02/03/2012
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Underdogs

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Those of us lucky enough to be resident on Scilly will not forget in a hurry the extraordinary events of autumn 2011: from the Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-White Warbler and Solitary Sandpiper in the second week of September, right through to the Scarlet Tanager at the end of October (with plenty of marvellous moments in between). Remarkably, nearly all the best action — certainly all the exciting American landbirds — took place on St Mary's. My own island of St Agnes, despite its impressive past history with more Nearctic passerines per square kilometre, or per man hour, or whatever index we use to try to quantify these things, received nothing in that department whatsoever. I can tell you it was incredibly exciting to be rushing back and forth to St Mary's almost every other day to twitch each of the new arrivals; yet my attempts to discover an American songbird 'at home' ended in failure. I recommended to a friend on the subject of pishing that if you don't end up with a dry mouth and a headache by the end of the day you're probably not trying hard enough; halfway through this autumn, I realised I might have added: 'and if you're not sick of the sound of yourself then you're certainly not trying'.

Northern Waterthrush
Northern Waterthrush, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Dave Perrett)

When I look back on 2011, it will definitely be the events of September/October that will be uppermost in mind. But in this article I wanted to reflect on some of what I might call 'the underdog' birds of the year. Birds that I can understand some of you considering (to paraphrase Bill Oddie in Gripping Yarns): "birds not worth bothering about...". I've been birding now for over thirty years and I think it's fair to say that until quite recently, certainly as far as the identification of birds in the UK was concerned, I seemed to have reached a sort of plateau where I was either unwilling or unable to add to the body of knowledge I'd already accumulated when I left England for North America in the early 1990s. I was once an avid student of the latest bird ID articles, and a member of the local Records Committee at the age of 22. But subsequent trips to Central and South America meant that my head has been so full of tanagers and hummingbirds and antpittas that I've found it very difficult to embrace some of the 'new stuff' that has come out on, say, large white-headed gulls, in particular. My own end-of-year assessment for 2011, however, reveals a set of quite remarkable encounters on the one little island of St Agnes that have opened up, certainly in at least two cases, a whole hitherto unimagined world of wonder, mystery and new knowledge. Almost like gazing into a new dimension.

I'll start, though, with Siberian Chiffchaff: a taxon (to use the new, fancy word that my grumpy Old Self has slowly, reluctantly, now come to grips with), in which I've always had a strong interest. Indeed, I might just claim to be one of a handful of people whom the Godfather of Sibe Chiff ID, Alan Dean, can talk to on the subject for ten minutes without developing a glazed, far-off look in my eyes. Having followed Alan's cautious recommendations on the subject for many years, I'd begun to come to the conclusion that I hadn't seen anything in Britain that I could absolutely 100% ascribe to tristis. 'Eastern' Chiffchaffs had first come to my attention 25 years ago, when my premier patch had been in northeast England, at Whitburn (Tyne and Wear) — a place where one could expect to see 'pale' Chiffchaffs annually in late October/November. At the time I was inclined to believe that the paler the Chiffchaff, the further east its origins: a simplistic point of view that I am surprised to see is still upheld in some birding circles to this date. Dean's papers, and my own observations in India and Nepal, have pretty much made clear that the starting point for Siberian Chiffchaff ought to be a brown-grey tone to the upperparts and a buff (or even pinkish) wash to the cheeks; not grey and white respectively. And obviously the acclaimed single-note peep call is paramount. Of course, this is all very well in theory but, as Alan has been at great pains to point out, there is plenty of overlap; some unresolved issues (such as the exact origin of the 'grey-and-white types' that are sometimes prevalent in Britain in late autumn); and the usual caveats of correct lighting for assessing plumage tones, colour rendition on your camera's meter, and so on, and so on, etc., etc.

