Friday, 13 May 2016

Dalmatian spotted

Title of post shamelessly stolen from the Birdwatch office midweek ...

Travelling to see this Dalmatian Pelican, which has been touring Cornwall for the best part of a week now, was really one of those insurance jobs that'll likely get you nowhere in the long run - think along the lines of Chinese Pond Heron, Demoiselle Crane and indeed Great White Pelican ...

This is the second pelican I've seen in Britain following the Great White in Kent in August 2006; that bird proved to be an escape. This one is a little less clear-cut and is, on paper, as good as it's going to get over here - a bit more info on its status and history here. The problem lies with the unknown number of unringed, free-flying (or escaped) continental birds that are on the loose.

So, I doubt this beast will ever make it on to Category A, but it was quite an impressive sight to see it cruising around the skies of west Cornwall.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Rescuing a Great Crested Grebe

I had a slightly bizarre start to yesterday. I was out the back of Langtoft, doing a circuit of my old patch, when I noticed this Great Crested Grebe sat by the side of a the road. Immediate reaction was that it had been attacked, hit by one of the many HGVs using this road or had collided with power lines, which it was sat below. It was trailing its left leg, which was covered in blood, and its left wing also looked quite badly bloodied.

Having returned home for a box, I went back to pick the grebe up. It was quite feisty but obviously couldn't move, so was easy to catch. After unsuccessfully trying to contact local RSPCA branches, I took it up to the exotic pet refuge in Deeping St James. Quite miraculously, they were able to confirm that it hadn't broken any bones in either wing and the leg seemed OK, if a little sore and bloody.

So with the prognosis positive I popped it in the car, drove it back up to Langtoft and released it at the gravel pits, at which point it gave me a rather sharp peck before swimming off - talk about gratitude!

Then it was back to the day job ...

Monday, 25 April 2016

Cape Verde trip report

In March I spent a fortnight exploring the delightful Cape Verde archipelago with Neil Bostock and Dan Pointon. We were fortunate enough to clean up on all but one of the endemic species and forms - the only miss being Cape Verde Peregrine which, with no known sites, seems to require an immense amount of luck to connect with. Below you will find a comprehensive trip report including details of all these species plus the numerous other specialities and rarities that we encountered.

If you'd like the report in PDF format, or have any general questions about e.g. logistics, please email me.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

A few thoughts on the Israeli Red-billed Teal

In early March I spent a long weekend in Israel, where the primary target was the long-staying Bateleur (which we saw). A real bonus was hearing of the continued presence of the Red-billed Teal in the northern Arava, 're-found' by visiting Finns Seppo and Hannu and seen shortly afterwards by visiting Brits Chris Bell et al. As we were at the Arava junction of Routes 40 & 90 when Chris' SMS came through on 5th, we bolted straight up to Hazeva and saw the bird pretty well in the strong mid-afternoon light, though it was very wary and was mainly seen in flight.

Red-billed Teal, Hazeva, Israel, 5 March 2016

Long before the trip I'd been a fan of this bird being the real deal. Israel boasts the only previously accepted Western Palearctic record of the species (in June - July 1958) and of course has a strong track record with producing extremely rare sub-Saharan African vagrants. Barak Granit wrote an interesting article on the Israel Birding Portal website which coherently summarises where we are seemingly at regarding this latest bird. His conclusion was that it's ultimately still up for debate, though Barak seemingly falls on the pro-wild side (e.g. "An escape scenario is just plausible as well, but the evidence doesn't support such a scenario").

Red-billed Teal, Hazeva, Israel, 5 March 2016

Since reading this it's become apparent that some members of the IRDC are seemingly not keen on accepting the bird as wild (words such as "dodgy" have been used by the committee and apparently the suspicion is that it will be rejected). More digging seems to throw up two primary reasons for this:
  1. The bird is behaving in sedentary fashion (i.e. it has been in Israel for two years and currently shows no signs of leaving)
  2. The bird has hybridised with a Mallard
To me, neither of these factors suggest captive/escaped origin and are certainly not detrimental to the idea that the Arava Red-billed Teal is a wild bird. Personally I think it is disconcerting that anyone could be dismissive of the bird based on the above two factors, though of course others don't share my view. Allow me to elaborate ...

The bird's sedentary nature

Here I quote BirdLife International (2012): "This species is mostly sedentary or nomadic, but may disperse long distances (up to 1,800 km) in the dry season depending on the extent of flooding".

