which wasn´t the case. But that´s about it, so the review work must have been very efficient.

Surely one of the best things of this book are the photographs, with over 350 used, many of them previously unpublished, and I know first-hand that the authors spent a considerable amount of time trying to get as many to suit their needs as possible.

Mike Danzenbaker´s stunning pics of the almost mythical Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel, taken  recently during  Bob´s pioneering pelagics off Bermuda, are definitely the best ones ever published of the species. Chris Sloan´s Trindade and Black-capped Petrel shots off  Hatteras are also mouth-watering staff,  and some of Brent Stephenson´s Kermadec Petrel and George Reszeter´s Fea´s pics are also amazing.  The pics of a Fea´s together with a Black-capped, and a Zino´s with a Bulwer´s, on page 49, are particularly impressive, and well worth seeing.

But It´s not just about the quality of the images though. In my opinion, one of the best things of the guide is the use of quite a few pics showings mid-range pterodromas, exactly as you would see them from a cruise ship or from  a headland. It´s of course nice to see high quality pics, showing plumage detail, but unless the bird comes to the chum, or makes a close pass, it will be difficult to see minor details as shown on full-frame photos. Therefore I think it´s really useful to also combine them with this kind of “lesser-quality” images (such as those on pages 32, 36-37), as they will show the general appearance and basic field features, those you will first see when the bird is distant (as will usually be the case!) better than any other image.

The second half of the book is focused almost entirely on identification, with a very comprehensive section on its own called Confusion Groups and Confusion Pairs. This section compasses species taxa that are sufficiently similar to cause confusion, and a very through and detailed review of all ID features that will help set them apart is given.

There are many comparison pictures, depicting similar looking species, side by side, in the same angle and posture, through the book, and particularly so in this section. For example, no less than 12 photos of Black-capped and Bermuda Petrels appear under that particular account (and yes, as you will see, some cahow can look surprisingly similar to hasitata!). I find  this very useful and much appreciated, as I think the easiest and quickest way for the brain to pick out differences between 2  similar species from photos, and help you create your own “mental image” of what to look for, is by having photographs of both species together, side by side. This also saves the reader a lot  of time, as you don´t have to go through endless  pages to reach photos of the other similar looking species.

The Fea´s complex account, mostly focused in the separation of Zino´s and Fea´s (Desertas and Cape Verde) is definitely the most comprehensive one ever published in a book, and will greatly help rarities committees to assess and reassess some of their records.  Most, but not all, of the information provided under this account is based on seabird guru, Hadoram Shirihai´s and colleagues, findings, which resulted in the groundbreaking paper  (in my opinion, one of the best ever ID papers written) published in BW in 2010.  In the Pterodroma book, Flood and Fisher give 5 main criteria, which, on a more user-friendly and a bit less-overcautious approach, will allow observers to identify a good percentage of Fea´s and Zino´s, provided good pics are taken.  Having said that, it must be stressed that the challenge in separating Fea´s and Zino´s at sea can´t be overstated: size and structure can easily fool us (i.e, in my experience, sometimes Fea´s Petrels can look surprisingly slim, light-built and smallish, and due to light refraction in the sea, underwing can falsely look whitish), so that´s the reason why good pictures are essential.  The possible extreme white-winged Zino´s -Bermuda Petrel pitfall, which probably wouldn´t have  come to mind to most seabirders a few years ago, is well covered with pics too.

If only, I did miss a bit of text (even if a short paragraph) on what a Fea´s-type Petrel looks like from land, i.e. on a seawatch, when most European sightings take place, with comments on first impressions, how to separate distant birds from a Cory´s or a Manx, which I´ve seen happening (remember that  with little wind, Fea´s-type Petrels might not fly like pterodromas at all, and depending on the light, the white underwing of some shearwaters can loook dark, etc..). This might not be worrying at all for experienced seabirders, but it might have been useful for more novice birders with little experience.

I particularly liked the inclusion of both Great Shearwater vs Black-capped Petrel and Sooty Shearwater vs Trindade Petrel on the Confusion Groups section. I´ve discussed  with friends many times both cases while on seawatches and pelagics in NW Spain, so It´s great to see them included here. I think most of us have wondered whether, for example, a distant B-C Petrel would be easy to pick out on a seawatch (don´t forget than some Great Shears can show complete and broad white collars, extensive white on the uppertail coverts, lack of brown in the belly, and with strong winds can fly quite pterodroma-like), or if a dark Trindade would easily stand amongst Sooties. Thus, the extensive information on these 2 cases can be particularly helpful for European and North American observers. It´s good to know  well in advance what to look for when confronted with any mega-rare seabird, so studying these things can make the difference of either nailing it or leaving it as possible, a nightmare for all of us!

Eleven interesting and varied insets are also included within the book, covering various issues. A few are well worth mentioning. Two deal with conversation (“Saving the Bermuda Petrel”  and “Saving the Zino´s Petrel”) and are truly inspiring. While reading them, you almost feel transported to the exciting moment when both species were rediscovered, after many years thought to be extinct. A good deal of information on the critical recovery programs, essential for the  survival of these 2 endangered species, is also given.

Reagarding ID, the short one on the “Snowy-winged Petrel” seen by Shirihai et al off Madeira addresses the various explanations for this odd-looking bird, favouring the aberrant option. I am not entirely happy with this, as the pattern (both underwing, face and upperwing) doesn’t seem to me like that of an aberrant bird, but as for now, no one can´t know what the right option is.

A long inset on the highly debated “Varanger Petrel”, seen by Graham Catley in Varanger, N Norway, in June 2009, is also included, in which the authors comment in depth on the features of the bird, and the pros and cons for the bird being an acceptable Soft-plumaged Petrel (S-p P).

I can´t consider myself an expert in Soft-plumaged Petrel, but, still, I think, unlike other people, that this bird is a Soft-plumaged Petrel,  an acceptable one indeed, and I have the strong feeling that the first impression with this bird is the right one. Given how important this record is (a first for the North Atlantic) I want to include here are a few personal thoughts which might be worth considering, involving some of the points of the text which  I don´t fully agree with (even though we both reach the same important conclusion, that the bird is a S-p P). I can of course be wrong, in fact I might probably be, but here are my thoughts anyway…

First, Regarding the “rarity” status of the possible candidates, I think its important to take into account that  2 other mega-rare seabirds which range in the Southern  Atlantic, on the same areas as Soft-plumaged Petrels, have already made it to Norway (this is quite relevant in my opinion) : Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, and Cape Petrel.  With  so far no other records of any other Pterodroma petrels (Fea´s/Zino´s) in the Norwegian coast, I would say that the chances of a “strayed” Zino´s  up in Varanger are probably pretty similar to those of a “lost” Soft-plumaged.  i.e, I´d say a Zino’s Petrel  isn´t more likely as a candidate as a Soft-plumaged Petrel.

