Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Sierra high

Recalling a small, shorter-tailed Song Sparrow, Sierra Madre Sparrow is an endangered Mexican endemic.
This sought-after species is now found in just two localities and nowhere else in the world.

One of the major highlights of yesterday's field trip with Hector and Rafael was this unobtrusive but ultra-rare endemic. It took a bit of digging out, too, as all the best birds do, but I eventually picked up this Sierra Madre Sparrow when it flew in and perched, calling, on a nearby rock. My first impression was of a petite Song Sparrow, but that larger species (which I'd seen the previous day) is different in a number of respects, being longer-tailed with less rufous upperparts and darker flanks.

The bad news about Sierra Madre Sparrow is that it is in serious trouble. BirdLife International puts the fast-declining population at somewhere between 2,500 and 9,999 mature individuals. Even more dire is its range, the species now being known from just two locations (BirdLife again). It's hard to see how a dwindling species can recover from such a position, but action to prevent habitat destruction is being taken, as are other measures - see the BirdLife factsheet for more on this interesting endemic.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

... and endemics

Endemic to western Mexico, this Colima Pygmy-Owl was a welcome addition to the trip list.
Since arriving in Mexico I've been itching to get out birding, so today's 3.30 am wake-up was an easy deadline to meet. I had a whole day arranged with Hector Gómez de Silva, and together with Rafael Calderón we headed well south of the city into Morelos, to be at Cañon de Lobos as the sun came up.

This Blue Mockingbird - another endemic - was typically skulking, but posed briefly in the open for this shot.
Squirrel Cuckoo is widespread in Middle America; this is the subspecies mexicana, endemic to western Mexico.

That was the start of 14 thrilling hours of birding, with highlights including endemics and other specialities, not least Colima Pygmy-Owl, White-naped Swift, Grey-breasted Woodpecker, Grey-barred Wren, Sierra Madre and Black-chested Sparrows, Rufous-capped Brushfinch, Red Warbler and Hooded Yellowthroat. Here's a few images from the day to start with - more to follow shortly.

A poor record shot of my first Black-chested Sparrow, another endemic which is restricted to south-west Mexico.

Monday, 25 July 2011

On the trail of Aztecs ...

The pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan - you can just about make out the 'ant people' marching to the top and back.
About 50 km north-east of the sprawling mass of Mexico City, two huge structures rise out of the landscape towards the sky. These are the pyramids of the sun and the moon, the most impressive remnants of the one-time Aztec metropolis at Teotihuacan. The site dates back the better part of two centuries, and the visitor cannot fail to be taken aback by the scale and geometry of the remaining structures. It's possible to walk to the top of the sun pyramid, but we decided to forego the round trip of almost 500 very steep steps for a more leisurely look around at ground level.

Up close, the structures are even more impressive - this is the moon pyramid.
Abandoned as long ago as the 7th century AD, the site has long since returned to scrub and grassland, and birds are among the most obvious residents now. Inca Doves and Canyon Towhees foraged everywhere while House Finches sang from crumbling monuments and Vermillion Flycatchers sallied from fence lines. I wandered off piste briefly and ran into a noisy party of Curve-billed Thrashers, with other species around the site including Bewick's Wren, Rufous-backed Thrush, Black-chinned and Song Sparrows, Bronzed Cowbird and Bullock's Oriole. It was a welcome first taste of birding in this part of Mexico, ahead of tomorrow's big day out.

Down Mexico way

Male Vermillion Flycatcher at the Aztec site of Teotihuácan, north of Mexico City.
Greetings from Mexico, where I'm currently on holiday with the family. Why Mexico? Here's five reasons for starters:
  1. The birding in any country with a national list of more than 1,000 species has got to be top notch.
  2. From Aztec pyramids to Mayan temples, the cultural heritage is outstanding.
  3. The cuisine is among the best in the world.
  4. There is almost no chance of bumping into the oafish Jeremy Clarkson*.
  5. Nor his irritating nurk of a sidekick, Richard Hammond (Dick for short)**.
These weren't the only criteria, of course, but we knew from past experience just how good it is here. This is my fourth trip in recent years, and the third with the family. This time our itinerary will take in new locations in and around Mexico City, as well as more familiar territory in the Yucatan Peninsula.

While this is certainly not a birding trip, with more focus on family activities and other interests, birds will inevitably feature (and frequently, at times). Posts will be short and possibly sweet, as internet access allows, and will major on images, with just this handsome male Vermillion Flycatcher to get things underway.

