Monday, 4 November 2019

Mounts Bay Egret is it or isn't it?

Mounts Bay unidentified Egret species

I had heard some murmurings of an interesting Egret being seen briefly around Mounts Bay but not pinned down or its identification nailed! Rumour had it that it could be a Snowy Egret, the Nearctic version of our Little Egret if you will! A few days passed with no news and I have to admit that I hadn’t given it a second thought. I then received a message from Paul Ash and some photos of the bird in question that had been located again in Penzance Harbour prior to high tide moving it on again. The photos had me hooked! I ran them past Bob and a couple of other birders that I hold in high esteem and they all had the same feeling. This bird was eye catching and deserved some attention! So, what was so interesting?

The original photos sent by Paul Ash showing some striking features such as the bright yellow on the lore's and apparent yellow colouration to the legs. (Photos courtesy of Paul Ash)
As you can see from the photos that Paul originally sent there are some striking features. Most notable was the intense yellow in the lore’s and the yellow on the back of the legs. Both good field characteristics of Snowy Egret on paper. Things were looking good in my mind but having only ever seen the species in Spring in America I threw caution to the wind and sought more experienced opinion. My first port of call was Kester Wilson who well and truly burst my rarity bubble! He was busy at work but gave his viewpoint that it was a Little Egret, “bugger” not the answer I had hoped for! A short while later another message came through from Killian Mullarney via Josh Jones. He also suggested that it was indeed a Little Egret! A real shame as I know that I wasn’t the only one that wanted it to be a Snowy. 

Why was it a Little Egret and not a Snowy?

A species had been determined but I wasn’t 100% sure I fully understood all the field characteristics that made this a Little Egret. So, it was time to do the hard work and get the field guides out and Google fired up! Here is what I found out:

The obvious place to start with the Egrets is the head, bill and lore’s. In theory these should be pretty easy to see on both species as neither are particularly timid or skulky. 

In the Little Egret, you will see a pale-yellow iris in combination with either a grey or a light green/yellow lore. In the Snowy both a bright yellow lore and eye is evident in non-breeding birds. 

The crucial feature is the shape and colour of the saddle that extends over the base of the bill. This affects the shape made by the feathers approaching the culmen: being rounded/crescent-shaped in a Snowy, rather than pointy in a Little.

Eye colour is also important as the iris of the Snowy and Little Egret are different! The Little Egret will have a paler eye than a Snowy Egret. Not all birds have the exact same eye colour, especially depending on the lighting conditions! It is a common occurrence to encounter a brighter looking eye than expected. But used in conjunction with other identification features can aid a conclusion.

The head and bill structure also differ, and a Snowy Egret will show a slightly more petite appearance to the head and a stout, less elongated bill. The Little Egret forehead slopes more gradually accentuating its long-billed and long-headed appearance. Not so obvious on lone birds but being somewhat gregarious the opportunity for comparison will be possible for the patient observer.

Here we have a Little Egret showing the pale eye and restricted loral patch. Also, the large head and long tapered bill can be seen with some detail. 
This photo shows a "classic" Snowy Egret and some differences are obvious. Firstly the large yellow saddle extends over the bill and the eye is extremely bright! Also, note the smaller head and  slightly shorter, blunter bill.
The Mounts Bay Egret initially shows some striking features but on further scrutiny they all fit Little Egret. The yellow saddle is not present over the bill. The Iris colour is also pale yellow as opposed to bright yellow as would be shown in a Snowy Egret. It also shows a head and bill pattern indicative of Little Egret. (Photo courtesy of Julie Eccleston)
The legs are another important feature to observe albeit can present some problems. A little prior knowledge of the pitfalls is useful. 

Adult Little Egrets have black legs, with yellow feet. Snowy Egrets show not only yellow on the feet but yellow or a light greenish/grey colour trailing the back of the legs. If you’re able to establish that your bird is an adult, you can easily use this as a pretty reliable feature. However, you’d want to consider your verdict of both the lore and the iris, but if your bird has a bright yellow lore, iris and has light colouration on the back of the legs then it may be time to get on the phone to Birdguides!

The pitfall comes when observing younger birds! As a general rule the younger a Little Egret is, the lighter the legs are. Their legs become darker as they age. This is where it can become a little tricky, and there is still the possibility of a young Little Egret having light colouration on the legs, in conjunction with the typical black colouration. It is worth noting feet colour as Snowy Egret will always show golden yellow whereas Little's are drabber yellow-green.

A Little Egret showing the obvious black legs and yellow feet that are generally slightly longer and thicker than that of Snowy Egret. A prominent feature that is obvious when birds fly or are walking on land or shallow water.
A Snowy Egret showing not only yellow on the feet but also yellow along the back of the legs.
The Mounts Bay Egret did show some pale yellow on the back of the legs. However, this can be indicative of younger Little Egrets and not a feature that should be relied upon for positive identification of Snowy Egret. (Photo courtesy of Julie Eccleston)
The last important factor is size difference. In most cases, size is an extremely difficult to judge. You essentially need the two species standing next to each other to be able to identify whether the bird is smaller than the other. Little Egret is slightly larger in size, but not by much! However, it has a slightly more robust appearance and Snowy Egret would look some what petite in a Little's company.

Here we see the Mounts Bay Egret (Right) with a Little Egret. No obvious structural differences are apparent adding validity to the Little Egret identification. (Photo courtesy of Paul Ash)
Sadly it wasn't to be this time! But I for one am really pleased that this individual presented itself as for me personally, it was a really good learning bird. I certainly feel that if I was ever fortunate enough to encounter an individual in Cornwall I would now have a good chance of identifying it. I hope you can too? If you do remember to let me know first :-) !

