Author Archives: Martin Garner

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What was that Gull?

21st-23rd August 2014

Flamborough Head.

2cy Caspian b

In that remarkable summer of 2014 with Caspian Gulls galore (c20) at Flamborough, several Yellow-legged Gulls, three candidate juvenile Baltic Gulls, one excellent looking 2cy Baltic Gull AND this chap (or perhaps more likely lady) caused a little local stir and national response.

Found it in the Old Fall fields on the flashes so popular with many of the large gulls, I struggled with the ID. Aged as a 1st summer (2cy- just over a year old) – I chewed on it for a while and my best assessment was I thought it was a Yellow-legged Gull though I remained uneasy. First summers can be hard! The head pattern (a strong white C shape around the back of the ear coverts) inner primaries and trial pattern lead me to the YLGull conclusion. Rather unusually one of the national bird info agencies ‘re-identifed it, based on I think photos on twitter and Flamborough Bird Obs as a 1st summer Lesser Black-backed Gull. A little odd as I was privy to a lot more info, having actually seen it. No sweat, I never thought it was a LBB but I realised it was also never a straightforward identification. One local friend has been keen for me to resolve the to ID more fully, given the questions raised, so with Chris Gibbins visiting over the weekend we had a fresh look at the images. I think we came to an identification I am more confident in.

His enormous experience especially in recent years of thousands of Caspian Gulls in many locations quickly lead him to the assessment that the most likely ID was a 1st summer female Caspian Gull. Revisiting the images with fresh eyes I have to agree, this seems the bets fit. Indeed it looks blooming’ obvious in some images! It’s a darker bird but as Chris pointed out head the head structure is very good and there are no real minus points for that species.

If you look through the videos and images- check out the plumage of the head and especially the head and bill structure, the paler inner primaries (wrong for LBB) and the tail pattern.


The images below are taken from video hence some reduced quality

2cy Caspian a2cy Caspian e2cy Caspian c 2cy Caspian d

The shot below was taken 2 days after the first series looks… perhaps bit more convincing for those still unsure.

What do you think?

2cy Caspian f

BIRDS of the Homeplace. Anthony McGeehan with Julian Wyllie

Want a feast this Christmas? Birds_of_the_Homeplace

A review by Martin Garner

Want a feast this Christmas? Look no further than Anthony McGeehan’s latest offering. Following ‘Bird’s Through Irish Eyes’, reviewed HERE, this new publication seeks to inform and inspire the nature and bird enthusiasts of Ireland- it easily serves a much wider audience.



 Don’t be fooled. However long or short a time you have been birding. However much or little time you spend in the field, however big or small your garden, I cannot see how you will fail to be both informed and inspired beyond expectation.

Indeed I must apologise as I had hoped to say something here sooner but have been a little stymied by several factors, not least the volume of fascinating material which I wanted to try to digest before tap tapping on the keyboard. There’s too much good stuff here and I’m not going to make it so…Jackdaw

…the book is set aside on me wee coffee table as the Christmas season read in preparation for January 1st 2015. Why? I am a compulsive January 1st birdwatcher. I have been for 40 years. When the local church bells toll midnight and a new year begins, so I look on a fresh clean canvas. It’s all-new. Anticipated excitement already grips me as there is so much to see, so much I hope to learn. Most of the birds I see  in 2015 will of course be species I have seen before, yet I know I can come to each one with fresh eyes and an open heart to discover.

This book is the ideal primer.

Anthony’s familiar engaging writing style, is once again coal titbeautifully illustrated by well-chosen photographs sometimes in clever collage form to aid the communication of ideas. The pages are dripping with new insights and observations. I know I will be watching the Starlings and Reed Bunting, Coals Tits and Song Thrushes with renewed wonder.

In roughly two halves, the 231 pages are divided between a 25-chapter section giving insights into the lives of common birds. This is followed by a closer look at 70 common species. In the course of his writing I was privy to some of Antony’s discoveries begun with his own field observations. It was tantamount to hearing from an investigative reporter who had unearthed startling new information on a familiar human narrative. So juicy were some of his observations I seriously contemplated poaching and publishing :) . In the end I could only allude, in talks I was giving at the time, about ‘discoveries on birds are still being made from he kitchen window’. In summarizing this inadequate review then:

This book is a Christmas feast for all ornithologists whether professional and ‘established’ or just awakening that passion as in my 7-year-old niece Charlie. Indeed a need is arising in me now to leave the laptop and engage with the wonders, even mini- miracles of the wild birds on my doorstep.

