Saturday 31 December 2016

Common or Coues's; that is the question.

I caught a frosty looking Redpoll the other day (30th) and while some people may say it is just a Common (Mealy) Redpoll there was something about it that made me think it could be a Coues's Arctic Redpoll. It is not what you would call a 'classic' Coues's by any means but then there is no such thing and when the term 'classic' is used people really mean 'easy', 'obvious' or 'most likely to be accepted'. The most readily accepted Coues's are the very pale (snowball) examples that have extensive, unstreaked white rumps but such birds are usually adults, often males and are not representative of the species as a whole.

Anyway back to the bird in question and it is important to say that it is a first year bird, based on the shape of the tail feathers, and possibly a male as there was a slight pinkish wash on a few of the feathers of the rump. Now I am not going to rhyme off all the reasons why I think it could be a Coues's, or perhaps I should say Coues's type now that research has shown there is essentially no genetic difference between Lesser, Common and Coues's, but relevant comments accompany some of the images.

It certainly had the feather mass and ability to fluff-up its feathers as you would expect with a 'Coues's Arctic'. The dense feathering of the nape and the sides of the neck also gave it a bull-necked appearance.
The sharply pointed tail feathers made it easy to age as a first year bird.

Spot the pink. There are a few feathers on the rump that have very slight pink tones and while this suggests it is a male such a limited amount of pink makes that far from certain. There was no pink (concealed or otherwise) on any of the feathers of the breast or the cheeks. 

The rump is one of the critical features and while the unstreaked area is not as extensive as on some Coues's it still falls within the range of streaking that can be displayed.

A slight change of angle and lighting and the head looks even paler. The limited flank streaking is set against a pure white ground colour.

That puffed-up look again. While there is some streaking in the rump the ground colour of the rump and lower back is pure white.

The streaking on the underparts was fairly light and ill-defined and confined to the sides of the upper breast and a narrow zone along the flanks. The streaking on Common Redpolls is usually much heavier and well defined, not diffuse and relatively fine as on this bird.

The bill was fairly stubby and conical. The eye also looked relatively small which is also a feature of Coues's.

The culmen was straight if not ever so slightly concave. The extensive and dense feathering around the base of the bill is also suggestive of Coues's. The green plant material stuck to the bill is interesting and suggests it has been feeding on the seeds of herbage rather than tree seeds. It certainly hasn't spent much, if any, time feeding on alder as it would have brown tar like deposits running in the other direction across the base of the bill. I am not suggesting this is diagnostic in any way but Coues's is a bird of the tundra and perhaps feeds more commonly on ground plants than other Redpolls.

There was some faint and very diffuse streaks on 3 of the undertail-coverts. Light streaking on a few feathers is not uncommon in Coues's (especially first year birds and females) but is unusual for Common (Mealy) Redpolls (except for a few adults, usually males). 

Such faint streaks would be virtually if not impossible to see in the field. I had to separate the feathers slightly to show that there were three marked feathers as only one was noticeable when the feathers were in their normal alignment, with that being the faint streak on the longest undertail-covert.
So what is it? Well it is...... ummm, one of them isn't it - not easy and not straightforward. There simply isn't a clear cut divide in appearance between Common and Coues's so a bird like this will always be controversial to some degree but that doesn't mean it should be called a Mealy because it is the 'safer' option. As the late Martin Garner put it 'Calling a bird a Mealy Redpoll when it is really an 'intermediate'/possible Coues's should be a bookable offence!' Some of his later writings suggested he had become much more confident about identifying streaky Coues's and again as Martin put it 'Most Arctic Redpolls are streaky. Really. They are. Which is annoying as they are supposed to be nice and plain and white in redpoll folk lore. It's often subtly different kind of streaking, but they are often streaky, even some adult males. Streaky is OK.'

So what a way to end my ringing in 2016. This was the last bird caught in the last ringing session and literally came in the last minute of extra time..... and it certainly is one of them, isn't it?

