Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Davidstow and the Dombrowskii

When I think of September birding in Cornwall there is one area that always excites me in it's birding potential; the classic site of Davidstow Airfield. This amazing abandoned airfield has a phenomenal track record for American waders and seems to produce rarities like clockwork each autumn, despite it being well watched I'm usually lucky enough to find at least one of these every year with 2019's adult American Golden Plover being my last decent find there. Sadly 2020 hasn't been easy for me to check this area as I have been working in other parts of the county and also continuing to push for my ringing permit but out of just four visits me and Libbie did pretty well in what seems like a poor year for Davidstow.
Our first visit on 10th August produced a lifer for Libbie and a new wader for the site for me in the shape of two immaculate juvenile Wood Sandpipers which dropped in to the pools by the control tower all too briefly before presumably flying off to Crowdy.

A write off trip before work in the fog when I had a day's work in Wadebridge left me ruing my choice of getting out of bed at 6am (!) and then I almost had to forget about the place for the time being. Fast forward to 22nd September and with rain all day and work sending me close by I decided on a quick trip to Davidstow in the evening with Lib. As I hunted for waders Libbie found  a funny Yellow Wagtail within a group of Pied and White Wagtails and asked me what it was? Now I usually can sort out Yellow Wagtail to sub-species or at least make an educated guess by noting several features and building an identification by a process of elimination but this bird had me stumped.

The dark looking head, even darker ear coverts & 'cold' green mantle made me think of Thunbergi but it had a thin supercilium which was yellow in color,  The bird then flew across the road calling as it went (much more raspy than standard UK  *Flavissima call). From then on I decided to write some field notes and take plenty of pictures in the hope of sorting it out after the event. Photographs below are unedited.

The thin yellow supercilium, dark headed appearance with even darker ear coverts and yellow wash to the white throat patch didn't point firmly to any sub-species I was familiar with. 

Note the contrast to the greater coverts with the juvenile retained outer feathers looking faded and white in comparison to the fresh buff tinged (adult type) inner greater coverts. Ageing this as a 1st winter. Body moult has already progressed more than would be expected of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail which would be typically grey and white and in more juvenile plumage. The brightness of the overall plumage and amount of yellow already moulted through would suggest it is a male.

The greenish upperparts had a distinctly cold grey tinge especially on the mantle. Differing somewhat to the brighter green tones of Flavissima or Flava. Pointing perhaps to an eastern origin.

This head on shot shows the  striking head pattern well with dark grey head, broad well defined ear coverts which were even darker than the rest of the head plus white throat with yellow suffusion. Note the thin yellow supercilium.

This image shows the very subtle 'necklace' on the bird's breast.

So it would appear that the Davidstow Wagtail is an intergrade between two more well recognized sub-species. In my opinion it surely has some * Feldegg genes owing to the dark headed appearance and what sounded to my ear a raspier flight call than typical Yellow Wagtail. However the darker ear coverts, prominent supercilium and obvious lower eye-ring point towards some * Flava influence or perhaps more likely in my opinion * Thunbergi as the subtle necklace on the upper breast is an often quoted feature of this subspecies. These intergrade Wagtails are often named as 'Dombrowskii' or 'Superciliaris' are commonly found migrating in the eastern Mediterranean in Greece and Cyprus during the spring and autumn migration and occur in Romania during the breeding season. My bird would appear to fit Dombrowski better. 

Whilst it would be pushing the boat out a bit to be 100% sure on a 1st winter bird in the autumn I feel that it would be too easy to not at least try and work out any interesting Yellow Wagtail's we see during Autumn in the UK. This is a constantly evolving species group and I am sure that birders and ornithologists alike still have much to learn about their plumage's and identification. It will get you ready for nailing the ID of future birds and also help you identify Citrine Wagtail or perhaps Eastern Yellow Wagtail by looking that little bit more thoroughly.