As for molt, bleaching and wear, not much is know on moult/wear/bleaching on these Pterodroma petrels (in fact, all moult schedules of Zino´s, Cape Verde, Desertas…. are merely assumptions. And how much is known on variation in wear patterns of Soft-plumaged Petrel? Just take gulls. I love gulls too, and spend a lot of time with them. The variation of wear on the same species (consider my local Yellow-legged Gulls for example), at the very same spot is incredible. Some birds are in pristine plumage in early winter, and others are already very bleached and worn. Same species, same place, different patterns of wear.  I assume the same could apply to Soft-plumaged Petrel too. So, taking that into account, as well as the fact that a lost Soft-plumaged Petrel in the North Atlantic could easily show atypical wear patterns, I  think it´s probably a bit unsafe to say that “the state of bleaching and wear doesn´t fit with a typical Soft-plumaged Petrel”.

I don´t fully agree either with some of the  comments referring to the  question “what are the chances of an extreme vagrant being anomalous?, mostly because It doesn’t seem that  extremely  “anomalous” to me for being a S-p P, (i.e: it´s not an albino bird (now that would be really anomalous..), It doesn’t have fully white underwings, it doesn’t have a broken breast band… etc.). So, even if it does have a couple of relatively atypical features, I wonder myself if it´s really that worrying…

Anyway, as a summary I would say the “strong” pointers for Soft-plumaged Petrel (apparently complete breast band,  compact structure and general shape, head pattern, restricted white throat, seemingly lack of contrast between tail/UTC and back, etc…) are much stronger than the “strong” pointers to feae complex. Their degree of evidence, as called in statistics, seems much higher to my eyes.

So, to sum up. I think the analysis of the bird is a really detailed, in depth, and, overall, extremely accurate one. I also understand that, being very strict and critical, then if a couple, in my opinion, relatively minor, atypical features, are considered, then it could be stated that this is not an acceptable Soft-plumaged Petrel, especially being a first for the North Atlantic. But, nevertheless, I still think that Bob and Ashley are right in reaching the conclusion that the bird is a S-p P,  and that the Norwegian Rarities Committee has also done well in taking the risk and accepting it as a first for Norway.

Back to the book, several  plates with color illustrations for each species/taxon, by Martin Elliott, are included. I think using color plates instead of black and white drawings, as in the previous Multimedia Guide, is a notable improvement. Elliott´s work  is overall pretty good, real and accurate, although I do find a lesser degree in detail compared to Ian Lewington´s or Killian Mullarney´s drawings.

Following the main text are a long references list, acknowledgments, appendices and an ID jogger (a complete bullet point summary of the key ID features of all North Atlantic pterodromas).

And, to finish, we have the most innovative and groundbreaking part of the book, and the one that sets it apart from all other seabird guides and makes it really “special” : the 2 DVDs.

There´s no other bird group in which a conventional guide might be less useful in terms of identification as in seabirds. On 99 per cent of the times, you won´t be able to see fine plumage details on a seawatch. Don´t expect to see the brown belly of a Great Shearwater or the long tail streamers of a Long-tailed Skua. That´s what birders on their first seawatches expect to see, and usually leave rather disappointed, and also incredulous, when they realize those features aren´t needed for a right ID of a distant bird. Seeing the “M” pattern on the wing/back of a Fea´s type Petrel from land (one of the first , if not the first, things that one expects to see after looking at the plate in the field guide, as was my case before seeing my first one) isn´t always easy, especially due to lighting, and there are other much more striking features when seen in the distance, whatever a guide says. That´s why plates aren´t so useful with seabirds, and the reason why the DVD of the whole series of Atlantic Seabirds series are so important. They provide with “real-life” encounters with the petrels . Explaining in words the way a pterodroma flies is a personal and not an easy thing to do, and, in my case, if I had never seen one before, I would struggle in forming an accurate mental image of their flight after reading various flight descriptions. So this is the reason why footage is essential, helping observers to experience them as if they were at sea, but from the comfort of their homes! It´s true that, unlike in Storm-petrels, flight is not crucial for separating one species of pterodroma from another, as their general jizz and flight is quite similar, but, still, it will give you an idea of what they look at sea, greatly improving the chances of picking one up if you haven’t seen one before.

Given how difficult is to see, let alone film pterodromas at sea, its a remarkable achievement that the authors have managed to cover all species treated in the book. The footage, bearing in mind it´s amateur, could be rated as good to very good, especially for the purpose its been done: be representative of the pelagic families treated by the books. Although sometimes a bit shaky,  the important thing , and what we all want it for, i.e, to assist ID and bring to life a bird in motion, has been successfully achieved, and the authors should be congratulated for it.

The commentary  and clips of the DVDs focuses mostly on ID; but 2 sets of interviews are included and most welcome: one with David Wingate and Jeremy Madeiros, talking about  the Bermuda Petrel rescue project on Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, and, another with Frank Zino about the conservation history of Zino’s Petrels in Madeira.

Regarding the edition, the book has been designed and laid out by the authors, but, nevertheless, they should be proud of how it has turned out, looking highly professional. I am particularly impressed by the printing, as the photos look very good, better than on many professional publishing house books.  My only minor criticism would be that it can be difficult and time-consuming, at times, to find certain sections or species, as there´s no obvious species name / section name on top or bottom of each page, which i think would have greatly helped  in finding each species or section quicker. Perhaps they might take note of this for future books.

As a summary, this groundbreaking guide certainly provides the most comprehensive, updated and detailed treatment of arguably the most desired of all Atlantic seabirds: Pterodromas, or Gadfly Petrels as are also called, with a very extensive collection of photographs and a wealth of useful information, mostly based on the authors´s own very extensive at-sea experience. For those of you who don´t know them,  Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher pioneered pelagic trips from the Scillies in the early 2000s, where amongst other things, discovered that Wilson´s Petrel was a regular migrant off the islands in late summer, as well as found several first for Britain during their trips. Bob also co-rediscovered the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, thought to be extinct for many years, and has been on hundreds of pelagic trips all over the world, so his background with tubenoses is clearly enormous. Apart from that, you can feel that both authors are not just interested in seabirds, but love them and have a real passion for their conservation too, which has been well reflected in the book.

No matter whether you live inland or in the coast, if you are more of a raptor or gull fan than a seabird enthusiastic, or even if you get seasick and dont plan to go on any pelagic trip in your life, this book is a must-have, and it should be on the shelf (and along on the boat!) of any serious birder. I can assure you it will surpass even your highest expectations.

You can order your copy here 

Thanks to the information on the Pterodroma guide, as well as on Shirihai´s work,  we can say that this Fea´s Petrel nicely captured by David Monticelli on our last pelagic off Lanzarote is most likely a Cape Verde, given underwing score of 0-1, intermediate bill size and shape, state of plumage, etc.. One of the first candidates in the WP outside the Cape Verdes

Thanks to the information on the Pterodroma guide, as well as on Shirihai´s work, we can say that this Fea´s Petrel nicely captured by David Monticelli on our last pelagic off Lanzarote is most likely a Cape Verde, given underwing score of 0-1, intermediate bill size and shape, state of plumage, etc.. One of the first candidates in the WP outside the Cape Verdes

Isabelline Wheatear

by Dani Lopez-Velasco.

