Monday, 7 September 2015

If there's anyone out there still vainly checking this blog- then I apologise profoundly, particularly as this latest post is only to advertise my gull identification "workshops"! So sorry and all that and I'll take it down/off again at the end of the week.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Hudsonian Godwit artwork

  This is just a brief, temporary and (hopefully) commercial link to encourage folks to visit my other blog- "Last Resort Bird Art". The "sketch" shown is the first piece I've come close to finishing of the Godwit so far, but I hope to produce "free-er" colour work in oil of the bird in flight shortly. I will post a brief link if and when this occurs!
Hudsonian and Black-tailed Godwits,. Detail of (unfinished) pencil and chalk original.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Probable Azorean Yellow-legged Gull

    This is just a brief description of the Stanwick, Northants bird first seen by Steve Fisher (aka stanwicktramp) on the main lake on the evening of the 8th May'15. Steve only had brief views and was left wondering if the bird was just an "odd argentatus" but was sufficiently worried to try harder than usual to get me to Stanwick to see if it returned on the 9th.
     The bird was clearly not a typical michahellis on structure; stocky yet large (even "stumpy"), particularly large- and slightly rounder- headed, short legged, relatively broader and shorter winged (making argentatus less likely), and with a deep but not too long or obviously hooked bill- all looking better for a bird from the "Atlantic" at least! Structure is usually over-stated  in LWHG identification as sexual dimorphism, individual variation, physical condition, external factors like wind and temperature, and activity or posture all have effects. At least here there were sufficient numbers of LBB L.f.graellsii, GBB L.marinus, Herring both argenteus and nominate, and up to 6 YLG presumably "typical" michahellis from the Mediterranean for comparison, and the bird was watched over an hour in varying situations from aggressive encounters to loafing and preening.

Notes and sketches of the probable "2nd w.- 2nd s." Azorean Yellow-legged Gull L.(m.) atlantis, Stanwick Lakes, Northants, 9/5/2015. Please note the head and bill are drawn too large and long respectively, and the "rear" end too short! 

Prob. 2w-2s L.(m.)atlantis, Stanwick Lakes 9/5/2015. "'Phone-'scope" shot- note over-exposure in low sun. The birds legs were more strongly washed yellow- particularly rear and sides than is apparent here.

Prob. 2w-2s L.(m.)atlantis (rear centre) and displaying 2s (presumed-see below) L.michahellis, Stanwick Lakes, 9/5/2015. Note- even allowing for strong back-lighting and over-exposure- the paler/more extremely bleached inner pp, greater- and marginal-coverts of the latter.

Prob. 2w-2s l.(m.)atlantis, Stanwick lakes 9/5/2015. Note this image has been treated with "fill-light" in picassa to compensate for extreme under-exposure resulting in the grey of the mantle looking paler/less contrasting than in the field. Only p. 1 on the left wing has been dropped- perhaps a little late for "nominate" michahellis. The large feet, broad wing-base and (exaggerated by shadow) dark belly markings are all shown.

Prob. L.(m.)atlantis, Stanwick Lakes, 9/5/2015. Allowing for image manipulation, low angle and especially the late date (and presumed heavy wear) the inner pp "window" is darker and thus less obvious than is typical for michahellis, and even some same-aged graellsii, and- in my limited experience- hybrid LBBx Herring gulls! The relatively broad and "simple" black tail-band (with black running up the sides of the ff shafts) is rare at best in "2nd wing" argentatus, but typical in "Western"/"Atlantic" populations of YLG.

