Category Archives: 11) Cuckoos, Owls, Nightjars

Omani Owl – Breaking News & Interview

Discovered in 2013 by Magnus Robb and the Sound Approach and confirmed using sound analysis, Omani Owl has created a stir among both birders and biologists. That a bird around the size of a Barn Owl Tyto alba had evaded discovery was extraordinary. Now one has been captured- the ‘discovery-of-a-lifetime’ story continues…

 Omani Owl Strix butleri, Al Hajar mountains, Oman, 2 March 2015. Magnus Robb, Alyn Walsh & The Sound Approach


Omani Owl Strix butleri, Al Hajar mountains, Oman, 2 March 2015. Magnus Robb, Alyn Walsh & The Sound Approach

Discovered in 2013 by Magnus Robb and the Sound Approach and confirmed using sound analysis, Omani Owl has created a stir among both birders and biologists. That a bird around the size of a Barn Owl Tyto alba had evaded discovery was extraordinary. That it was described and named only using sound recordings and photographs was controversial.

When a rival group of researchers re-examined museum specimens of the closely related Strix butleri, they suspected that its type specimen was in fact an Omani Owl. All the other specimens were different enough, especially when their genes were analysed, to be described as a new species, Strix hadorami. However, the study did not examine DNA of Omani Owl.

In a new paper published online Magnus Robb and his colleagues returned to the mountains of Oman where they captured and released an Omani Owl.* Feathers and blood from the owl corroborated both teams’ findings that there are two different Strix species in the Middle East. DNA analysis shows that Omani Owl is the same as Strix butleri, and the other species is the recently named but much better known Desert Owl S. hadorami (previously ‘Hume’s Owl’).

So when Magnus heard unknown sounds of an owl in March 2013, he was in fact rediscovering a species previously known from just one tatty old specimen in The Natural History Museum (Tring, England) said to be from Pakistan, and collected 135 years earlier.

The new paper also examines DNA from a mystery owl discovered in Mashhad, northeastern Iran in January 2015. Babak Musavi and Ali Khani took four feathers for DNA analysis, which the team showed was also of an Omani Owl, the first confirmation that it still exists outside the Arabian peninsula and 1300 km from the nearest record of this species.

* with the permission of the Omani Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, as part of a joint conservation project with the Environment Society of Oman and BirdLife International.

This new study once again underscores that much remains to be learned from owls. Magnus Robb’s recently published book ‘Undiscovered Owls’ describes his work on owls in detail.

Robb, MS, Sangster, G, Aliabadian, M, van den Berg, AB, Constantine, M, Irestedt, M, Khani, A, Musavi, SB, Nunes, JM, Sarrouf Willson, M & Walsh, AJ (2015). The rediscovery of Strix butleri (Hume, 1878) in Oman and Iran, with molecular resolution of the identity of Strix omanensis Robb, van den Berg and Constantine, 2013.

Robb et al – Strix butleri (20-8-2015) (1)

 

Forthcoming Interview

(from Martin G.)

Stand out highlight of Birdfair 2015 was chewing the cud with the Sound Approach guys- more nocturnal migration recording to come soon from Flamborough then! I also engaged Magnus in a full half hour recorded interview. A couple of years ago we met for a coffee and ‘Undiscovered Owls’ was just emerging as a ‘working title’ for a new book. Amazingly there was no hint of something called an Omani Owl. Be careful what you wish for!

This interview will be a MUST listen! Magnus does gorgeous impressions of owl calls from the Tawny’s to the Omani’s, plus a host in between like the Cyprus Scop’s Owl as he thoroughly and entertainingly informs and inspires. Watch this space.

One of my 2015 Birdfair highlights. Chilling. learning and wonderful scheming with Magnus Robb and Nick Hopper of the Sound Approach last weekend.

One of my 2015 Birdfair highlights. Chilling. learning and wonderful scheming with Magnus Robb and Nick Hopper of the Sound Approach last weekend.

Cuckoo or Oriental Cuckoo?

without hearing it…

One of the trickiest ID’s in the Western Palearctic region has to be how to tell a Cuckoo from an Oriental Cuckoo without hearing it. The key features are spelt out here but they are ‘soft characters.’  Does the slight brownish tone to some upperpart feathers and pale tipped primaries make it a first summer (2cy) bird? If you have any tips…

Anders Mæland perhaps the leading rare bird finder in Varanger got in touch. Kudos to Colin and Denise Shields for asking the questions. I know Skallelve- as brilliant spot for Arctic Redpolls in early spring and good wee migrant trap for both passerines and non- passerines. Saw my first Siberian Snow Bunting there (vlasowae) with Tormod Amundsen and both types of Bean Geese…