* Flava - also known as Blue-headed Wagtail, the nominate race in mainland western Europe. A scarce but annual passage migrant in Cornwall which has bred on the Lizard Peninsular.
* Thunbergi - also known as Grey-headed Wagtail, the Scandinavian subspecies of Yellow Wagtail. A rare passage migrant in Cornwall.
*Feldegg - also known as Black-headed Wagtail, a distinctive subspecies of Yellow Wagtail breeding in the Balkans east to the Caspian Sea, south to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

Further Reading: Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America by Per Alstrom and Krister Mild. 

Thank you to Kester Wilson for originally suggesting the ID of Dombrowskii whilst I was still fairly clueless and to Peter Roseveare for his research into the matter.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Kernow Orchid Summer

Pyramidal Orchid-Dave Thomas. Not a widespread Orchid but common where it does occur. Search during late June and July in sand dune habitats. Best sites Penhale Sands, St Gothian Sands & Trevose Head.

I have always had a passing interest in wildflowers during the summer months and in particular the Orchids. I think it's because they represent a glimpse into a time when our landscape was more sympathetic to nature than it is now, they are often visually stunning and they represent an ID challenge which all birders can relate to in a roundabout way. My fiance Libbie is very passionate about all wildflowers as well and she lists and documents the local flora and sends many records to the county recorder. Flowers are her birds and between us we learn from each other so our walks together are fun as we share our passions for nature.

During lockdown we spent many hours walking and recording different plants around St Columb Major and most excitingly we also found a colony of Early Purple Orchids and randomly a single Southern Marsh Orchid in our garden. As lockdown eased a visit to the Lizard Peninsular saw us by chance finding Green-winged Orchid in Soapy Cove and also Heath Spotted Orchid. Now with 4 species seen in the county the inner lister in me surfaced! How many Orchids are there in Cornwall? Could we perhaps see ten species in our own Kernow Orchid summer? I set ourselves the challenge as a fun thing to do and an incentive to walk whilst the birding was quiet. 

Green Winged Orchid-Tony Blundon
A rare Orchid in Cornwall which can be found in Soapy Cove Valley and the Predannick area.

Our next Orchid species was completely out of the blue and was thanks to an intrepid Libbie and the local knowledge of naturalist Dave Thomas. We bumped into Dave at one of his favorite spots in Cornwall, the delightful nature reserve of Breney Common in mid-Cornwall. Like us he was there to photograph the recently emerged Marsh Fritillaries and as we enjoyed super views of this stunning butterfly we started to talk about our Orchid hunting. 'oh you know there's Common Twayblade here don't you?'. My brain pondered for a moment, 'What is a Twayblade?!,' 'Is it an Orchid?' Soon Dave had already answered these questions and more importantly the directions of where they were. The only problem being that I'm useless at listening to directions and for some inane reason I always find myself nodding to people and saying yes yes I know were you mean! When I don't have a clue where they are talking about! We also learnt that Dave hadn't seen them for 5 years or so (which probably meant 10!) so as we entered the stunted woodland I held little hope of finding any and after a few minutes I had given up. Not Libbie though! She was well in front and scuttling through the undergrowth like an intrepid explorer and soon her perseverance had payed off and she excitedly shouted over to me ' I've found some!'. It turned out after that Dave had left a stick as a marker for us to see on his way back that I probably stepped on and our colony was in a completely different place! Five down and five to go with plenty of time to spare.

Common Twayblade is by no means common in Cornwall but I would imagine that if people searched for it more then new colonies would be found. Damp woodland with mature Willow seems to be a good place to start. 

No Orchid hunting can be complete in Cornwall without a trip to Goonhilly Downs and the surrounding Lizard heathland. Many rare plant species can be found in this area of Cornwall owing to it's unique geology and unspoilt, uncultivated meadows within pristine heathland. Our quarry for the day was Heath Fragrant Orchid and Early Marsh Orchid. In the heathland habitat it didn't take too long for Libbie to find some Heath Fragrant Orchids amongst the many thousands of Heath Spotted Orchids. We then searched through some wonderful meadows which were blanketed in Wild Thyme and Ragged Robins. I searched and searched through the many Southern Marsh Orchids and the myriad of hybrid Orchids but couldn't find a pure Early Marsh (despite some stringy attempts which were rightly identified as hybrids by local expert Tony Blundon via Whattsapp). 

