Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Redpoll redux

Got my balls handed to me in a bag by Martin Garner on the Birding Frontiers site here. Assuming I’ve got the ID wrong, which I have to admit to more likely than Martin getting it wrong, this is pretty frustrating. While we all make mistakes, blah, blah, I watched this bird for a good while, took some notes and some reasonable photos of it and even went back and looked at some old field notes of Coue’s and ‘difficult’ Mealies I’d seen and did a quick look around the interweb for pics of 1w Coue’s. All in all, a couple of hours effort, so still getting it wrong is bloody annoying.

I should probably leave this alone, but instead I even went as far as picking up Svensson. One of the obvious features of the bird is that it’s regrowing its tail feathers. In my original shots it has three long ones on its right, the rest being very short. More recent shots show that the very short ones have grown substantially. Svensson says that Arctics moult like Mealies, which means a complete moult Jul-Sep so fresh tail feathers, whereas first year birds moult “..rarely one or two inner pairs of tail feathers, but not wing feathers or outer tail feathers”. The adult tail feathers can be pointed or rounded while 1Y birds are, as you’d expect, pointed. The Titchwell bird’s tail feathers are fairly pointed so in theory it could be an adult or a first winter. But since this bird is regrowing all of its tail feathers now (as more recent photos show) that seems to mean it should be an adult (or maybe 2CY?) rather than a first winter. Based on the warmer mantle and flank streaking this is presumably an adult female.

If it is an adult, then does this change our interpretation of the flank streaking and ground colour – can adult Coue’s really get this dark and streaky? Obviously all adult Coue’s don’t look like this:

So what ID features are we supposed to use, for both adults and immature? I also found this rather neat little chart from David Sibley in the US  where he comes up with a ‘character index’ that uses patterns of the undertail coverts, flanks and rump. It works by assigning a score to each of these characteristics and a range of scores that allocate a bird to Mealy, intermediate or Arctic. I don’t know how much road testing this has had but it is interesting.

Treating this chart as being fairly valid, the Titchwell bird scores maybe, with spurious accuracy, 4.75 for UTCs, 4.5 for rump and around 3.75 for flank streaking for a total of 13. Anything over 11 for a female or immature counts as an Arctic according to David’s scoring. Interestingly the associated notes also say that ‘no female-type scored higher than 13’ (although reading this more closely it’s clear that the chart was rebased so that the lowest score could be one rather than three which would imply that no female type had a score higher than 14 or 15 depending on how it was rebased).

Sibley suggests that a range of other characteristics could improve the accuracy. He especially highlights ‘back colour and pattern’ but also proposes using ‘fluffiness of forehead and paleness of neck sides’. I suspect that back colour and pattern would reduce the score of the Titchwell bird, as would forehead fluffiness.

Comparing my notes and memory with the Titchwell photos, it’s hard to find any pics that show the warm and darker tones properly that were visible in some lights in the field. I think part of the reason for this is that we usually see winter redpolls in bare trees against a relatively bright sky. When we take photos, to get the detail on the bird, we jack up the exposure compensation a few ticks, I often use +2/3, +1 for this. Even with careful metering this can easily make colours look paler than they really are. In the field the bird had some darker tones in the upper quadrants of the mantle (but not the centre) and on the shoulder part of the scapulars. This faded out to the blond-buff ground colour of the scaps above the greater coverts, towards the centre of the mantle and neck/ lower nape. The centre of the mantle was off-white (sometimes showing as two tramlines) as was the lower crown and upper nape.
Warm mantle tones and tramlines are often called as Mealy features but they seem to be regular in exilipes. This shot of one of the Rainton Meadows birds from Feb 2011 shows a similarly warm mantle with white tramlines.

The streaking on the Titchwell bird looked fairly heavy from some angles and could appear quite smudgy, especially on the flanks where they are classically lighter.

But some undoubted Arctics have quite heavy streaking – like this one from Ontario (Canada) although here it is on a white ground colour.

I just don’t see the ‘pinched in’ or ‘small’ bill that others are seeing in the Titchwell bird. To me it looks well within the range that you get in Mealies, although smaller than average. In fact the idea that Arctic always shows a smaller ‘pinched in’ bill and ‘punched in’ face seems to be pretty unreliable. While there's clearly a good percentage of small-billed Arctics with feathering around the nares giving this punched in face it doesn’t seem to work as a diagnostic feature. Again from Svensson and from Troy (2005) it seems there's little difference between the actual bill length of Mealy and Coue’s. Below are some pics of the Titchwell bird with two shots each of a Mealies and Coue’s.