There is tons of stuff on the web about the identification of Coues's Arctic (Hoary) and Common (Mealy) Redpolls and some I found useful can be found by clicking on the following links:

Identification of Arctic Redpolls carduelis hornemanni exilipes, British Birds

Arctic Redpoll Carduelis hornemanni exilipes an identification review based on the 1995/96 influx, British Birds

Intermediate Arctic Redpoll, Birding Frontiers

Arctic Redpoll and Mealy Redpoll, Change the ID Culture, Birding Frontiers

Urging caution when identifying Common Redpolls, Sibley Guides Notebook

Friday 23 December 2016

Goldcrest controls autumn 2016

A total of 757 different Goldcrests were handled at Billinge this year which is a phenomenal total for an inland location and follows on from the 705 caught during 2015. The discovery of this volume of migration through the site has been one of the major findings that ringing has revealed over the last three years and is certainly something I hadn't expected.

The vast majority of birds are caught in the autumn and, in 2016, that started with the appearance of dispersing juveniles in July and August. Autumn migration proper got into full swing in early September and continued throughout October and into the first half of November, before finally fizzling out at the beginning of December. Monthly totals (new birds only) for the second half of 2016 were: July 10; August 39; September 237; October 377; November 85; December 2.

There were 4 controls (birds ringed elsewhere) amongst the birds caught this autumn but, surprisingly, not a single retrap from 2015. This lack of retraps is in stark contrast to the situation in my garden, just a couple of km away, where I ringed 4 Goldcrests in late November / early December 2015 and retrapped 2 of them amongst the 5 caught during a similar period this year. I know the ringing in my garden only involves small numbers by comparison and was outside the main autumn migration period but it does help to emphasise the migratory nature of the birds that move through Billinge.

Details of each of the controls are given below and on the following map. 

6T1477       Goldcrest 4F
Ringed        04/10/2015  Oxmoor Wood, Runcorn, Halton.
Controlled   09/10/2016  Billinge Hill, Merseyside. 17km N, duration 371 days.

This bird was on passage when ringed at Oxmoor and its recapture at Billinge just over a year later, also when on passage, shows it was following a similar timing and route through the region.


HDB361      Goldcrest 3M (photo below)
Ringed        04/09/2016 South Walney, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.
Controlled   15/09/2016 Billinge Hill, Merseyside. 68km SSE, duration 11 days.

This bird is likely to have originated from a breeding site in the far north of England or Scotland.

HDB361 Goldcrest 15/09/2016

HHJ969       Goldcrest 3M (photo below)
Ringed         05/10/2016 The Headland, Hartepool.
Controlled    14/10/2016  Billinge Hill, Merseyside. 165km SW, duration 9 days.

When it was controlled this Goldcrest was considered to be a 'continental' migrant from its appearance and the ringing location on the east coast just 9 days earlier certainly supports that. This is the second Goldcrest controlled at Billinge to have come from The Headland at Hartlepool, with the first being last year. 

HHJ969 Goldcrest 14/10/2016

HXN392       Goldcrest 3F (photo below)
Ringed         14/10/2016 Isle Of May, Fife, Scotland.
Controlled    03/11/2016 Billinge Hill, Merseyside. 299km S, duration 20 days.

This Goldcrest was also considered to be a 'continental' bird when it was controlled and again the ringing location fully supports that. There was a big 'fall' of migrants on the Isle of May on 14th October that included 400 Goldcrests, 300 Robins, 400 Song Thrush, 150 Blackbirds, and 119 Brambling, just to list a few of the species and numbers recorded on the island that day.

HXN392 Goldcrest 03/11/2016

The yellow pins mark the ringing site of each Goldcrest and the purple pin marks the site at Billinge.

.................................................and as it is that time of year

......Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Saturday 17 December 2016

From Red to Wax, wing that is.

I went up to Billinge this morning with a view to catching a few more Redwings. It was a little bit misty in places on the drive up but nice and clear when I got to site. I quickly set 3 nets just before first light and heard the odd Redwing going over in the darkness while doing so. Fog started to roll in as the sky started to brighten to the east but, luckily, it didn't get too dense and the sky directly above the site remained visible to some degree for most of the time I was there. There was a nice flurry of activity for the first hour or so during which 11 Redwings and 2 Fieldfare were caught. Not big numbers but very good for the site this late in the year and considering the conditions.