In mainland Spain we basically have 2 big problems for finding rare passerines. First is the very poor coverage of the best areas due to very few active birders, and second is the lack of suitable islands/islets, which, as you all know, are usually the best places to look for these birds.

This means that scarce birds in the UK, like Yellow-browed Warblers or Red-breasted Flycatchers, are quite rare here, and birds like Dusky and Radde´s Warblers, or OB Pipits, are almost Megas, with less than 10 records ever.

For many years, it was assumed that the west coast of Galicia (in NW Spain), at least in theory and based on the large numbers of american waders, gulls and waterfowl that had been found over the years, should be good for north american passerines. However, due to the 2 problems commented above, only Yellow-rumped Warbler (20 years ago), and Buff-bellied Pipit have been seen. Not even a Red-eyed Vireo has been found (yet!). On the other hand though, the general assumption, for years, was that it shouldn´t be good at all for eastern/siberian birds, due to the area being much further west than, for example, the mediterranean coast of Spain, thus further away for these sibes to reach it.

However, a few years ago It became clear for some of us, after realizing that Kerry and Cork in Ireland, and Cornwall in the UK, both in the SW, were getting quite a lot of sibes, that the “land´s-end”, almost island-like effect, should also work over here.

So, with that in mind,  and inspired by, amongst others, the Punkbirders, I started scouting the NW corner of Galicia in search of an appropriate area to look for passerines. After a couple of trips, I decided that the area around Finisterre (which, translated into english, means land´s end), which is the westernmost headland in Spain, could possibly be the spot to look for both north american and eastern passerines. As for the latter,  I thought disorientated birds flying SW would see that the land (and Europe indeed!) ended there, and might probably stop, thus producing some sort of “bottle-neck” effect. The whole area should also be good for north american waders and gulls which could also keep us entertained, so I started visiting it in early October 2011.  The main areas to concentrate on  would be 2 fairly open headlands, a couple of beaches with dunes, bushes and trees, similar to many of the best spots in Ouessant, and a lagoon a bit further south.

Map showing the location of Finisterre, in the NW corner of Spain.

Map showing the location of Finisterre, in the NW corner of Spain.

On my first visit, no passerines were found, but as a consolation prize we found Spotted, Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Not bad.  Next weekend saw me covering the area again, and, finally, a juvenile Rose-colored Starling (very rare here) was found. It seemed that the area could produce eastern birds then… I drew a blank on the next trip but later, on the last weekend of October, everything changed. On my second morning, I was lucky enough to find a Dusky Warbler, which was the first-ever non-ringed bird to be seen in Spain. Quite a lot of people came to see it, and at the same time, a Yellow-browed Warbler was also found at the same place.

Mar de Fora beach, in Finisterre. The dunes in the middle of the image hosted the Isabelline Wheatear, whereas the trees in the left hosted a Dusky Warbler and 5 YBW 2 autumns ago.

Mar de Fora beach, in Finisterre. The dunes in the middle of the image hosted the Isabelline Wheatear of this post, whereas the trees in the left hosted a Dusky Warbler and 5 YBW 2 autumns ago. This is probably THE place in Spain to look for north american passerines.

Over the next november weekends, a completely unprecedented in Spain 5 Yellow-browed Warblers were seen, together, in the same little forest. Jose Luis Copete and Ferran Lopez joined me on one of my trips and also found a Siberian Chiffchaff… And several Richard´s Pipits and Lapland Buntings were also found wintering in one of the headlands.

It was quite clear by then that the area was indeed  good for siberian birds (bear in mind that only 1-2 observers were covering a pretty large area!) and well worth the effort of traveling 300 km one way from my house on each trip. I live in the northern coast of Spain (Asturias), which is pretty good for passerines too, having found a nice selection of sibes so far, but of course over hundreds of days in the field, so i thought the Finisterre area should be better.

In December, no more passerines were found, but an adult American Herring Gull, the first for mainland Europe, was a nice self-find at the same place.

Last autumn I couldn´t visit the area more than a couple of times, so no conclusions could be made, the only thing of note being a self-found White-rumped Sandpiper, and an American Golden Plover, but sadly no passerines.

This year, I made my first trip to the area last weekend. And, on my first morning, I struck gold, finding a great looking and very showy Isabelline Wheatear.

As usual with finding rare birds, I was about to leave the beach (the same one that hosted the Dusky Warbler), when I decided to make a final check in the dunes. I had seen some Northern Wheatears earlier, but then I saw, with the naked eye, a very pale bird on top of a dune. I got my bins on it, and instantly realized it was an Isabelline Wheatear, and a very pale individual indeed! I took some shaky record shots,  and then called some friends.

First record shot I took of the bird, just as I found it. The very pale impression and upright stance were very obvious

First record shot I took of the bird, just as I found it. The very pale impression and upright stance were very obvious

The bird was seen very well through the day, favoring a boardwalk, where it sat for long periods of time, allowing birders to get very close, just a few metres, to it.

The general impression and structure changed dramatically depending on the bird´s posture. Here, it doesn't look particularly long-legged. Note the faint and diffuse centres to the wing covers and tertials.

The general impression and structure changed dramatically depending on the bird´s posture. Here, it doesn’t look particularly long-legged. Note the faint and diffuse centres to the wing covers and tertials. Dani Lopez-Velasco

Check how long-legged looks here, compared to the previous picture!

Check how long-legged looks here, compared to the previous picture!

Bill in Isabelline Wheatears is usually noticeably longer and stockier than on Northern.

Bill in Isabelline Wheatears is usually noticeably longer and stockier than on Northern. Dani Lopez-Velasco

The bird did show well...

The bird did show well… Ageing, and sexing, in the autumn is not easy. The relatively dark lores could point towards a male, and as they arent well marked, perhaps a 1w male. Any ideas or comments would be most welcome! Dani Lopez-Velasco

My story with Isabelline Wheatear in Spain is kind of funny. I “found” the first for mainland Spain in the internet, on a picture labelled as Northern. Hours later (!!), I identified in the field the second one, but it had been found by a good friend of mine, who wasn’t sure about what it was. No self-found then. So it was about time to really find one in the field. 🙂

As a conclusion, it´s pretty clear that both the Finisterre area and the whole NW and W coast of Galicia is very good for siberian and eastern birds,  better than the Cantabric coast, which would be “closer” to them.  Isabelline (Daurian) Shrike, Olive-backed Pipit, Booted Warbler, etc… have all been found within the last few years in the west coast of galicia, with only less than 10 birders actively looking… and here´s a very eye-catching fact: Of the 5 mainland Spain Isabelline Wheatear records, 4 (!) have been seen in the NW Coast of Galicia, in a 40 x 40 km triangle, with Finisterre in one of the corners. And the same triangle has hosted 4 Desert Wheatears…

I wonder what will be next… A Palla´s Leaf-Warbler is long overdue over here!

