Monday, 27 January 2014

Obscure bird of the week: Hooded Pitohui

Great discoveries have the amusing and thoughtful tendency to happen completely by accident. Take George De Menstral, a Swiss engineer who, whilst removing plant burrs from his dog in 1942, was hit by the proverbial brainwave. Under the microscope, the burrs revealed tiny hooks which attached to tiny loops, such as dog fur, and thus Velcro was born. Then, of course, there is penicillin, the miracle antibiotic which was discovered by Mr A Fleming's lacklustre approach to cleaning his lab before he went on holiday.
Who knows what would have happened if he'd been tidier?

So take the case of Mr Jack Dumbacher, an American research biologist who, in 1989, was studying that avian drag-queen, the Raggiana Bird-of-paradise Paradisaea raggiana in New Guinea. 
Standard procedure for ornithological research is mist-netting to catch the birds, and this comes with the added interest/hindrance of 'bycatch' species. Some of these collateral birds were Hooded Pitohuis Pitohui dichrous (say pit-eww-ease), attractive, thrush-sized songbirds, with an orange-black colour scheme like that of the American Icterid Orioles (quite conversely, pitohuis are sometimes placed in the family of Oriolidae: the old-world orioles).


As any bird ringer will tell you, even small passerines have the ability to draw blood in the hand. This was no exception with the captured pitohuis, which left stinging cuts on Dumbacher and his colleagues, which they automatically sucked to clean the wounds.
This proved to be an interesting move, as they all experienced a numbing, tingling sensation in their mouth, which they recognised as coming from a toxin.
Making sure that the toxin was not from some other source, such as a plant, daring Dumbacher licked a pitohui feather and found the same sensation to last for hours on his tongue. Could this be the first scientifically confirmed* poisonous bird?

In 1992, feathers that had been sent to chemists were identified to contain batrachotoxins, the same neurotoxin found in the world's funkiest amphibians, the poison dart frogs over 10,000 miles away in South America. The pitohui's plumage was tested and the poison on each of its feathers was found to be enough to kill several lab mice, confirming the bird's new landmark status. It even made front cover of that year's Science magazine.

1992 Science cover - pitohui power!

How the bird became toxic was not confirmed until 2004, when the now pitohui-possessed Dumbacher found, thanks to observant New Guinea villagers, that the birds were feeding on equally orange-and-black melyrid beetles, which contain, yep, batrachotoxins.

The batrachotoxin in question, one for all you chemists.

This confused ornithologists somewhat: the birds have gone to a lot of effort into becoming poisonous, having to first build up resistance to the melyrid beetle poison, and then the reason why they developed this rare defence strategy is not really clear. They're birds; escaping predators requires simple flight, surely. Even if they were caught by a predator, the toxin is not enough to kill the attacker, simply giving them a foul taste in their mouth. Is the poison really to deter predators? Could it be an extreme form of pest control, preventing parasites establishing on the bird's skin and feathers?
It's clear that the world of the Hooded Pitohui (or indeed, the two other pitohui species which have since been found with strong posion) requires extensive study, but boy does it make for one manically obscure bird!

-Jonnie Fisk
Jonnie is an 18 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig and being distracted by bugs.

*It would not be the first recorded toxic bird. Biblical accounts tell of Israelites becoming ill after consuming Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, and research has turned up some incredible facts linked to quail migration, namely that those which take the "western flyway"; Algeria to France, seem to become poisonous during the spring migration only whilst those taking the "eastern flyway"; down the Nile Valley, have only been reported to become poisonous during the autumn migration (the "central flyway" through Italy, has no associated poisonings). However, no scientific research has identified the toxin, or the source, though the plants hemlock, hellebore and Annual Woundwort have been suggested.
The 19th century naturalist John James Audubon noted that the now extinct Carolina Parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis was poisonous, stating that cats died from eating them. Though we cannot prove it, it's thought that they got some form of toxin from the seeds of cockleburs (Xanthium)

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A landmark loon

Northern Irish NGB member James O'Neill recently had the fantastic opportunity to see NI's FIRST Pacific Diver Gavia pacifica at Lough Fea (as in petrel): 

We (my mother dearest and I) arrived at the south shore of little Lough Fea in a squally showery spell. The Lough, several miles the west of north Lough Neagh, is a small body of in the middle of desolate moorland fringing the Sperrin hills (don't get excited, hen harriers have become very uncommon in that part of the world - but what's new?). I scanned the lough with the scope, and saw that a few birders had congregated on the north shore but didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular. Scanning further revealed my first view of the bird, diving on the wooded west shore out of sight of the birders. 

Pacific Diver - Lough Fea, NI ©James O'Neill

I excitedly made my way around to the side where I had seen it, and after a bit of tramping through the bog and wet wood with no wellies, I was able to creep up on the diver, where it was 4 metres away from me at the best point, and swallowing small fish. 

Pacific Diver - Lough Fea, NI ©James O'Neill

Unfortunately, a gaggle of twitchers appeared behind me and their noise and commotion flushed the surprisingly tolerant bird to the other side of the lake. The group rushed to meet it and had substandard views before flushing it straight back to me! They got bored, and having taken their record shots and ticked it off, departed.

