The Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder of the Year 2017

The future’s bright!!

It’s hard to believe it’s over a month since the 5th migfest!!  

And with that the 3rd Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder of the Year competition!  The range of entrants was strong.   Nick Whitehouse (pictured at the front below), writes that the competition, “is really producing some real stars…All 3 winners so far since we started in 2015 have been excellent albeit their margin of victory has always been the slightest of margins over the other finalists.  Brilliant crop of young birders coming through.”

A massive well done to the five finalists, Corin Woodhead (age 11), Sami Sankey (age 13), James King (age 13), Angus Jennings (age 15) and of course the overall winner, Dante Shepherd (age 16)!

The five finalists receive their awards.

The five finalists receiving their awards. (Photo copyright Dave McAleavy).

Dante shares his experience of the competition…

It all started when Rich Bonser and Jamie Partridge, my two mentors, proposed to me that I entered the competition after seeing an advert. They suggested it would be a good opportunity for me to meet new people, make contacts and maybe even win a pair of new binoculars. In the initial online questionnaire I was asked numerous probing questions about all aspects of my birding. These included how my interest in birds started, my patch and my best birding moments.

A month or so later I was delighted to receive an email announcing I had a place in the final. After a Skype call with Nick Moran and Nick Whitehouse about the logistics of the day and any queries I had it was all set for Saturday the 9th of September. The initial plan was for Rich, Jamie and I to all drive up and down from London in one long day together in Rich’s car. However, an American Redstart ruined the party and a plan B was soon hatched.

I met Jamie on the Euston Road in the hire car around 4am and by 8am we were crossing the Humber Bridge with Spurn in our sights. Shortly before the start of the competition, as we were looking around Kilnsea Wetlands, a birder told us that a Wryneck was on show at nearby Sandy Beaches. A quick dash to see the bird was successful and resulted in long overdue UK tick for me.

We arrived at The Warren, the competition location, with just 2 minutes to spare and promptly started the competition. This constituted of several stages with a different assessor for each – an estuary watch, a seawatch, a vismig, a bush bash and a lab test. At each stage, apart from the lab test, I was asked to identify several bird species visible in the area. I was also asked some tricky questions during these stages about bird migration, breeding and identification such as how to separate a juvenile Sedge Warbler from an Aquatic Warbler. During the lab test I was asked to identify several bird vocalisations and identify different features of a birds topography. After every finalist had completed each stage it was time for the scores to be tallied up and the winner to be announced. I was amazed and very happy to hear I had won!

Buzzing with the result, Jamie and I decided to explore the area around the gas terminal to see if we could find any migrants. We unearthed a trio of juvenile Willow Warblers and an adult male Redstart. Throughout this time we were oblivious to the discovery of a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher on Holderness Field until it was too late. Fortunately we had seen an adult a few weeks before at Oare Marshes, Kent but it was a shame nonetheless.

That evening at the ceremony it was a real honour to receive the award from the amazing Ian Newton. Unfortunately, due to the fact we had to get back to London that same night, we left before his eagerly anticipated lecture on migration.

I would like to thank everybody that has helped me along my path as a birder. Especially Rich and Jamie who regularly take me out of the not-so-birdy urban sprawl of London to places I’d never be able to get to without them. I would also like to thank Spurn Bird Observatory and the BTO for organising the event and giving me such a memorable experience. I am really enjoying using the new binoculars! I will continue to be inspired by Martin Garner’s legacy as a pioneering and feather-by-feather birder.

Dante Shepherd.

Dante Shepherd presented with a pair of Swarovski Binoculars.

Dante Shepherd presented with a pair of Swarovski Binoculars. (Photo copyright Dave McAleavy).

The competition is set to run next year.  So if you or somebody you know is interested, keep your eye out on the BTO website for further information on how to enter!  

Interesting Redstart on Faroes

So, it seems that I fell into the pitfall I had warned from…

After posting this earlier on, I received some comments regarding the age of this bird. I made a mistake in ageing the bird – sadly reflecting how few Redstarts I have ringed since moving here three years ago (zero). I was pointed out that what I misinterpreted as moult limit in greater coverts (GC) is in fact normal pattern for adults, and that 1cy would normally sow a moult limit also in median coverts (MC). Additionally, all tertials have very neat, grey fringes – typical of adult feathers. Juvenile tertials have thinner buff fringes. See below some examples. In the bottom line, since this bird is an adult, it is NOT a strong sammamisicus candidate. I have corrected the post below with this new context.