 A Delicious Read!

Birds of the Homeplace
The Lives of Ireland’s Familiar Birds
By Anthony McGeehan with Julian Wyllie

Some fascinating bird facts found in BIRDS of the Homeplace:


  • The brains of some titmice (such as Coal Tit) brains expand in volume by 30 per cent during the autumn burst of food storing so that the bird can remember where it left its winter stores of food.
  • Birds have eyes with two focussing spots and because the optic nerve is controlled by two separate parts of the brain, what is seen by the left eye isn’t remembered by the right.
  • Birds can see in ultraviolet as well polarising light and use it as a means to navigate – as did the Vikings who are believed to have used a crystal, coined a ‘sunstone’, as a polarising filter that glinted blue when pointed to the invisible sun during cloudy weather.
  • Songbirds can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight at night.
  • Longevity records aren’t always accurate as the metal rings used to tag birds corrode in water, meaning individuals could be older.
  • When a Peregrine attacks from above, it reaches such velocity (70–90 m per second/252–324 km/h) that the G-forces encountered would make a human pilot black out.
  • A Swallow, whose arrival signals the end of winter, weighs about the same as a slice of buttered toast.
  • Dunnocks sometimes indulge in a ménage-à-trois with a female using two males to make sure her two chicks are well fed.
  • It’s well known that Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests but did you know that Cuckoo chicks jettison their step-siblings from the nest, despite weighing a mere 3 grams?
  • Male sex organs regrow just before the mating season. And during the mating season the males display and the females choose!
  • Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, who founded a framework for naming nature called binomial nomenclature, used phonetics to name birds e.g. Crex crex for Corncrake and Pica pica for Magpie.
  • Birds identify each other through song and often adopt the trills of neighbours – an outsider doesn’t stand a chance of sneaking in.
  • A bird’s respiratory system extracts oxygen from air using air sacs as well as lungs. Sacs are located throughout the body, such as within abdominal cavities and between the skin and body walls. Ironically, the lungs themselves hold almost no used air. Each intake of breath travels a continuous path around various parts of the anatomy where sacs extract oxygen from the passing stream of air.
  • Inside eggs, chicks call to each other. Chicks can also pick out their parents’ call from a crowd.
  • Blackbirds stalking worms employ a rugby scrum ‘crouch, touch, engage’ action.
  • A Jackdaw was trained to open eight boxes to find five pieces of food, some of which were stored in pairs to challenge the bird’s counting skills. He found them all and counted by nodding his head once for the first piece, twice for the second and so on.
  • Sparrowhawks are harbingers of havoc – in Anglo-Saxon Old English, ‘hafoc’ meant hawk.



A Curious Large Gull

On Ainsdale Beach, Southport


Thanks to John Dempsey for this.

Big Gulls. Some of them are head scratchers. They don’t instantly resolve into an obvious taxon or even a familiar hybrid. This large white-headed gull on Ainsdale Beach, Southport, Merseyside 3 days ago fits that category. I found it intriguing and I admit it has a whiff of some pacific rim taxa about it in the photos. Kind of Vega Gull-ish but lots of reasons why doesn’t  fit that taxon. I’m sure there is a simple explanation, I just don’t have it yet.

Thought you might like a look. A photo of the open wing would reveal more interesting data. At the very least it gets me reviewing how ready I am for the rarer stuff, should the opportunity arise…

Chris Batty is more confident that it is a LBB X Herring hybrid- which seems the most likely explanation, though I admit I have not seen one looking quite like this.

See John’s website for couple more photos etc:






Griffon and Rüppell’s Vultures

More on ID of tricky ones

Guillermo Rodriguez Lazaro

Hi Yoav and Martin,

I saw your post about the Israeli vulture in the Birding Frontiers blog and thought that perhaps I could provide some light about this bird.