This Heath Fragrant Orchid can be found throughout Goonhilly Downs amongst the far more common Heath Spotted Orchid

As I mentioned earlier Libbie has recently been given a great deal of help in her leaning of Botany by local plant guru and County Recorder Ian Bennalick. What Ian doesn't know about the flora of Cornwall probably isn't worth knowing and for me he is the perfect expert as he is willing to share his knowledge with others and is very friendly and approachable. I asked Ian about seeing any remaining Orchids and he soon sent me site maps of old records in the county for our desired species. Which was ever so helpful to us and also helpful for him in a way as it is one less area that he needs to check himself. Armed with the knowledge that in the past Lesser Butterfly Orchid could be found on Tregonetha Downs we searched the heathland high and low and almost gave up before Libbie spotted these delightful Orchids amongst bracken.

Sadly Lesser Butterfly Orchid is declining fast in Cornwall. It is not easily found at Tregonetha Downs but hopefully should be present again next year. We have also seen them well at Luckett Woods on the Tamar border.

One thing I have learnt about Orchid hunting and looking for special flowers in general is that road verges are actually a haven for wild flowers these days. Part of me finds this a little sad that they cannot thrive in our wider countryside and farmland but I have to admire this most unlikely micro habitat and it's importance to nature (being un-ploughed and usually pesticide free. Probably the best road verges in the county for plant hunting are around Hayle and Lelant in west Cornwall. Remarkably this is the best place to find Bee Orchid in Cornwall and after spotting many hundreds of Pyramidal Orchids and Southern Marsh Orchids (including the Leopard Orchid, a variety of Southern Marsh) we found these vivid Orchids hidden within the shade of Bracken , a surreal experience to enjoy so many wild flowers 
as cars sped by at 50mph!

The only reliable place to see Bee Orchid in Cornwall is at Hayle. Try looking on the road verges across the road from Lelant Pub

The best place to see Bee Orchid in Cornwall are the roadside verges of Hayle. We saw ours on the verge opposite the Old Quay House pub.

                 Leopard Orchid is currently regarded as a form of Southern Marsh Orchid. We saw them at Penhale Sands and the Hayle area. Basically a large Southern Marsh Orchid with spotted leaves and double loops on the inside of the flowers.

Penhale Sands is Cornwall's largest sand dune complex and extends from Holywell Bay to Perranporth. It is a well known site for it's rare Butterflies with thousands of Silver Studded Blues and small numbers of the critically endangered Grizzled Skipper. Botanically it is also a very special place with several species of international importance growing there. I was very lucky to be invited along to a small scale Bio Blitz led by Dave Thomas in the restricted military area which away from disturbance and well grazed by Rabbits is a haven for wildflowers. Along with experts Ian Benallick and Paul Gainey we were overwhelmed with rare plants (including Shore Dock and Early Gentian). The dune slacks here are home to the only colonies of Marsh Fragrant Orchid and Marsh Helleborine which we enjoyed in small numbers. The icing on the cake from a very enjoyable day was that we had now reached and passed our target of ten orchids in Cornwall!

The only current site for Marsh Fragrant Orchid & Marsh Helleborine in Cornwall is Penhale Sands however searching other coastal dune slacks could well produce. Historically Marsh Helleborine was once found near Rock. 

As August began we went to Indian Queens in mid Cornwall to search for perhaps the most westerly occuring Broad-leaved Helleborines in Britain! Again the area looked nothing special and it was right by the A30 as cars sped by at 70mph but Ian Bennallick (god knows how he found these back in 2017) had come up trumps again and Libbie's eagle eyes did the rest as we re-discovered 3 plants in amongst some scrubby woodland. 

Broad-leaved Helleborine is usually found around the county border but it just shows that any area is worth checking for Orchids. 

My photo's don't do Autumn-ladies Tresses justice. The neatly pleated stalks and subtle white Orchid flowers are a stunning sign that Autumn is arriving on the coast. They can be difficult to spot as they are very small plants but they seemed to grow around short areas of grass so once you get your eye in the twisted green stalks show up well.

