The Bonaparte’s Gull at Farmoor

On Saturday evening whilst doing the Draycote roost John Judge suggested it was about time he/we went to have look at the 1st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull which has now been present for some time at Farmoor in Oxfordshire. Dan Watson had called that same evening keen to get out of the county and ‘actually see something’ the next day, so after work on Sunday instead of taking the sensible course of action and going home to deal with paperwork, I drove over to Dan’s and picked up a lift to Farmoor. I’m so pleased I did as the bird was constantly on view for the two or three hours we spent there and very close in the entire time. The Bonaparte’s spent much of its time gleaning insects from the surface but was also catching numerous fish.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

This behaviour was not lost on the Black-headed Guls present which took to trying to steal a meal, providing ample opportunities to compare the two species. Whilst he quality of the following two images is poor they are worth including for illustrative purposes. Though the size difference is perhaps exaggerated here by the ‘flattened’ posture adopted by the Bonaparte’s, one which interestingly it seemed to utilise when being defensive and aggressive (which it was with surprising frequency given its smaller size and weight), it is nonetheless remarkable. As a result of these aggressive encounters the bird was vocal too, the peculiar high-pitched tern like call quite distinct from that of any gull regularly encountered in the UK. When no other birds were available for size comparison the tiny, short narrow bill was distinctive. Though the Bonaparte’s is at a poor angle in the shot below the darker tertials are obvious.

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1st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull and 1st W/S Black-headed Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

The cleaner inner upper-wing of the Bonaparte’s is well illustrated here, the narrower, neater darker trailing edge and carpal bar and cleaner inner primaries combining to create a distinctive appearance. Black-head Gull of the same age typically shows a more extensive and more diffuse trailing edge to the wing and more extensive white in the primaries and outer greater primary-coverts resulting in a larger, cleaner white ‘wedge’ along the outer forewing.

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1st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull and 1st W/S Black-headed Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

Photos taken at closer range and with more time to steady the camera show the spread wing pattern well. The clean underwing lacks the dark grey primaries typical of Black-headed Gull of the same age (see previous flight shot) but Malling-Olsen and the Collins Guide both warn of the potential for worn individuals to show rather translucent primaries (a photo of such a bird can be found in Gulls). These authors also point out that 1st W/S birds may be slightly smaller and I have certainly seen ‘runt’ Black-headed Gulls a few times in the Draycote roost and one bird with translucent primaries which gave me a scare during brief views at extreme range.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

The greater primary-coverts show an inverse pattern to that of Black-headed Gull in that they have dark bases to the outers but are otherwise pale whilst Black-headed Gull typically has white outers and dark centres to the inners.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

On the water the dark bill and extensive grey on the hind-neck and upper breast sides were obvious features but would be far harder to be sure of at range and in the falling light of a gull roost. Having said that we had originally gone to the wrong place and when Dan first picked the bird up across the width of the reservoir in the heat shimmer the latter feature was just about discernible. Black-headed Gull can show something similar and though typically less obvious in that species I have found its appearance exaggerated in poor light. The ear spot was also very neat and only a minority of Bonaparte’s Gull will develop a (blackish) hood in their first summer.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

There was no sign of tail moult although the extremely long tail-coverts overlaid the central tail feathers and sometimes gave the impression of replaced feathers.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

Finally, and for no reason other than the fact that it was so pretty here are a couple more photos, long shots with a bit of background for ‘mood’.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

Ecuador 4. Playa del Oro (in to the Chocó Lowlands)

Leaving Mashpi a long drive followed by a fairly short boat journey finally brought us to Playa del Oro just before darkness descended. Playa del Oro is the premier accessible birding locality in the Ecuadorian Chocó lowlands but is still somewhat remote compared to many sites in the country. Located at the edge of the largely uninhabited Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, Playa del Oro is precisely the kind of forest locality I love in that it is undisturbed and extensive.

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Tigrillo Lodge is basic but comfortable and surrounded by excellent habitat with many of the areas best birds occurring close by. Our first morning began with a pre-dawn excursion of no more than a few hundred metres to see Chocó Poorwill. This  was one of my favourite caprimulgids of the entire trip, the dark plumage serving to highlight the conspicuous white spots on the wing-coverts. This species was formerly considered conspecific with Ocellated Poorwill and both are forest dwellers but Chocó Poorwill will vocalise close to the forest edge which is helpful when trying to track one down. This individual was clearly audible from the lodge every morning during our stay.

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Chocó Poorwill. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

In the lodge garden there is a tree at the top of the slope leading down to the jetty which, when fruiting, can attract some spectacular visitors. We were fortunate enough to discover after breakfast that it was fully in fruit and a steady procession of birds were moving in and out of the canopy. That the best of these on our first morning was a stunning male Blue Cotinga gives some idea of just how remarkable and exciting is the birding at Playa del Oro. It was time to head for the trails and we boarded the boat full of anticipation soon to be realised.

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We began our exploration of the trail system on the famous Cascada Trail and one of the first local speciality birds we encountered was one I had long wanted to see, Stub-tailed Antbird. We enjoyed great views of a singing male at close range.

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Stub-tailed Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Spotted and Bicoloured Antbirds followed but Ocellated Antbird was uncooperative and only a couple of people managed glimpses. This was however the only real disappointment of the morning and we soon tracked down our first Sapayoa. I am not a family collector but I do love many of the sub-oscine passerines especially cotingas and manakins, originally developing an interest in Sapayoa as it was formerly placed in the latter group. Recent work has now decreed that it belongs in a monogeneric family and its closest relatives are the Old World broadbills, another favourite group of mine. Thus, dull as it is, I was pretty keen to see it. Playa del Oro is arguably the most reliable site in the world for Sapayoa which is fairly common there and we saw three that morning. The photo below illustrates the feature which contributed to the species former common name and hinted at its then unknown affinities, Broad-billed Sapayoa.

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Sapayoa. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Stripe-throated Wren and Lemon-spectacled Tanager were also picked up in the flock before we moved on to a mirador for lunch.

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We secured our primary target here with distant views of  three Black-tipped Cotingas and a spectacular bonus in the form of a group of five Great Green Macaws. This species is rare in Ecuador where it is restricted to the W slope and I was particularly pleased to see it as whilst serving as Conservation Officer of the Neotropical Bird Club I awarded a small parcel grant to an environmental education project dedicated to protecting Great Green Macaw in the country. Another good find here was a showy Rufous Piha. Birding the canopy along the ridge was hard work and we craned our necks at horribly acute angles as birds flitted rapidly from tree to tree. The rewards were however great and chief among them were the Chocó endemic and super attractive Scarlet-and-White and Blue-whiskered Tanagers. Other good birds seen over the course of the afternoon included Cinnamon Woodpecker, Gartered Trogon, Yellow-margined and Pacific Flatbills, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Scarlet-browed and  Rufous-winged Tanagers and Fulvous-vented Euphonia. Chief culprit among the ‘neck breakers’ was a spectacularly difficult Five-coloured Barbet whilst among the avian highlights of the lower strata were Checker-throated Antwren, Southern Nightingale Wren, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Dusky-faced and Tawny-crested Tanagers.

During the pre-breakfast walk on day two a torch beam picked up a pale grey lump which turned out to be a vent on view of a roosting Great Tinamou, a species I had previously seen but nowhere near as well as this.

