Saturday 27 July 2013

Silver-washed and White

26th July 2013 - Upton Hellions, near Crediton

With just five days to go I've finished all my tetrads for the Devon Bird Atlas. It's been a lot of fun and I've seen parts of Devon I never knew existed. Mind you, I could do without the nonexistent footpaths, the over-friendly livestock and the blood-sucking flies. But it's been a great excuse to just go somewhere new and wander about - a hobby of mine, in fact. I've had to be fairly single-minded though, I'm too easily distracted by nice insects and I am supposed to be counting birds after all.

This morning, as a change from the usual lanes, fields and hedges, I found myself in a patch of woodland waiting by a gate while two tractors maneuvered past each other (and me), I noticed butterflies feeding on some sunlit brambles and decided I could spare a few minutes. Of course, I had my camera with me.

Two male Silver-washed Fritillaries, the second a little worn at the edges. There doesn't look to be much nectar left in those flowers but they chased off anything else that wanted a share, or maybe they were protecting their prime position in case a female came along.

White Admirals are butterflies I don't see often enough, I've certainly never had much success photographing them. The last shot didn't quite work out but it's the only one I got of the underwings, possibly even smarter than the upper side.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Juvenile michahellis finally arrives

23rd July 2013 - Exeter Quay

I was wondering when the first one would show up. In fact, I was starting to think that my rudimentary gull identification skills were leading me to miss them among the juvenile Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. So, after weeks of fruitlessly staring into the afternoon sun at Topsham Recreation Ground, I take Carolyn's advice and hop on my bike for the short ride into Exeter - maybe she thinks I could do with the exercise? Within minutes of arriving at the Quay I've got one.

It's a nice big bird with a fairly hefty bill, neat and contrasting scapulars and coverts and classic thin white 'thumbnail' tips to the tertials. The belly is white and fairly unmarked and the outer greater coverts get darker at the base.

After being quite unpleasant towards the other gulls (another ID clue) it eventually flew. The wings shows dark inner primaries (and a good dark wedge on the outer greater coverts); the black tail band is broad in the centre and narrows outwards while the upper tail coverts and rump are bright white with only a few dark spots. The underwing is well marked but nowhere near as dark as a Lesser Black-backed.

Now I could do with a few more, or even a nice fresh, photographable Caspian Gull...

Thursday 18 July 2013

Mostly Juveniles

9th - 17th July 2013 - Topsham

There is, of course, a down side to the current bout of what I hear is called 'summer'. On the Exe at Topsham Recreation Ground gull numbers are highest during afternoon and evening low tides when they drop in to bathe, preen and rest. Right now this means looking west with bright sun behind the birds - deep shadows and blown out whites and generally pretty frustrating. Although I don't think I'm missing out on much, I can only assume that the really good birds - like a nice juv Caspian Gull? - are waiting for the bright overcast days when their photos will look much nicer.

Wader passage is slight, a single Green Sandpiper, a few Curlews and a handful of Common Sandpipers (one of 15 on the 17th shown above). More of interest to me right now are the juvenile gulls. The first to arrive were the Black-headed Gulls, showing a few variations on the basic pattern - dark scapulars with neat pale fringes, and a dusky head with a dark 'shawl' - most are fairly brown on the mantle but a few are almost black. The second bird appears to have already moulted a few smaller scapulars and median and lesser coverts.

Then the first of this year's Herring Gulls showed up, barely out of the nest and still growing their outer primaries. Mostly pretty straightforward with their sandy brown tones, well notched tertials and pale inner primaries.

And a few Lesser Black-backed for comparison. Generally darker and often much less brown than Herring (though the light can alter that dramatically). Classic thin tertial fringes and more solidly darker outer greater coverts easy to see on the first two, and the dark inner primaries is the clincher.

And maybe it's cheating but here's an ID feature not mentioned in the books - these youngsters are still at least partly dependent on their parents for dinner. Easy now, aren't they?

