Category Archives: 10) Auks, Sandgrouse, Pigeons

The Arctic comes to my Garden

Snow Bunting and Little Auk

A Thursday evening (23rd Oct.) walk out with Ebony, our collie cross bought me lovely views of these two birds. I wasn’t expecting to see much and came back a very happy chappy. It got me reflecting on my love of the arctic. I can’t go there all the time so sometimes the bird from there come to me. I know- not quite in my garden- but close enough.

Snow Bunting

This is an  individual of the nominate form nivalis quickly recognized by the obvious paler greyish mantle area contrasting with darker browner scapulars. Appears to be a first winter male. We get two taxa each winter in Britain. The nominate form as here is considered to be the less common of the two according to information from ringing and birds assigned to subspecies in the hand. They could come from Scandinavia, Svalbard or Greenland.

Then there is the darker taxon insulae from Iceland. Identifying Snow Bunting to their correct age, sex and race can be both challenging and rewarding. Behind each birds lies a fascinating narrative from a species that can survive and thrive in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Taxonomy of Snow Buntings and MacKay’s Bunting of Beringia is a fascinating subject with the Siberian vlasowae of disputed range and validity. I don’t really mind. Birds with that Siberian characters look amazing whatever! I did an old post HERE and there is a paper HERE  (though he used the darkest possible Snow Buntings  specimens to make his point.) Hmm..

For ageing and sexing on this one amount of white in wing, pattern of underwings, white in primary coverts, shape and pattern of tail feathers.


Snow Bunting 6 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 7 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 1 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 4 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 5 25 Oct 14 1


Siberian Snow Buntings

And I hope one day in Britain to find one that looks like this. The Siberian form vlasowae.

There’s material for another book there…


above- male Siberian Snow Bunting- ssp vlasowae, Vardo, Varanger, March 2012.

Little Auk

Then directly below the cliff top on which the Snow Bunting was feeding, on a becalmed sea, sat this little chap. All the way from the High Arctic.

A very pleasant encounter indeed :)

little auk 3 little auk 4



Brünnich’s Guillemot off Flamborough

and Fly-by Records

Martin Garner

One week ago today, the weather was a bit more lively. Weather charts indicated strong to near gale winds (force 6-7) coming from the north. Seawatching!

A few shearwaters, a Blue Fulmar, ‘flocks’ of Great Skuas moving south and Pomarine Skuas in good numbers. Northward moving auks, mostly Razorbills with smaller numbers of Guillemots were the most visible feature. It wasn’t long before Lee J. called the first hoped-for Little Auk. Then I picked up another trailing a flock of the larger relatives. Around 9:15 I was now routinely checking the auk flocks when, in a closer range group (few hundred meters out) I picked out what looked like a ‘stick-on’ Brünnich’s Guillemot, hard to put into words but the whole look of the bird appeared spot-on for the species. The head pattern was the most eye-catching feature. I then immediately called for other observers to ‘get on this auk’. Then zooming the ‘scope up to see the head and bill better  I clocked a fat head, much more extensively dark then other auks with white throat patch surrounded by dark, but most importantly the head shape was long flat 45 degree angle into… no bill. At least the bill end came to point with slightly down wards tilt, so that the bill almost disappeared into this long slope on a fat head. All in a few seconds, so very quickly after the ‘get on the auk’ call- I yelled (something like) Brünnich’s , it looks like a Brünnich’s , it’s a Brünnich’s – with some considerable enthusiasm.

With 8 plus observers present, very windy conditions and auks spread out individually and in flocks over the sea it wasn’t going to be easy. The Brünnich’s was initially trailing a closer group of auks straight out- in full profile. As folk asked what to look for I shouted to look for the group of auks it was trailing and the distinctive head pattern. Unfortunately the bird then peeled off and I was now tracking it as a lone auk. Lee J and Dave T managed to get on to it though from their accounts after it was ‘going away’ with bill not fully visible but head pattern just discernible as well as the birds colour and shape “definitely  black and white and tubby looking with isolated white throat patch surrounded by dark“. It all happened rather quickly. No-one else got in it.

Vagrancy of Brünnich’s Guillemot in Europe

Read the paper by finders of Dutch fly-by HERE.

