Thick-headed

At the end of March I had the good fortune to be able to visit North-east India for a few weeks. For the first part of our trip, we stayed at the Sunderban Jungle Camp on the edge of the Indian Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Each day we would take a boat and explore the unique habitat of the mangroves and hope to find some of the special species that inhabit it.

Luckily we had several great sightings of restricted-range birds in particular, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher. This species is restricted to the mangroves on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea from Odisha to the southern tip of Myanmar. It was one of six Kingfisher species encountered in the Sunderbans, surely the Kingfisher capital of the Indian subcontinent.

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Brown-winged Kingfisher

Although my personal highlight was not the intricate beauty and variety of the many kingfishers seen, but the drab Grey Thickhead. Unsurprisingly this is not the modern accepted vernacular name for this species, although it is the literal translation of the Mangrove Whistler’s scientific name, Pachycephala cinerea. Although is is unclear to me what warranted their scientific name, the genus appears to me to be just like typical flycatchers albeit with a slightly broader bill and perhaps chunkier. However it is not the appearance that drew me to this species, but the melodic song.

The voice of the Mangrove Whistler rises high and proud above the accompanying chorus of the mangroves. It consists of a series of tuneful notes which crescendo to a concluding flourish which is audible even above the din of the motorboat as it chugs along down the wide mangrove channels.

Having heard the distinctive tune, our guide Sujan ordered our boat to be stopped at the edge of the mangroves near where the whistler was whistling. To him it sounded abnormally close, the species usually prefers to remain deep within the mangrove forest without access by boat. This is why they are very tricky to see in the Sunderbans: walking is forbidden due to the danger of tigers. So when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, I knew that I was very privileged.

The small nondescript bird flew up to a convenient perch on one of the higher mangrove bushes along the river. From there it began to sing, occasionally switching position but almost constantly in view for several minutes. So hard to find, so unexpected that this species wasn’t even on our trip checklist – a cumulative list from around 9 years of running this trip with 2 or 3 trips a year. Our guide has the honour of having seen over 1100 species of birds in India, yet the elusive thickhead only 5 or 6 times before.

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The Mangrove Whistler sitting dignified on its mangrove perch

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Mid-March Moth Madness

After a snowy delay, last weekend it seemed like spring had finally sprung and temperatures rose into double figures. Looking at the forecast for this weekend and into next week however, it looks like the wintry weather will return once again which is very odd for this time of year. I’m usually a fan of a bit of snow, but only at the appropriate times of year. So I decided to write this blog post to try and keep my spring feeling going for as long as possible, before the snow showers begin to move in from the east again.

Saturday night was the first time I have put my moth trap out this year. In previous years I have been a little more keen, with very little reward and sometimes even null counts at this early stage in spring, so I decided to hold it off until now. And with the Beast from the East only about a week gone, my hopes were not particularly high. Although I was in for a surprise.

Most of the time, I just leave my trap out for the whole night and check it in the morning. However, on the off-chance of something notable (or anything at all!) being in there, I decided to look down from my bedroom window just an hour or so after switching on the light. To my surprise I saw what seemed to be an Oak Beauty already within the trap, so I rushed down to check if there was much else about.

To my immense surprise, there were at least 20 moths flying around the trap and on the nearby house wall. Most were March Moths as well as several more Oak Beauties, along with a couple of Tortricodes alternella and a Common Quaker. Already we had recorded around twice as many moths as I usually get in an early-spring night!

I was more than keen to check the trap the following morning. Unsurprisingly, there were moths everywhere, with the final tally being 55! I would be happy with that in May or September, let alone the first half of March! I will run through a few of the stand out highlights:

Small Brindled Beauty

This was the rarest moth that I caught last night, and the second time I’ve caught this species, the previous occasion being early March last year. It is most common in southern England, becoming rarer further north although classified as ‘local’ – found in less than 300 sites nationally. The females of this species are one of many winter and spring species that are apterous – lacking wings. The females of many of these apterous species seem completely unlike most moths to me, although I’m yet to find one myself.