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Chough Junior 2019 ! Myself and Pete's week off birding

October is a special month in birding and each year myself and Pete take a week off for our annual Chough Junior Birding holiday. I'm not sure where the time goes but 2019 marked our 7th year and we always get excited about what we might see especially after last years Grey Catbird and Penduline Tit!We also enjoy counting and documenting the migrant birds we see in the County during the week as we notice changes in populations and weather related influxes of birds as we keep the dates the same each year. Our list of species prior to this year was 202 (all in Cornwall) since 2012 and adding to this list is also a big target for the week.

Saturday our first day of birding started with a Chough Junior first , an out of county twitch! All week we had been hoping that the American Black Tern that had recently turned up at Longham Lakes; Dorset would remain into the weekend and on Friday night we planned our journey after the bird had been seen at dusk. Despite the horrid weather it was an easy 3 hour journey to Dorset and after a bit of a panic as we searched the lakes I picked the bird up distantly flying close to the far shoreline! Boom a great result and a fabulous bird to see and photograph at such close range. Certainly a very good learning exercise and I feel well armed if I should ever stumble across one in Cornwall to sort out the I.D. On our way home we stopped off at Maer Lake (finally back home in Cornwall!) and could begin our list for the week seeing a nice Spoonbill and 2 Pink-footed Geese amongst a nice selection of wildfowl and waders.

Juvenile American Black Tern

Every Sunday on Chough Junior we head to Porthgwarra in the far west of Cornwall in the hope of finding mouth watering rarities. This iconic valley has certainly been very kind to us in past Chough Junior visits with Moltonis Warbler, Alpine Swift and a self found Blyth's Pipit to name just a few. This year however our targets were set eagerly from the west as a series of weather fronts emanating from America had dumped an array of neartic passerines into Western Europe. With a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on Scilly and a Common Nighthawk in Northern Ireland our sights were set big but alas after yomping through Hidden Valley and 60ft Cover we failed to find the yank. Even the Red-eyed Vireo that had graced the valley during the week failed to show for us but Pete found a nice juvenile Turtle Dove (new for Chough Junior !) and I saw a few common migrants including Lesser Whitethroat and 2 Firecrest, all good birds for the week. For the rest of the day we searched St Levan , Porthcurno and Trevascan hoping to find an American Warbler but we did see the White Stork which had been roaming around the St Levan area during the last few weeks. We finished our day at Nanquidno and were treated to great views of a Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been found earlier in the week. 


Monday 14th saw us up and travelling in the darkness to the Lizard, yet another fantastic birding location in Cornwall where just about anything can turn up. Birds were moving overhead in big numbers early in the morning and our busy vis mig amassed 1448 Meadow Pipits! Scarcer birds included 3 late Swallows, an out of season Hobby and a nice year tick in the shape of a Woodlark. At 9am news broke that the Barred Warbler had been seen in Caerthillian Cove again and we wasted no time in getting there seeing that it was a county tick for us both. After a quick search we were treated to great views and photographs of this large charismatic Sylvia Warbler as it crashed about in the brambles and blackthorn, We then walked to Housel Bay were there had been a very skulky Nightingale species that I was keen to help positively identify. Sadly despite being very patient and setting up a Bluetooth speaker in the hope of attracting the bird we failed to see it and the Nightingale wasn't seen again. Heavy rain had set in by now and we made the call to check Stithians and Devoran on the way home. This was a bad call in some ways as when the rain stopped local birder Mark Pass found two Red-breasted Flyctacher's and a Booted Warbler! Still a lifer for Pete and a county tick for myself meant the day had been a great success. 

Barred Warbler

Chough Junior is usually about finding birds for ourselves and checking less well watched coastal sites but with new birds turning up we had found it hard to resist planning our first few days around them. So on Tuesday we headed to St Agnes in the hope of finding something for ourselves at a new location for Chough Junior. What a great day it was with Long-tailed Skua and Sabines Gull over the sea and a good selection of Common Migrants (considering the unfavourable westerly wind) including Ring Ouzel, Merlin and Firecrests. There is so much potential in this area (which is hardly watched at all) and it has inspired Pete especially to come here more often.

1st Winter White Rumped Sandpiper by Mike Spicer

Wednesday 16th saw us heading west again to help cover the ringing at Nanjizal Valley. As a trainee ringer I always feel so lucky to train at Nanjizal under Kester Wilson's expertise and we both are always very previliged to help out there. Today we joined Nik Ward (on holiday himself in West Cornwall ) and it was great for me to learn lots of tips in extraction from him during the morning. When at Nanjizal you need to sometimes think outside the box when ringing and Pete has the talent to try different things which has resulted in some great rarity records for himself over the last few years. Today he concentrated on targeting the large numbers of Pipits that were in the area. As we were walking across to check a net Pete was distracted by a buzzy Pipit call down-slurring at the end. He then picked up a bird looking a tad larger than the Meadow Pipits it was with as it flew more confidently and purposefully towards him to the field he shouted over to me. I recognised the call as Olive-backed Pipit but I was worried about not getting a view, thankfully the bird came back across in my direction and alighted into a Willow back on to me. I could see the green tinged unstreaked back as it seemed to melt into the foliage and dissapear without a trace. Sadly it didn't end up in a net but we did ring a nice selection of migrants including a very late Common Whitethroat. Other notable sightings included a Ring Ouzel that was so showy I took a picture of it with my phone! And close views of a Woodlark flying through the valley. What a great morning we had as Pete found himself a lifer and a rare bird in the county! After we had packed up we went over to Marazion Marsh and spent an hour searching the bay with Reuben in the hope of connecting with a juvenile White-Rumped Sandpiper found earlier in the day by local birder Mashuq Ahmed. We had wonderful views of this fresh in yankee wader on Marazion Beach but I felt that some of the photographers were getting too close to it if I'm honest. I understand the urge that some birders get for the perfect photo but me ,Peter Reuben were happy to look through the scope and not get involved in it. Last but not least that day we headed back to a wildlife hospital in North Cornwall to study a Rough-legged Buzzard taken into care that had sadly passed on through starvation. Biometrics and feather samples for DNA analysis were taken and I'll await the news on what could be a first Rough-legged Hawk for mainland Britain (after all these storms why couldn't it be one? Certainly some plumage features were pro Rough-legged Hawk, time will tell and a full account will be given in time ). 

