Category Archives: 14) Swifts, Swallows, Martins

East Asian House Martin – lagopodum

at Whitburn?!

This is potentially a first for Britain– possibly even for the Western Palearctic (dunno if other claims?). So getting the news out there without detailed analysis but gut reaction- I’d be very keen to see it!

I got a phone call from Richard Crossley yesterday (Monday). Richard and Dave Foster had seen an interesting looking House Martin at Souter Point, one mile south of Whitburn around 11:00 am for a few minutes. Dave messaged me this morning re the photos on Richards’ twitter feed. Yikes! Have just spoken to Richard and last night they were able to look at the photos and began seriously thinking about the Eastern lagopodum.

It’s a first winter House Martin and appears to have white extending across all the upper tail coverts. As a rough guide the length of the shorter central tail feathers (black) on this bird is less the half the length of the white ‘rump’ patch. On the nominate western form urbicum the length of white on rump is about the same as the length of short central tail feathers.

As it might head south via Flamborough 🙂 or Spurn this is an alert to study closely or follow-up reports of – any late House Martin!

Photos of the bird by Richard Crossley


Have had quick chat with Ian Lewington this am who knows the subject and we are struggling to explain away what looks like massive white rump area.

Plate by Ian Lewington from Rare Birds of North America which shows both nominate urbicum and eastern lagopodum



Seven of Eighteen

The Challenge Series: AUTUMN

One of the chapters covers Common Swift and Pallid Swift. The most popular field guides don’t include juvenile plumages- the very thing which cause most difficulty in the autumn. For more on the content and how to buy the book click HERE.


These two make them look relatively easy, But it’s not always so.

The juvenile Common Swift was photographed this morning- 7th August 2014. The Pallid Swift is of the palest (easiest to identify) form, pallidus.

juvenile Common Swift, Flamborough Head, 7th August 2014. Martin Garner

juvenile Common Swift, Flamborough Head, 7th August 2014. Martin Garner

Pallid Swift of subspecies pallidus, UAE, December. Oscar Campbell

Pallid Swift of subspecies pallidus, UAE, December. Oscar Campbell

Tracking ‘pekinensis’ Common Swifts

By Terry

 We know very little about the migration route and wintering grounds of pekinensis Common Swifts.  This project, a collaboration between Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, the Beijing Birdwatching Society and the Summer Palace, aims to change that by using ultra-lightweight geolocators.   


A 'pekinensis' Swift fitted with one of the ultra-lightweight geolocators.

A ‘pekinensis’ Swift fitted with an ultra-lightweight geolocator.

In December, during a BirdLife drinks reception coinciding with a work visit to London, I had a chance encounter with Dick Newell who, as anyone who knows him will testify, is passionate about Swifts.  He coordinates the Action For Swifts website and helped to organise the International Swift Conference in April this year, as well as being involved in all manner of swift conservation projects.

During our conversation, covering a range of Chinese birds, we spoke about ‘pekinensis‘ Swifts, the subspecies of Common Swift that breeds in China.  Dick waxed lyrical about how cool it would be to develop a project to fit geolocators to the ‘pekinensis‘ Swifts in Beijing to find out where they spent the winter (thought to be southern Africa), and what route they took to and from China.  I briefed him on the annual swift ringing programme that took place at the Summer Palace, Beijing, arranged by the Beijing Birdwatching Society (BBWS) and straight away his eyes lit up….  “Perfect.  Leave it with me” he said…  If I could speak to the BBWS about their willingness to participate in a geolocator project for their swifts, Dick would investigate sourcing some geolocators and arrange a visit to Beijing with Lyndon Kearsley from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, a very experienced ringer and a veteran of projects to fit geolocators to Common and Pallid Swifts in Europe.

A few short weeks later, with the generous help of Susanne Åkesson from Lund University in Sweden, Dick had sourced a total of 31 geolocators and we were arranging dates for Dick and Lyndon to visit Beijing to work with, and train, the BBWS folks to fit this amazing technology to the resident swifts.

Saturday 24 May was the big day and, after rising at 0400, I met Dick and Lyndon, together with Wu Lan from the BBWS (who has worked miracles to ensure the Chinese authorities were comfortable with the project) and by 0515 we were in the pavilion at the Summer Palace where the very efficient BBWS team had already erected the nets and had started to catch swifts.

