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An extreme Black Redstart

by Jochen Dierschke

On 11.4.2015, local birder Gotthard Krug, well-known for his finds of rare birds on Helgoland, came across a red-bellied Black Redstart. He phoned me and as I was only a hundred meters away, could soon confirm the oddity of this Black Redstart.

BR_field

Record shot of the Black Redstart – look how distinctive it is!

Although I had previously seen Black Redstarts with some orange at the belly, this one was by far the most obvious I’ve ever seen. Ssp. phoenicuroides has no white wing flash, but I was not sure if other red-bellied subspecies do. So I decided to trap the bird and within half an hour it was in the bag. BR_total_1

BR_wing formula

Total view of the bird and wing formular; note the typical Black Redstart primary spacing.

BR_underparts1BR_underparts_2

Underpart colouration of the red-bellied bird (left) compared to a normal adult male (trapped today).

The bird, an adult male, was with 90 mm wing-length close to the upper limit of Black Redstarts and also the wing formula with the large step in the primaries was in line with this species. A quick check at home in the literature confirmed that no eastern subspecies shows this white wing flash and the primary spacing was against a hybrid (although this can not fully be excluded). Therefore the bird was a Black Redstart, though a rather unusual one.

 If this belly pattern can be shown also by the paradoxus-plumage-type, the ID would possibly be not that straightforward!

Digiscoping a Love story

Posted by Justin Carr

Gannets are as some may well know my favorite subject to shoot,  so i payed another visit to my local Seabird City that is Bempton RSPB. For me they are Stunning birds that just ooze character. And i just love watching them as they exhibit such interesting behavior, non more so than there courtship. I was fortunate to capture this intimate behavior.

Gannet_courtship_1__1_of_1___1428434027_89860

And then…..

He’s off!!                                                                                                                                                             Job done

Good Digiscoping.

All images Digiscoped on a Swarovski ATX 85.

Mammal of the Month: Otter

Dan Brown

 

From historic villain to come-back king, the Otter is now widespread throughout the UK, though getting decent views of one is far from easy. Here’s a few top tips on tracking and seeing Otters close to you

An attractive and charismatic mammal, Otters can occasionally be very approachable, especially on Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/)

An attractive and charismatic mammal, Otters can occasionally be very approachable, especially on Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/)

The Otter (Lutra lutra) is one of Britain’s most charismatic and endearing mammals. It seamlessly manages to combine the cute and cuddly appeal, with the tenacity of an animal that has mastered all the Atlantic can throw at it, and if that wasn’t enough they have suffered mercilessly at the hands of humans.

Otter are however the come-back Kings! For as long as can be remembered they have been hunted, firstly for pelts then latterly in a war against aquatic predators raiding fish ponds, stocked lakes, and important fishing rivers. More recently pressure from agricultural changes including the use of organochlorines and the loss of suitable river-side habitat has further pressured the populations. Thankfully things are on the up. Otters are now fully protected and have re-colonised much of their lost ground. Recent population estimates suggest that the Scottish population is at carrying capacity whilst both the English and Welsh populations have seen dramatic rises. Their rural increase and the provisioning of artificial holts has helped them spread into urban areas such as Glasgow and Newcastle, as well as inner city Birmingham.

The cute and cuddly! This Kit has just finished drying itself (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

The cute and cuddly! This Kit has just finished drying itself (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Otters are easily identified. Their aquatic nature is a good starting point although they do spend up to 50% of their time out of the water and, in preference, somewhere close to woodland. In general however it is close to water that we see them. Occasionally they can be mistaken for Seals along the coast but the presence of the tail at the surface plus the very obvious bum and tail as they up-end and dive makes them easily identifiable.

Head and tail are both visible at the surface. When they dive, the rump and tail get elevated with a final flick of the trail as its submerges. This was taken from the Quay in Portree Harbour

Head and tail are both visible at the surface. When they dive, the rump and tail get elevated with a final flick of the trail as its submerges. This was taken from the Quay in Portree Harbour

On land they have a low and long silhouette, with powerful hind quarters. They can be frequently heard before being seen producing a high pitched whistle, amongst other calls. In fact its even possible to whistle Otters in if you can reach the high notes!

Even on land Otters show a very low profile with powerful hind quarters and a long tail

Even on land Otters show a very low profile with powerful hind quarters and a long tail

One of the great things about Otters is how easy they are to track and detect. Riverbanks, lake and seashores can all produce signs of Otters from fresh tracks in mud, sand or snow to spraints (distinctive curls of dung in prominent places). The tracks are distinctive in often showing the webbing between toes, and if not visible, the toes are generally well spread and the pad elongate. The long tail is also frequently visible in the tracks as it trails along the ground. The tracks/movements are not just confined to the proximity to water as Otters can and will make considerable movements overland so encountering tracks, often miles from the nearest suitable habitat, is not impossible.

