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OPTICS 2013 DECEMBER 2012

The ultimate guide to binoculars and scopes

Britain’s best-selling bird magazine

HOPE FOR HEN HARRIERS Could they become a flagship farmland species? COMPETITION

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WAXWING WINTER! How and where to find these great birds near you

THE GREAT ESCAPE The prisoners-of-war who helped create modern birdwatching December 2012 £4.10

ID GUIDE Easiest-ever way to age immature Herring Gulls

GO BIRDING 10 great new birding walks, from the Solway to the Solent

ALL THE SIGHTINGS

Bumper month for rarities, including this superb Bee-eater

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Twite on feeders ● David Lindo in Amsterdam ● Join us in the world’s warbler capital


Like the similar but much smaller BewickÕs Swan (and many of our wildfowl species), the Whooper Swan is a northern breeding bird, which visits the mild island of Great Britain in winter. More than 10,000 Whoopers come honking across the sea from Iceland to enjoy our relatively balmy coldest months. Whoopers are whoppers, comparable in size with Mute Swans. They are straightnecked birds, though, lacking the sinuous curves of Mutes. And the base of the bill is bright yellow (all the way back to the eye) forming a distinct point before the black bill tip and lower mandible. The yellow pattern is more extensive and more sharply pointed than the limited, rounded yellow of BewickÕs SwansÕ bills.

Where to See them Most Whoopers wintering in the UK come to Northern Ireland and Scotland (especially the north-east and south-west) as well to a few sites in England and Wales, including a concentration around the Severn estuary (at Slimbridge) and in sites around The Wash.

fieldcraft make patience count this winter Bittern hide may be your best opportunity Though it may be very tempting to maximise every minute of the short days of December, rushing around searching for birds, now, perhaps more than ever, is a time when, paradoxically, taking some time can reap rewards. Several of winter’s finest birds may require a patient wait. Take for instance, the Bittern, often one of our shyest, most elusive birds. But given time, the right locality and a wait, they may give great views (from the right hide). Similarly, a 6 Bird Watching 2012

to see a Water Rail appearing at the edge of a reedbed at dusk, or to hear and glimpse a Bearded Tit whizzing across the reed tops, or to see a Hen or Marsh Harrier coming in to roost. Patience and time are also the best way to get the best out of birds which occur in numbers, such as great flocks of geese (to pick out the scarce ones) or gulls at a tip or roost site. Take your time and the rewards will come.

Peter Barritt (Alamy)

Whooper Swan

Goshawk 431

Golden Eagle 442

Honey Buzzard 40

When, where and how to see more birds

700 600 500 400 300 200 100 0

Hen Harrier 646

month

UK hen harrier population compared to other scarce raptors

*based on BTO figure, pairs in summer

Your birding

birding in numbers

jargon buster White-wingers White-winger is birder slang for so called whitewinged gulls. The term is mainly used for the two similar larger species, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. Both these pale-backed gulls are closely related to the Herring Gull complex, and both lack any black in their wing feathering (unlike other larger gulls) and instead have very pale, even white wingtips where other gulls would have dark or black patches. Sometimes, birders use Ôwhite-wingerÕ to include Mediterranean Gulls, which in adult plumage also lack any black in the wings.

birding top ten

US politicians 1. Twite D Eisenhower 2. Razorbill Clinton 3. Michael Duckakis 4. George Washingtern 5. Condorleeza Rice 6. Tit Romney 7. Dick Craney 8. Herbert Smewver 9. Jay FK 10. Woodpigeon Wilson Thanks to Emma and Paul Richbell, and everyone else who took part. Next time, we want your birding kidsÕ films, such as Jurassic Lark and the Bantam Menace. Email your puns to birdwatching@ bauermedia.co.uk


Your birding

month

4 for the list

Continental strangers Many of our wintering birds are not what they at first seem. In addition to the resident birds which we see daily throughout the year, the population is supplemented with winter visitors from continental Europe. In most cases, such as Starlings or Blackbirds, it is just about

impossible to recognise a continental visitor from a resident bird. With a few others, however, with care and attention, you can pick out these strangers. Here are four scarce visitors from overseas for you to try to find this winter. Andy Rouse (Photoshot)

FLPA (Alamy)

eastern Jackdaw

Northern Bullfinch

There are a handful of subspecies of Jackdaw in different areas of northern Europe and into Russia. These eastern, or Nordic, Jackdaws are tricky to assign to an exact subspecies and are often referred to as Eastern-type jackdaws, partly because of the wide zone of intergradation. The main distinction is the prominent pale, almost white or silvery ‘collar’ line at the base of the grey hood.

