My decent(ish) finds in Feb 2012: 1 Yellow-browed Warbler Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Water Pipit Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Smew Loe Pool 01/02

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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Shetland versus Scillies: that old chestnut

Before I start, a quick update on the controversial Wheatear. Steve has written an excellent account of for Birding Frontiers. Could we have inadvertently been looking at something much rarer?  Probably best to put the whole thing behind us, but I for one would be interested in what these beasties look like as 1st winters.

Those of you who occasionally frequent Birdforum will be familiar with the usual complaints about the demise of Scillies birding relative to Shetland and will no doubt have picked up more than a whiff of less than sweet grapes. People are of course entitled to their own opinions and all I offer on here is a personal perspective. This year I chose not to visit Shetland. Instead I spent a week on the Isles of Scilly, mainly on St Agnes with Rob “I’ve already found a White’s Thrush” Curtis and Graeme “Cillit Bang” Garner.  Despite being present on “Aggie” when the White’s Thrush turned up yet failing to see it and despite relatively modest finds (RB Fly, a Sab Gull and a smattering of Yellow-browed Warblers), I loved every minute of my time on the Islands. Stunning scenery, friendly people, nice pubs and constant feeling that a rare bird could be just around the next corner (although more likely in the bush I just passed).  To me, the Scillies and Shetland offer a fundamentally different birding experience and require a different mind-set and approach, yet each have their merit.


Spotted Crake. Not a find, but magical to see one of these so close.

Shetland: wind swept, cold, rainy, with scarce or rare migrants clinging to any scrap of vegetation.  A visit to the plantations on Unst have a likelihood of turning something good up and even the smallest patch of nettles can hold tired, weather-beaten migrants. Birding tends to be more predictable. Easterlies spell numerous migrants and westerlies spell hard graft. Birding tends to entail visiting hotspots (areas with some cover) and generally necessitates getting around by car. The experience itself can often be quite grim: howling, cold winds and rain, but the rewards can be exceptional.



Both the birds and scenery on Shetland can be first class. Top: view over to Unst from Yell. Bottom: Black-headed Bunting. One of the birds I found in 2011

Scilly: while I confess not to be much of a fan of the peak-season twitching of every scarcity scene on St Mary’s, St Agnes  has a special feel about it. £20 a night for a nice room in a 3 bedroom self-catering cottage seems pretty cheap to me. I loved being able to do the whole Island on foot. While the amount of cover and inaccessibility of some parts of the island can make for a frustrating experience at times,  this also gave me the feeling that many places were less well covered than may parts of Shetland (notably Unst and South Mainland), so the potential for finding something good is always high.  More than that though, the birding experience itself, even when there  is little to be found, is enjoyable. The scenery is stunning and even towards the end of October the weather can be warm enough for shorts and t-shirt. It’s easy to pop out for a couple of ours and then zip home for a cup of coffee. While the rewards may not be as constant as on Shetland when the east winds blow it certainly has much potential. It certainly punches above its weight. This piece offers a nice perspective from the early 1970s and for anybody who visited in 1999, the close proximity of Siberian and White’s Thrush must have been a memorable experience.  I for one will be visiting again soon.






Red-breasted Flycatcher was probably my best find, but sometimes other things are nice to look at too. 

This bird, found by my birding companion Thor Veen on St Mary's when I last visited, is a reminder that the rewards on Scillies can also be high. 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Turtle Dove

Swarovski kindly agreed to fix my bins this week and sent me a loan pair free of charge, and I'd forgotten just how nice it is to go birding with proper optics. Despite the recent northerlies, there were quite a few migrants here and there, including a cracking Turtle Dove (only my second on the Lizard) and a Yellow-browed Warbler. The dove gave me a bit of a run-around, offering the very briefest of views when flying across the track down to Bass Point, but I bumped into it again in Lizard Village. Here's a couple of photos, along with one or two other more common things.








ps - expect more on the Wheatear in due course.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Contraversial wheatears

Potential rarities on the Lizard never seem to be entirely straightforward as those of you who remember the Green / Greenish debacle or the Brown Shrike controversy will no doubt be aware. I suppose it should have come as no surprise to me, therefore, that this wheatear would prove controversial.  Although many seem ready to dismiss it out of hand, I think the whole case requires a bit more scrutiny. I for one, still think it was a Black-eared Wheatear.

The find
I’ll start with a brief account of my involvement: about 4pm yesterday, I got a call from Steve Votier, with whom I had been out birding with early to say he was looking at Black-eared Wheatear. I understand he hadn’t reached this decision immediately – only after 2 hours of watching it. When I arrived and saw it, I must admit it didn’t fit my mental image of the previous bird I saw on Scillies in 2010. The crown and mantle tone didn't seem right. It was much more subtle bird, but several features made me pretty certain it was one, with the caveat that I haven’t got a great deal of field experience of them. When I saw the photos however, I did have doubts, and Steve and I spent most of today trying to relocate it to get better photos, unfortunately to no avail.  

Anyway, here’s a few more photos of it, some courtesy of Tony Blunden and some I took, together with a few thoughts:

First off, the tail pattern: on the photos posted last night on CWBPS , it doesn’t look right. However – in the field this was one of the more obvious pro-features and I think I can explain what’s going on. If you look at how many retrices are visible, you can see about 4 either side of the dark central tail band. However there should be 5 visible on a fully spread tail (see here). The tail isn’t fully spread, giving the terminal tail band a flat appearance. Compare the right and left sides of tail on this bird, the same as in previous link for the effect this can have on the terminal tail band. In the field it was quite obvious that the white was more extensive on T2 & 3 than on T1.

Second off, the axillaries.  I saw these several times, and they were dark, almost jet black. The photo below courtesy of Tony, isn’t the sharpest, but I’d struggle how it could produce this appearance if they weren’t dark. I’d welcome thoughts on how much of a clincher this is. I’m given to understand it is.


Third off, the size and structure of this bird was noticeably different. Noticeably smaller and leaner, and somewhat longer tailed. You can see that quite well on the photo below. It stood out like a sore thumb among the 3-4 Northern Wheatears present for this reason.



Fourthly, and actually the most noticeable feature of the bird was the extremely white belly and under tail coverts, which  contrasted sharply with the more peachy toned breast. It stood out like a Whinchat among Stonechats. I’ve never seen anything like that on a Northern Wheatear, although I have to admit I don’t know how important that feature is. None of the photos really do it justice, but the one below gives you a bit of an idea, although in life the contrast was more marked.


Fifthly, the extent of pale fringing on the tertials, but in contrast to Northern’s I’m used to seeing, on the lesser and median coverts. It’s really narrow giving the coverts and tertials a very dark and contrasting (with mantle) appearance, which doesn’t fit with what I’d expect on a 1st winter Northern Wheatear. Again, not sure how important this is, but it was really striking (see photo).



Sixthly – the supercillium was most striking in front of the eye, but one might expect that on a northern, this would be more striking behind the eye. That said, it does seem quite pale and prominent for a Black-eared. 

The general tones to the upperparts were a bit pale and grey for my liking and extension of primaries relative to the tail long for my liking, but the former does seem to be quite a variable feature. The latter deserves a bit more scrutiny.

Overall, I’m aware of the danger of trying to make it fit Black-eared, rather than ruling out Northern, but this really was a striking bird in the field and just didn't fit my mental image of any Northern I've seen.


That said, I’m not at all closed minded about this, and would rather lose face than let it slip though if it wasn’t so welcome thoughts. Steve will probably have something more intelligent to say about it in due course.

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