Monday 30 March 2015

No F in Larid!

It's been years in the making but, after much encouragement, some serious nagging and the occasional threat, it's finally here. I take great pleasure in directing you to Martin Elliott's new blog There's no F in Larid (you wouldn't believe some of the titles we considered while finishing off a bottle of single malt recently).

If you know Martin, you'll know what to expect. If you don't, he finds good birds, he often takes good photos (and when that's not possible he takes useful ones), he's a fine artist and he also tells it like it is. So for the latest Larid news from West Cornwall, for the dirty truth about gulls and gull ID, plus the occasional intemperate rant, go visit, leave a comment and let's make sure he keeps posting.

Cos the righteous truth is, there ain't nothing worse than
Some fool lying on some third world beach
In spandex psychedelic trousers, smoking damn dope,
Pretendin' he gettin' consciousness expansion,
I want consciousness expansion, I go to my local estuary an' I 'scope some Larid.

(with apologies to Spragg, Marsh, Edwards & Black)

Friday 27 March 2015

Why I really went to Finland

Baltic Yellow-legged Herring Gulls and the 'omissus' question

OK, I may not have come back with any cracking photos of owls but admit it, this is what you've all been waiting for - my yellow-legged 'Herring Gulls' from the Baltic.

Even occasional visitors to this blog will have noticed a regular feature - the mystery 'yellow-legged' gull challenge. This is when I post a photo of an adult gull with a medium grey mantle and yellow legs and proceed to convince myself at least that it's not Larus michahellis but a hybrid, probably argenteus x graellsii. So as I'm quite accustomed to seeing non-michahellis gulls with yellow legs, I felt comfortably at home in Helsinki recently when faced with a whole freakish series of yellow- (or yellowish-) legged argentatus types and their alarming progeny. No surprise really, the Finnish gulls with their yellow legs have been the subject of much head-scratching for many years; they even have name - 'omissus' -  which appears to have been originally applied to a different population and, since no proper description was published, is invalid anyway.

The taxonomic status and origin of these birds has been discussed since at least the early 20th Century and is seemingly no nearer resolution; if you really want to give your brain a workout, I recommend Jonsson 1998, also Panov & Monzikov 1998 for a Russian perspective, and Voipio 1993 for a historical review, the name 'omissus' first appears in Pleske 1928. Be warned, though, it's all a bit of a car crash. [Edit: should have mentioned, but forgot, Mierauskas & Greimas 1992].

Meanwhile, it's time for the gulls themselves; I spent a few hours over two days by the quay in Helsinki getting to know a small group of about 30, mostly 2nd cal.yr./1st cycle birds with about 10 adults and just one 3rd cal.yr./2nd cycle (which never came close enough to photograph). I'll start with adults.

Larus sp. adult - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. adult - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. adult - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. adult - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. adults - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Admittedly it's a small sample but a few things stood out:

None had the obviously pink legs I would associate with either British argenteus or Scandinavian argentatus Herring Gulls. The leg colour ranged from a pale, washed out pinkish-yellow to a bright michahellis yellow. Mantle shade was consistent and darker than British argenteus, typical of nominate argentatus in fact, the primary pattern was also typical of argentatus - all birds had much white on P10, either a large white tip or a large mirror with just a small black band before the feather tip, there was little or no black on P5, the orbital ring and gape appeared to be consistently red.

Now a selection of 1st winter birds and these were, if anything, even odder.

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland (same bird as above)

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland (same bird as above)
Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland (same bird as above)
Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 14/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland
Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland
Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yrs - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

Larus sp. 1st cycle/2nd cal yr - 17/3/2015 Helsinki, Finland

There's some variation in the base colour of the head and underparts as well as the degree of wing covert barring, not unlike what you'd expect in a Herring Gull at this time of year. Many have fairly dark coverts with thin simple fringes not unlike michahellis or cachinnans. The commonest scapular pattern seemed to be a thin sub-terminal anchor mark, often against a brownish background although many were pale. I could no sign of any moult in the wing coverts and some had retained a few juvenile scapulars. The big surprise was when these birds flew, showing little sign of Herring Gull type pale inner primaries - they were more or less all dark, like a Lesser Black-backed or a Yellow-legged Gull. The tail consistently showed a blackish band beyond a heavily black-barred white base, likewise the upper tail coverts were well marked.

Given that these birds are often alleged to originate from hybridisation between argentatus and cachinnans, I've got to admit I could see little sign of the latter other than the bare part colour in the adults and the primaries of the 1W.

So what are they? Well, what about the argentatus x cachinnans hybridisation theory? It seems to be accepted that numbers of pink-legged coast-nesting argentatus increased in the Baltic during the 20th Century, while at the same time yellow-legged colony-nesting cachinnans have spread northwest from the Caspian area. However, it appears that yellow-legged gulls were already nesting on the bogs and lakes of the eastern Baltic region at least 200 years ago, whether these were actually cachinnans or something else entirely remains to be proven. Pleske's original 'omissus' actually refers to birds collected on the Arctic coast of the Kola Peninsula and islands in the White Sea. Confused? You should be. As I said earlier - car crash.