Northern Bullfinches, which come from Scandinavia and Russia, are usually notably bigger birds than our resident British Bullies. In addition to their chunky size (sometimes described as “huge”), they have different calls, with a common variant sometimes said to sound like a toy trumpet. There are also subtle differences in the plumage tones and the size and shape of the white wing-bar. Markus Varesvuo (birdphoto.fi)

David Chapman (Photoshot)

Continental Coal tit

Continental Song thrush

There is a British race of Coal Tit, britannicus, characterised by the olive tones of the brownish grey back. Continental birds are subtly different, with backs which are bluish grey and lack the hint of green, and their flanks are usually colder. These scarce visitors are often tricky birds to see in the high foliage of a conifer, so perhaps best observed coming to a feeder.

If you think the other three species have tricky subspecies to pick out, then Song Thrush will offer no easy relief. These birds are a real challenge to identify, with ID largely based on the tones of the upperparts. British (or near continent) Song Thrushes have subtly more rich brown upperparts while continental Song Thrushes have colder, greyer tones. birdwatching.co.uk 7


hen harrier

the

hen harriers of Wicken fen Each winter, a handful of Hen Harriers visit Wicken Fen to feed and roost in icy conditions. Andrew Dobson has endured years of numb toes and chattering teeth to find out more about these majestic birds

iven the embarrassing number of layers I am wearing (T-shirt, shirt, woollen jumper, fleece body-warmer, thick tweed coat), I am colder than I am happy to admit. Through the open panels of the tower hide comes a scouring wind, fresh from Siberia (surely), whistling, whining, dancing over the tops of the trees to pierce my ears and slide grimly down the back of my neck. If my nostrils were not so busy snuffling and turning red, I feel sure I’d be able to catch the scent of tundra on the air. Perhaps I spend too much time in an office; I am almost fully preoccupied with the question of why I did not bring a hat. Almost. Something is afoot – the reason I am here.

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Below and beyond the hide, whose twisted cable guy-ropes stop its five-metre frame from swaying hopelessly in the wind, is a broad swathe of Phragmites reed and mixed sedge, Cladium and Carex, a relict stand of old Fenland. This is Wicken Fen, one of the oldest nature reserves in Britain, purchased by the National Trust in 1899. The 666 hectares of land are still watched over by the wooden-sailed windpump, once used to power the mechanised drainage system that helped free the fens from water, silt and will-o’-the-wisps. In a rather satisfying irony, this windpump, one of the few still in working order, is now used to haul water back onto the fen.


hen harrier

a male hen harrier drifts over the reeds, looking for food Fabrice Cahez (FLPA - Images of Nature)

birdwatching.co.uk 23


Dominic Couzens on...

WAXWINGS While we’re hoping for a merry Christmas, our visiting Waxwings are only interested in a berry Christmas very birdwatcher remembers their first Waxwing. Mine was on a rooftop in Wimbledon. I would have preferred to tell you that it was a flock of 200 seen during a snowstorm in the Highlands, but sadly not. It was a single lost bird on an unglamorous suburban street, a silky beauty in a grubby parlour, like a once-famous actress fallen on hard times. For me, though, it could have been anywhere and I would not have cared; it was a Waxwing, one of BritainÕs most charismatic and treasured birds. Not for nothing are Waxwings adored by birdwatchers. A lot of it has to do with natural good looks, of course; it always does. Their colour scheme is unusual and striking, and the dense, soft plumage of Waxwings gives them a healthy and immaculate appearance. But there is much more to the WaxwingÕs allure than this. Surely their charm is in their unpredictable appearances in unexpected places, often in numbers and during the most charmless time of the year, the midst of winter? It is a bird to cheer you up, as well as excite you. Almost everybody has seen a Waxwing in a suburban street, or a superstore car park, and thus the Waxwing is the ultimate laymanÕs bird. If we wish to see a gem such as a Lapland Bunting, say, we need to be a proper birdwatcher Ð to tog up and wander the lonely beaches on the east coast in the freezing cold, trying to keep our binoculars steady on brown, flighty, awkward birds; and furthermore, we need to be savvy about some identification features. To see a