Retrieving the first 'pekinensis' Common Swift (Apus apus) from the net.

Retrieving the first ‘pekinensis’ Common Swift (Apus apus pekinensis) from the net.

Lyndon set to work and, having trained several teams from the BBWS the previous evening about how to fit the geolocators, the first pioneering birds began to be fitted with their ultra-lightweight backpacks.

Lyndon Kearsley preparing the geolocators.

Lyndon Kearsley preparing the geolocators.

These geolocators do not allow the birds to be satellite-tracked – that still requires technology too heavy for a swift – instead, to collect the data, the birds must be re-trapped at a later date.  That is why it was so fortunate that almost all of the birds fitted with geolocators today had been ringed at the same site in previous years, proving that the individuals to whom the backpacks have been fitted are site-loyal.  This gives us all hope that there will be a significant re-capture rate next year, allowing us to find out for the first time where these birds spend the winter and what route they take on migration.  Exciting stuff!

Lyndon and Zhang Shen from Beijing Birdwatching Society fitting a geolocator.

Lyndon and Zhang Shen from Beijing Birdwatching Society fitting a geolocator.

It was heartening to see the interest shown by the BBWS and, despite the rain that persisted throughout, it was a real family occasion with many young children, students, parents and grandparents turning out to volunteer.  There were huge smiles all around when the swift carrying the first geolocator was released… It powered into the air, seemingly oblivious to both the special package it was carrying and the excitement among the group that, very soon, we will know much more about the famous Summer Palace swifts of Beijing.

The BBWS took the opportunity of the swift ringing to brief visiting school children about the importance of bird conservation.

The BBWS took the opportunity of the swift ringing to brief visiting school children about the importance of bird conservation.

Having come directly from working with Common Swifts in Europe, it was interesting that both Dick and Lyndon said very early on how ‘brown’ these pekinensis birds are compared with Common Swift in Europe and also how the call was closer to Pallid Swift than Common… We hope to record some calls over the next few weeks to enable some analysis and comparisons with nominate Common and Pallid to be made.

A huge thank you to Dick and Lyndon for sourcing the geolocators and visiting Beijing to fit them, as well as training the BBWS team and spreading the word about swifts at universities here; to Wu Lan and the team at BBWS, especially Ms Fu Jianping and Mr Zhao, who have been instrumental in making everything happen at this end, and to the authorities at The Summer Palace for allowing this project to go ahead and for taking so much interest in these special birds that have chosen this most famous of Beijing landmarks as their home.

Seeing this project set up from nothing in less than 6 months, the lesson that I draw from all this is that I should drink more beer!

Some more photos from the day below.

The data centre.  Volunteers from the BBWS log all the vital statistics during the ringing programme.

The data centre. Volunteers from the BBWS log all the vital statistics during the ringing programme.

Lyndon releasing a 'pekinensis' Swift fitted with a geolocator.

Lyndon releasing a ‘pekinensis’ Swift fitted with a geolocator with Dick in the background recording the moment.



Crag Martin: more photos

More Action

Crag Martin 12.4. Thornwick 8

Well it surprised everyone. An uncertain report was passed around locals and before long its presence was confirmed. Crga Martin, this time on the other side of the Great White Cape at Thornwick Bay and North Landing- and a little more photogenic than yesterday.

Crag Martin 12.4. Thornwick6

Crag Martin 12.4. Thornwick 3Crag Martin 12.4. Thornwick5Crag Martin 12.4. Thornwick4


From Yesterday:

A couple of shots from the bird’s finder, Andrew Allport. See more of Andrew’s stunning photos and v. nice web pages go >>> HERE <<<

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Crag Martin at Flamborough

Big WOW!

It was to be my first attempt at a seawatch since recovering from the ol’ spell in hospital. Brett Richards had very graciously agreed to join my ‘higher up’ than usual as attempting the walk down to the official seawatch spot is still a little beyond me as yet. It wasn’t quite the morning I envisaged! Just before 7 am, slowly trundling along I clocked a bird briefly in a gap of the cliffs and thought- hmm looks like a Crag Martin. Which of course was a ludicrous thought. I stood a waited a moment for it to reappear and only saw Starlings coming put of a cliff roost. I guessed that I mis-saw one of those- and carried on… (don’t ignore gut reactions!)

