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!

Let’s talk about Godwits

19 08 2014

 “In practical life we are compelled to follow what is most probable ; in speculative thought we are compelled to follow truth.”

– Baruch Spinoza

WARNING! The following post is highly speculative. If you consider yourself a pure scientist, do not read it.

After several days with constant showers and strong westerlies (= no ringing), I’ve got plenty of time to read random papers. It’s actually a completely different activity than reading papers “at work”; if you are not interested in what you are reading, you just leave it and go for another one. What usually happens is that you start reading about migration and end up with evolutionary ecology. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

This week, however, it was the oposite for me. I came across a couple of papers about niche filling, diversification and stability (Stigall 2014 and Price et al 2014) and they were the starting signal of what led me to read about Bar-tailed godwit migration. Since the same weather that forces me to read also forces the godwits to stop in the Peninsula, when the rain gave a break I went to Nabben to enjoy big numbers of them in beautiful summer plumage. Sometimes theory plus field observations equals conclusions and, since here in my blog I’m allowed to be especulative, let’s theorize about Nabben’s Bar-tailed godwits.


The first flock I saw was peacefully feeding in the [for once in a lifetime] quiet golf course and what stroke me in the beginning was the overall size difference between the brighter summer-plumaged and the grey winter-plumaged individuals, the latter being bigger. Differences were especially noticeable in bill lenght and depth. As usual in waders, females have a longer and deeper bill and are duller in plumage, so in the photo below there is 1 female and 4 males.  The whole flock was made out of 12 males and 2 females. What’s the reason for such a biased sex-ratio? According to BWP (Cramp et al. 1983), there is not a big difference in parental care in Bar-tailed godwit, so both male and female stay with the youngsters until they fledge. Hence, there shouldn’t be a sex-related difference in departure dates. The reason might have something to do with their feeding ecology and subsequent sexual segregation. Several studies (e.g. Both et al. 2003, Catry et al. 2012) have pointed out a difference in foraging habitat due to larger food requirements in females (because of their bigger size) and they are the ones choosing the place. Seemingly, females usually forage along the rich waterline, whereas males have to get along with exposed mudflats and grassy meadows. A golf course is probably not the best place to find food so it’s not that surprising that that flock was mainly made out of males.

female plus for males

Let’s focus on males for a while. Their bill is more curved than that on females, and impression accentuated by its shorter lenght. Ferns & Siman 1994 studied feeding techniques and resources and related them to bill shape and found that curved bills were useful to get food from cavities and confined spaces. Makes sense! Males are feeding in poorer habitats and have a stronger need to actually look for food instead of just find it as females do in richer areas with their straighter bill. Moreover, there was a difference in bill shape even within males. I’ve tried to sort the different kinds of bill I saw in males in the crappily made collage below. In the top, bills that looked almost straight; in the middle, bills that looked straight but curved in the end; in the bottom, bills that looked wholly curved. I know, differences are subtle, but, quoting whatever famous documentarist “in nature, a milimiter makes the difference between life and death”. Don’t google it, I just made it up, but it sounds likely, doesn’t it?


Anyway, guess what, I don’t know about the bird in the top left, but the bird in the top right showed the wornest primaries among the flock, especially the outer ones in what gave the impression of a moult limit. Moreover, and always among the males, it was the one with a duller plumage despite it didn’t show any winter body feather. So it’s my strong opinion that this bird is a 1st summmer: worner primaries (maybe fresh inner due to an earlier, before migration, moult) and duller plumage than adults. Check the difference in wear level in outer primaries in the photo below, also head and body plumage. The conclusion I temptatively get from this is that the bill gets more curved with age. It also makes sort of sense: females will be always dominant, pushing males towards a place where they need a curved bill. Lammarck would say young birds change the shape of the bill to make it fit with the habitat they are foraging in. Maybe… but a modern approach would probably say that only juveniles with curved bills reach the adult age. Good luck to our misfit friend!