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Great Tinamou. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Post-breakfast the vigil at the fruiting tree produced both sexes of Scarlet-bellied Dacnis, another stunning looking Chocó endemic for which Playa del Oro is renowned and which I had been desperate to see. Another W slope bird new to me in the garden that morning was Purple-crowned Fairy. Back in the forest and starting the trail from the other end one of the first really good birds we encountered was another I had been hoping for, Green Manakin. I kind of like the odd dull representative of otherwise colourful groups, though of course female manakins are dull and present the challenge in identifying Green Manakin. On the W slope the only form occurring is litae which is duller and even harder to identify accurately. Larger and longer tailed than females of other manakin species Green Manakin has a pale yellow central belly not shown by Sapayoa. We had gone in from the other end of the trail to try again for the Five-coloured Barbet which performed marginally better this time around. Lita Woodpecker, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Western Woodhaunter, Black-crowned Antshrike, White-tailed and Black-throated Trogons were among the best of the birds found during the walk. We added Moustached Antwren and Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant to the list before heavy rain stopped play early in the afternoon. The downpour left everything so wet we opted for a boat ride the key encounter on which was a frustrating one involving the boat men picking out a small party of guans which dropped out of a riverside cecropia before we could get any kind of a look at them. Luckily the rain had stopped before the planned evening excursion on the loop trail behind the lodge. Juan Carlos Cavalchi who had joined us as a second guide for this section of the tour had a trick up his sleeve for securing views of our target species, Streak-chested Antpitta. It involves luring one in at dusk and then spotlighting it. Our bird responded enthusiastically enough but circled for some time and when it eventually settled right in front of us remained blocked from view. It was now dark and the bird went silent. I thought we had cashed in our chips but I hadn’t reckoned on the skill of Juan Carlos who correctly guessed the bird had dropped down to roost and stepping in to the forest quickly found it.

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Streak-chested Antpitta. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

So ended the second of our days at Playa del Oro, nowhere near long enough but we did spectacularly well with them.

It seems a shame the Tigrillo Lodge which is run by local villagers does not get more visitors. It is a little basic but a great place to stay and the food is good. It really is a premier birding destination and given the popularity of family collecting and the relative ease with which Sapayoa can be found there it would perhaps be an idea to rename it Sapayoa Lodge and develop a marketing strategy designed to attract birdwatchers. Other eco-tourism initiatives could then follow on. It strikes me as critical for Playa del Oro, the forests of the W slope already largely lost and the people of the area somewhat remote from the capital and the regular tourist routes incorporating the high Andes and Amazon. Over exploitation of the W slope based on unsustainable agriculture has done untold damage but the people have to make a living and the brutal truth is that in the absence of an alternative and sustainable economic model the destruction is likely to continue. Places like the Tigrillo Lodge are the best hope the lowland forests of the Chocó have.

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Early Spring in the Leam Valley

It has been pretty good by local standards of late so I am punctuating the Ecuador posts with a Leam Valley round-up. My first good bird of the season came courtesy of a Dunchurch resident who called excitedly on the morning of 28/03 to tell me he had seen a Black Redstart in his garden. The bird had gone but I guessed it may not have gone far and dropped by after work to have a look. It appeared on a rooftop a few doors along from its original address and performed well in the sunshine for about an hour or so before disappearing when cloud cover set in. By that time I had spoken to most of the residents in the small cul-de-sac and whilst they were not unhappy once they knew what I was up to they were not willing for the news to be  made publicly available. In any event the bird was not seen subsequently.

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M Black Redstart, Dunchurch.

An evenings birding along Farborough Bank at Draycote Water paid off on the evening of 30/03 with a Rock Pipit exhibiting a greyish head and mantle, clean underparts with a pale buff wash and extensive whitish edges to the outer tail feathers typical of the Scandanvian form littoralis.

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Rock Pipit, A.p.littoralis, Draycote Water.

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Rock Pipit, A.p.littoralis, Draycote Water.

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Rock Pipit, A.p.littoralis, Draycote Water.

Arriving at Draycote Water on the morning of 02/04 I thought it best to try Farborough Bank first and was proven spectacularly wrong when a group of three Black-necked Grebes were found off Hensborough, which had been Dan Watson’s favoured option all along. Still at least we got to see them.

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Black-necked Grebe, Draycote Water.

The long-staying Red-necked Grebe was still present having moulted in to summer plumage and whilst we chatted to Richard and James Knightbridge who were also admiring the grebe fest I picked up two waders over the north shore which turned out to be a summer plumage and a moulting Black-tailed Godwit. These birds spent something like twenty minutes trying to land and so desperate were they to do so that they even tried to put down in the water. Ultimately they were thwarted by the fact that not a single bit of shoreline was left unoccupied by fishermen. After an interesting afternoon checking ‘marginal sites’ I returned to Draycote in the evening to meet up with John Judge. Again I picked up waders over the north shore, a group of five Grey Plovers this time, the largest group I have seen inland. Again they tried to land and again they failed, giving up after just three minutes or so but not before John remarkably managed to get some dot shots in which the black auxiliaries could be seen (if you squinted hard enough) at a range of about 0.5km! The power of the bridge camera demonstrated admirably. A 2nd S Mediterranean Gull at one of the smaller water bodies was the afternoons other highlight.

The following Saturday, nearly a week after the original find the Black-necked Grebes were re-located by John Judge and we were able to confirm that they were the same individuals, one having paler flanks than the others. Dan and I were just cursing our luck on Sunday afternoon having found nothing good and having just discovered that two Sandwich Terns had dropped in to Brandon Marsh less than hour after we left there when I caught a glimpse of something odd in my peripheral vision. ‘What the bloody hell’s that?’ shouted Dan who was already on it and after a brief pause for my brain to process the image I heard myself reply ‘It’s a Long-tailed Duck!’ John Judge and Bob Hazel duly turned out and it is good for them they did as the bird was not present the following day, having returned to Stanford Res. from whence it came. There are now several instances of good birds moving between these sites (the Red-necked Grebe referred to earlier had since travelled the other way) and it suggests that my hypothesised route between the Avon and the Leam (select Leam Valley from the menu bar above) has some validity.

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Long-tailed Duck, Draycote Water.

Checking a hill on the southern catchment of the Upper Leam Valley after work on 13/04 I quickly found a M Ring Ouzel. It was not alone it transpired and the two birds spent the next three days there. I told pretty much any of the local birders I thought may be interested but decided against putting it on-line fearing repeats of the atrocious behaviour exhibited by some photographers when the species was reported from Burton Dassett in 2012. A cracking M Northern Wheatear was in the same field on 14/04, my first of the year.

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M Ring Ouzel, Upper Leam Valley.

I failed to get out on 16/04 which was another mistake, John Judge calling in the afternoon to break the news of a summer plumage Slavonian Grebe at Draycote. All three rarer grebes within a couple of weeks of each other and in full summer plumage. How smart?

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Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water.

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Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water.

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Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water.

A surprise find whilst surveying Pleasance Farm at Kenilworth on 17/04 was a Short-eared Owl whilst a singing Grasshopper Warbler was just 50m or so from where I saw one in 2014 and a Northern Wheatear was only the second I have seen at the site.

