Monday 24 June 2013

Whinchat, Dartmoor

22nd June 2013 Challacombe Down, Dartmoor


Getting a little slack with 'regular' posts - truth is there's rather little about right now at my local haunts. Still waiting for the next 'interesting' gull at the Recreation Ground, even a Mediterranean or a Yellow-legged Gull would be something! If things don't pick up soon I may have to start moult scoring Herring Gulls...

Meanwhile I had a wet and windy afternoon on a beautiful part of Dartmoor on Saturday. Best birds were a pair of Whinchats on territory - sketches of the male and then the female.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Why is it called Soft-plumaged Petrel?

I've just finished painting another petrel plate - for what is provisionally called 'The Tubenose Handbook'* authors Hadoram Shirihai and Vincent Bretagnolle. This gives me an excuse to write about something a little more exotic than what's currently showing around Topsham - in fact not a great deal it being June. Here's part of the finished plate, mostly Soft-plumaged Petrel in it's various guises, before any corrections of which, knowing Hadoram, there will be quite a few.

Soft-plumaged Petrel always struck me as one of the oddest of bird names. It's not exactly a useful field character - 'Pterodroma close going right! it looks really soft!' Mind you, given that many Pterodromas do look pretty similar, I can understand why things might have got a bit desperate when the names were given out.

So where does the name come from? John Gould described the species in 1844 and gave it the name Procellaria mollis - mollis meaning soft in Latin (as in to mollify). He was impressed by 'the peculiar character of the under plumage, which is much more dense and soft than that of most other members of the group' (Gould, 1844). Incidentally, in this article (actually a 'letter' to the editor) Gould described ten new species of tubenose - those were the days! So P.mollis became known in English as the 'Soft-plumaged Fulmar' - it seems a lot of petrels were called 'fulmars' in those days.  Since then it's been moved around somewhat before currently sitting in the genus Pterodroma - anyone remember Œstrelata? It's worth remembering though that birds were, and still mostly are, named from a specimen, so what appears significant 'in the hand' may not be much use 'in the field'. It might not even be visible, I suspect Fregetta storm-petrels were originally assigned to species on the basis of whether the tarsus was reticulated or holothecal - basically scaly or 'booted' - try looking for that in a good photo!.

So is the plumage of mollis particularly soft? Well not really, from handling specimens I can't detect any real difference from other Pterodromas. I wondered if Gould was examining a recently fledged juvenile - retaining some down perhaps - but that's unlikely given Gould's expertise. Also, his description mentions dark brown (not grey) wings - indicating a fairly worn bird. Unfortunately his type specimen is not at Tring so I haven't look at it.

Incidentally, ever wondered how these specimens were 'collected'? Obviously taking birds from breeding burrows would be straightforward - if you were at the breeding grounds. On land the gun was the usual collecting tool but if you shoot a bird at sea it's going to be tricky to retrieve. Here's Robert Murphy (1936) who found Soft-plumaged Petrels 'to be one of the species readily caught on a line baited with loggerhead turtle meat or other attractive lure. After taking the hook the birds would fly high, so that the process of capturing them was like hauling in a kite.' It makes grim reading now but I believe, if anything, it means the specimens we have are even more precious and we should derive as much valuable information from them as we can.

Here's a selection of specimens from Tring, all pale type birds but showing the variation in extent of the breast band.

The next photo shows three darker birds, two intermediate types and a fairly uniformly dark bird. Based on the limited number of specimens I've seen I'd guess that there are not just two types or morphs but a gradation in underpart pigmentation. I've also seen photos of birds that appear to be significantly darker than this.

*The full title will probably be: Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of The World: A Handbook to their Taxonomy, Identification, Ecology and Conservation. A&C Black/Christopher Helm, London.


Gould, J. 1844, On the Family Procellaridae, with descriptions of ten new species, Ann.Mag.Nat.Hist., 13: 363.
Murphy, R.C. 1936, The Oceanic Birds of South America, New York.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

My (just about) annual Red Kite flyover

3rd June 2103 - Topsham


I spent a while yesterday standing in the garden sky-watching. It's a bit like sea-watching, but with even fewer birds and of course I can pop back inside every now and again for a coffee or even to do some work. I've added a few raptors to my garden list this way - if I can count birds that may be as much as a half a mile above the garden, but it's my garden and my list so I can. Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are regular of course, Peregrines and Hobbys are frequent and over the years I've also seen Osprey, Honey-Buzzard, Merlin and Short-eared Owl going overhead. I once even photographed a Goshawk by accident.  I was focusing on a Buzzard and only half saw a blurred shape in the background, even higher up. Checking the photo later I saw looming behind the Buzzard the bulky pale shape of an adult Goshawk, I could even make out the big white under tail coverts.

Yesterday's Red Kite was my fourth from the garden and on a typical date. It was drifting north at no great height and I should have been able to get some half decent shots. My camera had other ideas and for some reason it decided to change settings without telling me and so the first few photos, when the bird was closest, were blurred and underexposed. At least the last few shots were better, but by then it was disappearing up the valley.

Looking at those spots on the pictures reminds me I need to clean my camera sensor.

One of my self-imposed tasks this summer is to fill in some gaps for the Devon Bird Atlas. Specifically I want to get breeding confirmation for some local breeders. Yesterday I checked off Coal Tit. Here's a just fledged youngster from my garden with buffy cheeks, tiny bib and big yellow 'feed me' gape flanges.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Adding to my collection of ropey bird photos

I've realised it's been a couple of weeks since my last entry, so much for regular posts. In an attempt not to let things lapse too far, I'll post a few photos from the past few days.

I've been travelling a little further afield recently, covering a few tetrads for the Devon Bird Atlas - mainly mid to north Devon. It's been a great excuse to visit places I'd never otherwise see, some fine countryside that I'd normally drive through on the way to somewhere 'more interesting'. I take my camera of course, and got some shots of birds I hadn't photographed much, if at all, before. Nothing spectacular, and often rather poor photos, but interesting I think.

Skylarks were reasonably numerous in the country north of Crediton. I can never resist trying to get decent shots of their song-flight, this could be a lot sharper but at least the bird was low and not a dot in the sky.

I see Stock Doves fairly regularly but rarely close enough to photograph, these juveniles posed nicely and also were proof of successful breeding.

If those photos were average the next are atrocious - but I still thought them worth saving. I found a single Tree Pipit singing from, and above, a scrubby field by a main road. Perhaps the less said the better about the quality but at least the photos show the short curved hind claw and, just about visible, the contrast between the bold breast streaks and the apparently plain flanks.

On the subject of flight identification of Tree Pipits, here's a 'better' one from a few days earlier in Surrey. On this bird the primary pattern can be 'read' - the fifth primary (counting ascendantly, or outside in) is considerably shorter than the fourth (they're much the same length in Meadow Pipit). In case you're wondering about my arithmetic, the longest visible primary is actually the second - the first is tiny and hidden by the primary coverts. Of course, another good feature is the very fine streaks on the flanks.

Also from Thursley, here's a Woodlark. Despite them breeding only a few miles from Topsham I rarely get over that way to see them and I don't think I've ever photographed the species before. This one was singing from a wire so the angle was difficult. Still, it was showing some serious looking hind claws.

Back in Devon I was working some tetrads near Knowstone in North Devon. I found a few Spotted Flycatchers, this is my 'best' shot, about the only one where the head wasn't hidden behind a branch - I'm sure they do it deliberately.