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Jules Cox (FLPA - Images of Nature)

George Reszeter (Alamy)

We’ve already seen an influx of Waxwings this winter

Waxwing is usually a doddle; we wait in a car park next to some berry-bearing bushes. If we get cold we can go for a cup of coffee, or even go shopping, and once the birds appear we will identify them instantly, even if weÕve not seen them before. So Waxwings are a great leveller, found not by experts but by ÔnormalÕ birdwatchers. And these appearances are embellished by their rarity. True, the Waxwing is an annual winter visitor to parts of Scotland, and actually appears somewhere between October and March pretty much every year Ð we will come back to this point. But really large arrivals of Waxwings, known as irruptions, are still a comparatively rare event, happening about once every 10 years, or 20 for something truly special, which is not very often in any birderÕs lifetime. We love the Olympic Games for coming round infrequently; if they happened every year they would lose their lustre. In the same way Waxwings arenÕt like Little Egrets, the latter now so frequent as to be barely notable. They stay special. And the reason for their rarity Ð and unpredictability, is fascinating in its own right. At almost every gathering of Waxwing admirers a voice pipes up, saying: ÒItÕs the snow thatÕs brought them in. It must be a harsh winter up northÓ. And everybody nods sagely, and goes home contented, unaware that this is complete codswallop. No, Waxwings are boreal birds. They are adapted to harsh conditions, and most winters they winter quite contentedly far to the north of us, where there is plenty of vicious

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waxwings

birdwatching.co.uk 35


go birding

December

Difficulty

Walk 07: Glamorgan

Burry iNlet South Shore

Site GuiDe David Saunders

The finest estuary in South Wales Nigel Pye (Alamy)

he Burry Inlet is rightly claimed as the finest estuary in South Wales for its birds, not surprising given its designation as a Ramsar Site and a Special Protection Area, while Llanrhidian Marsh, formerly a firing range, is a National Trust property. Around the Burry Inlet, which extends nine miles east to west and almost five miles north to south at the widest point, are a number of classic birdwatching locations. The largest area of saltings, mud and sand banks is on the southern shore, with Llanrhidian Sands – almost two miles wide – a superb wintering area for waders and wildfowl, not forgetting the gulls. The Oystercatcher is the star in terms of numbers – these in winter may rise to more than 15,000 birds, their diet of shellfish being a source of continued controversy locally. Here there is a long tradition of harvesting cockles, mostly based on the southern shore villages of Crofty and Pen-clawdd. Not surprisingly, cockle numbers across the years have ebbed and flowed, while the number of Oystercatchers and the amount of cockles

T

Oystercatcher

they take has been a continual concern to the fishermen, whose claims are often greatly exaggerated. As a result some 10,000 Oystercatchers were culled in the autumns of 1973 and 1974, an operation which hopefully will never be repeated. Now, a new source of concern for the cockle fishermen, there has been a huge increase in the area of young mussels which smother the cockles lying beneath in the sand. The Oystercatchers will hardly mind. David Saunders

Grid ref: SS 523 958. Postcode: SA4 3TR How to get there: Head west from central Swansea on A4118 turning north on B4296 in Killay, in Gowerton join the B4295 reaching Pen-clawdd after three miles; then Crofty after 1.5 miles, from here choose the minor road – Marsh Road – alongside the saltings some three miles to Llanrhidian. Where to park: Roadside parking in Crofty and at several places beside the Marsh Road. Distance & time: Allow three hours minimum; this section of the Burry Inlet stretches roughly seven miles east to west. Terrain: Typical estuary-side terrain with mostly extensive sections of saltmarsh before the sand and mudflats are visible. Accessibility: Open at all times, with access away from the roads being part of the Wales Coast Path – look out for the direction signs. Facilities: All to be found in Llanrhidian, Crofty and Pen-clawdd. Public transport: Nearest railway station is Swansea. A regular bus service, less frequent on Sundays, from Swansea Bus Station to Llanrhidian, passes through Pen-clawdd and Crofty – call Traveline, 0871 200 2233. Sites nearby: Go Birdings: Crymlyn Bog (May 2010), Rhossili Bay (September 2010), Crymlyn Burrows (February 2011), Whiteford Burrows (September 2011). Organisations: Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales, The Nature Centre, Fountain Road, Tondu, Bridgend CF32 0EH, 01656 724100, www.welshwildlife.org Websites: www.glamorganbirds.org.uk, goweros.blogspot.com Club contact: Gower Ornithological Society, 01792 551331, Jeremy.douglas-jones@ glamorganbirds.org.uk County recorder: Robert Taylor, 01792 464780, rob@birding.freeserve.co.uk Maps: OS Explorer 164, OS Landranger 159.