Ecuador 3. Mashpi (Shungito and the Chocolate Factory).

Our first full day was spent along the Mashpi Road, at lower elevations than the other sites we visited in the broader Mindo area. The road is justly famous as a locality for a number of Chocó endemics and other speciality birds of the W slope. Our morning began well enough with a White-throated Quail-Dove sitting in the open at the roadside towards the higher end of the elevational range covered, which is approximately 1400-800m. A female Golden-winged Manakin turned out to be the only one we saw, making me glad I had good views of males around Mindo on my last visit. Next up was our first Orange-breasted Fruiteater, followed by Narino Tapaculo and a bit lower down an Indigo Flowerpiercer. By the time we reached the Amagusa Reserve the mist had descended and cloaked us entirely making birding extremely difficult. Several more Orange-breasted Fruiteaters gave excellent views and other interesting birds seen whilst we walked in to the reserve included Slaty Antwren and Bronze-olive Pygmy Tyrant. Yet another bird tourism innovation that has occurred in recent years is the establishment of feeding stations for frugivores and those at Amagusa take a certain amount of the stress out of looking for two of its star birds. I am not a serious tanager fiend but the Chloroochrysa are something special and the Chocó endemic Glistening Green Tanager is no exception. Given the dense mist I was quite glad of the opportunity to view them a super close range on the feeder. Numerous hummingbirds were coming to nectar feeders around the observation point and an unusual bird to pick up there was a Zeldon’s Antbird. A feeding station in the forest, just off the road, was our next stop for another Chocó endemic tanager I had waited a long time to see, Moss-backed Tanager. We did see another of these along the roadside later but it was nice to get the first ones under the belt and the views were of course superb despite the murky conditions.

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Moss-backed Tanager, Amagusa Reserve. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Leaving the reserve we continued downhill as did the weather and the visibility. The conditions were atrocious and though we soldiered on and found a few good birds, most notably three bedraggled Barred Puffbirds, the afternoon was somewhat disappointing. It is not called cloud forest for nothing.

Our other excursion in the Mashpi area was for the second of my most wanted birds of the trip. Recent work has suggested that the species formerly known as Rufous-crowned Antpitta is actually more closely related to the gnateaters, hence the use of the new common name Gnatpitta, but I prefer to use Pittasoma from the scientific name and differences in morphology and vocalisations may indicate the Pittasomas are best placed in a monogeneric family. Another Chocó endemic the species appears to be scarce in Ecuador and its Colombian range has been seldom visited in recent years due to the security situation there. Work by Dusan Brinkhuizen suggests it calls irregularly and this combined with its retiring habit of foraging from the forest floor make it exceptionally difficult to see. It often appears to be quite tame when encountered but would be physically difficult to see at any distance, its rapid movement through the undergrowth punctuated by extended pauses during which it remains motionless. In August of 2015 a local conservationist who farms cocoa and produces high quality chocolate on his property near Mashpi began habituating a Rufous-crowned Pittasoma in a remnant forest patch which he both owns and surveys. He was successful and I was fortunate enough to hear this staggering news around Christmas time so I called Birdquest in the New Year to ask if a visit could be included on our itinerary. Jonás was aware of developments and I was assured we would give it a try if the bird was still coming in at the time of our visit. So it was that I entered the forest with intense anticipation on the morning of our transfer from Mindo to the Choco lowlands. Firstly the bird has to be located within its large territory by a local guide. Our guide was gone for a long time, not a good sign. Whilst waiting we had seen a couple of Lanceolated Monklets, which is a very smart bird indeed but I could not really shake ‘the fear’. On his return the guide led us further along the trail and after a short distance we met the owner Alejandro who was out surveying birds. He, it transpired, had heard the Pittasoma earlier that morning but the location was a poor one in that the sound had come from a gulley we could not see in to. Our guide went off in to the forest in the direction the sound had come from and some serious machete work was audible for a while then silence. Suddenly the word went out, the bird had been located and we were to ditch all but essential kit and move in as quietly as possible. After a fairly short descent we gathered in the middle of an ant swarm attended by a flock including a number of Bicoloured Antbirds. I am told that Pittasomas don’t follow ant swarms and maybe they don’t but Shungito (the name used to call the habituated Pittasoma) had clearly spent that morning with one. The anticipation was killing me as Alejandro called softly and suddenly the Pittasoma hopped in to view a few metres away. It stood back on and then obligingly turned to give us a full view of the underparts. After allowing us a suitable time period to fully admire him Shungito hopped away and was very soon lost to view in the undergrowth, having not taken a single worm. Whilst the bird appeared to come to the call that is only different to luring one in to view with playback in so much as the individual is habituated and the encounter was still quite an electric one.

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Rufous-crowned Pittasoma, Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm project represents another initiative delivering benefits for both wildlife and local people in the wider Mindo area. Alejandro bought abandoned pasture and transformed it in to an organic cacao plantation. Bird surveys conducted when he first purchased the farm found 40 species and the number has risen to 150 in five years. Alejandro hopes to promote  organic cacao production which is far more sustainable than farming cattle and sugar cane and project activities include research, eco-tourism development and community work . The web site can be found here http://www.chocomashpi.com/index.php/en/chocolate/artisanal-chocolate-and-cacao. Numerous range-restricted birds occur in the forest including Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Baudo Guan, Indigo-crowned Quail-Dove, Rose-faced Parrot, Brown Wood-Rail, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Yellow-collared Cholorphonia and Blue-whiskered Tanager. A good write up about the pittasoma including directions and maps can be viewed here https://birdsofpassage.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/mashpi-amagusa-rerserve-mashpi-artisanal-chocolate-farm/. I can recommend the chocolate too.

Ecuador 2. Around Mindo.

Whilst in the Mindo area we stayed at the Septimo Paraiso Lodge, one of several lodges in the wider vicinity all of which have been built since my original visit to cater for the growing number of visiting birders and other tourists. Like most lodges Septimo Paraiso has some excellent hummingbird feeders in the garden which allow superb viewing opportunities for a wide range of species including the spectacular Booted Racket-Tail and the Chocó endemic Violet-tailed Sylph. Those two were easy enough to see in the old days but others such as the super smart Purple-bibbed Witetip and Velvet Purple Coronet (both endemic to the Chocó region) were considerably harder to find. The total number of hummingbird species that can be expected on a trip now far exceeds that achievable previously, when searching for flowering shrubs around villages or blooms in the forest interior were the only options. Dawn and dusk walks along the entrance road yielded a lot of frustratingly close encounters with several owls which resolutely refused to budge from concealed perches, just too far in to the impenetrable forest for us to locate them. Notable among these was a Colombian Screech-Owl, the earliest local records of which by Paul Greenfield, Bret Whitney and Colin Bushell were first detailed in the 1996 review paper referred to in my previous post. We did however encounter my first Kinkajou and Central American Wooly Oppossum. Another new species for me was Wattled Guan which cross the roadway in the evenings on their way to a roosting area. To hear the bizarre whirring screech given by this species is almost as much fun as seeing one, with its distinctive yellow and red wattle and pale legs. Whilst searching for these we picked up a nice bonus in the form of a Barred Forest Falcon which gave excellent views.