* For more on Clarkson's ignorant slurs against Mexico and its people, see the BBC's website (and also this YouTube clip for another career 'achievement' when the Top Gear presenter quaffs Ortolan Bunting snack).
** See the first link above for the same from his lapdog Hammond.

Friday, 22 July 2011

British subspecies - a new list

Back in the June issue of Birdwatch we published a feature looking in some detail at Britain's endemic bird subspecies (now available to read online here). To complement that article by David Callahan, I decided to fulfil a long-held aim to produce an up-to-date, annotated listing of all British bird subspecies - a bigger task than originally envisaged, as the final tally of 7,700 words indicates. Happily, the first edition (v1.1) is now available for free download via the Birdwatch website - all you need is Adobe Acrobat Reader, then click here for your copy. Comments are welcome, as regular updates are planned.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Which frigatebird?

Comments are welcome on the identity of this frigatebird, photographed on Michaelmas Cay in the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia, in early August 2009.
Having recently researched birding information on Queensland for an article in next month's Birdwatch, I was reminded of a minor identification puzzle from my first visit to Australia two summers ago. One of the highlights of that holiday was visiting the Great Barrier Reef, a long-held ambition. We made two trips, and for the first my son Ed and I took a boat out from Cairns to Michaelmas Cay, where we did some snorkelling and enjoyed the company of large numbers of Great Crested and Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies.

The dark head and throat suggest Lesser Frigatebird, though that species should typically show a more pointed white 'spur' on the axillaries, with the black on the lower underparts protruding more into the white breast.
While photographing the throng of terns on the beach, a lone frigatebird drfited over. My previous experience of this family was restricted to Magnificent Frigatebird, so I was immediately out of my comfort zone. Both Great and Lesser Frigatebirds occur in the Great Barrier Reef, the latter apparently more commonly, but I haven't felt fully confident nailing this bird as either species. The dark head and throat are strongly suggestive of Lesser, but the white breast doesn't appear to extend as a 'spur' onto the axillaries in the typical way shown in photos and illustrations of Lesser, and neither does the black on the lower underparts terminate "in inverted V at white breast", as Harrison puts it (and illustrates it) in Seabirds: an Identification Guide. Plate 52 in that work also depicts adult female Lesser as having the black head almost isolated from the dark upperparts by a near-complete narrow white collar, which clearly isn't the case here either (perhaps making it a sub-adult?).

Seeking closure on the ID, I emailed images to a friend in Queensland for comment. To my surprise, he felt unsure too, so here I throw the question open to anyone who feels suitably qualified to give a firmer view. Doubtless it's more straightforward for those with frequent experience of both species, so I look forward to learning.

In the meantime, here's a few more images from that trip to Michaelmas Cay:

An adult Brown Noddy poses for photos - nesting seabirds on Michaelmas Cay are amazingly tame.
Greater Crested Terns on the beach - what price one of these in Europe?
Sooty Terns on feeding missions gave great opportunities for flight shots.
Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies mass around their nesting area on Michaelmas Cay.

Monday, 11 July 2011

A night in Provence

What was a pan-tropical booby doing in Provence? And would it stay just a little longer?
This trip started out as an idea to twitch vagrant seaduck in Aberdeenshire, but somehow got lost in translation. Five species of scoter on the same stretch of Scottish coast had become three by the time I was able to go, and then a rival attraction appeared on the scene – about the same flying time from London, but in the opposite direction.

News of a Red-footed Booby on an inland lake in southern France broke early last week, and it surely constituted one of the most bizarre records of vagrant seabirds in the Western Palearctic. I don't think anyone expected this lost soul to stay, but it did, and by Friday I’d decided to break for the border, mainly courtesy of some British Airways air miles. Nothing ventured …

Saturday, 2 July 2011

For midsummer, read autumn

One of three returning Green Sandpipers in front of the Ken Barrett hide ...
... for some species, 'autumn' begins early.
A short (and overdue) visit to my patch at Rainham Marshes this morning produced the first signs of autumn, with three Green Sandpipers in what little suitable wader habitat remains on the reserve, two Black-tailed Godwits overhead and, most surprisingly, an early migrant Tree Pipit, calling as it flew over Purfleet 'scrape'.

Two Black-tailed Godwits circled the reserve before disappearing towards the Thames.
A good selection of seven species of warbler featured six of them in song, including two male Cetti's and a showy Lesser Whitethroat. A few other species of note included Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk, Little Egret, single Northern Lapwing and Oystercatcher, and eight Common Terns fishing mid-Thames on the rising tide. Of 10 species of butterfly, Essex Skipper was the most notable.

Singing male Reed Warbler - one of many at Rainham today.

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