Hooded Crow

Thursday was a full on day indeed and both of us were feeling it today, but on Chough Junior there is no rest! So again a bright and early start albeit to a more local sight of Trevose Head. Conditions weren't ideal as the heavens opened every ten minutes or so (Met Office back to their best with a forecast of 5% chance of rain! I'd love a job there it must be a party!). Still we had birds trickling along the coast and we were delighted to see the long staying Hooded Crow, yet another new bird for our Chough Junior List! Pete called it a day at lunchtime to catch up on some chores and have a well earned rest but I carried on to the Camel Estuary. It was nice to add a few Waders to our week list including Common Sandpiper but I was most looking forward to going to Walmsley Sanctuary (this CBWPS owned reserve is a fantastic location for birding and is one of my favourite local sites). As I got to the hide the well known suppressor and co was present along with a very nice novice birder. I sat next to this lady and took great satisfaction from the enjoyment she got from me showing her a fine drake Mandarin Duck and a Pink Footed Goose. Not rare birds but new to her and it was worth the whispering and backchat aimed at me in the process. I feel saddened that people withhold sightings in this way especially to new birders with an interest in the nature that we all want to enjoy , observe and protect. I'm happy not to know what's in the area it creates a sense of excitement as to what I might find but for novice birders it is pretty harsh. Especially when in a CBWPS hide , I will probably get an ear bashing as usual when the person we all know hears of this but I feel like I should make it known what goes on in North Cornwall and the pressure some people must feel in the area from intimidating bully type people, I won't be shying away from the Camel Estuary and the Trevose area any time soon  as life is too short and they don't have any more previliges to be at these sites than any other birder, in fact in my opinion less so at Walmsley as I'm not even sure they are paying members. I felt I had the last laugh that day as when I had the place to myself I found a drake Green Winged Teal! One of the highlights of the week on a personal level. 

Green-winged Teal

With us both feeling re-energised for Friday we had decided to head to Pendeen Watch for a seawatch that had the added bonus of being near to Cot Valley and Sennen should any news come out of two potential new birds in the county for us (a Subalpine Warbler, which would be new for me if Eastern and new for Pete if Western! Plus an Icterine Warbler). The seawatch itself was mediocre at best with some Grey Phalaropes, a Sooty Shearwater , Bonxies and a couple of Arctic Terns. My personal highlight was watching Pete battle the storm with his high tech umbrella designed to not fold inside out in any conditions, now Pete was quite fond of this brolly until he realised the design meant that there was a massive sunroof of a hole in the top getting him soaking wet! I've never seen a man punch an umbrella and tell it to ' F#ck off!' before! News soon came out that the Subalpine was showing so we made a retreat to Cot Valley. The Subalpine was the king of skulkers and I had one good view of it perched for two seconds, a few obscured views and several brief flight views. It was certainly a handsome bird and the plumage tones suggested to me that it is probably an Eastern Subalpine but after doing a fair bit of research there is no way I can be sure. A pasty for lunch and a quick look at Mounts Bay and Hayle rounded off the day nicely.

Subalpine Warbler species by Marek Walford

We both had commitments on Saturday with family but we still got out separately and found good birds. Pete seawatched at St Agnes again and saw Sabines Gull, Pomarine Skua and a couple of Arctic Skuas. Whilst I saw a Snow Bunting at Gwithian and a smart 1st winter Little Gull at Hayle Estuary. We knew we were off to Nanjizal in the morning for our last day of birding so it was good to spend some time with my very patient and understanding girlfriend for the afternoon! 

Sunday was a very memorable day for Chough Junior. With rain overnight and promising winds from the North East we were hopeful of some good birds at Nanjizal and perhaps a bit of a fall. What we were treated to will be fondly remembered for a long time. We walked out for the first net round and it felt 'birdy' in the valley. Little flocks of passerines flitting across the net rides and birds were going in already. Pete went on ahead as I extracted a couple of Robin's and as I caught up he excitedly told me that he had extracted a Barred Warbler! Wow what a start to the morning and the bird we had wanted all week. I then got to the next net and saw an interesting warbler above my head. Any Acro (or Reed type Warbler) in October is worth scrutinising anyway but as soon as I saw this bird with it's olive tones to the upperparts and very white underparts my gut feeling was that it was a Blyth's Reed. I soon had it out of the net and a quick check of the wing formula confirmed in my mind that it was! Boom what a moment! It was a pleasure to hand the bird to Pete to ring and study a lifer for him, Back at the ringing hut we took full biometrics before letting it go in a timely manner. I find it amazing that Nanjizal has produced 4 Blyth's Reed Warblers this year and 8 in total, all of the Cornish Blyth's Reed's have been found here! So surely they are occurring at other locations in West Cornwall as this expanding species from Eastern Europe reverse migrates south west instead of north east. The rest if the morning was rich with birds both in the valley and overhead with 59 Blackcap, 3 Yellow-browed Warblers, 7 Firecrest, 17 Chiffchaff and 1 Cettis Warbler ringed. Plus a Richard's Pipit overhead , 176 Redwing, 2 Fieldfare and a White Stork