    To my mind the greatest difficulties arise when attempting to rule out other Atlantic populations of YLG with Madeira being the most problematic (M. Ahmad, T. Worfolk etc., and the more likely- yet more vague and un-proven- possibility of hybrid graellsii x argenteus! The latter do appear to be increasing alarmingly as these taxa colonise more inland sites, and I have seen at least 3 presumed hybrids of this age on the Hayle this winter- the season when the typically heavy, extensive and coarse head and body markings of either parent species are one of the best clues to their identity! Luckily the Stanwick bird retains extensive fine ( though faint and bleached and hard to see in bright sunlight) streaks forming a cap across the crown and upper nasal feathering, and enough, slightly broader streaks from the chin back below the lower "face" and ear-coverts to define what must have been an impressive "hood" when these ff were fresh! There are scattered broader, quite pointed streaks mostly retained on the lower hind-neck which is neither inconsistent with atlantis - or any other 2nd year, but the relatively extensive (though again faded) grey clouding on the lower breast and belly are far more typical of Azorean YLG of this age and season- a feature first brought to my attention years ago by M Ahmad as the "Dunlin-patch"! I have even seen these ff retained on a (presumed and as yet un-submitted) 3rd calendar year atlantis completing it's moult to 3rd winter at Sennen, Cornwall in October 2010! This resulting combination of body markings largely confined to the lower belly and head in the form of a neat hood makes atlantis unusual in having an arguably distinctive appearance at this age- which in almost all other LWHG taxa is a stringer's paradise of variation and contradiction!
Presumed 2w-2s Azorean Yellow-legged Gull, Stanwick, 9/5/2015. This image is slightly more representative  for exposure, but in this case the 2 graellsii behind are under-exposed as the camera has read them against the bright water immediately behind. However, even allowing for this the atlantis-type is darker than "nominate" michahellis and more importantly- typical LBB x Herring hybrids.

  There are subtle features shown by atlantis beyond the head and body markings, but- as is always the case with LWHG- these are largely only "average" differences which can be shown by some individuals of related taxa. Some of the following are probably not even recognised as features of atlantis at all but are based on my own observations- so now would be a good time to confess that my field experience of this taxon is entirely based on presumed examples in this country! This makes for a grand total of 4 birds I am "happy" with (not including this particular 3rd cal. bird), and 2 more "probables" that for different reasons I would not be happy submitting as definitely of this taxon- but important to file for future reference nonetheless! It also makes for an arguably shaky foundation for any conclusions I might draw let alone put before others to read, but there is an ever growing mass of excellent photographic material on atlantis (which I have devoured- and am extremely grateful to those who have provided it!). I have also been given access to more by friends who have made it to the Azores- Mashuq Ahmad in particular- and have managed to tear themselves away from the grotty, totally predictable and entirely irrelevant selection of doomed Yankee vagrants for long enough to snap some larid! More to the point of this post (which may possibly evolve into an entire "dossier" to be passsed on to the BBRC!) I have seen and grilled 1000s of michahellis from the UK, France, Spain and Bulgaria,virtually year-round (November and June being confined to birds in the UK) so I hope readers will bear with me.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Smithsonianus Jericho farm

  The (annoyingly) "classic" Jericho bird was still taking advantage of the dumped shellfish waste on Friday the 11th, and still managing to be almost impossible to photograph thanks to cr*p light, feeding behind a wall, and the whole site being too exposed to allow closer approach without detection by the gulls or the local Purple-faces! The shots below aren't much use, and certainly don't help remove the (in my opinion remote) niggling doubt over the bird's age, but here they are anyway. The underwing and under-tail coverts still look too messy for a 2nd cal. bird to me, but the rest of the bird looks remarkably like  this age-class. The "new" grey mantle and scapulars looked un-marked but conversely I wonder if they should be paler grey if they are truly "adult-like" 2nd s./"2nd alternate" feathers....? Presumably Mush is still camped out by the side of the road and will eventually release his far better images..

2nd w. L.smithsonianus, Jericho farm, St Just, Cornwall,  11/4/2015. Note onset of 1st complete moult as p1 has been dropped from both wings. Also note underwing cov.s darker distally, not as evenly dark as typical "1st year" and lack of sub-terminal spot/wedge on p2.

2nd w. L.smithsonianus, and 3 L.a.argenteus, Jericho farm, St Just, Cornwall, 11/4/2015. Note extensive "new" grey scapulars and lack of dark sub-terminal spot/wedge on p2.