Otter tracks in the snow over the Scottish mountains. Note the wide spaced toes and the elongate pad

Otter tracks in the snow over the Scottish mountains. Note the wide spaced toes and the elongate pad

Spraints can are generally found on prominent features close to rivers, lakes or seashore. They can also be found around holts and couchs. In general they act as territory markers so can be particularly noticeable at the confluence of rivers. Fresh spraints are pungent and not pleasant but this in itself makes them very distinctive. As they decay they often leave the indigestible elements of the meal such as fish and amphibian scales and bones respectively. In general locating spraints is the first indication that Otters are in the area.

A fresh spraint on a hummock close to a hill stream

A fresh spraint on a hummock close to a hill stream

Older spraints showing many amphibian bones

Older spraints showing many amphibian bones

Otters tend to solitary, coming together to mate, although later in the year, once kits are large enough, family groups consisting of a mother and her offspring maybe seen. These can be playful and often very approachable given caution and a bit of fieldcraft. As you approach an otter remember to freeze every time it re-surfaces or turns to face you. Using this technique you should be able to edge closer and get great views of a stunning animal.

Though generally solitary Otters do come together to mate

Though generally solitary Otters do come together to mate

Otters can be particularly approachable when hunting and feeding but take care not to disturb them

Otters can be particularly approachable when hunting and feeding but take care not to disturb them

Thankfully Otters are now incredibly widespread across the UK, and seeing one is more a matter of perseverance than going to specific sites, however, there are a few very reliable sites where Otter can be encountered including:

Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk

Minsmere, Suffolk,

Leighton Moss, Lancashire,

Loch Fyne, Argyll,

Portree Harbour, Skye

and by far the best of all, Shetland. In fact Otters are so obliging and well-studied up there that Shetland Nature now offer tours specifically to enjoy these amazing animals, see here.

For more info on Otters see:

http://www.ukwildottertrust.co.uk/the-team.php

A stunning portrait of Shetland Otters. For experiences like this see: http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/

A stunning portrait of Shetland Otters. For experiences like this see: http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/

 

Isn’t Evolution Brilliant?

By Terry

 “One of the most exciting discoveries I have been involved with” – Professor Per Alström  

This was how Per described the results of his latest research, released last week.

Coming from the man who, among other things, discovered the breeding grounds of the enigmatic Blackthroat in China, not to mention several species of bird new to science, this was quite a statement.

And so, unusually for me, I read a scientific report from front to back. And it reminded me – as if I needed reminding – just how brilliant are nature and evolution.

Per’s report – based on DNA analysis – reveals that two little-known forest-dwelling birds are actually members of the pipits and wagtails family, evolving very different appearance and behavior after colonizing tropical-forested islands.

The Madanga Madanga ruficollis, occurring exclusively on the island of Buru, Indonesia, is actually a pipit (Anthus) and the São Tomé Shorttail Amaurocichla bocagi is a wagtail (Motacilla). The strikingly different appearance of these birds, compared with their closest relatives, has totally obscured their true relationships.

Madanga ruficollis © Rob Hutchinson

The Madanga, formerly considered an aberrant-looking white-eye (!) is actually a pipit, displaying plumage not resembling any of the world’s 40 species of Anthus. Photo by Rob Hutchinson/Birdtour Asia

Tree Pipit Israel April © Göran Ekström

A more ‘traditional’ pipit – a Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis). Photo by Göran Ekström.

 

Adult-Sao-Tome-short-tail-on-the-ground

The Sao Tome Shorttail (Amaurocichla bocagi) is actually a wagtail. Photo by Fabio Olmos (www.arkive.org).

2014-04-06 White Wagtail ssp baicalensis2, Ma Chang

A more ‘traditional’ wagtail – a White Wagtail (ssp baicalensis).

As well as plumage, the Madanga and São Tomé Shorttail have different habitat choice and feeding style from pipits and wagtails. Both inhabit primary forest, where the former feeds like a nuthatch on epiphyte-covered branches and tree-trunks, while the latter feeds both on the ground and on tree trunks and branches. In contrast, nearly all pipits and wagtails occur in open habitats, and all forage exclusively on the ground.

The suggestion is that the radically different appearances of these birds were triggered by the fundamental shifts in habitat and feeding behaviour following their colonisation of forest-covered tropical islands. This is estimated to have happened around 4 and 3.3 million years ago, respectively.

The presumption is that the birds’ ancestors were long distance migratory species that landed on the islands and became established, despite the alien habitat.

These islands were probably totally covered by forest when these birds’ ancestors first arrived, which is a very unfamiliar habitat to pipits and wagtails,” Professor Alström said.

Two of the closest relatives to the Madanga are the European Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) and the Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni), which, although breeding in forested areas, nest and feed on the ground.

“Although the Madanga’s plumage is very different, interestingly, the structure of the bird is quite similar to the Tree Pipit and we believe that the ancestor of the Madanga was pre-adapted to this new niche it became established within.” – Professor Per Alström 

 

Tree Pipits are very good at creeping through dense vegetation on the ground. When they are startled and flushed from the vegetation, they often fly up into a tree and they will sit there or they are able to walk quite effortlessly along bigger branches. But they never feed up in the trees, so the hypothesis here is that the ancestor of the Madanga would come to the island of Buru, which was completely covered in forest, and it might have fed on the ground between the trees but then would fly up into the canopy when it was scared by something. It would have then discovered that there was plenty of food on these epiphyte-covered branches and, as it was pre-adapted to walking along branches and in thick ground cover, it could probably have managed fairly well in that new habitat.”