The only place where the main road is really close to the estuary, and always worth investigating. Do not dismiss the pipits as Rock Pipits; Water Pipits are a scarce but regular visitor hereabouts. Little Egrets breed in at least two locations in North Gower so their presence on the estuary is almost guaranteed. Salthouse Point provides an ideal spot to set up scope and spend a pleasant hour or more. Among waders, second most numerous to the Oystercatcher is Dunlin, while Golden and Grey Plovers, Knot, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Redshank should all be present. Dark-bellied Brent Geese which have flown here from Arctic Europe are present in good numbers from October to March, with a handful of stragglers often remaining well into May. Pride of place among ducks must be the Pintail, with several thousand wintering, the largest concentration in Wales.

1 V5 OS 1:50,000 Region 3 Wales www.memory-map.co.uk 0870 743 0121

1 2 Swansea 10m Ü

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go birding December

Walk 08: Somerset

Difficulty

GreylAKe

Site GuiDe Julian Turner

Winter wildfowl and raptors at a new RSPB wetland Steve Young (Alamy)

ess than 10 years ago the RSPB took on an already promising area of wet grazing marsh just north of King’s Sedgemoor Drain. Since then they have developed and improved it, and Greylake has joined the Avalon Marshes reserves to the north as an essential part of the Somerset birding circuit. In summer it is a stronghold for breeding waders, but in winter it is a haven for thousands of wildfowl – Wigeon and Teal are the most numerous, but Pintail, Gadwall and Shoveler are all usually present, too. Lapwing and Golden Plover flocks often number several hundred, while it is one of the more reliable local winter sites for Ruff, and Snipe often show very well from the hide. Passerines around the reedbeds and wet meadows include Reed Buntings, wagtails and pipits. All of these flocks, and a thriving small mammal population, attract a variety of raptors, and Peregrines, Merlins and Hen Harriers are all regular, while Marsh Harriers and Short-eared Owls visit periodically. Great White Egret and Bittern have also been seen occasionally in

L

Snipe

recent years, and winter rarities have included Crane and Long-billed Dowitcher. Julian Turner Look out for Reed Buntings and Stonechats along the boardwalks and Little Grebes on the pond. Large flocks of wildfowl are visible from the spacious hide, some at very close range. Scan with a scope for raptors such as Peregrine and Hen Harrier. The wet area under the willows immediately left of the hide often hosts a photogenic Water Rail. Try the new Reedbed Loop for more views of marshland birds – a Penduline Tit was reported from this area in one recent winter. The fields across the road are worth a scan for flocks of winter thrushes, Golden Plovers, and Lapwings, but beware as the road is busy.

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V5 OS 1:50,000 Region 1 Southern England www.memory-map.co.uk 0870 743 0121

2 Bridgewater 7m Û

Grid ref: ST 399 346. Postcode: TA7 9BP. How to get there: The reserve car park (signposted) is directly off the A361 Taunton-Glastonbury road, approximately two miles north-east of Othery and just north of Greylake Bridge and sluice. Distance and time: The whole route is less than a mile, so how long you want to spend in the hide is the defining factor. Terrain: Very flat. Accessibility: The new Reedbed Loop is on grass tracks and not suitable for wheelchair users or those with stability issues, but the main route to and from the wheelchairfriendly hide is on wooden boardwalks and via easy-to-open gates. Open all year round, free of charge. Facilities: None on site. Public transport: The Taunton-Wells no. 29 bus passes the reserve entrance and stops at Othery, two miles to the south, and Greinton, 1.5 miles to the north (five buses each way on weekdays, eight on Saturdays, no Sunday service). For further details contact First – 08456 020156 or www.firstgroup.com. Sites nearby: Shapwick Heath, Ham Wall, Westhay Moor, Catcott Lows. Organisations: RSPB, www.rspb.org.uk or local office, West Sedge Moor, 01458 252805. Club contact: Somerset Ornithological Society, www.somersetbirds.net, including sightings messageboard. County recorder: Brian Gibbs, 01823 274887, brian.gibbs@somersetbirds.net Maps: OS Explorer 140, OS Landranger 182.

