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A Field Notebook
  Updated 1/1/70 0:00:00
Webmaster Colin Davies
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Marsh warbler conundrum

ThisAcrocephaluswarbler was at Tide Mills in Sussex on 6th September 2018. It's a marsh warbler, but opinion is split, with some considering it a reed warbler. It's superficially a difficult identification, especially for birders too concerned with"warm brown hues"at the expense of all other features, and in this blog post I'll explain why.

It's a marsh warbler for many reasons, but not least because it called several times while I was watching it. On all occasions it's call was a hard tongue clicking note, similar to Blyth's reed warbler, which is sometimes described as a sound similar knocking two pebbles together. Reed warbler does not give these clear cut, hard single notes. At no point did it utter anything like a reed warbler call. Unfortunately this is obviously something which you can't judge from the photos and you need to take my word for it. If you're in the reed warbler camp you'll probably just ignore this vital piece of evidence, however you really shouldn't.....

In 2015 a very useful article was published in Scottish Birds on the identification of 1st winter marsh warbler, and it is this which I have largely referred to throughout this blog post.

Scottish Birds (2015).Marsh Warbler in first-winter plumage - SBRC identification criteria, M.S. Chapman. Available:https://www.the-soc.org.uk/files/docs/bird-recording/sbrc/Marsh-Warbler.pdf. Last accessed 09/09/2018.

Even without hearing it call, it's a marsh warbler because it has a relatively short, blunt bill when compared to reed, pale legs and yellow, strong looking feet. Note the pale yellow underparts, especially the undertail coverts, a real pointer to marsh warbler. Note also in this photo that there is no contrast between the wings and the rest of the upper parts, and what we can see of the rump looks about the same as well.

Pale yellowy underparts, short blunt bill and garden warbler like appearance.

A slightly over exposed photo admittedly, but once again very garden warbler like in appearance with a shortish, blunt bill and a rounded head not a bit like reed warbler, clearly yellowy underparts and from what we can see of the primaries they are long and white tipped. Note also the pale edged tertials.

Much of what I have just said applies to this photo also, but now look at the primaries. Clearly long and white tipped.

A short blunt bill. Another photo showing the pale yellowy underparts.

Finally we come to this photo. Pale edged tertials contrasting with darker centres, clearly white tipped primaries, the palest legs you've ever seen, yellow robust feet and pale yellow underparts including the undertail coverts. The bird is also calling like two pebbles being knocked together. It's a marsh warbler.  However if you want to ignore all of these other features and concentrate on"warm brown hues"then consider this; up to 20% of all marsh warblers show warm brown upperparts anyway. My bet is that quite a few marsh warblers are overlooked because they are dismissed as reed on the basis of this one feature alone, rather than actually taking in the whole suite of characters. Personally, I think that the browns look deeper than they were in reality because I have over compensated the white balance because of the glare of the sun. Look how deep the greens and reds of the foliage and berries look in the above photo.

If you don't want to read the full article in Scottish Birds, here is an extract:

"Marsh Warbler is typically paler and slightly to notably less warm toned overall, with upperparts variously described as sandy, beige, or dull greyish-olive, with often a tinge of green or olive, lacking in contrast. Usually no contrastingly warmer tones are evident on the rump/upper tail coverts, and it shows paler less warm edgings to the remiges, including the tertials, giving the latter more contrast. The supercilium is typically slightly paler and less warm-toned, and thus more obvious. Warmer toned birds similar to a subdued-looking Reed Warbler, do occur however (possibly up to 20% of first-winters, Pearson et al. 2002). It also shows cleaner underparts, with any wash tending towards yellowish-buff; obvious yellow tones on the underparts are a good indicator of Marsh. Leg colour tends to be pale, often strikingly so.

