Coot-like coot-foot

Scientific names, often consisting of a mix of Greek and Latin, can sometimes be a little peculiar. For example, Phalaropus translates to coot-foot, and fulicarius to coot-like, to produce the scientific name for the Grey Phalarope. It isn’t really coot-like on outward appearance at all, only the feet as suggested in the generic name Phalaropus.

Phalaropes are waders, but are unusual among the group as they have partially webbed feet (like coots). This allows them not only to feed along the muddy margins of wetlands but also to lead a pelagic lifestyle, often congregating in large numbers offshore on their way to spend the winter in tropical oceans. The nearest they breed to the UK is in Iceland and the east coast of Greenland. Phalaropes are also unusual in their breeding behaviour. Their breeding plumage is an attractive rusty-red although uncommonly among birds, the females have the more beautiful attire. This is because they perform the courtship displays as well as defend the territory. In this role-reversal, the males incubate the nest and look after the young as they are developing.

Grey Phalaropes pass through UK waters twice a year on their migration, although mostly keeping out of sight of dedicated sea-watchers on coastal headlands. This all changes, however, when events like those earlier this week occur.

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I was lucky to see this male Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage on the Svalbard Archipelago in Arctic Norway a few years ago.

On Wednesday, Storm Ali struck the UK, powering its way from the west with wind speeds in excess of 100mph. Less than two days later, Storm Bronagh also blew in from the Atlantic. The combination of these two systems had notable effects on sea-going birds, particularly Grey Phalaropes. Over the past few days they’ve been turning up all over the UK, including double-figure counts at locations in the South-West. Of this large number, around 60 were found at inland locations, one of which being Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent. This is only a half hour drive away from me, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see my first British phalarope.

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The Grey Phalarope at Bough Beech Reservoir. It has been aged as a first-winter, meaning that it hatched this year somewhere in the Arctic.

Sadly, as with any vagrant bird, it is likely that at least some of these displaced phalaropes will be unable to make it back to where they’re supposed to go. Storm-driven birds often use up a lot of energy on their wayward journeys and cannot find enough food where they end up. Furthermore, birds like these phalaropes have usually never seen humans before in their remote, high-latitude nesting grounds. Therefore, they are frequently confiding and approachable, putting themselves at huge risk. Fingers crossed that this one gets back on track!

 

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Skulker

As many of you will know, I am a trainee bird ringer and have been since 2014. Involved in the complicated process is putting a small, lightweight ring on the leg of a bird, on which is inscribed a unique number. This enables individual birds to be recognised if they are later recaught or found dead, allowing ornithologists to learn more about their migration and biology.

In my four years of being a ringer, I’ve had the chance to ring a wide variety of bird species, ranging from over 100 Blue Tits to some scarcities including Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Wheatear and Wood Warbler and larger birds such as Stock Dove and Woodpigeon. However, last Sunday’s ringing experience will probably go down as one of my favourites so far.

Fellow Sussex young birder Mya Bambrick and I arrived at Knepp Estate, south-west of Horsham, at 6am. There we met my trainer Tony Davis who had already set up four mist-nets around a field consisting of mainly bramble and willow scrub. This is a fantastic habitat for migrating birds as well as several scarce breeders due to the amount of cover the scrub produces and the blackberries which ripen at exactly the right time to fuel many migratory passerines on their southward journeys. The mist-nests are ideal for catching birds as they are fine enough to be invisible to birds flying between bushes, which fly into the net and fall into a pocket from which they are extracted by licensed ringers.

It was on the first net-round when I noticed that there was something slightly different in the bottom pocket of one of the mist-nets. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it was a Grasshopper Warbler. Grasshopper Warblers, so-called due to their bizarre song which resembles that of a stridulating grasshopper, is a localised breeding species found mainly in fens and coarse grassland and is not often found in high density. However, while researching for this blog post, it was good to learn that they are showing a positive population trend with the UK population experiencing a 23% increase in numbers in the 14 years between 1995 and 2009. This is thought to be as a result of improved survival rates in the wintering grounds of west Africa. Particular preference is shown by British Grasshopper Warblers towards Senegal and The Gambia, which we have learnt from recoveries of ringed birds in those countries. However despite this recent increase, this is in comparison to a proportionally larger decrease which took place in the years prior to that period. Only a few decades ago, this species used to be found in a greater range of habitats than to which it is currently restricted.

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The Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warblers (often shortened to just Gropper) are renowned for the difficulty involved to see them. They have skulking habits, only really coming out into the open when the males sing their distinctive song. Most of the time they remain hidden in thick vegetation. In fact I’ve only seen this species twice before, and both times the birds were located by the loud song. The first time was a bird claiming its territory in May 2014 in a sand dune in Budle Bay, Northumberland and the second had probably only just arrived in the UK in April last year, when I found one singing in a garden at Selsey Bill in West Sussex from a small clump of ornamental pampas grass. In fact in the past 20 years Tony had only caught two or three, highlighting how lucky we were to catch this reclusive skulker.