Let’s now focused on putative adult males and their shinny bellies. Piersma & Jukema 1993 suggested that the brightness of the orange in summer-plumaged  Bar-tailed godwit was an honest signal in relation to migratory skills. Birds start with their pre-breeding (pre-alternate for the yanks) moult in winter quarters, they suspend it before departing and then congregate in places such as the Wadden Sea (north central Europe) to finish it. Despite moult only takes an extra 7% of energy, only the individuals in good physical condition (this is, more skillful in terms of feeding or flying performances) can afford it. The bird in the right of the photo below is obviously brighter than the other two, despite all three of them presumably belong to the same age and sex classes. I wonder if it has something to do with the mentioned study…

breast color

And now we are talking about migration, it’s worth saying that Bar-tailed godwit still holds the longest non-stop flight record: 11.500 km. from Alaska to New Zealand! Hedenström 2010 tries to answer at least some of the thousands of questions that emerge from this record, but ends up saying that not even the extremely especialized physiology of Bar-tailed godwits can explain such a success. Maybe some help from the weather? Let’s leave this questions for the next wave of rain…

Gull-watching in Sweden

12 08 2014

“They all should be called Larus larus – Guillermo Rodríguez Lázaro

Looking for gulls doesn’t sound like a good way to spend a day off after several days of hard ringing in Flommen reedbed but, since it had been a long time since my last serious gull-watching session, I really enjoyed yesterday’s trip to Shimrishamn and the east coast of Skåne. First of all, I should say thank you very much to Walter Wehtje for such a nice day off the peninsula.

We arrived to Simrishamn harbor quite late in the morning, but there were still some gulls to look at. There we found our first 2 juveniles Caspian gull, but one of them quickly hid away behind the breakwater and the other was boringly sitting among Great black-backeds and Herrings. Nice re-encountering with this fresh juvenile plumage, one of the rarest in Spain, where it seems restricted to early arrivals to the NW coast. Despite the black mask lacking in most of 1stW, it keeps its depressive appearence that makes me like them and feel sorry for them at the same time.

cachinnans juvenile1

After half an hour uselessly waiting for the bird to stand up and do something, we head south following Ulrik‘s suggestion, stopping to check each flock of gulls sitting on the shore. The next time we had success was around Brantevik harbor, where we found another juvenile Caspian plus a 1st summer bird. I didn’t know in which stage of moult would I find these 2cy now, but I had expected them to be done with their complete. However, this 1stS was still growing p9 and the number of unmoulted secondaries was surprisingly (or maybe not that much…) high. The tail was also being renewed.

cachinnans 1stS

While waiting for this bird to fly, I took a look at the Canada geese that were peacefully swimming around the rocks. Walter had already seen one putativa hybrid Greylag x Canada, but there was actually a whole clutch of them. The freaky family was made out of a presumed male Canada, a really confused presumed female Greylag and 5 odd-looking fledglings. Dear geese: please, stop doing that.

hybrid geese

Our next stop was at Skillinge. There was nothing in the harbor, but lots of gulls south of it and it turnt out to be the best place among the ones we checked. We spotted a couple more juvenile Caspian, one of them giving close views of its whiter head and genuine bill profile.

cachinnans juvenile2

It was then when Oscar Danielson suddenly appeared with a bag of trashy food, ready to re-join Ulrik after a brief but profitable incursion into civilization. They had been birding even further south and seen almost the same number if Caspian gulls we had seen. We saw together the stincky Ruddy shelduck that Emil and Erik had found something like a week ago and we came back to gull-watching since the most interesting stuff (this is, the less identifiable stuff) was still to come. After a couple more juvenile Caspian (between Oscar and Ulrik and us, we might ended up seing like 20 of them), I spotted an adult bright ‘yellow-legged’ gull sitting on a rock. It went for a short flight and landed nearby. Here in an out-of-focus photo just to compare leg colour.


And here chasing an adult Herring showing its wing tip pattern. As can be seen, the mirror in p9 is quite big and it lacks the subterminal black band in p10. This pattern has been described for eastern Yellow-legged gulls (by Chris Gibbins, for instance: here).


However, in this last record shot, it’s posible to see the recently grown p5 with just an unsolid black subterminal band. This, together with the same mantle coloration as the Herrings around, makes me sceptic of it being a Yellow-legged gull, or at least a pure one. All in all, keeping in mind we are in Sweden and it was indeed in the Baltic were we saw this bird, I’d call it omissus or yellow-legged type Herring.