Barred Warbler

Blyth's Reed Warbler

After Nanjizal we went home to spend time with our families and reflect on what had been a very successful week. We saw 150 species of bird in Cornwall , twelve of which were new for Chough Junior. Pete had three lifers in the shape of Olive-backed Pipit, Blyth's Reed and Barred Warbler. My own highlights included the Blyth's Reed Warbler, finding the Green-winged Teal, exploring St Agnes and getting such close views of the White-rumped Sandpiper and (albeit briefly) Subalpine Warbler. We have already booked next year off of work and I can't wait already! 

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Woodpeckers Of Europe - ID Guide

I have always found Woodpeckers fascinating with their gaudy plumage and yet often secretive behaviour. In fact the Great Spotted Woodpecker visiting my garden feeders was the first bird I properly looked at and it reignited my passion for birds as a teenager. Ever since I always take the time to watch these characters of the woodland and as I started to go birding abroad I began a quest to see every species that breeds in Europe which earlier this year I completed! Finally tracking down a Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker in the remote forests of the Lithuanian/Belarus border. To mark this occasion I have written a short piece about each species with some I.D features that I hope will help people find and enjoy them as I have done.

Three-toed Woodpecker Courtesy of Armandas Naudzius

Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus Canus) is found in ancient deciduous forest, mature parkland and even visits urban gardens in Eastern Europe. Although it shares the olive-green upperparts and yellow rump with the Green Woodpecker there are several features which make it straightforward to separate the two species. Grey-headed Woodpecker has a uniform grey coloration to it’s face which spreads around the ear coverts, it also has an unstreaked grey coloured breast which extends to the undertail coverts. The face pattern of Grey-headed Woodpecker is also diagnostic. Their thin black triangular shaped lores above the bill and thin black malar stripe below the bill make the head look rather plain at a distance. Males can be sexed due to the presence of a red crown (less extensive than on Green Woodpecker) which the female lacks. You may also notice the smaller size in comparison with Green Woodpecker and the very distinctive ( call which descends in pitch and slows down at the end. 

Male Grey-headed Woodpecker above and below. Note the grey head and belly which extends down to the undertail coverts. The red on the crown is limited and extends to just above the eye, together with the thin black malar stripe this creates a distinctive appearance.

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) - This large bulky Woodpecker can share the same habitat as the Grey-headed Woodpecker but is also more likely to be seen foraging on the ground in short grass or gravel forest tracks looking for ants. Adults of both sexes always show a large red crown and black face mask which surrounds the eye. Sexes can be separated by the colour of the malar stripe which is mostly red on a male and black on a female. The malar stripe is also much thicker and more prominent when compared to Grey-headed and the bill see is much thicker and more powerful looking. Also the call of Green Woodpecker doesn’t have the descending ending or the rather mournful quality of a Grey-headed, it has a shreaker more repetitive tone and sounds a bit like an annoying laugh!

Male Green Woodpecker (below) and Female (above). Not the prominent black triangle around the eye, thick black malar stripe and extensive red on the forecrown extending to the nape.

Iberian Woodpecker (Picus Sharpei)This relatively new species (recently split from nominate Green Woodpecker) is endemic to Spain, Portugal and the far south of France where it’s range overlaps with Green Woodpecker. It can be found in a variety of habitats with my best views coming from birds on golf courses around the Algarve and in mixed woodland in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  The head pattern is the main feature in separating the species from Green Woodpecker as the Iberian shows at best a ‘washed out’ face mask on a male and typically greyish head on a female. The male shows a red malar stripe with much less conspicuous dark border whilst the female has an all dark malar stripe. If you hear a Green Woodpecker type call in Iberia then you have yourself an Iberian Woodpecker as the Green is absent from this area ( ) When you see the bird it is more reminiscent of a Grey-headed Woodpecker which breeds much further north in Europe and shares a face pattern similar to Levaillants Woodpecker which breeds in North Africa.

Iberian Woodpecker: male (below female (above). Note the grey cast to the head on both sexes and the lack of a black face mask. The red crown stripe is more restricted than on Green Woodpecker and the red malar stripe on the male lacks the clear cut black border of Green Woodpecker.

White-backed Woodpecker  (Dendrocopos leucotos) – The largest of the European pied woodpeckers needs carefully managed intact deciduous or mixed forest with plentiful dead or dying wood in which to forage for wood boring beetle species. Thus sadly in most areas it is declining in numbers as suitable habitat disappears. They do have quite a large range throughout central and eastern Europe with relict populations in Northern Spain and Scandinavia. As the name suggests it does have more white on it’s back than the other pied woodpeckers with a white lower back and extensive barring from the wing coverts. In most views you may not initially see the back at all but there are several other features which can distinguish White-backed from other pied woodpeckers. Firstly to my eye it is obviously larger and longer in the body to Great Spotted Woodpecker. The first plumage feature I noted was the pencil line streaking on the flanks (shared with the smaller Middle Spotted Woodpecker). The face pattern was also noticeably different and intermediate between Middle Spotted and Great Spotted in that it shows more white on the face than Great Spotted Woodpecker but lacks the plain faced appearance of Middle Spotted Woodpecker as it still has a thin dark moustachial stripe. Sexes can be separated by the fact that males have a red crown which females lack.  

