Sunday, 25 December 2016

Waxwings for Christmas

Seven waxwings feeding on rowans in Coronation park and Morrisons car park in Ormskirk today proved a great appitiser for Christmas dinner, and got me thinking about Christmas's past and what a great period it can be for birds. Of course it's great to simply walk around your local patch at Christmas, but why limit it to that, I've picked up several lifers at this time of year by travelling a little further.

On Christmas Day itself, the American buff-bellied pipit at Burton Marsh in 2013 was my only ever Christmas Day lifer, but other birds seen on the 25th include Siberian chiffchaff, waxwing and Mediterranean gull, and my records show that I've been birding on the day itself on 14 occasions since 2000.

The 24th has been more productive, with two lifers, a Blyth's pipit in 2014 at Pugneys and believe it or not my first yellow-browed warbler was near Preston on 24/12/1984. Another Blyth's pipit yesterday in Somerset, also ring-necked duck and 10 great white egrets. Other birds have included cattle egret (only my 2nd, in 1986), hawfinches and lesser spotted woodpecker.

A Baltimore oriole in Oxfordshire 2003 was the best bird I have seen on 26th and unsurprisingly was a lifer. I've had two 2nds on Boxing Day, Sora Rail in Nottinghamshire in 2004 and Pallid harrier in Norfolk in 2015. Other Boxing Day birds have been green-winged teal, ring-necked duck and black brant.

If I extended the search to between 21st and 28th, I could also add American golden plover (Cambridgeshire 2015), American wigeon (Lancs 2014), avocet (Cheshire 1994), black throated thrush (St Asaph 2016), desert wheatear (North Yorkshire, 2007), ivory gull (East Yorkshire 2013), Pallas's warbler (Merseyside, 2006), parrot crossbill (Nottinghamshire, 2013), Rough-legged Buzzard (North Yorkshire, 2008), snow goose (Lancs, 1991), surf scoter (Conwy, 2015) and Thayer's gull (West Yorkshire, 2013), plus lots of other birds including snow bunting, shorelark, Lapland bunting, velvet scoter, Med gulls, 3 species of diver and 5 species of grebe.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A beginners guide to Heuglin's gull in Cyprus, in particular the moult of a presumed 3cy at Lady's Mile.

First off....
I am no gull expert. These are the notes of a student not a master. Perhaps I have misunderstood everything, and all of this may be completely wrong and I'll get a grade D for effort. Before I went to Cyprus in 2016 I'd never even heard of Heuglin's gull and I knew very little about gull taxonomy or moult. However, since seeing Heuglin's gull in Cyprus I have researched the subject for my own interest and as I found out more, I got drawn ever deeper into it, and decided to put together these few notes which are really for my benefit to help me collate, summarise and remember, but they may prove to be of help and interest to other birders visiting Cyprus in winter, in which case that's a bonus.

I found two invaluable internet resources,  the Gull Research Organisation website and the Facebook group "Western Palearctic Gulls", both with many real gull experts who have a far greater knowledge of the subject than I, and who are generally all keen to help. The main book I have used is "Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America" by Klaus Malling Olsen and there is  paper by Valery Buzen published in British Birds in 2002. A full list of references are at the bottom of this post.

What is a Heuglin's gull?
Heuglin's gull is also sometimes known as Siberian, or West Siberian gull. It is very like the lesser black-back gull Larus fuscus graellsii which breeds in the UK and is most often considered a subspecies of lesser black-back, and on such occasions is given the scientific name L.f Heuglini. Some authorities refer to it as a seperate species (Buzun 2002, Olsen 2004, Gull Research Organisation) in which case it is referred to as Larus Heuglini, and that is the approach I will be adopting here.

The species breeds on Arctic tundra from northern Russia to north-central Siberia, and winters from east Africa, through the Middle East and into Asia. I don't remember hearing about them at all in December 2014 when I last visted Cyprus, including Lady's Mile, but in the lead up to this years holiday (December 2016) they were occasionally being reported on the BirdLife Cyprus recent sightings page and that was how I first became aware that the species even existed.

Seeing Heuglin's gull in Cyprus
I went to Cyprus thinking that I had absolutely no chance of picking out a Heuglin's gull due to the difficulties in seperating the species from lesser black-back gull, a problem only likely to be exacerbated by my lack of a telescope in Cyprus. What I didn't realise however, until I got there, was that Heuglin's is the only "black-backed" gull which occurs in Cyprus during the winter, and therefore it was actually one of the easiest gulls to identify of those present. Then when I realised that Heuglin's gull was just another name for the species I knew of as Siberian gull, it suddenly went from being a no-hoper to a major target species, because on a holiday where I didn't expect to get any new birds, I was presented with a great oportunity to get a difficult Siberian species "under my belt" and onto my Western Palearctic list without having to work too hard!