A very early start was required one morning in order to search for a very localised Chocó endemic en-route to Bellavista, another lodge located in the Tandayapa Valley. Tanager Finch is known from one locality on the road side but has become difficult in recent years, perhaps due to the amount of attention it receives as it appears to have become unresponsive to playback. Birds are generally only seen during a short time window in the early morning and Jonás ensured we resisted the temptation to dally and arrived on time. This was as well because after a half hour or so one of the group, Herman, noticed a movement under some large leaves at the roadside and peering in to the gloom discovered that it was a pair of Tanager Finches feeding unobtrusively a few metres away.

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Tanager Finch, Bellavista. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was hot by the time we arrived at the lodge, having walked in along the final approach and the birding was rather slow in the forest. After lunch though things picked up nicely and most notably with views of Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Spillman’s Tapaculo and Plushcap. Stopping off at another new feeding station to add Black-chinned Mountain Tanager to the list we moved on to Milpe for a couple of hours. This area is now heavily deforested but we saw a few nice birds including Ruddy Pigeon, Snowy-throated Kingbird, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush and Metallic Green Tanager. Towards evening I got to see Mindo briefly! A peculiarity of the changes that have taken place is that none of the birding done by visitors these days is undertaken on the slopes immediately around the village. Driving through the village was quite an odd feeling after all that time and we passed the now derelict hosteria where Guy and I, and one of the other tour participants Rob had once stayed. Whilst the village has grown it has not done so immensely but there are many more shops and a far busier atmosphere, though it was never sleepy. Most of the forest cover appeared as I remember it and I would be fascinated to know how the birding compared. Whilst these slopes were difficult to access they held some great birds, they remain for example the only place I have seen Black Solitaire. We were on our way to see a species I missed previously and now I know why. Lyre-tailed Nightjar favours cliffs and the best known site near Mindo is along the side of a road I suspect may not have existed when I was last there. Not only did we see it but we had excellent views of a male with full tail streamers, a genuine spectacle. Somewhat further afield we visited a site for another absolutely unique and truly weird caprimulgid also new to me. Oilbird is frugivorous and generally day roosts in caves but in NW Ecuador is known from a couple of gullies at Chontal which have the advantage of letting in some natural light.

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Oilbird, Chontal. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was historically suggested that as Oilbirds regurgitated seeds in the roosting caves where they failed to germinate the species was not an effective dispersal agent. Recent radio telemetry studies have shown that individuals will forage on extended trips travelling up to 120km or more from the breeding caves and that when they do they roost overnight in the forest. Calculations have suggested that Oilbirds may well be one of the most important long range seed dispersal vectors in Neotropical forests and a critical link in the ecological chain. Again local people are able to make some income from eco-tourism by charging a small fee to visit, protecting the birds and perhaps playing a far greater role than might be imagined in preserving the integrity of surrounding forests and those further afield.

Ecuador 1. Mindo

Over Christmas and New Year 1991/92 I spent two months travelling around Ecuador on public transport with Steve Smith and Guy Kirwan. I have wanted to return ever since and finally got round to it when I joined the Birdquest ‘Ultimate Ecuador’ tour in October 2016.

On my first trip I spent a lot of time at Mindo and Guy and I became friends with several people who had set up a foundation devoted to improving the local economy whilst preserving the character of the village and the forests surrounding it. We were asked to contribute data and determined that on our return we would publish a review of avifaunal records from Mindo. It was a well known birding locality but up to that point no systematic list for the area had been compiled. Another project which stemmed from discussions on that trip was the establishment of the Neotropical Bird Club and we eventually published in the club’s journal Cotinga in 1996. Though the review was only possible with the generous co-operation of notable Neotropical ornithologists I did have the idea of collating the information on threatened species and endemics to highlight the conservation significance of Mindo and the wider area. Species not known from the immediate environs of the village but which could plausibly occur at lower elevations were also discussed. In 1997 the wider Mindo area was declared the first Important Bird Area in the Neotropical region by Bird Life International. Since then ecotourism, driven by birding, has mushroomed to the degree that it is a significant, if not the principal factor supporting the local economy. Mindo is now popularly known as the ‘bird capital of Ecuador’ and I was fascinated to see the changes that had taken place in the 24 years since I was last there.

A species re-discovered in the area after my first visit was Giant Antpitta. Once the vocalisations were known it became apparent they were distributed sparingly but quite widely in the forests around the village. It remained however an extremely difficult bird to see, even when armed with recordings. All this changed when local resident Angel La Paz had the staggering idea of trying to habituate one to come to mealworms (it having been established that the birds diet included large worms and that they would even occasionally break cover to forage for them at the edges of pasture adjacent to forest edge). Angel succeeded and the first habituated bird Maria became what must be one of the most famous and well appreciated individual wild birds in history. I finally got to see Giant Antpitta on the second day of our trip and it lived up to expectation.

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Giant Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves.

The species truly deserves its common name and I thought it may have been even larger than Giant Pitta but it appears to measure a few centimetres smaller. Whilst hylodroma, the race occurring in NW Ecuador has darker underparts than the nominate and lehmanni (which is restricted to Colombia) those of this individual are particularly rich, the bird being just six months old. As I understand it they have distinct micro-habitat preferences, favouring damp gullies and generally sing for a limited period. Though chance encounters occur it would remain a very challenging bird were it not for Angels extraordinary work. The image below, taken by tour leader Jonás Oláh gives some idea how difficult they might be considering that the bird was just a couple of metres away.

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Giant Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

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Giant Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

The operation is a slick one and begins with a visit to a lek of the spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. A short descent takes you to a hide directly overlooking the display area, the bizarre ‘strangled cat’ vocalizations heightening the anticipation as you approach. No matter how many times you have seen them they remain an astonishing spectacle.

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Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

Meanwhile Angel and his staff have been busy tracking down antpittas and various other species ready for your subsequent viewing pleasure. On our visit the second skulker on the menu was Rufous-breasted Antthrush. I did see this species at Mindo my first time there but it was hard work and the views were nowhere near as good or as protracted as those afforded by a habituated bird.

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Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Refugio pas de las Aves.

The Chocó endemic Yellow-breasted Antpitta followed, another species that would be extremely difficult to connect with using the usual methods. Indeed one of Angel’s birds refused to co-operate on our visit but we had outstanding views of two at a second territory.

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Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

Even as we snacked on empanadas at the visitor centre good birds were lured in to view at bird tables and feeders including another Chocó endemic, the spectacular Toucan Barbet.

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Toucan Barbet, Refugio pas de las Aves.

An amazing thing is that the morning described here was a slow one. Dark-backed Wood-Quail and Ochre-breasted Antpitta are usually seen and Moustached Antpitta is regular though the least reliable of the habituated birds. Additional species such as Ocellated Tapaculo occasionally come to food temporarily and for short periods. A truly encouraging thing is that this tract of forest is now safe and testifies to the economic benefits that can result from preserving habitats and developing innovative eco-tourism initiatives.

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A view across the Cloud Forest at Refugio pas de las Aves, Mindo.