West Papua

 Birding’s Last Frontier 

by Dani Lopez-Velasco

West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) is still covered by the some of the largest tracts of undisturbed forest on earth, home to some of the most exciting birds in the world

West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) is still covered by some of the largest tracts of undisturbed forest on Earth, which are home to several of the world´s most amazing birds.

Several birding locations around the world rank amongst the most difficult ones to bird, for various reasons. Places like the Philippines, the Solomons, areas of West Africa and South America, etc… can certainly be hard work. However, none of them can probably beat the challenging and tough conditions of a serious birding trip to West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya)
Extreme and basic conditions for a month, camping deep in the field during most of the trip, temperatures ranging from 0 C degrees high in the mountains to 30 C and almost 100 per cent humidity in the lowlands, same food day after day, long hikes in muddy, slippery, narrow and very steep trails, or simply through the forest with the machetes, lots of mosquitos, frequent tribal wars, cancelled flights, sudden changes in the plans, etc… All these making it a highly demanding and tough trip. And, if not enough, the birds are usually extremely shy and secretive, more so than anywhere else I know of…
So, you could easily think, why would anyone in his right mind would want to go there? Well,  the reason is simple. Having said all the above, the birding in New Guinea (both in PNG and West Papua) will reward the intrepid birder with some of the most stunning and sought after birds in the entire world, and, above all, with Birds of Paradise.
Birds of Paradise (BOPs from now on) certainly rank amongst the most spectacular birds anywhere on Earth, and almost everyone who has seen Sir David Attenborough´s famous documentary “Attenborough in Paradise” has at least once wished and dreamt of going to the magical island of New Guinea to witness their displays and colors. More recently, Tim Laman´s amazing work with BOPs, highlighted by this video has been widely published and acclaimed, and has made even more people aware of how stunning BOPs are.
I´ve been in love with BOPs ever since I was a little kid, and I will always remember the day I got my Beehler´s et al “Birds of New Guinea” field guide as a Christmas present when I was 10, and read it over and over, only wishing to go there someday. Now, it turns out it was good to have bought the guide by then, as It´s been out of print for years, and getting a second hand one is  now reallydifficult and expensive.
The island of New Guinea is the world’s second largest island, and probably has the largest expanse of undisturbed tropical humid forest left in the entire Old World tropics. Many areas are still unexplored and probably hold several new species awaiting to be discovered.
In less than 60 miles, the land rises from the steamy mangroves and swamp forests of the coast through impenetrable rain- and moss-forests up to the open alpine grasslands and jagged snow-capped summits of the Jayawijaya (or Snow) Mountains.
Mt Trikora, part of the Snow Mountains range, is the second highest peak in

Mt. Trikora (4.750 m), part of the Snow Mountains range, is the second highest peak in the entire Australasian continent. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco

Here,  0.1% of the world’s population speak 15% of the known languages. Many tribes live much as they did before outside influences arrived, and plenty of locals still go naked, only wearing penis gourds. Even cannibalism was still frequent in some places not so long ago…
New Guinea is made up of the easternmost region of Indonesia (West Papua) in the west, and the sobereign state of Papua New Guinea, on the east.
west papua map
Map courtesy Papua Expeditions
A trip to PNG is nowadays “relatively” straightforward, but going to West Papua is certainly a different matter…
So, after getting the guide, my interest in BOPs almost became an obsession, and, finally, I fulfilled my dream in 2006, with a month long trip to PNG. It was an unforgettable trip, with 20 sp of BOPs seen amongst many other highlights. However, some other very special species, including several endemic BOPs and what´s for many the best bird in the world, the Wilson´s
Bird of Paradise, only occur in the west,  so a trip there was number one on my priority future destinations.
And then,  the dream came true this past month, when I co-lead a Birdquest tour to West Papua with Mark van Beirs, one of the best, more experienced and knowledgeable bird guides in the world.

Mark van Beirs, on the left; myself, Dani Lopez-Velasco, on the right. Lake Habbema on the background.   July 2013

I´ve just got back home from this fantastic trip (to which, amongst others, acknowledged scottish seabird researcher, and BF reader, Mark Tasker, and mammal expert Gerald Broddelez, who were great company and fun, came along) to a region where very few people in the world has ever been. I thus feel very privileged,  my mind being full of incredible memories that I won´t ever forget.
Our 4 week tour covered all the main birding locations of West Papua, and was a great success, seeing almost all possible targets.
We started in the small and isolated, tropical islands of Biak and Numfor, in Geelvink Bay, well known for their coral reefs and palm-fringed beaches,  where several endemics occur.
We recorded all of them, and amongst the highlights, We had great views of the stunning Numfor and Biak Paradise-kingfishers and also of the rare Biak Monarch. We also obtained what probably are the first ever photos of Numfor Leaf-Warbler.
Numfor Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera carolinae). Numfor Island, July 2013

Numfor Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera carolinae). Numfor Island, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco.  Probably the best of all Paradise-kingfishers, restricted to the small island of Numfor.

Biak Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera riedelii). Biak Island, July 2013

Biak Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera riedelii). Biak Island, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Another beautiful Paradise-kingfisher, endemic to Biak, where relatively common at suitable habitat.

Numfor Leaf-Warbler (Phylloscopus poliocephalus maforensis). Probably first-ever photos of this sure to be split taxon, now treated as part of the Island Leaf-Warbler complex

Numfor Leaf-Warbler (Phylloscopus poliocephalus maforensis). Numfor, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Probably first-ever photos of this distinctive, sure to be split taxon, now treated as part of the Island Leaf-Warbler (P. poliocephalus) complex.

After a few days of relatively leisure birding in these islands, we set off for a tough week of trekking in the highlands of  the Grand Baliem Valley and the mythical Snow Mountains. During the first 2 days, we camped at an elevation of 3.300 m, near Habbema lake, at the base of Mt Trikora, the second highest peak in New Guinea,  where we explored a variety of habitats ranging from alpine grasslands to mossy forests.
 lake habbema

Lake Habbema, pictured above, and the alpine grasslands that surround it are home to several endemic species. The camp where we spent the first couple of nights is visible on the ridge in front of the lake, as well as several peaks part of the Snow Mountains range in the back.

Here, the highly sought after and little known Macgregor’s BOP (now considered to be a Honeyater, but it certainly feels like a BOP when you see it! ) showed exceedingly well.
macgregors bo

Macgregor´s Bird of Paradise (Macgregoria pulchra). Snow Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Recent genetic evidence on the Macgregor´s BOP/Honeyater confirms that it belongs to the Meliphagidae family, but as I, and many others, have known this almost mythical species as a BOP since I was a kid, I will still treat it as such on this post, even though it´s not scientifically correct.


The stands of Libocedrus pines along the ridges near Lake Habbema, depicted here, are the favored habitat of Macgregor´s BOP. Seeing this incredible and enigmatic bird in the early morning, as the mist clears up, while Splendid Astrapias sing nearby, and with some of the finest mountain scenery in the world as background, is an unforgettable experience. 

