What the hell is going on?

27 05 2015

“I’m an agent of chaos.”

– The Joker

We all have played the game consisting in trying to guess what will be the next “first-for” species to be seen in our countries and, most of the times, we all have failed. You have to wait quite long to see a longly-awaited species and, in the meanwhile, some other unexpected rarities are added to the country list.

These crazy sightings, like the French Kurdish wheatear, can be attributed just to freaky birds, while some others, like spring Collared flycatchers or Pallid harriers in the Iberian Mediterranean coast, come with strong easterlies, especially when the low pressures are placed over the Messina Strait. However, some of the most stunning influxes are hard to explain and we should probably look for answers at a worldwide scale.

This spring, the business is in the big numbers of Red-footed falcons and Icterine warblers almost all over the Iberian Peninsula, even inland, where these species are usually extremely rare. There are hundreds of them currently in Catalonia, where they are not rare but scarce (some years really scarce). This time, however, they don’t seem to follow the typical occurrence patterns. Easterly winds have not been that strong and the same species have appeared almost at the same time in both the Canary Islands and the NE Iberian coast. It seems therefore that they’ve chosen a more westerly route, probably crossing the Sahara through Mauritania and Morocco instead of the Nile valley.

El Hierro 1487

I’m sure this phenomenon has fulfilled several birder’s bar conversations but, since I’m surveying beaked whales at El Hierro (Canary Islands), I had to discuss the event with my friends through WhatsApp. Not a bad thing, since I re-read the conversation a couple of times while trying to find out what the hell is going on. Martí cleverly pointed out that both Icterine warbler and Red-footed falcon winter south of Zambia and both migrate N almost at the same time. Is it anything going on down there? And, if so, what could it be? An extremely tentative theory is an eastern galore in this southern wintering range. Keeping in mind the triangular shape of Africa, it could perfectly be that a difference of 50 km in a W-E axis in South Africa makes the difference between choosing the west of the Sahara route instead of the east.

El Hierro 1359

El Hierro 1053

I had 5 Red-footed falcons at El Hierro, maybe one of the westernmost localities they’ve reached, in what represents the first record for the island. There are dozens in the Eastern islands, together with the firsts Icterine warblers and Collared flycatchers ever found in the Canaries. Obviously not an anecdotal phenomenon, but a huge event that means something big has happened somewhere. It feels like two different phenomenon are implicated: “something” in the south of Africa that pushed them to the west and a hot haze in the Sahara that pushed them into the Atlantic Ocean.

El Hierro 1635

El Hierro 1633

Some of these birds are doing well here in the Canaries. They are busy preying on the African locusts that also came with the African haze. The grassy meadows are full of them and the falcons seem to spend the whole day.

El Hierro 1020

However, some others died in Tenerife airport because they were hunting in the take-off lanes. Keeping in mind that probably several others just died in the middle of the ocean, the Red-footed falcon population could had suffer a strong decrease this spring. It would be interesting to research the causes of such a strange spring for this species and if it could be related to the western spread of some eastern species meant to be already happening.

Vocalisations vs. Appearence in a tricky Leaf warbler

29 04 2015

“If it has more than three chords, it’s Jazz”

– Lou Reed

It was a boring spring. Despite the good numbers of Pallid harrier and Great snipe registered mainly in the Northeastern Catalan coast, the best I had seen in Barcelona area was a “Mediterranean” spotted flycatcher Muscicapa s. balearica/tyrrhenica. Sadly, the bird went away without me being able to take a photo of the underwing.


Yesterday felt just like another random day: some Willow warblers, some Pied flycatchers, a sudden Redstart… nothing too exciting until I got a text from Manolo saying he had found a Yellow-browed warbler in Montjuïc mountain, right in the middle of Barcelona. The bird seemed to be ringed in one of the record shots Lucy managed to take, so we decided to come back late in the afternoon to try to take better photos. Things went actually interesting when Manolo pointed out that he had not heard it a single time giving the typical Yellow-browed call but some Hume’s-like sounds instead. The bird was not cooperative and they had only got poor views and breif vocalisations, but he already got the feeling of a grey bird.

