Monday, 30 December 2013

More Northern Delights and a Troublesome Larid

I managed to squeeze in one more morning's birding north of Aberdeen on Saturday. The plan was to hit the Ythan area (just 15 minutes away) shortly after dawn. At the A90/ A975 near Newburgh I stopped to watch a murmuration of perhaps 10,000 starlings - always a beautiful sight.

I was going to head to Meikle Loch first but something drew me down a minor road in the opposite direction - the coast. I arrived at a village called Collieston and was delighted to find several thousand gulls strung out along the coast, doing battle with the elements as a savage sea threw towering waves at a series of small rocky inlets.

I haven't done gulls for a while, in fact most of my 'gull-watching' was from last winter at Milton Tip. I quickly picked up a 3rd winter Iceland gull. There were red-throated divers offshore, a passing common scoter and a long-tailed duck. I settled down for the morning and eventually found another Iceland gull - a 1st winter feeding in the surf.

2nd winter herring gull, presumably argentatus - sometimes get mistaken for smithsonianus when this dark

Adult Argentatus herring gull - large, dark bird from Scandanavia with reduced black on wing-tip

1st winter Iceland gull

3rd winter Iceland gull


Then to top it all (or so I thought) I saw this.

It appeared to be a 2nd winter Kumlien's and I rattled off hundreds of pics despite the poor light. (Perhaps surprisingly I've not seen Kumlien's gull in the UK or Ireland - just a couple of adult-types in Canada, but I did see a probable Thayer's-Kumlien's intergrade in Oxfordshire a few years back.) Just before I had to leave I spotted it roosting on a nearby pier and snuck up on it for some digiscoped action. Had I have looked at it properly I might have picked up on some anomolous features but as it was I was behind schedule and raced back to my in-laws from where I headed south with the family to Cheshire where we had an overnight stop at a hotel on our way further south. I stuck a pic of the gull on Facebook and had some interesting feedback (from Ollie Metcalf, Rich Bonser, Julian Hough and Ash Howe - thanks guys) which caused me to go through my photos on the journey, looking at the bird more carefully. The bird was not an obvious Kumlien's - it was too dark and large-billed and the tertial/ covert pattern, pale eye and primary pattern were all questionable. The dreaded 'H' word raised its ugly head. I'd been complacent and forgotten to consider hybrids, a schoolboy error! It now appears to have been a glauc x herring, a common cross in Greenland and Iceland (often given a name in its own right, 'Nelson's' technically for a Smithy cross in N America or 'Viking' gull). I've seen one or two myself and found no problem realising what they were as I was watching them, but this one was smaller, herring gull-sized with much paler primaries than those I'd previously seen and it had got me. I think it's important to admit when you've made a mistake, learn from it and move on. Though I quickly realised it wasn't a Kumlien's I was slow to accept it as a herringxglauc as it did not fit my search image of this, so well done to Richard and Julian for pursuading me. A wise man once said he who professes to truly understand the complexities of Larid identification is merely a novice...OK, actually that's bollocks, I've just made it up myself, but I'm sure my meaning is clear - gulls are a headache and if you're not a Larophile yourself you're better off phoning a friend (who is)! Or checking your photos before putting a name to something. Photography is in fact a mixed blessing - it is absolutely invaluable for help with complex i/d's but tends to take over from watching the bird - now I tend to base most i/d's on a quick look before I spend the rest of the time taking pictures, and often I forget to watch and enjoy the bird! I think with tricky gulls a sound i/d should not be made prematurely but only after you've carefully examined the evidence and considered all possibilities.

UPDATE 3/1/14  Having spoken to various others and examined lots of shots on the web it appears the identity of this gull is likely to remain unresolved as a Larus spp, probably a hybrid of some description. Some favour a Viking-type (though it's rather small and the primaries are somewhat paler and plainer than those of most herring x glauc crosses I've looked at), others a dark Iceland gull and at least one other local observer has seconded a suspicion I'm currently harbouring - could it be an Iceland x herring gull? Just a thought - I guess we'll never know.

could it be a herring x Iceland gull hybrid?

2nd winter Kumlien's is highly variable in appearance (and little more than a hybrid swarm itself in the eyes of some) but compared to this bird should look 'cutesier' with a dark eye and smaller bill with clearer-cut tip. The brown wash on the primaries would be more obviously darker on the outer web and (usually) faded or absent on the inner primaries. It would usually look paler below with a different patern on the tertials/ coverts. Some pale Kumlien's are indistinguishable from glaucoides with only the faintest amount of brown along the primary shaft/ outer web

looking uncharacteristically dark in this pic alongside an Iceland, so perhaps not a good representative shot

Friday, 27 December 2013

Northern Delights

Traditionally I spend Christmas with my in-laws near Aberdeen and this year was no exception. I try to get out birding at least once and yesterday I decided to give Peterhead a try. I've never been before and wasn't sure what to expect though a check of bird news covering the previous 9 days revealed a red-necked grebe to be in the area.

