Category Archives: Challenge Series

Desert Lesser Whitethroat @ Filey International

By Mark Pearson and Yoav Perlman

As in every autumn in recent years, reports of eastern taxa Lesser Whitethroats were rather frequent in recent weeks, mainly along the E coast and N Isles. Several were trapped and DNA samples obtained for ID confirmation. Very often they are first picked up by the ‘trrrrr’ call. It seems that almost every Lesser Whitethroat on the east coast in October has a good potential to be of an eastern origin. One of those that stood out was a very striking individual at Filey on October 17th by Mark Pearson – striking by being such a plain, brown job, that fits well with what would be expected from Desert Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca halimodendri. Not really stop press anymore, but to my eyes worth a mention. Siberian (S. c. blythi) and Desert Lesser Whitethroats were always Martin’s favourite, featuring in many posts (e.g. here and here) and in Martin’s Challenge Series: Autumn book too. In the previous posts the taxonomic position of this taxon is discussed (and always good to redirect to this important paper that clarifies the taxonomy of Lesser Whitethroats). I think that now, with current developments in taxonomy and field birding, classic individuals like this can be readily identified in the field.


Handing over to Mark now:

Flushing a small, sandy warbler with strikingly white outer-tail feathers from a field edge just a few metres from the clifftop, especially in the midst of long-term easterlies (delivering Asian waifs to the east coast) couldn’t help but the raise the alarm bells, and from there on it was cat-and-mouse along the nearest hedgerow. Long periods of staring blankly into the hawthorn were followed by intermittently close views as the bird materialised seemingly out of nowhere several times.

Having had several strong candidates for Siberian blythi here over the last few years – including a striking bird a couple of weeks earlier nearby (which not only fitted the visual, but also gave the rattle call) – this bird was clearly something very different. Trying to remember conversations with Martin as well as the features described in the Autumn: Frontiers book were at least partially successful and I roughly recalled the basics (including tail pattern), and after prolonged observations, all were apparently present and correct.

Small-bodied, large-headed, short-billed, short-winged, ‘cute’ appearance; poorly defined weak mask, suffused with brown:

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Sandy brown upperparts, extending concolourously not only over the nape, but all the way across the crown to the base of the bill:

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Noticeably long tail, often cocked

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Entirely white outer web of T6, and extensive white tips on at least T5 and T4

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016. Photo by Mark Pearson

Field sketch of Desert Lesser Whitethroat tail pattern, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016, by Mark Pearson

Field sketch of Desert Lesser Whitethroat tail pattern, Filey, North Yorkshire, 17 October 2016, by Mark Pearson

Taking into account the fact that photos of Lesser Whitethroats can often be misleading, particularly regarding the extent and exact shade of subtle plumage tones in different lights, it’s worth pointing out that those which capture this bird’s tones were taken in flat, dull light (and not in bright or sunny conditions that can often ‘over-saturate’ these features); observations fully supported this, to the point that it was almost hard to believe the bird was actually a Lesser Whitethroat at times.

While the assessment criteria of field records of vagrant Desert Lesser Whitethroats is still apparently developing (and my knowledge is limited to say the least), on current understanding and by process of elimination – plumage, proportions, tail pattern etc. – it seems difficult to seriously consider anything else…. thoughts very welcome.


Another small comment by YP:

Ageing the bird is possible from these images. PC are worn and brown-fringed (see 2nd image from top), which is typical for young birds. Adult would have broader, fresher, grey-fringed PC. This bird has moulted most of its tail – two central TF pairs are unmoulted, and outer 4 pairs are replaced or growing. This partial moult is also typical for young birds. The central tail feathers are exteremely worn, pointed and brown. The newly grown outer TF have broad and white tips rather than limited off-white tips that are typical for unreplaced young outer TF (see here for demonstration of this).

Replaced adult-type TF typically have more extensive white tips to TF, and more TF with white tips than juvenile-type TF. This complicates the understanding whether a bird has ‘much white’ or ‘little white’. For this, ageing the bird and the TF correctly is essentail. The extreme amount of white shown by the Filey bird is more than any adult-type TF of curruca and blythi can show.


Book Review of…

Challenge Series: WINTER

by Anthony McGeehan

From MG: Well of course I want folk to buy the book. I hope people are inspired and encouraged in their birding; maybe even take on a  new perspective. I wish today that new little discoveries are made. But I do get a little overawed sometimes. Such is the nature of book reviews and especially with ‘WINTER’ which seems to have been particularly well received. So aware of some reticence on my part but grateful for positive input, here is one of several reviews of the new book.

The review is by Anthony McGeehan. You can find more of Anthony’s work and discoveries on his  Facebook Page

“I had only BF challenge series cover onlyone problem with this book. Setting out to review it, I could not find my copy. I searched the stack beside my bed and the rows on various shelves. In what I interpreted as a moment of divine inspiration, I ransacked the car. The next move was to accuse an innocent other of moving it inadvertently. A day passed. Next morning I picked up my rucksack and something clicked in my memory. I unzipped a pouch and remembered. I had forgotten that I had decided to keep the book with me in the field at all times. That is how relevant it is: too good to be left behind indoors.