Red-billed Teal is a species that often moves based on the availability of water. If suitable habitat is present, it does not need to move. If water is not available, it has the ability to move large distances. If it is normal for this species to disperse the best part of 2,000 km in search of water, imagine what a vagrant might achieve? Red-billed Teal routinely occurs as far north as Sudan. From here it is really not that far to travel to southern Israel, particularly when you consider the Nile acting as a northward funnel for sub-Saharan species. If a vagrant teal is driven north by a lack of water, it could feasibly end up in southern Israel (as many other African species have previously). If it then finds a constant water source to its liking, as this bird has, why would it need to move? The current notion to reject the record based on its sedentary nature (a completely natural part of the species' ecology) therefore doesn't make much sense.

One should also consider other examples of long-staying African vagrants. Israel currently has one (the Bateleur on the Judean Plains has now been present for almost a year), possibly two (Yellow-billed Stork in Bet She'an potentially present a year or more?). Elsewhere there is a long-staying and regularly returning Grey-headed Gull in Italy (currently present for its fourth calendar year) and, as of March 2016, Cape Verde continues to host a single Black Heron (this bird having originally turned up alongside another in March 2011). Before this there was a Black-headed Heron there for over two years. These are just recent examples and there are no doubt many more.


Barak Granit refers to the occurrence of hybrid offspring alongside the Red-billed Teal as "much more worrying", but I do not agree with this. Dabbling ducks (Anatinae) are notorious for rife hybridisation, particularly among vagrants. It is a fact of life that Anatinae are very much advocates of 'free love' - hybridisation between species occur in normal circumstances, and not just in a vagrant context (where a lost individual will naturally look to breed with its closest available relative, if possible). If this is genuinely being used as a factor against the Israeli Red-billed Teal then, using the same logic, we should look to reject all those American Black Ducks that interbreed with Mallards in Britain, Ireland, the Azores and so on. Similarly any vagrant American Wigeon breeding with its Eurasian counterpart (or indeed Green-winged Teal with Eurasian Teal etc) would therefore be discounted as a wild bird. The fact that the Arava Red-billed Teal has bred with a Mallard at some point is, in my opinion, normal behaviour for a wild bird and in no way should be viewed as an indication of a captive/wild bird. Hybridisation is a true red herring in the 'wild or escape' debate.

On 5 March 2016 the Red-billed Teal was seen alongside two hybrid offspring - both of which are pictured in the images above. The mixture of RBT/Mallard features is quite obvious.

If you consider this in addition to the fact that Red-billed Teal is an abundant species in Africa with a massive range, the fact that none have been known in captivity in Israel for over a decade (though of course this does not discount the possibility of an escape from another country), that the bird is extremely wary and does not allow a close approach whatsoever (atypical behaviour for an escape), that Israel regularly attracts Afrotropical vagrants (including several long-stayers at present) and already has an accepted record of this species, I believe the evidence points towards this being a wild bird, despite the IRDC's reported reservations ...

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Another Saturday morning of gulls

Went back to the tip in Essex with Steve on Saturday morning - best birds as follows.

Adult Caspian Gull - same individual as that seen last week and regularly at this site for several winters now.

Second-winter Caspian Gull - a nice, distinctive bird showing small white mirrors on p10.

(Presumed) Iceland Gull - the third-winter bird seen here for a few weeks running (and on several dates last winter). Opinion still seems divided on the ID but personally I can't get past it being an Iceland.

Here's a pic of it alongside Herring Gulls:

Adult Black-headed Gull with extensive blue dye staining - this was by far the worst-affected individual but several stained birds were seen on Saturday including a couple of pink Great Black-backed Gulls!

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Azerbaijan trip report, May 2015

Some of you may remember that a long time ago, I visited Azerbaijan. It was my intention to keep up the tradition of producing detailed reports for each West Pal trip I went on with this excursion intended to be no exception. Unfortunately it has taken me the best part of nine months to pull my finger out and get this completed, but here it is. As always, you can email me for a PDF copy of the report or for further information on birding in this wonderful country.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Saturday at the dump

A very decent morning with Steve and Rich in blustery (but thankfully dry) conditions in Essex on Saturday. A reasonable number of gulls were present around the tip but the wind was making them quite restless - not least because large bits of rubbish were almost constantly blowing across the site and disrupting roosting birds. In total we recorded four Caspian Gulls throughout the morning - two adults, a near-adult and a first-winter.