Structurally wing length and primary projection are on average longer than in Reed, whereas bill length is on average slightly shorter. Soft parts, (bill, tarsi and even often the claws), tend to be slightly stouter than on Reed, giving a slightly more robust impression overall. The jizz of Marsh thus while still obviouslyAcrocephaluslike, tends slightly more towards Garden WarblerSylvia borinthan the classic slimline Reed. Marsh Warbler can be quite vocal. The call consists of single hard tongue clicking notes, sometimes given several times in succession;?chik?, ?chet?, ?chuc? ?tak?, ?thic?. Also chirring calls similar to the usual call of Reed (perhaps usually slightly more ?rattling?).

........ Neither form of Reed is known to give these clearcut, hard, single notes, although Blyth?s Reed does."

It's always exciting to see a clouded yellow, cracking butterflies.

There was clearly a passage of whinchats, with over 10 seen.

Tide mills.

Rose-coloured starling, Greater Manchester

Not my idea of birding hanging around a residential area in Manchester on a dull, grotty, drizzly day, waiting for a bedragled juvenile starling to show itself. Fortunately I did at least manage some decent views of the bird.

Great white egret, Pennington Flash

Little egret is now a frequent enough visitor to barely raise an eyebrow amongst  the regular birders at Pennington Flash, but great white is still a very rare bird locally. Todays great white was only the fourth ever at the site and was a Flash tick for me. Chances are, they will become more frequent in future years as they are now a common enough sight on local estuaries. For example, in 2017 I photographed a group of 10 great white egrets together on the Dee Estuary.


I knew that orca had been sighted in the Caithness area in the days before I left home for a week in the far north of Scotland, thanks to a series of messages being posted on the"Caithness and North Sutherland Cetacean sightings"Facebook group, but catching up with them was always going to be a challenge. They seemed pretty wide ranging, often going north into the Orkney archipelago as well as all around the coast to the west and south. I resigned myself to the fact that they were just the stuff of dreams, something to look out for while I was in the area, but not a serious proposition.

The town of Lossiemouth is on the most northerly point of the south coast of the Moray Firth near Inverness, and it can be hard to believe that from here there is still enough land left in the UK for you to be able to drive north for another four hours, but that's exactly what I was faced with today as I left my hotel and started my journey to Melvich on the extreme north coast of Scotland.

When I set off I had no intention of looking for orca, they were something I might look for on another day, today was just a day of travel. However, soon I received news that a family party of seven orca had been seen passing Duncansby Head near John O'Groats and later they were seen feeding to the north of Freswick Bay. I was tempted but would they hang around? It seemed the perfect day for viewing, with good light and relatively flat calm seas with just a light breeze, so I decided that it was just too good an opportunity to miss and I set my SatNav for John O'Groats.

I think that this is probably a male orca, perhaps a youth rather than an adult, based on the size and shape of the dorsal fin

Duncansby Head lies a mile or two to the north east of John O'Groats, a small, scattered village famous for being the most northerly inhabited point of mainland Britain. The scenery here is dominated by the islands of Orkney, less than 10 miles away to the north, whilst to the south lie the oddly shaped Stacks of Duncansby with their mighty cliffs and seabird colonies. It's a very wild and remote place, where the Pentland Firth meets the North Sea and though never matching the west coast for seascapes and rugged beauty, it has a remoteness almost unique in mainland Britain. None of that matters to me now though, Duncansby Head will be forever associated with surely the most dramatic and exciting wildlife experience of my life.

However all of that still seemed a long way off and the orca were still a dream, because at the moment that I set the SatNav for John O'Groats I was still a good two hour drive from where I needed to be. Would the orca stick around for that long?

After a long and thankfully uneventful drive I finally arrived at the car park at Duncansby Head and found that there were no obvious signs of whale watchers never mind whales. After such a long drive it would have been reassuring to have seen people looking out to sea through binoculars or telescopes, but if they were here then they were keeping a low profile and it looked like I'd have to do it alone. Unsure of what to do next and not even certain that I was in the right place for viewing, I headed to the highest point on the headland, the place that gave me the widest field of view, across the Pentland Firth to the north and the North Sea to the east.

The sea wasn't quite like glass, but it was probably as flat as it gets up here and the light was perfect. Surely if orcas were out there I'd see them? But no, there was nothing, not even a dolphin or a porpoise. All I could do was sit it out and wait and hope...