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Silas Olofson is one of the keenest birders on Faroe Islands. Silas has an amazing autumn for rarity finding, including Faroes first Parrot Crossbill and White-crowned Sparrow. Great stuff. On top of all those brilliant rarities, Silas found on October 4th at Sørvágur what in my eyes is the most interesting bird from an ID point of view. On the same morning he found Faroes first Parrot Crossbill and 4th OBP, Silas bumped into this eye-catching male Redstart with large white wing panel:

Redstart, Sørvágur, Faroe Islands, 4 October 2017. Photo by Silas Olofson.

Putative Ehrenberg’s Redstart, Sørvágur, Faroe Islands, 4 October 2017. Photo by Silas Olofson.

Unfortunately, the encounter was too brief. Silas managed to snap a few quick photos of the bird before it vanished. He never heard it, sadly. Obviously, when encountering such a bird, sammamisicus (Ehrenberg’s Redstart) jumps to mind. However, especially in far NW European context, identification needs to be very cautious.

First step in identification of this SE European (and further east into Asia) taxon in autumn is ageing it correctly. This individual shows what to crap birders like myself would look like a clear moult limit in GC, but in fact this is typical adult pattern, as explained above.

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Check how proper moult limit looks like this 1cy male Ehrenberg’s Redstart – both in GC and MC. Check also the buff tertial fringes:

Ehrenberg's Redstart, 1cy male, 23 August 2010, Jerusalem Bird Observatory, Israel. Photo by Yosef Kiat.

Ehrenberg’s Redstart, 1cy male, 23 August 2010, Jerusalem Bird Observatory, Israel. Photo by Yosef Kiat.

While an adult autumn Ehrenberg’s looks like this – much darker on the coverts, scapulars and even mantle:

Ehrenberg's Redstart, 2cy+ male, 25 August 2010, Jerusalem Bird Observatory, Israel.

Ehrenberg’s Redstart, 2cy+ male, 25 August 2010, Jerusalem Bird Observatory, Israel.

These are a couple of 1cy male Common Redstarts from autumn, again showing a nice moult limit in GC and MC:

European Common Resttart, 1cy male, Norfolk, UK, 23 September 2015. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

European Common Redstart, 1cy male, Norfolk, UK, 23 September 2015. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

European Redstart, 1cy male, Ashdod, Israel, 18 September 2013. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

European Redstart, 1cy male, Ashdod, Israel, 18 September 2013. Photo by Yoav Perlman.

Another important ID feature of Ehrenberg’s Redstart, also in 1cy males, is the shape of the white of pale buff fringes of the tertial(s). In the Faroes individual, the fringes to the longest tertial appear slightly broader at the base; not quite broadened as the sammamisicus above, but not quite even all the way to the base. In phoenicurus, if there are any pale fringes, they are even-width all along the feather or broader towards the tip. This individual seems to fall in the ‘in-between’ category – not quite there for an unequivocal sammamisicus, but quite unusual for phoenicurus.

In general, Ehrenberg’s Redstart males are greyer and darker above than Common Redstarts. The Faroes individual is grey, but not too dark admittedly. In spring sammamisicus are really dark and pretty, with more black on neck sides and upper scapulars:

Ehrenberg's Redstart, Negev, Israel, 12 March 2012. Photo by Yoav Perlman

Ehrenberg’s Redstart, Negev, Israel, 12 March 2012. Photo by Yoav Perlman

It is a pity Silas didn’t hear the bird and sound-record it. The flooty calls of Ehrenberg’s Redstart are completely different from the typical ‘huit-tek’ of Common Redstart. Does Ehrenberg’s merit a full species status? This interesting study shows no differences in mithochondrial DNA between the two taxa. However, in chats, mtDNA may not tell the ‘true’ species ‘story’. This fascinating study shows that Pied, Cyprus and Black-eared Wheatears are practically identical in their mtDNA.

I am not sure what is the status of Ehrenberg’s Redstart in NW Europe. There are several claims in the UK, but as far as I know none have been accepted yet. There are a few nominate birds, mainly in Scandinavia (?), that show an extended wing panel. What are they? I am not sure.

To my refreshed eyes, the Faroes individual does not look like the real deal. However, without sound recordings and more high-quality photos I am not sure we can understand what this bird is. In any case, this is a superb bird! Well done to Silas once again for his sharp eyes; hope next time it sticks around and ticks more boxes. Many thanks to Silas and Yosef for sharing their images with me.