I arrived for first light as I had to be back for lunch time. It was crisp, clear and cold and eventually the sun hauled itself lazily into the sky above the eastern horizon. I was pleasantly surprised by the birds on offer - I soon found the red-necked grebe which showed well off a small pier; there were plenty of purple sandpipers about (I counted at least 17) and offshore a minimum of 18 long-tailed ducks, one group with a fem/ imm velvet scoter. A juv great northern diver was hanging out in the harbour with many red-throated offshore. Nearby a small estuary held a flock of lapwing, one bird leucistic and closely resembling one I saw in Cambs a number of years ago.

I stopped at nearby Boddam on the way home and was pleased with a slightly oiled 1st year Iceland gull and a photogenic 1st winter drake long-tailed duck. All in a all, a productive morning's birding!

Great black-backed gull

Great northern diver

Iceland gull

Iceland gull

leucistic lapwing

leucistic lapwing

long-tailed duck (1st w drake - nb bi-coloured bill)

Red-necked grebe


cormorants and shag

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Arctic Ghost of Christmas Present

Ivory gull. A real five star rarity from the frozen north, this 'Arctic vulture' is a less than annual visitor to our shores and I'd seen just once previously, in 1997. 2013 has proven to be a mega year for rare birds and one of the highlights of its final month was an unprecedented arrival of ivory gulls - I think seven individuals were involved, beating the previous best annual total by one. Most didn't hang around but one in Yorkshire did and soon started to draw crowds as it paid regular visits to a feeding station where fish had been left out for it! I paid my respects on my birthday and enjoyed wonderful views.

It was initially distant, perched on rocks at the edge of the mud flat but was eventually flushed by a peregrine, after which it had a good fly around. It showed some interest in the feeding station but decided to sit on top of a roof for a while and only came in to the feeding station mid afternoon as the light was just beginning to go (not to feed but rather strut about a bit, pose for some photos and have a drink from a puddle!) We watched it at a range of about 20 metres on the ground and had flight views down to about half that so everyone went home happy!

Sunday, 15 December 2013


It's been more than 23 years since I've seen parrot crossbill in the UK. One at Gib Point in October 1990 and 4 at Holme, Norfolk a few days later. Part of a small invasion which also involved a good few two-barred. Just lke this year, except now there's even more, with perhaps HUNDREDS of rare crossbills in the country - flocks of up to 25 parrot and 17 two-barred are out there!

I'd already seen some TBC's in the Brecks this year but I resisted the temptation to twitch some of the parrot crossbills near the coast. The Mayday ones however were just 40 minutes from home so it would be rude not to try.

Yesterday was my second attempt. Crossbills were present most of the time I was there. Initially they were quite tough to i/d, a small group of both species (common & parrot) it seemed but had I been in Speyside I would have called most of them Scottish - they looked rather intermediate and it was hard to assess bill structure at certain angles as it should always be judged in profile. Eventually they departed and soon after a flock of better-looking crossbills came in - they looked like they were all parrots and included 'The Guv'nor', proclaiming his dominance on the topmost branch and proving steroid abuse is alive and well in the Loxia group!

The others were more subtle, as can be seen. They were not calling much and I found the call to be of less use than expected though I thought I'd heard the two clear types in the earlier flock. Then again on my first visit there was clearly a common giving a parrot-like call which reverted back to normal call in flight. Clearly it should only be used as a supporting feature.

The photos below start with the obvious brutish one and show some smaller-billed parrots as you go down, finishing with a couple of straightforward female commons (the one at the puddle actually photographed recently at nearby West Stow). Comments on I/D are welcome.

parrot crossbill flock
parrot crossbill flock

obvious female parrot even from this angle!
probably a large-billed common but initially thought to be parrot

Probably a pair of large-billed common, the female could be said to display the 'bull neck' and flat crown/ 'lack of forehead' typical of parrot crossbill but structural differences should be treated with caution when viewed from a single photo as the impression can vary with the bird's posture

presumably large-billed common
standard female common
standard female common
standard female common

Friday, 22 November 2013

Another good find in the fens!

