Thursday, 26 March 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

April 2015 | Issue 274

Ten years ago this month, the world woke to news that Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long thought extinct, had been rediscovered in the southern United States. Amid great fanfare, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology presented the findings from a year-long search by field teams in Arkansas. However, the initial excitement was soon followed by debate about the ‘evidence’ – largely difficult-to-interpret video clips and sound recordings captured by remote devices. For many, the euphoria was replaced by doubt, and ultimately – in the absence of any subsequent sightings – disbelief. Today, the evidence “remains highly controversial”, in the words of BirdLife International.

A decade on, another ‘rediscovery’ is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. But the saga of the Night Parrot in Australia is altogether different, revolving around claims from a controversial figure who has largely withheld evidence from public scrutiny on the grounds of a media tie-up – despite concerns that the species may persist only on unprotected land owned by commercial interests.

Perhaps the key point here is that, while there is an accepted peer-reviewed process for describing species new to science, rediscoveries lack the same procedural scrutiny. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker claims were central to more than $20 million being spent by federal and state governments on recovery efforts before the saga descended into the realm of cryptozoology. In Australia, the future of the Night Parrot appears closely linked to the motives of its ‘rediscoverer’, who reportedly took thousands of dollars in admission fees at his last ‘presentation’ event but continues to keep most of the facts private.

These episodes point to a need for some kind of ornithological ‘treasure trove’ agreement, applicable internationally, which ensures that evidence for claimed rediscoveries is assessed and verified independently, and through which plans to protect such species are developed and publicly embraced. That way, such iconic birds on the edge surely have their best chance of survival.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Double top

First-winter Caspian Gull today in east London - this individual is a little darker on the nape than most I see.
I had time for just a few hours on my Thames-side patch this morning, but after low numbers of gulls a week ago my hopes weren't high. Wrong! Within 10 minutes of getting within range of a few dozen loafing birds near the river, I glimpsed a first-winter Caspian Gull and then an all-white - and familiar-looking - individual settling down to sleep. It looked like a third-winter Iceland Gull, and plumage-wise seemed very like Norwegian-ringed JK0P I'd found here back in January. A closer approach only succeeded in flushing the group, and unfortunately the Iceland flew directly away, its legs not visible.

This third-winter Iceland Gull first visited the site back in January, and reappeared today after seven weeks.
After scouring the area I eventually relocated the Caspian at much closer range, and a while afterwards picked up the Iceland in flight closer to the river. Both birds eventually settled, the Iceland more distantly, and I was able to photograph its rings and confirm it as the same bird from seven weeks ago.

Record-shot confirmation that the Iceland Gull was the same Norwegian-ringed bird from January.
At one point both prize larids could be seen distantly keeping company with each other, before the Iceland headed off back to the river. I guess it's not so often that these two species encounter one another, but then again the Thames is one of Britain's top sites for Caspian Gulls, and regularly attracts one or two Icelands during the course of each winter. Having them in the same field of view feels like a privilege, but today it was sadly not for long enough to get anything better than the poor record shot below.

Here's some more pics of the Caspian, showing a nice pale underwing in the first image and also in comparison with a same-aged European Herring Gull.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

March 2015 | Issue 273

I have fond memories of seeing my first Common Crane in Britain. I was 17 and on a family trip to north Norfolk when we heard a rumour of one feeding in riverside fields on private land. Working out where it might be visible from a public road, my brother and I eventually found the bird – and what an impressive sight it was. Still an official rarity at the time, I recorded the details in my notebook, crudely sketched it and submitted my first-ever description to the Rarities Committee.

It was some years before I next saw the species in Britain, an indication of just how rare a visitor it used to be, but cranes then settled in small numbers elsewhere in Norfolk. Having done so under their own steam, an obvious question is why reintroduce more when the species has already established itself? Given the significant funding and resources needed for such projects, it’s a fair point, and the same case might also be made against other reintroductions such as White-tailed Eagle and Osprey.