After having seen some Yellow-broweds this spring in the Canary Islands (like the one below), I was aware of how grey they can get when worn, so we both knew we had to focus on sound recordings in order to clarify the identification of the bird.

yellow browed

There were quite a lot of birds in the area, including some nice migrants for  the patch, such as Turtle dove and Golden oriole, but after a couple of hours without relocating the bird, we were sitting in the grass, just chilling, waiting for the other to say we should leave. Suddenly, the bird called behind us, almost in the same tree Manolo had found it in the morning. This time, the call sounded just like a Hume’s leaf warbler! After some search that produced some new birds (at least 2 Western Bonelli’s warblers, either they were not there or it’s incredible how many birds do we miss despite intensive search), we located the bird and managed to take decent photos.



Apart from what looks like an extensively black bill, the rest of the bird looked like what I’d expect from a Yellow-browed by this time of the year: pure white wing bar in the GCs, green tones in scapulars and mantle, well-defined facial marks and a still visible 2nd wing bar in the MCs. However, we both agreed we had heard a Hume’s.

To get a sound recording suddenly turned out to be critical, so we just followed the bird with my cell phone pointing towards it, until it eventually happened. Again, as in the previous 3 times we had heard it, the call was not that of a Yellow-browed and reminded more of a Hume’s. This time, however, we had a recording for a later analyse.

sonogram inor_humei2

As can be seen in the comparison with Hume’s and Yellow-browed (taken from Xeno-canto), it definetely looks (sounds) like Hume’s. After having checked almost all the recordings in this website, I’ve not been able to find a single Yellow-browed with a decrecent end. In the other hand, and despite the high variability described for this species, all the Hume’s end with this downward inflection. To summarize the variation, the standard Yellow-browed call looks, in sonograms, like a V; the standard Hume’s looks like an upside-down W, with the angle of the first V more acute.

So, as Manolo said, “why it’s never easy?” It’s true, we never find a Pelican, we usually have to deal with shy uniform warblers and when they are a nice and barred species, there’s a conflict between call and appearence. Since our experience with Hume’s leaf warbler is low (none in my case!), comments on the bird are more than welcome. In the meanwhile, we’ll wait for the pelican.

PS: Many many thanks to Manolo for cheering up the spring :)

Some nice photos

12 03 2015

“This is how the entire course of a life can be changed: by doing nothing.”

Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

It’s been a busy winter. It’s not that I’ve not had the time to post something on the blog, the problem is that there has been so much stuff going on that I’ve not been able to sum it up. It’s quite easy actually: Borolo’s sheawater things in the Canary Islands and twitching in Catalonia.

The project with the shearwaters is going well and the first two birds have been successfully tagged, both reporting data about their unknown foraging range. Since all the information about this is already in the project’ blog post, I’ll focus on some other experiences. First of all, while trying to mistnet shearwaters, we caught several Grant’s storm-petrels. This species is not formally described yet and… oh wait, Stephen already spoke about that too!

Lanzarote 104

Canarias 360

Should I write about the twitching then? Much ink has been already spilled about the Brown shrike at Ebro Delta, the Isabelline shrike at Marjal d’Almenara, the Pygmy cormorant and the Ring-necked duck at exactly the same locality in Aiguamolls de l’Empordà and the local megas (almost first twitchable ever) Rock pipit and Purple sandpiper (both at Ebro Delta and surrounding areas).


Delta de l'Ebre 147

Catalunya gener 2015 382

So, what’s left? 3 months without posting and you end up showing some lichen photos to add some freshness. Here they go, Lepraria sp. and Xanthoria sp.:

Canarias 099

Canarias 109

Both photos were taken at Fuerteventura. The Eastern Islands are bright like I had never seen them before, both full of flowers that create a stunning carpet. Keeping in mind most of these plants are endemic, the ecological benefits of this year’s rain are invaluable. The photo shows the currently violet surroundings of El Golfo village, due to the flowered Echium lancerottense.

Echium lancerottense4

Echium lancerottense B

Echium lancerottense3

Fuerteventura shows a similar aspect, but what always impresses me the most are the sharp colors of the spurges Euphorbia canariensis. While Stephen was chasing some stonechats, I was taking photos of the scene.