According to Svensson there is a difference between the distance between the bill tip and the base of the feathering. So is the classic conical appearance of Coue’s mainly a result of the ‘fluffier forehead’ mentioned by Sibley? I assume where the feathering is not present the bill and face shape looks very similar to a Mealy. Under what circumstances is that feathering not there? Sex, age or moult related?

This isn’t an attempt to be an expert, but since I’ve had to do a fair amount of work on this bird I thought I’d share what I’d learned. So, in summary, what do I think I’ve learnt?
1. Mantle ground colour can appear much darker and warmer, and that this often doesn’t show up in photos.
2. Coue’s can have obvious white tramlines just like Mealies
3. Bill size and shape has a massive overlap with Mealy and Arctics may not show the feathering that helps create the ‘punched in’ characteristic
4. Flank streaking can vary in appearance between tramlines and ‘whispy’ but exilipes can have very smudgy looking flank streaks and the ground colour can be quite strong buff. Overall substantial overlap with Mealy
5. ID descriptions based on white or pale grey ground colour are unhelpful. At most they apply to adult males and even here would probably exclude some genuine Coue’s
6. Even though there is some overlap with Mealy a bird that has white undertail coverts with just a thin dark streak when combined with a very white rump with just a few dark feathers should be flagged up as a possible Coue’s

Whew. Oh one last thing. Lump 'em. Every single damn one.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Bromley bread muncher

Today I dragged the kids over to Bromley to take a look at the Long tailed Duck that's been hanging out at Hayes Farm for nearly a month. Wildfowl turning up in dodgy locations (like this tiny fishing lake in the middle of an urban common) tend to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. Still, it was too far away to throw bread at so I've decided it counts.

The shot below seems to show fairly long scaps, so perhaps an ad female rather than immature.

The boys had a brilliant time jumping in and out of puddles and whacking everything they could find with sticks.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Titchwell redpolls

After Cley on Friday I headed for Titchwell where the Yellow browed Warbler showed quite well among the sycamores from the Fen Hide path. Also close to the visitor centre was a mixed flock of redpolls, mostly Lessers but including 3 Mealies. One of the Mealies was especially pale and my first thoughts were that it was a candidate Coue's, but longer views confirmed it as a very well marked Mealy. Although it had initially showed some classic Coue's features including:
1. deep white rump
2. Pale blond/ chamois leather colour over the face and upper breast
3. white white g cov bar
4. very white underparts with a single very thin dark streak on the UTCs
5. overall cold grey appearance
6. small black bib
7. fluffy underparts and leg feathering

But a number of features are more Mealy than Coue's, the most important of which are:
1. the mantle has some real warm tones which are not always visible in all lights but are easier to see in the field than in photos
2. the bill looks Mealy long with no impression of the 'punched in' face of a classic Coue's (apparently biometrics don't really support a bill size difference but feathering at the base of Arctic's bills always seems to make the shape sifferent)
3. the flank streaking is heavy and the ground colour is darker than even the occasional darker chamois wash of a Coue's
4. the rump is not completely unstreaked - although this is still within the range of Coue's

It was sufficiently interesting to do a bit of interweb research and go back to some of my old Mealy and Coue's field notes and photos.

A range of photos below showing the different features.

The bird is quiet easy to pick up since its currently regrowing most of its tailfeathers.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Two shrikes and you're out

Two grey shrikes within 20 miles of each other made a tempting day out. First call was Wall Farm NR where the Steppe Grey Shrike showed well as it worked the hedgerows on two sides of a field. While sometimes distant it frequently came reasonably close (although I struggled to get any decent photos even with the 2x converter stuffed on the end of the 400mm).

The rise in DSLRs seem to have changed the meaning of 'showing distantly' which, when I was twitching in the 80s, used to mean the bird was a barely identifiable (sometimes unidentifiable) dot only visible through heat haze and possibly asleep. Say like a Long toed Stint. Now it seems to mean it's not a frame filler with a walkabout lens. OK, it was quite a bit further away than the first Steppe Grey I saw in the UK, though.