But there are actually very good reasons for doing so. I have been sceptical of the value of some of them previously, but modified my view over time. The presence of released birds in the wider countryside may jar with ‘purist’ birders in the short term, but who can really argue, for example, that several generations on it was a bad idea to re-establish Red Kites in the Chilterns? And think of the iconic and educational value too of the Ospreys at Rutland Water and the White-tailed Eagles on Mull, not to mention the significant benefits to rural tourism.

On a number of levels, reintroductions of native birds are justifiable and should be welcomed. Without a helping hand, many of the species involved are destined to remain rare, teetering on the edge of their range here, or lost forever as part of our avifauna.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Morocco weekender

Gulls resting at the mouth of Oued Ksob, just south of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Offshore in the background is the island of Mogador, summer home to one of the world's largest Eleonora's Falcon colonies.
Birders visiting Morocco focus primarily on the specialities for which this Maghreb country is so well known, from the likes of Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tchagra and Atlas Flycatcher to Moussier’s Redstart, African Crimson-winged Finch and House Bunting. That’s just what I did on my first two visits, in 1995 and 2009, but on both occasions I couldn’t help noting just how good the coast was for gulls.

Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls provide an ID diversion in a range of plumages.
Celebrating an anniversary with Hazel, last weekend we went back to Morocco for a short visit to a coastal town missed during our first trip. Essaouira claims Jimi Hendrix among its famous visitors, but to birders it’s best known for the Eleonora’s Falcons which breed a short distance offshore on the island of Mogador. Some 600 pairs constitute one of the largest colonies of the species in the world, but as a summer visitor to the Mediterranean basin and north-west Africa they don’t return from Madagascar until late April. Bird-wise in February, my free time was focused instead on gulls.

A rather pale first-winter Yellow-legged Gull with a mantle pattern somewhat recalling European Herring Gull ... 
... but otherwise rather typical michahellis Yellow-legged Gull in flight, with neat tail band, reduced inner primary 'window' and largely dark outer greater coverts, among other features.
Resident (and wintering?) Yellow-legged Gulls are joined by large numbers of wintering Lesser Black-backed Gulls from north-west Europe at this time of year, so it was a good opportunity to look at the variation in both species side by side. Both graellsii and intermedius Lesser Black-backeds are present, though some of the younger birds are difficult to determine. Black-headed Gull was present in small numbers, perhaps 20-30 daily, as were up to five or six Mediterranean Gulls. The other expected species was Audouin’s Gull, but having seen good numbers near Tamri to the south previously I was surprised to see just two on one day and six on another – and all adults.

Adult Audouin's Gull - one of the Western Palearctic's most beautiful larids.
With gulls there’s always the possibility of surprises, and on Saturday 14th February at Oued Ksob, a couple of miles south of Essaouira, it came in the form of a second-calendar-year Great Black-backed Gull. This species is rare, if not a true vagrant, this far south, and this bird presumably originated from north-west Europe though the species has, bizarrely, been discovered breeding at one site in Atlantic Sahara in recent years.

A first-winter Great Black-backed Gull, rare this far south, with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
A bigger surprise still came the following day, after I’d spent a couple of hours from first light grilling the gulls again at the port and then at Oued Ksob. Leaving the beach and heading back towards the car, I glanced one last time over my shoulder at the gulls – and there suddenly was a large, white-winged larid: Glaucous Gull! I knew one had been photographed in the port some weeks previously but it hadn’t been seen in recent weeks, and must have flown in behind me literally moments beforehand. A different individual has also been seen further south in Morocco this winter, at Khnifiss; both locations are extraordinarily far south for this Arctic breeder.

Second-winter Glaucous Gull - the pale golden eye is probably the best clue to this age.
... here looking rather blotchy from behind, with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls for company ...
... and looking very distinctive on the wing as it flies off for a dip in the channel.
A few other species of interest were seen during the long weekend – more in another post. In the meantime, some phonescoped video footage of the Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls will appear shortly on my Facebook page.


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