When we thought this was gonna be the most interesting bird of the day, Ulrik spotted a 2cy whatever that looked tricky. The overall dark coloration and the Caspish jizz made me think about Heuglin’s, but the bird was too advanced in primary moult and too delayed in body moult. Ulrik managed to take some flight photos where you can see a really dark underwing and completely dark new primaries. p9 and p10 are still juvenile, all GCs seem to be moulted and the white bar in MCs might be a whole line of feathers missing, so moult pattern fits with both Herring and intermedius Lesser black-backed. The coloration of the new feathers points to LBB but structure and especially bill shape (with such a pronounced gonys) points to nominate Herring. My conclusion: I don’t know.



So we left having seen plenty of interesting stuff, including these 2 youngsters. Don’t ask me what the hell are they doing in the photo. Don’t ask me about Oscar’s t-shirt or Ulrik’s cap neither. Those are even bigger misteries than some of the trickiest gull’s identity…

ulrik and oscar

Just before winter

4 11 2013

“I read, much of the night, and go south in winter.”

– T. S. Eliot

Nobody knows what’s going on with the weather this year. After an extremely dry October, the Skanian winter finally started with the wind storm that hit the peninsula last week with winds up to 50 m/s. The conditions looked promising for seawatching, but the highlights from Båstad only included a Great northern diver and 2 Sooty shearwaters. These, together with a Pallid swift twitched late in the afternoon, made the Swedes happy, but I couldn’t avoid a bit of disappointment due to the lack of Little auks or Yellow-billed divers, my 2 target species for the day.

After this, we’ve not got a single day without wind and/or rain, what means almost no ringing. The long-term forecast for the next weeks looks awful, so who knows if the ringing this season is already over. However, there are still a lot of birds around, and some of them particularly interesting: the trumpeter call of Northern bullfinch is everywhere, as well as some intriguing Redpolls. We only need a calm day to find something good!

Just before this sudden change, we managed to see some good birds. The resting bird counts at Knösen produced some nice species such as Lappland bunting, 21 Bewick’s swans and some Taiga bean goose Anser fabalis fabalis.

Anser fabalis fabalis

Cygnus bewickii

The ringing was also very good, with hundreds of birds everyday and some interesting species suck as Twite and Great grey shrike. Just enough to realize how subtle is the moult limit in Twite and how a homeyeri should not look like.


This Twite had moulted only GC9. The difference can be noticed mainly in the tip of the feather: more buffish in the moulted feather and whiter in the retained juvenile. The centre of the feather is also blacker in GC9.

twite wing

The Great grey shrike we caught was just an excubitor, but, keeping in mind I had only handled meridionalis before, this bird was the closest I had ever been to one of these exciting eastern taxa. Enough for coming back home ready to read some literature and realize our bird got too much black in the secondaries and in the 2 outernmost (R5 and R6) tail feathers. Nice bird nonetheless!


excubitor tail

That’s it… We can only wait for the sun to bring us some nice birds and landscapes again:


Iberian-like chiffchaffs in Sweden

29 10 2013

“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

Everybody knows the chiffchaff world is a complete mess. Among all the fucked up chiffchaffs we’ve caught this autumn (including tristis, tristis-like, abietinus, abietinus-like, collybita and collybita-like), my favorites are still a couple of “green chiffchaff” we caught two weeks ago. Both of them showed what in my opinion are Iberian chiffchaff characters, although the only call I heard from one of them was perfectly normal for a Common. Of course I am not that mad to claim 2 Iberian chiffchaffs ringed the same day in autumn in southern Sweden, but, from an Iberian point of view, it’s interesting to know that these birds do exist and therefore we should be cautious when it comes to identify an Iberian chiffchaff in the field without vocalizations.

2 chiffchaffs

The birds showed pale upperparts, very clean, without any hint of grey nor brown and with some lemon-green tinges instead. The underparts were also very clean, with blurred yellow in the undertail coverts and yellow stripes in the breast. There was not a frontier between the cheeks and the throat, giving an open-face impression, what is meant to be a reliable key feature for Iberian. Furthermore, the eyebrow was greener above and in front of the eye, what creates a patchy impression, just as in an Iberian.