Other interesting species like  Salvadori’s Teal, Snow-mountain Quail,
Papuan Harrier, Mountain Nightjar, Alpine Pipit, Orange-cheeked Honeyeater, 

Salvadori´s Teal (Salvadorina waigiuensis), Lake Habbema, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Endemic to New Guinea, the scarce Salvadori´s Teal, included on its own genus, is one of only four waterfowl species adapted to life on fast-flowing rivers, the other three being Torrent Duck, Blue Duck and Harlequin Duck.

Short-bearded Melidectes, Papuan Grassbird, Splendid Astrapia and Western Alpine Munia were also seen well.
As we descended along the Ibele valley, through primary cloud-forest, we logged some rarely seen species, including
Greater Ground-robin, Wattled Ploughbill and Archbold’s Bowerbird. 
Later, we spent 2  nights in the lower parts of the valley, camping at around 2.500 m. and exploring the surrounding forests,  where we had a nice assortment of species, including Papuan Creepers, Black Sitellas, Crested, Fan-tailed, Mid-mountain and Tit Berrypeckers, Rufous-throated Bronze-Cuckoos, Hooded Cuckoo-Shrikes, Grey Gerygones, Large and Buff-faced Scrub Wrens, Lesser Ground-Robins, the rare Yellowish-streaked Honeyeater, etc… were logged.
Amongst BOPs, King of Saxony and Brown Sicklebills, uttering their machine gun – like calls, were also encountered.
On the way down to Wamena village, and almost caught in the middle of a serious tribal war, we managed to see a few interesting species, including Ornate Melidectes, the endemic balim race of Golden Whistler, and Black-breasted Munia.
wattled ploughbill

Wattled Ploughbill  (Eulacestoma nigropectus). Ibele Valley, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. The only member of the monotypic genus Eulacestoma, the Wattled Ploughbill, a nice male pictured here, is endemic to the central mountain ranges of New Guinea.

Afterwards, our destination for the next few days were the lowland rainforests around Nimbokrang, at the base of the Cyclops Mountains, which host several exciting and rare species, such as Victoria Crowned-pigeon , known locally as Mambruk, or Blue-black Kingfisher.  After some hard work, both were seen very well.

blue blac

Blue-black Kingfisher (Todiramphus nigrocyaneus). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the most sought-after and difficult of all New Guinea Kingfishers.

victoria g

Victoria Crowned-pigeon (Goura victoria). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. The best and most difficult of the 3 Crowned-pigeons, all endemic to New Guinea. A really impressive, and exceedingly shy due to hunting, bird;  After flushing from the ground, this one perched in a branch, pretty high in the canopy, and gave great scope views for 20 minutes.

They are also home to several BOPs, and we enjoyed great views of displaying Lesser, 12 Wired and King BOPs  just outside our tents, plus a good assortment of Fruit-doves.

Lesser Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea minor). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco.  An active lek of the species was located just outside our camp, and their calls could be heard all day long.

12 wir

12-wired Bird of Paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. This male, which had 10 “wires” on the tail instead of the classic 12, due to feather lost, displayed every morning at 6 am just a few metres from our tents. Not a bad way of waking up…


King Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus regius) Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the most attractive members of the family, males of this tiny BOP spend most of their lives high in the canopy of their displaying trees, and are thus usually difficult to see well.

The very localized Pale-billed Sicklebill was also a highlight for all of us, as was the scarce although far less exciting Brown-headed Crow. At night, both Papuan and Marbled Frogmouths kept us entertained.
Papuan Frogmouth

Papuan Frogmouth (Podargus papuensis). West Papua, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Frogmouths are named for their large flattened hooked bills and huge frog-like gapes. The 2  massive-billed species that inhabit New Guinea, Papuan and Marbled Frogmouths, belong to the genus Podargus, and, unlike other tropical Asia taxa belonging to the genus Batrachostomus, can take even small vertebrates as prey.

The small islands of Batanta and Salawati, batantaisletto the west, are seldom visited, but the former is home to what many consider the best bird of the world, the Wilson´s Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus respublica). And obviously, no trip to West Papua would be complete without paying a visit to Batanta or Waigeo in order to see it.
Seeing this out-of-this-world bird doing its display on its courting grounds can easily be the top highlight of anyone´s birding career, as was probably my case. There are many bright coloured or fancy looking birds in the world, ranging from pittas to hummers, trogons to tanagers, but I doubt any can stand even close to a male Wilson´s. Even in the dark, as dawn breaks inside the forest, the bird seems to have a powerful bright light switched on inside it that lights up the whole bird. In fact, every single part of the bird is unbelievable, from the head to the legs.  I´ve never seen such bright blues, reds or yellows on a bird, ever. The bare bright blue head looks like some rare beetle. At certain angles, the odd-shaped, twisted tail streamers are bright blue and white, the inside of the mouth, seen easily when it displays, is glowing brigh green-yellow. Legs are also bright blue, and when in full display, all the throat and breast gets puffed-up, turns iridiscent green, and addopts a big inflated heart shape. Apart of course from the bright yellow neck and upper back and bright red lower back and wings. Simply out of this world. Words aren´t enough to describe it,  and a thing to see before you die, definitely.

Wilson´s Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus respublica). Batanta, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the best, if not the best, birds of the world. The brightness of this bird is impossible to describe, and it´s definitely a “must-see”.

Also in the island are endemic Red BOPs , which showed well in their display tree, and a visit to Salawati by boat gave us the secretive Red-billed Brush-Turkey, Western Crowned-pigeon, my last of the 3 Crowned-pigeons, and the mythical and extremely shy, due to local haunting, Northern Cassowary. Snorkeling in the reefs just outside our camp was great fun too.

Western Crowned-pigeon (Goura cristata). Salawati, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the largest and most beautiful members of the Pigeon family, this species is evaluated as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list due to habitat loss, limited range and overhunting.


Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida). Salawati, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Most Pitta species have brightly-coloured plumages, and are well known for their skulking habits. Hooded Pitta is widespread through South East Asia and Australasia, and is the most common family member in New Guinea.

yellos bill

Yellow-billed Kingfisher (Syma torotoro). Salawati, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. New Guinea is Kingfisher heaven, with no less than 22 species occurring in the island. Unlike our Common Kingfisher, most species are not associated with water and do not eat fish, but inhabit forest and consume arthropods and small frogs.