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Small Brindled Beauty

Dotted Border

This species is unique among the early spring moths as it is one of the few Geometrid moths out at this time of year. In my experience it is usually the Noctuids (such as the Clouded Drabs, Hebrew Characters and the Quaker species) that are the most commonly trapped, although the most abundant species caught during this night were the 18 Oak Beauties which is a slightly unusual Geometrid species. The Geometrids can be distinguished by the way they hold their wings; most Geometrids hold their wings out to the side whereas most Noctuids fold their wings over their abdomen.

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Dotted Border

This species can usually be identified by the row of dots running along the bottom of the wing which you can see in the photo above. However, it is a variable species throughout its distribution and there are forms which are very dark making the row of dots (the dotted border) very hard to see.

Clouded Drab

This species is quite common especially where its foodplant Oak is plentiful although, despite its name, it is can be really nicely patterned. It is another species that is really variable, with many colour forms. We caught three, one of them in particularly was particularly good-looking, with its pattern enhanced by the flash on my camera.

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Clouded Drab

Hopefully the upcoming cold snap will be the last of the winter, and spring will be allowed to continue unabated. I look forward to moth trapping further once it warms up again, hopefully we’ll continue with some good numbers!

Final Tally

  • Common Quaker 3
  • March Moth 9
  • Oak Beauty 18
  • Hebrew Character 4
  • Tortricodes alternella 2
  • Small Brindled Beauty 1
  • Dotted Border 5
  • Clouded Drab 3
  • Small Quaker 8
  • Chestnut 1
  • Brindled Pug 1

 

Eastbourne Strikes Twice

This morning, after struggling through incredibly thick mud, I reached a huddle of birders all looking at a small Robin-sized bird with a faint blue crescent on its breast feeding on the edge of a large reedbed. It was a male Bluethroat, a fantastic record for the time of year and for Sussex.

The bird was first seen last Sunday at West Rise Marsh in Eastbourne and identified from photos on Tuesday. Luckily it stayed around and has since allowed many Sussex and national birders to see it although it has been elusive. Unusually for me, it was not as elusive when I went to see it as I immediately had it in my binocular view after arriving. Much better than standing around for hours in the biting wind which some birders have had to do over the past week!

It appears to be a White-spotted Bluethroat, one of two subspecies of Bluethroat that have been recorded in the UK. It seems to be the less frequent subspecies, with the Red-spotted Bluethroat being the other that sometimes reaches our shores. Due to the difference in latitude of the two subspecies’ breeding ground, they typically arrive at different times of year. The White-spotted is most commonly found in late March and April whereas the Red-spotted is more likely to be found in May. Although White-spotted is the earlier arriver, it is more likely that this bird has been wintering in the UK, rather than having overshot its breeding grounds on its spring migration.

Occasions of Bluethroats wintering in the UK are occasionally recorded, for example last year a bird was found in February in Lincolnshire which remained until the end of March. Presumably it then attempted to migrate to where it thinks its breeding grounds are. It will be interesting to see if this Eastbourne bird stays much longer and whether it tries to set up a territory here or flies elsewhere to breed.

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Fantastically, this is not the first Sussex rarity that Eastbourne has had to offer this winter. Black Guillemots, although they breed on remote islands in the north of England, are even rarer in Sussex than Bluethroats, so for one to turn up in Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour was quite special. It has been present since late November, although I waited until the New Year before going along to see it. It’s a wonderfully confiding bird in a great setting!

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The invasion continues

This winter Europe has been host to an avian phenomenon I wasn’t even aware was possible. Hawfinches in the UK are very rare and elusive birds, mainly confined to large areas of forest such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. Indeed, in February 2017 I hitched a lift with Josie Hewitt for a two hour journey to the New Forest especially to see these birds, and it’s funny to think how oblivious I was to the fact that it would become clear by the end of the year that it was an unnecessary trip.