The first to appear was this impressive adult - a big, rangy bird that towered above most of the Herring Gulls present. It showed a couple of times during the morning; the final shot below was taken on its second showing.

The second adult is a returning bird that has been seen regularly at this site since 2009. It's quite a small, pale-eyed bird with a distinct red eye ring and yellowish legs.

Unfortunately the near-adult flew almost instantly after Steve picked it up, but here's a flight shot for the record.

This distinctive and snouty first-winter also appeared on the edge of the melee for a short while before flying off.

A few other bits of interest were seen including numerous Norwegian-ringed Great Black-backed Gulls - part of a good influx of this species to the dump. Among these was J5493 or 'Big White', the leucistic Great Black-backed Gull which is back for its third consecutive winter at this site.

A bird that I'd really been hoping to see was a white-winged gull that reappeared at the tip last Saturday after having been seen here on several occasions last winter. It troubled various observers in early 2015 but looks a more typical dark-end Iceland Gull this year - although it is quite a large and robust bird and its moult seems a bit retarded for a bird of this age. Unfortunately it appeared for just a couple of minutes and was largely obscured in the flock - hoping to see it again before the winter is out.

An adult white-winged gull was also picked up in flight and watched drifting around for a couple of minutes, but unfortunately it wasn't the hoped-for Glaucous/Iceland and in fact either a white-winged Herring or Glaucous x Herring - in flight it looked like the outer webs of p9 & 10 had some mid-grey markings on them.

Thanks to Steve and Rich for having me along - a very enjoyable morning despite the gale blowing bits of rubbish in to the Land Rover. It's always hugely entertaining watching the gulls go about their daily lives in this unique environment, and I'll leave you with a couple of photos of a Great Black-backed tackling a large flatbread.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Japan 2015 days 14-15: Nakano, Karuizawa, Narita and London

2 January 2016

The scenery around Nakano was very pleasant indeed and Jigodukani was just a short drive from our hotel. Arriving some time before the 09:00 opening time, we took the half-hour walk up the snowy valley at a relaxed pace, searching for birds along the way. Unfortunately there wasn't much about save the common woodland species, with Varied Tit about as good as it got.

Thankfully the Japanese Macaques proved quite entertaining. Noisy, social and characterful animals, we watched upwards of 100 'snow monkeys' engaging in activities such as feeding, fighting, grooming and fornicating for about an hour, taking plenty of shots in the process. Rich also picked up an Alpine Accentor by the main spring, which was a nice trip tick.

After that it was back to Karuizawa for the rest of the day for another shot at the specialities we'd missed. Unfortunately we couldn't find even the most likely targets, Green Pheasant and Japanese Accentor, but did enjoy further good views of the Long-tailed Rosefinch flock in the bird forest clearing. I had at least four Hwamei behind the 7-11 store and Rich had a couple more towards Kose Onsen, while he also had a pair of Japanese Wagtails and 20+ Spot-billed Ducks at a nearby pond.

Long-tailed Rosefinch 

Male and female Siberian Meadow Buntings

In the evening we journeyed back to Tokyo on a very busy Shinkansen service - evidently lots of people were heading back to the city after their holidays. From Tokyo we headed out to Narita, where we were stayed in a hotel near the airport.

3 January 2016

We'd been informed that any rough ground around Narita airport was as good a place for Brown-headed Thrush as any we were likely to visit, so we spent the first hour and a half of the day searching for the species. We actually found at least three thrushes pretty easily here, so this must be the best chance to see them if you are flying in/out of Narita. Other sightings included Red-flanked Bluetail, a couple of Japanese Bush Warblers, Black-faced Buntings, Oriental Turtle Doves and overflying flocks of White-cheeked Starlings.

Brown-headed Thrush, Narita

With that it was time to head to the terminal and reluctantly leave Japan - all three of us agreed that we could have stayed out another two weeks and done the entire trip all over again! What a wonderful country Japan is - beautiful scenery, great birding, iconic species, clean cities and towns, relaxed atmosphere, brilliant food ... and that's without mentioning the Japanese people, who are extremely friendly, helpful and courteous people - it really puts Britain to shame. I think all of us will be back at some point in the not-too-distant future.