My initial contact with Heuglin's gull was at Mandria, near Paphos. I had been told that they occured here, most often sitting on the sea off Timi beach with Armenian, Caspian and yellow-legged gulls, although they could sometimes also be seen feeding on the arable fields close by and in windy conditions they would occasionally come onto the beach.

I visited Mandria on three occasions hoping to get a decent view of a Heuglin's gull, but unfortunately the flock was always on the sea, and without a scope the best I could say was that there was a "black-backed" gull with the flock, which in Cyprus in winter was almost certainly a Heuglin's gull. Very unsatisfactory for a Western Palearctic tick. However there are other clues to the identity of the "black-back" in the above photo. For example, it's clearly a huge bird, much larger than the herring gull sized Armenian gulls with which it is associating, and notice in particular the size of it's head when compared to the other gulls, whilst the slate grey mantle colour immediately rules out great black-back (which in any case doesn't occur in the Mediterranean and certainly not anywhere near Cyprus).

Fortunately it was a different story at Lady's Mile near Limassol. Here if you stay in the car you can get really close to the birds as they roost on the saltmarsh adjacent to the beach, and they are a mixture of Armenian, Caspian and yellow-legged gulls, in amongst a few hundred black-headed. I visited Lady's Mile on three occassions, and on the last occasion (12th December 2016) I came across a 3rd calendar year (3cy) Heuglin's gull and later an adult. Both  were quite close and photogenic, but the 3cy especially was very obliging and I managed to get a series of photographs which were the subject of much debate on the Facebook group "Western Palearctic Gulls".

I should mention at this point that Baltic gull L.f fuscus also occurs in Cyprus, but only as passage migrant, not a winter visitor. Baltic gull has a moult similar to Heuglin's, but it is smaller and in adult plumage it can be discounted because it has a blackish mantle unlike the slate grey of Heuglini.

3cy Heuglin's Gull at Lady's Mile.

This awesome looking bird was the first of the two Heuglin's gulls I found at Lady's Mile, and it was my bird of the holiday this year, even better than the adult in my opinion. What a beauty! Typical of the species it appears large headed, with a stout, angular bill. Some individuals can approach great black-back in size, as you can see in the photo from Mandria above, but this bird was a bit smaller than that.

There was a debate on "Western Palearctic Gulls" about whether or not this was actually the Scandinavian race of lesser black-back intermedius or perhaps even a hybrid, partly due to the extent of the streaking on the head and the very dark mantle (compare mantle colour to that of the adult below), but ultimately the general concensus was that it is a Heuglin's gull.

To put it into context, as I've already said, Heuglin's is the only regularly occuring "black-backed" gull in Cyprus in winter, whereas intermedius has thus far never been recorded, and therefore this would have been a first record for Cyprus if accepted as intermedius, so on balance of probability alone it's Heuglin's. However, there are other good reasons why this is Heuglin's gull, and moult is one such reason. To quote the Gull Research Organisation, "Heuglini, being a north Russian tundra breeder, can normally be identified by the late moult process in winter". 

At this point you can close the book if you like. You can see from this photograph that the bird is very retarded, with its moult nowhere near complete. It looks very tatty, with several brown, old (unmoulted) feathers. This is good enough evidence that this bird is a long distance migrant and therefore in Cyprus, in winter, it is most likely to be a Heuglin's gull. However, read on if you want a little more detail about the moult and ageing of this bird....

The timing of the moult of this bird is important in helping to determine the identification, because it gives a good indication of whether or not the bird is a long distant migrant. By the middle of December, most of the other large gulls at Lady's Mile are well on the way to completing their moult if it is not already complete, but this bird is still in the process of moulting from it's 2nd generation (2cy) feathers, into its new 3rd generation (3cy) feathers. The 2nd generation feathers stand out clearly  in these photos because they are brown and rather tatty looking when compared to the fresh dark grey or black 3rd generation feathers. You can see in this photo that the 2nd generation feathers yet to be moulted are P9-10 and most of the secondaries. Also, if you count the primaries you can see that P8 is missing on both wings and has recently been dropped and has not yet regrown.

In otherwords, even by the middle of December P9 & 10 have yet to be moulted and the moult of the secondaries has only just begun, a good indication that this is a long distance migrant. Heuglin's gull breeds in Siberia, begins its moult on the breeding grounds, but the moult is suspended at P4 in September in order to allow the gull to migrate to its wintering quarters around the Middle East. When the bird reaches it's wintering grounds the moult resumes.