Vulture sp., Gamla NR, N Israel, 4 August 2014. Photo by Shachar Alterman. Now thought to be an odd Griffon Vulture.

Vulture sp., Gamla NR, N Israel, 4 August 2014. Photo by Shachar Alterman. Now thought to be an odd Griffon Vulture.

The second photo (underparts) shows an indisputable Griffon (repeated above), definitely ruling out Rüppell’s The complete absence of white edges in wing coverts (not only GCs but also in MCs) is diagnostic. Other features which don’t indicate Rüppell’s are the shape and color of the axillary feathers, absence of white edges in UTCs, strong contrast between black GCs and much lighter MCs, etc… I attach a photo of a classic erlangeri adult from below from northern Ethiopia for comparison.

Rüppell’s Vulture, adult ssp. erlangeri, N. Ethiopia, Guillermo Rodriguez Lazaro

Rüppell’s Vulture, adult ssp. erlangeri, N. Ethiopia, Guillermo Rodriguez Lazaro

So, as pointed in your post, only the upper parts resemble Rüppell’s, I think that mainly due to the presence of two-rows of dark wing coverts, a feature typical of Rüppell’s (which usually has present 2-3 rows). Additionally the bird’s overall colour is perhaps unusually greyish for Griffon, but this species presents a high variation in this trait and I feel it isn’t a strong feature to discard Griffon. In my opinion, your bird doesn’t fit well one of the striking “pale morphs” Rüppell’s which from time to time are observed in NE Africa (it’s too patterned and browner above), so we should compare with the more classic erlangeri adults.

In both Griffon and Rüppell’s all wing coverts present a dark feather center with a pale edge. In Griffon, only the greater coverts present an extension of black large enough to be visible, whereas in the median coverts the dark part is very limited (due to the broad pale edge) and it’s usually not visible. In Rüppell’s, the pale edge is much finer and thus the dark centre of the feather is exposed and very obvious in the upperwing. However, I’ve found that a few Griffons (Spanish breeders at least; I’m not sure if it is an individual characteristic or just the result of a certain state of moult, though the first option is more likely since these birds seem to present also more patterned scapulars) can show two rows.

Vulture Sp., Gamla NR, N Israel, 15 July 2014. Photo by Eitan Kaufman. Now considered to be an odd Griffon Vulture.

Vulture Sp., Gamla NR, N Israel, 15 July 2014. Photo by Eitan Kaufman. Now considered to be an odd Griffon Vulture.

In my opinion, your bird is one of these odd Griffons. Detailed analysis of the upperparts pattern shows that the feather edge of the second row (median coverts) is too broad, and concolorous (cream coloured) with the rest of the wing, whilst it is usually whiter and thinner in Rüppell’s. The wing looks very uniform and with the characteristic griffon-colour of the species, instead of the more browner/greyer appereance of erlangeri Rüppell’s. I also attach one photo of an adult erlangeri (again from N Ethiopia), in which these features are evident.

Rüppell’s Vulture, adult ssp. erlangeri, N. Ethiopia, Pablo Garcia

Rüppell’s Vulture, adult ssp. erlangeri, N. Ethiopia, Pablo Garcia

Taking into account these points, I don’t find consistent reasons for considering a Rüppell’s here but just a slightly unusual Griffon. Other characters also support this id, eg the bird silhouette and the blue skin around the auriculars which provides the characteristic Griffon head pattern.

The option of a hybrid is, in my opinion, even more complex: as far as I know there aren’t proved records, though there is at least one suspected individual from Spain which certainly ticks all the boxes:

Apparent hybrid click HERE
Hope these comments are interesting for you and help to clinch the id.

Best regards

Eastern Black Redstart, taxon: phoenicuroides

Names and Calls

Martin Garner

A quick follow up to the post on this beautiful bird:

Eastern Black Redstart Scarboro 1st Dec 2014 j



I have compared a few calls of ‘western’ gibraltariensis Black Redstarts with my recording of phoenicuroides Eastern Black Redstart at Scarborough, though ideally I need a better data set. Impressions in the field were that the Scarborough Eastern Black Redstart sounded similar but a bit different- kind of lower pitched or something and was discussed as such at the time. Subsequently spurred on  especially by Grahame Walbridge, there may be difference in pitch and possibly shape but I am not sure if variation in calls of both taxa render this obsolete or whether there really are useful differences. Need more time to look in to it!

