Missing species

Many waterways, both natural and man made, traverse England. One of these, the shropshire union canal running from Chester to Ellesmere Port, was visited yesterday. In the built up areas this is the textbook ‘green corridor’. Mallard escort their ducklings between narrowboats whilst the males gather in groups to moult. Moorhens sit on their untidy mat of vegetation which serves as a nest.
In the rural areas, the banks are the haunt of warblers. Five species are breeding here, with both chiffchaff and whitethroat being well through the breeding cycle, many pairs feeding young. Despite the obvious vitality of the bird populations, some birds are missing. Warblers in general are abundant but no willlow warblers are present.The woodland are also devoid of spotted flycatcher. Water meadows and damp pasture are conspicuously missing yellow wagtail. Perhaps a little less obviously, an extensive area of marsh and mixed grazing is missing marsh harrier. It is too easy to think of this as a rare bird, as its British population was at one time reduced to four pairs, but it should be present in this habitat.
As our understanding of the habitat requirement of species grows, our assessment of unexpected absence becomes more robust. Perhaps as well as concentrating on what is present in a habitat, we should pay attention to what is not there. This is more difficult to ascertain, but if we ignore it we run the risk of watching whilst the diversity of our wildlife dwindles. I can only suggest that missing species such as these show that something, somewhere is wrong.

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A yellow wagtail that is not a yellow wagtail

With the dry weather the lagoon at RSPB Conwy is drying up. This has produced an area of shallow pools and mud which was being frequented by a wood sandpiper, a great bird to see on a day when I expected theWesterlywinds to have stopped new arrivals. Whilst watching the bird I had a conversation with a photographer, who was enjoying the bird with me, about the small number of people around and the relatively small number of birds turning up, speculating on a causal relationship! With that I looked left and scanned the islands and muddy patches. My eye was caught by a passerine flitting in front of Benarth hide (about the furthest bit of shore). This was clearly a wagtail and had an obvious yellow head and breast. I commented on this yellow wagtail, another fairly scarce migrant at this site, and started to describe where it was. As I was describing its position I was thinking that this was not quite right for a usual yellow wagtail and started to consider if it was one of the scarcer races. The bird then turned side on and I noted a black collar. I quickly scanned the bird and noted the head was a completely yellow golf ball, the black collar did not extend onto the face, the upperparts were grey with no green tones and the underparts were yellow. This promted me to swear! I was almost shaking as I shouted  ‘citrine wagtail’ and urged the photographer to get onto it. After a few seconds he succeeded, and managed to get a single shot off, at which point the bird flew and I lost it. I swore again!!

There was only one thing on my mind now; spread the word and get people looking. I still was not sure if I had seen it well enough to submit the record, but the best chance of rectifying that was to get everyone looking. I ran to the coffee shop and shouted the news, then shouted into the visitors centre with the same message. Back at the boardwalk I scanned the mud again. There it was!! Right where the wood sandpiper was feeding. At one point I had the wagtail and wood sandpiper in view at the same time. I followed the bird, putting two other people onto it, until it disappeared behind some reeds. It was moving in the direction of the coffee shop, so I once again headed back there to tell all that I had relocated it. As I walked in they said ‘we’ve got it’. My immediate response was relief. I was desperate for others to share this bird.

The bird was on the nearest mud, working its way along the water’s edge, again feeding. This allowed me to confirm the features I had already seen and see far more detail to cofirm the identification. Further photographs were also obtained to corroborate the sighting.

For the next hour I was jittery. I could hardly sit still and was jibbering like an impatient child. I now felt no apprehension about the identification being challenged, knowing there was sufficient evidence to prove the record. I was also genuinly pleased for others to be seeing ‘my’ bird.