I don’t think anyone is quite sure why, but this winter Hawfinches have truly irrupted from their core European breeding grounds. The areas where these usually strictly forest-dwelling birds have been recorded over the past few months is incredible, including the Moroccan Sahara, Kuwait and Alaska! In Sussex, where hardly any are seen outside of West Dean Woods, flocks have surpassed 100 individuals at locations scattered across the county. I am not aware of any previous such invasions of this species, so it definitely feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Last weekend, I was ringing at fellow trainees Dave and Penny Green’s garden near Wisborough Green. I had heard that there were one or two Hawfinches visiting their large Yew tree, so I was fairly hopeful that some brief sightings would enliven our ringing session a little more. However, it soon became clear that my expectations were far too low! We were treated to an almost constant presence of Hawfinches throughout the day, at least 6 I think and possibly up to 10 were visiting the Yew at one point. This allowed for some absolutely brilliant views of this normally tricky-to-see species.

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Beautiful male Hawfinch

As you can see from the photo, Hawfinches have a massive bill. These have evolved to crack really hard nuts and seeds, such as cherry stones which they can easily crack. They certainly are attractive, chunky finches and I do hope that the invasion continues, and perhaps there’ll be a bumper breeding season for them here in the UK!

Pan-species Listing: Top 15 New Species of 2017

2017 has been another fantastic year for me with regards to pan-species listing. I am pleased that I am continuing to add species even throughout the quieter months and although I am sure to slow down sooner or later as the number of species I can add is not infinite, I am still yet to break my steady stride. I have managed to delve into groups I haven’t tackled before such as lacewings and springtails. In this blog post I will list my favourite species added to my Pan-species List in 2017, out of about 700 added this year. If I have written a separate blog post about that particular species, the species name is hyperlinked to that post.

15. Marsh Frog

Adding new non-bird vertebrates is not easy, and so it was great to see several Marsh Frogs on a mid-June day at the nearby Warnham Local Nature Reserve. Although they’re non-native, they come in many different shades of bright green and so are much more attractive than the Common frogs!

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A couple of Marsh Frogs on the edge of a pool in the summer sunshine

14. Purple Toothwort

Plants are more regular pan-species listing additions for me, and although I’m still getting to grips with their huge diversity I have found that attending some Sussex Botanical Recording Society meetings throughout the year has been really helpful. This plant however was found in March, one of my earliest plant additions of the year, at Wakehurst Place. It’s one of several really fascinating plant species in the UK which lack chlorophyll to photosynthesise and therefore gain their nutrients directly from other nearby plants!

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A patch of the bizarre leaf-less Purple Toothwort, one of many found at Wakehurst Place

13. Waxwing

The winter of 2016/17 was one of the much hoped-for Waxwing ‘invasion’ years, and therefore it would be rude not to see some! The first flock I saw comprised over 30 birds, which is an amazing number for so far south in the UK. It was at a typical setting, an industrial estate! Waxwings often prefer these habitats because of the wealth of berry-producing bushes that grow there. I also saw a couple more later in the year, feeding in a Davidia (Paper Handkerchief) tree at Wakehurst Place, the fruits of which are large and kiwi-like. Very weird food for Waxwings!

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A Waxwing at Wakehurst Place, among the Davidia fruits.

12. Vestal

I have been moth-trapping in my garden for a few years, yet save for many Diamond-back Moths I hadn’t caught any migrants in my trap. Autumn presented a window of favourable air-flow from southern Europe and North Africa, which seemed likely to bring decent numbers of migrant moths to our shores. I put my trap out with anticipation on a couple of occasions that week, and on the second I caught exactly what I had been hoping for: 3 Vestals!

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One of the Vestals on the wall by the moth trap. They’re not the most attractive of moths but I was really pleased to see them!

11. Stemonitopsis typhina

I have very few slime-moulds on my list like this one, partly because they’re so tricky to identify. However this species, which I came across during a Sussex Fungus Group outing, was a great excuse to research their fascinating life cycle.

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10. Wryneck

In September, I was really lucky to be able to venture up to Spurn Bird Observatory in Yorkshire for the annual Migration Festival. Spurn is undoubtedly one of the major sites for rare birds in England and even quite early on in the vagrant season I managed to see brilliant birds such as Long-billed Dowitcher, Barred Warbler, Long-tailed Skua, Short-eared Owl, Caspian Gull, Roseate Tern, Black Tern, Little Stint, Little Gull, and one of my highlights, a Wryneck. This bird showed beautifully well, feeding on the cliff edge near the Sandy Beaches caravan site. It was so great to watch that I visited the bird three times over the weekend to take in the marvellously intricate plumage.