One and half hours  later and not much to report from the seawatch, Phil C. radioed through that he had a large pipit briefly on the golf course. We upped sticks and headed to join him. Several Wheatears were new in, a White Wagtail or two but no sign of pipit which had the smell of Tawny Pipit about it from Phil’s description of brief views and call.


Then Andrew Allport came running up breathless as we were scanning the golf course from the pillbox. There’s a Crag Martin…   Well the rest is history. We hightailed over to an area just south of the foghorn station known as High Stacks and almost immediately there was a Crag Martin with a couple of Sand Martin. Flying at almost point black range below us and calling loudly! MAD! NO I won’t be claiming it- just learning from not sticking with gut reaction. Well done Andrew Allport and hoping all who come get to see it.


Crag Martin 2Crag Martin, Flamborough Head, 11 April 2014, Martin Garner

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Crag Martin, Flamborough Head, 11 April 2014, fine shot (above) by Andy Hood

Crag Martin 3Crag Martin 1Crag Martin, Flamborough Head, 11 April 2014, Martin Garner

Crag Martin crowd

First crowd gathers and is delighted with close views of calling Crag Martin 

Rock Martin, a new bird for Tunisia ?


Andrea Corso & Michele Viganò (the MISC)

Rock Martins and Crag Martins. Easy or hard to separate? When faced with a national first in an area that both could occur, you discover a lot more about both species and some subspecies that is not always available in the popular field guides…


apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Michele Viganò

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Michele Viganò

During the last two winter trips to Tunisia (that AC lead annually since 1999) we have visited some wonderful gorges to the north-east of Tozeur, that we never visited before. Among the usual fantastic species of Tunisian desert (including some Little Swift and an immense colony of Alpine Swift, of course deserted in January) we observed some really interesting Ptyonoprogne sp. that did not look like the common Crag Martin but clearly more like a Rock Martin Ptyonoprogne fuligula. In January 2012 we saw almost 20 birds while in January 2013 we saw 5-6 birds in the very same cliff. The birds all appeared very pale, with a very sandy-grey upperparts and almost off white underparts, delicately washed by an buff-isabelline tinge well contrasting with a brownish grey undertail coverts with very narrow pale buffish fringing, the whole throat being as pale as the breast and remaining underparts, without any darker streaking visible but for a tiny dark smudge at the very base of the chin. Underwing coverts were of the very same colour, hue and intensity of the undertail coverts, and both these plumage areas were contrasting with the rest of underparts and underwing but at a different degree and obviousness depending on angle of light and position in flight varying from strikingly paler than in Crag Martin to almost the same colour and darkness as in abraded or juvenile of this species. The tail was the darkest body part both from underside that from above and shown rather large white “blob” in all rectrices but the outermost pair T6 (or R6).

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Roberta Corsi

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Roberta Corsi

We failed to find a Crag Martin in the field or in skins/photos we ever seen in Europe (in Italy is a rather common and widespread bird for ex.) closely matching (but see further) these birds from Tunisia while we found Rock Martin of the subspecies presaharica (Vaurie, 1953) and even more of the ssp. spatzi (Geyr von Schweppenburg, 1916) to be a much better match.

However, we feel that still the plumage variability of both the cited species (Rock and Crag Martins) need to be investigated and that the “overlapping area” is not well clear. In particular, colour of both underparts and chiefly upperparts in Crag Martin,  contrariwise to what illustrated in most (if not all!) modern field guide, is far more variable and birds of some populations or in some age/state of sun-bleaching and abrasion could appear as pale as Rock Martin from Morocco to Sinai;  similarly, underwing and undertail coverts vary a lot for both colour intensity and pattern of the feathers, not only due to light incidence and sun exposure, but individually and during the different seasons (stage of moult and ageing). We found for ex. some birds in Sardinia showing a pretty pale plumage all over, including the mentioned plumage areas. In fact, Arrigoni degli Oddi (1902) described a subspecies of Rock Martin from Sardinia as “Cotile obsolete sarda” (=P.fuligula sarda) from Sardinia but later obviously considered a synonym of Ptyonoprogne rupestris (Scopoli, 1769) (Holotype and Paratype at MCZR). Studying birds from skins and photos, we found that but for different dimension (Rock Martin being visibly smaller) the plumage is often quite similar, tail pattern its extremely variable with the white “blobs” on average smaller and squarer in Rock Martin but often wider, therefore often same as in Crag. The only consistent difference we found was the pattern of the throat, with the least marked Crag Martin still more dark/dusky streaked than the most marked Rock Martin. Indeed, this is the single best character that leaded us to identify the birds observed in Tunisia as Rock Martin.