Both Fieldfare were first year birds with one being a male (image above) and the other a female. They showed some of the plumage differences between the sexes really well as can be in the collage below.

The male on the left has broader dark centres to the crown feathers and much darker centres to the feathers of the mantle. The differences aren't always as obvious as they are in these two birds. There is also a difference in the colour of the tail feathers with males having black or blackish tail feathers whereas in females they are more of a dark brown to blackish-brown colour.

I know I have shown loads of photos of Redwings but there is always room for one more.
Things went very quiet after the initial flurry of activity so I took the opportunity to have a quick walk around the site before the next net round was due. There was very little to be seen or heard but on the way back I thought I could hear Waxwings calling and as I got nearer 12 Waxwings flew from the direction of the nets and over my head. On checking the nets only 2 birds had been caught with one being a Redwing but the other was a Waxwing, the first I have caught this winter.

1CY female Waxwing. The bird was fitted with a coded colour-ring in addition to the usual BTO ring which will increase the chance of finding out about its movements.
Only one ringed but hopefully there will be more as the winter progresses.
There are no berries on any of the trees at the site other than those I sometimes place (speculatively) in one the bushes along one of the net rides when I have nets up. I hadn't put many berries out this morning as the supplies in my freezer have nearly run out but it certainly proved to be worthwhile, this time at least. Trying to catch Waxwings this way is a bit of long shot, even with the added assistance of an audio lure, but as Billinge is such a good site for migrants it was always going to be worth giving it a try, especially in a good Waxwing winter like this one. The fog closed in shortly after the Waxwing was caught so I decided to pack up having ringed 12 Redwings, 2 Fieldfare and 1 Waxwing.

With good numbers of Waxwings in the country and a few starting to be seen locally I am often asked if I have started to put apples out in the garden or if I have had any Waxwings back. The truth is I have been putting a few apples out in the garden since early October as I do every year as part of my routine winter feeding and they are not just there in the hope of attracting Waxwings. If I am lucky enough to get any Waxwings in the garden again this winter I wouldn't expect it to happen before February or March, when berries usually start to get in short supply.

When I got home today one of the first birds I saw in the garden was a male Blackcap feeding on one of the apples and that is one of the species I always put them out for in winter. This particular Blackcap has been visiting the apples and fat feeders for the last three days and is easily recognised as it is re-growing most of its tail. The garden was really buzzing with birds with Brambling being the most unusual visitor. 

This Blackcap is the second I have seen in the garden this winter with the first being a female that was only seen on one day.

Bramblings are usually a garden rarity but a female I ringed nearly a month ago has been coming to the feeders regularly and this new female appeared today.

Goldfinches are by far the commonest bird with up to 60 coming to the feeders on any one day and its anyone's guess what the turnover of birds is during the course of a day.

I don't usually get many Starlings in the first half of the winter but good numbers have been coming to the fat cakes over the last 6 weeks or so.

All in all a really good day with a nice selection of species.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Crawford: 12/12/2016 and wing moult in first year Blackbirds

I don't know what is happening with thrushes and Redwings in particular but there seems to more nocturnal movement than is usual at this time of year, especially given the absence of any cold weather. Some large nocturnal movements of thrushes were noted at Spurn Bird Observatory towards the end of last week and some of those continued in daylight hours at Spurn but more so at Sunk Island. These unexpected movements attracted the tongue in cheek comment 'Mild weather movement?' in the list of sightings for 9th December on the Spurn Bird Observatory website.

I have heard Redwings overhead well before first light on numerous occasions recently and that happened again when I was loading the car to go ringing on the 12th. When I got to Crawford I heard the calls of a few more Redwings going over in the dark in the short time it took me to set up the line of two nets. Whatever the reasons are for these movements it seems to translate into more Redwings being in the area and good catches at dawn, although they are remarkably inconspicuous during rest of the day. The net result, no pun intended, was that I caught another 16 Redwings on the 12th which took the number ringed so far this month to 131. It also took the number ringed since early October past the 1100 mark and to 1110 to be precise. How long these nocturnal movements and dawn catches will continue is anybody's guess but now that I have mentioned them they will probably come to an abrupt end. I will find out soon enough as I hope to get out to Billinge and/or Crawford later this week.

