30 December 2013

Siberian Chiffchaffs at Monk Haven

Monk Haven is a favourite site, a secluded valley with a Waste water treatment works at its head, an excellent churchyard and garden to the manor, a boggy pool and shingle beach looking out into Milford Haven. It's great for wintering Chiffchaffs and Firecrests and would probably turn up autumn goodies but no-one really looks.

Dave Astins and I visited on the afternoon of the 28th and wandered up to the Water works as a start. We got no further though because the place was leaping with Chiffchaffs including some notably pale birds. I still don't know how many there are - at least 9 collybita and 3 tristis but maybe more it's hard to keep up with them as they are always very active and there's lots of good habitat

It's difficult to distinguish the different individuals as they move about such a lot and they change appearance due to the light conditions and their angle and posture. Martin Garner's post re Siberian Chiffchaffs on 'Birding Frontiers' is a must for any discussion of the different effects on plumage tones, he calls it 'morphing' which is a great description. One of the birds at Monk Haven has very contrasty tertials - broad pale edges and strong dark centres. There are always collybita birds for comparison.

The following features pretty much describe the Monk Haven birds:

  • The head, mantle and back are brown-grey (re caveats on 'morphing' plumage tones), sometimes very pale-looking but sometimes 'milky-tea' colour or browner; completely lacking any yellow or green tones. 
  • The underparts are noticeably pale in all lights again lacking any yellow tones, including in the undertail coverts.
  • The supercilium is strong, distinct and whitish, tinged with buff-rust, particularly from the eye to the rear. Whitest at the lores.
  • The ear-coverts are warmer tinged, a 'tobacco-stain' colour, weaker or stronger depending on posture.
  • There is a thin clear white fairly complete eye-ring.
  • There is sometimes some yellow-green tones apparent in the flight feathers and at the bend of the wing. 
  • The great coverts are tipped paler, giving a faint but, at times, clear wing-bar.
  • The bill is black with sometimes a pale reflective effect on the mandible edges. There is a paler base (grey) to the lower mandible in at least one individual.
  • The legs are blackish with sometimes a paler reflective effect especially at the 'ankle' area which seems to be caused by the edges of the large scales. 

Same bird as photo above, note ear-coverts

grey looking at this angle

fairly obvious wing-bar

19 November 2013

The Orphean Warbler Story

photo Dave Astins

Just when you think the Autumn is winding down along comes something very very special and its turmoil (but good turmoil). The narrative begins on Sunday 10th November when local stalwarts Peter and Rosemary Royle posted on the Pembs Blog that they had seen a Lesser Whitethroat in their now famous garden at St Brides. Being mindful of the possibility of an eastern bird (halmondieri/blythi?) so late in the year, I emailed them asking them, if possible, to photograph the bird. The bird hung on and Peter eventually managed some really good quality shots which were posted on the Pembs Blog late morning on the following Thursday. 

I was preparing food, early evening when I checked the Blog an homed in on the photos. There followed a sense of confusion more than anything. I knew from ringing days that the complete white ring around the iris wasn't right for Lesser Whitethroat and that bill! What a stonker! Realising, with a start, that it wasn't a Lesser Whitethroat, I dived for 'Svensson', and anything else on the shelves in a bit of a panicky, headless chicken sort of way (allowing the food to almost burn and so annoying Kathy in the process). I was trying to keep logical and be thorough but Orphean Warbler just kept orbitting round an round in my head, it just seemed to be ticking the boxes.

photo Peter Royle

Kathy made me take a break and eat, and I also checked emails. There was one from Robin Hemming referring to the photos and suggesting I checked them out since the eye wasn't right unless it was a photographic effect. Funny enough this gave me loads of confidence. I wasn't going mad if someone else had noticed something wrong. I emailed local birders Dave Astins and Paul Grennard drawing attention to the photos and laying out my suspicions that it was an Orphean and was steeling myself to email the Royles and Blog the bird  (thinking all the time of the consequences of getting it wrong) when the phone went. It was Rich Brown, Warden of Skokholm and all round good bloke. I just knew what he was going to say and blurted out something like 'It's the eye and the bill isn't it? etc etc in a bit of a gabble. As the conversation became a little more coherent he added in the primary projection and mentioned the race (soon to be species?) thinking Eastern could be possible, though the consensus has swung towards Western as I write this account. The upshot was that it had to be Orphean and I put it out on the Pembrokeshire Blog as such, knowing that in minutes it would be picked up nationally. It was a huge call but it was done with a cool mind now. Rich phoned at 7:09 the news went out at 7:16 and the rest is a bit of a blur.

photo Dave Astins

 The Royles have been brilliant, allowing birders access to their garden and virtually everyone who wanted to see the bird has done so. It's been stressful but also very very enjoyable.