Special thanks to Pepe, Björn and Yosef for feedback on this bird. Much appreciated!

The Dutch Imperial Eagle

By Yoav Perlman

An Imperial Eagle was found in Holland on September 27th. It was on show for a short while and then went missing, to the disappointment of quite many twitchers. On October 3rd it was relocated and showed much better. From the start there was debate whether it is a Spanish or an Eastern. At this age, fourth-plumage, both species are not easy to separate. Björn Malmhagen (remember him from Stejneger’s Stonechats?) posted in a Facebook discussion this beautiful annotated photo-composite demonstrating why it is an Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca) rather than Spanish (A. adalberti). I thought  it is worth publishing here.

Dutch Imperial Eagle

Björn based his knowledge on proper research he did with Hans Larsson. They studied field photos, and also spent time at NHM Tring studying skins there. They published a great article in the Swedish magazine Vår Fågelvärld in 2012. Here is a taster:

Spanish (left two) and Eastern (right two) Imperial Eagles. Photo by Björn Melmhagen at NHM Tring

Spanish (left) and Eastern (right) Imperial Eagles. Photo by Björn Malmhagen at NHM Tring

Many thanks to Björn and Hans for sharing this exciting material. Björn asked me to thank Mark Adams of NHM Tring for allowing access to the materials for their study.

New publication: Guide to the sex and age of European ducks

By Jean-Baptiste Mouronval (ONCFS), Matthieu Guillemain (ONCFS) and Richard Hearn (WWT)

Nice to see this new high-quality publication by the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (French National Office of Hunting and Wildlife) in its English version on the Duck Specialist Group website.

ducks

I had only a quick look through it, and it looks great. Nice intro with generic ageing and sexing features, and then detailed species accounts for most common European duck species.

tails

Gadwall

Very useful reference for ringers and for field birders too.

The guide can be downloaded here.

Citation: Mouronval, J.B. 2016. Guide to the sex and age of European ducks. Office national de la chasse et de la faune sauvage, Paris – 124 pages.

Northern adult female. September. Cataluña. Photo by Eio Ramon. Pp 4-5 and rr 1 have been replaced, typical moult sequence for migrant females.

Identification of northern Peregrine Falcons in the Iberian Peninsula

By Àlex Ollé and Víctor Estrada-Devesa

Across most of the Iberian Peninsula, the local breeding Peregrine ssp is brookei. In the northern third of the peninsula, birds with phenotype very close to Central European birds are found. This is an integrade zone between peregrinus and brookei (Zuberogoitia et al., 2008).

From mid September to May, the local and sedentary brookei population in Iberia is reinforced with northern birds, originating from boreal and arctic areas in north and east Fennoscandia, that migrate through or winter in Iberia. Based on information from tagged birds and ringing recoveries, it seems that northern individuals wintering in Iberia originate mainly from northern Finland, an integrade zone between peregrine and calidus. Possibly Iberia also receives birds originating from arctic Russia, where pure calidus breed. In Catalonia –NE Iberian Peninsula, the wintering population is estimated at around 50 birds (Ollé, Estrada-Devesa & Gil, 2016).

In this post, we will try to add some interesting insights on the separation of brookei from northern birds (calidus or peregrinus/calidus integrades), mostly adults, based on our local experience in winter and on migration. We also present some interesting variation within brookei.

Moult 

In adult birds, moult of flight feathers (mainly primaries) is the key feature to differentiate northern birds from local brookei. In Spain, brookei start laying eggs between late February and early March. Females start moulting earlier than males, in April-May. Males end their moult in October, a moult strategy completely different from northern birds. In September, when the first northern birds arrive back on their wintering grounds, they are in a less advanced moult stage, with only 2-4 central primaries moulted. Moult stage of Nordic birds may depend on egg-laying dates and on their breeding success, with early breeders of failed breeders arriving to Iberia with more advanced moult. Also northern birds show sexual differences in moult. In Catalonia we have noticed that females end their moult at the end of December, while latest males end their moult in April. On average, northern birds moult P10 (the last primary to be moulted) during the second half of February, though we found few individuals that were still growing P10 in April.

Northern adult female. September. Cataluña. Photo by Eio Ramon. Pp 4-5 and rr 1 have been replaced, typical moult sequence for migrant females.