 

Hei Martin!
How are you? have you seen any good birds lately?
I am in Varanger now and met a British couple, Denise and Colin Shields that had photographed this Cuckoo near Skallelv (Between Vardø and Vadsø).
They noticed the  dark mantle, yellowish undertail covers and the broad barring. These are features at least associated with Oriental Cuckoo
Any thoughts?
All the best!
Anders
cuckoo sp, Skellelv, Varanger. 3rd  June 2014 Denise Shields

cuckoo sp, Skellelv, Varanger. 3rd June 2014 Denise Shields

cuckoo sp, Skellelv, Varanger. 3rd  June 2014 Denise Shields

cuckoo sp, Skellelv, Varanger. 3rd June 2014 Denise Shields

New Owl Species and other breaking news

Rinjani Scops Owl (Otus jolandae) and other species new to science

by José Luis Copete

In the short period between 2012 and 2013, several new  species of owl have been described. A group of these, are splits of the Philippine Hawk Owl (Ninox philippensis), a species consisting of formerly several subspecies, some of which inhabited isolated in islands of that archipelago, now elevated to specific rank in a paper published in 2012 by Pamela Rasmussen and co-authors in Forktail (Rasmussen et al 2012, Vocal divergence and new species in the Philippine Hawk Owl Ninox philippensis complex. Forktail 28: 1-20). Two of the cases presented were ‘hidden’ taxa, not well-known. One is the Cebu Hawk Owl (Ninox rumseyi), from Cebu, which was rediscovered in 1998 after a long period of 110 years without known records. The other is the Camiguin Hawk Owl (Ninox leventisi), present in Camiguin South, a small island near north Mindanao. That new species has been named honouring Tasso Leventis, one of the members of BirdLife International Council, a photographer of birds and mammals from many parts of the world, but especially from Nigeria, where he has sponsored the creation of a bird research station, where many birds are ringed every year, especially by Swedish ringers.

Lombok Scops Owl_R Hutchinson_Gunung Rinjani_June 2011 (5) LOW RES…………..Rinjani Scops Owl (Otus jolandae) by Rob Hutchinson/BirdTour Asia.

But besides these, already in 2013  two new species have just been described  One, a Scops Owl that lives in the Indonesian island of Lombok (located between Bali and Sumbabwa), known from a few years ago, but which was still formally undescribed. Its formal description has just been published (Sangster et al 2013), as Rinjani Scops Owl (Otus jolandae). The original paper can be downloaded here:

A New Owl Species of the Genus Otus

So, with the new Scops Owl from Lombok, there are already several owls discovered during the last decade: Pernambuco Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium mooreorum) in 2002 (da Silva et al 2002 Ararajuba 10(2): 123-130), a species for which there are not yet photographs in the field (Luiz Cardoso da Silva pers com), which has been recorded in only two localities, being on the brink of extinction; Little Sumba Hawk Owl (Ninox sumbaensis) in 2002 (Olsen et al 2002 Emu 102: 223-231), present in Sumba, in the Lesser Sundas, known from the 80’s but confirmed by DNA time latter; Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) in 2004 (Warakagoda & Rasmussen 2004 Bull BOC 124(2): 85-105) from SW Sri Lanka; and finally Togian Hawk Owl (Ninox burhani) in 2004 (Indrawan and Somadikarta 2004 Bull BOC 124(3): 160-171), present in the Togian Islands, off Sulawesi.

Lombok Scops Owl_R Hutchinson_Gunung Rinjani_June 2011 LOW RES…………..Rinjani Scops Owl (Otus jolandae) by Rob Hutchinson/BirdTour Asia.

Lately, other new species have also been described for other groups of birds, including confirmation as  new species of Pincoya Storm-petrel (Oceanites pincoyae), as have just been named the Storm-petrels colloquially known as ‘Puerto Montt Storm-petrels’ which were discussed already for a few years ago, after observations and photos obtained in pelagics near Puerto Montt (Chile). The formal description was published in the first issue of 2013 in Auk, advanced some time ago in the online version at JSTOR (Harrison et al 2013) available at

A New Storm-Petrel Species from Chile

All these cases will be included in a review of the new species discovered during last years for the forthcoming volume of HBW, the last of the series. It will also include unpublished formal descriptions of some new species from the Neotropics, so the list of exciting novelties to be described –and then, of major interest for global listers- will increase significantly in a matter of months.

Lombok Scops Owl_R Hutchinson_Gunung Rinjani_June 2011 (4) LOW RES…………..Rinjani Scops Owl (Otus jolandae) by Rob Hutchinson/BirdTour Asia.

With grateful thanks to Rob Hutchinson/BirdTour Asia.