As an aside, notice how fresh and pristine the already moulted 1cy Armenian gull looks behind, with no tatty or missing feathers.

The above photo shows well the late moult of this bird. Unlike most (but not all) lesser black-backs, Heuglin's gull has a late moult. On this bird you can see that whilst P1-6 are fully grown 3rd generation feathers, P7 is still growing, P8 is missing and P9 and P10 are brown 2nd generation feathers which have not yet been replaced. P10 is the last primary to be replaced and this is not completed until between January and early April. The bird will not drop P9 until P8 is well on the way to being replaced, and likewise P10 will not be dropped until P9 is almost fully grown. Therefore it's likely to be still some time before this bird completes its moult.

I was at first unsure as to how you can tell that P8 is missing. It is because the primaries moult in order, P1 to P10, and this bird has a missing primary (this is not obvious, but count them, there are only nine on both wings, there should be 10. Don't count the 3rd gen secondary as P1, I made that mistake!). Therefore, if P7 is still growing (you can see that it's too short, this is especially obvious on the left wing), then if the next feather is longer and full grown, it must be a 2nd generation feather and cannot be P8, because P8 would not start growing until the regrowth of P7 is almost complete. This is important because in the British and Scandanavian races of lesser black back (graellsii / intermedius), full moult of the primaries is usually completed by December.

The secondaries don't start moulting until the primaries have gone beyond P4-6. Therefore since this Arctic gull suspends its moult at P4 until after it has reached its wintering grounds, the secondaries don't even begin to moult until very late in the season and full moult is sometimes not complete until the end of April. On this bird, the inner secondaries are all missing, the central secondaries are 2nd generation and unmoulted, then there is a missing secondary followed by the only new and fully grown 3rd generation secondary which is the one adjacent to P1.

All of this clearly shows that this bird is a long distance migrant. Whilst on an individual bird this is not conclusive and does not prove that this bird is Heuglin's (e.g. other long distance migrants such as Baltic gull and perhaps even far northern intermedius also have a late moult), it certainly adds weight to the identification of a "black-backed" gull at Lady's Mile in December as Heuglin's gull.

For further thought
As discussed above this bird is generally thought to be a 3cy type Heuglin's gull, moulting from it's 2nd generation to 3rd generation feathers (in otherwords when it completes it's moult it will be in 3cy plumage). However I have a completely unsupported theory that the bird is actually a 4cy type moulting from its 3rd generation to its 4th generation feathers (i.e. when it completes it's moult it will be in 4cy (sub-adult) plumage).  My reasoning is as follows.

If this was a typical short distance migrant such as L.f graellsii, then the bird would have more or less acquired it's full 3cy plumage by the end of its 2nd calendar year, i.e. by the end of December it would look like a fresh 3cy bird. However since this bird is a Heuglin's gull with a very late moult, it doesn't acquire its 3cy plumage until the end of winter, perhaps not even until April. Therefore if this gull was currently moulting into its 3cy plumage, I would have expected it to show more 2cy features, such as signs of immaturity in the upperwing coverts and for it to have at least the remnants of a dark subterminal band on the tail. In fact the bird shows signs of neither, with a completely slate grey mantle and a pure white tail. 

Furthermore, when I posted these photos on the Facebook Group Western Palearctic Gulls, some people expressed surprise at how retarded the bird was in its moult, even for Heuglins gull, while others commented on the exceptionally streaky head, the latter feature in particular causing some to suggest that it may be intermedius. However, 4cy Heuglin's is said to have an extremely retarded moult, but has many adult features including slate grey upperparts and with extensive dark bold head streaking (Harris et al, 1996), all of which fits nicely with this bird, and helps explain the resemblance to intermedius. To my mind, all of this adds up to a bird about to enter it's 4th calendar year rather than its 3rd.

If anybody has an opinion on this please let me know via a comment, I'm keen to keep this post as accurate as possible.

Adult Heuglin's Gull at Lady's Mile

After I'd seen and photographed the 3cy, I retired to the nearby taverna for a celebratory coffee and a bowl of olives. I know how to live life! Thankfully I then decided to have another look through the gull flock, only to find that the 3cy had gone and had been replaced by this adult Heuglin's gull, which showed equally well, though I couldn't manage any open wing photographs. Notice the slightly paler mantle, more typical of Heuglin's gull and far too pale for Baltic gull which would appear almost completely black.

Adult Heuglin's gull.