This is the one thousand, one hundred and ninth (1109) Redwing ringed this autumn/winter. Yes I know it is an odd number but the light levels were too low when number 1100 came along.
Whenever there are a good number of thrushes around one or more Sparrowhawks are never too far away and that was also the case on the 12th. Their presence sometimes reduces the catch of Redwings, especially when they make frequent sorties, but that is quickly forgotten about when one ends up being caught in one of the nets. Sparrowhawks have a bit of a reputation for getting out of nets, especially the larger females, but I have been lucky enough to catch 10 since early October with 5 of them being females.

2nd year Female Sparrowhawk. It is bigger than it looks in this photo. 
Blackbird was the only other species handled with 8 new birds and 2 retraps being caught. One of the first year males was particularly interesting because it had replaced some of its secondary flight feathers in both wings, which first years don't normally do. There was some asymmetry to the moult but it certainly didn't appear to be due to any accidental loss of feathers.

Eccentric moult in 1CY Blackbird LK6922 caught at Crawford 12/12/2016
A bit like the stockamsel plumage Blackbirds that I wrote about in my last post this was the second first year male Blackbird to come my way that had undergone a partial moult of the flight feathers. The first was a Blackbird that I retrapped in the garden on 22nd November, it had been ringed as a juvenile on 7th August so wasn't from a particularly early brood but it definitely made it a bird of UK origin. The moult of this bird was far more extensive and involved some of the primaries, primary coverts and secondaries, and all of the greater coverts, tertials of both wings, although there was some asymmetry. The entire tail had also been replaced.

Left wing of 1CY Blackbird LK25176 retrapped in the garden 22/11/2016

Tail of 1CY Blackbird LK25176 retrapped in the garden 22/11/2016
In recent decades it has become more common for finches to undergo a limited moult of the flight feathers as part of their (partial) post-juvenile moult but this phenomena appears to be a far more recent occurrence in Blackbirds and these two examples are the first I am aware of for the UK. A search of the Internet revealed a short paper about a juvenile Blackbird that was found moulting its primaries and secondaries in Poland in 2004. That appears to be the first account of a juvenile Blackbird replacing its primaries and secondaries and moult aficionados can find that paper here or by searching for the reference below.

As for the cause of the change in the extent of the pj moult in some birds I would put climate change as the number one suspect but as many of the species involved are also frequent visitors to gardens the more extensive and much improved quality of food provided in gardens may also be playing a part. It is certainly an area that is ripe for research and hopefully it will become something that the BTO will take more of a lead on by encouraging ringers to record and report any examples they come across.

Zieliñska M., Zieliñski P., Mokwa T. 2005. Juvenile Blackbird (Turdus merula) moulting primaries and secondaries. Ring 27, 1: 121-123.

Sunday 11 December 2016


Blackbirds don't feature in the blog very often but I caught one in the garden yesterday (10/12/2016) that merits showing. It was one of those birds that looked a bit different and got me thinking about what sex it was while I was taking it out of the net.

At first glance it looked like a well marked female Blackbird.
The tail was dark brown as you would expect for a female and the pointed shape of the tail feathers indicated that it was a first year bird.

The wing, on the other hand, didn't look quite right for a female. While there was no doubt about the birds age, the new inner greater coverts and median coverts were too black for it to be a female and pointed to it being a male. These new feathers weren't the typical glossy black of a male and were more of a charcoal-black with the slightest hint of brown but they were definitely much blacker than any greater and median coverts a female should have.

The final conclusion was that it is a male Blackbird with a plumage that is sometimes referred to as the 'stockamsel' type. Such birds are generally considered to be of continental origin (Germany and Poland). Obviously I can't be as sure about the sex of this bird as I would be with a more typical example of a male or female but I am as confident as I can be that it is a 'stockamsel' male.
Over the years I have caught a good number of first year male Blackbirds that have had paler fringes to some of the body feathers giving them a quite scalloped appearance and some had quite pale throats but they were all basically black and obviously male. This male Blackbird certainly qualifies as the brownest and most female looking 'stockamsel' type that I have ever caught.