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birdwatching.co.uk 61


portfolio

Richard Steel won our Bird Photo of the Year competition. Here are more of his great shots and the story behind his winning photograph of a Dartford Warbler Jay

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70 Bird Watching 2012

Green Woodpecker


Corn Bunting

birdwatching.co.uk 73


Uk bird sightings RaRity Round-up

88 Bird Watching 2012

Dave Barnes

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Kilminning, Fife, October

Richard Stonier

Humes Leaf Warbler, St Mary’s, Scilly, 18 October

Kit Day

Juvenile American Golden Plover, Porthellick beach, St Mary’s, Scilly, 15 October

Debby Saunders’ garden in Southwell where general access was to be out of the question. By day, it had been tentatively identified as Britain’s third Eastern Crowned Warbler, but by night the true enormity of the find sent shivers down the spine, the gathered images unmasking its true identity – a bird that breeds only in a narrow zone of eastern Asia in Japan and on the island of Sakhalin – some 8,000km from Portland! A total of just 19 observers witnessed the spectacle of this wonder. Runner-up for top prize, therefore, went to Shetland, where that archipelago’s and the UK’s second-ever Chestnut-eared Bunting appeared at Eastshore (Virkie) on 23rd, this bird bucking the trend and staying two days (and consequently allowing 105 observers to connect). Initially misidentified as a Little Bunting, just like the first on Fair Isle from 15th-20th October 2004, this bird’s true identity evolved on Facebook. This is another species from the Far East, breeding in eastern Siberia, northern China and Japan – the only other Western Palearctic record relating to Sweden on 25th October 2011. So, if these three species have whetted your appetite, just look at what else the weather threw at us over the four weeks of October – an incredible list of mouthwatering vagrants… Single White-billed Divers flew north past Flamborough (East Yorkshire) on 25th and Whitburn (Co. Durham) on 27th, while the first Pied-billed Grebe of the year was at Lough Baun, Louisburgh (Co. Mayo) on 29th-31st. Of rare herons, there were 4 Cattle Egrets, a minimum 35 Great White Egrets and two Purple Herons, while yet another post-breeding influx of Glossy Ibis took place, involving 15 or more in Cornwall. Two different juvenile Northern Harriers graced Tacumshin (Co. Wexford) during the month, with an adult female Pallid Harrier well-twitched at Firsby Reservoir (Yorkshire) from 3rd-7th; a very late female Red-footed Falcon was on the Isle of Wight on 24th-25th. Rare waders seemingly tailed off as the month progressed, but there were still 12 American Golden Plovers located, 14 White-rumped Sandpipers, two Baird’s Sandpipers, 25 Pectoral Sandpipers, 18 Buff-breasted Sandpipers, eight Long-billed Dowitchers, eight Lesser Yellowlegs and five Spotted Sandpipers. Rarer still, Lodmoor’s Short-billed Dowitcher was last seen on 6th, while a Solitary Sandpiper remained on Scilly from 12th-17th. Of five Bonaparte’s Gulls recorded, most popular was a long-stayer at Dawlish Warren (Devon) from 21st, while in Ireland, the adult Forster’s Tern moved from Dundalk (Co. Louth) to its regular wintering site in Galway. Compensation for some of those that unsuccessfully twitched the Inishmore kingbird was a colourful juvenile Belted Kingfisher that graced Lough Fee and Kylemore Abbey ponds (Galway) on 5th-6th. Equally colourful were two late Bee-eaters in Britain – at Swanage (Dorset) on 28th-30th and in Seaham (Durham) from 31st into November. Nine Hoopoes were found, too, along with 45 Wrynecks and a remarkable first-winter female Scandinavian Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in Scalloway (Shetland) on 15th-19th – the first in Scotland since 1970. But it was rare passerines that really stole the show in October, arriving from both North


RaRity Round-up Uk bird sightings

vast numbers of Waxwings were irrupting westwards, too, winter 2012 set to be an invasion for this hugely popular bird. Fair Isle claimed yet another Siberian Rubythroat, this time a female from 23rd-30th, but most surprising was the sheer lack of Red-flanked Bluetails – just two more in October at Blyth (Northumberland) on 22nd and Stiffkey Campsite Wood (Norfolk) on 22nd-24th – in stark contrast to the large numbers in preceding