I didn't have long to wait! Suddenly I noticed something large moving through the water close in to the cliffs. I held my breath - surely not? Then I saw the dorsal fin.... incredibly it was two orca swimming right towards me! I allowed myself a moments celebration to fully take in the experience before realising that I could get a lot closer, I abandoned my vantage point and ran down to a fence at the top of the cliff, some 100m closer to the water. The orca were still coming towards me! They appeared to be a male and female and they were pursued by a boat full of camera wielding tourists.

These photos don't really convey well the size of these animals, it's only when you have something familiar to compare them with that it becomes obvious.

Note the guillemot flying towards the orca, which helps give a sense of scale to the photo. The RSPB website gives the a wingspan of a guillemot as 64-73cm and its body length as 38-45cm. That dorsal fin must be at least 2.5x the length of the wingspan of the bird, making it around 1.8m (6ft) and making this probably a full grown adult male orca. The males can grow up to 9.8m!

One of the orca twisted over and then arched out of the water  before raising and slapping it's tail. I'm no cetacean expert, but in my opinion this was a sign that it was not happy with the boat. I know that tail slaps are not always negative, but in this case I believe that it was. The boat was almost herding the animals in towards the cliffs. And where were the other five? How come these orca were separated from the rest?

When the boat came up alongside this animal, its size was very apparent, it was huge, maybe half the length of the boat.

I've seen humpbacks behave like this in Australia, so I am aware that tail slaps are not always a sign of an agitated animal.

This is a photo that I never thought I would take anywhere in the world, let alone in UK waters and from the mainland. To see an orca break the surface is one thing, to see it underwater like this is just a staggering experience, and especially so from mainland Britain. I have to pinch myself to remember that I was standing on the mainland when I took this photo, not on some remote Scottish island group, or on a guided boat tour miles out at sea, no, I was standing alone on the Scottish mainland. Like I said, staggering, the greatest wildlife experience of my life, enhanced because although I knew that they had been in the area, it felt like I'd found them for myself.

I guess that this is either a young male or a female. Look at the size of the animal behind it but further under the water. I'm pretty sure that this is the adult male from the previous photos.

Eventually the orcas disappeared around the headland and I thought that I had seen the last of them and I had a walk to the stacks. However, on returning to my vantage point a little later, I noticed a boat stopped a respectable distance from what I took to be dolphins about half a mile out at sea. Closer investigation revealed that they were actually the orcas again, but this time all seven were together, and the animals which I had thought were dolphins were actually baby orcas with dolphin like curved dorsal fins. I watched them for about another 20 minutes until it started to rain and I decided that I needed to continue my journey.

What a fantastic day. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned that I called in briefly at Findhorn near Lossiemouth this morning and jamed onto a group of birders watching a stunning adult Pacific golden plover in full summer plumage. That's been almost forgotten now...

Don't forget me! I was good too! Only my third ever Pacific golden plover in the UK and what a cracker, easily the best looking individual I've seen. This bird was at Findhorn, right at the start of my adventure today. Next time I see one of these will probably be back in Australia later this year.

The Stacks of Duncansby.

Duncansby lighthouse with Orkney behind.

Back garden sparrowhawk kill

A bit of drama in the garden this week, a sparrowhawk eating a freshly killed woodpigeon. It looks like an adult female sparrowhawk to me, I can't see any hint of brown in its plumage to make it a juvenile. Also it looked pretty big and I'm not sure that a male is big enough or powerful enough to take down a woodpigeon.

Sparrowhawk kills can be a bit gruesome, whilst they will take and eat quite large prey such as woodpigeons and lapwings, they are often not powerful enough to kill them outright like a peregrine would, and it's not unusual to see a sparrowhawk eating prey which is still alive. Don't be too quick to judge them though, they have to eat and this what they have evolved to do. If we're worried about song bird populations being effected by sparrowhawks, then lets first remove cats from the environment and then stop destroying song bird habitat. Talking of cats, Polly and Ted just sat and watched while this was going on and didn't try to approach. Very wise!