Canarias 042

Canarias 138

So this has ended up being a crappy post with no information and just some nice photos. Trust me, it’s not been that bad…

Enjoying bird counts

4 11 2014

“I’m not counting any chickens.”

– Jeff Bridges

It’s not easy to enjoy birding when you have to count >4000 wigeons and >5000 barnacle geese under bad weather conditions, but when the weather is nice and the birds seem to cooperate, our weekly resting bird count becomes a very nice birding time around Knösen. After the whole season having seen almost nothing up there, the good vibrations started a couple of weeks ago, with a Gyr falcon flying over the meadows with a prey on its claws. Sadly, despite we saw the bird landing in the western meadows, it was impossible to relocate. However, notable numbers of White-fronted goose and Bewick’s swans were present, together with scattered Brent goose and Rough-legged buzzards.



The week after, when it was time to count again, our expectations were much higher than usual. Encouraged by the previous week birds and the good visible migration early in the morning, we departed ready to actually enjoy the birding. When I think about “the attraction law”, I remove the magic component some people keenly adds and turn it into something empirical: when you are in a good mood, you find more interesting birds. This was probably what happened that day  from the beginning. Probably due to this excitement, our first stop was to check a flock of Jackdaws (yes, Jackdaws). Instead of our desired Daurian, we saw an interesting bird with a strikingly white a broad white collar and a light grey nape.

russian jackdaw2


My only contact with soemmerringii was in Turkey, already some years ago, and, to be honest, I don’t remember how did the underparts look like. However, it’s quite easy to find photos of Russian (here) or Turkish (here) birds with such pale and mottled underparts and after a quick check of photos of birds breeding in the Iberian Peninsula showing pale and mottled underparts strongly contrasting with the black wings (here and here), I don’t think this feature (described, for instance, in Offerein’s Dutch Birding paper) is as useful as it seemed. The collar, in the other hand, strikes me as being missing in the spermologus I’m used to, but of course present to some extent in nominate monedula. If we, therefore, are left with collar size and shape to tell them apart, what’s the minimum size for a nominate to become spermologus? What’s the maximum size to become soemmerringii?

russian jackdaw

As usual in this kind of widespread taxa, while trying to dig into the subject, we end up hitting a wall in the shape of an east-west gradient and the conclusion usually is that only the extremes can be safely identified. However, when facing  a bird that is obviously not local, we can still try to guess the origine, looking for photos that allow us to draw the boundaries of the its kind’s range. After a [too] exhaustive search in the web, my conclusion is that this bird came from Western Russia, what Offerein calls “western soemmerringii“. Swedish breeding birds don’t show the broad white collar and Turkish soemmerringii seem to be darker in the underparts. I’ve not been able to find a photo of a Romanian bird (meant to be integrade) that striking, despite the variation covered in Chris Gibbins post. Interestingly, the bird was in a flock with two nominate monedula that are probably in the extreme of the species, not usual in Falsterbo breeding birds neither.


Since these taxa are meant to be migratory, what are the wintering grounds? According to Giroud, they are wintering in notable numbers in France and there are evidences of them wintering also in Italy, so they must be overlooked in the Iberian Peninsula. Definetely something to look at!

After an interesting bird (the kind of stuff that makes you read what’s been published as soon as you arrive home), it was nice to see something a bit more cracking. This was an adult Red-breasted goose among thousands of Barnacles. The bird was still present yesterday, when we managed to get even better views.


The species is surprisingly criptic among Barnacles, especially in dark ligth conditions, but still one of the most beautiful wildfowl of our region.



The icing on the cake was the counting from the tip of Knösen. A flock of 70 scaups, more than 100 goldeneyes and dozens of Bewick’s swans together with thousands of wigeons. The sound of the birds without any wind at all, rather than the picture, was unforgettable.


Goldcrest + Siberian bonanza

14 10 2014

“Even in Siberia there is happiness.”

