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.


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