Pacific Diver - Lough Fea, NI ©James O'Neill

However, I was able to spend some time, being patient and using tactics to get close to the bird, rather than squawking and rushing around after it. It certainly paid off. After a time, the diver was very comfortable getting in very close to me and I was able to get the photos I wanted. Mum wasn't so happy however; she had been under impression that we would be seeing it for 5 minutes, not 4 hours!

Pacific Diver - Lough Fea, NI ©James O'Neill

Several times the bird took off and flew laps around the lake, passing very low over my head. It displayed all kinds of behaviour - preening, feeding, resting, flying, stretching. I even heard it wail. It was very special to have experienced such a close encounter with this bird, especially since it is my first diver species for the British Isles!

Pacific Diver - Lough Fea, NI ©James O'Neill

-James O'Neill
Hailing from Norn Iron (that's Northern Ireland to you), James, 18, is interested in most branches of nature, especially fish, invertebrates and birds. A wildlife artist and, more recently, photographer, he likes nothing more than to spend a sunny day out at his patch, Lough Neagh, with his scope and camera. He enjoys travelling and aims to visit every region of the world to suss out its plethora of wildlife.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

This week in birding: 18th - 24th January

A dazzling diver, glorious gulls and a 'scapee stilt. 2014 continues to impress!

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here

-Jonnie Fisk

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Birding on a “Family” Holiday

​One of Britain’s top bird magazines recently had a feature giving some particularly unhelpful and blindingly obvious travel advice like “use common sense” and “find the best airfares”. I hope in this article to provide some slightly more useful advice to both Next Generation Birders and “previous generation birders” with non-birding families. My guide on how to fit birdwatching in a “family” holiday will focus on how to see birds without the family being under the impression that they are being dragged birdwatching. In other words; how to go birding without birding.
​Although I am from a non-birding family, I am very fortunate that my parents like to go on near annual holidays to some of the most stunning destinations on the planet and are happy for me and my sister to go along too. As much as I enjoy culture and activities, my priority when I am abroad is always going to be birds and wildlife. It is important for me in order to keep being allowed on these holidays and ensure everyone has a great time that the pursuit of birds is not seen to dominate.

Over the years I have honed my technique and a family holiday to South Africa was another chance to put it in to practice. It was my second visit to this beautiful country so I knew that I would not get many lifers simply from the car or while going to the main tourist destinations. When I asked for advice on the Facebook group, I was given some great sites (thanks in particular to Lisle Gwynn!) but I knew most would not fit in to the rest of the family’s agenda. The trip was hugely successful with 42 lifers for me and a very enjoyable holiday for everyone involved. Indeed, the family only believed they went birding on two occasions in 12 days; a walk in Knysna Forest and an afternoon visit to Intaka Island. Instead of providing yet another trip report, I thought I would produce this slightly tongue-in-cheek guide. I just hope my parents do not read it!

Cape Grassbird ©Oliver Simms
Here are my top tips:
1. Think of which tourist destinations are likely to give reasonable bird watching opportunities. Boat trips, beaches and mountains are always a good shout but, in my experience, botanical gardens are the best. I was easily able to persuade my family to spend two hours at the superb Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and enjoyed several lifers including Cape Spurfowl and Swee Waxbill.

2. Suggest places to stay with extensive grounds and explore them early in the morning. This is probably the most obvious piece of “advice” I would give but it is so important. In South Africa, it got light at about 5.30 so I could have at least two hours quality birding time before the rest of the family got out of bed. I had no say in the hotels we stayed at but my parents seemed to have worked this out and we stayed one night at the excellent Oyster Bay Lodge where I could go for a 7km walk before anyone else awoke. 6 species of Plover, 2 of Eagle, 1 of Bustard and 3 lifers is never a bad start to the day.

3. Good birds can be anywhere. Some of the places where I encountered fantastic birds would make even the most avid of urban birders proud. An adult African Harrier Hawk in the centre of Cape Town and two lifers (Cape Sparrow and Common Myna) walking around the car park of Johannesburg airport while waiting for a flight connection were the best examples. It also goes without saying that long car journeys often provide excellent list increasing opportunities.
African Harrier Hawk in Cape Town ©Oliver Simms
4. Try to persuade your family to look at showpiece birds like Flamingos and Ostriches. I am fortunate that this is fairly straightforward with my family and it was not difficult to get Boulder’s Beach placed at the top of the itinerary. In fact, my excited sister ran down to see the penguins a lot quicker then I did. Incidentally, I also saw my first Swift Terns and African Oystercatcher while w
e were there.