1. Northern adult female. September. Cataluña. Photo by Eio Ramon. Pp 4-5 and rr 1 have been replaced, typical moult sequence for migrant females.

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Northern female, adult. January. Cataluña. Photo by Camilo Albert. This bird has old pp9-10, pp 1-2 missing, ss1-2 and other inner ss old and ss3 growing; typical molt sequence of a northern Peregrine.

2 & 3. Northern female, adult. January. Cataluña. Photos by Camilo Albert. This bird has old pp9-10, pp 1-2 missing, ss1-2 and other inner ss old and ss3 growing; typical molt sequence of a northern Peregrine.

Northern adult male. March. Cataluña. Photo by Arnau Soler. Note growing p10. Facial and body patterns typical of a northern bird.

4. Northern adult male. March. Cataluña. Photo by Arnau Soler. Note growing p10. Facial and body patterns typical of a northern bird.

Adult female brookei. May. Cataluña. Photo by Jordi Bermejo. Breeding bird with active moult. Pp4-5 already replaced, together with primary coverts, while s5 is growing.

5. Adult female brookei. May. Cataluña. Photo by Jordi Bermejo. Breeding bird with active moult. Pp4-5 already replaced, together with primary coverts, while s5 is growing.

Adult male brookei . October. Cataluña. Photo by Àlex Ollé. Typical resident brookei with p10 finalizing the early moult

6. Adult male brookei . October. Cataluña. Photo by Àlex Ollé. Typical resident brookei with p10 finalizing the early moult. Note also heavy barring on underparts, thick-based moustachial stripe and limited pale ear coverts.

Facial pattern

Moustachial stripe of northern birds is usually narrower, more pointed and more contrasting than brookei, especially at the base. Ear coverts are very white, almost up to eye level (photos 2, 3, 4, 8 and 7). Some birds can show wider and less contrasting moustachial stripe, but in no case blurred as in brookei (photo 1). The crown is normally pale grey, sometimes with a paler forehead (photos 4, 7 and 15). Conversely, brookei usually show a very wide-based moustachial stripe that links with less contrasting ear coverts, and a uniform dark crown (photos 6, 12, 13 and 16).

Body colours and patterns

Northern birds show a clear white upper breast, normally unmarked. The central breast and upper belly have irregular horizontal bars with little dark spots, that can reach down to the central belly area (photos 1, 2, 4, 13 and 7). Flanks show more regular stripes, but thinner. There is a clear sexual difference in this pattern: males have thinner and irregular markings, while females markings are wider and better pronounced. Base colour is a light and variable pale rosy tone (photos 2 and 13), especially in the central belly.

In brookei the base colour is salmon or cream, though in some individuals, mostly males, it is more restricted to the breast only (photos 6, 9 and 14). In brookei the upper breast usually has small dark spots, especially in females, that are followed by broader and regular horizontal bars, both in the central area and in the flanks (photo 6 and 9).

9. Northern male . April. Catalonia. Photo by Marcel Gil. Typical bird, with clear upper breast and central breast with thin and irregular barring. Note the rose tones to the central belly. Pointed moustachial stripe and very white cheeks.

7. Northern male . April. Catalonia. Photo by Marcel Gil. Typical bird, with clear upper breast and central breast with thin and irregular barring. Note the rose tones to the central belly. Pointed moustachial stripe and very white cheeks.

10. Northern adult female. February. Catalunia. Photo by Víctor Estrada-Devesa. This bird follows is still in active moult in late February, with r5 and p9 still growing and p10 is old. Moult ends in late March or early April. Besides that moult sequence, the bird shows a peregrinus phenotype, probably from boreal northern Fennoscandia. These birds, especially females, have dense and spotted/stripped pattern to underparts. They are separated from brookei by an active moult in winter, they are bigger and have a different head pattern.

8. Northern adult female. February. Catalunia. Photo by Víctor Estrada-Devesa. This bird follows is still in active moult in late February, with r5 and p9 still growing and p10 is old. Moult ends in late March or early April. Besides that moult sequence, the bird shows a peregrinus phenotype, probably from boreal northern Fennoscandia. These birds, especially females, have dense and spotted/stripped pattern to underparts. They are separated from brookei by an active moult in winter, they are bigger and have a different head pattern.