Read this paper on ringed Brünnich’s and their movements (with maps).

Data includes the SW migration of from breeding grounds in the North and North-eastern part of the WP.  Primarily young birds moving SW toward the NW Atlantic (off e.g. Newfoundland) in area north of Britain in October. Self-evidently northerly winds with the kind of reach to bring Little Auks into the North Sea (we had 7 on the 13th October and c 15 on 14th October) can also bring Brünnich’s  from the same vector.

Fly-by records in Europe

As of 2008 there were 7 accepted fly-by records in Sweden 1 in Denmark and subsequently  1 (photographed) in the Netherlands but none so far in Britain (what do they know that we don’t?)

This account of a fly-by in the Netherlands is a great read and they did mange a photograph. The same bird is written up in greater details in Dutch Birding 35:2 after it was accepted.


Below some of my shots of Brünnich’s Guillemots in the mouth of Varanger Fjord in March 2013. I have really studied them closely over 3 early spring seasons in succession. I actually think they look pretty darn distinctive with practice.

One of my question is I wonder if Razorbills can ever really show a very similar plumage to the typical winter pattern of in mid-October? Maybe though I am not aware of it.

Anyway enjoy the photos. Most shots chosen to convey the classic winter appearance of Brünnich’s . The odd Common Guillemot (arctic ssp. hyperborea) is alongside. Check out the fat heads, long sloping forehead, small pointed bill tip and white throat patches surrounded by black. The white throat patch can be variously larger and crisp white or smaller and sullied with some dark. First winter birds (most likely to reach the north sea in October) have small/ shorter bills than adults.

Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 11 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 15 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 4Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 14 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 13 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 12 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 4 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 1 Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 5

Brünnich's  and Common Guillemot side-by-side

Brünnich’s and Common Guillemot side-by-side

Brunnich's Guillemot in flight 6

some have a head pattern resembling winter plumaged Common Guillemot

some have a head pattern resembling winter plumaged Common Guillemot

some have a more yellow tomium stripe

some have a more yellow tomium stripe

and then they come back into summer plumage...

and then they come back into summer plumage…

Brünnich’s Guillemot

a quick comment

Martin Garner

It was me what picked this bird up 2 days ago (13th October) on a lively seawatch off Flamborough Head. Been meaning to blog about it, though somewhat nervously. It has however been a bit mad the last couple of days with lots to see here at Flamborough and a hacking of the web site to spice things up (apologies if you were affected by that).

The bird was seen by myself and less well by two other birders. More to come.

For now a Brünnich’s Guillemot in Varanger Fjord in March 2013. Not in flight.

Brunnich's in Varanger



Arctic Black Guillemots: Can we ID them in summer?

ssp. mandtii – and possible British records.

Dan Brown


Polar Bears and Ivory Gulls should be too much of a distraction but closer scrutiny of the Arctic Black Guillemots (mandtii) around Svalbard proved to be an interesting exercise.


A trip to Svalbard normally sees observers straining their eyes for Ivory Gulls and Polar Bears, but there’s a lot more on offer. On my first day at Longyearbyen, the capital, I was enjoying the chance to photograph a few commoner Arctic species, Black Guillemot being one. I was immediately struck on reviewing the first flight images by the striking wing patterning of this individual. Had I missed something back home? Was this just an aberrant individual? Or was it a previously un-recognised plumage feature? Over the course of the next couple of weeks I made a half-hearted effort to get further in-flight shots of Black Guillemots, though the afore-mentioned distractions proved too much of a draw most of the time!

mandtii Black GuilleIMG_3180Five subspecies of Black Guilliemots are recognized in the WP, arcticus (UK, Norway, SW Sweden, Denmark, White Sea), islandicus (Iceland), faeroeensis (Faeroes), grylle (Baltic), & mandtii (Arctic E North America as far south as Newfoundland, W & E Greenland, Jan Mayen, Svalbard and through to E Siberia and N Alaska).

Very few literature sources comment on racial identification, and those that do only focus on the distinctive winter plumage of mandtii which becomes significantly whiter during winter than any of the other races. Collins fails to recognise any racial difference and even the Advanced Bird ID Guide only notes differences in the winter plumage of mandtii.