Dark-breasted Barn Owl I.D.

and the East Sussex bird

Darkish Barn Owl east sussex feb 13 dStunning ‘darkish’ Barn Owl. Southease, East Sussex, Feb.2013. All photos, same bird by Michael Southcott.

The reported Dark-breasted Barn Owl  at Southease, East Sussex this month drew Michael Southcott to visit and take some beautiful photos. Sharp-looking bird! He got in contact via our Facebook Page to explore the identification further. He asked really good questions on his blog.

To see a full set of photos go to Michael’s blog

darkish Barn Owl c 2013 02 16 East Sussex Feb 2013

So we asked Mr Paul (Harry P. to his friends) French who wrote the seminal ID paper in British Birds. He has responded in excellent detail:

Hi Martin

Regards the owl, it’s clearly not acceptable as guttata for the following reasons:

  • The pale undertail coverts and pale legs are the giveaway – they should be buff in guttata
  • pale underwing coverts – should be buff in guttata
  • white facial disc – should have extensive dark marks around the eye in guttata
  • pale grey primary tips – should be much darker grey in guttata
  • rather thin barring across primaries – should be broader in guttata and go across the whole feather
  • underpart spotting – this bird is rather lightly spotted, but may be OK for male guttata

So there really is nothing going for it as a guttata apart from a slightly more extensive buff breast than normal, and to be honest, I’m surprised that some information services are still listing it as such. Some female alba can show buff breasts like this, and there may well be a tendency for birds in the east of Britain (East Anglia mostly, but of course we don’t know where this bird was hatched) to exhibit more extensive buff breasts as a result of influence from the near Continent and the intergrade zone in the Low Countries and France. In short, this is either a British alba or possibly an intergrade from the near Continent, but I suspect it was hatched in Britain.

Best wishes, and see you soon.

Paul

darkish Barn Owl 2013 02 16 East Sussex Feb 2013

darkish Barn Owl b 2013 02 16 East Sussex Feb 2013Stunning ‘darkish’ Barn Owl. Southease, East Sussex, Feb.2013. All photos, same bird by Michael Southcott. Not a ‘full shilling’ guttata and perhaps just a well-marked female alba or possibly an intergrade.

One Day, 111 Species.

NW Norfolk 

Saturday (26th Jan) we had and excellent day in Norfolk. Tormod and I were joined by Chris Hind and Tristan Reid from Cumbria, Nick Moran from Thetford and Yoav Perlman…from Israel. Our plan in icy, remnant snowy weather was to have fun, see as many species as possible and try and get a few new birds form the non-Brits. Moving from Kings Lynn, via Docking to Titchwell we scored some 111 species. Not bad!

Golden Pheasant Wolferton jan 13Male Golden Pheasant. My (plastic) bird of the day. Looks superb don’t it? Even if it has a ..er…hmm.. face a bit like a Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. At Wolferton Triangle.

Yoav perlman Tormod Amundsen Norofolk jan 13Yoav poses as Tormod has just enjoyed his first views of Grey Partridge. See Yoav’s excellent ‘chicken’ photos and more here

Corn Bunting norfolk jan13

Water Rail titchwell jan 13Corn Bunting and Water Rail were amoung those commoner , but not always guaranteed birds

tormod and BH GUllTormod and Black-headed gull at Titchwell with Nick M in background

Barn owl 1Barn Owls put on show on both Sat and Sunday

motlley crewSaturdays motley crew at Titchwell. Left to right: Chris Hind, Tormod Amundsen, MG, Tristan Reid, Yoav Perlman, Nick Moran.

Barn owl 4

Now I am sat in Dick and Vida Newell’s most homely farmhouse kitchen watching a roosting Barn Owl in a box on a cctv link (not the one above, which as at Holkham). Had an excellent , well organised evening at the Cambridge Bird Club last night and now heading to the Bedfordshire Bird Club and old friends. Anyone can come (to any of the upcoming events).

On your belly!

by Yoav

Well how does that work as a pick-up line?  That was more or less the first sentence I said to MG when we first met in Israel in March. He joined a night tour I led to the Dead Sea region. When we saw our first Tamarisk Nubian Nightjar at a distance of five meters, he stood up, shaking like crazy, and started taking lousy images. As a result of too many years in the military, I yelled at him and the other clients: “On your bellies!”. In two seconds MG and all the others were lying on their bellies in the desert sand like babies, taking super images.

This is perhaps the most important lesson when learning how to photograph birds. Get yourself in the same level as the bird. If the bird is on the ground – go down to ground-level yourself. If you do so, the background behind the bird becomes more distant, making it blurred and gives the bird more attention in the frame.

