Sunday 30 March 2014

The Taiga Bean Geese in Worcestershire

Taiga Bean Goose (adult) - Kemerton, Worcestershire
Photo by Dave Hutton

The Bean Goose is a very scarce winter visitor to the West Midland region (Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands). Almost all of our records which have been assigned to a specific race have been of the Tundra Bean Goose Anser fabalis rossicus that visits Britain in small numbers each winter and breeds on the Russian tundra east to the Taimyr Peninsula. 

There has only been one previous accepted sighting of Taiga Bean Goose Anser fabalis fabalis for the entire region. This occurred on the 8th January 2006 when one graced Defford Airport in Worcestershire for just one day. Unfortunately this was unavailable to the masses and only a few lucky Worcestershire birders got to see it.  To be honest I have always had doubts about this record ever since I spied a photo of it in the West Midland Bird Club Annual Report No. 73. The bird looks far too compact, thick-necked and round headed for a Taiga Bean Goose to me however I did not see it in the field.

Taiga Bean Goose (adult) - Kemerton, Worcestershire
Photo by Dave Hutton

Due to their rarity in the Midlands, Dave Hutton and I decided to pay them a visit late on Sunday afternoon. They were soon located in an adjacent winter wheat field close to the Kemerton Lakes Nature Reserve in the company of a mixed group of feral Greylag Geese and Canada Geese. As you can see from Dave's excellent photographs there is no disputing these as Taiga Bean Geese. Both birds were similar in stature to the accompanying Greylag Geese and are much heftier looking than any Pink-footed Goose shaped Tundra Bean Goose. Note the long, swan-like neck, the long, less triangular-shaped bill and the bulging breast.

Taiga Bean Goose (adult) - Kemerton, Worcestershire
Photo by Dave Hutton

The Taiga Bean Goose breeds in the Scandinavian taiga zone east to the Urals. In Britain there are two wintering flocks which have remained faithful to the same areas for a number of years. Around 70 to 120 individuals winter from November to February in the Yare Valley in Norfolk, England whilst a more substantial flock of around 180 to 270 birds can be found on the Slamannan Plateau in central Scotland from October to February. Worryingly numbers contained in both flocks seem to be dwindling as the years go by. Both Taiga Bean Geese and Tundra Bean Geese are classified as separate species by the American Ornithologist's Union however we are yet to adopt the same approach in Britain. It is certainly a good candidate for an 'armchair tick' in the future though.

TAIGA BEAN GOOSE in the West Midlands Region

2014 - Worcestershire - Kemerton (2 x adults) from 27th March to 31st March then relocated to Slimbridge WWT, Gloucestershire.
2006 - Worcestershire - Defford Airport (adult) on the 8th January only.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Archie's Birding Book Review: 'The Helm Guide To Bird Identification'

The latest edition (left) with a copy of the 1996 edition (right).

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. The year was 1990. As a skint eighteen year old I was strutting through Birmingham city centre listening to the critically acclaimed album 'Amerikkka's Most Wanted' by hip-hop artist Ice Cube on my Sony Walkman. A chance encounter with a lad I knew eventually resulted in an argument over an unpaid debt. Eventually I agreed to waive the arrears he owed me as long he 'sourced' a copy of 'The Macmillan Field Guide To Bird Identification' for me that very afternoon. I needed it as a birthday gift for my uncle you see (my credibility on the street would have been severely compromised if the real reason ever surfaced). Nearly 25 years on I work for a bank with default as my speciality. The last I heard, my acquaintance who robbed Waterstones in broad daylight all those years ago was serving a jail sentence for benefit fraud. Isn't it funny how life pans out?

Anyway, I absolutely adored that little book. At the time I considered it to be pure perfection. As a young, closet ornithologist with a grasp of the birding basics, it was everything I could wish for in an alternative field guide. It was just what was needed to take me to the next level of bird identification. Needless to say my fictional uncle never did receive his imaginary birthday gift and the book received more of a thumbing over the next few years than my bumper Christmas 1989 edition of Razzle. Coincidently, much like the aforementioned 'love pamphlet' my beloved Macmillan eventually came to a rather sticky end, quite literally in fact, one of my ex-girlfriends spilt a whole bottle of Hooch over it one Saturday night whilst we were watching Noel's House Party.

A few years later I treated myself to a replacement copy which I have to this very day (see photo above). As you could imagine I was pretty excited when I heard that a new improved, chunkier version would be published this year. It would be a mixture of pure nostalgia topped up with oodles of the latest identification tips. This morning I finally received my copy and I flicked immediately to the Laridae section, which is always a true test of any reputable field guide.   

Hot laridae action!

