Monday, 29 February 2016

Gulls on the patch: late winter update

First-cycle Yellow-legged Gull - numbers of this species are very low on the Thames in winter.
It's been a relatively quiet season for gulls on my study site in east London, with the winding down of food waste disposal into landfill (see here for more background to this). I'm continuing to survey the site, monitoring and counting gulls (and other species) each month, but overall numbers and diversity are a shadow of what they used to be.

Systematic counting does bring small rewards, however, and it's always good to see colour-marked birds and establish their history. Most of those on the Lower Thames site I watch have been ringed by the North Thames Gull Group, a long-standing and stalwart group of enthusiasts who use distinctive orangey-red rings with black four-digit codes (always ending in 'T') to mark their birds. Occasionally, however, gulls bearing the bling of other ringing projects pitch up, and so far this year, for example, I've had two European Herring Gulls from Havergate Island in Suffolk, red VTH (below) and red VKD.

Second-cycle European Herring Gull VTH, ringed as pullus in Suffolk on 29 June 2014 and resighted for the first time on 22 February 2016 on the Lower Thames, 112 km SW.
The map belies the real nature of this bird's movements, as 608 days elapsed between the two sightings at the endpoints of the line.
Occasional birds from continental Europe also appear, and this winter's somewhat meagre haul has included both European Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls from Norway (which also produced a rare colour-marked Iceland Gull last winter), but pleasingly also a banded Caspian Gull - seemingly not from the east European heartland of this species' breeding range in Poland and Ukraine, but probably from a Danish scheme using yellow rings. I've emailed the organiser with details, and will post an update here as soon as I hear anything.

Third-cycle Caspian Gull, the rarest plumage - and also a colour-ringed bird from the Continent!
The ring code is difficult to read but may be VD0G, which would probably tie the bird to a Danish scheme.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Going Dutch, part 2: plastic fantastic

Bar-headed Goose with Greylags (and Ruddy Turnstone) in The Netherlands, where this introduced and well-established species is largely ignored by local birders but ticked by visitors.
"Do you realise how low you've sunk?" Marcel heckled as I zoomed in to appreciate the finer points of an immaculately plumaged Bar-headed Goose. He was of course right. 'Cat C' listing is, frankly, pretty desperate stuff, and in no way does it feel like 'proper' birding. For this reason, I completely ignored the fistful of potential WP ticks on offer last time I was in The Netherlands in 2012: that was on a family holiday in the south-west, and I wasn't going to disrupt proceedings and go out of my way for a goose, a swan or a parakeet. But this time, on an overnight trip targeting the wintering Siberian Rubythroat and with a few hours to spare, why not? And by any standards, Bar-headed Goose is an aesthetically outstanding species.

Marcel's scorn is rooted in a major cultural difference in the birding scene in Holland. Probably uniquely, the Dutch don't recognise naturalised introductions as part of their avifauna. Unlike all other 'advanced' birding countries in Europe, they don't even have a Category C as part of their national list (nor in fact a Category D for species of uncertain origin, but that's another story), From a purist's point of view ignoring these species might therefore seem justifiable, but in practical terms does it make sense? Like many other western European countries, there are significant populations in the wild of birds derived from introductions or escapes. Like it or not, they have become part of the national avifauna, and in some instances - for example Barnacle Goose - the division between wild and feral birds actually seems pretty blurred.

Alexandrine Parakeets in Oosterpark, one of several Amsterdam sites where the species occurs in numbers.
The list of established exotic birds in The Netherlands includes three species - Bar-headed Goose, Black Swan and Alexandrine Parakeet - which are not 'countable' in Britain as they do not have populations that are officially recognised as established (probably wrongly so in the case of Black Swan). This means that for WP listers from Britain, and indeed many other parts of Europe (notably Scandinavia and countries bordering the Mediterranean), any visit to The Netherlands means the chance of three ticks which, paradoxically, Dutch birders routinely ignore.