Our final Orchid for 2020 was hopefully going to be Autumn Ladies Tresses, a declining grassland species which can be found in patches along the coastline of Cornwall. Perhaps once it would have been found inland as well but changes in land management and loss of habitat has had a negative impact on this delightful mini Orchid. The first spot we tried was Cubert Common but we didn't have any luck at all, especially when a thunderstorm rolled through and soaked us! A second attempt took us to East Pentire near Newquay and aided with directions from Dave Thomas we were able to find 16 plants in a small area beside the golf course. It was a great ending to our summer Orchid hunt and with 13 different species we had an excellent year. Back to birding non stop for now though but 2021 will see the search continue for at least 3 species that we missed. Thankyou to Dave Thomas, Ian Benallick and Tony Blundon for their help with locations and their expertise.


Friday, 31 July 2020

North Cornwall Barn Owl Ringing 2020

As a licenced bird ringer it is imperative that I take a scientific approach and ensure that my activities are done with some validity and structure to ensure that the data that I obtain is of significant substance, either locally or nationally and in the ideal situation, both. I feel that in most instances I tick all the boxes; carrying out constant effort ringing in the summer months to monitor some of Cornwall’s breeding birds and also by helping out at the monumental site that is Nanjizal, where a large volume of migrating birds pass through each autumn. However, there is a particular species that I cannot help but get all doughy eyed over and feel immense privilege and joy when surveying.

The Barn Owl has to be one of the most iconic and loved birds of the British Isles and indeed further afield. Its ethereal presence has captivated the hearts and souls of so many Britons for centuries. Yet for such a captivating species it has undergone some worrying strife. In 1932 the British population of Barn Owls was estimated to be around 12,000 and even this was a substantial drop in numbers from what was once Britain's commonest owl. A further survey was undertaken between 1982-1985 and concluded that there were approximately 4500 pairs breeding in Britain. Seeing a further decline of 67%! This prompted it to be amber rated in the list of Birds of Conservation Concern having had a moderate (25-49%) decline in the UK breeding population or range over the previous 25 years. In addition, it was assigned a Schedule 1 status and special protection. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as amended by the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it is an offence, liable to special penalty, to intentionally disturb any wild bird included in the Schedule while it is building a nest or is in, on, or near a nest containing eggs or young or to disturb dependent young of such a bird. As with so many British birds, the main reason for decline seemed to be the decimation of natural nesting locations and the ever-changing countryside and suitable hunting habitat. Traditional sites in old farm buildings have also been lost as barns have been converted to other use including residential occupation or have simply been allowed to deteriorate until they collapsed or were demolished. 

It is important to monitor this species in order that the current population levels can be assessed to determine whether any further declines have occurred. West Cornwall Ringing Group participate in a national project that is coordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology to provide ongoing assessments of the UK Barn Owl population. Monitoring consists of a visit to the nest site by specially trained and licensed bird ringers in the breeding season, where details of occupancy rates, breeding performance and survival are recorded, and any young are ringed with uniquely numbered leg rings. To find out more about ringing in general please visit: BTO Ringing Scheme

2020 Monitoring Results 

Monitoring a north Cornwall Barn Owl Box.

Over 100 nest boxes are currently surveyed across Cornwall and I have slowly started to assist in growing the number of sites monitored in the north of the county. In 2020 a further 7 boxes were added to the North Cornwall monitoring list. Sadly due to the Covid-19 lock down I was unable to do any early monitoring, so egg clutch sizes were not recorded during this period. However, early brood sizes were obtained so I was still able to produce some important nest record data nonetheless. I was interested to compare this years data with last seasons and noted that the average brood size was very similar to that of 2019.     

Adults Ringed


A distinct lack of adults were processed during 2020 by me! This was partially down to the late initial checking dates but also some alteration was needed in the catching technique. However, I was pleased to add 2 adult females and an adult male to the scheme. I am hopeful that I might encounter these again in the future. 