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This was my only photo of a Grasshopper Warbler before Sunday, from Northumberland. This photo illustrates how hard-to-see Grasshopper Warblers are usually. And this one was, in relation to most other sightings, ‘showing well’!

Donkey of the night

African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguins not too long ago, in fact the bird book that I use for southern Africa includes them under that latter name. I have to admit I’ve always found that name slightly amusing, although I didn’t know why it was applied to Africa’s only breeding penguin until last week at the Stony Point colony.

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The African Penguins have adapted to their higher latitude environment by possessing a pink gland above their eyes, where blood rushes to in hot weather to hasten heat loss.

There are six species of penguins which have been recorded in Africa, predominantly in South Africa. All except for the African Penguin are vagrants. Even the African Penguin is quite localised, restricted by its requirement for predator-free islands or occasionally mainland sites. These mainland sites are always situated between a major town and the sea, to provide a barrier which predators cannot cross. Examples of these mainland colonies include Boulders Beach and Stony Point, with their barriers from predators being Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay respectively. Therefore these colonies have only established recently as the towns have developed into a sufficient size, in fact both were founded in the 1980s and now contain between 2000 and 3000 penguins.

Stony Point was the colony we visited on our trip to South Africa. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the penguins in South Africa. It costs only 20 Rand (£1) to enter, and gives access to a long boardwalk which takes you directly through the colony. The penguins come so close that there are times when you are standing immediately above one which has chosen to shelter underneath the boardwalk! There are also a number of information boards along the boardwalk, one of which informed me of the etymology of the ‘Jackass’ Penguin: the species is known for its donkey-like braying sound which it often produces at night!

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Penguins, a section of the boardwalk and the outskirts of Betty’s Bay in the background

Humans have a long relationship with penguins, which has not always been good. This is particularly regarding guano collecting, which was a big business in the 19th century. Guano was very important during that era for farming as a manure to fertilise crops. It lead to the human colonisation of many offshore bird colonies as guano collecting became a full-time job. The problem with this in relation to African Penguins is that they nest naturally in burrows dug into guano, which therefore has to be very deep. If all the guano (often from other seabirds such as Cape Gannets or Cape Cormorants) has been removed by humans, then the penguins have nowhere to nest.

Fortunately, guano is no longer collected from areas where the penguins nest. Although, the guano layers are still not deep enough in many colonies for penguins to dig a nest. At Stony Point, we saw that artificial concrete nests had been installed. These nests are similar to a very large flowerpot lying on its side, half-buried. These have allowed the expansion of the colony where the quantity of guano available would have limited it.

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An example of one of the artificial nests.

There is another threat to African Penguins posed by humans. Sadly, this one is still an ongoing risk and very unpredictable: oil spills. Ships running aground can spill massive volumes of oil, which can severely harm seabird populations. Penguins are at a particular risk as they spend a lot of time near the surface of the ocean where the oil accumulates. The main problem the oil produces is that it impairs the waterproofing capabilities of the birds’ feathers. This exposes the birds to the full force of the water’s cold temperatures leading to hypothermia. Even the lucky ones who make it back to shore face consequences when they attempt to remove the oil from their feathers: it is often ingested and causes damage to the digestive system.

These threats among others have produced a catastrophic decline of 95% since the beginning of the 19th century, when 4 million penguins inhabited South Africa and Namibia. Now, there are only around 50,000 penguins left. At this rate of decline, we could see the extinction of the African Penguin in the wild by the year 2026 – just 8 years away.

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If the trend continues, this chick could be part of the eighth-to-last generation of African Penguins.

Fortunately there are a number of organisations working towards a happy ending for the African Penguin. Among these, SANCCOB is the predominant group performing rescue operations on penguins, particularly those affected by oil spills, while the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai which will act as a centre for research and education. I am hopeful that iconic African Penguin’s downward trend can be reversed.

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Not grousing about grouse

grouse
verb: to complain; to grumble

Yesterday I returned from a 17-day trip to Namibia and South Africa and after a string of special sightings, grousing is exactly what I wasn’t doing. One particular highlight was sightings of an order of birds I have never been lucky enough to encounter before.