A case of undiagnosable headaches

Whilst surveying a HLS farm at Honington on 22/02/17 I discovered two Short-eared Owls at a day roost. This is a species I used to see regularly in the Upper Leam Valley as they wintered at Toft Farm but the foraging habitat there has now been removed. The changes to the HLS scheme reduced the payments for the rough grassland option which funded it and the landowners left the scheme. Short-eared Owls do winter regularly at Honington and there have been as many as 12 there but most winters there are just one or two and they are very difficult to find as the roost location varies. Also present on the farm were four Common Stonechat. On the 28/02/17 Dan Watson came to help me with surveys at Long Compton and set a site record for Red Kite with a count of seven.

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Red Kite, Long Compton.

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Red Kite, Long Compton.

We moved on to Honington to have a look at the Stonechats and discovered there were six birds present including a male which Dan noticed had a white rump. This is not unusual for worn hibernans in spring and that is what I judged the bird to be as it lacked the extensive white and restricted pale orange on the underparts often exhibited by continental rubicola. It appears however that these two forms do show almost complete overlap of plumage features and some authors have called the taxonomic validity of the treatment in to question, arguing that they should be lumped. The BBRC sub-committee which deals with races has yet to accept a British record of rubicola though breeding birds on the South and East coasts suggest that the range of rubicola extends to the UK.

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Common Stonechat, Honington. Note the extensive neck patch and white rump.

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Common Stonechat, Honington. Note the extensive neck patch and white rump.

Useful references can be found here https://www.britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/V104_N05_P236%E2%80%93254_A.pdf and here https://www.britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/article_files/V102/V102_N03/V102_N3_29_30.pdf .

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Common Stonechat, Honington.

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Common Stonechat, Honington.

The other undiagnosable referred to in the title of this post was perhaps a far more interesting candidate, though for a form which again requires taxonomic review. Whilst birding the Draycote Water roost on 25/02 I noticed a Lesser Black-backed Gull which had no appreciable contrast between the primaries and the rest of the upperparts, the basic prerequisite (in all but its most immature of plumages) when considering the possibility of nominate L.f.fuscus, often referred to as Baltic Gull. No apical spots were discernible which would suggest they were tiny or had worn away, the primary projection beyond the tail was markedly long and the primaries were narrow giving the rear end of the bird a very slender, attenuated appearance, all of which are features consistent with L.f.fuscus. The bird was small with a rather rounded head and a short narrow bill but I place no great weight on these structural features, the variation in Lesser Black-backed Gull being so great. I once saw a L.f.graellsii which Bob Hazell found at Draycote that was not much bigger than a Common Gull and proportionately slight looking. The uniform colouration of the upperparts combined with the long primary projection were what really gave the bird an appearance which I think the other three observers present (John Judge, Paul Hyde and Adam Archer) agreed was striking. I have seen just two birds which matched it. One was found by Richard Harbird at Westwood Pools in Worcestshire. I don’t have the date but it was in November and I was there to see a Surf Scoter found by Steve Whitehouse. I didn’t know the criteria at the time so I just posed the question, ‘in what way does it differ from the birds around it?’. When I got home I discovered we had seen just about all the L.f.fuscus features we could have on a bird on the water. As with the Draycote individual there was no appreciable contrast between the primaries and the rest of the upperparts except that the primaries had a brownish cast caused by wear. Those primaries which could be seen on the folded wing were all old and worn, to the degree that the central shafts could be seen projecting beyond the ends of some of the feathers. Apical spots were unsurprisingly, entirely lacking. The primary projection beyond the tail was still long and the primaries narrow whilst the bird was small with a short narrow bill and a clean rounded head.

As usual the web site of the Gull Research Organisation (GRO) is the best source of information on this subject. Jonnsson, quoted there, states that ‘the mere fact that a Lesser Black-backed Gull looks darker than a typical intermedius and may even appear black-looking is not enough for a sub-specific identification’ and asserts that fuscus and intermedius can overlap in every regard. Whilst there is some variation in moult timing among the three taxa, primary moult in Ad. L.f.fuscus is much later than that of the other two and the GRO site states that intermedius ‘strongly contrasts with fuscus which show delayed moult: at most the two inner primaries dropped’ in August/September. Primary moult is then suspended during migration. Malling Olsen gives primary moult in L.f.graellsii and L.f.intermedius as reaching pp. 7-9 by mid to late October and p.10 between mid-October and early January.

Jonsson suggests that adult L.f.fuscus are best searched for in Western Europe from late August to September and regards ‘Spring records of L.f.fuscus from the UK as most suspicious’. This is presumably based, in part, on the supposition that the majority of L.f.fuscus winter in East Africa but Swedish ringing records of the taxon show that ‘it is normal for fuscus to winter on the Benin coast as far west as Ghana’. Indeed Swedish ringed birds show an even distribution in Africa with 19 coming from the West and 14 from the East. There is however some suggestion that immature birds may predominate in the West. Apparent L.f.intermermedius have recently been a feature of the Draycote roost as Lesser Black-backed Gulls have just begun moving North East through the Upper Leam Valley in numbers, presumably on their way back from the wintering grounds to the South West.

Historically the three Lesser Black-backed Gull taxa were comparatively isolated but over the last 40-50 years L.f.fuscus has become increasingly rare and its range has contracted whilst the ranges of the other taxa have expanded rapidly. It has been suggested that L.f.fuscus warrants species specific status on the basis of differences in colouration, biometrics, egg laying time and migration pattern. The BOU treat it as a race and the BBRC sub-committee on races ‘Does not consider this taxon safely diagnosable in a vagrant context without tangible proof of origin, most likely a ringing recovery’. The delayed primary moult of the Worcestershire bird make it the stronger candidate of the two records discussed here and it is a shame that no photos were taken of that individual (it was seen by several observers). It pre-dated the development of digital cameras and were something like it to happen now, the presence of a bird like a Surf Scoter on such a small water body would guarantee any number of photographers were on hand to document the ‘odd gull’. Whilst I see apparent intermedius types regularly at Draycote during migration the only other bird I have encountered which resembled these two was the one and only Baltic Gull I saw in Finland and that sadly remains the only one I can be absolutely sure of.

Park Life

News broke on 05/02 that a pair of Whooper Swans were on the park lake at Abbey Fields in Kenilworth. Though the lake has played host to a Grey Phalarope, that species is often tame and the other big rarity recorded there was a Bonaparte’s Gull, a member of another fairly tolerant species group. The idea of two wild winter swans stopping over on the lake struck me as pretty suspect and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were ‘fence jumpers’. I went after work the next day and was somewhat dismayed to see them fly the length of the lake only to gorge on bread being thrown at the birds by park visitors. I had wondered if we might be able to check for them on the data base held by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust which identifies wild individuals from their bill patterns but they only have records for Bewick’s, the variability in Whoopers being so great as to render individual identification impossible. The bill pattern of both was ‘yellowneb’ in which the black of the bill tip does not extend up the centre all the way to the base.  This is the commonest bill pattern shown by Icelandic birds and John Oates has commented that in Rekyavik Whoopers will come to food, so perhaps they were not quite so plastic as they appeared?  As far as I could see neither was ringed.

