Back in September and October 2010, I was on an extended trip to San Francisco. There had been a spell of unseasonably hot weather in the city, but by 4 October it had settled into more normal fall conditions. September’s warbler passage had slackened off, although Yellow-rumpeds continued to arrive.
The subspecies that was coming in, known as Audubon's Warbler, breeds to the north and winters in California, much further north than other warblers. While it does feed on insects and loves to fly-catch from the ubiquitous Eucalyptus trees, it can also be seen feeding on the ground in a way that few other warblers do. When watching the feeding birds in October, you sometimes see a golden gem in the form of a startlingly bright and beautiful Townsend's Warbler.
However, October is usually a month for the arrival of sparrows. Not Passer species, although introduced House Sparrows are quite plentiful. These birds are New World sparrows, more closely related to buntings. Golden-crowned Sparrows, absent through the summer when they move to their northern breeding grounds, were starting to appear again. Their sad-sounding song, 'Oh dear me' sung in a distinctly minor key, soon becoming a familiar melody.
Resident White-crowned Sparrows were joined by these closely related birds, and they can often be seen feeding in mixed flocks. Any sparrow flocks are well worth checking, as sometimes joining them are rarer species, such as White-throated or even Harris's.
I had familiarised myself with Savannah Sparrows, smaller than the Zonotrichia species, with a thin sharp call. While birding in the East Bay, at the edge of the Eastshore State Park, I glimpsed something that looked different. It seemed longer-tailed and paler, and was flitting along clumps of fennel, rather than feeding on the ground.
My first close look revealed a pale breast, a streaked back and a distinctive grey collar; as I saw more of it, I realised it had to be a Clay-coloured Sparrow – a lifer that I’d hoped to catch up with. The find was posted on the local newsgroup and over the next week many people managed to relocate it, with one birder finding a second individual.
The other common sparrow in October is Song Sparrow. With its grey and brown head and black-streaked white breast, it could be mistaken for a Lincoln's Sparrow, which is smaller and has more buff on the breast. I had been watching out for this latter species when the news broke of one on the Azores, perhaps long overdue as Western Palearctic record. What a find!
One other sparrow that reappeared as the days grew shorter was Fox Sparrow. In San Francisco it is the Sooty form which spends the winter, with the Red subspecies only occurring as a vagrant. These chunky birds can often be located feeding at the woodland edge, constantly shuffling leaves noisily as they search for food.
By Chris Harbard. The photo shows a Clay-coloured Sparrow.
Posted by Birdwatch
This time last year I was becoming increasingly engrossed in trying to set a new record for the highest number of bird species seen in London in a year. I almost said bogged down, but that would be too negative – it was fun, the first migrants were arriving, and every trip into the field meant new targets and new challenges. But if there was a downside to a local year list, it was the fact that I missed out on birding opportunities elsewhere in the country.
This spring, with no such tick-driven enterprise restricting my movements or ambition, I’ve spread my wings and renewed my acquaintance with a few species almost impossible to see locally. One such is Goshawk, a tricky bird to find in most places at the best of times, but one which I always associate with March.
Last weekend, I visited a site where a friend had scored with this impressive raptor previously. In intermittent sunshine a morning’s session eventually produced good views of three birds – a displaying pair of adults, and a showy second-calendar-year bird (you can see more of my photos from that trip on www.birdingetc.com).
As always, having made notes at the time and then downloaded photos at home, I spent a while afterwards reading up on Goshawk plumages while it was all still fresh. Among the many useful references was, of course, Dick Forsman’s Raptors of Europe – essential reading as always on birds of prey, and available in our shop – but I also turned back through seven years of Birdwatch back issues to March 2005.
The advice in that edition in Keith Vinicombe’s superb feature on Goshawks is timeless, and it reminded me that for all the up-to-the-minute material we continue to publish in Birdwatch every month, important elements of past content remain as relevant now as when they were first published – good advice is never out of date.
That issue has long been out of stock, so in case you’re thinking of heading out to look for displaying Goshawks in the near future, we’ve made it available again on the website – have a look at the Identification section in our articles . Take a tour of other sections of the site while you’re at it – you’ll find plenty more ID refreshers and other features to enjoy.
By Dominic Mitchell
The photo is of a Goshawk and is by Dominic Mitchell.
Posted by Birdwatch
In January I visited the Natural History Museum to check out its new display of wildlife images; while there I decided a trip to the bird gallery was in order. I found it a somewhat disheartening affair – stuffed specimens arranged in ‘lifelike’ poses in cabinets. Don’t get me wrong, the collection is hugely important, as is the work the museum does, but there is something very sad about seeing these sometimes magnificent, often beautiful creatures exhibited behind glass.