5. Keep your family happy! This will provide more and more birding credit…

African Penguin, a sure-fire way of winning over your non-birding family
©Oliver Simms
-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a 21 year old Classics student in his final year at Durham university. When he is not studying or indeed "birding without birding" on family holidays, he likes to spend his time birding (without pretending he isn't) and hill walking. He is currently secretary of the Durham University Hill Walking Society and Project Co-ordinator of Next Generation Birders

Monday, 20 January 2014

Obscure bird of the week: Araripe Manakin

If ever you think about going somewhere and finding a new species, you wouldn't be mad in expecting something small, brown and streaky and if we're honest, a little bit unimaginative. I'm pretty sure this is what Galileu Coelho and Weber Silva were thinking when they entered the Charape do Araripe in upland Brazil.
I can't imagine what it must've been like to stumble across the beautiful, the amazing, the mind blowing Araripe manakin (Antilophia bokermanni).
What a bird! In a million years I couldn't even design a bird that looked like that using all the colours of the rainbow...mind you, there is no black in the rainbow, so I would be at a disadvantage from the start!
Anyway, I'm going off subject. This species is within the genus Antilophia which it shares with just one species, the helmeted manakin (Antilophia galeata). This species, although still quite beautiful, is potentially the most Darth Vader look a like of all birds! You can practically see it designing the Death Star! It's even helmeted! (see fig. A)
Fig. A. Manakin Skywalker trys to turn his only relative to the dark side
The all-black Manakin Skywalker is currently doing OK. He's least concern to conservationists, but it's not all fun and games with our other little Brazilian jewel (I'm pretty sure that's something off The Only Way is Essex).
First of all we've got the name...if you go on Youtube and search for 'talking dogs'...the husky that says 'I love you' almost certainly could have 'Araripe manakin' in its repertoire! (Maybe I've just had to say Araripe manakin in my head too much whilst researching this blog post...)

Secondly, they say the star that shines twice as bright lives half as long. This metaphor could well be used to describe the conservation status of our lovely manakin. They are certainly one of the prettiest birds in the world, but the question as to how long the species may exist isn't quite such a pretty picture. The species is incredibly rare and is currently listed as Critically Endangered because it has an extremely small known range, within which it is subject to continuing pressure from agriculture and the development of recreational facilities in the local area.

It's therefore not all that surprising that this species was only seen for the first time in 1996. Subsequent censuses in the area to assess population have come up with an estimate of 800 birds, so the ongoing decline of the population is potentially only going to end one way!

It's not all bad news though! The Araripe manakin has one thing going for it that several critically endangered species conventionally do's bloody gorgeous! As a result, this little superstar has many fans. The area of forest adjacent to the breeding habitat is protected as an area designated for 'sustainable use', however this is not the case for the known breeding habitat of the species, so it is not an area exempt from exploitation just like the vast majority of the rest of the rainforest. However, the local land owner of the forest is charmed by the presence of the species and has set out to conserve it himself by personally extending the conservation area.

Maybe this species having such a restricted area is a positive, despite making it so vulnerable to change. It means that in an area so susceptible to exploitation; the Amazon Rainforest, a small area is much easier to conserve.
©Ciro Albano
Hopefully, if you didn't know about this species before reading about it here, I've helped to spread the word of a species that could do with a bit of press. If you did already know about this species, then hopefully you appreciated my amazing Star Wars pun....

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch (or making references to Star Wars), he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 21 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Around the 'World' in 18 Days

Now, as with every adolescent hobby, there is a touch of the competitive side to birding among the Next Generation Birders. What we decided to do with our time as a group, was to take advantage of this competitive streak and put it to good use: Citizen Science...

Birdtrack is a fantastic facility that allows members of the public/birders to input their sightings from around the country and with handy statistics, allows a sense of competition to form through the many lists showing the top 5 Birdtrackers (in terms of most species and most complete lists) on the homepage.
We decided that we would have a competition to see who can input the most species, most records and most complete lists. As of 18th January, this has been very successful with over 7000 records entered in 2014 by 19 NGB members.
 A Birdtracker's Guide to the Galaxy
I myself have taken it a little too far and don't leave the house without my notebook and pen! I can't even get in the car and go to the shops without having my Birdtrack App at the ready for those all important Roving Records of kestrel Falco tinnunculus and buzzard Buteo buteo etc.
As of 18th January I had inputted 2397 records of 153 species (+ 4 N/C) and 105 complete lists. That works out at 133 records and 5.8 complete lists a day....
If I were to keep this up throughout the year, I could have over 48000 records and 2117 complete lists! However, with my Masters coursework, fieldwork and research due, I don't think I will be keeping up this fiery pace to all that much longer! 
The year so far. It's amazing how quickly it levels off. 
I have seen 153 species so far in 2014, which is by far my personal best by this point and I'm really impressed with myself. I started 2014 not meaning to do a yearlist at all, as I almost certainly won't have the time to go and see many species and could well even miss out on common breeding species like reed warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus if my Masters fieldwork has anything to say about it! 
I therefore knew that with the limited free time I had at the start of 2014, I would make a special effort to see some fantastic species that I might not get to see for the whole year and some of these species such as grey partridge Perdix perdix, willow tit Parus montanus, bearded tit Panurus biarmicus etc are species I simply can't face not seeing.   

The majority of my listing has been located in the North West 
With this in mind, I made a few well thought out trips where I knew a day's birding would see me mop up on many species I otherwise wouldn't get to see. This included a trip to see the NGB Chairman (Matthew Bruce) in Rugby, where I visited Draycote and Rutland for the first time, plus an early start around Leighton Moss
In 17 days I clocked up 95 complete lists in England and Wales through general birding. Many of you might think of yearlisting as completely pointless and a waste of time and money, but when the vast majority of your listing comes from general all purpose birding around your home, you soon clock up the species and data for many species that might otherwise get overlooked. Dunnocks Prunella modularis are just as important as American buff-bellied pipits Anthus rubescans...if not a lot more! 

