Friday 29 March 2013

Plenty of Chiffchaffs and some Gull Movement

Cornwall and Devon 25th-27th March 2013

Sometimes you've really got to feel sorry for birds. A few days ago there was a massive arrival of Chiffchaffs - OK, sounds good so far - signs of Spring and all that. I first noticed them in numbers Marazion in Cornwall on Monday afternoon, there were dozens of them feeding frantically along the water edge. I felt a bit guilty grumbling that the pasty shop had just sold out. Over the last few days I've seen them just about everywhere, in my garden, by the river even at the roadside when waiting at traffic lights (I was waiting, not the birds). And that's the problem, they should be finding territories, singing from the treetops and getting ready to breed, instead they're desperately searching for food on the ground. Apparently this has been the coldest March since 1962, bad for us but potentially catastrophic for insectivorous birds - there are hardly any insects on the wing yet. This morning I watched a Chiffchaff chase a bluebottle around the garden, I felt like cheering when it caught it.

Here's one from Marazion a few days ago, thinking about diving for tadpoles.

On a brighter note there are signs of gull movement (put like that it sounds like an unusual bowel complaint). The Common Gulls have mostly gone and I'm seeing a few intermedius type Lesser Black-backs each time I visit the river. I suppose you can never be sure that these are definitely Scandinavian birds, but they mostly look as dark as this bird, as dark as the two Greater Black-backs squabbling over a Cormorant's stolen lunch.

Thursday 28 March 2013

So That's Why It's Called Purple Sandpiper

Penzance - 26th March 2013

Some bird names only make sense when you remember they were generally invented by people who only ever encountered the species as a specimen. Is the plumage of Soft-plumaged Petrel really that soft?  Not particularly, as it happens. And what's so pomarine about Pomarine Skua - it was originally pomatorhine (via French pomarin) meaning nose with a lid, i.e. horny plates covering the nostril - a cere. So, a feature shared with other skuas and not terribly helpful in the field.

Purple Sandpipers have never looked particularly purple to me, mostly dark grey.  Then I was processing some shots from a few days ago and noticed a faint, but definite purple tint to the scapulars of this bird. It's not obvious and I certainly didn't notice it at the time but it's definitely there. It's another 'museum name', obvious when you've got the bird in the hand, less than helpful from any distance. Still, I can't help wondering why, given its habits, it didn't get called Rock Sandpiper - I know that name now goes with Calidris ptilocnemis but that species was described by Coues in 1873, surely by then C.maritima (described by Brünnich in 1764) should have taken the name?

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Another Marsh Harrier

Topsham Recreation Ground - 24th March 2013

It didn't seem that cold when I left the house. When I reached the river I wished I'd brought gloves - well actually I was starting to wish I'd stayed at home. It was cold and it was dark. So if there was anything interesting I was just going to get more rubbish photos, if any. Photographing distant flying birds at ISO 800 with a 300mm lens plus converter is generally pointless, I usually get grainy pixellated blobs, in fact, pretty much what you see here.

Another male Marsh Harrier and a different bird - unless he's picked up a wing tag in the last couple of weeks. It also looked to be another third calendar year bird judging by the dark tips to the flight feathers. A quick web search later and this appears to have been tagged as a nestling in Norfolk in 2011. There is a code on the tag but I can't read it from these photos

And, if only to underline the winter feel, there were Bramblings still in the riverside gardens and the usual Long-tailed Duck looking quite at home on the river.

I think this time last year I was wondering if it was time for shorts and sandals...

Postscript 28/3/2013.

I contacted Phil Littler of the North West Norfolk Ringing Group since the Marsh Harrier appeared to be one of his birds. After looking again at the photos we've concluded that the code is in fact AC. This bird was ringed and tagged as a pullus at Sculthorpe Moor, Norfolk on 10th June 2011; it was sexed as a male on leg measurements - looks like I aged it correctly. This was its first sighting since then, presumably it's been living somewhere a little warmer for the last year and a half and is now heading north for its first breeding season.

My Other Interest

I've just received a complimentary copy of Britain's Hoverflies by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris. It's always nice to get a free book (OK, I admit I can imagine exceptions). This was a book I was delighted with. I haven't had time to look through in detail but, from first impressions, it looks splendid. The photos are very good, many are superb. I particularly like the close up shots of key identification characters, most are much easier to see in a photo than even a good drawing. For years I've used British Hoverflies (Stubbs and Falk 2002) to identify my Syrphids, I'll be interested to see how the two compare - if summer ever gets here.

So why did I get a free copy? The book includes one of my photos, just one, on page 10.

I offered them better shots of this species (below) but they were happy with this. I know it shows the haltere well enough, but so do others. Still, seems a very good deal to me, thanks Roger and Stuart. I might just get my macro gear out again this spring.

Sketching Snipe

Topsham Bowling Green Marsh - 15th March 2013

The afternoon low tide looked like it would coincide with some heavy rain so I decided on a change from my usual routine and took an early walk past Bowling Green Marsh. No early Sand Martins yet, just a distant fox, the usual waders and ducks and a group of Snipe resting by a pond close to the fence. Sunny mornings at Bowling Green often mean strong glare and back-lighting which can be frustrating but can also make for interesting pictures. My photos weren't up to much but here are some sketches.

Ageing Redpolls - or not

Topsham Recreation Ground - 13th March 2013

Just a few photos of some of the Redpolls (to be exact Lesser Redpolls Carduelis cabaret) that have been hanging around the riverside gardens in Topsham over the last week or two. First an adult male, told by the very pink breast.

This next bird is clearly not an adult male, which is probably all that can be safely be said. It could be either an adult female or a second year bird.