Prof Alström said that this would have meant that there was no evolutionary pressure for it to evolve a new structure.

For example, if you look at the bill, it is very similar to a Tree Pipit’s, and so are the legs and claws. This means the actual shape of the bird has not changed very much.”

Wow!

 

For the full report, see: Alström P, Jønsson KA, Fjeldså J, Ödeen A, Ericson PGP, Irestedt M. 2015 Dramatic niche shifts and morphological change in two insular bird species.R. Soc. open sci.2: 140364. See URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.140364

And Per Alström’s research page can be accessed here.

One Night Only – Friday 13th February 2015

The Arctic Comes to Flamborough 

You are very welcome to come along.

Please note the date 13th February 2015 at 7:30 pm

This is the night when the Observatory will be hosting a special extra event for the RSPB.

It’s a talk with Tormod Amundsen from Arctic Norway, Graham White from the RSPB and short talk from yours truly. My bit will be about Arctic birds in Yorkshire. What’s been and what might be.

WHERE:    Flamborough Head Golf Club

WHEN:      Friday 13th February 2015

WHAT TIME Doors open 7:00 pm, for 7:30 start.

HOW MUCH: Great news for Yorkshire folk- FREE entry! :)

See poster below  for all dates and locations and do feel free to pass it on/ post it elsewhere and tell your friends. Thanks!

RSPB & Biotope tour poster MG new date

 

 

THANK YOU!

TIMES A LOT.

Martin G.

OK I am shouting in internet speak. Birding Frontiers began in August 2010 because I enjoy exploring subjects and sharing them. I kept having too many  curious things to publish in the popular magazines. And for very understandable reason there were subjects I wanted to explore which were quite pioneering and unexplored, yet there wasn’t enough data to say anything concrete, but still worthy of exploring.

Other joined in the Team and made the party bigger and even more fun.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.20.03

If you read Birding Frontier and learn from it- chances are I and other contributors learn more. The process of thinking through subjects and crystallizing thoughts is an excellent discipline. Sometime I have been too hasty, sometime posts could have been researched a little more. Still, no regrets.

Our readership has grown constantly. Viewing figures above with more details for last year- 2014.

December 2014 (last month) saw over 30,000 unique visitors in one month. Never bloomin’ well imaged that!

So thanks for tuning in. Here’s to a grand 2015.

 

One of the very memorable birds from 2014: Crag Martin at Flamborough.

Crag Martin 12.4. Thornwick6

 

 

Hybrids, morphs, mutants or just Dolphins with a dark-side?

Dan Brown

Ever encountered a dolphin with a dark-side? Careful scrutiny of pods of Common Dolphins occasionally reveals dark individuals, but what are they?

If you’ve ever paid much attention to Common Dolphins you may have been lucky enough to see a dark individual amongst a pod. But what are they?? There are a number of documented records of these dolphins and back in mid-September I was lucky enough to bump into one on the sailing from Harris to St Kilda.

Common Dolphin: A classic individual showing a creamy-peach thoracic patch.

Common Dolphin: A classic individual showing a creamy-peach thoracic patch.

Much like Mallards, Gulls, chickens, & bonobos, dolphins will have a go at humping just about anything! There are a few instances of hybridisation amongst captive Dolphins and recently the first wild instance in the UK of a Risso’s x Bottlenose Dolphin off the Western Isles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-29541605

Clymene Dolphin is also likely to have arisen as a species through hybridisation, and there has been talk that these dark Common Dolphins are also hybrids but their structure doesn’t point to any other species influence.

Common Dolphin: melanistic individual showing the dark thoracic patch, darker pectoral fins, and a darker lower flank stripe

Common Dolphin: melanistic individual showing the dark thoracic patch, darker pectoral fins, and a darker lower flank stripe

It seems most likely that these animals are simply melanistic individuals. Given the rarity of this morphotype it would probably be incorrect to call them morphs (in generally >1% of a population has to show the features associated with being a morph rather than a result of a mutation).

Common Dolphin: A melanistic individual between Harris & St Kilda

Common Dolphin: A melanistic individual between Harris & St Kilda

In the case of this individual and other observed in the North Atlantic (eg http://cotf5.blogspot.com.es/2014/01/day-4-blow.html) the dark colouration is often restricted to the thoracic patch, which is normally a creamy-peach colour. Other variations including notably pale individuals have been recorded with animals around New Zealand well documented.

This colouration can often lead to confusion with the similar Striped Dolphin, however, structure and behaviour should be enough to rule this species out. Striped Dolphin is a compact and highly energetic dolphin and generally found in deeper oceanic water. Given good enough views the distinctive lateral blaze is also characteristic.

Striped Dolphin: A small, compact, highly energetic dolphin, found in deep oceanic waters

Striped Dolphin: A small, compact, highly energetic dolphin, found in deep oceanic waters

Next time your crossing Biscay, or out in the Atlantic keep an eye open for aberrant dolphins, the more information we have on them the better!