Martin has a unique approach to promoting bird identification. He produces collections of material that serve both as a primer and reliable reference. His enthusiasm is messianic. Although interested in everything ornithological, his mission is to delve into identification topics that are either knotty or have not drawn previous attention. He loves minefields. The book concentrates on 15 topics. Some are groups of look-alike species, such as redpolls, or constituent subspecies that are unified under a single species banner, for example Icelandic and European Redwings or Arctic Peregrine and Peregrine. Rather than being, like the rest of us, fazed by the uncertainty of distinguishing (my words) sub-genre from sub-genre, Martin sets to work and then lays out the evidence. The book, therefore, is an assembly of text and photographs with artwork by Irish artist Ray Scally, who is fast becoming as perceptive with a paintbrush as Martin is with words. New-fangled, the book uses QR codes than can be scanned with a smart phone or tablet, transporting the reader to dedicated web pages.

The danger of not just specialising in identification challenges but also putting the aspiration in lights, is that the going will be heavy. Far from it. Martin has a deft touch, a skill that is hard to acquire and says everything about what makes him tick. From cover to cover, you sense that he really wants you to follow where he leads and is trying to keep hold of your hand every step of the way. Why does he want to crack the hard stuff? I do not know. His ideas and presentations are the raw material of future reference books. He is born pioneer. It is as though he was gifted some kind of metaphysical insight and he is determined to share it for the common good. I have been with him more than once when he noticed identification features that I failed to see but that he, through explaining his perception, brought into existence. Almost literally, he can make the blind see.”

To buy a copy go HERE

The review is by Anthony McGeehan. You can find more of Anthony’s work and discoveries on his Facebook Page

No Book Sales until after 14th October

Office Closing for short period

The Birding Frontiers office will be closed for sales of the Challenge series: AUTUMN and the Challenge Series: WINTER from midnight on Friday 25th September to midnight on Wednesday 14th October.

After the 14th Oct. service will resume as normal 🙂

Please place any book orders for processing either today (Thursday 24th Sept.) or tomorrow (Friday 25th Sept). You can still place orders in the meantime but they won’t be processed until after 14th October.

Thanks very much!

The books get live action use…


Eastern Subalpine Warbler

It seems as if our special sylvia guest may still be in residence at Flamborough. All three Subalpine Warblers were covered in book one. The current Flamborough bird bears more than passing resemblance to an adult male which caused some controversy on Yell, Setland, two years ago and whose photo opens the Subalpine Warbler chapter.

Eastern Subalpine Yell (1 of 1) Subalpines in book (1 of 1)



I love the redpoll chapter in the WINTER book. It’s one of my favourites. It was also one of the hardest to do! Six taxa and a complex subject to communicate in relatively simple terms. See the recent post on Lesser Redpoll. we’ve had some juicy topics to go at locally. Lesser Redpolls are appearing in numbers on the east coast. It is arguably that these are Scandinavian birds from lower latitudes, which, for the optimistic might suggest  a ‘redpoll year’ ahead. As the autumn progress we may see birds arriving form the higher latitudes; Mealy and Coues’s Arctic Redpolls.

Lesser Redpoll Flamborough Head, September 2015. Part of notable passage along Britain's east coast this autumn.

Lesser Redpoll Flamborough Head, September 2015. Part of notable passage along Britain’s east coast this autumn. What redpolls are set to challenge us this autumn and winter?

and of course…

So much more!

Buy Both Books

Just a quick post on the Challenge Series books:

Several folks have asked about the possibility of buying both books in the Challenge Series, AUTUMN and WINTER at the same time. This obviously has a small saving on postage.

You can do that now by going to this Page which is also along the header strip on the Birding Frontiers home page.

Cheers Martin

To buy both books go HERE

two books c (1 of 1)




Eastern Subalpine Warbler ID

But it’s about way more than that!

Genuinely. It’s hard to contain the sheer enjoyment I get every day right now. Because every day there is migration magic. And behind so many species are extra-ordinary stories of avian derring-do.

Yesterday alone. Yes we had a good bird. A ‘Birding Frontiers’ kind of bird in a hedge that runs away from the end of my garden (though too far for a garden tick!) at Flamborough. But there was much more to yesterday.

Juvenile Swifts – Migration Magic

It was the Swifts. Magic views of juvenile Common Swifts yesterday. Unless there has been an upsurge that I missed these are seemingly very rarely photographed in this plumage. Can someone put me right?

Here a few snaps from yesterday. It’s an ID challenge covered in here but more these little waifs won’t land again for 2-3 years. They will travel from here, probably to Spain, down west Africa and perhaps across to Mozambique. Then back again to fly past Spurn next summer. 🙂 #migrationmagic

Common Swift 6 (1 of 1)

On the seawatch – Migration Magic

In the morning yesterday I saw my ALL TIME BEST bird: Sooty Shearwaters. More than one. Gliding past from their breeding home – an island in the southern Atlantic Ocean- bonkers! Viewed just down the road from my little house in East Yorkshire. Never mind the Pomarine and Arctic Skuas from the Arctic,  Balearic Shearwaters from the Mediterranean and Waders and Wildfowl, some of which are coming 1000’s of miles from Siberian breeding grounds.