Only a single recent winter record of mandtii is known from the UK, a striking bird in Talkin Tarn, Cumbria, last year ( As is often the way with vagrant alcids, they appear in weird inland locations.

So back to Svalbard, and after nearly three weeks of watching Black Guillies the vast majority of individuals showed two main distinctive features; white tongues on the inner webs of the primaries, and white tips to the primary coverts, and/or the lesser primary coverts (is this the correct term?). Some birds only showed one of the features, and several birds were noted resembling arctica Black Guillemot with no additional white plumage marking.

IMG_4336 IMG_3151 IMG_5184

The former feature forms a distinctive white blaze in the outer wing almost akin to skua, whilst the latter feature creates a more pointed white wing patch rather than the oval or kidney-bean shape we are used to.

IMG_6026 IMG_3154 IMG_5186

I was still unsure as to whether this was a feature that I had simply overlooked in the UK or something new. A search of the Iris photo database produced 2 interesting looking birds from the UK. The first a tatty first summer (?) bird photographed by Chrys Mellor in Bridlington/off Flamborough, East Yorkshire appears to show pale tongues to the inner primaries:

Whilst the second bird from late winter in the Isle of Man appears to show two or three all white primary coverts, presumably an abnormality rather than a plumage trait:

This leaves several questions, firstly are these features indicative of mandtii Black Guillemots? If so does the Bridlington Bird constitute the first British record? Or, is the feature indicative of northern birds, islandica and arctica included? If the latter is true then, like borealis Eider, we may expect to see birds with these features more commonly in Northern Scotland. I’d be very interested to hear of other similar birds at home or abroad for comparison.


Turtle Dove – remarkable record of an apparent albino

Can it be anything else?

Received these photos and comment from Willem-Jan of a remarkable looking white dove. I concur, it looks like a Turtle Dove in bill structure, overall weight, primary projection and according to his field impression. Any comments? Has anyone come across similar in the past? Thee Turtle Dove has undergone dramatic decline in the UK and also in the Netherlands and sparked some inspiring conservation and fund-raising projects, such as here and here.

Read on. Cheers Martin

Willem-Jan Hooijmans

“Hi Martin,

Hope all is well.

I would like to share the following pictures and thoughts with you.

Albinistic Turtle Dove (1) , Lisse, The Netherlands, 11 July 2014 (W J Hooijmans)

On Friday 11 July I digiscoped, which I believe to be, an albinistic Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) in my area. As you can imagine, initially I was  flabbergasted and in disbelief, dismissing the bird as a feral dove, as I had never seen an albinistic Turtle Dove  before. Furthermore, up until then I had been completely unaware of the existence of albinistic Turtle Doves, having never come across any pictures, documented sightings or references in the available literature. However, I quickly regained my senses and decided to try to digiscope the bird because I was convinced that the bird must indeed be a Turtle Dove and I wanted to have proof of my sighting. The bird in the pictures flew like a Turtle Dove (rocky and pitching flight), acted like a Turtle Dove (kept well hidden in a high poplar, where,  perhaps quite surprisingly, it could be hard to spot, and was alert), had the posture and size of a Turtle Dove, showed structural features of a Turtle Dove (e.g. the bare skin surrounding the eye) and showed up in an area (overgrown orchard) where I annually see “normal” Turtle Doves and hardly, if ever, Collared Doves. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the bird call, which would have clinched the ID beyond any reasonable doubt, but, still, on the basis of what I had seen I could not but conclude that the bird was indeed a Turtle Dove.

I have the following questions for you:

– do you agree with my identification of the bird in the pictures as a Turtle Dove? YES!

– if so, do you know of the existence of documented sightings of albinistic Turtle Doves in the UK or anywhere else in the world? NO- but will ask our readers…

Look very much forward to hearing from you, when you have a chance.

Please feel free to put my pictures with your own comments on your excellent Birding Frontiers website for a lively discussion.