The bird stayed for most of the afternoon, allowing a number of twitchers to see it. After walking around the reserve I again saw it later in the afternoon when it was again in front of Benarth hide, performing to a group of birders. Everyone I met, including the staff, had a smile on their face. This one bird, as a result of getting disorientated, had made numerous people’s day better. It was not only hardened twitchers who were pleased. Families, both parents and children, were all stunned both by the appearance of this adult male breeding plumage bird, as well as the understanding of its rarity and the journey it had made. There was frequently a look of disbelief when they were informed that this bird probably should have been inRussia. Children’s faces lit up as they spotted it. All that is left now is for me to submit the record to the British Birds Records Committee and complete my claim as the finder.

Believing my own eyes

When watching rare birds I often look at them in far more detail than common species. With the red-rumped swallow seen on 10th May I saw that the underwing was dark dusky black, noting that the underwing coverts did not contrast with the primaries and secondaries. This is not recorded in any of the identification guides, when the underwing coverts are described and illustrated as being pale buff, the same colour as the underparts. This was confusing me.

In order to look into this further, I have searched for photographs of the bird and found four taken by Steve Round. One, used on deeestuary, appears to show dark underwing coverts as I noted. Another, more distant view but from a lower viewpoint, shows pale underwing coverts as expected.

So what is the truth? The photographic evidence seems incontrovertible; the bird did have pale underwing coverts. I still cannot explain why I did not observe this, but take it as another example of the weakness of the statement ‘I saw it with my own eyes’.

Red-rumped swallow!

I don’t normally check the bird websites in the week as I don’t have the opportunity to go for anything that turns up, but yesterday evening was so pleasant that at 7.15pm I logged on to www.deeestuary.co.uk, the best site for notes on Wirral bird sightings. Highlighted in bold letters were the words ‘RED-RUMPED SWALLOW’. For a second I didn’t take in the rest of the sentence but scrolling down the entry ended ‘still present at6.40pm’. I then needed to know – where was it? Answer – Leasowe lighthouse, about a mile from my house.

I don’t reaally do twitching now but this was a chance I could not miss. I almost ran home, located the wife and told (not asked) her I was going out. Stopping only to pick up notebook, coat, binoculars and telescope, I left the driveway, reversing a bit quicker than usual. I cursed the traffic lights for changing to red and my foot shuddered on the accelerator. Within 10 minutes I was parking at the lighthouse.

Walking quickly down the main path towards the horse paddocks I expectantly looked at all the swallows – dark rumps and chin with white tail spots on all. As soon as I reached a viewpoint I climbed the embankment and looked for the birdwatchers. There were none! Walking along a few yards I looked again – still none. Drat!! Negative thoughts crept in, maybe the bird had gone. If I was going to see it I would have to find it myself.

Around the horse stables there were clouds of hirundines. 15 minutes spent searching through these revealed about equal numbers of barn swallow and house martin, but nothing else. I walked round to the end of the public footpath along the back of the paddocks. Here two birders were searching over tall grasses and buttercups but had not seen the bird. They did indicate that this was the area where it had been seen, which was progress of sorts.

Large numbers of swallows were still skimming the meadow and these were scrutinised repeatedly. After another 15 minutes there was still no sign, but by then some house martins had appeared. Just on the off chance I searched higher amongst these martins. After a couple more minutes another hirundine passed through the binoculars – dull plumage, pale rump and tail streamers!!! Almost before thinking I exclaimed ‘I’ve got it!!’, hurredly pointing to the bird and describing its position (it’s the closest bird!). My two companions got straight onto it.

The first impression was of a dull hirundine, in fact a dull house martin but with a swallow’s tail. The plumage was far less contrasting than that of either swallow or house martin. The underparts and rump were buff, I even quipped that it should be called ‘buff-rumped swallow’ rather than red-rumped. As it turned the pale buff chin was obvious and a thin, rusty collar was seen. The characteristic dark undertail coverts were also clear. The tail lacked white tail spots, in contrast to the barn swallows where these were obvious.