White-backed Woodpecker- note the pencil line streaking on the underparts, the white back with diffuse horizontal ladder like streaking on the upperparts and the thin malar stripe below the bill. Calls of White-backed Woodpecker: 

White-backed Woodpecker excavating nest hole

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus Major)- The generic pied woodpecker must surely be the most common member of it’s family throughout most of it’s range. It is widespread throughout suburban areas , parks , woodland and forests. So the odds are that when you are looking for scarcer pied woodpecker species the Great Spotted will be nearby which makes it important to know this species well. Great Spotted Woodpecker shows a plain; unstreaked breast and on the closed wing shows conspicuous white ovals on the wing coverts with white barring on the flight feathers below this. The face pattern shows a clear difference to the very similar Syrian Woodpecker (which can be found in Eastern Europe also) as the black malar stripe (line below its bill) links up with a thin black line reaching the red crown on it’s head. Syrian Woodpecker lacks this black line (which encloses the white cheeks of a Great Spotted) giving it much whiter looking cheeks and neck.The colour of the undertail coverts is also much more vivid red than Syrian, Middle Spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers.uvenile birds show much more red in the crown than adult birds which could be a potential ID pitfall when searching for other pied woodpeckers. Size alone will rule out Lesser Spotted whilst Middle Spotted has a much plainer face pattern (owing to pale lores and no black malar stripe.) and streaking to the belly. Males and females can easily be separated in a good view as the male shows a red nape (back of head) patch which the female lacks.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker. Note distinct white ovals on closed wing, red undertail coverts, prominent black malar stripe, white cheeks enclosed in a black outline and unstreaked breast.

Syrian Woodpecker (Dendrocopos syriacus)- This rapid coloniser from the east now has a strong foothold in Eastern Europe and overlaps in range with the very similar Great Spotted Woodpecker. I saw my first in Israel (where it is the only occurring Woodpecker species and was common) and also in Turkey. Like the Great Spotted Woodpecker the Syrian can be found in urban environments and also parkland and smaller copses and orchards. It is very similar to Great Spotted Woodpecker but shows whiter cheeks, washed out red vent and paler lores. If you think you have a Syrian listen out for it’s call it is pretty distinctive and sounds like a squeeky toy. (Call of Great Spotted call of Syrian Woodpecker- Sexes can be separated in the same way as Great-Spotted with the male having a red nape which the female lacks.

Male Syrian Woodpecker: When compared to Great Spotted Woodpecker undertail coverts are pinkish rather than red, white cheeks lack black post-auricular stripe and on the closed wing fewer but larger white splodges are present. The red malar patch indicates this is a male (which is larger and more conspicous on Syrian Woodpecker).

Juvenile Syrian Woodpecker could easily be mistaken for other species but note that the head pattern is still the same as an adult.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius)- This charming woodpecker occurs across mainland Europe and from my experience is suited to many different tree habitats probably because they glean their prey from the surface and do not bore deep into bark (so they aren’t so dependant on unspoilt ancient woodland).  I have watched them in city parks in Berlin and Vilnius, ancient forests in Lithuania, mature mixed deciduous woods in central France and olive groves and orchards in Turkey. With a good view this woodpecker is very different from it’s other pied cousins. Both sexes show a red crown (similar to perhaps juvenile Great Spotted) and also have a strikingly pale face with white cheeks and pale grey lores which give an open faced look about them. The upperparts are a similar in pattern to Great-Spotted but the underparts show more obvious streaking than that species and the vent of Middle Spotted Woodpecker has a distinctive pink flush and isn’t as vivid in colour as Great Spotted Woodpecker. Structurally it is rather petite with a weak bill and smallish size when compared to Great Spotted, Syrian and White-backed Woodpeckers (it is still obviously larger than Lesser Spotted). Vocally I think the calls of Middle Spotted Woodpecker are the easiest to separate when you are in the forest with several other species occurring. I have picked up on a Meeowing KYaa! Type call and also a longer excitable ‘kick’ call which is repeated several times in quick succession (reminiscent of a Falcon) . The sexes are difficult to separate without good views or photographs. The crown of the male stays red in colour through to the back of the head whilst the crown of the female’s is more diffuse at the rear and often shows a brownish/yellowish tinge. 

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – This male shows the 3 main I.D features of pale lores creating an open faced look , bright red crown and washed out pinkish vent.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker  Dryobates minor)- Europe’s smallest Woodpecker is still a widespread resident but is sadly declining through much of it’s range particularly in Britain. They can be found in a range of different habitats from deciduous forests to orchards and parkland but from my experience they tend to need dead or decaying wood and I have seen them nesting in mature Alder tree’s in France and Lithuania. If searching for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in Britain it isn’t a bad idea to look along river banks and wet woodland. Owing to their tiny size locating by call In early spring is the easiest way of finding one. They sound to my ear rather like a Falcon or perhaps Wryneck ( ). The small size is eyecatching as is the barred back (similar to the larger White backed Woodepcker). In flight the compact shape and undulating flight reminds me of a Hawfinch.  Males have a red forehead which the female lacks.

Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (above) and Female (below). Note the thin streaking to the underparts and the horizontal barring on the upperparts which creates a ‘ladder’ effect.

Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) – This enigmatic Woodpecker is found throughout much of mainland Europe and despite breeding within view of Britain on a clear day from the forests of Northern France it has never been recorded in the UK. It seems to thrive in a multitude of different woodland habitats on the continent from ancient forests to vast conifer plantations (seems to do well In pine forests) and even urban parkland with the one essiential requirement being large mature tree’s in which to nest in.  The Black Woodpecker is surprisingly large and in flight is around the size of a Carrion Crow with a flight similar in style to a Jay. Note that the flight is not undulating unlike most woodpecker species. The jet black plumage, conspicuous white eye and ivory coloured bill also make the largest European Woodpecker unmistakable in a good view. The easiest way of locating them however is by voice at first ( ). Sexing birds is pretty straightforward with a clear view of the head as males have a red stripe extending from above the bill to the nape whilst in females the red is much more restricted to the rear of the head.
Male Black Woodpecker. Note the pale eye which stands out against black plumage, pale dagger like bill and extensive red crown (indicating it is a male).

Black Woodpecker in it's nest hole

Three-toed Woodpecker – this species can be difficult to catch up with in the forest as it seems to prefer the interior zones and doesn’t frequent the outskirts of the forest or clear fell areas. It also has a high habitat dependency on dead or dying tree’s so it can use it’s weaker bill to search for food in the bark. The call of Three-toed woodpecker is a distinctive ‘Churp’( ) but it isn’t very far carrying , also note the drumming is rather slow paced and also quiet.  My first impression of Three-toed Woodpecker was that I was surprised that it’s size was approaching that of Great Spotted Woodpecker (I was expecting it to be smaller for some reason). This is a very distinctive bird with side on and back on views sufficient to nail identification. My initial impression reminded more of an American Woodpecker species . The head pattern shows a thick black mask through the eye separated by white stripes above and below. A very thin malar stripe is also evident in a good view below the lowest white stripe whilst the thinner white stripe behind the eye extends and spreads in shape down onto the back to form a large white patch. Sexing is straightforward with a good view as the male has a black crown and a yellow patch on it’s forehead. The female has a greyer coloured crown and lacks the yellow patch of the male.

Three-toed Woodpecker (male) – Note the very prominent black face mask bordered by thin white lines  on the face. The prominent yellow crown sexes this bird as a male. From behind note how the supercilium broadens from behind the eye and forms a large white patch on the back. A very distinctive yet elusive species.

A good clue that Three-toed Woodpecker is present in the forest is the distinctive holes they leave in bark. They seem to gently tear away at the outer bark and then with needle like precision peck further into the wood leaving these neat 'cartwheel' like indentations in the bark. 

Eurasian Wryneck-. Has a wide breeding range across Europe and is the only woodpecker in Europe which migrates to Africa for the winter. In Britain it Is mainly sighted as a scarce migrant chiefly in Autumn. It’s cryptic plumage, small size and long rounded tail make it easily identified in a good view. In fact I would say they are more likely to be confused with a large Sylvia Warbler and remind me of Barred Warbler especially in a poor flight view. Wryneck is typically a ground feeder with a high dependence on ants to feed on so it favours open areas with bare ground as long as there are holes for nesting nearby. On migration it can be found around dry stone walls, hedgerows and rough patches of land chiefly near the coast. Although mostly silent on migration it is rather vocal on it's breeding territory (very good way of finding birds on territory), it's call sounds more like a raptor than a Woodpecker and reminds me of a Kestrel. ( 
Wryneck's are notoriously difficult to age and sex. This 1st winter bird in the hand showed a  pale grey eye (ochre/red colored in adult) and on the open wing showed fresh unmoulted secondaries (which would be old/retained in an adult during autumn as they moult the secondaries in their wintering grounds).   

Finding a Wryneck on migration is always a great thrill! Pete and myself found this bird at Dozmary Pool;Bodmin Moor feeding on ants in a small garden. It is worth searching  for Wryneck during high pressure systems and easterly/south easterly winds during the Autumn months. We found this bird at the end of August which is a really great time to connect with one. Coastal sites turn up the majority of records but birds are found well inland every year. Scrubland, field margins, blackthorn and dry stone walls  are good habitats for a migrant to rest up and feed .  

References; Woodpeckers Of the World The Complete Guide by Gerard Gorman
Thankyou to Adrian Langdon for the stunning pictures of Green Woodpecker , Lesser Spotted Woodpecker & juvenile Syrian Woodpecker

Friday, 13 September 2019

August Autumn Arrivals

Autumn Migration is happening and has started in spectacular style! For a couple of weeks heavier migration was apparent as Nanjizal had started producing exceptional numbers of passerine migrants, as expected Sedge Warbler and Whitethroats made up the majority of catches. But the scarcer birds, the ones that get birders out of bed in the morning, had not made much of an appearance as yet. 

My first inclination that things were about to change came on the 22nd of August. After a family meal and with only limited time before the sun sank to low, I opted for a brisk stroll around the nearby Parkhead National Trust headland. Located between Porthcothan and Mawgan Porth it is always worth a visit and is a real beautiful spot. As I started to descend into the small valley a familiar call caught my ear as I inadvertently flushed a Yellow Wagtail from the nearby cattle field. As it sailed over head, I manged to locate it in the bins and realised it was the far more unusual nominate race “flava” as it showed a blue head! Always a red-letter day when you get a different wagtail in Cornwall.  A short while later I had made it into the foliage rich valley and had started to enjoy the brief views of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaff, clearly some birds were on the move. A larger cleaner looking bird flitted in and out of view that grabbed my attention. I patiently waited a few moments staring into the tree that it seemed to bolt towards. My patience paid off as a Pied Flycatcher dropped into view, feeding heavily and obviously stocking up for another journey that evening. Little else noteworthy was found but there was enough variety to switch my brain into autumn mode, what was going to happen over the next few days?  