Blackpoll Warbler, Bryher, Scilly, 16 October

autumns which have seen exceptional numbers. Of eight Siberian Stonechats identified, one was of the unrecorded stejgeneri form at Portland Bill (Dorset) on 24th-26th, while two Pied Wheatears were found. plus three confiding Desert Wheatears. A White’s Thrush was seen in flight over Cot Valley (Cornwall) on 8th, with another trapped and ringed on Barra (Outer Hebrides) on 13th, with that island’s glory continuing on birdwatching.co.uk 89

Richard Stonier

America and the East…. An influx of Red-rumped Swallows from 5th included no less than seven together at Marazion Marsh (Cornwall) on 5th-6th, with 85 Richard’s Pipits identified, a Tawny Pipit at Kilnsea (Yorks) from 11th-17th, an exceptional influx of no less than 55 Olive-backed Pipits (mostly in Shetland), three Pechora Pipits, seven different American Buff-bellied Pipits and two Citrine Wagtails. Due to a crop failure in Scandinavia,

Gary Thoburn

Daurian (Isabelline) Shrike, Portland, Dorset, 27 October

Gary Thoburn

Solitary Sandpiper, Bryher, Scilly, 14 October


YOUR BIRD

In association with

Mysterious gull

QUESTIONS Your bird problems solved by our experts

EXPERTS If you’ve got a birding question, one of our experts will be able to answer it. Meet our team of bird brains and see if you can fox them with a puzzle of your own! Matt Merritt Matt’s been overseeing our Q&A pages in their various guises for years – and has identified more little brown jobs than he’s had hot dinners... Mike Weedon If Mike’s not out birding he’s talking about birding. If he’s not talking about birding, he’s reading about birding. In short, he lives and breathes birding. Dave Nurney Having spent decades studying the tiniest of plumage differences in hundreds of birds, illustrator Dave has an eye for detail. Kate Risely As our BTO expert, Kate is bang up-to-date with all the latest population figures and trends. Need a fact or stat about a species? Kate’s got it.

WRITE TO US 110 BIRD WATCHING 2012

Messy Greenfinch I enclose a photo of a Greenfinch trying hard to look like a hybrid. It has yellow wing panels but a pink bib, so I initially thought it had a bit of Linnet in there, but a close up reveals that it has been eating blackberries in an extremely messy manner! What do you think? Peter Gilbert, Walgrave, Northamptonshire We agree with you, Peter. At a first glance at your photo, the eye is drawn to the pinkish flush to the upper breast, which is very like that of a male Linnet. At the same time, though, the size and shape of the bill is clearly too long and bulky for Linnet, and perfect for Greenfinch. The angry facial expression and pale brown plumage with a greenish hint, combined with the yellow wing panel visible through the mesh, all

A Greenfinch disguised as a Linnet?

confirm that this is a (probably female) Greenfinch. As you speculate, it has probably been eating blackberries before coming to the Greenfinch’s favourite, the peanut feeder! Your photo illustrates nicely how you should not try to identify a bird based on a single feature, while ignoring the rest of the available information.

Hello. I was wondering if you could help with the ID of this gull spotted at Hanningfield Reservoir, Essex on 11 Nov 2012. The guys I go with had come up with a melanistic Black-headed Gull as our best bet. I agree, one shot does seem to show typical winter markings very faintly under the grey, but if you or your readers could help that would be great. Kevin Cook, by email Your bird is certainly a Blackheaded Gull, but as you say, clearly is much more dusky and grey than a typical bird. Aberrantly high levels of melanin are certainly a good explanation for this pervasive grey colour. However, gulls (owing to their feeding habits on rubbish tips etc) are notorious for becoming immersed in some hideously coloured liquids and getting stained plumage, and it is possible that the gull has become coloured by immersion in such a substance. The colour is very uniform, though for unusual staining. Black-headed Gull does seem a bird which is susceptible to both explanations. We have seen birds which have almost white plumage, lacking any blacks (and so looking somewhat like Mediterranean Gulls in plumage). At the same time, we have seen Black-headed Gulls stained pink and blue…

