El Hierro, El Hierro, El Hierro…

7 06 2015

“Is that a seagull?”

– Crístel Reyes

To find a rarity at sea is always something strange, especially when you are not even looking for birds. We know the habitat it’s not the same all over the sea, since the currents and the shape of the depths can make some areas better than others, but, at a glance, the sea looks just like an infinite flat blue plain. You can’t search because you can’t get out of the boat you are in, you don’t depend on your call recognition skills (despite some terns are easier to spot this way)… You just sit and wait.

Maybe this is why you feel especially lucky when a rarity shows up out in the sea. It’s usually not a prize for your id skills but for the number of boring hours you’ve been there, waiting for such an improbable event. As in ringing, from a taxonomic point of view, everywhere there is an interesting common species to look at while waiting for the actual prize: Band-rumped storm-petrel in La Concepción Bank, Cory’s shearwaters at El Hierro, Yelkouans and Balearics in the Mediterranean.

This time the unexpected emerged in the shape of a Red-footed booby, the third to be seen in Spain. We were taking photos of a pod of Atlantic Spotted dolphins feeding with Yellow-finned tuna and Cory’s shearwaters when Crístel said “is that a seagull?” I took a look and immediately said “No, it’s a 3rd summer Gannet”. The bird was flying towards us and I had seen black secondaries. It was not until I got profile views of it that I saw a “Sula face” and a long-tailed bird. Without direct comparison, the size and structure wasn’t particularly striking, what makes me think they can get surprisingly easily overlooked. To be honest, if the sighting had only lasted 30 seconds, I would had not identified it.

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (220)b2

Fortunately, the bird flew over the top predator feast we were photographing and gave close views of both underwing and upperwing patterns. At a glance, I thought it had to be an adult, but the bare parts of the face were not as brightly colored as I had seen in some photos. Moreover, when it flew over us, I noticed some dirty spots in the underwing. Because of embarrassing freaky reasons not worth-mentioning, I had brought my copy of Pyle to a Beaked whale survey in El Hierro. What seemed to be a stupid idea keeping in mind Ryanair’s strict baggage policies, become suddenly useful and, in a village with just a slow wi-fi connection in the local “zumería” (juice bar), I was still able to get some information about the age of the bird.

However, I was not fully satisfied with the information comprised in my otherwise beloved Pyle. According to this author, they can only be aged up to 2nd cycle, since after the 2nd pre-basic, they already show the definite plumage: all white underparts and upperwing coverts, dark eye and brightly colored bare parts. However, 2nd cycle birds are meant to show a dusky tip to the bill. This bird showed an adult pattern in its bare parts, just less colored. The plumage was not adult, but obviously closer to that than what I’d expect for a 2nd summer.

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (213)b

So I followed the natural sequence of references and checked Howell’s Rare Birds of North America. This time, however, my freakiness had not reached that far and I had to wait until I was back in Barcelona to read what it’s said there. After some minutes admiring Lewington’s wonderful plates, I focused on the aging section. Surprise! Seemingly, some birds can be aged up to 4th cycle, mainly on the basis of remaining brown areas. According to Howell, 3rd cycle birds still can show extensive brown areas in the rump, back, scapulars, inner lesser coverts, axillaries, and underwing secondary coverts. All those areas become white as 3rd pre-basic moult goes on.

El Hierro bird showed all-white upperwing and body and the brown feathers were restricted to lesser under-secondary coverts. It would had fitted therefore with an advanced 3rd cycle if it had not shown an incipient primary moult. The bird is indeed growing P4, what makes me think it’s more likely an early 4th cycle. I’m not sure however if it could had already lost most of the brown areas during the moult of this 3 and a half primaries, what would make it a 3rd cycle. It would be interesting to know (if possible) what is more common: a 3rd cycle with an early stage of primary moult with almost all-white adult plumage or a 4th cycle with remaining brown in the underwing. Comments are welcome!

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (209)b

Finally, there was still the origin issue to be discussed. The variation in the species is huge, but not all the authors agree to classify it in terms of subspecies. There are 2 morphs: brown and white, and both show 2 “sub-morphs”: white-tailed and dark-tailed. Seemingly, all possibilities can occur everywhere, but in different proportions. The Caribbean and Atlantic population (what would be more likely) belong mainly to the white morph or white-tailed brown morph, whereas 85% of birds from Hawai show a dark tail. As usual, it seems that, in this case, the most-likely explanation seems to be the good one.

