Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Parrot Crossbills and Horned Lark

At the moment the UK is experiencing a mini influx of parrot crossbills, an event that happens so infrequently that it's too good an opportunity to miss. Today we were close to one of the larger flocks at Wishmoor Bottom in Swinley Forest on the Berkshire / Surrey border so we decided to call in for a look. This was only my second ever encounter with the species, the first being during the invasion year of 2013 when I saw a flock of 14 on Budby common in Nottinghamshire. Prior to that it had been a real bogy bird for me.

Today we saw 16 birds which spent most of their time feeding high up in the Scots pines and oak trees, though occasionally they would fly around between trees and once landed low down in a young birch. When they did fly they were very vocal and could be heard uttering their diagnostic deep-toned 'kuup kuup' flight calls.

There were at least a couple of cracking bright red adult males with the characteristic grey 'shawls' on the side of their necks. A tremendous experience and a much better view than I had previously at Budby Common.

What a bill!  Some of the males looked brighter than others, perhaps it's an age thing with older birds looking deeper red, but it also depends on how the low winter sun hit them.

Bull necked, short tailed.

Before we arrived there was talk of a male common crossbill with the parrots and looking at the photos, I did wonder if this might be it. It seems a less bulky bird than the others, more slender with perhaps a slightly longer tail, less of a bull necked appearance, a bill which is perhaps not quite as bulky or as parallel as the others and a different shade of red. It's very difficult to be sure with crossbills though, there's so much variation not only between individuals but as they get older they change, for example their bills get larger and their colour gets deeper. I'm pretty sure that this is 'just' a young male parrot crossbill, but the only way to be 100% sure is to hear the bird call.

The reason for our visit to this part of the world was to see this, a North American Horned Lark at Staines Reservoir near Heathrow airport in Surrey. It was originally identified as a shorelark and had been present for three weeks before being re-identified as a bird of the North American race aplestris / hoyti rather than the more usual flava which we see in the UK.

In actual fact in hindsight this bird is clearly not flava. Even in my poor photo you can see that the supercillium and ear coverts are white and not yellow as they should be in flava. Through the scope you could also see its rufous flanks. A pity it wasn't a little closer for better photos but we really have to move away from the modern way of thinking that the quaility of the bird and the quaility of the sighting is defined by how good your photos are. This was a perfectly good view and all of the salient features were seen well, stuff the photos I say!

A really smart bird, well worth the trip alone, never mind the flock of parrots which were really just the supporting cast. At the moment American horned lark is not even a new species for me as it's not been split by the IOC, but you know what, that doesn't matter one iota. I love seeing subspecies and this can remain a race for me, I'll be just as happy!

It's actually my third race of shorelark / horned lark. The other was a singing and displaying male of the  race balcanica high up amongst the snow fields and the crocus on the Greek mountain of Oros Pangeo on 15th May 1988. Now that was an experience!

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