Whooper Bill 1

Whooper Swan, Kenilworth

Whooper Bill 2

Whooper Swan, Kenilworth

Whooper 2

Whooper Swans, Kenilworth

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Whooper Swan, Kenilworth

The next local twitch I went on was to another park. This time Swanhurst Park in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley where a Juv. Iceland Gull had taken to spending large amounts of its day. Aside from the photographic opportunities this bird interested me because it had a pale eye, not whitish but not just a slightly paler brown than is usual. John Judge and I went on 15/02, some time after the bird turned up. The light was very poor that day and I had to crop this image heavily.

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Juv. Iceland Gull, Moseley

I noticed that the pale iris was soon ‘lost’ once the bird moved away and though I was not using a scope the distances involved were never great. I began to wonder whether Juvs. might occasionally show pale irides and if the frequency with  which they do might be ‘masked’ by the fact that the true colour is simply not discernible at any kind of distance. I posted the photo on the Western Palearctic Gulls Facebook page asking how unusual the iris colour was and received one reply. Derek Charles commented that ‘it is not rare for Juv. Iceland Gull to show a slightly pale iris when seen at very close range’.

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Juv. Iceland Gull, Moseley

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Juv. Iceland Gull, Moseley

As is often the case when one good bird is found, the resultant twitch yields another. In this instance it was a 1st W large gull which divided opinion between Caspian and Yellow-legged Gull. I discuss the bird here simply because the site offers the opportunity but recognise that most of the points raised have been made by other observers (including Donna Mallon and Dave Hutton who have kindly allowed me to use their images). The bird was a 1st W but had begun its moult in to 1st S, which is essentially the start of the progression to 2nd W plumage. This is evidenced by the replaced inner greater primary coverts which are well illustrated in the photo below. I have reproduced this shot, despite its poor quality, as it is the only one I have available to illustrate the upper tail. The solid black tail band was narrower than that often shown by Caspian Gull, had a neat, clean cut upper border lacking the vermiculations above it that are frequently shown by that species and the white outer web to the outermost tail feather was unbarred which is typical of Yellow-legged Gull. The heavy dark markings in the upper tail coverts may be within the range of variation for Caspian Gull (I am unsure) but would be unusual so late in the season, and were heavier than those exhibited by many Yellow-legged Gulls.

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1st W Yellow-legged Gull, Moseley.

This photo of a Juv. Yellow-legged Gull illustrates the typical tail pattern though the tail band is a little fuller and the outermost tail feather shows even more extensive white than that of the Swanhurst bird whilst the uppertail coverts are more sparsely marked.

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Juv. Yellow-legged Gull, Draycote Water. Photo by Dave Hutton.

The solid, dense, barred markings on the undertail coverts are particularly well illustrated in the next photo. These are again typical for Yellow-legged Gull but would be at the least unusual for Caspian Gull which generally has neat arrowhead markings. The retained greater coverts showed distinct transverse bars which are typical of Yellow-legged Gull and would again be, at the very least unusual, for Caspian Gull. Many of the second generation scapulars had broad dark transverse bars in the centres typical of Yellow-legged Gull. Those of Caspian Gull would generally be grey with narrow dark shaft streaks and sub-terminal spots or narrow anchor markings.

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1st W Yellow-legged Gull, Moseley. Photo by Donna Mallon.

Extensive brown feathering on the head and body is also evident here and would again be unusual in a Caspian Gull so late in the season. Classically, Caspian Gull will show fairly clean head and body plumage with a neat shawl of dark streaks at the base of the neck by this time of year. Though the extent of brown on the underwing coverts was within the range of variation shown by both species it would more likely be shown by Yellow-legged Gull in mid February.

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1st W Yellow-legged Gull, Moseley. Photo by Donna Mallon.

Whilst the bill may or may not have been within the range of variation shown by Caspian Gull (I am unsure) it certainly lacked the classically described profile of being long and parallel sided whereas it was deep and heavy with a distinctly hooked pale tip and a lower mandible which narrowed before the gonys resulting in a fairly sharp gonyedal angle typical of Yellow-legged Gull. This photo of a 2nd W Yellow-legged Gull illustrates the bill profile in question.

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2nd W Yellow-legged Gull, Draycote Water.

The Swanhurst bird did have comparatively long legs but as the previous photo illustrates they are again typical of Yellow-legged Gull.

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1st W Yellow-legged Gull, Moseley. Photo by John Judge.

Arctic gulls at Draycote Water (2008-2017)

Though gulls in the Draycote roost are generally too far away to photograph it is nonetheless possible to identify individuals if attention is paid to detail.  Thus far John Judge and I estimate that 16 or more individual Glaucous Gulls have now occurred at Draycote Water and on nearby landfills in 2017, following NW gales in the New Year period which resulted in a national influx. The influx is unprecedented locally although a similar event involving Iceland Gulls occurred in 2012. Thus far there has been at least one Glaucous Gull found in all but one of the 37 roost visits undertaken between 03/01 and 24/02 and there has generally been more than one, the figures are presented here.

No. of Individuals
0 1 2 3 4 5
No. of nights 1 6 19 6 4 1

Six individuals have been seen at Weston Landfill and at least two of those were not recorded from the Draycote Water roost. The details of individuals which could be identified with confidence (all but two of the birds being found within a 23 day period) are listed here (numerous records of birds which could not be identified individually are omitted):

Individual 1. A very large Ad. A red spot on the gonys separated it from individuals 2 & 3 and clean head and body plumage separated it from subsequent adults (head streaking would only be lost not acquired as the season progressed). Found by John Judge with Tim Marlow in the Draycote roost 03/01 and seen again there 04 & 05/01 by the original observers and Paul Hyde. Length of stay = 3 days.

Individual 2. Ad. A very large, pale billed individual with a well-defined black spot on the gonys and typical build with a short primary projection. Found by Tim Marlow in the Draycote roost 08/01 and seen again there 09, 10 and 11/01 (by John Judge and Paul Hyde on the latter date) and at Bubbenhall Lakes 10/01 by Tim Marlow John Judge & Roland Hopkins.  Individually identified at Bubbenhall and seen simultaneously with individual 3 at Draycote. Length of stay = 4 days.

Individual 3. Ad. Another pale billed individual but with a very weak black spot on the gonys, and a very small bird with a long primary projection differentiating it from individual 2. Found by Tim Marlow with John Judge and Roland Hopkins off Watery Lane 10/01 and also seen in the Draycote roost 10/01 & 11/01 (by John Judge and Paul Hyde on the latter date) and last seen there on 30/01 by John Judge and Paul Hyde.  Individually identified at Bubbenhall and seen simultaneously with individual 2 at Draycote. Length of stay = 21 days.

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Individual 4. Ad. A large bird with very light head streaking and a ‘shawl’ of remnant streaks at the base of the neck differentiating it from individual 1 which had clean head and body plumage and had not been recorded since 05/01. Found by John Judge with Tim Marlow at Bubbenhall Lakes 17/01 and seen in the Draycote roost that evening by Tim Marlow and there again 20/01 by Tim Marlow and Paul Hyde and 22/01 by Tim Marlow. Length of stay = 6 days.

Individual 5. Ad. A smaller bird than individual 1 which unlike this bird was clean headed, with heavier streaking on the head than individual 4 and a crescent of streaks across the lower breast differentiating it from all earlier adults.   Found in the Draycote roost 25/01 by Tim Marlow with John Judge and John Sirret and seen there again 26/01 by John Judge with Tim Marlow, 27/01 by Tim Marlow and Paul Hyde and 28/01 by John Judge, Tim Marlow and Nick Barlow.  Last seen 11/02. Length of stay = 17 days.