Adult Heuglin's gull (left) with 1cy Caspian Gull and black-headed gulls for size comparison. Although some Heuglin's gulls can approach great-black back in size, with the largest Heuglin's bigger than the largest Caspian, there is much variation and I assume that in this case the adult Heuglin's is a female, whilst the 1cy Caspian is probably a male.

Associated blog posts
Watching wintering gulls in Cyprus - A Field Notebook, Colin Davies

Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America, Olsen K.M (2004)
The MacMillan Birder's Guide to European and Middle Eastern Birds, Harris et al (1996)
Descriptive update on gull taxonomy:‘West Siberian Gull’ Buzun V.A British Birds 95 (May 2002 pages 216-232)
Gull  Research Organisation website, accessed December 2016 
Western Palearctic Gulls Facebook group (Closed Group)
BirdLife Cyprus recent sightings page, accessed December 2016

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Catching up with winter thrushes

I wasn't expecting to add two new species to my UK list within a week of returning from Cyprus, but that's exactly what has happened, with dusky thrush at Beeley in Derbyshire and black-throated thrush at St Asaph in Denbighshire.

Talk about luck, I thought I'd missed the Dusky thrush in Derbyshire, it was found, identified, twitched, accepted by BBRC and gone in the two weeks I was in Cyprus. Then it was miraculously refound on Saturday and suddenly I was back in the running. Still more good luck on Sunday, we arrived on site at 9.15, the bird showed at 9.30, disappeared at 9.50 and not seen again until late afternoon by which time we were long gone. Some said it was distant, perhaps so compared to the views in the orchard where it had shown particularly well in the early part of its stay, but it was still a decent view through the scope for 20 minutes or so, and it was certainly better than no view at all.

At St Asaph the black-throated thrush appeared from nowhere and landed in a tree right in front of us, showed well for a couple of minutes before dropping onto the ground and to feed in a stubble field near the New Inn.

UK Life: 419; Year 258 (Dusky thrush, black-throated thrush)

Dusky thrush.

Dusky thrush.

Dusky thrush.

Black-throated thrush. 1st winter female.

Black-throated thrush.

Black-throated thrush.

Black-throated thrush.



There were about 50 waxwings at St Apsaph which were much more photogenic.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Watching winter gulls in Cyprus

Gull watching is not everybody's cup of tea, especially when on holiday to warmer climes where you might think that there is too much other good stuff on offer to worry about seperating the larger Larus species. However Cyprus does provide a good opportunity to get to see a few species in different plumages, which either do occur or could potentially occur in the UK, with Caspian, Armenian, Heuglin's (Siberian), yellow-legged, Pallas's and slender-billed gulls all possible with a bit of luck, whilst there are no herring, lesser black back or common gulls to cloud the issue. In otherwords, just about every large gull you see is very educational and gives you a better chance next time you look through your local gull roost!

The following notes are simply based on my personal observations and from what little reading I have bothered to do on the subject. I'm by no means claiming to be an expert on gulls, so take all of this for what it is, just a few personal observations of those gull species I have seen in two winter breaks to Cyprus. In the UK I wouldn't have a chance of picking out an Armenian or Heuglin's gull amongst 10,000 herring and lesser black-back gulls. I'm certainly not going to go through all plumages, because I'm nowhere near knowledgable enough. The Facebook group "Western Palearctic Gulls" has proved an invaluable resource for me whilst I have been in Cyprus, and all of the identifications here have been confirmed by the real experts on there.

Lady's Mile is my favourite place to watch gulls in Cyprus, but most species can also be seen elsewehere, including off Timi beach near Paphos. My experience at Lady's Mile is that there aren't too many gulls, it's a pleasant location, you can drive up to within a few feet of the birds, the light is always good providing good photo opportunities and there is a pleasant taverna on the beach close by with wifi! How could it get any better? Most of the photos in this post are from this year, but I have borrowed a couple from my previous visit in 2014. I'm ignoring the ubiquitous black-headed gulls.

Armenian Gull

What a cracker! I think that the most striking feature of an adult Armenian gull in winter is the black ring close to the end of it's bill. It also has quite a small rounded head and quite a gentle looking face. Notice it has yellow legs. I've usually found about 10 - 20 Armenian gulls at Lady's Mile at this time of year.

All of the large gulls in this photo are Armenian gulls. The large unobscured gull on the right of this photo is a 3rd calendar year (3cy) Armenian gull according to the experts on "FB Western Paleartic Gulls". I initially identified this as an adult Caspian gull due to head shape, apparent length of bill and pink legs, but apparently 3cy Armenian gull has pink legs, and this isn't an adult from bill colour alone (an adult would have a yellow bill). I still might have called it a 3cy Caspian though, but what do I know?