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Wryneck, taking a break from feeding on ants on the cliffside vegetation.

9. Cut-grass

This rather unassuming rare species of wetland grass has a deadly secret! Its blades are exactly that, as sharp as a knife. I didn’t want to test the sharpness on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society outing to Amberley Wildbrooks on which we saw it, however the blades are apparently able to slice through human skin thanks to the minute stiff hairs along the edges!

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Cut-grass: blades of steel

8. Devil’s Fingers

I’m sure that many people who are lucky to come across a Devil’s Fingers fungus by accident will not be certain that this intriguing organism is natural at all. It bears resemblance to an octopus that had been stuck into the ground upside down, with only its red tentacles emerging from the soil. Furthermore, the tentacles seem to have begun to decompose, with a foul-smelling covering of dark brown goo attracting flies that disperse the fungus’ spores.

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The Devil’s Fingers fungus that we came across on a Sussex Botanical Recording Society meeting at Chailey Common.

7. Green-winged Orchid

Orchids are surprisingly one of the groups that I haven’t seen many of. During the course of the year I added a few species, no rarities unless you count the Greater Tongue-orchids of dubious origin at Wakehurst Place. The Green-winged Orchid was my first orchid species of the year, at Danehill Churchyard. It was great to see the orchids with the nice church in the background, yet I think that the lawn where they were growing was scheduled for mowing. I didn’t have a chance to revisit to check if they were left alone or not, however hopefully they did have the opportunity to flower a little longer.

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A dark-purple Green-winged Orchid in front of Danehill Church. There were also light pink varieties present.

6. Beewolf

One of the highlights of my summer holiday was a two-day course led by Steven Falk on solitary bee identification at the fantastic Rye Harbour Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve. Of course, although we identified huge numbers of solitary bees, it wasn’t all about them on the weekend. We also came across a large wasp known as the Bee Wolf, which is the invertebrate equivalent of the wild canine. Females will catch adult Honey Bees and bring them back to their nest hole, where they will place the bees in a chamber. It’s within this chamber that the young Beewolf develops. At Rye Harbour, we were lucky to watch Beewolves excavating their nest holes and bringing Honey Bees into the chambers.

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5. Queen-of-Spain Fritillary

Birds are the group of organisms most likely to be associated with the word ‘vagrant’. However, during the summer a fortunate lepidopterist found no less than three Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries on his transect near Peacehaven, a species that is unable to breed in the UK as they can’t survive the cold winters. They are therefore very rare summer visitors at best. I am very grateful to the farmer Colin Appleton for allowing lots of keen naturalists onto his land to watch these three regal butterflies ‘lekking’ around a bonfire. Although they apparently travel in groups, explaining why three arrived at once, they are very territorial and the bonfire was the central spot for their territorial disputes, like a boxing ring.

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One of the Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries basking in the sun near the bonfire.

4. Moon Carrot

This wonderfully named plant is not very distinctive, looking very similar to more common umbelliferous plants such as hogweed, yet it’s rare nationally. To make up for its likeness to the other members of its family, it has chosen a spectacular site at which to grow. What seems to be the only modern site for this species in Sussex is the cliffs at Seaford, near the Cuckmere. Some individual plants grow right on the cliff-edge, and look marvellous with the Seven Sisters cliffs in the background. They’ve even made the cover of the new Flora of Sussex!

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The Moon Carrot is so-called as it apparently glows in the moonlight!

3. Wood Warbler

I loved listening to a male Wood Warbler sing its heart out at an undisclosed site in Sussex this year, although it was quite a sad experience. This was the first Wood Warbler on territory for 3 years in Sussex, a county where it once used to be a regular breeder. The energy the warbler put into its song was incredible, for weeks it would sing as loud as it could non-stop while hopping tirelessly from tree to tree. Yet due to the species’ rare status in Sussex these days, there was never a female to respond.