12. Brookei adult female. November. Catalonia. Photo by Miguel Ángel Fuentes. Typical bird, with dense and extensive barring. Upper breats with some small dark spots. Wide moustachial stripe without clear cheeks. Moult already finished.

9. Adult female brookei. November. Catalonia. Photo by Miguel Ángel Fuentes. Typical bird, with dense and extensive barring. Upper breats with some small dark spots. Wide moustachial stripe without clear cheeks. Moult already completed.

Mantle tones

As mentioned above, males are on average paler than females. Northern birds are often paler blueish above, sometimes rather bright depending on light conditions.

15. Northern adult male. March. Catalonia. Photo by Jordi Martí-Aledo. The bluish tone, almost unbarred, is a key feature of northern males. p10 is very fresh, indicating that it was recently replaced.

10. Northern adult male. March. Catalonia. Photo by Jordi Martí-Aledo. The bluish tone, almost unbarred, is a key feature of northern males. p10 is very fresh, indicating that it was recently replaced.

16. Adult brookei. Catalonia. Photo by Àlex Ollé. Dark mantle, slightly paler in the lower back, heavily barred above. Note typical head pattern.

11. Adult brookei. Catalonia. Photo by Àlex Ollé. Dark mantle, slightly paler in the lower back, heavily barred above. Note typical head pattern.

Behaviour and hunting 

Northern birds are often more human-tolerant than local brookei, sometimes even at very close distances (see attached video). 

We found that northern birds often sit on the ground, much more than local brookei, that does not often land on the ground. 

Northern birds are larger and heavier on avergae, and they prey on larger birds, including herons and ducks. Most often local brookei prey on pigeon-sized birds or smaller.

Young ‘Arctic Peregrines’

We believe that some birds wintering in Iberia are ‘Arctic Peregrines’ (calidus). They are huge! Young birds are very brown from above, and often heavily marked below.

7. Apparent northern female, 2cy. January 2016. Catalonia. Photo by Víctor Estrada-Devesa. Possibly an arctic bird, typically brown from above. It was trapped and seen again next winter (see next photo).

12. Apparent northern female, 2cy. January 2016. Catalonia. Photo by Víctor Estrada-Devesa. Possibly an arctic bird, typically brown from above. It was trapped and seen again next winter (see next photo).

8. Northern female, 2cy. November 2016. Catalunia. Photo by Joan Goy. The same bird in the above photo. Thin moustachial stripe and clear ear coverts, clear rose tone to the breast. This bird had a moult stage atypical of northern birds: p1-p9 already moulted and p10 growing. It is possible that this bird (2cy) did not breed, which may explain the early moult.

13. Northern female, 2cy. November 2016. Catalunia. Photo by Joan Goy. The same bird in the above photo. Thin moustachial stripe and clear ear coverts, clear rose tone to the breast. This bird had a moult stage atypical of northern birds: p1-p9 already moulted and p10 growing. It is possible that this bird (2cy) did not breed, which may explain the early moult. Note that young calidus often show very dark coverts, confusingly similar to Lanner and Saker.

Variation in adult brookei

Over the years we have noted some brookei that show features closer to northern birds (peregrinus / calidus). Without full study of all features including moult, they may be misidentified. More study is needed on the amount of variation in brookei.

13. Adult male brookei. February. Alicante, Spain. Photo by Jorge García. Typical brookei head pattern. Breast pattern is reminiscent of northern birds. These features are usually associated with mature birds.

14. Adult male brookei. February. Alicante, Spain. Photo by Jorge García. Typical brookei head pattern. Breast pattern is reminiscent of northern birds. These features are usually associated with mature birds.

14. Adult male brookei . May. Catalonia. Photo by Gabriel de Jesús. This breeding male could be mistaken as a northern bird if seen in winter. It has a grey crown and a pale forehead. Cheeks are White. Underparts barring is irregular, with a light cream base color to the belly rather than to the breast. Nevertheless, it has some typical iberian features: short moustachial stripe with a wide base, striped breast, and cream base color rather than rosy.

15. Adult male brookei . May. Catalonia. Photo by Gabriel de Jesús. This breeding male could be mistaken as a northern bird if seen in winter. It has a grey crown and a pale forehead. Cheeks are White. Underparts barring is irregular, with a light cream base color to the belly rather than to the breast. Nevertheless, it has some typical iberian features: short moustachial stripe with a wide base, striped breast, and cream base color rather than rosy.