This bird had been present for a few days but the ID had taken a couple of days to be pinned down.

The following three shots show the overall pale appearance, light creamy-buff wash to the throat and underparts, pale bill, large white primary square, weak mask with paler lores, long primary projection extending to the black of the central tail feathers beyond the UTCs.

White wing patch restricted to the primaries, and extending close to the primary tips on the inners

Collins describes the tail as 'rather short' (ie compared to other members of excubitor - Collins takes a different taxonomic line to the BOU) but this really wasn't obvious in the field.

After watching the bird for a few hours I headed off to Cannock Chase where I tracked down the Great Grey Shrike after exploring for around 30 minutes. Equally stunning bird (and perhaps slightly more satisfying since it meant finding the bird in a few square miles of suitable habitat).

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Tiny fame

I've just found out that my Sandhill Crane video was used on the Birdguides review of the week here. This is obviously the Palme d'Or of birding videos so I'm currently prepping my acceptance speech.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Closer than Scotland

When the Sandhill Crane was found at Strathbeg I briefly considered going (it's a crane!) even going as far as to check out flight times but eventually decided it was a twitch too far. When it flew south I kept hoping it would be picked up and stick closer to home. Which it did. On Sunday, the day I was scheduled to take the wife and kids to see my parents. Who live about 20 miles from where the crane was refound. After some serious soul searching I decided that bunking off to see the bird was not really a possibility so I kept my fingers crossed overnight and headed up early the next day.

Looking across the fields not long after sunrise, the crane was showing extremely well and later flew even closer.

As the day warmed up it became a bit more active and, at nearly quarter past nine, flew off low down the coast. Walking back past the people who were still arriving on site it was hard to look them in the eyes, but luckily it didn't go far and was refound soon afterwards.

I headed up to Minsmere for a general mooch around. The place has been turned into a building site with the North Wall having major flood prevention work done, one of the hides being rebuilt and mini-tractors all over the place. Highlights were an unexpected Pec Sand that was showing well and drawing a small crowd and good numbers of Beardies pinging in the reeds and occasionally giving good views. Otherwise things were pretty quiet on the scrapes with a Knot, a few Avocets and c30 Blackwits. There were several mixed flocks of finches, tits and warblers which provided a bit of excitement but didn't produce anything unexpected.

I stopped off on the way back home at Levington creek. A great little site which had turned up a Dotterel earlier in the day. By this time it was high tide and the roosting waders included Blackwit, Avocet and a juv Curlew Sandpiper. Initially no sign of the Dotterel, but a bit of a wait watching Golden Plovers drop into a field eventually revealed the Dotterel.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Scilly - day one

My first visit to Scilly for about a million years started badly. I left the house shortly after 5am last Tuesday and arrived at Lands End airport at 9.15. Although the weather had been fine all the way down the last 10 miles it had been raining and the airport was covered in fog. Flying on time looked really unlikely and I was too late to get to the ferry in Penzance. None of the weather forecasts were very helpful and it was difficult to decide whether there was any chance of flying today. Eventually gave up and headed off to Drift Reservoir in the rain where I had fairly distant views of the Lesser Yellowlegs but no sign of the Semi-P.

On returning to the airport I found out there would be no flights today and headed off to Pendeen to year tick a few Manx Shearwater in the rain before driving to the Lands End youth hostel (OK curry, good treacle tart, local beer) where I had a 4 bed room to myself (nothing to do with the curry, honest).

The next day was bright and clear and my 9am flight deposited me, 2 other birders and 3 others on St Marys at 9.20. After a slightly frustrating wait for transport we were dropped as close to the Garrison as possible and headed through the campsite to find the Baltimore Oriole. After only a 10 minute wait the first winter female showed really well in the corner of the pig field.

The rest of the day involved sorting out accommodation, searching for the Solitary Sand (dipped), Black and White Warbler (dipped by 5 mins) and the Red eyed Vireo (dipped by 10 minutes). Then round to the Dump Pool where the Northern Waterthrush had been showing in the evening. Four hours later (three of which spent sitting in Higgo's new hide) produced nothing but a few mosquito bites.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Beddington Pec

The Pec was still present at Beddington along with with 4 Ruff (3 on Main Lake, 1 on 100 Acre), 4 Snipe and 1 Greenshank. Also 3 Buzzards over.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Spotshank dash

I had a quick scan of Birdguides yesterday at 3.30 and saw that a Spotted Redshank had been seen an hour earlier at the London Wetland Centre - potential patch tick! Dashed over and was watching the bird before 4pm. A really smart juvenile that mainly fed in the vegetation around the islands and so was sometimes not that easy to see. It often fed alongside the juvenile Ruff that's been present for a few days. Seeing the two together, the Ruff is very obviously a male since it's around the same size as the Spotshank.

