Sunday, 31 March 2019

Uncommon Common Quaker

I haven't got round to running a moth trap in the garden this year, or anywhere else for that matter, but moths haven't slipped my attention altogether. My mothing instincts instantly kicked in when I came across this unusual individual on a galvanised bin at a manufacturing site on Friday (29/03/2019). It is fair to say it was hard to miss as it was doing a very poor job of looking camouflaged and its unusual appearance only added to its stand out appearance.

My excitement drew some bemused attention from people working nearby but I managed to explain my interest in the moth while taking a few photographs with my phone. If you are not into moths you will wonder what my excitement was about especially as Common Quaker is a widespread and relatively common spring species. Whilst the species displays some slight variation in ground colour individuals are normally evenly coloured which is what makes this example so exceptional.

The photo is a bit over exposed but there is no doubting the symmetrical and strongly demarcated dark brown distal portion of the wings.
The big question that an individual like this draws, especially given the finding location, is whether it is a natural aberration or has it been caused by contact with some chemical. The simple answer is I don't know but the one thing I find striking is the symmetry. The effect appears to be far too symmetrical and well demarcated for some random contact with a chemical to be the cause but then I am no expert. At the end of the day this is an uncommon Common Quaker compared to the thousands I have seen over the years.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Stockamsel: a name to conjure with.

My use of the term ‘Stockamsel’ and or the associated images of Blackbirds usually prompts some feedback and discussion so I thought I would give the subject a bit more of an airing. I should start by saying ‘Stockamsel’ is not a valid term as such; however, historic misconceptions and misinterpretations have generally led to it being associated with first-year male Blackbirds that have a distinct plumage type. They are also supposed to originate in a particular geographic region and that idea has persisted to a greater or lesser degree into the modern era.

I have previously mentioned that there is an illustration of a ‘Stockamsel’ type Blackbird in the Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (BWP for short) that was published as recently as 1988. In that authoritative work the plate of Blackbirds shows a dark-billed individual with quite scaly underparts and captions it: ‘first adult male (autumn) ‘stockamsel’ variety’ so it is hardly surprising the term still has some traction, although there was no explanation the text for its inclusion. However, the term 'Stockamsel' does get a mention in the text of the Helm Guide to Bird Identification (Vinicombe et al)  that was published in 2014. In the section covering Ring Ouzel and Blackird and under the sub-heading 'Abberant Blackbirds' it states 'Confusion could also arise with first-winter male Blackbirds of the so-called 'stockamsel' type (from Germany and Poland) which have a dull bill and eye ring, browner wings, a paler chin, and heavy pale fringing to the underparts feathers' but note the qualified use of the term by referring to it as a so-called type.

I am no expert on the origin of the term ‘Stockamsel’ or how it was originally applied but the ‘amsel’ bit is easy as it is German for Blackbird. It would appear that ‘Stockamsel’ is simply an alternate/historic German name for Blackbird and is similar to how we, in the UK, have used Hedge Sparrow as a name for Dunnock. Whether it was originally meant to be used for birds with a particular distinctive appearance has probably been lost through the mists of time and the notion that Stockamsel type Blackbirds are of continental origin seems to have largely come from the origin of the word and not much else.

To what extent I am right or wrong about the origins of the term 'Stockamsel' doesn’t really matter but like others I have used it for those first-autumn/early winter male Blackbirds that are quite female like and often scaly in appearance. I have also speculated about their origins because there has been the notion that birds with that type of appearance are more likely to be continental.

I did stretch my use of the term in my last post as all the Blackbirds had yellow bills but I did say forget the bill in one of the captions as each of those birds would have looked quite female like with an all dark bill, as would have been likely up to the turn of the year. I also commented on their possible origin and considered local origin as likely as any. So if I have confused anyone or added to the centuries old misunderstandings about what a Stockamsel Blackbird actually is then I hope this blog post goes some way to clearing that up. Stockamsel is a term that probably should be confined to history but I don’t regret using it for drawing attention to first-year male Blackbirds with a female-like appearance, which was the real point.