These are all Armenian (and black-headed) gulls. Left to right, 1cy, adult, 3cy, adult (calling).

3cy Armenian gull top left with 2cy Caspian gull on the right and possibly yellow-legged gull bottom left (not certain of this though). Notice that the 3cy Armenian gull has virtually no white spots in its black primaries. This is a good way of determining that it is not an adult.

3cy Armenian, same as above.

Adult (left) and 3cy Armenian gulls. Again, notice the lack of white spots in the primaries of the 3cy when compared to the adult.

2cy Armenian gull.

This bird really had me excited, I thought I'd found a 2cy Pallas's gull, but apparently it's a 2cy Armenian gull. Note the difference in the bill though, from the bird in the photo above. Not just the bill pattern and colouration, but also its shape and size. This looks to be a much more fierce bird than the one in the photo above.... is this really not Pallas's gull???

1cy Armenian gull

Caspian Gull

2cy (?) Caspian gull (right) with adult Armenian gull asleep (left). Notice how much larger the Caspian gull is, some approach great-black back in size.

2cy Caspian. Note the long bill and pear shaped head. A very fierce looking bird. Adults have pink legs (not that I've ever seen an adult in Cyprus).

2cy Caspian from 2014. This one is a bit of a freak, it has the long bill and the pear shaped head to the extreme! Note how huge it looks compared to the black-headed gull.

1cy Caspian gull, another large  individual.

1cy Caspian gull.  If the 2cy above is a freak, then this at the other end of the spectrum! Notice the odd shape and how much smaller it appears to be than the Caspian gulls above (compare size with black-headed gulls). To me this bird has the classic Baltic gull shape and size, a small bird, very elongated at the back. However I think that the bill is too heavy for Baltic gull, and a 1st winter Baltic gull would still retain much of its juvenile plumage at this time of year. It's a Caspian gull, but it just highlights the variation

Yellow-legged gull

Adult yellow-legged gull, dome shaped head, yellow bill with blood read gonys. On this holiday I saw very few yellow-legged gulls, in fact I think I saw more Heuglin's! Even birds I checked at Paphos were Armenian.

Heuglin's (Siberian) gull

Adult Heuglin's or Siberian gull. Generally considered to be a subspecies of lesser black-backed gull, although some authorities consider it to be a seperate species, this is a little known gull, breeding in tundra-like habitat in Northern Russia. Seperation from lesser black-back is quite difficult, but in winter in Cyprus it's actually very straight forward, since in winter it is the only regularly occuring "black-backed" gull. Apart from the dark mantle, in winter it also has a lot of streaking on the head and especially the neck, and a long, drooping  bill. I was well made up to find this bird and the 3cy below.

Adult Heuglin's gull.

Adult Heuglin's gull (left) with 1st winter Caspian Gull and black-headed gulls for size comparison.

3cy Heuglin's gull. This awesome looking bird was the first of the two Heuglin's gulls I found at Lady's Mile, and it was my bird of the holiday this year, even better than the adult in my opinion. What a beauty! There was a debate on "Western Palearctic Gulls" about whether or not this was actually the Scandinavian race of lesser black-back intermedius or perhaps even a hybrid, partly due to the extent of the streaking on the head and the very dark mantle, but ultimately the general concensus was that it is a Heuglin's gull. To put it into context, Heuglin's is the only regularly occuring race of LBBG in Cyprus in winter, whereas intermedius has thus far never been recorded, and therefore this would have been a first for Cyprus if accepted as intermedius, so on balance of probability alone it's Heuglin's. However, there are other good reasons why this is Heuglin's gull, and moult is one such reason (see my blog post explaining the moult of this bird here).

3cy Heuglin's gull. 

3cy Heuglin's gull. The moult of this bird is important in helping to determine the identification. Note the brown and un-moulted P9-10 and secondaries. Also note that one of the secondaries is missing. Being a long distance migrant from Siberia to the Middle East region, Heuglin's gull delays completing its moult until it reaches it's wintering grounds. Most other gulls at Lady's Mile have long since moulted. This in itself does not conclusively prove that this is Heuglin's gull (e.g. Baltic gull also has a delayed moult), but it does add weight to the identification.

3cy Heuglin's gull. The above photo shows well the late moult of this bird. See my blog post here on Heuglin's gull moult for a full explanation about what is going on here.

Slender-billed gull

1cy (?) slender-billed gull.

Adult slender-billed gull. Slightly larger than black-headed gull with a pure white head and long thin bill. Notice also that it appears to be front heavy and over balancing

1cy (?) slender-billed gull.

1cy (?) slender-billed gull. Note the pale eye.

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