Structurally, they looked long, I wouldn’t say abietinus-shaped, but there was something on them that reminded me as such. However, the wing-lengths were 58 and 59 respectively, within collybita range and far from the >61 usual in the abietinus we are catching. Moreover, P2 equalled P7 in on of them, whereas the other showed the usual P2=7/8 for Common Chiffchaff. In the photo below it’s possible to compare the structure and coloration of a typical abietinus (left), a typical collybita (centre) and one of the two tricky birds caught (right).

3 chiffchaffs

Since a picture paints a thousand words, the photo below was taken in Spain in April 2009. It shows an Iberian chiffchaff (in the left) together with a collybita Common chiffchaff. If you compare this photo with the one taken in Sweden, you’d probably find some similarities.


However, there are some differences. The Iberian is brighter and more saturated green-yellow, especially in the scapulars and flight and tail feather edges. Also, the bill is longer and thinner, with a characteristic shape ended in a subtle hook, whereas the Swedish bird’s got a bolder bill that gives a more powerful impression. It’s worth to keep in mind that the Iberian chiffchaff of the photo above was caught after the pre-breeding moult. It’s worth or maybe it’s not, because, to be honest, I don’t know the effects of the pre-breeding in these bloody weird chiffchaffs. My hope is that they become greyer, but my feeling (based on photos of spring birds from Israel) is that they become greener. If so, field identification of Iberian chiffchaff based on plumage characters is sadly still in standby.

And, yeah, as I usually do after a dense talk about some socially unaccepted stuff, the prize for the keenest readers is always a nice photo of a nice species, caught last week in our garden: a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler:


“It’s blue! It’s blue!”

17 10 2013

“Blue are the streets and all the trees are too.”

– Blue, Eiffel 65

After a month without updating the blog, it’s time to actually do something, even it can only be a review of the last weeks. Many interesting things have happened during this period, maybe too many to have time enough to sit in front of the laptop late in the afternoon.

The actual autumn in Falsterbo had suddenly started during my flash visit to the Canary Islands, but some nice birds such as the Steppe eagle had kindly stayed around. Other highlights of the raptor migration included the biggest day ever for Honey buzzard and a nice juvenile female Montagu’s harrier that stayed in the area for a week. It’s a pity that this was the species from what I got better views… the rarest harrier here but again the commonest in the Iberian Peninsula.


We kept on catching some good birds, both at the Lighthouse and at Flommen. A couple of littoralis Rock pipits in the cages were very interesting for a Mediterranean birder, especially this nice 1st winter with quite a lot of white in the tail. With strong light conditions, you can probably get a pure white impression of R6.

Anthus petrosus 1blog

Anthus petrosus blog2

The tail of the adult (below) was more similar to what I had expected, but I still don’t know if it’s age related or just individual variation.

Anthus petrosus 2blog

In the meanwhile, the lighthouse produced a Nutcracker during standarised ringing and a Tengmalm’s owl during the night (the last thanks to Aron’s keen work!).

Nutcracker blog

aegolius blog

Extra ringing at the Station is also successful, with 2 Yellow-browed warblers and a Red-breasted flycatcher ringed so far. However, I think the best in that respect is still about to come.

inornatus blog Ficedula parva

What finally pushed me to update the blog is yesterday’s Red-flanked bluetail. It was still dark in the first net-round and Stephen and me where in net 3 extracting the usual robins and wrens when Stephen started shouting at me “it’s blue! it’s blue!”. After some days with hundreds of Blue tits, something blue in the net is not surprising. This time, however, the “blue thing” was more exciting and less painful fr our already damaged fingers. I ran towards Stephen and he was holding the bird (that was still in the net) in a way that I could only see the tail. It took me a few seconds to react, but yeah… it was a Bluetail.


I’ve never got the English meaning of the word “blue” to describe something boring. A chat with such an electric blue tail is just a discharge of adrenaline, especially when the blue is extensive to the inner GCs and 30% of the LCs. Seemingly, the post-juvenile moult can be that extensive and therefore at least some birds can be sexed in 1st winter plumage. An exciting item from a bird that was already exciting itself!

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