Little Stint – Migration Magic

Like this juvenile Little Stint hatched form an egg on some permafrost in central Siberia and feeding on little invertebrates on a pond at… Buckton. Buckton (near where domestically I picked my daughter up from her train yesterday evening) ! I got thrilling alone time with another stunning, intricately pattern wee shorebird with a migration narrative that defied human logic. This one was a couple of days ago- but needed slipping in!

little stint 9small juv 27aug (1 of 1)


Wood Warbler and friends – Migration Magic

Back on the land little ‘songbirds’ which had crossed the North Sea- crossed the north sea? Have you seen how big … err. how small they are? Redstarts, Willow Warblers, a Wood Warbler….

wood warbler three (1 of 1)


Eastern Subalpine Warbler – Migration (and rare bird) Magic

Then the ‘what the heck are you doing here’ surprise.

That was a fun garbled message and discussion with Phil C. What a star. Didn’t he do well in a spot we don’t really look hard at.

So why is it an Eastern (thinks me)? We haven’t  heard a call (at least not yet) or recorded any outer tail feather patterns. But, it’s an adult male. It’s already got a rather intense deep blue head more so than you get on Moltoni’s and Western (subtle) in autumn. Critically the underparts at first look are rather white, even silvery, the there is a subtle wash comes into view on the upper breast, weak, hard to make the colour. But stuck right in the middle of the throat and chin is a deep vinaceous-brick spoldge. It’s a dark Eastern Subalpine coloured patch. 🙂  Exactly the kind of colour and distribution of that colour you might expect for an ‘Eastern’. Then (perhaps less should be read into it) but them thar Easterns – even if the colour doesn’t but up to the white malars- so often have big broad long white malars that stand out in the head pattern- just like this one. So the sum of some bits are all very Easternish…

ad male Eastern Subalpine Warbler 900 (1 of 1)


Which is all by way of saying – birds and migration are amazing! These are a little handful of the kinds of things I ruminate on every day. and it thrills me.

I will be spending from Friday to Sunday at Spurn. At  the Third Migration Festival. Loving it!

Give Something Back:

Those three words encapsulate the Spurn Migration Festival. Andy Roadhouse and I conceived the idea several years ago we wanted to give something back. Guiding folk around Spurn we became aware that what had become familiar to us was a huge wow to our visitors. Indeed it was magical- almost like a kind of ‘best kept secret’ in British Birding. So the question was how to share the wonder of Spurn, it’s birds, its wildlife and the extra dimension of phenomenally accessible, very visible migration. As we approach the third festival we do so with great expectations!

Day Trip the Migration Festival

We have similar number of folk to last year booked for the whole weekend. It looks likes plenty are planning to ‘Day Trip’. Highly recommended! Two organisations have done a great job at putting together an overview of th festival with details; Please follow the links (with big thanks):


go >>> HERE <<<

Rare Bird Alert

go >>> HERE <<< 



ANSWERS. To Eider Prize Quiz

Not so easy 😉

Thanks to everyone who had a go at the female Eider prize quiz. Not easy!

Six people named all 4 birds correctly to their taxon/ subspecies level. Well done- they were:

Kent Olsen, Davy Bosman, Liger Alexandre, Mike Buckland, Tony Davison and Hans Martin Høiby. (if I missed anyone- tell me quick!)

and drawn from the hat (by Abi Garner) the winner is drrrrrrrrrrrrr is :

Mike Buckland

I was heartened that by using new features and what for me is ‘right-now’ learning, these and other female Eider can often be identified to a subspecies/ lowest taxonomic unit level- especially when location and circumstance are taken into account. There’s’ more in the new book of course!

A copy of the Challenge Series: WINTER is on its way to Mike.


female Eider 1 (below) is a female Northern Eider – borealis

female Eider one (1 of 1)

Above. Female Northern Eider, borealis, Sindri Skúlason. Quite a few plumped for faeroeeensis on this one. Many true Faeroes birds are a deep peaty brown colour- e.g. lovely photo by Silas Olofson in new book.


female Eider 2 (below) is a female Dresser’s Eider dresseri

female Eider

Above. Female Dresser’s Eider, dresseri, by Chris Wood.


female Eider 3 (below) is a female Pacific Eider –  v-nigrum

Eider female

Above. female Pacific Eider v-nigrum, Chris Wood

female Eider 4 (below) is a female nominate (Common) Eider- mollissima

female Eider three (1 of 1)

Above. female (Common) Eider  – nominate mollissima by Martin Garner.

Fanad, co Donegal

Where much borealis discovery and learning happened for me. This pair while late on (June) and the male is a little worn and just beginning moult to eclipse- you can see nostril position looks pretty good for borealis on both- togther with other features. More on this in Challenge series: WINTER.


Eiders MG (1 of 1)