Siberian Chiffchaff
Siberian Chiffchaff, Helston, Cornwall (Photo: Sam Northwood)

It is against this backdrop of confusion that I can write and tell you that I had what seems (to me, at least) a unique opportunity to study Siberian Chiffchaff in my garden on St Agnes throughout the winter of 2010/11. One of my problems, I suppose, when I got back to England in 2006 (with a head full of tanagers and hummingbirds) was that I tended to spend very little time with Chiffchaffs in October, preferring to wait until mid-November when there were fewer rarities to look for. As I say, I am keen on Sibe Chiffchaffs; but not so keen that they would stand in the way of me trying to find, let's say, a Radde's Warbler. It was actually in December of 2010, therefore, that I came across what I have since referred to as my 'type-specimen' Siberian Chiffchaff on rocks at Periglis Beach. A truly wonderful bird, matching the above-mentioned plumage criteria, it cemented its place in my heart by responding instantly to a tape-recording of a 'tristis peep', having first rejected a 'collybita/abietinus hue-weet'. This same bird spent almost four months on St Agnes, mostly in and around my garden, or in trees between Porthkillier Bank and Porthcoose Ridge. Though I heard it calling very rarely during daylight hours — I'd occasionally stop work to decide whether a distant note was a Dunnock or the Sibe Chiff (they really are that similar) — in the evening, about twenty minutes before dark, it would begin calling in the trees around the holiday cottage next door to where I live. Then one evening, after a particularly persistent and plaintive burst of calling that almost brought tears to my eyes (triste being Latin for 'sad'), a second bird shot in to join it from across the garden. The two slipped quickly and quietly to roost in the dense trees directly above my bathroom window, a scenario that was repeated for the following two weeks. I only once saw the two together in the field during the day, on Christmas Day 2010; and after about the middle of January, I never saw more than one bird at the roost, so what happened to the other I do not know. Sightings became more sporadic for a while as my workload increased, but once every ten days or so, I would have a contact with the original bird that led me to hope it would stay into March and begin singing. Because one or two 'regular' Chiffchaffs were already practising their songs around the garden from as early as the first week of February, I assumed that my Sibe was probably a female and therefore unlikely to start singing; but a one-off sighting in the first week of March, after an absence of a fortnight this time, still left one lingering chance. By this time the bird was now in heavy body moult — its timing entirely consistent with well-established data for tristis, both collybita and abietinus having completed the spring moult by mid- to late February respectively (BWP). And then at last, one sunny mid-March morning, and for one morning only, came the weep-chap-weep-cheep-cheep-weep-chap part-Chiffchaff, part-Willow Warbler song that I'd come to anticipate from a Siberian Chiffchaff, beautifully delivered from the tall trees above the roof of my house. No parent hearing their child utter its first words could have felt more joy than I did in that moment. I never heard or saw the bird again after that afternoon.

While I've never lost my affection for Chiffchaffs, when it comes to the subject of big gulls.... Well, even now there's a part of me that is reluctant to type these next few paragraphs, and I hope one or two of my friends who are, always have been, and always will be Larus couldntgiveamonkeysus won't disown me after this. I guess we are largely products of our environment, and when I used to live right next to the River Tyne I was very interested in big gull identification. As Peter Grant observed at the time, the skills learnt in distinguishing one gull species from another can be put to use in identifying other difficult groups. How true. But what he and I might not have imagined at the time was that once I had developed my skills from studying those nasty, mis-shapen, lumpy, ugly brutes, I would go off and ditch them for something altogether much more attractive (the hummingbirds, the tanagers, the New World wood warblers, and so on...). When I left Britain in the early 90s, I could tentatively claim to recognise first-winter Scandinavian Herring Gulls, but the subtleties of juvenile and first-year Yellow-legged Gulls just seemed to be going a little too far. I guess I thought that the advances in bird identification of the 1980s — culminating in perhaps, for my generation, the greatest ID paper of them all: Jonsson and Grant's 1984 masterpiece The Identification of Stints and Peeps — meant that we birders had just about reached the limit of what could be identified. I can see now that, in fact, the evolution of bird identification was never static, and that younger birders might now consider Garner and Elliott's 1997 Identification of Caspian Gull paper as the apotheosis (apex) of all knowledge. [I sometimes think that some identification issues can go backwards as too much information comes into the public sphere; Siberian Chiffchaffs are arguably a good example.]