The last week of the tour was spent in the remote Arfak Mts, located in the Bird´s Head or Vogelkop Peninsula in the northwest of New Guinea, which are home to some of the less known species in the planet.
A local with an immense knowledge of the area , Zeth, lives there, and has built several hides to see displaying bops. With his help, we witnessed one of the avian spectacles of the world, the ballerina dance of the male Western Parotia. As well as displaying Magnificent BOPs, a couple meters from us… The bowers of Vogelkop Bowebird must be one of the most amazing constructions in the animal world, and several were studied at close range. It was interesting to note the different building materials used related to how close to human settlements the bowers were. In the lower parts of the valley, the birds  used mostly bottles and taps, bags, and whatever colorful human dispose they could find. As one climbed up, the bowers found started to be adorned only with natural things, like beetles, different fruits, moss, etc… and then, on the highest parts, where even those materials were scarce, they simply used leaves and moss, but very neatly arranged.
dani vogelkop bowerbird arfaks
The endemic  Long-tailed Paradigalla was seen well, as were a pair of secretive White-striped Forest-rails , a Wattled Brush-Turkey and the beautiful and shy Spotted Jewel-babblers. In the higher parts of the forest, the poorly known endemic Arfak Astrapia, along with  Black Sicklebills uttering their estrange calls, were also encountered, even  around our camp. And the last of the world’s 4 sicklebills to be seen in the trip, the scarce Buff-tailed Sicklebill, was also found. Anotherk top bird, the prehistoric looking Feline Owlet-nightjar,

feli n

Feline Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles insignis). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Owlet-nightjars belong to a single monotypic family, Aegothelidae, and are mostly confined to New Guinea.

as well as Mountain Owlet-nightjar, were seen up close in their daytime roosts.


Mountain Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles albertisi). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Check the length of those rictal bristles!


Magnificent Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus magnificus). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. The last of the 3 Cicinnurus BOPs to be seen on the trip.

And finally, on our last day, another rare species high on everyone´s list, the stunning and brightly colored Masked Bowerbird, performed well in the scope.

Masked Bowerbird (Sericulus aureus). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Apparently, there are only a couple more previously published photos of the species in the internet. It took some time, but eventually we had terrific views of this adult male.

So, all in all, it was an amazing trip, well worth the effort, with definitely some of the best birding on the planet. Can´t wait to come back next year to lead the Birdquest tour again!

The group, with Zeth, our local guide, in the middle, and Shita Prativi,who took care of all our arrangements while in the Vogelkop area, on the right. Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Mark van Beirs.

Atypical female Semicollared Flycatcher…

And other interesting stuff from Turkey

Yesterday, 31st of June, while leading a birding tour in NE Turkey, I came across an interesting-looking female Semicollared Flycatcher (Ficedula semitorquata). The bird was paired with a typical male Semicollared, and 2 other “classic” females were found breeding in the same area too.

The photos are not good as the bird was a bit distant, and given I was leading a trip I couldn´t spend as much time as I would have liked with the bird. However,  I think it´s interesting to show the photos here, and the non-classic features can be seen pretty well in the pics.

Amongst other things, the bird showed no white at all in the MCs, not even a hint of it, It had almost no white at all in the tips of the GCs ( basically only a tiny spot in the outermost ones), and It showed very little white in the base of the primaries.  All these gave the wing a very plain, almost uniformly-gray look at a distance.

Head colour, tertial and tail pattern and call were all typical semitorquata though.

According to published material, rarely some female Semicollared Fs, like this one, might lack the typical “second wing-bar”, but they are certainly not common and could cause serious identification problems if seen in Western Europe.

Flycatcher expert Brian Small also commented that He has seen a female Semi-c in Bulgaria which matches this bird closely,  and  speculated on it being a worn 3cy female, which could perhaps apply to this bird too, so maybe something age-related.

3 photos of the bird



And a typical female from the same place, below, showing obvious tips to the MCs and GCs, and a relatively large white primary patch.


Another bird seen yesterday in the area which, if  non-calling and seen in Western Europe would be almost impossible to identify is this drab Green Warbler (Phylloscopus nitidus), showing almost no yellow at all in the supercilium, throat or cheek, and with drab-green upperparts, thus quite similar to the average looking Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides)


And last, a quick note regarding some of the comments on the presumed Asian Black-winged Kites, ssp. vociferus, that I saw last week and Martin posted about. There´s also an old post on the ID of this form, dealing with the Israeli birds, in BF which is quite interesting and worth reading.

First, the birds seen were full adults, and second, basically, unlike the majority of nominate birds, vociferus have very dark secondaries, contrasting with the very pale/whitish undersurface of the GCs (although beware of light effects!)

After having checked quite a lot of photos of nominate birds and of course seen hundreds of them, it´s clear that only a very small minority might show dark(ish) secondaries that could match asian birds.  The Turkish birds show very dark, contrasting secondaries, as can be seen in the photo below. Not forgetting either that the birds were seen in Eastern Turkey, then I think it´s fair to say that these birds are most likely vociferus.

One of the turkish birds here, showing obvious contrast between secondaries and GCs


Compare it with a nominate bird from Spain (Photo: Juan Sagardia), showing almost no contrast at all.


And last, an easy to identify bird, especially when seen like this:

A fine male Caucasian Black Grouse, seen this morning.


Sabine´s Galore !!

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 15 miles off Carino, Galicia, NW Spain. September 2009. Photographer: Antonio Gutierrez.
About 160 birds are visible on this photo. Part of a 280+ strong flock seen on this trip. There aren´t many places in Europe where you can regularly encounter such kind of  flocks. A truly beautiful sight at sea.

The waters off Galicia (NW Spain) are probably the best, and easiest, place for seeing good numbers of Sabine´s Gulls in the Western Palearctic.

From mid-August to mid-October, very good views of this highly sought-after and beautiful gull are almost guaranteed on any pelagic  trip off the coast of Galicia.

Sabine´s Gulls are not easily seen from land, but, after strong northwesterlies, Estaca de Bares usually offers the best chances. In early September 2010, we had an incredible count of 475 birds flying west from the headland, but unfortunately that´s not something you can expect to happen every year.

On the other hand, they become common in the 15-20 miles offshore area, and, luckily, are readily attracted to chum.

On the average late summer-autumn pelagic, counts of over 100 birds are frequent, and we have encountered some very large tight flocks, of up to 300 (!!) birds, on a number of occasions.

Seeing one of these large flocks get off the water, with hundreds of black and white triangles flying all around the boat, when harassed by a skua is something any birder should experience sometime.

On last weekend´s pelagic, we were fortunate to encounter a   250+ strong flock, still mainly formed by adults (about 75% of the whole group). The day count probably exceeded 350 birds.

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 15 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. September 2012. Photo: Daniel López-Velasco. Part of a 250+ flock seen on sunday.

The way Sabine´s usually gather around the chum here is quite interesting. Normally, small groups start to fly in, and after feeding for a while, end up sitting in the water. As the groups are usually relatively small (10-20 birds), and are widely scattered, you get the (wrong) impression that not too many gulls have been attracted to the chum.

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 15 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. September 2012. Adults showing variation in the amount of white feathering on the face by September. Some birds are still in full breeding plumage, whereas others are already in almost complete winter plumage.

But that´s until they all get together and take off. Then, you realize the number of small groups that had been arriving,  many times unnoticed, from all directions, was much larger than what you  had thought, and instead of a couple dozens, there were in fact a couple hundreds!

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 20 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. Photo: Juan Sagardia. September 2011

A few days before, a friend of mine , Marcel Gil, who is working on a research vessel, told me he had seen several thousand Sabine´s a bit further west too, so it seems last week´s westerlies have brought very good numbers of them relatively close to shore.