 

Acknowledgments 

We thank all the photographers for allowing us to use their photos.

 References 

Ollé. À., Estrada-Devesa, V. & Gil-Velasco, M. 2016. Els falcons d’origen nòrdic Falco peregrinus peregrinus i Falco peregrinus calidus: dues formes força descconegudes a Catalunya. Butlletí del CAC 1: 11-25.

Zuberogoitia, Í., Azkona, A., Zabala, J., Astorkia, L., Castillo, I., Iraeta, A., Martínez, J.A. & Martínez, J.E. 2008. Phenotypic variations of Peregrine Falcon in subspecies distribution border. In: Sielicki, J. & Mizera, T. (Eds.). Peregrine Falcon populations –status and perspectives in the 21st century-. Pp. 295-308. European Peregrine Falcon Working Group.

 

 

 

 

Putative Steppe Whimbrel in Austria

A Whimbrel showing the characteristics of Steppe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris in the Seewinkel, Austria, April 2017

By Johannes Laber & Gary Allport

In the course of a waterfowl survey on 22nd April 2017 in a meadow north-east of the Lange Lacke, Seewinkel, Austria, JL found a loose group of 25 Whimbrels. Amongst them was a slightly larger and brighter individual. Having recently become aware of the Whimbrel subspecies rogachevae and alboaxillaris (see previous Birding Frontiers post from 2016, Allport & Cohen 2016, Allport 2017) the bird was studied carefully.

In flight the striking pure white axillaries and underwings were seen, as well as a whiter rump and tail. The next day, Ernst Albegger was informed of the observation, which led to photographers looking for the bird and successfully securing some good photos.

Photos by Richard Katzinger (flight shots), Wolfgang Trimmel and Heinz Kolland (pictures of the standing bird) show many features of the subspecies alboaxillaris.  The photographers are warmly thanked for their efforts to capture these images and the use of the photos in this blog post.

On the ground the bird appeared larger-bodied than adjacent phaeopus, and the overall paler coloration was evident due to the larger and coarser pale spots on the upper side as well as the reduced flank barring.  The bird also has a paler face than adjacent nominate phaeopus, with notably paler cheeks, nape and supercilium. In addition, it appeared more dumpy or “potbellied” in shape.  Note that the bird is relatively short-billed and so is probably a male, making the size contrast even more significant.  Male Numeniini are smaller than females, some very markedly so in certain species, but amongst Whimbrel taxa sexual dimorphism is thought to be least prominent in Steppe Whimbrel.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note impression of larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration. Photo: W. Trimmel, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note impression of larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration. Photo: W. Trimmel, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria

Unfortunately there are no detailed photos of the complete vent and undertail area but it looks to be pure white insofar as can be seen in the images. The primary projection is difficult to judge from the photos but appears not to extend notably beyond the tail – as in the bird thought to be a female in Maputo – but is similar to the male bird in Maputo (DNA analysis has now confirmed the suspicion that that bird was a male).

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration especially the pale face. Photo: H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (right and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (left). Note larger size and more bulky body, and overall pale colouration especially the pale face. Photo: H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Note that the very small area of visible tail edge in the photo below appears to show the correct ‘laddered’ pattern for Steppe Whimbrel, but it is the pattern of the whole tail span that is critical for sub-specific identification so, whilst this is consistent with Steppe Whimbrel it is not sufficient to fully support the identification.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (left) in Seewinkel (Photo by H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017) and male Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) in Maputo, Mozambique (Photo G. Allport Feb 2016). Note very similar bill structure (suggesting that the Austrian bird is a male), near identical face pattern, overall plumage tone and primary projection. The Maputo bird has less barring on the flanks.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (left) in Seewinkel (Photo by H. Kolland, 23rd April 2017) and male Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris (right) in Maputo, Mozambique (Photo G. Allport Feb 2016). Note very similar bill structure (suggesting that the Austrian bird is a male), near identical face pattern, overall plumage tone and primary projection. The Maputo bird has less barring on the flanks.

In flight the bird shows a clear very pale underwing.  Unfortunately the quality of the images are not good enough to be absolutely sure of the detailed axillary and underwing pattern but the characters look strongly consistent with alboaxillaris showing an apparently unbarred clean white underwing, grey-barred underwing primary coverts and contrasting dark wings tips (which ironically tend to show up more clearly in poor quality images of alboaxillaris).  The rump looks to be very pale but again the images are not clear enough for detailed analysis.