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A brief pause from what must be absolutely exhausting for the Wood Warbler

2. Lesser Glow-worm

Of all the species included in this top-15 blog post, this one is my most recent find. In fact it was just before Christmas that I found a beetle larva beneath a log at Hedgecourt NR. I sent it to Max Barclay, the beetle curator at NHM London asking what it could be as I was stuck. I had only managed to find one possibility, Phosphaenus hemipterus or the Lesser Glow-worm, however I doubted it was that as it is the rarest of all the glow-worms found in the UK. As far as I know there is only one known modern-day colony in the whole of the country, at a site in Hampshire. To my surprise Max kindly replied saying that he did think it was indeed a Lesser Glow-worm, and he had even received confirmation from another expert on glow-worms! Now we’re just waiting to hear back from some specialists in the Czech Republic before we can be 100% certain, yet it certainly seems highly likely I’ve found quite a rarity!

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Despite a thorough search of around 20 logs a few days later, I was unable to find another larva.

1. Wart-biter

At number one, the Wart-biter must be one of my favourite finds from this year. It’s a massive, elusive bush-cricket that’s hard to find at only 5 known modern-day sites in the UK. I visited one of those sites, Mount Caburn on the South Downs, with the Amateur Entomologists’ Society in August specifically to look for this species. The easiest way to find them is to listen for the stridulation (singing), however they only stridulate on warm, calm days and there was a heavy band of rain moving in. I decided to use the highly sophisticated technique of walking around and hoping to chance upon one and it worked! A female jumped from my feet as I was walking, to land in a perfect position for all of the attendees of the field meeting to get an excellent view.

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The Wart-biter gets its name from the old Swedish method of getting rid of warts: allowing this cricket to bite them off!

There concludes my top-15 pan-species listing additions of 2017. It was very hard to condense all the brilliant finds into just my 15 favourites, this blog post could easily be 10,000 words long.

 

 

Crosswise

This morning, for the second time this week, I was standing on a well-trodden track on the Surrey-Berkshire border looking up at a couple of pine trees. This track crossed a plain of moor-grass and heather interspersed with small clumps of pines, known as Wishmoor Bottom. Since late November a flock of Parrot Crossbills has resided here, part of a national influx of this rare species.

The influx started with a large flock found on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, at Santon Downham. The numbers there peaked at an incredible 42 on one day, which is possibly the highest number ever recorded in the UK. Wishmoor Bottom was then the second site to host the Parrots, with slightly lower numbers remaining around a constant maximum of 16. The Derbyshire-South Yorkshire border was the next county boundary to be treated to Parrot Crossbills, with the forest around Howden Reservoir holding about a dozen. Most recently, 3 turned up at Broxbourne Woods in Hertfordshire (just inside the London boundary!) a few days ago.

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The Parrot Crossbills’ favoured tree in the drizzle

Influxes such as this one we are currently experiencing – I wouldn’t be surprised if further flocks are found – are mainly caused by a dearth of food in the species’ usual ranges. The Hawfinch invasion that’s in the news at the moment is most likely caused by a lack of beechmast and other tree nuts in continental Europe, with the crossbill invasion probably due to a poor crop of pine cones in Scandinavia.

After a long drizzly walk from the car park to what appear to be the crossbills’ favoured trees, we waited patiently for about an hour to see if the crossbills would show up. In that time a few other birders joined us; then we received a message through Rare Bird Alert that there were 16 Parrot Crossbills present on-site, right where we were standing. There were no other birders in sight!

“Someone must be having a laugh,” one birder said; we probably would have found it more humorous if we had by then actually seen the birds.

We were just about to split up to search the other clumps of trees spread out across the Bottom when my mum and I spotted a small group of birds fly towards us and alight in the tree directly in front of us. Most dived right into the needles of the pine, although one remained perched in clear view for a few seconds, enough for us to identify it as a Common Crossbill. That was good news, at the other sites where Parrot Crossbills have been present, they sometimes form mixed flocks with Commons.

Once the crossbills within the tree had surveyed their surroundings to make sure there was no danger, they set to work extracting the seeds from inside the pine cones. This made them more visible, and we were able to see that there were indeed Parrot Crossbills within the flock! Over the next hour I was able to watch them incredibly well. Although crossbills have a habit of staying firmly out of site within the dense branches, during the time we watched them there was always at least one on show.