With a cheeky trip up to the Highlands to pay homage to Coot with the pearly white teeth and botox addiction.
Sadly, in 2010, I was diagnosed with the Twitching Bug and despite great effort to cure it, it occasionally resurfaces. This certainly happened on the 12th January as I joined three other NGBs up to Scotland to go and see a certain Fulica americana. Whilst this was the main target of the trip, I couldn't resist 6 complete lists and several roving records. I really enjoyed the trip up to Scotland for the light-hearted banter, great birding and the opportunity to contribute birding statistics from some incredibly beautiful habitat.

It's been really fun so far and it's very rewarding to know that as a group, NGB have contributed 4% of the UK's Birdtrack records so far in 2014. If we can encourage a few more members to take part, we may be able to increase this percentage and who knows...we might be able to inspire the next generation to take up a career in conservation through species monitoring.

G'warn Zac! A big woo-hoo to Amy Robjohns (another NGB) as well!
(note: this scoreboard is from a different time to Zac's writing)

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch, he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 21 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

This week in birding: 11th - 17th January

Two Hume's, two Arctic gulls and too much Lesser Whitethroat taxon.

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here

-Jonnie Fisk

Monday, 13 January 2014

Obscure bird of the week: Trumpet Manucode

I have a thing for birds of the Paradiseaidae – the Birds of Paradise. The males are showy, they are gorgeous; the way they shake those plumes, mmmmm…

©Juan Velasco
But while most of the 39 species have those wonderful attributes of beauty and a strange sense of evolutionary…daftness…about them, many of them are not well known. The Raggiana Bird of Paradise is the national bird of Papua New Guinea, and it features on their flag and national airline planes. The Greater, Blue and King BOPs are also reasonably well known as well. However, Astrapias, Riflebirds, Parotias, King of Saxony, Paradigallas, Standard-wings and others are going about their daily lives deep in the high cloud forests or on isolated islands of New Guinea and Australia, with only the other members of their species to view their awesome displays – almost, as Alfred Russell Wallace wrote in his book, The Malay Archipelago, “a wanton waste of beauty”.

But the subject of this Obscure Bird of the Week entry has to go to one of the less celebrated members of the family. Of the 39 species, 5 of them, known as Manucodes, have retained the rather nondescript, dark, unplumed plumage which adorned the family’s corvid-like ancestors. True, the feathers do have a pretty purple-blue gloss and the eyes are a bright crimson, but compared to the other Paradise-birds, they are unspectacular.

Trumpet Manucodes
© William T. Cooper
The name ‘Manucode’ originates from the Malay ‘Manak Dewata’, which means ‘Bird of the Gods’. Though I can’t see why they would overlook the Paradisea and the Cincinurrus to honour the comparatively dross Manucodes with that title.

One of these Manucodes, the Trumpet Manucode 
Manucodia keraudrenii, is particularly interesting. It occurs over most of the Island of New Guinea, as well as Cape York of Australia and the Aru Islands. It is smaller than the other Manucodes, being a little slighter than a feral pigeon, has less purple gloss on its plumage, and its head and neck feathers are shaggy and unkempt looking. However, despite its appearance, sexual selection has had a strong influence on the evolution of this species, concerning its voice. The male and female are outwardly similar; however, the male has an extremely long trachea which has 6 concentric loops between the skin and breast muscles. This allows him to produce its extraordinarily loud, powerful vocalisations (which sound somewhat like a crow at times, unsurprisingly. Other calls include, squawking, whooping and trumpeting) which carry far across the forest. This is an obvious adaptation for the males to attract females, as females lack the enormous trachea. 

The looping trachea of the male Trumpet Manucode.
©Katrina Van Grouw
The male does make a feeble attempt to look nice – he is slightly more colourful than the female, and in display raises his hackle-feathers to say how-do to the ladies.

Like all manucodes, the Trumpet Manucode is monogamous and lays 2 eggs per clutch. This is in direct contrast to all other birds in the family (apart from the Paradigallas and the Paradise-Crow), which are polygamous, where males have no part in the rearing of young, and lay 1 egg per clutch. Unusually, the Trumpet Manucode feeds its young mostly figs, which is also the main diet of the adults, among other fruit. Evidence has sown that more of this species’ diet is made up of figs than in other paradise-birds.

It is classed as Least Concern, no doubt because of its relatively large range. New Guinea has some of the most pristine untouched forest with an enormous diversity of life including all but 2 (Australian) of the birds of paradise, and long may it continue.

Personally, it’s not a bird I’d go to New Guinea just to see. Though I’d happily give it a good few hours while on my way to see a Lesser bird of Paradise, or an Arfak Astrapia...or a Carola’s Parotia...mmmmm

Carola's Parotia ©Tim Laman
-James O'Neill

Hailing from Norn Iron (that's Northern Ireland to you), James, 18, is interested in most branches of nature, especially fish, invertebrates and birds. A wildlife artist and, more recently, photographer, he likes nothing more than to spend a sunny day out at his patch, Lough Neagh, with his scope and camera. He enjoys travelling and aims to visit every region of the world to suss out its plethora of wildlife.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

This week in birding: 04th - 10th January

After a short break over the Christmas period, 'This week in birding' is back! A new year: Phenomenal phalaropes, divine divers and a cracking coot.