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Two flight shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris showing clean white underwing and barred inner primaries. Note that photos on the ground suggest that there is flank barring present but this is not evident in the underwing shot suggesting that some detail may have been blown-out in the shots. Photographing the underwings of Whimbrel is challenging! Photo: R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Two flight shots of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p. alboaxillaris showing clean white underwing and barred inner primaries. Note that photos on the ground suggest that there is flank barring present but this is not evident in the underwing shot suggesting that some detail may have been blown-out in the shots. Photographing the underwings of Whimbrel is challenging! Photo: R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Two images clipped together of phaeopus (left) and the candidate alboaxillaris (right) showing the dumpy shape characteristic of alboaxillaris. The two images are not from the same frame but from the same series of pictures. Photo R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017.

Two images clipped together of phaeopus (left) and the candidate alboaxillaris (right) showing the dumpy shape characteristic of alboaxillaris. The two images are not from the same frame but from the same series of pictures. Photo R. Katzinger, 23rd April 2017.

What is also very nice to see in this comparison is another structural feature that fits alboaxillaris – namely the dumpy body shape.  On the below images another feature is the barring of the inner primaries; alboaxillaris (top left) are banded inner five primaries significantly.  In comparison, a normal phaeopus (bottom right) generally shows darker inner primaries.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (top left and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (bottom right). Note deeper wing, especially at the base of the primaries, and barred inner primaries. Photo R. Katzinger, April 23, 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris (top left and excerpted below) and nominate Whimbrel N. p. phaeopus (bottom right). Note deeper wing, especially at the base of the primaries, and barred inner primaries. Photo R. Katzinger, April 23, 2017, Seewinkel, Austria.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris in Austria (left Photos by R. Katzinger) with both Steppe Whimbrels N. p. alboaxillaris in Maputo, Mozambique Feb 2016 (photo by R. Hughes above and G. Allport below). Note the similarity in tail pattern; the prominent pale tips to the tail may be an emerging feature for alboaxillaris. The barred inner primaries are a useful feature but some nominate phaeopus in Maputo show this feature to a greater extent than is evident from the photos herein. However, clear barring on the outer webs of the fifth outermost primary (counted outwards) does seem to be a feature exclusively shown by alboaxillaris. The barring on the inner primaries looks to be even more strongly marked on the bird in Austria than those in Maputo. Structurally the Austrian bird looks possibly deeper winged than the Maputo birds.

Comparison of candidate Steppe Whimbrel N. p alboaxillaris in Austria (left Photos by R. Katzinger) with both Steppe Whimbrels N. p. alboaxillaris in Maputo, Mozambique Feb 2016 (photo by R. Hughes above and G. Allport below). Note the similarity in tail pattern; the prominent pale tips to the tail may be an emerging feature for alboaxillaris. The barred inner primaries are a useful feature but some nominate phaeopus in Maputo show this feature to a greater extent than is evident from the photos herein. However, clear barring on the outer webs of the fifth outermost primary (counted outwards) does seem to be a feature exclusively shown by alboaxillaris. The barring on the inner primaries looks to be even more strongly marked on the bird in Austria than those in Maputo. Structurally the Austrian bird looks possibly deeper winged than the Maputo birds.

Overall the Austrian bird is a very strong candidate for the form alboaxillaris; all the key features, insofar as they are evident, point towards Steppe Whimbrel. However we are still so early in our understanding of this form that it should still remain categorised as a strong candidate, as a bird which shows features of the subspecies alboaxillaris and we hope that in the future as we understand Steppe Whimbrel better we can assign this bird with a greater confidence.

This is a remarkable record in several respects. On the one hand, the world population of the subspecies is estimated to be <100 individuals, and on the other hand, this breeding bird is best known from the Kazakh steppes and the Orenburg region of Russia from where it is assumed they migrate to the coast of East and South Africa – a significantly more eastern migration. There are, however, specimen records of birds on passage from Hungary in the 1960s which have not been re-examined since they were first catalogued, and there was also a recent breeding record of alboaxillaris in European Russia in 2009 (Morozo & Kornev 2009), albeit in Orenburg, one of the very easternmost provinces.