Now, a few close ups from past trips.

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 15 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. Photo: Juan Sagardia. September 2011. When seen like this, Sabine´s Gulls are really stunning.

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 15 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. Photo: Juan Sagardia. August 2011.  Check the bright red eye-ring, well visible on this shot. Difficult to see from land…

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 20 miles off Malpica, Galicia, NW Spain. Photo: Juan Sagardia. August 2012

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini). 15 miles off Fisterra, Galicia, NW Spain. Photo: Juan Sagardia. August 2012. First juvenile Sabine´s Gulls start to show up in galician waters by mid to late August, although are outnumbered by adults at least until October.

Sabine´s Gull (Larus sabini) and Wilson´s Storm-Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus). 15 miles off Fisterra, Galicia, NW Spain. August 2012. Photo: Daniel López-Velasco.
A lucky early morning shot. Wilson´s Petrels are usually present together with the Sabine´s Gulls on the oil slick, although numbers vary much from day to day. Counts of up to 150 Wilson´s are not rare off western Galicia in late August and early September.

Juvenile Montagu´s Harrier

Following the interesting post on a summering Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) on the Netherlands by Nils, I thought sharing these photos of a quite Pallid-like juvenile Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus) could be of interest.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile. Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

The bird was seen near Zaragoza, Aragón, Eastern Spain, in mid September, and had been ringed and wing-tagged in France this past summer.

As you can see on the pics, the head pattern of this juvenile was quite striking and well marked. If not seen well, It could resemble that of a Pallid Harrier to the inexperienced observer.

The prominent pale neck collar was almost complete, the hind neck was very dark and contrasted a lot with the pale collar, the white areas around the eye were relatively small and the lores were quite dark. Thus, quite Pallid-like if seen distantly.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile. Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

However, on closer inspection, you can see that the pale collar has some faint dark smudges (which could easily go unnoticed if not seen close, though), the dark hindneck is not uniform, but shows some paler spots mixed in with the dark feathers and the dark cheek-patch only reaches the gape. All these features would identify the bird as a well-marked juvenile Montagu´s, but would require good views.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile, Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

Furthermore, the primary pattern is also typical of Montagu´s. Unlike most Pallids, the bird shows almost all dark fingers and obvious dark tips to the inner primaries. Beware of the last feature though, as some Pallids can also show contrasting dark tips to the inner primaries, like Montagu´s.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile, Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

The barring of the primaries, although relatively extensive,  is finer than that of a typical juvenile Pallid.

Several fine streaks are present on the upper breast and flanks, which should be absent on juvenile Pallids in autumn.

All in all, an interesting bird that addresses the need of good views and a proper study of the primaries, amongst other things, when confronted with any pale-collared juvenile Harrier.

Many thanks to the photographer, A. Manuel Galán Subias, for letting me use his photos on the post, and also to Javier Train for first sending them to me.

Spanish Imperial Eagle – Variation in juveniles and immatures

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Valladolid, June 2011. Photographer: Juan Sagardía
A young adult female Spanish Imperial Eagle. A stunning bird, for sure, particularly if seen this well! Adults are relatively straightforward to Identify, but some juveniles, and especially immature birds, can be very difficult to tell apart from Easterns.

By Dani López-Velasco

I was recently asked about an interesting looking immature (presumably a 4cy) Imperial Eagle sp. seen in Sweden, and I thought it was about time to share some photos, and comments, on variation within juvenile and immature Spanish Imperial Eagles (Aquila adalberti).

First, a photo of the Swedish bird, taken by Lasse Olsson, from the Surfbirds gallery.

Imperial Eagle sp, probably 4cy Eastern. Sweden, July 2012. Photographer: Lasse Olsson. Photo taken from Surfbirds gallery

I am, by no means, an expert on the 2 Imperial Eagles, although I have seen quite a few Easterns, mainly in Oman, and of course plenty of Spanish over here in Spain (mainly adults and juveniles of the latter though; it’s not easy at all to see immature birds, as they wander around a lot).

But I will try to offer some visual information on variation and ID pitfalls of juvenile and immature Spanish Imperial Eagles, which can perhaps be useful for future records.

I´m not completely sure of the ID of the swedish bird. It is most likely an Eastern, typically lacking any warm rufous colouration on the immature-type underparts and underwing coverts. However, based on my experience, it might be difficult to rule out with certainty a Spanish. Some of them can be scarily similar. See for yourself after checking some of the photos below…

Most fresh juveniles, and full-grown adult SIE, are relatively easy to identify. However, some juveniles can be more difficult than what has been published. They can be quite similar to some Easterns, and, above all,  worn birds can be extremely similar to pale belisarius Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax), and also to fulvescens Greater Spotted Eagles (Aquila clanga).

Many, if not all, of the recent Tawny Eagle records from Morocco refer, in fact, to wandering juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagles!

Separating immature (mainly 3-5cy) Spanish from Eastern, before the first obvious and diagnostic white feathers on the leading edge of the wing start to appear, usually by late 4cy-5cy,  can be very difficult, or even impossible in some cases.  Especially on birds lacking warm rufous immature-type feathers on the head, underparts and underwing coverts. And these birds exist. Differences in structure (Spanish looking more “compact”, with proportionally shorter and broader wings, and a longer tail than Eastern, and showing a heavier bill and more robust head/neck) are somewhat variable, and probably of little use in the field for separating both species.

The ID criteria still has te be worked out, and an in-depth study, mainly with known-age birds, is badly needed, especially for separating the most difficult, intermediate transitional plumages .

So here are a few photos of some tricky plumages of SIE:

  • Most fresh juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagles show uniformly rich warm rofous, almost unstreaked, underparts. Upperparts usually lack many distinct pale spots or streaks. Thus, they are very different to juvenile Eastern Imperials. See 2 photos below of typical juvenile adalberti.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Fresh Juvenile. Valladolid, July 2012. Photographer: Juan Sagardía.
A typical juvenile SIE, showing uniformly warm rufous colouration on the underparts, with very little streaking on the chest.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Juvenile. Ávila, February 2012. Photographer: Juan Sagardía.
Another typical juvenile, with no streaking on the chest, and plain rufous underparts and underwing coverts. The photo was taken in a mountain area of central Spain, certainly less sunny  in the winter than southern Spain or Morocco. Therefore, the plumage state of the bird is still good, not worn or bleached at all being February. Birds wintering in more southerly, sunnier, areas are more prone to bleaching, and by mid winter can be already very worn and whitish.

  • However, some juveniles can show quite extensive evenly dark and pale streaking on the breast, much more so than what´s depicted on most of the guides, and can lack the warm rufous colour of the classic birds, having a  paler, colder, background colour instead. They can also show striking whitish tips to the median and lesser coverts, and also obvious pale spots and streaks on the mantle and scapulars.