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here

-Jonnie Fisk

Monday, 6 January 2014

Obscure bird of the week: Blackthroat

China is well known for its confidentiality. Whilst not quite the muffled and censored question mark that is North Korea, the ‘People’s Republic’ still has its secrecy, with popular internet sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all banned, as well as any information on a range of topics from the Tiananmen Square Protest to gossip on food issues within the country. Sudden and unexplained “cyber-disappearance” of content on news sites or blogs is not unusual. 

Subsequently, their internet censorship is ranked as "pervasive" under the global filtering monitors. However, the issue surrounding China’s online privacy pales into comparison with the secrecy kept by one of its unassuming residents: a small, bouncing grey bird.

My last obscure bird, the Bald Ibis, is rare but at least well documented. This time though my focus is the elusive Blackthroat (Luscinia obscura), which in comparison is like the birding Bigfoot! If it were given a ranking, it would be "imponderable"

Finding information on this incredibly obscure and poorly recorded bird has proven almost as tricky as an internet search for Maosim with a Chinese firewall, but here goes...

Blackthroat, or Black-Throated Robin (or Black-throated Blue Robin if you prefer), belongs to the Muscicapidae family of birds, also known as Old World Flycatchers. This large group consists of many subfamilies containing bird species that are well know to British birders, such as the European Stonechat(Saxicola rubicola), Common Nightingale(Luscinia megarhynchos) and Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).
The Blackthroat, however, belongs to the Luscinia subfamily, 1 of just 11 species within it. Whilst not a large number, they’re pretty well known, as they include many a pin-up bird for the British Sibe-lover; the Firethroat (Lusciniapectardens), Siberian Blue Robin(Luscinia cyane) and Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope). All handsome Beasts from the East.

Trouble in the Luscinia household...

So that’s the family covered, what about the Blackthroat itself? Well it is quite possibly China’s greatest secret. The Blackthroat breeds in the Northern Central province of Shaanxi, however its wintering areas are unknown, with Thailand and Southern China presumed. With a natural habitat of thick bamboo thickets deep within coniferous forest 3000 metres above sea level, the Blackthroat is a very difficult bird to come across.
This may be why the Blackthroat, despite being discovered in 1891, was only seen a handful of times over the next 120 years; even to this day there has never been a female of the species identified.

The breakthrough came in June 2001 when Per Alstrom and a team of Chinese scientists discovered an incredible 14 males at two different sites within Shaanxi province. This number was almost equal to the number seen in total since the bird’s discovery.
A nest was discovered in the same area in 2012, the only one ever found, and a subsequent trip in 2013 allowed birders the chance to see this bird in the flesh, Rob Holmes, Terry Townsend and Jonathan Price were the lucky three.

So that’s it...that is quite literally all the information we have on one of the worlds least recorded species. No doubt in years to come others will get the chance to view this magnificent and elusive species. Until then let me leave you with one of the few photos that exist of this species, taken by Rob Holmes in May 2013. 

©Rob Holmes
-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 24 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, wheatears, reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Predictions for birding in 2014

Here at NGB, we have something of a Mystic Meg in our midst.
North-East birder Jack Bucknall; a Fea's fanatic who has sold his heart to the wild and rugged St.Mary's Island, has an unusual gift of seeing into the future. Take the 10th of September 2013. Jack took to Twitter, posting a picture of his patch flock of Golden Plovers with a short musing that an American GP amongst them would be nice. Come the 20th, a patchy-bellied, spangle-backed AGP was getting cosy with its limey counterparts on the very same patch of rocks. Lightening struck twice and then thrice when Jack stated with confidence that he'd get a patch Bluethroat and Firecrest this autumn. On September the 25th and October the 2nd, he did!
Not convinced? How about national rares, or even megas?

NGB Facebook group, October 2013: Jack joked about a Yellow-rumped Warbler turning up with the autumn winds. On Lundy Island one materialised. Spurned on by his sudden premonition, we egged him on to guess the next bird. American Robin was his call. As if on cue, a bouncing, Mary Poppins-bothering Yank turned up. We momentarily ignored his earlier call of Cedar Waxwing (bonkers!) when no reports came through. Weeks later, and photographs were belatedly released of a beige berry-addict punk-rocking the Scottish Island of Tiree, whilst our mouths hit the floor. 

This guy was our gold-mine, our very own Zoltar. No more anxiously waiting for positive news, no more waiting it out till the weekend. Mr Bucknall would just give us a time and place and we'd watch the megas fly, the lists grow & our girlfriends/boyfriends/favourite pets become more distant. At least, that's how we imagine it. 

So we've got him here, to do the un-do-able. To predict the whole of 2014, bird-by-bird. Diaries out, ladies and gentlemen, as Jack peers into his crystal fatball...


I’m here to give an insight to anxious twitchers for this year, it’s a good one, I have seen it. So here goes my ‘wisdom’… 

JANUARY – This month should see a good arrival of Arctic divers and ducks, plenty more Great Northern Divers and the odd White-billed Diver getting claimed on seawatches. I also see a hazy rare duck on an inland reservoir – either a Bufflehead or a Barrow’s Goldeneye? Don't forget to feed the cat before that dentists appointment, woman with the green tilley and swaros.