Tamarisk Nubian Nightjar, Neot Hakikar, Israel, October 2011

When I started birding as a kid, I birded mostly on foot. Nowadays when I’m old(er), I bird mostly out of the car. Cars are excellent mobile hides for photography, but are very problematic hides when trying to photograph birds sat on the ground. Then the background behind the bird becomes much closer, has more detail and steals much of the attention the bird should get. Same bird, bad photo:

Tamarisk Nubian Nightjar, Neot Hakikar, Israel, March 2008

Desert sand is fun, but when dealing with shorebirds this becomes a dirty business. Lying in the mud is really not much fun. Especially if you need to spend several hours, motionless, under a camo net. Add to that hungry mosquitoes and rich aroma – this is the real thing. But again, the 50 cm height difference between kneeling and lying gives the image an added value.

Common Sandpiper, Nizzana, Israel, August 2012

And when you do it the wrong way, photographing out of the car window from the top of an elevated bank, it looks much worse:

Broad-billed Sandpiper, Eilat, Israel, March 2011

Sometimes cars work well though. If the bird is perched on something at the correct height, about 1 meter above ground, you score gold shooting off the window. The background looks like in a studio, and the bird gets all the focus of the image:

Finsch’s Wheatear, Negev, Israel, December 2009

Britain’s next?!

Pygmy Owl: heading in the direction of the UK.

by Nils

Less than 10 years ago, Pygmy Owl was a dream-on-babe-bird in the Netherlands. Although the species was known to breed increasingly closer and numerous to the border in Germany, many Dutch birders where still surprised when the first one for their country was reported. That probable window victim was picked up, presumed to be a Little Owl and photographed. It recovered in minutes and flew away; months later it was re-indentified as Pygmy Owl on the pics… intriguingly it was in the north of the country.

Nearly juvenile Pygmy Owl, Friesland, Netherlands, 2nd August 2012. photo by Ruurd Jelle van der Leij.

After that first record things goes fast with Pygmy Owls in the Netherlands and last Thursday the 2nd of August, the 7th Dutch record was a fact. And a bizarre record it was! Ruurd Jelle van der Leij and Mark de Vries were busy on a bird-photography-day along the north coast of Friesland. At the end of the day they returned to the pier of Holwerd to try on Little Terns again. While driving over the road, which is actually situated IN the Waddensee, they passed a tiny piece of ‘something’ at the roadside. It could be anything; a piece of paper, a cola tin, even a bird. So they stopped, looked back with their bins and saw… a Pygmy Owl! This dead end road in the Waddensee is surrounded by salt-marsh land, a land-winning project (land-winning from the sea is so typical Dutch; give them the job, and they drain the North Sea between the UK and the Netherlands…). Trees are far away and very few on the neighbouring mainland too. The bird looked weakened and could be approached very closely until it flew off surprisingly healthy, to the dead end of the road. Thorough searches did not result in the re-finding of the bird.

I think it is fair to say that our Pygmy Owls are most likely come from the expanding German population, and not (directly) from Scandinavia. According to BWP and the EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds, first year birds are prone to dispersing. Nevertheless a youngster in August on a place still far from the known breeding range and away from any trees along the edge of the sea is still a great surprise! It also gives rise to the speculation if the species is actually already breeding much closer, even IN the Netherlands?? If not yet, it would not surprise me if it will do in the near future.

Nearly juvenile Pygmy Owl, Friesland, Netherlands, 2nd August 2012. photo by Ruurd Jelle van der Leij.

This little fellow looks indeed right for a youngster with its pure brown and fluffy nature of most of the plumage, lack of clear barring on the flank and only very few pale spots on the crown. Note that it has started to moult the inner coverts which are clearly more grey.

Six out of seven of our records are now in the (far) north and last Oct one was even found in the northern tip of Texel. Quite hilarious the Texel-bird was accidently photographed by someone at one of the islands hotspots for vagrants, during a busy day with birders. Later that day the photographer met some of the birders and asked him, showing the back of his camera: ‘I guess this is a Little Owl I photographed this morning…?’ The bird was never seen again. Several birders had passed the place where the owl was photographed that morning. One of my best birding-friends told me that he had stopped by a bush were he dreamt: ‘how should a Pygmy Owl look like here…’. We now know, that was THE bush, so perhaps the bird was looking at him at that moment!

That Texel-bird had only to jump over the North Sea to reach Norfolk…, but is it capable of that? Anyway, if the expanding of the population from east to west continued, more individuals will arrive and stop or not(!) on our north(west)-coast. Our lesson: watch out for claims of extremely fearless ‘Little Owls’ on strange places, or quotes on the internet like: ‘funny confiding tiny owl photographed’….