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Michele Viganò

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Michele Viganò

Final Considerations  

In due course we are going again in the gorge north-east of Tozeur, Tunisia to obtain a better photographic documentation and feathers sample for genetic study. If confirmed, our observations will confirm the presence of Rock Martin in Tunisia and thus being the first acceptable and proven records, closest known range being some hundreds kilometres away. Isenmann, et al. (2005) mention only Crag Martin as confirmed for Tunisia, reporting that in the Saharan part of Tunisia Rock Martin could occur but its presence has never been proved. We checked all the main historical reference of the birds of Tunisia, which have a special part in AC’s library: Whitaker (1905) do not give mention of any record, not even possible, of Rock Martin in Tunisia, while report “I have one C. obsoleta, Cab., which Mr. Dodson obtained at the small town of Sebha, in the interior of the Vilayet, in the month of June”. So, at least for south-west Libya the species was reported at that time. Later, Lavauden (1924), Corti (1926) and Bannerman (1927) give no mention as well as Blanchet (1951, 1955, 1957).


apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Michele Viganò

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Michele Viganò

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Roberta Corsi

apparent Rock Martin, Tunisia, January 2013 Roberta Corsi

Some points need to be investigated further:

1)       The variability in plumage, and therefore of identification of both species.

2)       The plumage, morphometric measurements and genetic of the Sardinian population, or at least of the types of C.o.sarda Arrigoni degli Oddi, 1902 ; ie, the two specimens used as types are indeed simply pale Crag Martin or they were two real Rock Martin collected in Sardinia, therefore the first record of this species in Europe (as for other North African species, most notably 2 records of Twany Eagle).

3)       The real identity of the Tunisian birds and then the taxonomic status of these: are they Rock Martin? Are they belonging to the so called ssp. presaharica (which would be a better candidate on geographical biasis) or spatzi ? Or they are a pale population of Crag Martin – simply a plumage variability or a yet non described taxon?

4)       Are presaharica and spatzi really two different taxon as still accepted or, as it seems to us, a clinal variability or simply variations within the fuligula north of Sahara.

We are investigating this, and this is Birding Frontiers….we have very much to learn yet !


Many thanks to all the person whom accompanied us during the trips in Tunisia, in particular for the Rock Martin Roberta Corsi (and for her photos!), Dante Dalla, Claudia Calvano, Giovanni Soldato, Paolo Faifer, Arianna Passarotto, Andrea Tarozzi, Mauro Grano, Cristina Cattaneo, Verena Penna. All my Tunisian researches started long years agò thanks to Hichem Azafzaf, thanks Hichem !



Barn Swallow

Magical Moments 2013 #8

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WhatBarn Swallow Hirundo rustica. OK was a bit cheeky putting up Ian Lewington’s beautiful illustration of an American Cliff Swallow pic :), though the species has (amazingly) occurred at this place that’s my featured #8 MM. Actually the ‘what’ should be: Barn Swallow AND Spurn

Who: Andy Roadhouse, Rob, Sue and Andrew, Adam, Jono, The whole Migration Festival Team, all involved in the Observatory, The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust guys; crikey too many to name. So many wonderful folk mucking in; taking part. So many came and had grand time. Birds AND people…

Where: Spurn, East Yorkshire

When: 6th-8th September 2013

Why: It was a little dream and it came true. The Swallow is THE species when I think about migration and this is the best place to witness it in Britain. We began 2013 with what to some folk though a crazy idea. Thanks to so many, together we pulled off Britain’s first migration festival. Seems like we started a ball rolling that’s already gathering momentum for more. Could not have been more pleased with how it all went, and especially how encouraged and inspired folk seemed. Read one of the  reviews and another lovely review >>> HERE <<<

and we will be going for again in 2014   >>> Spurn Migration Festival<<<


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Barn Swallow Nitzana, Israel 11th Nov 2013and I am still learning about swallows, some 40 plus years since my first jaw dropping encounter. This juvenile in Nitzana, Israel in Nov. 2013 was dazzling white below. At least one other character was wrong for the reddish resident transitiva and the migrant rustica. It may be an Asian taxa…not yet on the list. Yoav Perlman was my mentor…