'Hug a Hoodie', quipped Cameron. And if I could have got close enough I would have. Yesterday I took a wander round Woodwalton Fen and found a hooded crow. Not a bird that floats your boat? Well in Cambs over the last few years they've been as rare as pallid harriers. This individual represents my first in the county and (by the following day when found still to be present) the first twitchable one in a decade. Nationally (specifically in Scotland) it's not a particularly rare bird but I was still pretty chuffed though a bit frustrated when my camera's focusing mechanism jammed. I still managed one shot - can I bring myself to share it here? OK, why not? Please email me if you wish to purchase a framed print of this stunning portrrait, already tipped to be Cambs Bird Club Photograph of the Year 2013 (It's the bird on the right by the way)!

I would like to thank my camera for focusing on the cars in the background - great job, you really did them justice!
I seem to be having a lucky run birding locally in the fens and yesterday was my first trip out since finding the Northern harrier at the Ouse Washes. I've been out around 10 times since May (average of perhaps 2 - 4 hrs in the field) and have found 6 county rarities including 2 BBRC's (one a potential 4th for Britain). This is WAY better than my usual hit rate. I've been going out mainly midweek which helps but I think it's luck mainly - being in the right place at the right time. Anyway it's certainly opened my eyes to the potential of this area. If I lived a bit closer I could go out more often and who knows what's out there to be found?! Then again I'll probably not find anything now for the next few years. Luckily I twitch too so I'm still guaranteed to see some good birds one way or the other.

And now to keep your mind off that slightly tempting stonechat with the funny tail that you'd have gone for had it not been on Scilly (and as an apology for the hoodie shot above) here's a reminder of what hooded crows can look like - a few birds I've taken in Scotland in recent years.

This one taken at Loch Ness. But is it a hybrid? Might have to do some reading up

Friday, 1 November 2013

Lifting of the Catharus Curse

The Catharus Curse comes in the form of 3 dipped veeries and 2 failed plane charters for hermit thrushes. These delightful little birds are exciting TransAtlantic vagrants but they can be highly elusive and have a penchant for turning up on far flung islands, making them hard to connect with.

The hermit thrush found at Porthgwarra on 29th October should prove to be the 9th record for Britain but it's the 1st to be found on the mainland. Cue major twitch! At this time there were already Yanks turning up all over Britain and Ireland, the great storm having pulled in ruby-crowned kinglet, mourning dove, 2 American robins and 2 myrtles while the long-staying Cape may continued its presence on Shetland luring intrepid listers further north than they would have preferred.

I couldn't quite make it on the first day but was there on the 2nd after an overnight drive to this traditional birding spot in the south-west. It took a while for it to be found by which time most of us were beginning to think it had gone. But a scramble round the corner and hopes were rekindled. It had shown to some lucky observers for a minute or two but had disappeared! We waited for perhaps another half hour until Josh J noticed it just feet away from him. He tried to prevent a stampede but as perhaps 200 birders all moved into position, not surprisingly it did a runner.

A game of cat and mouse ensued over the next few hours with the crowd waiting patiently for views. The bird obliged on several occasions and most observers left satisfied. We tried for a nearby white-rumped sandpiper but the strong wind and high levels of disturbance were instrumental in our failure. So too perhaps the fact that we were in the wrong place (next day it was further along the coast). But who cares? Hermit thrush is in the bag and I didn't even need a bank loan to get it.

Yanks reign - Last 3 pages are making my notebook look like the Sibley Guide!

Sunday, 27 October 2013


 Cape May warbler, a bird of near mythical status with one record for Britain, of a singing male in a Scottish glen near Glasgow for just one day in 1977. One record until now that is!

The second came along in the form of a first winter found by Mike Pennington at Baltasound, Unst, and here it is. Worthy of a chapter from UK500: Birding in the Fast Lane (or maybe just the middle lane, as it was day two of the twitch, not day one!) it was not an easy trip - 30 hrs spent in the car was nothing short of punishing and the flight was dramatic at times - in a small plane which had to take evasive action due to the amout of helicopters in the area - we were forced to descend at more than 1,200 ft a minute (usually 500ft) which caused my head (and Dave's) almost to explode with excrutiating pain coming from my right ear canal - not pleasant!

We touched down without further indident and were soon at the site. Just 4 birders present with the main ferry crowd facing lengthy delays due to a suicide on the crossing! The bird was very elusive in blustery winds during the first hour or two but eventually we (sometimes just I!) learned to listen for its high pitched call and to work the stone walls when it left the garden as it frequently perched on them and the wire fences, making regular sojourns to the ground. As can be seen, cracking views eventually obtained!
So many rarities get discovered on Shetland these days I'm beginning to think they grow them on trees there!