Chicks Ringed



I had heard from other Owl ringers across the UK that it was going to be a pretty dire year for the productivity of the species as they were finding many nests unoccupied. However, Cornwall seemed to have bucked the trend and it appears we had a bumper crop of juvenile Barn Owls! Of the 10 boxes occupied 32 chicks were ringed. The largest clutch being 5, but the majority having clutches of 3 and 4 birds and all looking very health and likely to fledge. Interestingly, birds that chose to lay eggs later did not appear to be as successful; only producing 1 or 2 fledglings. This was most likely due to the atrocious weather we had here in Cornwall that was almost consistent through the whole of June!

I am looking forward to seeing how the Barn Owls fared across the rest of the county and indeed the rest of the UK during 2020. I know there are a couple of boxes with some breeding activity still occurring within Cornwall, but will be checking the ringing groups web page with regularity for the final outcome. If you wish to do the same then please keep an eye on here: West Cornwall Ringing Group

Over the past couple of seasons I have also had the upmost pleasure of attending many boxes with legendary photographer and naturalist Adrian Langdon. His photographic works speak volumes on his commitment and passion. Your eyes will be in for a real treat if you visit his blog spot found here: Images Naturally   

Lastly, it is always a real pleasure to witness the enthusiasm of those persons that grant permission for us to monitor boxes. There is none more so than those with cameras fitted to their boxes who get a real intimate showing of the trials and tribulations that the owls face. One of the nests that I monitor has such a device and it makes for some pretty addictive viewing. To watch how this family group has fared this year then please grab a hot beverage, put your feet up and take a look here: Mike and Molly the North Cornwall Barn Owls    

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Sylvia's: Warbler Sound Quiz Answers

The answers to our Sylvia Warbler Quiz are now finally ready! Each species has a brief account on what makes it's song unique and there are also some handy tips if you would like to see and hear one of these stunning Sylvia Warblers for yourself. The rarer species in this quiz are all very possible finds for the intrepid birder in spring. Listening out for unfamiliar Sylvia song once your knowledge of the common species builds up will hopefully pay off one day with the birding find we all hope for. If you do ever find a rare Sylvia recording it's song and or calls is now an important part of the process of ID. Many portable recorders are now available from companies such as Tascam but it's surprising how good smart phones can be for this job. 

1) Eurasian Blackcap. The full song of Blackcap can be confusingly similar to Garden Warbler and it's varied subsong typically heard in short bursts early in the breeding season or on migration can include mimicry of other species. However there are always clues to it's identity. The main song is rather loud and has a rich fluty quality to the tune. It is delivered at a fast pace and the most distinctive part of the song is the ending which speeds up into a trilled whistle. Pretty much every Blackcap I've heard singing repeats this phrase eventually, even as part of it's sub-song. Blackcap is a common (seemingly increasing) summer migrant to the UK and can be heard singing from woodland, parkland and even large gardens. Winter visitors from the continent can also be heard singing on sunny late winter days in urban areas and from sheltered spots around the coast near to Ivy or Blackthorn. Try Goss Moor Nature reserve to test yourself with Blackcap and Garden Warbler in the summer months as they sing alongside each other. During winter Padstow, Pentewan and Gannel Estuary hold good numbers of birds that will sing their sub-song on milder sunny days.

2) Garden Warbler. The song of the Garden Warbler is one of my favourites of all bird song. At first it is difficult to separate from Blackcap in particular but once you familiarise yourself with it there are distinctive differences. The song has an even tempo and a richness which is very different to the more erratic song of Blackcap. The ending doesn't speed up and it doesn't have the fluty ending . For me it has the qualities of a Blackbird and a Skylark mixed together! Garden Warbler has a rather patchy distribution in Cornwall and is much scarcer than Blackcap, found close to moorland and in some sheltered valleys. It seems to prefer more open areas with scattered tree's than Blackcap. In conifer plantations it is usually found in young conifers alongside Tree Pipit and Willow Warbler whilst Blackcap tends to sing from the mature conifers alongside Chiffchaff. The top site in Cornwall is Goss Moor National Nature Reserve whilst it is also patchily distributed throughout Bodmin Moor.