Blackbirds are common birds and often don’t get a second look and being sexually dimorphic they are generally considered easy to sex, especially in the hand, but that is not always the case. It is worth having another look at the images of the bird that first tempted me to use the term ‘Stockamsel’.

This bird was caught 10th December 2016 and got me thinking about its sex as I was taking it out of the net. It certainly seems to fit the brief description of a 'Stockamsel' type given in the Helm Guide (Vinicombe et al).

The juvenile feathers of the tail were all brown. The significance of the tail is that some ringers sex juvenile Blackbirds on the basis of the tail colour and while it may be reasonably safe to sex those juveniles with a particularly black tail as male I don't think it would be appropriate to sex any juveniles as females using tail colour.

The wing was generally brown with the new greater coverts and median coverts being the darkest feathers and in this image looking blackish compared to the adjacent feathers but they still had a hint of brown and we far from glossy black.
 The images don't quite do justice to how brown the bird actually looked in the hand and while there is no doubt about the age of this bird its sex is less straightforward. I came to the conclusion that this was a first-winter male but had no way of verifying that.

So, hopefully, I have explained my use of the term 'Stockamsel' but the real interest lies in the variability of first-year male Blackbirds and those with a scaly and more female-like appearance in particular. I don't hold with the idea that it means they are necessarily of continental origin and more likely to come from Germany and Poland but they are interesting nevertheless.

Cramp, S., ed. (1988) The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol. 5. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Vinicombe, K., Harris, A., Tucker, L., (2014) The Helm Guide to Bird Identification, page 323, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Crawford 08/03/2019: more Goldfinches and some dodgy looking Blackbirds

The weather has been pretty poor for mist-netting recently and the forecast looks even worse for next week so I decided to make the most of a brief weather window on Friday morning. A weak ridge of high pressure provided near perfect mist netting conditions for a few hours and, luckily, I was able to rearrange other commitments to take advantage of it.

The ringing site is baited every two or three days with the aim of ensuring food is never allowed to run out or run too low and ringing visits are generally limited to once per week or less, depending on the weather. As a general rule I would rather skip a week or two when it comes to ringing visits than try mist-netting in suboptimal conditions. 
That approach paid off again on Friday morning as the 3 hour session with one 18m net resulted in a catch of 48 new birds and 11 retraps.

Goldfinches topped the totals yet again, although that is not surprising given the success the species is currently enjoying and the high proportion of nyger and sunflower hearts in the seed on offer, but on the other hand Yellowhammers have been absent full stop and Greenfinches had been absent prior to this visit. The 2 Greenfinches caught in this session were the only ones recorded which is a very poor showing given the site has been baited for well over a month now. Greenfinch populations have seen a massive decline nationally large due to disease (trichomonosis) and there doesn't appear to be any prospect of that situation improving any time soon, if anything their decline appears to be continuing.

I don't catch many Reed Buntings at the site (only 11 individuals over the past 5 years) so it was good to catch one and more so because it was a retrap. Interestingly this male Reed Bunting was originally ringed 3km away on Billinge Hill in September 2015 and was previously retrapped at Crawford in March 2016. Most of the other retraps were from recent visits but all 3 retrap Blue Tits were much older with one having been ringed as a juvenile in June 2014 and the other two were ringed as first-years in December 2015.

Retrap male Reed Bunting
The second Blackbird caught during the session was interesting in that it had an unusual plumage. It was a brownish individual but the orange-yellow bill was strongly suggestive of it being a male. Some first year male Blackbirds can have a female like plumage and these birds are often termed 'Stockamsel' types which I have blogged about before (link here). However, it also had some feathers with what could be termed a frosted or white appearance. These frosty looking feathers were asymmetrical in that more were present left wing than the right. The tail was also affected but there was a bit more symmetry in the appearance of the tail. 