I also took a few videos which I'll sort through and post anything half decent here. A quick scan of the grazing marsh and the rest of the scrape turned up this Whinchat on the purple loosestrife.

This was a bit more distant and taken with the 400mm and the 2x converter.

Just looked at Birdguides again. Whiskered Tern on the Main Lake at the Wetland Centre for 5 mins. Oh well, I've missed a few good birds at Barnes (eg the PGP) and I'm sure this won't be the last.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Barnes migrant bonanza

After the rain on Wednesday morning I was optimistic that it might have brought down a few migrants so headed off to London Wetland Centre. Things looked good straight away with a Wheatear on the playing fields. There were more migrants within the reserve and I quickly picked up a big mixed flock that included 3-4 Chifchaffs and a couple of Blackcaps. After the flock had been through therewere some singles and small groups including a f/imm Whitethroat, more Blackcaps, 2 Willow Warblers and a Lesser Whitethroat. In the WWF Hide I finally caught up with the Garganey that has been seen on and off for almost a week (assuming its the same bird, which it looks like being from the photos on the LWC website). This looks like an adult female rather than a juv.

Numbers of Shoveler have also been rising - now to around 20 birds.

Walking around the Sheltered Lagoon produced a good local migrant - which then proved really hard to get a photo of. Mystery bird photo!

OK, it's not much of a mystery but these were the best photos I could get before the bird was flushed by a family crashing around and screaming at each other.

Following the hedge back round and past the Peacock Hide found another small group of warblers: Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and three Lesser Whitethroats. This juvenile Willow Warbler was part of the pack.

So was this Lesser Whitethroat (one of three). Although it doesn't really show up that well here from the front and side it showed a nearly complete white eyering and faint white super so I assume it's one of this year's birds.

The Willow Warbler and Lesser throat photos took a little time to get since the birds were tearing around the bushes but seemed like time well spent. Until I got to the Peacock Hide to find out an Osprey had flown over about 10-15 minutes ago - which would have been a patch tick for me. Oh well.

There was a Hobby hunting over the grazing marsh, catching dragonflies. The only shot I could get of a catch was pretty distant.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Wandle Coot update

Anyone who read the brilliant Counting Coots blog will know the saga of the Wandle Coots and their Darwin Award winning inability to get fledge any chicks. Their latest attempts are two nests on the Wandle Delta. One (the same one as yesterday) is pretty utilitarian whereas the other shows a certain design flare.

Also on site: pair of Gadwall, Whitethroat still singing, Stock Dove and a single Greater Black backed Gull (1st summer).

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Wandle fledglings

A trip to the Thames and Wandle with the boys showed some of the local breeding success with a newly fledged Chaffinch alongside Trinity Road where a male had been seen singing and then carrying food earlier in the year.

The Thames held a limited range of gulls, just three species with Herring, Lesser Black backed and Black headed present. Alongside the Wandle a Great Tit carrying food was probably raising a second brood and a male Grey Wag was singing and calling – not sure if this year’s brood has been successful.

Along the Daylight Path the male Whitethroat was singing. I'm not sure if that means he’s still looking for a mate or is just maintaining his territory. As far as I know some birds carry on singing even after they’ve found a mate whereas others stop singing, but I’ve no idea which category Whitethroats fall into. I've certainly heard other Sylvias singing when they’re raising a brood so Whitethroats may well do this as well. The images below are a bit over exposed as I had to quickly manually frig the numbers as the bird hopped up on a twig and down again.

I occasionally hear Stock Doves singing from the tall trees alongside the Wandle but I suspect that they don’t breed here – although I assume they do over in Hurlingham which is where these birds probably come from (although Wandsworth Park is another option although I'm not sure they breed there).

The Coots made famous by Thing’s blog are also trying again to build a nest on the highly tidal delta. This is the latest low-water effort, complete with emergency escape pod disguised as a football.