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The above photos show the red-colouration of male crossbills, the females being a paler green colour. They also show the fascinating bill, with the lower mandible curving upwards on one side of the bill and the upper mandible curving downwards on the other side. It is unclear what determines the side on which each mandible curves, although the numbers of birds with mandibles curving each way seems to be equal. A crossbill feeds on the seeds within the cones by inserting its crossed bill between the scales and opening them and extracting the seed inside with its tongue.

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A female tackling a cone

Crossbills are by no means showy birds, so it was a real Christmas treat to be able to see this flock so well. Fingers crossed the influx continues and more flocks are found, possibly even closer to home!

Lover of a lonely mountain (or London reservoir!)

When I awoke on the morning of the 25th November, I had no idea that American Horned Larks existed. So just before breakfast, when I checked the notifications on my phone and saw “Horned Lark still present 8am” I thought that the perilous auto-correct had struck once more. However, once I looked into it in more detail, I realised that this wasn’t just the product of a birder with cold and numb fingers.

I have to say that Staines Reservoirs is not the most inspiring birding location, which is probably why my parents have been unwilling to drive me there before. It is comprised of a North and a South basin, with a central kilometre-long monotonous causeway separating the two. Yet when I was dropped off at one end on the chilly November morning, I was quite eager to get to the other.

The news was negative when I first arrived at the far western end of the causeway, where most of the visiting birders seemed to be clustered. I began to scan the cold concrete apron on both sides of the causeway, to no avail after about 10 minutes. The resident Pied Wagtails were constantly distracting me with their calls.

It wasn’t long until negative turned to positive however. Alerted by a call that sounded almost fluty, I spotted a quite chunky small bird fly low over the causeway. The careful rush of the birders closest to where the bird had landed confirmed my suspicion that the bird had returned. For the next 30 minutes or so, the assembled birders had brilliant views of the the American Horned Lark on the northern side of the causeway, often venturing within 10 feet.

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The photos I was pleased  to have taken of quite a mobile bird show the features that separate this American Horned Lark from the more regular Shore Lark. Shore Larks are winter visitors to the UK, with usually around a hundred overwintering on the East coast. As their name suggests they are mainly restricted to the coast, so even a normal Shore Lark would have been a brilliant record for London/Surrey.

Eremophila alpestris is the species that Shore Larks and American Horned Larks belong to. Although some authorities split them into separate species, most recognise them as only subspecies. The species is actually split up into a massive forty-two subspecies by some authorities, which is what makes Horned Larks so confusing. The regular Horned Larks found in the UK (Shore Larks) belong to the subspecies flava. And although this particular Horned Lark is named as ‘American Horned Lark’, around twenty-one of these 42 subspecies are found in USA and Canada. This particular bird is considered to be either:

  • alpestris – the nominate subspecies, found along Eastern Canada and Eastern USA.
  • hoyti – found in Northern Canada, wintering in Northern USA.
  • praticola – sometimes lumped together with alpestris, found in South-eastern Canada, North-eastern and East-central USA.

Luckily, and unsurprisingly for a bird with so many subspecies, there are noticeable differences between the British flava and the American subspecies listed above. The main ones are:

  • The extent of the yellow on the face is much less than in flava (as the name suggests, flava translating as yellow, golden), with a completely white ‘eyebrow’.
  • The flanks and overall colouration are much more russet than the pale-brown colouration of flava.
  • More obvious breast streaking than flava.

So although at the moment there is little doubt that the Horned Lark at Staines during the last week of November was of an American origin, the challenge of identifying it to subspecies still remains. Luckily however, if the Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris is split into different species, it is likely that all the American subspecies will remain as E. alpestris and the British subspecies will become E. flava.

A nice article to sum up the proposed splits of Eremophila alpestris can be found here: http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/

Oh, and if you were wondering about the title of this blog post, Eremophila alpestris roughly translates from Latin to ‘lover of a lonely mountain’ – a reference to the breeding habitat of most of the subspecies!

References
https://www.hbw.com/species/horned-lark-eremophila-alpestris
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horned_lark#
http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/
http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Eremophila-alpestris