One 'stockamsel' type in the garden is quite interesting but this bird was actually the second I have caught recently. The previous one was caught in the garden just over a week ago, on 02/12/2016. It was just a little blacker than yesterday's bird and there was a bit more of a 'patchwork' appearance to the plumage as can be seen in the images below.

The feathers at the rear of the crown were blacker than you would expect on a female.

The tail was a right old mixture of charcoal-black and dark brown bands caused by fault bars and growth bars. Interestingly the tail feathers were a bit broader and more rounded than is often the case with first year birds.

The new charcoal-black greater coverts were the big giveaway that this bird is a male, if an odd looking one at that.

The feathers in the centre of the mantle were barred brown and charcoal-black while those nearer the nape appear to be browner like the nape itself. It looks like a bird that doesn't know what sex it wants to be or one that has been cobbled together from leftover feathers.

The feathers of the throat and breast were a mixture of brown feathers with paler fringes and charcoal-black feathers with narrow brown fringes giving it a bit of a patchwork effect. On closer inspection a few of the feathers were an odd mixture of charcoal-black and brown. It almost looks like this bird has newer black feathers growing through older faded brown feathers but all the body feathers were same age.
So two 'stockamsel' types in a little over a week and if they weren't supposed to be birds of continental origin you could almost think they had come from the same nest. If you try and look for references to 'stockamsel' Blackbirds they are hard to come by but there is an illustration of one in BWP although it gets no further mention in the text. Stockamsel Blackbirds also get a mention in the Helm Guide to Bird Identification in the section on Ring Ouzels. There are a few others out there on the net and one that throws some light on the origin of the term can be found here.

The unusual plumages didn't end there and yesterday's garden catch also included a Goldfinch that had black feathers peppered throughout the red mask. I have caught thousands of Goldfinches over the years and never seen one like this before. Now I know it is not that dramatic as plumage variations go but I though it was interesting and worth sharing.

Almost half of the feathers that would normally be red were black in this individual.

As for the ringing totals for 10/12/2016 I started the day off at Billinge where I caught 12 Redwings in the period around dawn. The catch would have been higher had it not been for the presence of a Sparrowhawk which spooked some groups of Redwings just as they were heading for the nets. When I got home I set a 6m net in the garden and, over the next 3 hours, caught (retraps in brackets): Goldcrest (1); Blue Tit 1; Blackbird 2; Goldfinch 19 (1).
The retrap Goldcrest had been ringed in the garden just over a year ago, on 26/11/2015 and the retrap Goldfinch was ringed in the garden almost 2 year ago to the day, on 12/12/2014.

Saturday 3 December 2016

Another Redwing recovery, 1011 ringed and a 'coburni' too.

Another recovery report for a Redwing landed in my inbox yesterday and gives further support to my view that most of the birds that migrate via Billinge in October and early November are heading for wintering areas much further south. While this movement isn't as quick as the recent recovery in Spain it still shows a good onward movement in the main migration period. It was almost certainly still on passage when recaptured on Guernsey and will probably spend the winter further south in France or Iberia.

RZ37675               Redwing      (first year)
Ringed                  12/10/2016   Billinge Hill, Billinge, Merseyside.
Caught by ringer   02/11/2016   Jerbourg, Guernsey, Channel Islands. 454 km S, duration 21 days.

Redwing passage appeared to have ended at Billinge by mid Novemeber, when the ringing total stood just under the 780 mark, but after a lull of around ten days there has been an upsurge in Redwing numbers/movements in the area that hasn't ended yet. This has resulted in another 232 Redwings being ringed at the Billinge and Crawford sites between 23rd November and today. Quite why this is is hard to say but a northerly (NW to NE) push of Redwings has been recorded at vis mig sites in Staffordshire and on the West Pennine Moors in the same period, including 3464 moving NW over Winter Hill on 29/11/2016.

I caught another 15 Redwings at Billinge this morning which brought the combined ringing totals for Billinge and Crawford to 1,011 and all since 3rd October; a good effort even if I do say so myself. I didn't take a photo of the thousandth Redwing but thousand and eighth certainly got my attention as it was a very obvious Icelandic Redwing, the first and perhaps the only one of this autumn. It didn't have a particularly long wing at 120mm but far too much is made of their wing length considering there is a huge overlap between the two races. The real indicator is their much darker appearance, not their wing length.