Finally, not a great photo but it does show something interesting. The front/upper bird is obviously an adult male - I think the same as in the first photo - and the other bird obviously isn't. But look at the difference in the tail shape. Those very pointed tail feathers very much suggest a second calendar year bird, i.e. it's been carrying those tail feathers (more pointed than an adult's to begin with) since fledging last Summer. The adult's tail feathers will be newer, as well as rounder tipped to begin with. The situation is complicated as adult Redpolls have more pointed tail feathers than is typical of other finches. Still, I think there's a good chance the second bird is a youngster.

Topsham Harriers - not a football team...

Topsham Recreation Ground - 10th March 2013

I popped down to the River Exe at Topsham Recreation Ground on midday Sunday for some fresh air, exercise and a quick look at the low tide gulls. A few minutes later the dog was wondering which stone she would carry home today (no, I don’t know why), I was trying to turn a large darkish Herring Gull with an interesting primary pattern into an argentatus when everything got up and flew off. Typically this means a raptor in the vicinity. Sometimes it’s a hunting Peregrine but can often be just a distant Sparrowhawk – not really much threat to a large gull – but today it was a harrier quartering the reed bed across the river.

I’d found a Marsh Harrier here two days before and only managed distant shots so, thinking I might get something better today, I started shooting away with my Nikon in burst mode. The I noticed the bright white rump – excellent, now I’ve got a Hen Harrier. At that point, with the bird flying ever closer, the camera battery died. I had a spare, quickly changed it and looked up expecting to see a tiny speck disappearing across the river. But it was still there, floating at near stalling speed over the reeds. After a few more shots I realised I was photographing a Marsh Harrier after all and I began to wonder if I’d hallucinated the white-rump.

Photographic evidence was conclusive and I’m relieved to report that my faculties are not yet that damaged. In hundreds of hours at this site over 13 years I’ve seen exactly one Marsh and one Hen Harrier (and the last was on the Exminster side). Now I get one of each within a minute, and perhaps, but for a battery, I might have got them in the same frame. Now I wondered if harriers are like buses, wait for ages and then three turn up together. I hung around awhile confidently expecting a Pallid Harrier but no luck.

I like to try to get maximum value from photos so I thought it would be fun to see if it was possible to decide the age and sex of each bird. First the Marsh Harrier (all ID criteria based on Forsman, 1999).

From my previous distant views and photos it was quite clear that the Marsh harrier was a male. Easy enough, the distinctly blackish outer primaries contrasting sharply with the paler greyish inner primaries and secondaries are diagnostic of males. The broad darker trailing edge to the wing, visible on both surfaces, is not an adult feature so this is a young bird. A bird in it’s second year should, in March, still be carrying it’s juvenile flight feathers, uniform in colour but now quite worn and faded. So what about an older bird? In March a third year should have moulted it’s wing feathers to a more adult-like set, which is what this bird seems to show. Another indication is the large amount of black on the outer primaries, an adult would typically show rather less than this.

And the Hen Harrier? That’s a bit trickier and the choice here is between adult (or adult type) female or second spring immature; it’s obviously not an older male as even a third year bird would look basically pale grey with black wing tips. Juveniles have narrower and more pointed wings than adults but I really don’t see Hen Harriers regularly enough to feel confident about judging this. However, there should be some plumages features which would help to age it. Juvenile Hen Harriers appear to moult few feathers (and certainly no flight feathers) until their first complete moult starting in late spring of their second year. Adults have a complete moult finishing in September-October. So, in March, a first spring bird should look quite worn and faded compared to a much fresher plumaged adult. I don’t think this bird looks particularly worn or faded, there are obvious pale tips to the secondaries, inner primaries and tail feathers and probably also the upper greater coverts,  indicating third year at least. One thing bothers me though, on some of the photos the secondaries seem quite a bit darker than the primaries which is a juvenile feature.

So which is it? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure. I think I’ll have to put this one down as probably an adult female. On the other hand, there’s always the chance it’s still around and I can get better photos.

Forsman, D. (1999) The Raptors of Europe and The Middle East. Poyser, London.

Some Preambling

A few years ago I started to write a blog, The Topsham Naturalist, it’s still out there if you're interested. For various reasons I found myself posting less and less regularly and it finally dried up – on standby, as I like to think.

Last year I decided to get more active in local birding and to be more organised in my note taking and recording, and I felt the time was right to have another go at blogging. Although I have to think this is largely for my own gratification, a few people at least thought my previous efforts worth reading; and anyway, if I find this stuff fascinating maybe someone else will too. It also occurs to me that it would spare my loved ones having to listen to quite so much of my barely relevant ramblings – maybe that’s why Carolyn was so encouraging?

So here’s the plan; I’ll try to post at least weekly, photos of birds (and maybe other wildlife like insects if I dust off my macro gear) which I’ve seen locally, I’ll find some point of interest (to me at least) and write about it here rather than bore my family.

I’m an illustrator by occupation – here people often say ‘by profession’ or ‘by training’, but the first sounds far too grand, and the latter is certainly not true. I’ve painted birds for money for about 20 years now and been involved with quite a few books, the most notable being The Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo et al, 1992-2011). I provided illustrations for 13 of the 16 volumes and painted 124 of the plates – far too many some might think.

For the last couple of years I’ve been working with Hadoram Shirihai, Vincent Bretagnolle and Jan Wilczur on Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World: a Handbook to their Taxonomy, Identification, Ecology and Conservation (or The Tubenose Handbook as we call it).

So, as well as the local wildlife that catches my eye, I plan to drop in the occasional item about my illustration work and the world of sea birds.

By the way, the header image is a White-faced Storm-petrel, photographed by me off Madeira a couple of years ago. Now there’s a bird I could go on about at length…