– Anton Chekhov

Huge numbers of birds are right now migrating over Falsterbo, some of them landing in both our garden and the Lighthouse garden for the delight of the ringers and the impressive number of birders around. Despite the cloudy days, everytime we look up, there’s flocks of geese, cranes, wood pigeons or common buzzards facing south or going back north in case bad wheather conditions makes the Öresund strait look like an impassable barrier.



But not only the big birds are on the move. Passerine’ migration is also at its peak and so hundreds of thousands of finches, tits, larks and thrushes are filling the sky with an incessant flight call concert. Good training for our ears, since among the Common crossbills one can already spot some Parrot and among the Reed buntings, some Lapland buntings are also passing through. The ringing is being great, almost too much! Last saturday we ringed 2531 birds. Now that I’m writting it, it sounds just like a number, but all those birds went with a ring after having been aged and sexed. Most of them (1853) were goldcrests. We are having a very good goldcrest season, already the 6th best ever and there’s thousands everywhere in the Peninsula. These wickey beauties are foraging in trees, bushes and even on the ground. While ringing our goldcrest number 1100 (around) of the day, Kaj asked me “can you imagine how many spiders are eaten in these days in the Lighthouse garden?” I’m tempted to answer “all of them”.



But let’s start talking about the good stuff, but let’s leave the best for the end. The list of scarcities we’ve caught these days it’s quite nice. It was mainly the Swedish gang who got excited by the Firecrests, but it’s impossible not to be aware that they actually are nice birds. This adult male represented the record bird for an autumn season at the Lighthouse garden.


Both the Swedish and the foreigners enjoyed an adult male Ring ouzel, the first of the nominate race I handle and the second to be ringed this season (two busy with goldcrests to enjoy the first one on Saturday).



And it was mainly the SW ringers celebrating this kind of late adult female Red-breasted flycatcher, also a season record bird.


And coming from Siberia straight to Flommen reedbed, a couple of Yellow-browed warblers that cheered us up in the last days of another hard-work Flommen season. What looked promising in the beginning with plenty of both Marsh and Reed warblers, ended up being a season with more than one thousand birds below the average. We should be worried about the current status of Reed warbler…



Goldcrests are called kingbirds in several languages (for instance, Kungsfågel in Swedish, Reietó [little king] in Catalan) so with them it came the king of the kings: a 1stW Pallas’s Leaf warbler!


And last but not least, the actual crackerjack of the season (so far): this 1stW Radde’s warbler. It was the third to be caught in Falsterbo and a lifer for me. When Carro came into the ringing hut with a Phyllos on her hands and ask me to look at the bird I had expected just a chiffchaff (since she knows I like them…) but then I saw a bird with strikingly huge legs and head, apart from everything else. I should had checked first the smile on her face.



It’s only 14th of October… a lot more to come!

The Band-rumped puzzle

22 09 2014

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

 – Marcel Proust

The concept “cryptic species” is interesting and worrying at the same time. It’s quite scary to think we are overlooking some rare taxa among the common stuff. But… are all these cryptic species actually unidentifiable? Some papers have already dealt with the Band-rumped storm-petrel complex identification and there seems to be some features noticeable in the field, especially with good photos.

Since it’s one of the commonest species seen in all the Lanzarote Pelagics expeditions to La Concepción Bank and I’ve just led 3 of these expeditions together with Juan Sagardía, I took the chance to take a proper look at the subject and put some light on the contradictions existing between different authors, especially when it comes to distribution of winter and summer breeders and to both structural and coloration features. Of course there will be always some tricky birds, but I hope this post can be useful for people birding in the Macaronesia and for the brave ones joining us on next year’s expeditions.