FEBRUARY – February is a difficult month to focus on, but I do see some sort of rare goose or diver, it looks like a Pacific Diver may be claimed but dismissed immediately, my advice is to not dismiss it so quickly, give it a second look… 
A mini influx of Bean Geese is also ‘on the cards’, get watching those flocks. 

MARCH – One thing strikes me for March, it will be a very quiet month, but with one or two excitements… 
The annual Nutcracker claim will take place in March 2014, in a suburban park with Magpies, I suspect no one will follow it up, but this could be the year of the genuine one? 

APRIL – This could be the start of a very exciting spring, get your twitching money at the ready, I see a rare wheatear taking everyone by surprise, possibly a Black Wheatear or Black-eared Wheatear. Following that, an unusual claim of a Sooty Gull north at Flamborough will get dismissed and raise a few eyebrows, but Filey seawatchers, let me tell you; keep your eyes open, you never can tell… 

MAY – A mad month to say the least. Britain’s first Pied Kingfisher will appear on the mainland and stay for 13 days, only for Britain’s first Spur-Winged Plover to be found 5 miles away, and be a one-day wonder. An influx of Red-rumped Swallows is also looking likely, however let’s hope that my judgement is slightly wrong and the flock of 5 in the Midlands does NOT collide with that lorry on the M1…

JUNE – Another rare month! A Bridled Tern is almost a certainty, whether it is the Northumberland bird on the Farnes, or another bird doing a tour of the east coast, I’m struggling to tell. A Black-Winged Pratincole will turn up on the same day, hugely dividing the twitchers, but I sense the Tern will be a long-stayer. A rare finch (Trumpeter or Citril) is also very possible. 

JULY – The Bridled Tern continues to impress the crowds, while the twitchers who still need it, jet off for the returning Swinhoe’s Petrel on Fair Isle. A ‘twitchable’ Black-Browed Albatross will fly north along the East Coast consistently, allowing all seawatchers fantastic views. Or is that a Little Shearwater? Finally, a panicky report of a singing male Scarlet Rosefinch (present for 20+ days) will eventually hit the bird news services and get the twitchers pulling their hair out once again. 

AUGUST – Autumn begins… A fantastic arrival of Greenish Warblers towards the end of the month will kick start the autumn. A Stilt Sandpiper will undoubtedly make an appearance as is tradition, but who knows which coast?! An impressive influx of Citrine Wagtails will grace Northern Britain with a record breaking 14 on Fair Isle! Great and Cory’s Shearwaters begin to fly past the South Coast, with a Little Shearwater making an appearance towards the back end of the month.

SEPTEMBER – Autumn in full swing! YBWs will tear apart the bushes on the coast starting on the 20th, and a fantastic passage of Great Shearwaters will grace the East Coast, while Leach’s Petrels continue to perform on the West Coast. A Brown Flycatcher will appear in the South-east for a few days, only for an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler to be found in the same spot 4 days later! The Teesside Sharp-Tailed Sandpiper will re-appear for the day, and disappear overnight again, a Northern Parula will appear on Mainland Shetland and be a long stayer for c.3 weeks, with Buff-Bellied Pipit accompanying. Throughout the month, a very strange Lesser Yellowlegs influx will show itself, with birds covering the West Coast, and a few making it to the East Coast. 

OCTOBER – The MEGA MONTH. Siberian Blue Robin, American Bittern, Calandra Lark, Upland Sandpiper, Rufous-Tailed Robin, Alder Flycatcher and Scarlet Tanager to name a few megas that are set for an appearance in October 2014… 
A decent number of Paddyfield Warblers will arrive in Britain early on following some decent winds, and another influx of Pallid Swifts will occur. And who could forget the inevitable mainland male Siberian Rubythroat in the dying days of the month? 

NOVEMBERDesert Wheatears will control this month, with birds almost everywhere! Arctic Warblers will pick up at the start of the month, slowing down towards the middle. A drake Barrow’s Goldeneye will be a long-stayer and allow excellent views for the visiting birders, and the big news will be a photographed and miss ID'd Cliff Swallow, which will only get correctly ID'd 23 days later, and the bird is still present! However, after 5 birders connecting before dusk, no further sign….. 

DECEMBER – The Year comes to a close, and the month is quiet. A Waxwing influx keeps birders interested, and good winds allow arctic species like White-Billed Diver and Little Auks to be seen on seawatches down the East Coast, but unfortunately that is about it I'm afraid. Although the Ross's Gull influx was okay I guess, could have been worse… 

-Jack Bucknall
Jack is an 18-year-old birder with a very keen interest in patching at St. Mary’s Island, Northumberland. He absolutely love seawatching, strong NE winds are his idea of Heaven!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

2013 in review: The forgotten birds

It does seem that 2013 is going to go down in the annals of birding history. We had one of the best summers on record; with White-throated Needletail (RIP), Pacific Swift, Ascension Frigatebird, two Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrels and a Bridled Tern recorded in June and July! We also had a spectacular autumn, with several truly mega American landbirds turning up, plus a decent scattering of siberian vagrants including a White’s Thrush and a male Siberian Rubythroat. The spring wasn't half bad either, and it appears this winter will forever be remembered as an all-time great one for Ivory Gulls.