As you can see from a small sample of the artwork by Alan Harris above, it is pretty impressive stuff indeed. The treatment of the Yellow-legged Gull and Caspian Gull is quite simply the best around and on par with even that contained within the pages of 'Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America' by Olsen and Larsson. Eager for more, I then began to search for American Herring Gull but shockingly it was not there. I started to panic. If the old Smithsonian was missing then what other species would have been omitted too? Running through in taxonomic order there was no sign of Baikal Teal but weirdly Cinnamon Teal was dealt with. There were no illustrations of either Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter or even Pacific Diver. There was just a single paragraph describing Scopoli's Shearwater but Yelkouan Shearwater got practically no mention at all. There were also no illustrations with comparisons for Northern Harrier, Semipalmated Plover, Wilson's SnipeThayer's Gull or American Black Tern and the treatment of both the Stonechats and the Redpolls are disconcertingly vague.

In addition to the disappointments above I also thought it was quite lazy of the publishers to include the old original plates showing the differences between Common Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper as well as Sedge Warbler and Aquatic Warbler (see below). The colour reproduction also looks to be out slightly in some instances.

Go compare!
The Macmillan edition (left) and the new Bloomsbury edition (right)

On a more positive note the text by Keith Vinicombe is much more extensive, revised and superbly written in comparison to the original and some of the new wader plates are simply stunning. There are also a few extra treats like Cackling Goose, Grey-bellied Brent Goose, Sykes's Warbler and Eastern Bonelli's Warbler and the entire Shrike section receives a very impressive overhaul. There is no doubting that this is a quality publication and it is definitely worth investing in, if not for the wader and gull sections alone. Despite my gripes I would still recommend this book and would urge you all to order a copy now for you to reach your own conclusions.

I already look forward to the next edition where all my quibbles mentioned above are addressed, where there is a in-depth overview of those pesky Subalpine Warblers and a pull-out guide to the identification of escaped Ardeola Herons.  

Sunday 2 March 2014

An Interesting Chiffchaff in Staffordshire

Alrewas Pits, Staffordshire
Photo by Adam Archer

On the 25th January 2014 a Siberian Chiffchaff (of the race tristis) was reported from Alrewas Pits in Staffordshire. Last Saturday Dave Hutton and I visited the site in order to study the bird along with the accompanying Common Chiffchaffs (of the race collybita) of which there were at least six birds feeding around the perimeter of the sewage works. Almost immediately we located a frosty looking individual in the glorious late winter sunshine. We carefully tracked the highly mobile bird for a long while in hope that we would hear the typical mournful 'cheeet' call that would clinch it as a Siberian Chiffchaff. What we did witness however was something rather unexpected. The bird uttered a fairly typical 'hweeet' call of Common Chiffchaff. We left the site slightly confused in order to undertake more research into the intriguing and sometimes frustrating subject of chiffchaff identification. There were more straight forward birds to admire on site however with a distant female Long-tailed Duck and a female Smew along with a Little Egret and a single Oystercatcher.

Reported Siberian Chiffchaff - Alrewas Pits, Staffordshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

After spending hours studying the calls of various Siberian Chiffchaffs online and within the pages of my wonderful 'Sound Approach' books it was pretty obvious that the Alrewas bird was very unlikely to be a tristis. Dave then sent me through a series of excellent photos to look at and a quick glance at those shown here also made me think that the bird was not a Siberian Chiffchaff. In structure it did not appear to resemble the definite tristis birds that were present along the River Tame at Ladywalk Nature Reserve last year. The legs are nowhere near as dark in the Alrewas bird and the bill does not resemble the dark, slightly upturned looking spike of a typical tristis.  In an attempt to add to our knowledge Dave and I chased up another report of two Siberian Chiffchaffs at Hartshill Sewage Works last Sunday. Unfortunately all we found on site were several Collybita calling birds, including a slightly dull looking, brownish individual.

Hmmmm an interesting Chiffchaff - Alrewas Pits, Staffordshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

Yesterday (1st March) we headed back to Alrewas Pits for yet another look at the bird and hopefully this time we would secure a recording of the call. Unfortunately we left empty handed with the pale bird proving to be much more elusive and frustratingly quiet this time around. I did however manage to locate the female Scaup that I missed last week and the female Smew also showed quite well again so it was far from a wasted trip. With some mundane yet crucially important jobs to do around the house this morning it was left to the tenacious Mr Hutton to visit the site alone today. This time he managed to grab a few recordings of the bird, all of which sounded like the standard calls of collybita. Surely therefore this intriguing bird is much more likely to be of the subspecies abietinus or what is known in the trade as Scandinavian Chiffchaff

Probable Scandinavian Chiffchaff - Alrewas Pits, Staffordshire
Photo by Dave Hutton
Probable Scandinavian Chiffchaff - Alrewas Pits, Staffordshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

A sonogram of the Alrewas bird kindly provided by Alan Dean
This proves the bird to belong to the race collybita or abietinus... or hybrid?