If anyone has good quality recordings of Western and Eastern Black Redstarts, or thoughts on the subject- be great to hear from you.

Eastern Black Redstart Scarboro 1 dec 2014 sonagram


English Names 

1cy male Eastern Black Redstart. Stef McElwee, November 2011, Holy Island, Northumberland

1cy male ‘Eastern’ Black Redstart. Stef McElwee, November 2011, Holy Island, Northumberland

Another subject briefly raised was the suitable English name for phoenicuroides.

Eastern Black Redstart seems inappropriate and confusing as here are several taxa that fit this catch-all term. I was a bit hasty in writing as subsequently friends (particularly Paul French) reminded me that we’d had a light-hearted discussion a couple of years ago on a suitable name for Eastern Back Redstarts – following the two first winter males in 2011 (also see photo above). Here’s what we came up with:

Kashmir Redstart- as others have pointed out, and we concluded at the time- even though this is out there as a potential name, Kashmir is too far south of the core range.

More suitable options we toyed with were

Kyrgyzstan Redstart and Tajikistan Redstart

but most favoured was Tien Shan Redstart

Central Asian Black Redstart is one option but seems a bit ‘lowest common denominator’ and functional only. Furthermore a large area of Central Asia is NOT occupied by phoenicuroides.

Given the record in Kent in November 2011 whose identity was ratified by a sample of excrement collected at the site, I really liked ‘Kentish Crapstart’. But somehow I don’t think it will catch on…

Blyth’s Pipit in West Yorkshire

and those two call types

Martin Garner

The Patchwork Challenge and on a smaller scale the Foot-it Challenge have given some form to the wonder and passion of local area birding. There is great banter and not a little rivalry as folk work their patches. Citizen science wins too. When Jonny Holliday found a Blyth’s Pipit two days ago on his patch it was a bit of a shocker. I know the area as I used to visit regularly when living in Sheffield. The patch the Blyth’s Pipit has chosen couldn’t be more seemingly incongruous.

Blyth's Pipit at Calder Wetlands, West Yorkshire by Jonny Holliday

Blyth’s Pipit at Calder Wetlands, West Yorkshire by Jonny Holliday

RBA have produced this helpful map which illustrates its chosen habitat- thats the M1 motorway to the left and an industrial complex all around:


Dave Aitken provided great companionship and most of the flight shots below are his. I enjoyed meeting a number of birding buddies there too.

It’s a remarkable find. Hearing both of the classic call types was once again educational. The longer “Richard’s Pipit-like call’ which I transcribe as splee-u sounded to my ears – not really like a Richards Pipit at all, being somewhat disyllabic sounding, higher pitched, down-slurred and sweeter- more flava wagtail like (as it has been described before). The ‘chip’ call was great to hear.

Have a listen (apologies re: motorway noise and wind)- how would you describe the call versus Richard’s Pipit?

Blyths pipit Dave Aitken 5

Blyths pipit Dave Aitken 8


Blyth's Pipit shleep call 9th Dec 2014 four


Blyths Pipit chip call 9th dec 2014.png two


Blyth's Pipit by Dave Aitken- which reveals the second outermost tail feather with small blob of white near the tail tip- versus more extensive white wedge on T5 found on a Richard's Pipit.

Blyth’s Pipit by Dave Aitken- which reveals the second outermost tail feather with small blob of white near the tail tip- versus more extensive white wedge on T5 found on a Richard’s Pipit.

As there have been a few understandable and legitimate comments on social media about ‘organised flushing’ – some excellent leg-pulling and also some more mischievous comments  (where presumptions are more interesting and provide easier fuel for scandal mongering than the truth) – for the record:

Seeing the bird was not easy so full credit to Jonny for making it work with minimal disturbance to the bird- which could have been very different. It’s a site that anyone can walk in and through, and indeed on several occasions since it was found the bird’s chosen field has been overrun by visiting birders. To manage this (some 400+ visitors yesterday) at periodic intervals a small group (usually 2-3 people) would walk along the western edge of the field on one sweep (leaving about 4\5 of the field undisturbed). The bird was seen to fly up usually once or twice, sometimes with Meadow Pipits. Considerable periods were spent with birders standing patiently on the bank without entering the field. While arguably not perfect, and I understand for some folk even this is a step too far, this seemed far more preferable than ‘leaving it to chance’ – which on several occasions already has lead to the field being overrun – and uncontrolled disturbance.