Then two days later this juvenile male sparrowhawk was hunting tits and other small birds in the garden.  You can see how much smaller it looks than the female, in fact it almost looks like a different species. For example look at how small the bill of the male is compared to that of the female. Notice also the long trousers of the female which are lacking on the young male, and look at how brown the juvenile is compared to the dark grey adult.

American Golden Plover Marshside
This moulting adult American golden plover was on Crossens Inner Marsh at Marshside today. Amazingly it's my first adult, all of the others I have seen have been juveniles, so nice to get a plumage tick. I'm amazed at how well this photo has turned out, the bird was about 150m away, it was slightly against the light, the wind was around force 6 and the photo was taken by hand holding my phone up to my telescope! No adapters were involved in the taking of this photo!

Particularly noticeable was the broad white supercillium which met above the bill and also the overall grey tones in the plumage when compared to the nearby European golden plover.

I must admit to being a little doubtful about this bird before we arrived on site. Birdguides simply said"American Golden Plover, Marshside, one", with no other information about exactly where the bird was or what age or plumage it was in, whilst RBA said American Golden Plover"reported"at Marshside as if they weren't totally convinced. It all seemed a bit vague. However on arrival at Marshside we discovered that the person who had seen it was John Dempsey and that it had been near Pollys Pool but then flown towards Crossens Inner Marsh. After that it was a relatively simply matter of picking it out from the flock.........except that they were all hunkered down against the wind with their heads tucked in! Oh well, we found it in the end and it was worth the effort.

Earlier we'd called in at Marton Mere for a juvenile white-winged black tern, and then Newton Marsh for my 3rd grey phalarope in four days.
Warwickshire phalarope influx

It's that time of year again when grey phalaropes start turning up all around our coasts, but I didn't expect to see my first of the year in deepest inland Warwickshire, and I was even more surprised to see my second the following day in the same county! The first few photos here are of the second bird a juvenile which showed very well at Charlecote, a National Trust property near Stratford-Upon-Avon, whilst the final three photos are of the first, a bird at Napton Reservoir near Southam.

Meanwhile, at Napton Reservoir there was another juvenile grey phalarope. It didn't show quite as well as the Charlecote bird, but that was probably because it had a large expanse of mud to feed on unlike the other bird which was picking insects off the water close to the shoreline. Amazingly a second bird turned up at the reservoir the following day, by which time I'd long since left the county. One for next week if it sticks around!

Pallid Harrier and Semi P on the Fylde

A couple of cracking birds on the Fylde this week, and this juvenile pallid harrier in particular is a stunner. Yes I saw the Dunsop Bridge bird as well, and as stunning as that bird undoubtedly was, a displaying adult male pallid harrier no less, it wasn't as beautiful as this juvenile.The photo just doesn't do it justice, the unstreaked body and coverts were bright gingery / orange in colour, contrasting with the dark boa and pale collar, with pied primaries and tail, making this one of those rare occasions when the juvenile is a more beautiful bird than the adults.  We waited for two hours in force 6 winds which made it really uncomfortable, but the bird eventually flew and was seemingly unaffected by the wind as it hunted for several minutes across the field right in front of us,  a simply breathtaking bird.

Four obvious primaries and a really long tail. Hen harrier usually shows five primaries.

Long gone are the days when pallid harrier was a mega rarity. There are several in the UK at the moment and this was my 5th in five years. It's one of those birds which when you see it, it's obvious, but while your searching for one it's not so obvious and some hen harriers can superficially look a bit like pallid harrier especially on distant or poor views. There's also been a juvenile pallid harrier on the Dee Estuary recently, and I did wonder if this might be the same bird, but I've since been informed that the Dee bird was considered a male and this is considered a female, which makes it all the more remarkable that we should have two pallid harriers in the North West this autumn!

We started the day at Skippool Creek just north of Shard Bridge where there has been a juvenile semipalmated sandpiper present for a few days with dunlin. This was another one of those occasions where if we define the quality of the sighting by the quality of the photos you would think that it was a poor view, yet actually it was a very good scope view of this great little wader, a good old fashioned pre-digital"showing well"view as opposed to a more modern"I expect a frame filler"view. Mind you, I have seen some cracking photos of this bird so it must come closer occasionally.