Siberian Chiffchaff - Ladywalk Nature Reserve, Warwickshire
Photo by Dave Hutton (January 2013)
Siberian Chiffchaff - Ladywalk Nature Reserve, Warwickshire
Photo by Dave Hutton (January 2013)
An interesting Chiffchaff calling as tristis (possibly fulvescens?)
Photo by Dave Hutton (January 2013)

We have come a long way since the great British naturalist Gilbert White became one of the first to separate Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Wood Warbler by their songs in his classic 1789 book 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne' however we still have a lot to learn when it comes to breaking down the whole Chiffchaff complex even further. Here is a short overview of the various races of Chiffchaff courtesy of Birdipedia.

  • P. c. collybita
    This, the nominate form known as Common Chiffchaff breeds in Europe east to Poland and Bulgaria. It mainly winters in the south of its breeding range around the Mediterranean and in North Africa. It has apparently been expanding its range northwards into Scandinavia since 1970 and is now close to the southern edge of the range of P. c. abietinus.
  • P. c. abietinus
    This form known as Scandinavian Chiffchaff occurs in Scandinavia and northern Russia and winters from southeastern Europe and northeastern Africa east to Iraq and western Iran. It is intermediate in appearance between P. c. tristis and P. c. collybita, being grey-washed olive-green above with a pale yellow supercilium and underparts whiter than in P. c. collybita, but it has very similar vocalisations to the nominate subspecies. Due to individual variation it can be difficult to reliably separate P. c. abietinus and P. c. collybita outside their main breeding and wintering ranges. Some Common Chiffchaffs in the Middle East are browner and have a more disyllabic 'swee-hu' call than P. c. abietinus, and may belong to a poorly known taxon "brevirostris", further research is needed to clarify the affinities of this form.
  • P. c. tristis
    The Siberian Chiffchaff breeds in Siberia east of the Pechora River and winters in the lower Himalayas. It is also regularly recorded in western Europe in winter and it is likely that the numbers involved have been underestimated due to uncertainties over identification criteria, lack of good data and recording policies (Sweden and Finland only accept trapped birds). It is a dull subspecies, grey or brownish above and whitish below, with little yellow in the plumage, and the buff-white supercilium is often longer than in the western subspecies. It has a higher pitched 'suitsistsuisit' song and a short high-pitched 'cheeet' call. It is sometimes considered to be a full species due to its distinctive plumage and vocalisations. Nominate P. c. collybita and P. c. tristis apparently do not recognize each other's songs. Pending resolution of the status of P. (c.) fulvescens, which is found where the ranges of P. c. abietinus and P. c. tristis connect and may or may not be a hybrid between these, tristis is maintained in P. collybita.

Saturday 1 March 2014

A Long-tailed Duck in the West Midlands

The 'Battle of Oldsquaw'
The Maggot-Drowners vs The Twitcherazzi
Photo By Adam Archer

The Long-tailed Duck is a very scarce but regular visitor to the West Midland region during the winter period and it is always worth a quick visit if there is one nearby. The species breeding habitat is predominantly the tundra pools and marshes as well as the sea coasts and mountain lakes of the North Atlantic, northern Europe, Russia, northern Canada and Alaska. During the winter months the species migrates south throughout coastal northern Europe, Asia, along both the east and west coasts of North America and around the Great Lakes region. The most important wintering site however is the Baltic Sea where over four million birds congregate.

The setting of an urban park north of Birmingham seems a pretty unlikely setting for such a coastal specialist however they are not quite as fussy as you might think. It is a species that has even turned up on my local patch at Alvecote Pools on several occasions however I have yet to see one there. Amazingly an adult drake graced the patch with its presence during the summer of '69 (as Bryan Adams would say) from the 28th June to the 13th July and a group of four birds were present on the 13th November 1983, the joint maximum count for the region. 

Long-tailed Duck (first-winter male)
Powell's Pool, Sutton Park National Nature Reserve, West Midlands
Photo by Dave Hutton

I caught up with a female Long-tailed Duck last week, just up the road at Alrewas Pits in Staffordshire, however that particular individual was not quite as obliging as the Sutton Park bird. This first-winter male loafed around totally unconcerned just a few metres away despite the noisy, weed-smoking anglers, the barking bull terriers and the stone-throwing youngsters. Unfortunately standards seemed to have slipped around the park since the 1520's when the hunting rights for the area came into the possession of King Henry VIII. If only he was still around today to keep an eye on how the local townsfolk abused the National Nature Reserve and Scheduled Ancient Monument. I am sure heads would roll.  

Long-tailed Duck (first-winter male)
Powell's Pool, Sutton Park National Nature Reserve, West Midlands
Photo by Dave Hutton

Over the past decade there have been just three sightings of Long-tailed Duck in the West Midlands County, these are listed as follows:

2014 - Sutton Park National Nature Reserve - first-winter male - 23rd February to present
2005 - Marsh Lane Nature Reserve - immature female - 20th November 2004 to 5th January 2005
2004 - Bartley Reservoir - immature female - 31st October to 12th November