Individual 6. Ad. A large bird with darker, denser and more extensive head streaking than any of the earlier adults. Found by John Judge 11/02/17 with Tim Marlow and last seen 18/02 by Tim Marlow. Length of stay = 8 days.

Second winters

Individual 7. A very worn, off-white individual with an uneven scatter of faded remnant brown markings in the scapulars and coverts, the palest immature bird seen and the only certain 2nd W involved. Found by John Judge in the Draycote Water roost with Tim Marlow and Steve Valentine 05/02/17 and seen again 16-22/02 by Paul Hyde, Richard Knightbridge and Tim Marlow. Occurred within 19 days of the three birds included in pale Juvs. for which the possibility of 2nd W could not be excluded with certainty.  Length of stay = 17 days.

Dark Juveniles

Individual 8. Juv. A very large, very fresh, dark bird with very well-marked upperparts and brown primaries. Found by John Judge with Tim Marlow in the Draycote roost 03/01 and also seen again there 04 & 05/01 by the original observers and Paul Hyde. Seen at Watery Lane 04/01 by Tim Marlow and Dennis Woodward and Bubbenhall Lakes 05/01 by John Judge. A similar bird found by John Judge in the Draycote roost 14/01 seems likely to have been a different individual but could not be separated on plumage or structure and is thus included here.   It is unlikely any of the subsequent Juvs. would have faded to the degree necessary for them to refer to this individual in the 23 days which elapsed between the finding of it and the last Juv. involved. Length of stay = 3 days.

Individual 9. Juv. Another dark individual but much smaller than individual 8 and paler (with 8 days separating the sightings).  Found in the Draycote roost by John Judge with Tim Marlow 22/01 and seen again there 24/01 by John Judge with Tim Marlow. A similar bird found by John Judge with Tim Marlow in the Draycote roost 28/01 and last seen 05/02 is thought to have been a different individual but could not be separated on plumage or structure with absolute certainty and is thus included here. Length of stay = 3 days.

Typical Juveniles

Individual 10. Juv. A ‘typical’ biscuit coloured bird found by Paul Hyde at Bubbenhall Lakes and then seen by John Judge and Paul Hyde in the Draycote roost 11/01. The date spans for the darker individuals overlap with the single date for this bird. Length of stay = 1 day.

Individual 11. Juv. A ‘typical’ biscuit coloured bird but larger and paler than individual 10 found by John Judge (who also saw individual 8) with Gus Ariss at Bubbenhall Lakes 13/01. The date spans for the darker individuals overlap with the single date for this bird. Length of stay = 1 day.

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Individual 12. Juv. A fairly ‘typical’ biscuit coloured individual with some substantial paler areas in the scapulars differentiating it from individuals 9 and 10 which will not have undergone significant wear in the intervening 4 daysThe date span is separated by just 1 day from individual 8 and 7 days from individual 9 which are unlikely to have undergone significant fading in such a short time. Found by John Judge with Tim Marlow in the Draycote roost 15/01 and seen again there 17/01. Length of stay = 3 days.

Pale Juveniles

Individual 13. Juv./2nd W An extremely large pale individual with dense streaking on the head and breast contrasting markedly with the uniformly pale upperparts distinguishing it from subsequent pale Juvs. which occurred within 4-5 days. Found by Tim Marlow 17/01 in the Draycote roost.  Pale birds were seen at Bubbenhall on 17 & 18/01 but it is not known if they refer to the same individual. This individual had a dark eye and no pale tip was discernible to the bill but the plumage contrast may suggest a 2nd W rather than a Juv. The date overlaps with the last of the typically plumaged Juvs. and is separated by 7 days from the earliest of the rest. Length of stay = Length of stay = 1 day.

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Individual 14. Juv. A large bird with pale ground colouration but with fairly dark, well defined brown markings in the scapulars and coverts and neat sub-terminal arrowheads in the primaries distinguishing it from the other pale individuals all of which had very faded, uniform looking scapulars, coverts and primaries and occurred within three days of it. Found in the Draycote roost 21/01 by Tim Marlow with John Judge and Cliff Smith.  The date is separated by 10 days from the earliest of the typically plumaged birds. Length of stay = 1 day.

Individual 15. Juv./2nd W A very large, uniformly very pale, faded brown bird with no discernible markings in the scapulars, coverts or primaries and lacking contrasting head and breast streaking found in the Draycote roost 21/01 by John Judge with Tim Marlow and Cliff Smith and seen there again 24/01 by Tim Marlow and John Judge, 25/01 by John Judge, Tim Marlow and John Sirret, 27/01 by Tim Marlow, Paul Hyde and Dan Watson and 28 & 29/01 by John Judge and Tim Marlow and 30/01 by John Judge and Paul Hyde.  Last seen 04/02 by John Judge, Tim Marlow and Gus Ariss. A much larger bird than individual 16 which had pretty much identical plumage and was seen in the same field of view on 24/01 and simultaneously with it on 28/01.  The date is separated by 11 days later from the earliest of the typically plumaged birds. Length of stay = 15 days.

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Individual 16.  Juv./2nd W A uniformly very pale, faded brown bird with no discernible markings in the scapulars, coverts or primaries and lacking head and breast streaking which differed from Individual 15 in being much smaller and was seen in the same field of view at one point.  Found in the Draycote roost 24/01 by Tim Marlow with John Judge and last seen 28/01.  Seen in the same field of view as individual 15 on 24/01 & simultaneously with it on 28/01. The date is separated by 14 days from the earliest of the typically plumaged birds. Length of stay = 4 days.

On average there is a tendency for Glaucous Gull to occur a little earlier in the season than Iceland Gull the majority of which are found between February and April. The Iceland Gull records for 2017 are as follows:

Individual 1. Juv. A very fresh, dark individual with boldly patterned scapulars and brown primaries with pale fringes found by Dan Watson with Tim Marlow at Bubbenhall Lakes 14/01. Length of stay = 1 day.

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Individual 2. Juv. A paler bird than, more worn bird than individual 1. Found by Tim Marlow in the Draycote roost 22/01 and seen again there by John Judge with Tim Marlow and Gus Ariss 04/02. Length of stay = 14 days.

Individual 3. Ad. The first adult of the season. Found by Tim Marlow in the Draycote roost 24/02. Length of stay = 1 day.