3) Common Whitethroat. The typical song of Common Whitethroat is a series of four or five scratchy notes which is often repeated note for note whilst it sits on a prominent perch. It is a familiar summer sound in our countryside. However it's subsong can be confusing as it often sounds richer ,  more warbling in quality and noticeably varied with some mimicry. If you are patient and continue to listen a bird in sub song will eventually utter the more well known song phrase, usually at the end of the subsong. A male Common Whitethroat on territory will also burst into song flight which sounds like a fast paced, ramped up version of it's typical song, although lasting considerably longer before intervals as the bird hovers in the sky in a Pipit like fashion. It can be found throughout Cornwall in coastal locations and inland in mature hedgerows and road verges. My number one spot in Cornwall for this species would be Lands End were if you walk along the cycle track in early May there will be 20-30 birds singing from almost every thicket!

4) Lesser Whitethroat. The rattle of Lesser Whitethroat is one of my favourite summer sounds and it is surprising how far the noise can carry, several hundred yards from my experience. It sounds a bit like the beginning of a Chaffinch's song but is dryer and harsher in tone. If you get close enough to a singing male you will also be able to hear the much quieter start to the song which is a short, sweet and rather melodic warble. Males often set up territory in coastal valleys amongst Blackthorn scrub , moorland edges and mature hedgerows but it is a relatively scarce summer migrant and is always a nice find. Top sites in Cornwall include Porth Joke valley in mid to late May and Windmill Farm Nature Reserve on the Lizard Peninsular.

5) Spectacled Warbler. The song of Spectacled Warbler is perhaps a little softer in tone to my ear than it's Mediterranean counterparts (such as the Subalpine Warbler complex and Dartford Warbler). A rather whistley and sweet warble with a mournful quality (sounding a bit like Crested Lark) that is sang in short bursts at staggered intervals every 2-3 seconds. Spectacled Warbler is a rare vagrant to Britain with just nine accepted records by BBRC. However seven of these have been in spring and at least six of these have been singing males (including one on Dartmoor 3rd-6th June 1999). The likelihood of one eventually turning up in Cornwall is quite high in my opinion. They seem to like low gorse and saltmarsh habitat so one could turn up in any number of places in Spring but if I had to predict one site in Cornwall it would be along the Kynance road on the Lizard Peninsular or perhaps the cycle track at Lands End.

6) Dartford Warbler. This spritely Sylvia 's song is a rather monotonous dry sounding warble lasting around two seconds and usually repeated at regular intervals when it is delivering full song. The song isn't particularly complex and the rather low toned, harsh sounding notes lack the tuneful and melodic qualities of Spectacled and Subalpine and are closer to Sardinian Warbler in many ways. The male will often sing under cover but will briefly pop up onto the tops of Gorse in response to threats whilst a bird on territory will often sing from a prominent perch during the breeding season (typically March to June). It is a specialist of heathland and is our only sedentary Sylvia Warbler in the UK (meaning it doesn't tend to migrate and can be found throughout the year). In Cornwall it is rarer now than it was five years ago mainly due to the "beast from the east" of February 2018 and a succession of wet winters. It could possibly be found on coastal heath or inland on many of our moorland areas so long as there is an adequate amount of Gorse, it is a schedule 1 breeding bird so specific sites around the county cannot be disclosed but a trip to RSPB Arne in Dorset at almost any time of year would be productive.

7) Sardinian Warbler.  This rare vagrant is a particularly vocal Sylvia that utters distinctive dry (machine gun like!) calls seemingly whenever it moves and if you travel to the Mediterranean coast of Spain you will hear them almost constantly. The song however surprised me when I first heard it as it was much more musical than I was expecting. The harsh rattle like call notes are interspersed with a fairly basic loud yet sweet and melodic warble which lasts for around 3-5 seconds (typically longer in duration than other small Sylvia's) before being repeated. In a habit that reminds me a little of Common Whitethroat the warble gets even more melodic and tuneful when it alights into a song flight. When in song the male tends to sing from a conspicuous perch but it will also sing from deep cover and can be fairly skulky on migration. Cornwall has a good track record for this species with the last two records involving singing males from

The last three bird songs are from the recently split Subalpine Warbler complex. I have some field experience of all three species but it has been interesting for me to research and refresh my knowledge on how Eastern Subalpine, Western Subalpine and Moltonis Warbler can be identified and seperated by sound. Whilst my conclusions might be a bit amateurish compared to some of the birding sound guru's out there but I do believe that songs and particularly calls can help to identify a vagrant in the UK. Around 80% of Subalpine Warbler records relate to males so knowledge of songs and calls plus having a device to record them for later analysis is important.