"1st w." Iceland Gull, Lg.glaucoides, Brew, Sennen, Cornwall, 11/4/2015. Found by Lynton Proctor, this bird was performing far better than the smith! And at the risk of upsetting all the would-be larophiles who slavishly repeat the mantra "there's no such thing as a 1st winter Iceland Gull"- note the fresher, neater and darker-marked 2nd gen. scapulars (the sharpish contrast between the bleached upper-breast and neck with the breast-sides may  be down to new body ff too?). I will allow that it isn't really winter anymore, but as only the longest rearmost scap.s are old, bleached juv. ff I doubt the rest grew in the last week!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015


         Sorry folks- this is just a brief note to state the bleedin' obvious- I still don't know how this blog-lark works! I have been updating and adding to existing posts piecemeal which- I am told- is NOT how it's done as readers won't necessarily notice the alterations. I will now add "(completed-date)" to the title of any post I have finished (though I may need to make corrections or add references etc at any time). I have also failed to add new posts to those already on my "News and Notes" page either through massive incompetence or because it isn't "allowed"! This page will have to be  abandoned until I hopefully find an alternative.
        Please note therefore that the smithsonianus discussion below is as yet incomplete. I will try to only post when material is finished from now on- sorry for any inconvenience!

Friday, 3 April 2015

Smithsonianus discussion

    The two "possible " 2nd w. smithsonianus on the Hayle this winter did not fulfill all the necessary  criteria  to remove all doubt about their identification. However this is not so much due to their  deficiency in smith features as to the unknown extent to which argenteus ("gents" hereafter) of the same age can show them too! Second winter/ 3rd calendar year large gulls of any taxon are worse than the rest of the morass! As well as showing arguably more variation in basic patterns at least 2 moult cycles can be underway and the effects of wear and bleaching can be thrown into the mix. Smiths are probably not as bad, but gents can look like anything from Yellow-leggeds through to smiths at the other extreme!
    Both birds showed the stereotypical smith "look"; unusually smooth, dark underparts and hind-neck "shawl", relatively dark coverts and scapulars contrasting with pale head, pale new scapulars, and- although the most over-rated/least useful characteristic- pale based "Glaucous-like" bill (see fig 6 and sketch of ind.2). These features should only serve to attract attention before looking for the key identification criteria- tail pattern, upper- and under-tail coverts. All of this is covered by the excellent paper first published in Dutch Birding by Pat Lonergan and Killian Mullarney and this is well worth downloading from the Gull Research Organisation website (which also carries additional photographs).
2nd w. L.a.argenteus- 2 birds superficially resembling smithsonianus; the left hand bird with better head, bill and coverts, that on the right with better "shawl" and underparts, though both had typical argenteus tail and tail-coverts. Sennen Cove, Cornwall, 25/1/2011
2nd w. L.a.argenteus, Marazion, Cornwall, 13/12/2012. Again superficially resembling smithsonianus  with the tail and upper-tail coverts comparable to a "poor"/atypical bird. However the "shawl" and underparts, though dark, are blotchy, and again the under-tail coverts were sparsely barred thus typical of argenteus. 
2nd w. Larus sp  Hayle, Cornwall  5/2/2015. The head, bill, "shawl" and uniform dark body were perfect for smithsonianus, but almost unbelievably neither the tail nor it's coverts were even close! The upper-wing coverts should be darker, but would arguably not have been enough on their own to rule out smithsonianus. If this is a "normal" argenteus then the head and body pattern are extremely worrying!
2nd w. Larus sp. (possibly smithsonianus) Cowloe, Sennen Cove, Cornwall 31/1/2011. As well as the features visible here this individual had typical smithsonianus under-tail coverts, but the spread tail and upper-tail coverts were not noted (see discussion below) before the bird disappeared. A perfect smithsonianus at face-value , but un-confirmed!
2nd w. Larus sp. (possibly smithsonianus, hereafter "ind.1") Hayle estuary, Cornwall, 21/2/2015. Arguably less impressive at first glance than the bird on the 5th , or the Cowloe bird above, this bird nevertheless possessed an almost perfect suite of smithsonianus features with the exception of the outermost tail feathers! (see discussion below). 

    My field experience of smith is limited  to one week in California 15 years ago, so I will welcome comments from anyone out there with more field-time (though I'd consider anything less than a year inadequate!), but I have devoted most of my winter-birding for the last 20 years looking for them in this country. I have found 4 accepted 1st winter birds so far, seen two more in Cornwall, found an adult and 4th winter type I am happy with (though did not submit), but until finding a 2nd w.bird at Ditchford, Northants in December 2013 I went through a 5 year drought (not including the Sennen individual above) and had never seen a bird of this age I was happy with in this country. So now I have seen Mush's Jericho bird the two Hayle 2nd winters would seem to be a bit of a glut, and I am far from happy with it! However, I have lived amongst breeding argenteus since the '90s and have obsessively grilled them ever since so I hope the following discussion has some use.