Cheers, Willem-Jan Hooijmans”

Sassenheim, The Netherlands

Albinistic Turtle Dove (2) , Lisse, The Netherlands, 11 July 2014 (W J Hooijmans)

Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea

Still Identifiable

Hypothesis: Despite not even being recognized as a valid taxon in some quarters, some Arctic Guillemots ssp. hyperborea may be identifiable within and outside of their range (as wanderers/vagrants) by dark crescentic barring over the underparts. NGB birders report:

Gullfest 2014,  Zac Hinchcliffe,  Next Gen Birders

check out this fella picked out by Gullfesters yesterday:

Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea, Hornøya Island, Varanger. 21 March 2014, Zac Hinchcliffe. The breeding guillemots here are of the Arctic form. Some have dark crescentic marking across the underparts which may be a character only found in this taxon. This individual takes the character it to a whole new level!

Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea, Hornøya Island, Varanger. 21 March 2014, Zac Hinchcliffe. The breeding guillemots here are of the Arctic form. Some have dark crescentic marking across the underparts which may be a character only found in this taxon. This individual takes the character it to a whole new level!


hyperborea- Identification possible?

reblogged from 2012 – MG

I’m back on 13th May 2012 on  Hornøya Island, Varanger, by myself for the best part of 4 hours. Just a wonderful time amoung the auks. Specifically Arctic Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Brünnich’s GuillemotsAlso Shag, argentatus Herring Gulls (including the kind of pale “is it a hybrid” types we get in winter in Britain). Otter, White-tailed Eagle, Scandinavian Rock Pipit and a lone Chiffchaff all add to the interest. Here’s a taste ; )

One which I spent a bit of time on were the Arctic Guillemots, ssp. hyperborea.

3 old taxa:

Southern Guillemot (ssp albionis) 

Northern Guillemot (nominate aalge)

Arctic Guillemot (ssp hyperborea)

Very crudely  southern albionis breed in England and Wales, and nominate ‘Northern aalge breed  in Scotland. N. Ireland probably has a bit of both (mostly Northern).

Arctic Guillemot ssp hyperborea presumed to be a rare vagrant.

Arctic Guillemots however don’t move so much (BWP) and seem to be genuinely rarer in British waters. The ‘Birds of Shetland’ (Pennington lists just 3 records attributed to hyperborea based on measurements of tide line birds. There is a clinal aspect to characters and some features (such as extensive dark underwing ‘spotting’) while commoner in hyperborea can regularly be found in other forms.

Do Southern (albionis) and Northern (aalge) Guillemots ever show these dark crescentic marks?

Some Distinctive

So what I found was, while variation existed; some bird perhaps not really being detectable in British context, others were quiet distinctive. Most especially in having very extensive dark flank steaking. This extended right down to the legs and then out from the flanks becoming fine dark ‘crescents’ (formed by dark feather tips), which made the ‘dark streaked zone’ really very extensive on the body sides. On some these dark crescents,while weakly marked were easy to see on scope views extending right across the white underparts.

Dark spotty underwings are well known as a feature which increases in frequency as you move from Southern through Northern to Arctic breeders:

BWP indicates that while other taxa have pre-breeding moult which ends in March, hyperborea is later (from mid-April to late May). Thus these breeding adults are in spanking fresh plumage which includes, in some, obvious dark crescentic tips to the white underpart feathers. Combined with the blackish plumages, very extensive dark flanks marks, extensive dark underwing spotting- I wonder if you could ID one in Britain? Does the post breeding (July to November) moult produce this same dark crescents and if so would they be worn of in mid winter?

Do Southern (albionis) and Northern (aalge) Guillemots ever show these dark crescentic marks?

A few more shots of Arctic Guillemots:

Showing appearance on water, inc. extent of flank streaking

I notice some still moulting out of non-breeding plumage (2nd cal yrs?) nevertheless had the same extensive flanks streaking when viewed on the water. More northerly breeders more often have full dark band across the throats in winter plumage than southern birds.

One on right with more of an ‘inverted V’ where dark meets white on neck, though not as striking as on Brünnich’s Guillemots. Bird centre left with weak pale gape or ‘tomium stripe’.

And in flight, flank streaking appearance from less to more obvious (dark crescents visible on the lower one):



Introducing Dovestep & little running challenge!

Learning from the demise of the Passenger Pigeon

by Tristan Reid

Remembering Martha; the last Passenger Pigeon and running parallels with the shocking decline of the European Turtle Dove 

I am currently reading A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg in preparation for writing a review for Birding FrontiersThe story of the Passenger Pigeon is very much linked to my activities in 2014; so as a prequel to my forthcoming review I thought I should share my relationship with this sadly extinct pigeon!