Thus, they can be relatively similar to juvenile Eastern Imperials to the unaware observer. Note though that they tend to show little streaking on the underwing coverts, less streaking on the upper-belly, and almost none on the lower breast, than classic heliaca. See some examples of such birds below:

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Central Spain, Autumn 2011. Photographer: Juan Pablo Fuentes Serrano
A juvenile SIE with notorious streaking on the upper breast.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Central Spain, Autumn 2011. Photographer: Juan Pablo Fuentes Serrano
Note the overall pale and cold background colour of this bird, and also the striking pale tips to all the wing coverts.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Juveniles. Photographer: Jose Luis Rodriguez. Photo taken from Jose Luis Rodriguez website.
Note the heavy upper breast streaking of the juvenile on the left, similar to that of Eastern.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Juvenile. Photo: Jose Luis Rodriguez.
A fairly pale bird, with obvious streaking on the upper breast. Note however little streaking on the underwing coverts, unlike heliaca.

A typical juvenile Eastern, for comparison:

Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca). Juvenile. January 2011. Oman. Photographer: Daniel López- Velasco

Below, a darker, and more rufous, Eastern, but with very heavy streaking on the breast and underwing coverts. Such heavy streaking, especially on the lower breast and underwing coverts, shouldn´t be found even in the more streaked extremes of juvenile Spanish.

Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca). Juvenile. January 2011. Oman. Photographer: Daniel López-Velasco

From above, certain birds can be almost identical. See the 2 shots below, both taken in January, showing a juvenile Spanish on the left, and a juvenile Eastern on the right.

Left – Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Juvenile. Avila. January 2010. Photographer: Juan Sagardia. Right – Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca). Juvenile. Oman. January 2011. Photographer: Daniel López Velasco
Note the similarities between these 2 birds, although the white tips of the upperwing GCs are broader in the Eastern. A view of the underparts should ID both, though.

  • Apart from the previous pitfall, worn juvenile Spanish Imperials, especially those wintering in more southerly, sunny, latitudes, can be quite bleached in winter and spring, and can look very pale, with cold sandy-buff or even whitish upperparts, and also very pale, worn, upperwing coverts. They can be very similar to pale belisarius Tawny Eagles, and also to fulvescens GSE.

Left -Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax), Namibia. Photographer: Ignacio Yufera. Photo taken from Ignacio´s website. Right – Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalbert). Juvenile. Southern Spain, December 2009. Photograher: Javier García.
Note the great similarities between a pale Tawny Eagle , on the left, and a bleached, pale sandy juvenile Spanish Imperial, on the right. No wonder how some of the latter have been wrongly identified as Tawny over the last few years in Morocco. For a correct identification, note smaller size and more compact structure of Tawny, with a shorter tail and shorter wings. Perched, Tawny lacks SIE´s tail/wingtip projection. It also lacks any streaking on the upper breast, usually evident even on worn SIE (see photo). Pale Tawny usually lacks obvious whitish tips to the wing coverts, mantle and scapulars, and they don’t usually show such a noticeable pale, inner primaries window as in Imperial. However, some of the differences can be difficult to judge, and good views and photos would help a lot with the identification.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Juvenile. Southern Spain. December 2011. Photographer: José Arcadio.
Another example of an already bleached, pale sandy buff juvenile SIE.

Some older, worn birds, in spring, such as the 3cy below, can show uniformly pale underparts, and very worn wing coverts, and can still be very similar, like bleached juveniles, to fulvescens GSE.

Apart from size and structure differences, fulvescens tends to show a more obvious pale crescent on the base of the primaries, more solidly black, almost complete, undersurface of greater coverts, and more uniformly looking dark primaries, with only a diffuse pale inner primaries window.

Left – fulvescens Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga). India. Photographer: Tejas Soni / Indian Nature Watch. Right – Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). worn 3cy. June 2009. Southern Spain. Photographer: Antonio Cavadas.
Mainly bleached Juvenile, but also worn, older Spanish Imperials, such as the 3cy on the right, can be very similar to fulvescens GSE. The pale, sandy buff colour of both, upperwing pattern, etc… are almost identical. Good views, mainly of the underwing pattern (fulvescens showing more solidly black, almost complete, under-surface of the greater coverts, and usually lacking a prominent inner primaries pale window), as well as a correct judgement of size/structure, are essential for telling them apart.

  • Immature Spanish, mainly 3cy-5cy,until they start to show pure white feathers on the leading edge of the wing, are in some cases, as already commented, very difficult to separate from Eastern. At least, on actual knowledge.  More work is needed to try to improve this in the future..

They can show obvious dark/pale streaking on the breast, and on the older ages, a mix of dark brown adult- type  feathers and pale, yellowish, whitish,  rufous or buffy, immature-type feathers. The ones with warmer, rufous, immature type feathers, being somewhat easier to ID. But some of them with a cold looking, yellowish, background colour,  Thus, very similar to Eastern.

Some examples of different age classes of Spanish Imperial below, showing variation. There are few published pics of these plumages, so they might be of interest.

…and compare with some Easterns. Similar, aren’t they..?

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). 3cy. 31-7-2011. Navarra. Photographer: José Ardaiz.
Note 2 moult waves on the primaries of this 3cy, and the 2 outermost juvenile primaries. The bird shows notorious dark and pale streaking on the upper breast, but the head, part of the underparts and underwing coverts are typically warm rufous.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). 3cy. 4-6-2011. Aragon. Photographer: Alberto Bueno.
Another 3cy, more advanced in terms of primary moult, with no juvenile primaries left, than the above bird. Note, again, obvious streaking on the chest, and relatively cold looking underparts and underwing coverts. See, however, the fairly warm rufous head of this individual, typical of Spanish.

Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca). 3cy. January 2011. Oman. Photographer: Daniel Lopez-Velasco.
For comparison, A 3cy Eastern from January. Outer primaries still juvenile, thus very worn and ragged. Note the heavier streaking on the breast and underwing coverts compared to the above 3cy Spanish.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Presumed 4cy. Central Spain. Photographer: Jose Luis Rodriguez. Photo taken from Jose Luis Rodriguez website.
This presumed 4cy bird (not possible to confirm the ageing on this photo alone), still, apparently, with no white on the leading edge of the wing, is probably impossible, on actual knowledge, to separate with confidence from the corresponding plumage of Eastern. ID mainly based on location.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Presumed 5cy. Photographer: Jose Luis Rodriguez.
The first white feathers on the leading edge have already appeared, which helps separate it from Eastern.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Presumed 5cy. 25-5-2011. Central Spain. Photographer: Antonio Cavadas.
If no pure white feathers on the leading edge of the wing can be seen (and beware of light effects), then the ID of birds like this one can be very tricky.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti). Presumed 5cy. 14-6-2011. Valladolid. Photographer: Juan Sagardia

And below, a 5cy Eastern, from Oman. Note how scarily similar the bird is to the above 2 Spanish.

Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca). 5cy. January 2011. Oman. Photographer: Daniel López-Velasco

There are already records of Spanish Imperials in France, and even in the Netherlands , so any vagrant Imperial Eagle should be fully checked and documented, just in case…

And last, thanks to Juan Sagardía and Guillermo Rodriguez for his comments and input on the subject.