Saddest of all are the extinct species, like the Dodo, whose demise is directly attributable to human interference, that now familiar litany of hunting, introduced predators and habitat destruction. Next to these are specimens of some of the world’s most threatened birds, such as New Zealand’s Kakapo. It is a striking and timely reminder of how vulnerable many bird (and other) species are.
The worst of it is that that unholy trinity of killing, predation and destruction is completely avoidable – it really doesn’t have to be like this. Projects such as improving the habitat for Azores Bullfinch, with which Birdwatch has been involved, or removing rats from Fiji’s Ringgold Islands to protect seabirds prove this. A similar programme on Henderson Island, a UK Overseas Territory in the Pacific, is set to save the Endangered Henderson Petrel. It comes too late for four of the island’s unique species, however, which have already become extinct.
According to the latest figures from Birdlife International, 1,240 bird species are threatened with extinction, and this number is growing all the time. And yes, the main problems are manmade – particularly habitat degradation and introduced species. On the increase are incidental deaths (from, for example, long-line fishing) and pollution. As for climate change, who knows what damage that will do in the years to come?
We humans have wreaked terrible destruction on this planet, but it’s not too late. As the initiatives above show, there is much we can do to right the wrongs. Joining or donating to conservation groups, volunteering, lobbying for better protection for threatened species or for more and better nature reserves – all of this will help, and maybe between us we can reduce that number of species threatened and stop many more birds ‘going the way of the Dodo’.
By Rebecca Armstrong
The photo shows a Dodo specimen in the Natural History Museum, London. In the right-hand corner is Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird that hasn't been seen in the wild since the 1940s. Photo by RanZag (commons.wikimedia.org).
Posted by Birdwatch
I've made it my business this year to try to fill in the more embarrassing gaps in my London list, which is in the ignominious state of having Brown Shrike, Slaty-backed Gull and White-tailed Lapwing on it, but no Woodlark or skuas, for instance. My almost allergic reluctance to twitching anything local that could conceivably be 'self-found' at some point has also led to the nightmare scenario of not going to see the most showy Wryneck ever recorded in London (at Wanstead last autumn). Really, I can't go around with my fingers in my ears, singing lalalalala, every time a twitchable scarcity turns up nearby.
In this context, my willpower - and indeed my self-esteem - broke this morning, and I ventured out before work to the mountain bike and dog defecator's paradise that is Epping Forest. It was the home of the 'yuck duck' - Connaught Water - itself that I aimed to visit, and I would not leave until Green-winged Teal was on my London list.
Two circuits of the greasy lake later, having overtaken three equally miserable-looking birders twice on the way around, and squinted fruitlessly into the overhanging willows that line the islands while the rising sun glared and obliterated the plumage on the 20 or so Common Teal roosting around the lake, I stood empty-notebooked by the car park again. Drake Mandarins are lovely, though ...
Then, just as I was estimating how long it would take me to get to the tube station to make sure I wasn't late, Coots began to squabble in the most obscurely overhung part of the nearest island, and I noticed a pair of teal nestling among the rotten willow emerging from a cloud of ivy. The female was a Common, but the drake woke up briefly and sailed out, flashing his vertical cream stripe, before disappearing into the depths of the vegetation. Obviously, this saucy GI has come over to take our female ducks, with a mind to a-hybridisin' and a-miscegenatin'.
However, the Coot and Tufty aggro wasn't over and, Western-style, the brawl spilt over, forcing the drake teal right out into the sickly Loughton sunshine: vertical cream stripe between the chest and flanks, more solid grey almost unvermiculated upper flanks, reduced cream face markings with a thin stripe under the eye (though the light was too bright to gauge the breast shade): Green-winged Teal on my London list!
Posts online suggest that the flank stripe is a tad too short for a typical or pure bird, but there are a fair few images online from the United States that closely resemble this bird, so it stays on my list. Fingers in ears, lalalalalalalala.
Postscript: Unfortunately I made the mistake of removing my fingers from my ears, only to discover that closer views of the teal by others had shown a white horizontal flank stripe and the ghost of Eurasian facial pattern, pretty much nailing it as a hybrid. The quest goes on ...
By David Callahan
The photo is of a male Green-winged Teal. By Jeslu (commons.wikimedia.org)
Posted by Birdwatch
The Birdwatch team share their birding stories
Want to read my old blog entries? Browse through an achive of all my posts below:
- April 2013 (1 post)
- September 2012 (1 post)
- November 2011 (1 post)
- October 2011 (1 post)
- July 2011 (1 post)
- June 2011 (1 post)
- May 2011 (2 posts)
- April 2011 (2 posts)
- March 2011 (4 posts)
- February 2011 (2 posts)
- January 2011 (3 posts)
- October 2010 (2 posts)
- September 2010 (1 post)
- August 2010 (4 posts)
- July 2010 (6 posts)
- June 2010 (9 posts)
- May 2010 (8 posts)
- April 2010 (14 posts)
- March 2010 (13 posts)