It feels like the number of sightings of Red-footed booby in this side of the North Atlantic is increasing, with some recent records in the Iberian Peninsula, France, Canary Islands and especially Cape Verde. Red-footed booby, the next species to start breeding in the WP?





Holidays

26 07 2013

“You asked me to dance
Said music was great for dancing
I don’t really dance much
But this time I did”

– Last days of disco, Yo la tengo

After a busy spring season in the field, I took a month for being at home, enjoying the city and the life out of the bubble. However, I got the time to do some birding/ringing/butterflying. Two days of ringing at Castelltallat mountains, in central Catalonia, were so useful to remember about some Mediterranean species. The species set had changed quite a lot since the last time I had ringed there. Instead of the big numbers of both Rock and Cirl buntings that I used to catch, now I got some forest species such as Western Bonelli’s warbler an the less exciting Blackcap and Short-toed tree-creeper. The place has in fact changed quite a lot. The area was burnt in 1998 and since then several new plant species have colonized in a typical vegetal succession sequence. The firsts Strawberry trees Arbutus unedo had already given way to some oak species and the former bush-land area is nowadays an actual forest. Fortunately, some opened areas had survived and there is still a notable density of Ortolan bunting among other interesting Mediterranean species such as Western black-eared wheatear, Rock sparrow, Blue rock thrush and Western orphean warbler. The formerly scarce Golden oriole is nowadays one of the commonest species in what could probably be treated as the paradigm of the overall change.

bonellii

Another Mediterranean species that seems to be increasing is the Subalpine warbler. The area is now the perfect habitat for the Subalpines: low Quercus in dry areas. I have to say this is one of my favorite species and I’d never get tired of ringing them, especially given the fact that the aging is never straightforward. This time I looked at the tail and tried to assess the age of every feather. Here it is my attempt on 2 birds (one 2cy male and one 2cy female):

Sylvia cantillans tail2

Sylvia cantillans tail

The presence of juvenile feathers is quite obvious in both cases, but the number of generations and the kind of moult that every feather comes from is not obvious at all. However, in my opinion, it’s possible to see the sometimes invisible differences between the first and the second pre-nuptial moults. Here you can see one of the males in all its splendour. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Sylvia cantillans

Another interesting bird I caught was this Nightjar. It’s an adult with a suspended moult: the 3 innermost primaries, the biggest alula and some secondaries are retained in what constitutes a good example of how the presence of 2 generations of feathers (even if there is not a pre-nuptial moult) doesn’t necessarily mean the bird is a 2cy. The pattern of the retained feathers is the same than the moulted ones and the differences are only due to wear. The high frequency of this suspended moult in this species makes me wonder what “suspended moult” means. Maybe we should consider this as a partial moult that both juvenile and adult birds can do. The individuals that do an actual complete are, in fact, an exception!

nightjar wing

The diversity of butterflies around the place where I set the nets was notable. The final list included some scarce species such as Marsh fritillary Euphydryas aurinia and Sloe hairstreak Satyrium acaciae. However, some meadows had been cropped and there were not many flowers. It could had been even better, but some places where plenty of Pyramid orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis, one of the commonest orchids in Catalan mountains.

Satyrium acaciae

Euphydryas aurinia

Anacamptis pyramidalis

Finally, I thought a visit to the Pyrenees targeting the always special Ptarmigans would be a good training session for the cold Sweden. It was really cold high in the mountains, with a strong snowfall and a freezing wind. We managed to see a male Ptarmigan doing some display. Quite stunning! Sadly, there were not many butterflies due to cold temperatures.

Lagopus muta

Lagopus muta2

Lagopus muta3

Now I am ready for another ringing season at Falsterbo. The “Foreign Team” (Stephen and me) and the Southern Gangsters (in alphabetical order: Emil, Oscar and Ulrik) will be ringing at Flommen reedbed until the end of September and then we will move to the lighthouse. The season looks promising: we are already 50 birds above the for-the-time average, we’ve already broken 1 day record (even it’s just the starling day record…) and we’ve already caught a rarity, this Savi’s warbler (yeah, another southern species…; © Stephen Menzie). I will sound like a twitcher, but I felt it was nice the species number 200 in my Swedish list was a rarity. Anyway, all of this in just 5 days of ringing; it looks promising but it’s still too early to take conclusions. Let’s see.