bill shape grants

Grant’s storm-petrel (winter breeders) are just arriving to the Canary Islands after having spent the summer in the other side of the Atlantic. Both adult and 2cy birds might show fresh flight feathers since they’ve just moulted them during late spring, but, since 2cy are meant to moult earlier, their primaries should be worner than those of adults. Actually, we usually see two types of birds: some showing a higher level of contrast between primaries and secondaries and some others showing an evenly jet black flight feathers. Secondaries should be always somewhat newer than primaries since they are moulted later, but the difference in the wear between primaries and secondaries is sometimes too high to be explained by a natural moult timing. Moreover, we see some birds here in the Canaries that are actively moulting secondaries, what demonstrates they can suspend the moult after having moulted the primaries. The bird below is an example of a suspended moult, but surprisingly it’s between P5 and P6. If this bird is gonna finish the moult or not it’s still a mystery, but if it doesn’t, it could lead to a very strange looking bird on its next cycle. In conclusion, the contrast could be due to an earlier moult of primaries (that of a 2cy bird) or a suspension in the moult before pre-breeding migration. So, how can we age them? Worn primaries (never as worn as in a summer breeder by this time of the year) might be indicative of 2cy but a high contrast between secondaries and primaries might indicate just a suspension. A proper assessment of primary’ wear and shape is essential for an accurate aging.

suspension primaries

One of the still unanswered questions about Band-rumps is why we see that many worn birds (that should be summer breeders) in La Concepción Bank if they are meant to be much scarcer than the fresh winter breeders. I confess I was identifying all the worn birds as summer breeders, but nowadays I actually think some of the worn birds we see are just 2cy winter breeders with an earlier primary moult. However, when you think you’ve found the answer, some new questions do emerge: some of this “worn” winter breeders (like the bird below) do suspend the moult before starting with the secondaries, what makes no sense if primary moult takes place earlier. The primaries in the bird below are older than the secondaries, but they are still broad and black, definitely not as worn as they should be in a summer breeder. In my opinion, this individual could be an example of 2cy Grant’s, with a really thick bill and a plain upperwing impression supporting this id.

cf adult madeiran

More questions: Then, how does a summer breeder look like right now? Birds moulting primaries right now should be all summer-breeders and the age would depend on the number of the primaries moulted. As happens in Grant’s, 2cy birds moult earlier so they should be now really advanced in their moult, like the bird in the top below (only 3 old primaries, p7 growing). In the other hand, adults have just started or are about to with the primaries. The birds we’ve seen during this week in La Concepción Bank were moulting p1-p3 (bottom below). In addition, secondaries in these birds will be always newer than primaries (as happens also in Grant’s), but worner than in the winter breeders that have just moulted them. It’s worth to keep in mind that the secondaries in a summer breeder are right now several months old.

Lanzarote 2274

adult summerbreeder

Apart from moult timing, some authors describe a difference in the extension and coloration of the white rump band, being narrower and somewhat dirtier in summer breeders. The silvery band in the GCs is also meant to be less extensive and contrasted in Grant’s (winter breeder), not reaching neither the elbow nor inner secondaries. Structural differences include a thicker bill and an overall bigger size in Grant’s. The bird below shows a perfect combination of features for being safely identified as Grant’s: thick bill, broad clean white rump band, plainer impression of the upperwing, heavy structure and fresh flight feathers.

moult grants

This bird lacks the GCs that should be grown soon. The upperwing band looks therefore restricted to the inner secondaries. Note how bright and black flight feathers are, indicating a late bird in terms of moult.

growing GCs

Some birds show yet another contrast between body and head feathers. When this happens, the head is usually blacker than the belly. The reason could be either an earlier moult of belly feathers leading to a worner brown area or a late moult (not yet moulted) of belly feathers. What comes first? Head or body? Two facts make me think head is moulted earlier and hence birds showing a worn brown underparts still need to moult this area: some birds show a newer head than body and some birds are uniformly jet black, but I’ve never seen a bird in September with the head browner than the body. In my opinion, this means they moult the head first (if you see them by then the head is much blacker than the rest of the body) and then, not a lot of time later, the rest of the body (what gives them the jet black appearance). The bird below shows such a contrast. It would be interesting to catch it in order to check if it’s actively moulting body feathers or if it just suspended the moult after the head.

band rumped moulted head

Moreover, I have the feeling that birds with a contrasting blacker head are commoner in August, whereas wholly jet black birds are really abundant now in September. The bird below also shows a very nice combination of Grant’s features after a complete renewal of both body and flight feathers: note how nicely evenly black the whole plumage is. Thick bill and less-contrasted upperwing band also supports the identification of it as a winter breeder. However, note the mottled rump, in my opinion more usual in winter breeders than previously described.