Tail pattern

    As previously mentioned "ind.1"'s tail was it's worst feature; classic 2nd w. smith should have a "wrap-around" almost completely dark (blackish when fresh) tail and those outside the range of variation in argenteus show no white on the outer web of r6. Any white is usually confined to fine peppering at the bases of the outer webs of the outer 1-3 ff, distal fringes (fresh), and some shaft-streaks- again only in the basal half. It is not uncommon (?) for the outermost ff to have a complete white fringe, broadest at the base, and usually peppered blackish. From above there should be no white showing at the bases of the inner-webs as the ff need to be unnaturally widely spread to expose this and the upper-tail cov.s hide their bases, but from below the pale inner webs of the outer ff can be obvious. Unfortunately gents routinely show broader dark tail bands in 2nd w. than is typical of 1st years, and- not too rarely- can be even darker than ind.1 at least (see below).
"ind.1" Hayle, 2/2/2015
"Ind.2" Hayle, 28/3/2015. As can be seen from the sentiment, this bird also showed a disappointing tail-pattern, and that I can't count as I have clearly shown pale slivers at the base  of  r4-6. Even so this pattern is marginally better than ind.1's!
Sketches of 2nd w. L.smithsonianus  Ditchford g.p. Northants, 14/12/2013. This bird showed a much better r6 than those above, but even this can be matched by European Herring Gulls- particularly argenteus . The longest under-tail covert shown is not perfect for smithsonianus in having a narrow brown centre but see below. 

      Although my photo.s are pixelated (thanks to the distances at the Hayle forcing the "stacking " of converters!) the outermost tail f. (r6) of ind.1 is mostly white with a sub-terminal band and black spotting on the inner-web. Although I have never seen it myself, and have no idea of the frequency smiths can show this, there are images in another excellent paper by Andreas Bucheim in Limicola (sorry there are no propoer ref.s here - I have lent both publications and still await their return, but I will cite them properly later) of birds with similar r6. Ind.2 appeared to have a slightly better tail, but the only view I had was during a brief period of preening  before the bird took off so it could possibly have been worse! In either case the tail is not enough to settle their identification- though smith is looking second best so far!

Upper and under-tail coverts

     Again smith should be much more heavily/densely barred dark in these tracts than in argentatus or argenteus, but although this is a reliable feature in 1st years moult in 2nd years can produce ff showing patterns from reduced barring to pure white. This seems to be more common in the upper-tail coverts, but I do not know if the "paler" ff are 2nd generation- i.e. produced in the bird's first complete moult to 2nd w.("2nd basic"), or isolated 3rd gen. ff replaced as part of a suspended pre-"breeding"("pre-alternate") moult .The latter is almost certainly the case in late winter (Feb./March), but because smith are relatively late/high latitude breeders this is probably rarer in early winter(?). Whatever the case any typical, or at least distinct smith upper-tail coverts (the longest ff over-laying the bases of the tail ff) should be more than 50% dark, and show at least 4 dark bars which reach the outer edges of the ff. There are many variations and it is common for the barring to be narrower or fainter basally which can be revealed when ff from the "2nd row" are displaced or missing. Feathers with dark centres or intricate patterns reminiscent of "white-winged "gulls are shown by more distinctive smiths and- although one should never say "never" in regards to any aspect of LWHG identification- possibly never shown by (pure) European Herring gulls- but see below!
2nd w, L.a.argenteus, Sennen, Cornwall, 26/1/2011. Tail pattern better than ind.1 apart from more extensive pale flecking, but sparsely barred upper-tail coverts typical argenteus, and upper-rump/ back mostly grey.

2nd w. (presumed) L.a.argenteus, Marazion, Cornwall, 13/12/2012. The underparts on this bird were reminiscent of smithsonianus, but the bird took off almost immediately so the under-tail coverts were not noted and this is my only image. It could be argued that argenteus cannot be confirmed from this shot; the tail is better for smith, and the upper-tail coverts show 4+ dark bars, though they do not quite reach the fringes.