But anyhow, the places I chose to birdwatch from 1990 to 2010 meant I had little reason to learn about the new agenda in large gull identification. Even Cork City, where I lived from 2001 to 2006 — a place where I'd once travelled to see Europe's first Thayer's Gull and saw one of the very first Western Palearctic American Herring Gulls sitting right next to it — had closed down its rubbish dump and was now largely devoid of big, messy Larids. It was only on the insistence of a couple of friends with nothing better to do than sit and look at rubbish dumps in the winter that I was dragged, kicking and screaming, back into a world of 'notched tertials' and 'gonydeal angles'. And because, quite frankly, there's very little else to look at in the summer time on St Agnes. Given the choice between looking at two first-summer Yellow-legged Gulls or a party of displaying Ruff at Minsmere in May, obviously I chose the Ruff; but when it comes to choosing between a single pair of Coot and a couple of Mallard, or scanning a regular post-breeding flock of up to 200 big gulls...this time, the gulls just pipped it. I was back in. Regular reports of single juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls passing Porthgwarra, especially in the previous three summers, suggested that if I kept an eye on the local gulls, I would probably sometime soon see my first ever juvenile michahellis.


Thayer's Gull, Cork City Dump (Paul Archer).

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Actually it happened sooner than I thought. One thing passed on to me verbally on that afternoon at Minsmere — whatever the 90s generation might think of it, I just couldn't get my head around the enormous quantity of reading in that seminal BB paper! — was the tendency for young Yellow-legged Gulls (up to a year old) to have a much more solidly black tail band, contrasting with the white tail base. As early as the last week of July, I casually noted this striking feature on a juvenile gull dropping into the Big Pool on St Agnes. Immediately I checked the tertials through binoculars and found the requisite pattern, about halfway between young Herring and Lesser Black-backed. The white-headed look was a bit of a giveaway, too. As it happens, there were only a handful of recently fledged gulls from the local colony, each still heavily dependent upon its parents, bleating pathetically for food and flying weakly when provoked. One of the best clues to juvenile Yellow-legs at this time of year is that they are roughly six weeks older and much more independent than British-reared birds. It might not sound like a lot, but it makes a recognisable difference. The picture was complete when this putative juvenile Yellow-leg turned round and 'stuck the heid' on one of the adult Herring Gulls, like a Glasgow nightclub bouncer. I watched it for an hour or more, and I have to say: it really was mighty impressive! The template of this one individual stuck in my mind for the remainder of the 'early autumn' period, and I picked up another four or five individuals before small passerine migrants and shorebirds — groups I'm really dedicated to — began to turn up and I could give the gulls a rest. One of the birds gave me a scare as a potential Caspian, but it was distant, and I didn't feel confident of asserting it so early in the process of my renewed interest in the subject. What was certainly another Yellow-legged Gull appeared later in the day and I wrote it off as being the same bird I'd seen earlier. The movement and unpredictability of the large gulls around the island (apart from a tendency to gather at the Pool in mid-afternoon) kept me on my toes, and meant I could see from the top of the hill how a descent down the slippery road of obsession might well occur. It was interesting to note how one must forego a sense of certainty to appreciate the grey areas involved in large gull ID. The worst thing: you suspect you've got something interesting only for it to fly off, and if 'it' comes back several hours later in a different light either closer or further away, you're not even sure 'it' is the same bird. That happened to me a couple of times. But overall, as is the gist of this article, I encountered a surprisingly good time.