Turkish warbler Could you please identify this warbler for me? We were in Turkey this September near Marmaris, close to a marshy area and the bird was in bushes close to the lane. The sun was very bright which altered the colour of the bird as it went through the sparse vegetation. John Taylor, Sale, Manchester We think your little warbler is probably a Willow Warbler. It is small, slim with a typical Phylloscopus warbler shape, with a clear bright yellow wash to the underparts, long wings, a dark eyestripe and pale supercilium and pale legs (seen in one photograph). All point to a fresh first-winter or recently moulted adult Willow Warbler. The very similar autumn Chiffchaff usually looks more

What’s that warbler?

compact, shorter winged and more scruffy, with dark, not pale, legs. Similarly greenish and yellow, plain warblers, such as Icterine and Melodious warblers lack the dark eyestripe.

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A grey gull. But what is it?

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Q&A

A screamer! Since I took these photos on 30 June, I have become even more confused about what actually happened and your advice would be much appreciated. Among the heather and bracken of the North Yorkshire Moors I was happily taking photos of a Wheatear when I disturbed this bird about five yards in front of me – flying low for about 40 yards before landing in deep heather. What disturbed me most of all was that the bird screamed like a little piglet for about six seconds, sounding like it was in some pain. A few seconds later a small bird took off close to me and landed in the same spot as the larger, seeming adult bird. I was lucky enough to get a photo of both birds (below). If you can help on ID and what actually happened, I would be most grateful John Wray, Scarborough

ARK WILDLIFE Question of the month Is this a rarity or something a little more common? Please find attached picture of a bird, can you please identify this bird for me. I cannot find anything that even comes close, so I would be very pleased if you can tell me just what it is. Ray Dennis by email Your bird is a male Blackbird, Ray. The size and shape are the main giveaway, though, as it clearly does not have typical Blackbird coloration. The usual black plumage is now about half pure white, with very patchy distribution of the white feathering. Also, the usually dark grey to black legs are pink. Retained from typical Blackbird coloring are the yellowish bill and eyering. This bird has a form of aberrant coloration called schizochroism. Like albinism, the white feathering and pink legs are caused by an absence of pigment. But unlike that condition, the absence is not universal, but restricted to particular areas of the bird.

It doesn’t look like anything in the fieldguides...

Partial white feathering, though unusual, is particularly common in Blackbirds. It is presumably purely a genetically inherited mutation, and is probably as simple (in genetic terms) as an on/off switch from the high levels of melanin production to produce black colouring to no melanin.

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Coal Tit with dark breast The birds John flushed

The silhouetted (larger) bird in your photograph is undoubtedly a Woodcock, as evidenced by the unique combination of rather rounded though pointed wings, bulging eye sockets and long bill, plus the dangly legs with long toes. The smaller bird also looks to have the pattern and shape of a Woodcock, though a slightly fluffy edged one. It seems that you may have accidentally disturbed a family of Woodcock, with the larger bird being the parent and the smaller perhaps one of its young, still smaller than the adult, yet large enough to take off.

A neighbour (Bob Jones of Grinshill, Shrewsbury) has tested me with these photos of what appears to be a Coal Tit (they are two photos of the same bird) with an unusually dark breast. Could you confirm that its a Coal Tit and is there any reason for the dark breast? Bernard Jones, Shrewsbury We agree that your neighbour’s bird is indeed a Coal Tit, though it is also exceptionally dark, particularly on the underparts. At first it seems the bird may have a form of schizochroism (aberrant coloration) which adds additional melanin to the plumage. However, the bird does not appear to be in perfect condition, with hints of general scruffiness, with ‘tufty’ pale feathers showing through the darker on the underparts. This strongly suggests that the ‘odd’ colour may not be just down to genetic mutation, but may be due to odd wear (perhaps after infestation or infection), removing the paler tips to the feathers, revealing the dark feathering beneath. ‘Woolly bears’ (insect larvae) are known to graze on tit and Nuthatch feathers in roost holes. Some roosting cavities are apparently crawling with hairy larvae. Bird-ringer and former Bird Watching team member Katie Fuller, from the RSPB, says she has seen several similar birds to this one this year and that it is also possible that mites could cause feather damage. She adds that the poor weather during the breeding season this year will have led to many poorly nourished fledglings this year, which could contribute to poor feather condition.

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What has caused this tit’s dark plumage?

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Bird Watching December 2012