My next venture out was on Saturday the 24th. A 4 30am start saw me and Bob bundled into the car and heading to West Cornwall and more specifically Nanjizal! Not classic conditions but it was the peak Sedge Warbler period so felt it was going to be worth the effort. My morning was already made during the first net round when John Ryan presented us with a Convolvulus Hawkmoth that he had carefully extracted from a mist net. This was a new species for me, and I was thrilled to see it! We didn’t ring a huge amount of birds, finishing on around 50 new (slow for the site at this time of year), but it is always a pleasure to process some Grasshopper Warblers and we also had a single Garden Warbler of note. The real highlight happened during a mid-morning net round. I was at the Trevilley end of the site and my attention was grabbed by a distinctive call that I subconsciously knew deserved my attention! A sharp ‘tshilp’ call with a House Sparrow like quality about it, could be heard sporadically coming from the seaward end of the valley and heading towards me. I cottoned on quite quickly as to the species responsible for two reasons. Firstly, Kester had the same bird a couple of days previously. But more pleasingly I had studied this species quite intently on a trip to Cyprus last year. It was a Tawny Pipit! My first in the county for some years now and I was even more pleased when Bob had confirmed that he “had it” as well! A great morning that I really enjoyed.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth was a pleasant surprise

On our way home we stopped off at Drift Reservoir as it was the sort of weather conditions that has seen many good birds turn up there in the past. I opted for the easiest option and stayed at the car to rest my eyes whilst Bob took a walk around the reservoir to see what he could muster up! The agreement was that we would call each other if we picked up anything of interest. I am not sure how long I was in a comatose state but remember being startled by the loud ringing that woke me! Bob had picked up an Osprey that had flown in and had started fishing, sending the Gulls into panic mode. Awesome, a great year tick and one you don’t mind being woken for! A little while later I had regained full consciousness and was chatting to visiting birder Graham Lawlor, Bob had made it back to the car and we were merrily chewing the cud and scanning around for anything else that might be making the most of the thermals. A bird was then viewed heading in from the west that looked remarkably different from the nearby Common Buzzards. It was broader winged, appeared to have a longer tail and a pronounced head. Most interestingly it was soaring on bowed wings! As it got closer it became apparent that this was in fact a Juvenile Honey Buzzard! A stonker and never easy to connect with in Cornwall. We were ecstatic with the days tally and couldn’t wait for tomorrow!

After the previous day’s excitement, the 25th saw Bob and I bundled back in the car at 4 30 am again and on our way to Nanjizal. Weather conditions were more favourable, and our expectation was for a better quantity of birds. The first round proved our theory correct as it was certainly busier! A good showing of Sedge Warbler and 4 Grasshopper Warblers in the first round! I left Bob and John at the ringing table and started the 2nd net round and mid-way through the valley extracted a pleasant surprise! Once back at the ringing table I made sure a certain bag was directed John Ryan’s way as it was a bird that he had wanted to see in the hand for some time! There was no need for tricky wing formulas to identify the bird as he carefully extracted a Wryneck! It was an absolute beauty too.

Wryneck was an exciting encounter at Nanjizal Valley
The morning continued to produce birds to ring and Nanjizal threw up another exceptional bird overhead. Myself and local birder, Royston headed off to check some nets not far from the ringing table and as we started to return I picked up a wader call that I knew was from something special. A mournful, disyllabic “K-lip” emanating from a Plover. The bird came into view and there was no doubting that it was an American Golden Plover! The bird had been seen and heard several times in the area by Kester and Mark Wallis. A great year tick and delightful bird to see at Nanjizal.

Once back at the table and most of the birds had been processed, I was about to venture off to empty the nets once again but was told to hang fire! The last bag contained a surprise from Bob that I would want to see. Another fantastic Wryneck! Two in a morning cannot be bad? A total of 150 birds were ringed that morning much of the catch being made up of 76 Sedge Warbler.

The 2nd Wryneck of the morning!
Here the bird is showing exactly how it got its name!

A Spotted Flycatcher also added to the variety that morning.
After Nanjizal we were on route home with not much of a plan but then news came out that a flock of over 20 White Storks were over Lizard Village! Bugger what do we do? By the time we drive there they could end up just about anywhere! We opted to head to Marazion, as we guessed that they would hit the coast and then start heading back towards us. A great plan that probably would have worked perfectly if Marazion wasn’t bedlam! Roads were blocked and traffic was extremely heavy as a consequence. I decide that I would skirt around the town and head in from the other end. Again, not a bad plan until the traffic and disruption was just as bad there too! What made matters worse is that during all this upheaval the flock had now made its way to Drift Reservoir and we were caught in heavy traffic and 30 minutes away. I decided to do what any Cornishman would do and took to the back roads not knowing exactly which route would work and ensuring that any passing motorist knew how annoyed I was finding life right now by rapid hand gestures and vocal obscenities! Thankfully it worked and eventually we made it to the Reservoirs just a short time before the Storks started to descend to the banks to roost for the evening. A truly breath-taking sight that I hope to witness again in Cornwall in future years. As it transpired this flock had been seen at several locations on the south coast over the last few days and had originated from Knepp Estate where they are reintroducing the species. More information can be found here:

White Storks roosting at Drift Reservoir
              A real sight to behold in Cornwall! 