8) Western Subalpine Warbler. 

Western Subalpine Warbler occurs within a large area encompassing North Africa (Tunisia to Morocco) and Western Europe (Iberia, southern France, and north-west Italy). It is a rare but annual vagrant to Britain in the Spring. This is potentially the most likely Subalpine Warbler to be found in Cornwall and they are generally annual in their occurrence. Any coastal site could turn up a Western Subalpine with Porthgwarra and Lands End in West Penwith and the Kynance area of the Lizard peninsular being good areas to search in April/May in Blackthorn. In comparison to Eastern and Moltoni's the song sounds slightly richer in quality and tends to have more variance and more complex warbling. The call is also a distinctive hard 'tack tack' which sounds rather dry (a bit like Lesser Whitethroat). 

9) Eastern Subalpine Warbler.

As the name suggests Eastern Subalpine breeds in Eastern Europe (north-east Italy, the Balkans & Greece) plus part of western Turkey. A further subspecies (Sylvia cantillans cantillans) breeds in parts of southern Italy and Sicily. It is rare vagrant to Britain typically in April and May. It is a rarer occurence in Cornwall than Western Subalpine but shares the same habitat niche and pattern of arrival so there will be more records to come in the future hopefully. The song of Eastern Subalpine reminds me a little of a Sardinian Warbler, the rapid song sounds harsher and dryer in tone and there is less variance and more repetition of notes. The call is very similar to Western but is slightly softer in quality: 'Trrrett' 'Trrett'.

10) Moltoni's Warbler.

The range of Moltoni's Warbler is much more restricted compared to it's two sister species; occuring in parts of central Italy, Corsica, Sandinia and the Balearic Islands. This is the rarest form of Subalpine Warbler to occur in Britain with eight accepted records, all have been in spring and seven have been males. Cornwall has yet to record an accepted record by BBRC but I believe a male which turned up at Porthgwarra in October 2014 was this species on plumage but sadly no sound recordings were obtained. However a male in spring 2016 on nearby Isles of Scilly was accepted so there is a good chance another will occur perhaps in west Cornwall. The song has a Common Whitethroat quality but has the speedy delivery of a Subalpine. It has a buzzy tone to the song, lacking perhaps the rich notes of a Western Subalpine but not sounding as harsh or dry as an Eastern, The call (which can be heard in the recording) however is the clincher for this species and is diagnostic; a buzzy Wren like trill which is completely different to the calls of Eastern and Western Subalpine.

A big thankyou to Gary Thoburn for allowing me to use his excellent photographs for this post

Warbler Sound Quiz Part 2: Sylvia Warblers

Eastern Subalpine Warbler - Gary Thoburn
For the second instalment of our sound quizzes we will be looking at the Sylvia Warbler family. In a UK context this familiar group of warblers are a mixture of long distance migrants, rare vagrants and a single resident. As we all know they can be skulky and difficult to view in their favoured habitat of dense vegetation and having the knowledge of their songs is a great time saver when counting breeding pairs on a local patch. Being aware of some of the rarer species songs will also one day hopefully pay off as rare Sylvia Warblers that turn up in spring have a tendency to be singing males.

Spectacled Warbler by Gary Thoburn

Some of the Sylvia's in this sound quiz have only recently been given full species status and it's been a learning curve for me producing this! As always I will post the answers shortly which will include a write up on each species song and explain what for me makes them distinctive and unique. I will also be including some sonograms in the answers for the more difficult species as recording bird song and analysing them on a computer has become a key part of sound recognition in birding and on a scientific level and has been something I'm getting to grips with myself since lockdown and I am not an expert but I feel it's part of the future of birding so hopefully you can learn with me along the way!