Martha the last Passenger Pigeon (creative commons)

Martha the last Passenger Pigeon (creative commons)

I can safely describe myself as a passionate conservationists with slightly ‘off piste’ methods! When I get an idea in my head, I tend to run with it., expand it and refuse to let it go; no matter how crazy people tell me it is! That said, my plans for 2014 are not really that extreme!

The European Turtle Dove is a beautiful bird that is one of those species that pretty much everyone will have heard of (whether they are a birder or not). It is a species that has been engrained in our culture and consciousness for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. It is without a doubt, considered and iconic British birds!

I remember hearing the evocative purring of the Turtle Dove regularly as a child every summer. I remember marveling at their aesthetics watching them singing from telegraph wires along field edges and roadsides daily during summer holidays. Sadly these childhood memories are all too distant now as this species seems to be in free fall decline. The worrying personal statistic is that I have seen more Oriental Turtle Doves in the UK in past five years than I have European Turtle Doves!


Turtle Dove © Jane Tavener - please check out here awesome blog:

Turtle Dove © Jane Tavener – please check out here awesome blog:

This is not just a UK problem either. A Dutch friend of mine told me that last year was the first year he can remember failing to see a Turtle Dove in the Netherlands!

Turtle Doves are one of the fastest declining birds in Europe. We have lost 93% of the UK population between 1970 and 2011 and there has been an overall decline in Europe of 69% since 1980.

Scary stuff!

There is hope of course; we haven’t lost this species yet! The RSPB is working hard with its partners under the umbrella of the project Operation Turtle Dove. They are building on research into the Turtle Dove breeding grounds in England; establishing feeding habitat over core breeding range through advisory and farmer initiatives and researching into factors operating during migration and at wintering areas. So there is real hope!

Knowing that we needed to raise much needed funds for and awareness of Operation Turtle Dove my good friend Jonny Rankin hatched a fantastic plan! After a bit of discussion we came up with the project name DoveStep!

Part of team DoveStep (Tristan Reid (right) & Jonny Rankin (left) Photo © Tprmod Amundsen/

Part of team DoveStep (Tristan Reid (right) & Jonny Rankin (left) Photo © Tormod Amundsen/

DoveStep is a 300 mile walk across the Turtle Doves historical core range; starting at the RSPB reserve Lakenheath in Suffolk and finishing in the superb Cleveland reserve RSPB Saltholme. I will be joining Arctic adventurers Jonny Rankin and Robert Yaxley for the full route of the walk. The walk leaves Lakenheath on  March 29th and arriving into Saltholme RSPB on Thursday 10th April. You can find out more about this project here:

2014 is a significant year in relation to pigeons and learning conservation lessons. 2014 marks one hundred years since Martha the last Passenger Pigeon dies and that species became extinct! The Passenger Pigeon was once one of the most numerous birds on the planet; yet it was allowed to go extinct. The species demise is largely believed to have been caused by habitat loss and hunting; causes that mirror the decline of the European Turtle Dove.

It is my view that we should never forget Martha and we should learn from the mistakes that allowed her species to disappear permanently from this planet. We cannot allow the same fate to remove the Turtle Dove from the experiences of our children!

I decided that I needed to build onto the work of DoveStep and use the poignancy of Martha and the significance of 2014 to continue to raise funds for and awareness of Operation Turtle Dove.

My plan is to run no less than 1000 miles (including no less that fourteen marathons) during 2014. The project is called ‘1000 miles in memory of Martha’.  You can read more details about this project here:

My first marathon will be a fairly grueling montane trail marathon; the Grizedale 26! It will take place on February 23rd (in just three weeks time). I need all the support an encouragement I can get for this one: so please do check out my facebook page and give it a ‘like’:

  • You can donate to the cause  via my Just Giving page here:
  • Alternatively you can donate with your mobile phone by sending a text to 70070 with the code DOVE75 followed by the amount you would like to donate (£1, £2, £3, £4, £5, or £10).

If donations exceed £1000 I will have a tattoo depicting the Passenger Pigeon & Turtle Dove tattooed onto my back (what, you didn’t expect there to be any ink involved…….:-) )