But there were some hidden stories in 2013 as well, stuff which you might perhaps have overlooked among all the headline grabbing rarities. There will be hundreds of blog posts detailing all the fine megas seen over this year, but NGB prides itself on doing things a little differently, and on taking a different angle to others. So, with no further ado, here’s our review, of the ‘forgotten birds’ of 2013.

First-ever inlands
Siberian and eastern rarities so often capture the hearts and minds of birders, but for those of us who are land-locked there is often one crucial problem. These birds are almost exclusively to be found on the (East) Coast! However, this year saw some excellent inland records for dedicated patchers. First off, a Pied Wheatear at Collingham Pits, Nottinghamshire, was the first record of this species in an inland county, occurring in mid-November. Approximately a month later, and a reported Yellow-brow at a private site in Northamptonshire was re-identified as a Hume’s Warbler! This was the second accepted inland record, following a very brief individual in Staffordshire in 1994. There was another likely Hume’s Warbler in 2010 though, remarkably also in Northamptonshire, but a mixture of its elusiveness and the impossibility of getting a clear sound recording meant it never got through the BBRC.

2013 also saw the first ever record of a Buff-bellied Pipit from an inland British county, all the way back in January. Remarkably, there were two here, and these joined the mere handful of accepted records for the British mainland overall. 

Bonxies bouncing back? 

There were some remarkable counts of Great Skua this year from seawatching sites. On April 12th, South coast seawatching sites were alive with Bonxies; 64E past Splash Point (East Sussex) would have set a Sussex record, had it not already been smashed the previous year by a day count in the 100s. Dungeness scored 45 on this day, also an excellent count (though it is a rare and pleasant surprise for my local to score higher tallies than Dunge!).

On Return passage, NGB Jack Bucknall reliably informs me that our ‘huge’ spring day-total was utterly trounced by 345 Great SKuas past Newbiggin, Northumberland on the 11th of October! His patch of St. Mary’s Island scored a not-too-shabby 111 on the same day! With so much doom and gloom about our seabirds, it is pleasing to see that such excellent counts can still occur, though you have to wonder how many Bonxies would have been noted on a similar passage 100 years ago, without the current identification knowledge and optics.

Bonelli’s back with a bang!
I've been used to Western Bonelli’s Warbler being a real rarity in recent years, pretty much on par with its Siberian relatives. Which seems odd, given you can find them singing in pretty much any old oak woodland if you travel a hundred miles south from Sussex. There were some decent totals of 9 accepted in 2011 and 7 in 2010, but just 2 in ‘09, 3 in ‘08 and none at all in 2007, before the last double-figure year of 10 birds in 2006. They've also been difficult to catch up with, with nearly all mainland records in recent history being short-stayers, apart from one singing male in Derbyshire in 2010.

Happily for everyone, this charming and understated warbler had a bit of a revival this year. It started with one in April 2013 at Pagham Harbour, Sussex, the first record for the county for eight years and sticking around long enough for many on the South Coast to connect. The last bird in Southern England to stay longer than a day was a 3-day, hard-to-see bird in September 2005 at Beachy Head! Back to 2013 and two WBW then appeared in late August in Norfolk and Kent, with Norfolk scoring a 2nd for its county annual total in early September. During September, there were also two records on Shetland (with one on Whalsay being particularly long-staying) and singles in Pembrokeshire and County Cork, with a Bonelli’s sp. in Orkney.

Another at Hunstanton, Norfolk enjoyed giving everyone a bit of a runaround in early October and was refusing to play ball with vocalisations, meaning it was only ever reported on RBA as ‘Bonelli’s sp.’. Reports came from Polgigga and St. Levan in Cornwall, but I'm not sure if these referred to two birds or one, as both sites are near to one another. The North-east then hit back with a bird at Flamborough (Yorkshire) on the 7th, and one at Hartlepool (Durham) from the 14th onwards. At this point, singles were still lingering on Orkney and Shetland, with the final report of the year being of the Hartlepool bird on the 29th. For good measure, yet another was seen in Norfolk, at Holkham on the 24th!

During this remarkable year, there were reports from Norfolk (3 + 1 Bonelli’s sp.), Shetland (2), and singles in West Sussex, Kent, Orkney (Bonelli’s sp.), Pembrokeshire, County Cork, Cornwall, Yorkshire and Durham. Of these, birds in East Sussex, Durham, Shetland, Cornwall, County Cork and Norfolk were all fairly long-staying, allowing birders from across the country to catch up with this species, including many NGBs for the first time! With 12 Western Bonelli’s Warblers reported in 2013, and two others not identified to species, it’s fair to say this was a terrific year for one of our more underrated rarities!