It is interesting to look back and compare the figures with previous years. Some historical data are unreliable prior to 2010 but I have gone back to 2008 in order to cover a ten year period and exercised some judgement with regard to reliability. Totals for all ‘white-winged’gulls over this period are as follows:

TOTALS
Glaucous Gull Iceland Gull Kumlien’s Gull Glaucous Gull x Herring Gull hybrid
YEAR
2017 16 3 0 1
2016 7 8 0 1
2015 4 9 1 2
2014 4 4 0 1
2013 2 2 0 0
2012 5 14 0 0
2011 3 3 0 0
2010 3 2 0 0
2009 2 6 1 0
2008 4 3 1 0
50  

54

 

3  5

As discussed in previous posts many landfill sites have closed down in recent years and there has been a reduction in the volume of food waste processed.  Gull numbers at many formerly outstanding localities in the West Midlands region and elsewhere have plummeted.  It seems likely that gull watching at the Draycote Water roost has benefited from these developments as there are still three operational landfill sites within c.10 km or so of the site.  The increase in Glaucous Gull numbers appears to support this hypothesis.  The situation with Iceland Gull is a little more complicated as many occur in the late winter/early spring period suggesting some of the later records involve birds which wintered to the SW moving back N, possibly having followed movements of other species such as Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Draycote may be in a privileged position in this regard as massive numbers of gulls move through the Leam Valley from SW to NE between the Severn and the Wash, a phenomenon first documented by Eric Simms in his book Bird Migrants and discussed in the Leam Valley pages on this site.  The occurrence of the species may thus be less tied to the presence of operational landfills than that of Glaucous Gull. The figures presented above do however suggest a recent increase in numbers, notwithstanding the exceptional tally for 2012 which was part of a national influx.

Whilst there is usually at least one record in the early winter period the overwhelming percentage of ‘arctic gulls’ are found between January and April. Aside from returning birds found later in this period most are discovered in the wake of NW gales. Numbers typically build up over the course of the working week and there is often a ‘turnaround’ at weekends when landfill sites close.  Figures for the average length of stay, taken from my own notes (including details of birds seen by John Judge) for the years 2017-2013 are presented below.

SPECIES
Glaucous Gull Iceland Gull
  Av. length of stay (days) Av. length of stay (days)
YEAR
2017 6.7 5.3
2016 4.7 1.6
2015 4.5 1.8
2014 5.5 6.5
2013 1.5 3

It can be seen that the average length of stay for Glaucous Gull is longer in two of the five years and this may support the view that the species presence is more closely linked to the availability of working landfill sites than that of Iceland Gull (the Iceland Gull figures for this year are likely to change as the season continues and more birds are found). Alternatively Iceland Gull, often occurring later in the season, may be less inclined to linger as spring approaches.  Though we are fortunate in that our area does still have working landfills they are coming to the end of their working lives and the average length of stay may perhaps be expected to change, decreasing if less food waste is available due to changes in working procedures or even increasing if fewer feeding sites are available elsewhere.  It seems peculiar that arctic gulls come inland to forage on tips and yet, having found them, move on so quickly.  It appears however that birds range across the UK, lingering for periods of varying duration.

Few birds are so distinctive as to facilitate the tracing of their movements between counties but there are several examples:

An Ad. Glaucous Gull ringed in Essex.  This bird was ringed at Pitsea in Essex in March 2015 and subsequntly found at Stanwick in Northamptonshire later that month.  A full account can be found here https://northantsbirds.com/2015/03/30/from-pitsea-to-stanwick-a-glaucous-gull-with-a-chequered-history/ In 2016 a Glaucous Gull with a plastic ring was seen at Weston Landfill but the observer was unable to read the code.  It seems highly unlikely that it was not this same individual (G1NT) which was subsequently recorded at Sandbach Flashes in Cheshire.

A Juv. Kumlien’s Gull which roosted at Draycote Water and fed at Weston Landfill in 2015.  The day after it was last seen at Bubbenhall on 24/01 this bird was found in Worcestershire and was subsequently recorded at Rufforth, York.

A Juv. Kumlien’s Gull which roosted at Draycote Water in 2009.  Found late on the afternoon of 06/02 at Draycote, just a couple of hours after it was last seen at Throckmorton in Worcs.

A 2nd W Kumlien’s Gull which roosted at Draycote Water in 2008.   First found at Telford this bird visited Belvide, Bartley, Wildmoor Sand quarry and Throckmorton before leaving the West Midlands and turning up at Shawell in Leicestershire (being seen in the Draycote roost during its stay there) and was last seen at Stewartby in Bedfordshire.  A full account of these movements can be found here http://www.birdingtoday.co.uk/birdwatching_articles_18.html.

Thanks to John Judge for data and use of photographs and also to Dan Watson for additional data. 

Arrivals and departures

By the time I joined John Judge at the Draycote roost on 15/01 he had already found a Juv. Glaucous Gull, a fairly ‘typical’ individual. It was slow going from then on until I picked up an Ad. type at extreme range in the last of the workable light. John beat me to it again when I joined him after work on 17/01 at Bubbenhall Lakes, finding an Ad. Glaucous Gull just before I arrived. This one hung around for half an hour or more, the first ‘white-winger’ to spend more than a few minutes there.

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Glaucous Gull Ad. Bubbenhall Lakes, photo by John Judge.

Three Yellow-legged Gulls were also present and I found a monstrously large 2nd W Caspian Gull. John could not make the roost and I ended up doing it alone. After half an hour or so I found an extremely large and very pale Glaucous Gull. It was a new individual but descriptions suggest it may well have been first found at Bubbenhall that morning by Jim Timms and seen again at Bubbenhall the next day. I spent 15 minutes with it and shortly after I resumed scanning I picked up a second Juv., the bird originally found by John on 15/01. A super distant Ad. type followed a while later and shortly after that a close Ad. which I suspect was the one we had seen on Bubbenhall Lakes that afternoon.   I think this is the first time I have managed four Glaucous Gulls in a single roost and wondered if it might be a record but the maximum count at Draycote is of five. The best I could manage the following day was another yellow-legged Herring Gull at Bubbenhall Lakes, a different individual to that seen on 05/01.

Bob Hazell rather messed up my plans for 21/01 by finding a red-necked Grebe at Draycote, the first record there for several years. I shot out and was fortunate in that the bird was pretty close in along the Draycote Wall.

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Red-necked Grebe, Draycote Water.

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Red-necked Grebe, Draycote Water.

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Red-necked Grebe, Draycote Water.

I moved on to Bubbenhall Lakes with John Judge who pulled out the 2nd W Caspian Gull first seen on 17/01 and we were joined by Bob Hazell and Keith Foster.

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2nd W Caspian Gull, Bubbenhall Lakes, photo by Bob Hazell.

An Ad. Glaucous Gull late in the Draycote roost that evening with Paul Hyde was the best I was able to do with the rest of the day.

Saturday was rapidly derailed by news that Tim Fountain had found a flock of Waxwings in Hillmorton. Though it has been an invasion year of some note I had not yet bothered going after any but a group so close to home got the better of me. As did the temptation to squander most of the afternoon on the never ending quest for the ultimate Waxwing shots. Needless to say I failed, but am reasonably pleased with the best of my efforts given the poor light, and cold so extreme it became increasingly difficult to hold the camera steady.

Waxwing 4

Waxwing, Hillmorton.

Waxwing 1

Waxwing, Hillmorton.

Waxwing 3

Waxwing, Hillmorton.

Waxwing 8

Waxwing, Hillmorton.

Waxwing 6

Waxwing, Hillmorton.

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Waxwing, Hillmorton.

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Waxwing, Hillmorton.

Finishing the day at Draycote with John we met up with Cliff Smith who had travelled up from Somerset in the hope of seeing his first Glaucous Gull. Luckily I found a new Juv.  which gave good views by Draycote standards and John picked out a second which seems likely to be the extremely large pale individual from 15/01 and the same bird seen at Shawell that afternoon.  I will revise the totals for the next post.

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