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And a happy new yeeeeeear!

13 04 2013

“Everybody’s talking ’bout the stormy weather
And what’s a man do to but work out whether it’s true?”

– Teenage riot, Sonic Youth

Here it comes! The good point (sometimes not as good) about the time is that it goes on. After a month complaining with reason about the weather, the spring has finally arrived to Falsterbo. Actually, the weather is still fur from being good, but now we have rain instead of snow and fog instead of wind. The result of this mixture is a huge arrival of migrants. Yesterday, we took over the record of chaffinches caught in a day and set the unbeatable figure in 288 birds. The total number of captures was 501, with 100 dunnocks and some new arrivals such as an adult male black redstar and 2 redwings. But the real spectacle was in the grass around the feeder, thousands of chaffinches were landing, feeding for a while and heading north afterwards. Loads of bramblings and some reed buntings complete the scene. We caught some of those as well, like this beautiful male blambling.

Fringilla montifringilla

Large flocks of thrushes were also flying over, and so did today as well. I would pay quite a lot of money to know how many birds have overflight the Lighthouse garden between yesterday and today. This morning was not exactly more of the same. The total number of captures was 385, but with “only” 98 chaffinches. The rest were mainly night migrants, specially robins and thrushes, but also goldcrests and chiffchaffs. These adorable little ones are particularly hard to be aged. The chiffchaffs we are catching these days have done a very restricted moult, quite different from that of the warmer chiffchaffs from southern Europe. I wonder if this post-juvenile can be confusingly overlapped with the pre-nuptial, what would kick up a fuss. An then we have the goldcrests, the smallest bird of Europe and probably the one among passerine species that has had a worst winter. However, they seemed to be warming up quickly, singing even from the bottom of the collecting bags while waiting for being ringed. The age is never straightforward, even when there is a moult limit in the greater coverts, in case they can be considered “greater”. An easy way of spotting the two generation of feathers seems to be the shape of the white in the tip of the GCs. Note the step-shaped white in the inner adult feathers, contrasting with the soft-edged white in the retained 2 outermost. Note also the difference in the wear, specially around the shafts.

regreg euring5 gcs

If you have paid attention to this only-for-ringers subject, you deserve a picture of the whole bird.

regreg all

Late in the afternoon, I went out for a walk heading east, following the shore while checking bushes, meadows and pine trees. There were thousands of goldcrests, thrushes, robins… the same stuff than in the lighthouse garden. Apart from a nice flock of 19 wood larks (some of them have been also passing throw both today and yesterday), the best was the first common tern of the season, followed by the first little tern. While seeing the terns, a grey wagtail flew over. 3 firsts for the season in a row! The time went on, now unfortunately, and the light was already scarce, so I came back home to pray for another bad weather good day.

wood lark

hirundo





Extra ringing

19 03 2013

“Will not rush it, will enjoy it
Will not touch it, will rejoice it”

– Early Bird, The Frames

After two boring days doing almost nothing, today it was ringing time! Our fingers missed the touch of the feathers and, even the snow covered the whole peninsula, we went to P-G’s garden, set a couple of nets and wait for not more than two minutes till the firsts tits started to fall into the bags. There were many thrushes, tits and finches around, but no sign of the waxwings present the day before yesterday. We finally ringed up to twenty birds, including 3 fieldfares, a nuthatch and a nice hawfinch.

Turdus pilaris

The nuthatch was not a pure white individual, but still pale enough to be considered a northern one.

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The hawfinch was a nice adult male, although its iris color pointed more to a 2nd cal. year. The shape of the white in primary basis seems the most reliable character. We hope to catch more of them since now we know where to look at.

Coccothraustes coccothraustes

Moreover, today I’ve learned that fieldfares have the same moult strategy than the rest of the thrushes. Not so interesting in terms of science, but impressive birds anyway. It was good to catch and adult as well to check the differences. The picture below shows one of the 2nd cal. years with 5 retained juvenile GCs.

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