This record in Austria is significant and may point to a more westerly breeding population, or it may be that as numbers have dwindled that Steppe Whimbrel have become mixed with the nominates.  Either way, there is significant interest in finding birds in the ‘western’ side of the potential range.  Christoph Himmel is planning surveys of migrating birds on the Azerbaijan coastline of the Caspian Sea with a specific target of finding Steppe Whimbrels. More on his proposed work is here, and you can support the research here.

Donating to the African Bird Club’s research fund is also a very valuable way of supporting this work too.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the photographers Richard Katzinger, H. Kolland, W. Trimmel and Ross Hughes for permissions to use their photos.

References

Allport, G. 2017. Steppe Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris at Maputo, Mozambique, in February–March 2016, with a review of the status of the taxon. Bull. Afr. Bird Club 24(1): xx-xx

Allport, G. & Cohen, C. 2016. Finding Steppe Whimbrel: discovery and identification in southern Africa. African Birdlife 4(6):48-54

Morozov V. V. & Kornev S. V. 2009. [Ornithological news from the Orenburg Oblast.] Russ. J. Orn. 18: 2069–2081. [In Russian.

 

 

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjar – one species or two?

By Yoav Perlman

Those who read my blog might have noticed that I addressed this topic briefly in my recent post. In this post I will expand a little. A visit to Frankfurts’ Senckenberg Naturmuseum a couple of weeks ago allowed me to take a look at these nightjars. My interest in Red-necked Nightjars arose as part of a project I am involved in, with Martin Collinson. We are looking at phylogeny of several un-sequenced nightjar species; Red-necked is one of them. It is somewhat strange for me to work on a species I have never seen in the field, yet. Last time I visited Iberia it was too early for them. I am returning to Iberia next week for 6 weeks of fieldwork, so I am quite confident I will catch up with them this spring.

Red-necked Nightjar has two subspecies – ruficollis that breeds in Iberia and in Morocco; while desertorum breeds in N Algeria and N Tunisia. Both subspecies migrate in winter to sub-Saharan Africa, where they apparently overlap in their winter distribution in Mali, Ghana and Gambia. However, the wintering distribution in Africa is not totally clear, and certainly where and where not the subspecies mix.

Map

Red-necked Nightjar distribution map from BirdLife Datazone

When I opened up the Red-necked Nightjar tray, I was struck by how apparent the morphological differences between the two species are.  No need for wing ruler – desertorum is visually so much larger than ruficollis! Though I behaved like an amateur and did not measure them, in this case I think the size difference is totally evident:

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Interestingly, these apparent huge differences are not reflected in measurements from literature. In Nigel Cleere’s 2010 Nightjar guide, males of ruficollis have wings of 196-217 and tails of 149-168, while desertorum males have wings of 198-214 and tails of 153-171. Sadly, there is no mean given, and also not sample size. I need to check more references. It seems that another trip to Tring is necessary.

Apart for the size differences between the two subspecies, their plumages are pretty different too. desertorum is paler sandier below, and lacks the dark chest of ruficollis:

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

From above the overall difference in tones is less obvious, but the broader rufous collar of desertorum is apparent, and possibly narrower black crown streaking of desertorum, that is mentioned in Cleere’s book.

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

Red-necked Nightjars, males: ruficollis (two left) and desertorum (two right)

There is another difference between the subspecies, in the pattern of inner primaries, that is not visible in these photos. desertorum has a bold pattern of orange and black bands of equal width, while ruficollis has very little orange on the primary bases. Check the 2009 BB article by Tim Melling, describing the 1856 British record (ruficollis by the way), in which the primary pattern is nicely compared.

Xeno-Canto has sound recordings only of ruficollis. I wonder if there is are any differences in vocalisations? Has anyone ever sound recorded desertorum? Sound Approach guys?

So what do we have here?

  • Distinct breeding ranges – or not? The two subspecies are separated by 200-300 km of apparently suitable habitat in NW Algeria. Why is there a gap in distribution there? I don’t know.
  • Both subspecies migrate and apparently overlap in W Africa in winter.
  • There is an apparent huge size difference (see photos above), but this is not evident in published measurements.
  • Clear differences in general plumage tones, and also in patterns of specific feather tracts (primaries, collar).
  • No information available on vocalisations of desertorum.

I find it intriguing that these two taxa breed so close, and possibly are not geographically isolated at all, and still are so different morphologically. What will DNA analysis reveal? Is there room for another SHIPS (Species Hiding In Plain Sight) as Martin C. calls them? I am genuinely curious to find out. Hope to report the results in a few months.