This wasn't even  a Fylde tick for me, I saw a semi p at Knott End in 2013. Not many birders got to see that bird, it wasn't even a one day bird, it was a mid-week one tide bird! I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was working in the area when my boss at the time text me to inform me that a mate of his had found a semi p and gave me the exact location. I was 10 minutes away! It had been found at high tide, the tide receded, the bird went further and further out until it was lost and never seen again. There's a report on my bloghereof the Knott End bird from 2013.

Poor though this photo is, you can clearly see that it has a blunt bill and dare I suggest that you can also make out the foot-webbing!

This was my first visit to Skippool Creek and there are quite a lot of good photo opportunities here even if the birds are not quite frame fillers.

The dreary flows and an exciting crane

The highs and lows of birding, I drove back from Melvich to Inverness today and started off driving past Forsinard RSPB in the Caithness flow country, a place which I had been looking forward to seeing, but which I found dreary, overrated and disappointing, not a bit haunting to me, which is how I often hear it described. I find this a bit surprising sinceusually I love blanket bog. I guess that since I'd just spent a week surveying near Melvich, the last thing I needed was another vast expanse of birdless M17 Trichophorum cespitosum? Eriophorum vaginatumblanket mire. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood.

However fortunately much better was to come. Just a couple of miles south of Brora a common crane flew over the A9 right in front of me and quite low down. It was torrential rain at the time and it looked like it was trying to land. I was able to stop but it had disappeared behind a small hill and I couldn't relocate it. I drove on to the next parking spot and jumped out of the car, again in torrential rain, and spotted it in the distance, flying away from me but again looking like it was trying to land. Once more I got in the car and drove on another 1/2 mile past a few wheat fields until I could see a grassy field in the distance. I guessed that this is where it might be and pulled into a gateway to view the field. Sure enough the bird was in the field allowing me to fire off a couple of photos before it flew again, and this time I lost it for good.

It reminded me of a famous incident a few years ago when there was a much rarer Sandhill crane on Orkney which eventually flew south and was followed a good way down the east coast of Scotland by birders.

Forsinard RSPB

A few late August highlights from Pennington Flash

An eclipse drake garganey and at least two juvenile Mediterranean gulls were the highlights at the end of August and both are very predictable birds for this time of year. No less predictable is the continuing and alarming decline in waders. At the time of the Sabine's gull which was as recently as August 2015, there were two or three green sandpipers present throughout the month while in August 2013 it was possible to see six or seven green sandpipers at the Flash. In August 2018 there was a single bird on the 1st and another for a couple of days in the middle of the month, and that's it for green sandpipers this August.

In fact all waders have declined at the flash in recent years. It's now a red letter day if you find a dunlin or a redshank at the flash, and double figure counts of either are almost unheard of these days. Even common sandpipers are not that common. The peak month for common sandpiper is July, but this year we had just one or two birds where in previous years there have been close to double figures or more. On the 8th July 2006 I saw a flock (yes a flock) of 28 common sandpipers at Prescot Reservoirs in St Helens, and on the same day there were a further 12 at Eccleston Mere, imagine that at the Flash these days! It's cause for celebration if you see one now. Wood sandpipers are the stuff of legend these days.

From these photos it's not particularly easy to age or sex this garganey, but if it flapped its wings, the pale grey / blue upper forewing would reveal that it is in fact an eclipse male.

Juvenile Mediterranean gulls are always smart birds and have a particularly impressive bill. Note the little hook on the end of the bill. There have been at least two juveniles and an adult at the Flash during the past few weeks.

All the way from the banks of the Nile, an Egyptian goose. Actually the best we can hope for is that it's travelled here from East Anglia, but it's perhaps it's more likely from some local wildfowl collection.  It seems pretty tame, often hanging around with the Canada geese on the car park where if it gets much tamer, it will be selling ice cream to the locals.

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