Jonsson, L. 1998: Yellow-legged gulls and yellow-legged Herring Gulls in the Baltic. Alula 3:1998

Mierauskas, P. & Greimas, E. 1992: Taxonomic status of yellow-legged Herring Gulls in eastern Baltic. Dutch Birding 14: 91-94

Panov, E.N. & Monzikov, D.G. 1999: Intergradation between the Herring Gull Larus argentatus and the Southern Herring Gull Larus cachinnans in European Russia. Russian Journal of Zoology 3:129-141

Pleske, T. 1928: Birds of the Eurasian tundra. Mem. Bost. Soc. Nat. Hist. 6: 1-485

Voipio, P. 1993: Differences in ecological properties in the Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) as a basis for explaining and predicting colonization events - A case history in retrospect. Ann. Zool. Fennici 30: 3-15

Monday 23 March 2015

Penduline Tits - and then there were two?

21st - 22nd March 2015 - Topsham

They may be reduced in number, but the Penduline Tits at Dart's Farm Pools are still holding well-attended daily performances. Every time I drop in there must be at least ten other people present - birders, curious non-birders and photographers. Since the birds have been regular at the site since January, and allowing for repeats, I estimate a minimum of 2000 visits (it could easily be twice that number). Dart's Farm must be loving this - it can't be doing their trade any harm and has anyone thought of tapping them for some sponsorship?

Meanwhile, I did take a few more photos - compare these with my first efforts from the Recreation Ground back in December. First the male.

Penduline Tit male - 22/3/2015 Dart's Farm, Topsham

Penduline Tit male - 22/3/2015 Dart's Farm, Topsham

The black mask is fairly broad and extends well on to the forehead, the greyish crown and nape contrasts with the rich dark chestnut of the lower mantle, there are a few reddish brown feathers appearing on the breast. There are signs of an ongoing head and body moult, and the second tertial on the right and the first and second on the left are dropped. The pointed black centres to the central tail feathers are a good sign of a second calendar year bird. I guess an adult would also show a broader mask, more extensive chestnut on the mantle and more obvious rufous flecking on the breast. As well as an occasional call, I heard a few short, quiet phrases of song.

The other bird showed rather less well, though no complaints; it would appear to be a female, also a second calendar year.

Penduline Tit female - 21/3/2015 Dart's Farm, Topsham

Penduline Tit female - 21/3/2015 Dart's Farm, Topsham

The mask is slightly narrower and doesn't spread much on to the forehead or above the eyes. The most significant feature is the mantle, a pale reddish brown contrasting only slightly with the brownish nape and crown. As in the male, the pointed black centres to the central tail feathers indicate a second year/first spring bird.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Finland Long Weekend

14th-17th March 2015 - Helsinki


Thanks to the good people of Bongariliitto (the Finnish twitching/birding society) I just made a brief visit to Helsinki. I was invited to their 30th anniversary meeting to give a presentation on the identification and taxonomy of Isabelline and Brown Shrikes; of course I also managed to fit in a few days birding. Thanks to Kari Haataja, who very generously gave up his time to show me around, I had a splendid three days. No owls sadly, and no Three-toed Woodpecker (though I did hear it) but five White-tailed Eagles, a couple of Black Woodpeckers and some fascinating gulls were real highlights.

Great Grey Shrike - seen every day, always good value.

Snow Bunting

Hooded Crow - ubiquitous

Searching for Three-toed Woodpecker - at least I heard it.

White-headed nominate caudatus Long-tailed Tit

Jackdaw - race soemmerringii sporting a white necklace.

The fine art of shed watching

Waiting for the White-tailed Eagles

Still waiting, Janne Aalto demonstrates the famous 'Finnstick'.

My first White-tailed Eagle - seriously un-tickable views.

That's more like it.

White-tailed Eagle - a young bird.

That's as close at it came.

The Bird Tower at Kirkkonummi Saltfjärden - how about one of these on the Exminster Marshes?

Whooper Swans heading north.

And I thought I had issues with dodgy Herring(?) Gulls - more on these later.

Thanks again to Kari and everyone at Bongariliitto; and as for the species I didn't see, that's just an excuse to go back some day.

Tuesday 3 March 2015


2nd March 2015 - Topsham

Things must be getting desperate, I'm not only looking at ducks - I'm drawing them. The sorry state of birding at the Rec so far this year is that I get excited by a single Med Gull - or a pair of Goldeneyes.

Goldeneyes - 2/3/2015 Topsham

Goldeneyes - 2/3/2015 Topsham