If a Redwing as dark and as well marked as this doesn't get your attention I don't know one that will.

The legs and toes were quite dark, although not as dark as some 'coburni', but darker than most 'iliacus'.

Strongly marked undertail coverts seem to be a feature of Icelndic birds. While the tail itself is broad and quite rounded there is plenty of wear.

A very obvious moult limit with 4 ogcs'; old tertials are present too. There is no doubt that this is a first year bird.

While on the subject of Redwings I will be updating the Redwing ageing page fairly soon. Any new information/images will be tagged on at the end and labelled as an update to make them easier to find.

Thursday 1 December 2016

A walk in the park.

I took one of the dogs for a walk through Orrell Water Park and around some of the adjacent farmland at lunchtime and it produced some really good sightings. I had only just walked into the park when I came across 15 Goosanders on the top lake which is easily a record count for the site. There has been a really confiding bird recently and that one even comes out of the water for bread, but the species is normally a scarce and visitor (in low single figures) and they usually fly off as soon as there are a few people around. This flock was remarkably settled and didn't seem to mind numerous people and their dogs walking round what is only a very small lake. The light wasn't very good but I thought it was worth getting a few record shots so I nipped back home for the camera.

After getting a few photos I carried on through the park and around one of the adjacent fields that has been holding a small roost of Snipe. I only counted 9 but there could have been a few more as they can be difficult to see if they are well hunkered down. I first noticed that Snipe were roosting in this field on 12th November, when I counted 19, and a few days later (15th) there were at least 27. I have not seen Snipe roosting in a field of winter cereal before and it was even more surprising because there is a very popular dog walking route that goes around the perimeter of this field.

There are at least 9 Snipe in this photo, 6 in the little huddle and at least 3 others dotted about to the right.

A zoomed in view of the huddle taken from a closer vantage point.
After checking out the Snipe and throwing a ball for the dog for a while I headed back towards the park and home. The light was a little better as I was passing the top lake in the park and the Goosanders were still there so I took a few more photographs.

12 of the 15 Goosanders plus a Great Crested Grebe.

This Great Crested Grebe is a youngster from a late brood and semi-mingled with the Goosanders. It also indulged in a bit of display towards them at one point as can be seen from the sequence of shots below.

After photographing the Goosanders I decided to check out the gulls by the car park so I took the dog home and grabbed a few slices of bread. Somebody was already feeding the gulls and tame wildfowl as I approached and it wasn't long before I saw a familiar ringed bird. It was the German ringed Black-headed Gull that I first recorded on 27/10/2012 and has wintered at the site each year since. It is usually present from late October to late February and is often one of the first birds to come to any handouts.

German ringed Black-headed Gull.
IA141745    Black-headed Gull (ringed as an adult)
Ringed              29/04/2012  Bohmke und Werder, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.
Photographed   01/12/2016 Orrell Water Park, Orrell, Greater Manchester. 1102 km W.

IA141745 wasn't the only ringed Black-headed Gull and I also noticed one with a green colour ring inscribed J360P. This is a bird I hadn't seen or photographed before and it also had a metal ring with number K06036 and Stavanger as part of the address, so it was obviously a Norwegian ringed bird. A did a quick search on the internet when I returned home and soon found the colour ringing scheme and a site where I could report the bird and access the ringing data as detailed below.

Norwegian ringed Black-headed Gull
K06036 (J36P)  Black-headed Gull (ringed as a chick)
Ringed              14/06/2015  Søndre Langåra, Frogn, Akershus & Oslo, Norway.
Photographed   01/12/2016  Orrell Water Park, Orrell, Greater Manchester. 1065 km SW.

I also photographed a colour-ringed Canada Goose. This bird was originally ringed in Cheshire and I have recorded it numerous times already this year.

Canada Goose C75
5260475   Canada Goose (ringed as a first year)
Ringed              05/09/2013  Baddiley Meres, Natwich, Cheshire.
Photographed   01/12/2016  Orrell Water Park, Orrell, Greater Manchester. 53 km N.

All in all not a bad set of sightings in the space of an hour or so.