24 October 2013

Another Woodlark

Almost a year after the last one (which was at Heathfield GP on 27th October last year) another one! This time a flyover at St David's Head today, the 24th October. It's been a great morning's birding with a lot of vis mig, the usual Chaffinches and Starlings but also more Skylarks than normal (160 in a couple of hours mainly). I was counting them as accurately as possible and having to pick out Skylarks from amongst groups of Chaffinches, so my eye was well in. Then a familiar and attractive call off to the seaward side of me as I started down into Porthmelgan Valley. Immediately it was apparent it was a Woodlark and the the hyper-distinctive call, given repeatedly, was supplemented by the distinctive fluttery flight and short-tailed silhouette just round things off. I watched it for a short while as it flew south-east and into the low sun. A brief but brilliant experience on a really enjoyable morning.

A note on bird calls and geography.

When in the Pub on St Agnes recently, I noticed 'tirillee-eep' written on a page of my notebook - just that, nothing else and I recalled that I had written it down a moment after I heard the bird at Heathfield GP last year. However with the St Davids bird, and I'm writing this just hours later, the call is clearly fixed in my head as a softer 'toolloolee'. I know that transcribing bird calls is notoriously difficult and calls can vary slightly but I think there may also be a geographical reason for the difference.

It was the same call with the same syllables but I felt the bird today sounded slightly softer in tone. I think the reason is that the wide open spaces on the headland soften and dissipate some of the clarity of the call, whereas at Heathfield (a more enclosed inland site) the acoustics differ and the call seems a little clearer and sharper. The same thing seems to happen with Grey Wagtails, to give another example, the familiar piercing call, here around the garden can seem momentarily unfamiliar, more diffuse, when heard on a bird over-flying the open geography of The Head. Its something I think I need to check out more in future to see if it holds true.

20 October 2013

St Agnes October 2013

For the third year in a row it was time to head for Scilly for the first two weeks of October. Good birds and great company once again, though the hoped for second wave of migrants never appeared. There's always the Turk's Head, the most southerly and perhaps the best pub in Britain.

The first afternoon we caught up with the Immature Subalpine Warbler, a really interesting bird which threw a few people. A nearby Whitethroat was mistaken for it quite a few times. On the way to see the Subalp we found a Red-breasted Flycatcher at The Fruitcage and later caught up with the sunbathing Barred Warbler near the Church.

The juv Rose-coloured Starling was seen next day and daily thereafter, a very pale individual, missing feathers at the rear of the crown, it headed off to St Mary's for a day or two before returning to its usual spots around St Warna's Cove.

As always the huge numbers of tame Song Thrushes make quite a spectacle, always great to see as are Yellow-browed Warblers and there's usually a few around the island.

This Pied Flycatcher was always around The Parsonage, usually showing well and sometimes in company with a Yellow-browed Warbler.

Kathy missed seeing a Ringed Plover on the first day so when I heard one calling as we crossed the Gugh Bar, I called to her and turned to see it fly over the bay. Unfortunately she was a fraction slow so this turned out to be her first view of the bird.

Two special moths were visible on the school for a couple of days, both huge but the Convulvulous Hawk Moth was definitely eclipsed by the ultra sinister Death's Head Hawk Moth. I was blown away by it.

There were plenty of Wheatears present and Whinchats were regularly seen. We also bumped into a couple of Lesser Whitethroats. All great birds.

It was really nice to catch up with Short-toed Lark in Britain after a long gap, it hung around all trip and was great to see most days.

A Lapland Bunting showed well in the pig field at Castella but the biggie was found in the Marram grass on Gugh though the Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler was never seen very well and not at all by most. It certainly brought the St Mary's hordes - even though the Bar was covered it didn't stop them!

It's in there somewhere - maybe!

And so with a lack of real quality birds things ended with just a new Yellow-browed on the way to the boat (but they're always great). St Agnes will turn up mega birds in future years and hopefully we'll be here meeting up with a whole bunch of good friends and St Agnes regulars.

01 October 2013

September Highlights

September 2013 proved to be an exciting month for rarities in Pembs, helped along by an easterly airflow in the second half of the month. Luckily a number of birds were trapped or showed well enough for decent photos to be taken so there's a selection in this roundup. Unfortunately the photos of the Citrine Wagtails at St Davids which kicked things off on the 3rd are appalling,(see post below). However things improved with an adult  Semi-palmated Sandpiper at The Gann the same day, followed by by a juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs found by Glamorgan birder Mike Powell while looking for the Semi-palmated - a familiar scenario.

Semi-palmated Sandpiper
photo R Crossen
Lesser Yellowlegs
photo D Astins

The next two birds also came together in terms of date; Skokholm trapped a typically big looking Barred Warbler on the 8th whilst on Ramsey Lisa Morgan turned up a delightful Western Bonelli's Warbler which remained on the Island the next day. The Red-backed Shrike was on Skokholm on the 11th and Wrynecks totalled about a dozen in the month including the one below at Martin's Haven.