The appearance of the head and neck was not dissimilar to an old adult (2CY+) female as female Blackbirds occasionally acquire a near full yellow or orange-yellow bill with age.

The right wing was more female like than male with some slight frosting to the inner secondaries. There were 3 old greater coverts which points to it being a first-year bird and  is part of my reasoning for thinking it is more likely to be a male as the bill is far too orange-yellow for it to be a first-year female.

The frosty effect was much more extensive on the left wing but it still looks brownish overall and generally a bit more like a female than a male. There is one old greater covert which is shorter and just visible by the 2 heavily frosted greater coverts so points to it being a first-year bird like the right wing. The asymmetry wasn't just in the frosting as there were 3 old greater coverts on the right wing and there was only 1 on the left.

The tail was interesting in that the shape of the feathers was not dissimilar to those of an adult by being quite square ended but there are some obvious fault bars and other structural issues. The right central tail feather was a bit more pointed than the left but in all other respects (colour and wear) they were the same so it didn't look like one had been replaced. The frosting affected the the end portions of the 3rd, 4th and 5th feathers on the right and 2nd,3rd and 4th on the left. The outermost (6th) tail feather on the left was being replaced but you can see from the part that has emerged from the sheath that it is a similar colour to the main part of the other tail feathers and isn't coming through jet black like a male. It suggests this bird's appearance will remain similar to how it is now with any difference being more to do with the freshness of the feathers as can be seen in the upper-tail coverts with the newer longest upper-tail covert being a darker blackish-brown compared to the old worn brown upper-tail coverts. So this bird may not get any or much blacker as it gets older

The term 'Stockamsel' is attributed to the naturalist Johann Andreas Naumann and was first used a couple of centuries ago and has been used in the literature occasionally since then for those first-year male Blackbirds that have a more female like plumage. There is also the possibility that some of these 'Stockamsel' type birds are actually intersex as they display a mixture of male and female characteristics. That doesn't appear to have been considered before and I don't know that it has ever been ruled out. I found an interesting blog post which touches on this subject relating to wildfowl and possible confusion between hybrids and intersex birds which is worth a read (link here). I am no expert so I will stick with calling these dodgy looking Blackbirds 'Stockamsel' types until some research is done that confirms their sex and establishes the cause or causes for their appearance.

Now one 'Stockamsel' type Blackbird in a ringing session is interesting but I ended up catching another two which is exceptional in my experience.The other two didn't have the white frosting but in other respects were similar. In my previous blog post on the subject I refer to two I caught in the garden just over a week apart and I commented that if such birds weren't supposed to be of continental origin you would have thought they came out of the same nest. Now I have caught 3 on the same day and at the same site I do think local origin and same parentage could be a real possibility. Perhaps 'Stockamsel' types can originate anywhere in the species range if both parents possess a particular gene. There was nothing about the wing lengths of the three birds to suggest they were of continental origin in fact 2 of the 3 had relatively short wing lengths which, if anything, suggests they were more likely to be of British origin but then the fact that they have aberrant plumages probably means we shouldn't try and read anything into their wing lengths. Catching 3 on the same day certainly seems to make the chances of any of them being intersex a bit less likely but it can't be ruled out entirely.

Stockamsel type number 2 appeared to have 4 old greater coverts although the 3 outer were paler and shorter than the 4th but the outer 4 were browner than the blacker and newer looking next 3 inner greater coverts. Aberrant plumages can make ageing feathers more difficult for a variety of reasons not least because feathers of different colour can wear differently and birds with plumage aberrations may not always moult in the normal way, we simply don't know or can't be 100% sure. The 3 black greater coverts help make this one look more like a male.