Surprising as it may seem, there are birds other than gulls, here's an egret with yellow legs. Could this really be mistaken for a Cattle Egret?

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for one of these...

Monday 1 July 2013

Yellow-legged Gulls - or just gulls with yellow legs?

24th-28th June 2013 - Topsham


Most of my birding currently seems to involve staring at gulls on the Exe at Topsham. June can be a desperate time for gull watching, the wintering birds have gone, spring migration is over and the fresh juveniles have yet to appear. Still, there's plenty of gulls to look through at least. The local Herring Gulls are all well into their complete moult, the first and second summer birds often looking shockingly worn with pointy brown primaries and whole rows of coverts dropped. There's some variety in that they can all look so different - and often nothing like those nice, neat field guide illustrations.  Mid Summer is also when Yellow-legged Gulls should start to show up. What I seem to be getting though is 'not quite michahellis' - birds that at first glance look OK but on closer inspection just look wrong. I've seen three different birds at Topsham Rec in the last week, all looked promising at first but ultimately failed to satisfy.

Here's the first - 24th June; darker mantle than Herring Gull, yellowish legs, a lot of black on the outer primaries with a small mirror on P9.

Here's number two - 26th June; as before, darker mantle than Herring Gull, yellowish legs, much black on the outer primaries with a small mirror on P9.

Now here's number three - 28th June; again a darker mantle than Herring Gull, yellowish legs, much black on outer primaries but with no mirror on P9.

All three birds stood out as clearly different from the nearby Herring Gulls, most obviously in their darker mantle, but also leg colour and primary pattern. So why aren't they Yellow-legged Gulls? Several things appear odd:

Mantle shade - darker than argenteus alongside, but probably not actually dark enough for typical michahellis; also #1 and #2 at times looked a little too blueish grey.

Leg and foot colour - certainly yellowish from some angles, though often, when viewed from behind, appeared quite pink. Typical June michahellis should have bright deep yellow legs and feet.

Primary pattern - The broken black band on P5 of #2 and #3 are, while not impossible in michahellis, are rare. Also the whitish 'moons' behind the black on P5-7 on all three are atypical of michahellis.

Orbital ring and gape - difficult to see clearly but don't appear to be dark, they both should be red in breeding michahellis.

Moult stage - #1 has not yet begun primary moult, #2 is growing right P2, left P3 and P2, #3 is growing P3 on both wings. The second and third are a little late for michahellis whereas #1 hasn't even begun primary moult.

Size and structure - compared to most nearby Herring Gulls, all three birds looked small, with unimpressive heads and bills. This is admittedly an area of much overlap and they could just be small females but their size and shape certainly doesn't favour michahellis.

Most of these features are possible in 'proper' michahellis - with the possible exception of the orbital ring and gape which is very hard to determine from these photos. But, taken as a whole, I'm forced to the conclusion that all three birds are probably hybrids of some sort. It's hard to say what the parents are - although Herring Gull is certainly involved - and, of course, they don't have to be first generation crosses.

I've now seen seven different apparent hybrids at this site in the last 8 months and, while one or two were clearly not yellow-legged, I wonder how many of the others I'd have called michahellis on a cursory glance? I notice that Yellow-legged Gull has now been 'downgraded' to a category B species by the Devon Rarities Committee, i.e. only brief notes required. I wonder if this is wise?

Postscript: at the same time as the second bird on the 26th June I got brief views of a better candidate michahellis - it dropped in briefly showing darker grey mantle and an apparently dark orbital, briefly head-scratched showing nice yellow feet before disappearing when I was distracted - so no flight shots. It's not an adult - the grey-tipped blackish primary coverts just showing combined with the white mirror on an old P10 indicate a 4th calendar year bird. There's a lot of black on the just moulted P5 - just beneath the tip of the longest tertial - and also some black on P4. I would have preferred a nice spread wing shot but I'm happy to call this a michahellis.

Finally, many thanks to my good friend Martin Elliott who, unlike me, really knows a lot about gulls, for his invaluable, patient and expert input with these birds.