I may have shunned them last time I was here, but now it was time to put pride to one side and get the job done. And with the help of Marcel, who despite misgivings kindly staked out the Bar-headed Goose prior to my arrival, I'd got off to a good start. After a second helping of the rubythroat, I had to complete the task on day 2 with the help of Waarneming.nl, where news of Black Swan sightings revealed one close to my route back to Amsterdam, and in the city itself I scored with Alexandrine Parakeet in Oosterpark thanks to a tip from Laurens Steijn (this species is also possible in Vondelpark and Beatrixpark, and several other localities).

Game, set and match! A Black Swan with its Mute cousins completes the Dutch plastic fantastic overnighter.
While I'd draw the line at long-haul targeted trips for 'Cat Cs', I'll continue to tick them when the opportunity arises. Incidentally, WP listers might be interested to know that the latest version of the Italian national checklist includes Muscovy Duck as an established species for the first time, thereby also adding it to the Western Palearctic list. On the debit side, however, Fischer's Lovebird is no longer considered self sustaining in France, so if you've already got tickets booked for Nice, head to the hills or Camargue instead and do some real birding!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Going Dutch, part 1: rubythroat quest

When I was a fledgling birder in the early Seventies, I used to thumb the pages of Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow in wonderment at the more exotic species of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. None stood out more to me than Siberian Rubythroat, a relatively drab bird but for the male's utterly dazzling throat patch. It was virtually unknown west of Siberia, and only in Asia could it realistically be hoped for. In April 1991 I was in Hong Kong for a conference, and on a day off Hazel and I were out walking on the mountain of Tai Mo Shan when I flushed a darkish chat from a scrubby gully; it flew up onto a low branch, turned and flashed its best jewelled side at me. Incredible! Completely unexpectedly, I had fulfilled an ambition held since childhood, and I can still remember that view like it was yesterday.

I've seen a few rubythroats since then in Asia, but never in the Western Palearctic. So recent news of the first-ever record for The Netherlands, a lingering male in gardens in the small Noordholland town of Hoogwoud, could not be ignored. Using Avios points and just £35, I booked return flights on British Airways from London City Airport to Amsterdam on 5th February, returning to Heathrow the following evening. With time at a premium, almost inevitably the outward flight was delayed for more than two hours, but by early afternoon I was parking the rental car in Hoogwoud full of anticipation at another overdue encounter with Luscinia calliope.

Dutch birders and photographers focus on their target on a quiet housing estate in Hoogwoud.
"It was showing well 20 minutes ago," said Marcel Haas, who I'd arranged to meet on site, "but then it flew off." These are not the words anyone wants to be greeted with after the morning I'd had, and with the heavens starting to open things were beginning to look ominous. But Marcel, archivist for the Dutch Rarities Committee, had seen the bird before and knew its 'MO', so hopefully I wouldn't have a wasted journey. After 40 minutes patrolling the footpaths through the quiet housing estate the bird had adopted, I caught a movement as something flashed over my shoulder and went into a tree. Whistling to the small crowd waiting nearby at the usual stakeout, I got onto the bird and knew instantly what it was: "Rubythroat!" The bird returned to its original spot and over the next 30 minutes we all saw it very well indeed, though in the poor light photos were tricky.

Male Siberian Rubythroat at Hoogwoud - about the only decent image I managed on the first afternoon.
Temporarily sated, Marcel and I left to visit a couple of other sites before nightfall. I knew the weather would be better in the morning and the rubythroat apparently performed best then, so I would return. Instead, we hurtled around several Noordholland sites, our end-of-day whistle-stop tour peaking at Den Oever where a wintering drake Bufflehead was in residence. How many day lists have ever featured those two species? We celebrated with a sizeable dinner and a healthy discussion around our common interest in Western Palearctic birds, and particularly the region's rarer species (Marcel's excellent book on the subject is a must for all serious WP birders). Then the following morning I thanked Marcel for his hospitality, hit Hoogwoud for round two with the rubythroat and birded my way back to Amsterdam.

At times the rubythroat could be observed singing quietly, and has been heard mimicking Yellow-browed and
Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers, instantly giving away genuinely Siberian rather than captive origins.
This drake Bufflehead was a fine way to end an afternoon that began with Siberian Rubythroat.


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