Overall the 2nd bird was a bit blacker than the first individual but it is certainly not your typical first year male Blackbird

As with the first bird it is the near full orange-yellow bill that draws the eye and makes it look more like a male. Forget the bill and the plumage is intermediate.
I didn't photograph the 3rd Stockamsel type as it was very similar to the 2nd plus I had quite a few other birds to deal with at the time. The main difference was that it only had one old greater covert plus it was slightly longer winged (the wing lengths of the three birds were 126mm, 129mm and 132mm if you were wondering). Bottom line I caught 3 Stockamsel types out a total of 6 Blackbirds trapped in one session which, as I said before, is exceptional in my experience.

I am sure there could be a PhD for some upcoming ornithologist or geneticist if they do some research into this phenomena. Are they all males with some female characteristics or females with some male characteristics or something in between? Is there more than one cause?  Do they originate more frequently in some parts of the species range than others? Is it purely a first-year phenomena and do they always conform to type with the first full moult or is it the fact that Stockamsel types are relatively rare that makes finding a Stockamsel type adult that much rarer? If anyone out there has more information or has answers to any of these questions then please get in touch as I would be interested to know.

Ringing totals
 (retraps in brackets) for 08/03/2019 were: Collared Dove 1; Coal Tit 1; Blue Tit (3); Great Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit (2); Blackbird 5 (1); House Sparrow 2; Tree Sparrow 5 (1); Dunnock 1 (1); Chaffinch 1; Greenfinch 2; Goldfinch 28 (2); Reed Bunting (1). A total of 48 new birds and 11 retraps.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Siskins in short supply.

Things had been looking quite promising for Siskins in the garden this spring with birds starting to visit the feeders back in late December and then more regularly through January and into early February. Up to five were seen visiting the feeders in late December and that increased to between five and ten through January and into early February but then numbers fell away. That sudden and unexpected drop off in numbers was also mirrored by Goldfinches and other species so it wasn't just a Siskin thing which makes it a bit harder to understand.

The prospects for the spring looked to be good at the end of January with up to 10 Siskins visiting the feeders.

This is one of 7 feeders in the garden. All were well used in late January and needed topping up or filling every day.

The drop off in numbers of all species started ahead of the spell of exceptionally warm weather that came in late February but that doesn't mean the weather wasn't a factor. Temperatures could be involved as it has been quite a mild winter overall but wet or dry conditions can make a difference too. Cones on alder and conifers open and close in response to moisture levels which can make their seeds more or less easily accessible and their productivity also varies from year to year. The mild conditions have caused some tree buds to develop early and willow catkins to emerge which are another energy rich food source for Siskins and other finches. The fact that Siskins are variable migrants in terms of numbers and distances involved and can be very early breeders all adds to the complexity but it is all food related in one way or another. Bottom line it is currently looking like being a relatively poor spring for Siskins in my garden this year. Currently a maximum of three are visiting the feeders at any one time and then only on a fairly intermittent basis. If it was going to be a good spring for Siskins I would expect counts to be in double figures by now (18 were ringed in the garden on 6th March last year) with birds being seen in the garden throughout much of the day.

Ringing revealed there were a few more Siskins visiting the feeders than the counts alone had indicated, as is often the case, but the overall picture was the same. At least 7 different individuals visited the feeders in late December and one of those was a retrap that was originally ringed in February 2018. In January and February a total of 16 different individuals were captured: of these 12 were new birds, 3 were retraps that had been ringed in December and another retrap had been ringed in December 2017. In the past Siskins were exclusively late winter and spring visitors to the feeders but the last few years have seen small numbers arriving much earlier in the winter with some being ringed returning birds. It will be interesting to see if this trend of early arrival and winter to winter retraps continues or even increases in the coming years.

Male Siskin 31/01/2019.
I took a series of photographs of this bird and managed to read part of the ring number which pointed to it being one of the returning wintering birds.

Female Siskin 31/01/2019
There is still time for numbers to increase as we move further into spring but any build up in numbers will be much later than usual and is likely to involve fewer birds than last year, if it happens at all.