Even more of 'a surprisingly good time' came in early November, when I was able to text my friends: "I bet you never thought the day would come when I would tell you I'm watching a female Green-winged Teal? Well, that day has come..." The BirdGuides website referred to this as a 'brave call', but if one accepts the current thinking in the literature (I say 'current', but I am referring to an article by Richard Millington in Birding World from 1998 that I don't think has truly been tested), it was really quite a straightforward one...eventually. I'm frequently inclined to lump female Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Gadwall, and a few others as just 'Brown Duck sp.' and swiftly move on. In the last twenty years or so I've spent even less time looking at ducks (and geese) than I have gulls. For example, just a week before the events I am about to describe, having just found two Olive-backed Pipits and a Radde's Warbler in the previous ten days, I completely overlooked a female Scaup floating with a group of eight Mallards just a few yards in front of me at Porthkillier Beach. So the arrival of a female Teal on the St Agnes Big Pool in early November scarcely merited a glance. It had been there a few days when my mate John Higginson jokingly suggested we ought to check it for female Green-winged. Unfortunately, most of the houses on St Agnes don't get painted until the winter months, so there was none for me to go and watch dry. John told me of a feature mentioned in the new edition of the Collins Guide, a bright chestnut sash above the speculum on a female Green-winged, though even then I don't recall either of us picking up our binoculars to check for it. It was several hours later, while painstakingly scanning the edge of the Pool for Jack Snipe at dusk, that I noticed the Teal was crouching quietly just fifteen yards away from me. As I picked up my binoculars to check it out, it edged forwards ever so slightly and its wings opened just enough to see a gaping orange bar right where a Green-winged's should be. With darkness falling, and my interest now strongly piqued, I retired indoors for some research for the evening.


Female Green-winged Teal, St. Agnes Big Pool (Kris Webb).

The next morning was cold, clear and crisp, and it was about an hour into the day when I sent that text message above, including one to John and some of the others on St Mary's. They came across for a morning out that included the Asian Lesser Whitethroat and an unseasonable Little Ringed Plover, as well as the Teal. So what made me so confident about the identification of a bird I'd known absolutely nothing about until just twelve hours before? First, the bird seemed positively to want me to check out its speculum bar: instead of making me wait all morning, in the first ten minutes it stretched its wings three times for me to examine, which was nice. The deep chestnut bar at the base of the speculum has been found, I discovered the night before, to be 90% reliable in separating female Green-winged and Eurasian Teal. That was a good start. Furthermore there was a sharpness about the head pattern that was somewhat Garganey-like, particularly a dark bar on the lower cheek, very suggestive of female Green-winged according to Millington. Further (very) slight differences in the breast pattern also supported the identification, and taken together (perhaps including the location, on the very last puddle of freshwater in England where we see no more than 1–2 Eurasian Teal a year) I was ready to throw caution to the wind and make the call. After an hour watching the bird in perfect sunlight, I felt slightly ashamed of being so dismissive in the first place, and for being so dismissive of brown ducks in general. It was really rather lovely! With my eye now very much 'in', a return indoors for a revision of the video of Green-winged Teal on BWPi left me deeply satisfied that I had seen what I had thought I had seen.

Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat
Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat, St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: James Packer)

Quite serendipitously, the following morning a pair of Eurasian Teal arrived on the Pool next to the female Green-winged. As I say, we see very, very few Teal of any sort on the St Agnes Big Pool in the course of a year, so this was a lucky chance to test the previous morning's claim further. I was surprised to see the female Eurasian sporting a stronger head pattern than some of the photos I'd looked at in the past 24 hours but, again in good light, and again once I'd got my eye in, the subtle differences between the two became clearer. As the Green-winged had done for me on the first morning, the female Eurasian was positively enthusiastic about showing me her paler speculum bar right from the very start. Particularly head-on, the crown of the Green-winged was always darker than the Eurasian's, and the darker, more denser breast-spotting of the former, producing a sharper, almost Black Duck-like, 'cut-off' to the head and neck, was consistent with a note Martin Scott had sent to Birding World in February 1999 adding to Millington's observations.

There is more I could add about each of the three birds presented here, but this is not intended as an identification paper. I would like to add Asian Lesser Whitethroat to the group of interesting new 'taxa' I encountered this year, except I've run out of space, and I was very much at the back of the queue when it came to its discovery, so I cannot say anything authoritative about it. The point is it has been fascinating to step outside the world of the 'known' and to re-enter the fuzzy world on the frontiers of bird identification, and to have done it right outside my front door has been a remarkable testament to the island of St Agnes. The Black-and-White Warbler on St Mary's was still the best bird of the year, though!

Written by: Graham Gordon