The 26th saw Bob and I take a more leisurely approach and a later start. At 5 30 am we were on route to the Goss Moor to carry out one of my final CES ringing sessions for the year. Slightly perturbed on arrival as we glimpsed a middle-aged man in the area. A most unusual sighting in this location at this time of day. After getting some nets up and open it became clear what he was doing there as we stumbled across him and his family “wild” camping in the middle of three of my net rides! Sadly, this drastically reduced my ringing totals for the day however, the pain was eased a little as a Tree Pipit was part of the catch. By late morning we had decided to knock it on the head and try and salvage the day by a visit to Colliford Reservoir and Dozmary Pool located on Bodmin Moor. We started by scanning Loveny Arm at Colliford but sadly the heat haze was so severe that there was little chance of picking up anything of note! From here we ventured on to Dozmary Pool. As we drove in along the road a bird that had just alighted from a bramble bush on my side caused me to call out to Bob immediately! I knew from its size and odd Warbler like flight that it was a Wryneck. Our third in two days! I was even more ecstatic as every year Cornwall sees this species reported from inland locations and I have never had such luck seeing them away from a coastal headland. We had distant but prolonged views of the bird as it fed on the lawn of a nearby remote moorland cottage before perching on a gate for a few moments and then off into the undergrowth and out of sight. There were plenty of other birds in the vicinity with at least 20 Wheatears present and it deserved a better scan. This paid off as Bob had soon located a single Tree Pipit and a Whinchat amongst the conglomeration of birds present. It was at this time that news broke of a Western Bonellis Warbler sporadically showing at Trevescan in West Cornwall. This was over an hour away from my location and despite having never seen the species in the county I decided that it would have to wait for another day before I made the effort! Bob and I continued our tour of Colliford and were pleased to pick up a Little Ringed Plover for our efforts. All in all, a great visit and well worth the effort. The added bonus was that we were home with our families for lunch and back in people’s good books.

A pristine Tree Pipit ringed on the Goss Moor 
Our 3rd Wryneck in 2 days, made even more notable by the inland location!
After an afternoon of chores and cooking I received a call from “the boy” young Reuben Veal about the Bonellis Warbler that by now seemed more settled, pinned down to a location and showing well at frequent intervals. Reuben was struggling for a lift to the bird, had a driving lesson booked and didn’t know how he was going to connect. Never let it be known that I would leave a damsel in distress and I agreed to pick him up ASAP. Secretly it was the kick up the arse that I needed to get down there too and not waste this opportunity to connect with a new county tick for my list! It didn’t seem long before we were on site and enjoying great views of this joyful species. The evening was made even more pleasant as “the boy” went for a wonder and soon got a few of us present on to one of the lingering White Storks that had choose a nearby chimney top as its evening roost, a Yellow-legged Gull and some Common Ringed Plover! Not only do Reuben's growing birding skills impress me but I was dumbfounded by his organisational abilities too, managing to recruit a driving instructor (Pete Walsh) that is also interested in twitching to meet him at a twitch and then have a lesson after. I tell you this, he is one to watch! 

Western Bonelli's Warbler showing well at Trevescan
The next few days saw me tied up with work and travelling! As I was driving out of Cornwall there was some news that nearly resulted in a handbrake turn and heading back home. The Brown Booby that Kester located without bins from St Ives had shown up again with some frequency! What a record and I am sure would have been low on the list for many birders if asked what is the next first for Britain! Also, that morning a Blyths Reed Warbler had been trapped and ringed at Nanjizal! Of all the birds to show up it had to be that one. I have never connected with one anywhere in the Western Palearctic, so I was a bit gutted to say the least!

Blyth's Reed Warbler trapped and ringed at Nanjizal showing the diagnostic wing formula
 I was back to normality on the 29th and after some serious discussions with Bob the previous evening I hatched a plan to get to Carbis Bay as early as possible before work to give myself a chance of seeing the Brown Booby, even if it was a slim chance! From this vantage point I had a view of the whole bay and felt that if news broke, I could view the bird albeit distantly wherever it was in the bay. My morning was pleasant and started well as I picked up a couple of Arctic Skuas in the Bay, a year tick and exciting species even on the busiest of days. The next couple of hours seemed to pass by in no time and although the birding wasn’t bad, I still hadn’t connected! Around 8am a distant bird caught my eye at Godrevy! A Gannet like bird that seemed small and stocky, an overall brown appearance but with a striking white belly! Could this be it? As the bird moved marginally closer, I could see that it was diving at a pronounced angle and showed a pale-yellow face! It was the Booby! Booom!!!!! My next dilemma was that no news was coming out over the regular channels so I started by contacting the local WhatsApp group so that any locals present would have an idea of place names etc and could get any visiting birders on to the bird. Thankfully by the time that I had done this Mike Mckee had also located the bird and the news was spread far and wide!

The St Ives Brown Booby in all its glory! 
A delight to see and witness in Cornwall. If anybody has any theories as to why multiple birds have appeared around and near Britain this autumn I would be delighted to know. My own theory is that there was possibly a food shortage in the areas that these birds normally reside forcing them further out to sea where they have been caught in rough weather and forcing them here. But what do I know?

What a start to the autumn in Cornwall! Hopefully September will be just as productive.