Common Whitethroat Paul Ash

We hope you enjoy the quiz! Click below on the ten questions to have a go.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Week 6 End Of Lockdown as we know it!

As things are now changing and from tomorrow we are allowed to exercise multiple times a day and drive to a destination I think it's a good time to finish the lockdown series. As I look back on events that unfolded I will always remember these last few weeks and the benefits wildlife gave me whilst feeling low and isolated it has always given me a lift! I hope you enjoyed the posts and we will be blogging as usual throughout the year about our birding and (hopefully) ringing experiences...

Seeing the first Swift of spring is always a magic moment! They are the true acrobats of the sky and an amazing long distance migrant that may not land for over 2 years!

The last week or so has been action packed for birds and birding with settled weather and favourable winds yielding plenty of surprises even for landlocked birders such as myself at the moment. A walk up to our favourite fields above the house presented me with the find of the Spring for me personally! A Blue-headed Wagtail which was sadly all too brief for a photograph as it came out of the same field that I found a Lapland Bunting on January 1st! The habitat in this one particular field is so unspoilt with rare wild flowers and grasses and a healthy population of Skylark and Yellowhammer it is an oasis for birds and a time warp to how things would've looked in the entire area 50 years ago (before intensive farming and early silage cutting). 
More Common Whitethroat have arrived in my local area this year having successfully completed their migration in the fine and settled weather, This showy male wasn't best pleased with our presence on his patch!
The high ground above my house is an important area for Skylark which breed in a large uncultivated field, sadly such habitat is very rare to find these days which is a major factor in their alarming decline (over 75% since 1970's)

As we were sat having dinner in the garden on Friday evening I happened to look up in the sky and noticed a group of Red Kite's soaring overhead! This was surely the start of the annual Red Kite influx to Cornwall and the next day huge numbers poured through the county with a record count of over 300 birds recorded from a garden in Marazion! I'm sure many of you reading this may have seen some of these graceful and eye-catching raptors from your own garden or on your local walk and if you haven't yet seen one do keep looking as they are still being reported throughout Cornwall (for a write up on the Red Kite influx it's worth reading this article by CBWPS: https://www.cbwps.org.uk/cbwpsword/sightings/)
Cornwall enjoyed a spectacular arrival of Red Kite with several hundred birds logged across the county! Note the primary moult in this bird ageing it as a  2nd calendar year. All birds I scrutinized were the same age and indicate that as usual they are probably all non breeding birds originating from the successful reintroduced population around the UK.
In a bright sky against the sun or high up in dull light Red Kite can look very dark meaning potential confusion with the much rarer Black Kite. Shape & structure are the best clues to it's identity with Red Kite showing a longer tail with a noticeably deeper notched fork. They have longer/thinner wings and the overall shape is less stocky than a Black Kite.

Even the Noc Mig recording was superb this week with several big groups of Whimbrel over the house plus some Dunlin and most bizarre and amazing of all a substantial flock of Common Tern recorded migrating over the house in the early hours! Noc Mig is changing my understanding of migration and I would never have guessed that Common Tern would migrate well inland through Cornwall at night!

ImageOur resident birds seem to be having a successful breeding season so far thanks to the settled weather I suspect. We have been delighted to see fledged Song Thrush, Blackbird & Mistle Thrush in the garden and we have also glimpsed the odd juvenile Robin. The delightful Dippers which grace the river below our house have also raised their young and we were lucky enough to see two juveniles on VE day busily chasing their parents for food along the riverbank. After a while they began to search for their own food and were already pretty adept at catching prey underwater which is amazing considering they were so young out of the nest. It's worth searching for Dippers and watching their antics as they bob up and down the river. They are the only passerine that has adapted to feed underwater and they achieve this by having specially adapted eye lids which have evolved into a pair of water tight bird goggles!
Adult Dipper

Juvenile Dipper

In the future I have learnt to enjoy the nature that is around me and I will be continuing my photography and walking from home even after lockdown as I feel more familiar with where I live than ever before. I'll never stop going to the coast though as a birder the coast and migration is unmissable for me...