Sandgrouse belong to the bird order Pterocliformes. This came about after they had previously been placed in two other orders. Firstly, they were included in the Galliformes, where the true grouse reside. They were placed here due to their anatomical similarities to the true grouse, although later on there was the realisation that this was not a result of genetic similarity but of convergent evolution (where two or more unrelated taxa evolve similar features, for example echolocation in the case of dolphins and bats). The next order they were included in was the Columbiformes which also contains pigeons and doves. This was because it was thought that they employed peristalsis in the oesophagus to suck up water – a pumping action which can draw liquid into the gullet – which is unusual in birds. Although now it is thought that this is incorrect, which stimulated the choice to place them in their own order.

There are sixteen species of sandgrouse species, found mostly in Asia and Africa. There are also some species in Europe such as Pin-tailed and Black-bellied which are found around the western Mediterranean. One has even made it to the UK: while most sandgrouse species are sedentary or make seasonal altitudinal movements at most, the Pallas’s Sandgrouse, which is usually found in central Asia, can be irruptive. Large irruptions have not been experienced in Europe for decades although they did occur regularly in the late 19th century. One irruption lead to thousands flooding into the UK and even breeding in a few locations.

As an order, they are well known for their drinking habits. Many species travel for miles to visit waterholes daily, where they can drink enough water in just few seconds to last them the 24 hours until the next visit. They are also famous for how they supply water to their young before they are able to fly to waterholes. The adult’s downy breast feathers are able to soak up lots of water, from which the chicks drink.

To avoid competition, different species visit waterholes at different times. This regularity makes waterholes ideal places to see many sandgrouse species with ease. During our stay at the Okaukuejo Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia, we noticed that there was a poster by the reception which mentioned that Double-banded Sandgrouse visit the waterhole 40 minutes before sunrise and Namaqua Sandgrouse visit between 9am and 10am. We were lucky enough to have a chalet right next to the floodlit waterhole which is the main attraction at the camp. I was not going to refuse an opportunity to see my first sandgrouse species, so the next morning at 6.10 am I sat on a bench overlooking the waterhole. It wasn’t long before the first Double-banded arrived on the edge of the waterhole; at first it was only one or two at any time but before long there were at least thirty at once. Considering it was pitch-black everywhere around the floodlit waterhole, I was impressed.

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Due to the light my camera was set to a shutterspeed of 1/4, fortunately when they first landed the sandgrouse had a habit of staying stock still for a few seconds to check for danger before proceeding to drink.

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A female Double-banded Sandgrouse.

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Some sandgrouse smudges and a couple of less-blurry males.

After breakfast we headed out on a game drive on the semi-arid plains of the park. It was the dry season so waterholes were in low supply, so much so that individual ones are marked out on the map. At 9.45 am we arrived at the first waterhole of the day, on the edge of the Etosha Pan. This pan, when it wasn’t a pan, would have been the third largest lake in the world after the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior. It is not entirely known how the lake dried up however tectonic movements changing the course of the river that fed it seems to be the most plausible explanation. Nowadays, its dry, salt-encrusted state causes a few small water-bodies to draw in animals from a very wide radius.

Among the springbok, gemsbok and other mammals that this particular waterhole had attracted, I noticed a good number of what I originally thought were Cape Turtle Doves. Although after a closer inspection I realised that they definitely were not these but Namaqua Sandgrouse, at exactly the right time in the morning!

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The light was better for our sighting of the Namaqua Sandgrouse than for the Double-banded Sandgrouse, however the distance was compromised. This image shows a male on the left and a female on the right.

After having never previously laid eyes on these fascinating birds, seeing two species in just one day was certainly more than I expected. Although a few days later, it became evident that the trip was about to become even better for sandgrouse. We were at our final destination of the Namibia leg of our travels, a lodge named Ondekaremba near to the Windhoek Airport. We had dropped our bags off at the lodge before then returning the rental car at the airport (then subsequently hailing a taxi for our return to the lodge and a hotel transfer to the airport the following morning). We were beginning to think this was not a good idea as the access road to the lodge was a four-mile dirt track weaving through the bushveld and a dry riverbed which was unforeseen. However, it certainly became worthwhile when my mum spotted some movement on the side of the road. My dad, seated on the nearest side of the car to the birds, proclaimed that they were sandgrouse which lead to my panicked scramble across the backseats. By the time the car had come to a stop they were so close that I had to lean right out of the window to get a view of them below us. There were two, presumably a male and a female. The female was hard to see in the roadside grass although the male was walking slowly unobscured along the road itself. Compared to the poor light for the Double-bandeds and the distance involved with the Namaquas, I had no excuses with these birds. Luckily, in my opinion I don’t need any! What made this encounter even more memorable was the fact that they were a third species: Burchell’s! I couldn’t help feeling that my luck was well and truly in. Three out of the four species inhabiting Southern Africa in less than a week is not bad going.

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The male Burchell’s Sandgrouse.

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This species is known for travelling around 100 miles each day to its favourite waterhole.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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!