Once again- a remarkable ‘lifetimes find’ for Jonny and a the wonder of birds and their movements. Thanks for sharing it.

Blyth's Pipit JH 2


“Bird Book of the Year 2014″ – Sunday Express newspaper

Challenge Series: Autumn

Martin Garner

Team. As I meet with Ray Scally and Chris Gaughan in Challeneg-series-covera few days, and plan some tweaks to web stuff with Andrew Chick I celebrate the fact I get to work with people like these. As I remember all the folk I have learned from and who contributed in varying degrees to the first of the Challenge Series; I celebrate them.

Nominated in a couple of places for ‘Bird Book of the Year 2014′  we made joint top place with Mark Avery in the Sunday Express Newspaper:

Here’s what top birding journalist, Stuart Winter said:

“The thrill of watching nature’s most vibrant creatures provides not only entertainment but a wealth of information for conservationists.
Charles Darwin wrote about the “extraordinary pleasure in pure observation” and his fascination with nature has sculpted the way we view our planet and why we must save the forms that have evolved over countless millennia.
Two of today’s eminent birding figures must be applauded for producing standout works that fully deserve sharing the Sunday Express Bird Book Of The Year.
Martin Garner and Mark Avery’s books illustrate why watching, studying and ultimately preserving birds is both enjoyable and a duty.
Martin is the mastermind behind the Birding Frontiers concept and his new paperback, titled Challenge Series: Autumn, promises to be the first part of an indispensable collection.
This compact book tackles a number of the identification conundrums that avant-garde birders are likely to encounter during the fall migration period.
It is A-level star material but the author’s readable style and knowledge take such esoteric subjects as the reed warbler complex and not only makes them simple but encourages you to make your own observations.
Among the 18 groups covered are lesser whitethroats, shrikes, flycatchers, stonechats and snipes. Concise, informative text, lots of bullet points, a host of excellent photographs and illustrations by Ray Scally make this a must-read guide.
Top marks also go for using QR codes, those signs that can be scanned by smartphones, to allow readers to download a welter of sound and video files”

Not got yours yet?

Need one for best, one for the car ;)

Buy it Here: Challenge Series BOOK.

There is still time for one of these:




Anthony McGeehan kindly reviewed the book on his FACEBOOK page (superb photos as wonderful narrative with each one)

“Martin revels in ‘always discovering’. He has an ornithological knack of seeing the wood for the trees and distilling enormously complicated subjects into manageable concepts. Around 20 problematic groups of species are covered in the book. Individuals drawn from the selection are most likely to occur in autumn: hence the approach and packaging of the information. Photographs, lovely artwork (courtesy of Irish artist Ray Scally), concise text and – a new development – printed QR codes activated by a scan from a smart phone or tablet linking to dedicated webpages, allow content to be updated online. The book is a breath of fresh air and also breath-taking. Martin has blown away cobwebs and, without exaggeration, his efforts are lifting the veil on birds that most of us didn’t really think existed: inasmuch as they could ever be identified with any degree of certainty. Siberian Chiffchaff (in the photograph) is a nice example of a super warbler that, thanks to Martin’s efforts, is emerging from the shadows and, rather being branded ‘just a pale Chiffchaff from Eastern Europe’ is a long range migrant with a livery (and voice) all its own. Martin is putting fun back into bird-watching. He may tilt at windmills sometimes but his lance is tipped with Kryptonite. Congratulations, sir!”

One of these was in Suffolk, UK a couple of days ago:

Northern Treecreeper, 12th October 2013, Buckton, East Yorkshire. Mark Thomas

Northern Treecreeper, 12th October 2013, Buckton, East Yorkshire. Mark Thomas

and here’s the overview of the on-line QR codes page:

Challenge Series - Book1


to buy the Challenge series: AUTUMN. Just click here