jet black grants

jet black grants under


Yet another winter breeder bird showing even a more extensive dark marking in the rump, almost approaching Leach’s. This kind of rump it’s been reported also in Monteiro’s, as this bird in Richard Bonser’s blog.

stripe dividing rump


Another feature meant to be unusual in Grant’s and typical of summer breeders (especially Monteiro’s storm-petrel) is the forked tail. However, it seems to be quite common also among winter breeders. The bird below is a classic Grant’s in every respect but shows a surprisingly deep fork in the tail. This bird also shows a classic Grant’s plumage in terms of color and wear (note for instance the upperwing band not reaching the elbow) but a mottled rump and a forked tail.

frok tailed grants

And yet an even trickier bird: even deeper fork in the tail and much more extensive and contrasted upperwing bar. Although hard to judge because of the position, the bill also looks thinner… The whole plumage is completely new so the only option of it being a Monteiro’s would be a 1cy recently fledged. Sadly, chicks don’t fly until October and moreover, for such a young 1cy, I would expect the usual extremely new white tips in primaries and secondaries. Hence, I stand with a winter breeder showing Monteiro’s characters.

frok tailed grants2

Finally, [Caution: what follows it’s a complete mindtrapp!] this bird with a really deep fork in the tail, a thin bill and a worn plumage (just starting post-breeding moult by inner primaries). Everything fits with a Monteiro’s and I don’t think anybody can say it’s not for other reasons but the range and the abundance.

monteiros like

A deeper analyse of the subject would appear in the forthcoming Macaronesian Birds magazine. More news on that soon!

Lanzarote Pelagics ^3

18 09 2014

“- And what do you wish? +That what should be shall be”

– Frodo to Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

Just a quick review of what’s been an amazing week leading Lanzarote Pelagics trips to the Bank of la Concepción. First of all, many thanks to Dani L. Velasco and Juan Sagardía for giving me the chance to take part once again in these crazy but rewarding adventures.

This time, we’ve organized 3 2-day trips within 10 days. What we had expected to be exhausting, ended up being just encouraging. The prize came in the second trip in the shape of a ringed (??) Swinhoe’s storm-petrel.

monhoris castro2

monhoris ring


monhoris castro


The highlights in the first trip included an adult Sabine’s gull, 2 White-faced storm-petrels, quite a lot of Bulwer’s and the usual dozens of both Wilson’s and Band-rumped. Suprisingly high numbers of European storm-petrels as well, usually kind of scarce out there.



Everything in the second trip was obscured by the Swinhoe’s, but, actually, we saw some other nice stuff. An adult together with a juvenile Roseate terns were the best, keeping in mind it’s still a national rarity, but one of the most unexpected highlights were at least 2 Mackerel sharks that came to eat the whole block of chum. A couple of Scopoli’s and some Great shearwaters were also nice to see.

Isurus oxyrhinchus2

And it was not until the third trip when we actually managed to get some White-faced feeding on the chum. All the birds we’ve seen during these 10 days turned out to be juveniles. It feels like it’s been an early breeding season for them.





Here’s a tricky shearwater seen also in this third trip. It’s a Cory’s in my opinion, with a bluish-greyish tones in the head, deep bill and 2 spots in the 2 outermost underpimary coverts. However, it shows 2 tongues in P9 and P8 respectively. In P10 we trust!

calonectris borealis tongues

And what about cetaceans? I have to say I had never seen that many dolphins before. Adittedly they were all Atlantic spotted and Bottlenose, but still… Loads of them following the boat all day (and all night) long. Also some Bryde’s whale and a pot of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the north face of the Bank. Sadly, no Sperm whale this year… Let’s leave something for the future!

balaenoptera edeni




Finally, in our inland guidings, we had extremely good views of Houbara bustard, Lesser short-toed lark, Eleonora’s falcon, Barbary falcon, Trumpeter finch and the rest of Lanzarote specialties. A Pectoral sandpiper and a Glossy ibis were both Canary Island’s a tick for me. Here’s some photos of one of the Houbaras, a female Eleonora’s falcon and the Pectoral. Surprisingly streaked rear flanks and almost undertail coverts…




Lanzarote 163







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