Collared Flycatcher breaks records
There was a time when Collared Flycatcher was an absolute mega, one of the most highly prized European rarities. While it’s still far from common, it’s now almost possible to take for granted the appearance of a few each spring, something unthinkable to previous generations! This year broke all records though. It started with one in Northumberland on 8-9 May. This had barely exited when another appeared on Whalsay (Shetland) on the 10th, staying until the 16th. But again we didn't have to wait long, yet another appeared at Easington (Yorkshire) on 18th May, and in a final late spring flourish there was one trapped on Fair Isle on 9th Jun, and a singing male (is this the first ever?) at Stoer (Highland) on the 12th. Five records of this dazzling gem in one year, is it on the verge of ‘doing a bluetail’?

Buff-bellies; is Berkshire and Cheshire the tip of the Iceberg?
It wasn't that long ago that a Buff-bellied Pipit had never been recorded inland. Starting with one in Lincolnshire in 2005, and then two in 2007, in Cornwall and Oxfordshire. Following that was a four-year gap until one in East Sussex in 2011, but over the course of 2013 there have been three! True, the two at Queen Mary Reservoir, Berkshire, had been first found in late 2012, but when we thought that these birds might be another one off, another BBP was found in Cheshire just before Christmas. With records of wintering BBPs now scattered out across mainland Britain, including two a fair way inland, we should surely be looking at Rock Pipits more closely! Rarely does a winter go by without a few american passerines spending their holidays here, but most of the time it really is a very faint dream to hope to find one. If all birders made a concerted effort to check their tidelines, their marshes, any known wintering site for Rock and Water Pipits, might we stand a chance of finding quite a few more? God knows how many might eke out a winter on the remote and desolate west coast of Scotland, a place our own Rock Pipit is abundant but where few birders ever thoroughly check.

Brown Shrike briefly as common as Red-backed! 
I don’t know if that title is entirely true, but it really did feel like this was the case for a few days in September! While species like Collared Flycatcher and Fea’s petrel, despite having record-breaking years, have been on the rise for some time, Brown Shrike really did still feel like a mega before this autumn. There were none in 2012, a single in 2011, twos in 2008 and 2010 and three in 2009 (including the popular Staines bird), and it’s perhaps felt a bit of a commoner thanks to the long-staying nature of many birds, but Brown Shrike is still a real rarity. This year, however, was truly ridiculous. 2013's first bird was one in Hampshire on 20th Sept, another on North Ronaldsay followed four days later. On the 27th Sept this was still present, with another found in Shetland, and the following day one at Balcombie (Fife) and one at Collieston (Aberdeenshire) meant four were present on the same day on the 28th! This influx ended as quickly as it had began, with the last report being of the Shetland bird on Septmber the 30th. If all five of this year's birds go through, and put the total up to 17, this would mean almost ¼ of all accepted records of Brown Shrike were in the country on 28th Sept 2013! In Late September, anyone finding a Shrike in Scotland may almost have expected it to be Brown!

The Wheatear who wouldn't leave
A Desert Wheatear turning up on the NE coast of Scotland in early December 2012 didn't signify any great things to come, perhaps. In fact, Desert Wheatear is pretty well guaranteed to appear somewhere on the East Coast at this time, in any given autumn. However, most of these tired and lost migrants either move to pastures new after a few days, or succumb to the worsening weather. This hardy soul did neither, hanging around from 2nd Dec 2012 to 26th March 2013, a record-breaking 115 days! What’s more, his nearest rival was a comparative pansy, surviving through a frankly subtropical 1994/95 on the Hayle Estuary in Cornwall. To last that long (and presumably migrate home again) in an Aberdeenshire winter takes feathers of steel! Sadly, this proud-record breaker found a better place to winter in 2013/14.

The Pagham peninsula has another top attraction
Not a story about any particular bird, but an important one nonetheless. Climate change is set to wreak havoc on our coasts over the next century or so, so managed retreat (allowing the sea to claim coastal land, changing it into tidal-surge resistant marshland) from the sea seems a vastly practical, if expensive, course of action to safeguard our homes. For birders, this is doubly great, as it involved the creation of more estuaries and wetlands around our coasts! You’ve probably heard of Wallasea Island in the News, but not everyone will even know Medmerry exists yet. Sandwiched in between Pagham and Chichester Harbours, this newly created estuary will have no problem attracting birds; it’s already proving popular with Black-tailed Godwits, Brent Geese, Teal and Shovelers to name but a few! How long will it be before it gets it’s first real rarity? between them, Pagham and Chichester Harbour have a list that includes one Lesser and two Greater Sand Plovers, an Oriental Pratincole, Killdeer, Least, Stilt, Terek and Upland Sandpipers, Isabelline Shrike, two Red-breasted Geese, a Collared Flycatcher, Paddyfield, Booted and Radde’s Warbler and Trumpeter Finch, so placing a new reserve smack bang in the middle of all these areas is a recipe for great success.

On a broader scale, it also reflects a great progression in our countries policy for coastal realignment. If we want to have any control over sea level rise and it’s effects on us, allowing areas of reclaimed land like this to flood will be one of our best hopes. I've already been involved in a failed campaign to try and make the same happen on my patch at Cuckmere Haven, and up and down the coast, managed realignment is being talked about, but action isn't taken anywhere near enough, or is swallowed up and lost in the tangles of bureaucracy. Let this be a lesson for all of us, in a way to manage climate change AND take positive steps for our countries wildlife.

Thank you, and have a very happy 2014.

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.