When the evening sun emerged from behind a cloud, the plumage came to life! The buff plumage changed to orange (never really red). Even the underwing coverts, which until then had appeared just a dull dusky colour, showed a hint of orange and the collar became deep amber.

After half an hour the bird flew behind a group of trees and was lost. It was now8.20pm. Walking back to the car I kept playing this bird over and over in my head. I was almost oblivious to the singing warblers and breeding lapwing I was passing. Now was not a time for considering the wider habitat issues here, it was time to savour a special moment: a bird I have never seen in Britain in over 30 years of observing. I am not going to think any deeper about this, just enjoy the experience.

How do swifts drink?

Walking home from work two swift flew over, dark arcs cutting through the air. This is the most aerial bird in the world. It can live in the air for months at a time, literally eating and sleeping in the air without landing. Whilst the Handbook of British Birds (Witherby et al) and the Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWP) go into considerable detail on the food of this bird, there is relatively little discussion of drinking habits. Both make reference to skimming the surface of sheets of water (so they don’t get all the fluid they need from their food), but is this the complete story? The skimming behaviour seems to me like a strategy which is only plausible in calm weather as the risk of ditching in choppy water seems too great. As an alternative consider this: can water be obtained from the air? An animal which is agile enough to live off flying insects caught on the wing and nothing else would seem to be capable of taking raindrops or water droplets from clouds. The challenge is now to go out and observe this.

Migrant bonanza

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I was wondering how many birds were not detected after a day spent trying, and largely failing,  to see singing birds in the trees. Now the birds are everywhere. Swallows, house martins and swifts are flying purposefully along the coast. At first it seems that they are flying low but looking through binoculars tiny specks in the distance reveal the untold numbers flying high.

 Hirundines aren’t the only birds moving, warblers fill the bushes. Whitethroat in particular is abundant, their short warble sounding from almost every bush in the dunes. Song-flighting birds frequently bounced in the sky over bramble scrub and rough grassland.

 As well as these local breeding summer visitors, songbirds are clearly passing through. Over the weekend tree pipit, whinchat and spotted flycatcher were all present and showing well at the Old Gunsite. This was particularly pleasing as I left the house expecting little. I could not get into the dunes until late afternoon and the extensive use of this dune system by families and dog walkers inevitably causes significant disturbance but this clearly has not frightened these migrants away. Who knows how many birds have been through today. This afternoon experience suggests flocks have been moving through all day and any counts are only a fraction of the true figure.

Healthy or ill?

Every day, traveling to work, I look at a corner of Leasowe playing field, an area which is almost permanently flooded. Now this is showing effects of the dry, hot April and has shrunk considerably, a wide margin of ruddy brown mud now surrounding a shallow puddle, barely deep enough for the mallard to swim in. Periods of warm weather such as this always seem to lead to speculation about ‘climate change’, just as the cold period in December/January resulted in scepticism. Conclusions about climate based on single events such as this are always flawed.

 Climate change is nothing new. What would be surprising would be an absence of climate change. History shows us that very dramatic climate change has been seen in the past. For instance, at the end of the last ice age average July temperatures rose by 9 degrees centigrade within 50 years. This is far greater than even the worst predictions for our current climate. Through this, nature has shown its resilience. What is not resilient is the modern human perspective. Animals and plants can move, even if only slowly. Our human perspective does not. Property does not move; homes do not move. In any significant climate change event the suffering of people will be severe, more severe than the suffering of nature. Along our east coast, when erosion causes the land to fall in the sea it is people who lose as their land disappears and the value of their properties plummet. In coastal areas as sea levels rise it is peoples homes which get flooded.

 The other major natural events in the news currently are forest and moorland fires. Again, it is important to remember that fires of this nature occur as natural events, although occurrence at this stage of the breeding season is particularly unfortunate. This is like the common cold in man, though – if the individual is healthy this is a mild illness from which full recovery occurs but if the individual is already ill, the common cold can be fatal. So the question to consider – is our environment healthy or ill?