Barred Warbler Skokholm
photo R D Brown

Western Bonell's Warbler Ramsey
photo L Lomax
Wryneck Martin's Haven
photo M Young-Powell
Red-backed Shrike Skokholm
photo M Young-Powell

Ramsey did it again on the 23rd when Greg Morgan found a Booted Warbler, though Skokholm matched them with their own on the 25th trapped by Steve and Tina Westerberg and Rich Brown and then the same island hosted a superb Red-breasted Flycatcher the very next day. Then the same Skokholm team put the ball firmly in the back of the net with a Blyth's Reed Warbler trapped on the 27th to make a pretty impressive three days. Jonathan Bennett picked out a Yellow-browed Warbler on the 28th at Whitesands, hopefully the first of many this autumn!

Booted Warbler Ramsey
photo per G and L Morgan
Booted Warbler Skokholm
photo R D Brown

Red-breasted Flycatcher Skokholm
photo R D Brown
Blyth's Reed Warbler Skokholm
photo R D Brown

Finally Dave Astins discovered this male Isabelline Wheatear on the clifftop at the Deer Park, a lovely pallid visitor from the east to round things up on the final day of a cracking month in Pembs.

Isabelline Wheatear The Deer Park
photo D Astins

And there's still October to come. Can't wait!

03 September 2013

Citrine Wagtails

After a number of brief encounters with a Wryneck on the Butterfly Bank above the Youth Hostel, I headed for the Lleithyr horse field where there had been a Yellow Wagtail with 6-10 Pieds on a couple of days previously. I was glad to see a couple of Pieds but then did a double take. All of a sudden they looked more like Yellow Wagtails with no gorgets; looking smaller and neater than Pieds but completely lacking any brown in the upperparts which were clear grey with a blackish, relatively short, tail. Clean white underparts completely lacked any yellow including on the undertail coverts. I took a few distant photos (85 metres away) with a compact zoom camera and set off to get nearer. However as I turned to take the path along the hedge, the birds flew up and over my head calling at least 5 or 6 times. The call was very distinctive, an explosive 'tshrreeep', completely unlike 'Alba' wagtails and also very different to normal Yellow Wagtails. It was similar to the call made by the Black-headed Wagtail at Marloes Mere in the spring but perhaps more emphatic and richer. I've not heard Citrine Wagtail for years but it sounded as I remember. In flight the birds were relatively short-tailed and quite full in the body.

On the deck I was struck by the clear white, grey and black plumage tones. The wing-bars were strong and clear white, standing out very obviously. The head pattern was difficult to see in detail at such a distance, however the Supercilium stood out very prominently and the lores gave an impression of lightness but it was difficult to be precise and the pale 'wraparound' to the ear coverts could not be seen - it was just too far away though can it be seen on a photo?

The plumage and call clearly rule out 'Alba' and 'normal' Yellow Wagtails. However the problem of eastern Yellow Wagtails which can apparently, in extreme cases, lack yellow tones and have a similar call to Citrine is more of a challenge. I would expect these birds to have a less distinct head pattern though, including a narrower supercilium, not showing such overall contrast as these birds.

In context, I would think that the number of Citrine Wagtails in the country recently would be an argument in favour of Citrine, the likelihood of two striking Eastern Yellows together, on the west coast, on such an early date must be pretty distant I would imagine. Eastern Yellows are usually late-autumn migrants. The pictures below are terrible I know but they give a little feel for the birds.

07 August 2013

Pallid Swifts at Huescar

The highlight of Huescar market day is watching the Pallid Swifts flying around the Square next to the Bull Ring. I tried to get some photos but it turned out to be a nightmare task. The best of the bunch are not very good but allowed me to spend time familiarising myself with this enigmatic species.

24 July 2013

Cetacean Quiz

The 20th July saw Kathy and I aboard the 'Cap Finistere' ferry heading for Santander and with most of the day in Biscay looking for birds and cetaceans. Not a sausage birdwise. However 8 species of cetaceans more than made up for the lack. Photography was challenging so only record shots of Common, Striped and Risso's Dolphins as well as 2 each of Long-finned Pilot Whale, Northern Bottlenose Whale, Fin Whale and Cuvier's Beaked Whale. (We also saw but were unable to get any shots of Bottlenose Dolphins.) The photos are below, I'll add captions at a later date. The underwater Dolphin is on its side, a typical piece of behaviour for this species, along with mad back flips and lots of splashing. This helps id. The breaching Whale is also demonstrating typical behaviour for this species. Good luck.

Male Cuvier's Beaked Whale

Cuvier's Beaked Whale breaching

Fin Whale

Striped Dolphin

Risso's Dolphin

Fin Whale

Long-finned Pilot Whale 

Common Dolphin

Northern Bottlenose Whale

Long-finned Pilot Whale

Northern Bottlenose Whale