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.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Tracked from the Arctic

Third-winter Iceland Gull (right, with adult Black-headed Gull). This bird, hatched in Greenland, was ringed in Norway and has also been seen in Denmark before visiting London last month.
Somewhere in remote southern Greenland, high on a steep and windswept cliff, an egg hatches. Breaking free from its ovid pod, a sticky, downy and unsteady chick takes its first steps before its mother gently cleans, preens and broods it. This ball of downy fluff is the latest arrival in a colony of Iceland Gulls – a species which breeds here and nowhere else on Earth.

The year is 2012, and our chick arrives in the few weeks of warmer weather that pass for summer in the Arctic. Not all chicks make it to fledging, but this is one of the lucky ones, and come autumn the youngster moves away from its natal area and, eventually, to northern Europe. We know this for a fact because the following spring, on 12 April, ringers catch the bird in Oslo, Norway, and mark it with a black ring coded ‘JK0P’ in white (also with metal ring number 4261758) – one of only 18 Iceland Gulls to be banded in the country.

JK0P lingers in Oslo until 24 April, after which there are no more sightings until the autumn. Then the bird is sighted again on 6 November, but this time in Denmark, 510 km SSW at BlÄvandshuk on the west coast of Jutland. You can see what this itinerant larid looked like then in second-year plumage here.

Interestingly, after no sightings for more than three months, JK0P was refound again on 22 February back in the same Oslo park where it was first ringed, and was reported intermittently there and nearby until 16 April. It’s possible, perhaps likely even, that the bird stayed south of its breeding range in at least its first summer, but subsequently it may have returned to Greenland.

My part in JK0P’s story came on 16 January this year with a chance encounter at a private industrial site in east London. If I was pleased to find an Iceland Gull on my patch, I was positively thrilled when I noticed the ring and got photographs showing the code. JK0P was now 1,143 km SW of the original ringing site. I put out the news via BirdGuides and posted a couple of images on social media, but this proved not quite to be the end of the story.

Distance from ringing to recovery sites is 1,143 km.
Once I’d entered details of the sighting into the excellent Norwegian colour-ringing website, I was contacted by Morten Helberg and given chapter and verse on the bird. Morten also mentioned a sighting of a Norwegian colour-ringed Iceland Gull at Loch Oire, near Elgin, Scotland, on 30 April 2013 that was either JK0P or JM0J, the latter bird not having been seen since it was ringed on 4 January 2013. Two days after my encounter, fellow Rainham birder Paul Hawkins told me he saw what may well have been the same Iceland Gull at Egypt Bay, Kent, while from Buckinghamshire Tim Watts sent record shots (see below) of a same-aged bird that closely resembles JK0P at Calvert Lake on 28 November 2014 – photographed near dusk, the bird has what looks like a Norwegian ring but, like the Scottish individual, the code is unfortunately not legible.

This same-aged, colour-ringed Iceland Gull was seen in Buckinghamshire about six weeks before JK0P appeared in London. The ring code couldn't be read but strong plumage similarities suggest the same bird was involved in both sightings (compare field marks in my annotations with images of JK0P above and below. Photos: Tim Watts).
On checking The Migration Atlas, published by the British Trust for Ornithology in 2002, I discovered there are just two previous confirmed recoveries of Iceland Gulls in Britain, and apparently none since:



So JK0P becomes the first ‘recovered’ Iceland Gull in Britain for 60 years, and perhaps it will be seen again before the next journey north. The chances of a sighting from Greenland are effectively zero through lack of observer coverage, but the species’ known breeding range and this individual’s repeat showings in three European countries in as many years all highlight the extensive wanderings of this subtly beautiful larid. If you are lucky enough to find an Iceland Gull on your patch, make sure you check it for rings.

The slightly darker and browner tone to the outer primaries is somewhat suggestive of Kumlien's Gull, but the bird is otherwise typical glaucoides Iceland Gull.

Thanks to Morten Helberg, Peter Rock, Paul Hawkins, Tim Watts, Peter Adriaens and Dawn Balmer and Rob Robinson at the BTO for information and comment on this fascinating bird.










Sunday, 25 January 2015

Big Garden Birdwatch, and then some


A snap shot through the window of today's female Blackcap, the first of the winter, on the Christmas cake feeder. It appeared just after I'd finished the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, but visited on and off throughout the morning.
Unless you have been living in a cave with no outside contact for the last few weeks, the chances are that you’ll know this weekend was the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch event. I know many keen birders who don’t take part, and for some years I didn’t do so either, but when the kids were little it started to become an annual ritual in our household, as a way of opening their eyes to the natural world. Now they’re big and understandably have other priorities (not least university), so the ritual falls to me – and it’s one that I actually enjoy.


As this hugely popular citizen science survey lasts only one hour, you have to time your run right. One year I had a dismal seven species, a poor showing in my small but typically wildlife-rich urban oasis in north London. Today was better, with 37 birds of 13 species actually in the garden between 08:10-09:10. In order of appearance, they were Blue Tit (3), Blackbird (5), Chaffinch (3), Robin (2), Starling (2), Goldfinch (6), Great Tit (2), Magpie (2), Wren (1), Dunnock (1), Woodpigeon (4), Collared Dove (2) and Greenfinch (4). A Carrion Crow and three Black-headed Gulls which flew over fell outside the terms of the survey but took the garden day list up to 15 species, while no sooner had I finished and entered the totals into the RSPB website than the first Blackcap of the winter, a female, appeared on the Christmas cake feeder!

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