2nd w, (presumed) L.a.argenteus, Sennen, Cornwall, 22/2/2010 (same individual below). It might seem  surprising that I do not consider this at least as likely to be smithsonianus as ind.1. However, although the tail pattern is better on this bird, and the upper-tail coverts have up to 6 bars, the underparts are probably too blotchy or coarsely marked and there was no solid neck"shawl". More important the possibly diagnostic almost solid-dark longest under-tail coverts of smith ( in Lonergan and Mullarney ) are not shown, despite being more closely barred than in most argenteus.

2nd w. (presumed) L.a.argenteus, Sennen, Cornwall, 22/2/2010. The 6-8 narrow dark bars on the longest upper-tail coverts are more typical of smithsonianus, and to date I have not seen "typical" argenteus matching this pattern. The white areas are presumably new ff apart from the inner web of the left/central longest  covert.

     The under-tail coverts in smith should be similar to the uppers but there are some differences; central coverts and vent are frequently white or sparsely marked, and any dark bars are often broader distally, irregularly or untidily patterned on the longest. Crucially Lonergan and Mullarney suggest that "solidly" dark centred under-tail coverts may be a pattern "..never found in European Herring Gulls.", whereas- in the longest ff- this may be the norm in smithsonianus!
    In their under-tail coverts at least the two Hayle individuals are far closer to smith and if Lonergan and Mullarney are correct then this feature alone could clinch their identification. Both birds showed a varying suite of supportive features so this seems reasonable but the problem is most of these can be shown to some degree by European birds, and until more is known about the significance of the "pale" outermost tail ff and dark under-tail coverts as anti- and pro-smithsonianus criteria respectively doubts will remain.

"Ind.1" possible L.smithsonianus, Hayle, Cornwall, 2/2/2015. The almost completely dark longest central under-tail coverts are just visible as this bird preens. The only pale marks on these ff were paired spots at the extreme tip, and another pair hidden here by the next longest coverts. It is possible this feature alone may be enough to identify this individual as smithsonianus but a single diagnostic feather pattern in any age or taxon of LWHG is at best extremely rare!

Detail of sketch of the under-tail coverts of "ind.2" -possible L.smithsonianus, Hayle Cornwall, 28/3/2015. Again the longest  under-tail coverts may be enough to make this bird- which was arguably more "impressive" overall than ind.1- an acceptable smithsonianus. The problems in this case stem from the lack of corroborative photographs and the brief and incomplete views obtained before the bird flew off to join the ranks of the "semi-mythsonianus"!!

Sunday, 29 March 2015


The "following" I now realise is shortly going to be the preceeding, so forgive the schoolboy error and remember when I say " see below" it will eventually  mean "see above"!

American Herring Gull L.smithsonianus

     I am treating this taxon first as, thanks to M. Ahmad "(Mush") finding a 2nd winter briefly at Drift reservoir, and then relocating it at Jericho Farm outside St Just last week, and now having seen another possible 2nd w. on the Hayle (28/3/15) this is more topical. Mush's bird is a classic "smith" and provides a perfect bench-mark against which to judge the Hayle birds!
    The initially distant views and poor light (low evening sun was burning out detail and producing deceptive deep shadows) made ageing  tricky when I saw the Jericho bird thanks to a timely lift from Bob Hibbett. The bird looked remarkably like a typical 1st w./2nd calendar year; smooth or "clouded" brownish underparts  and hind-neck shawl contrasting with pale head, extensive dark greater covert bar, apparently solid brown tail, dark centered rear scapulars contrasting with newer pale grey ff in the mantle and upper scapulars, and particularly the dense, broad dark-barred (arguably dark ff with pale notches!) upper tail coverts and single generation upper-wing coverts.

        2nd w. smithsonianus (lower mid.) Jericho farm .20/3/2015

   Bare-parts were inconclusive as the (apparently) dark eye and extensive blackish running along the cutting-edges towards the bill base could be shown by 2nd or 3rd calendar years, and- added to the distance- wear and bleaching at this time of year make it impossible to use fine ff pattern details to help ageing. Pattern distribution is of some use; 1st w. birds should still have uniformly patterned upper/under wing and tail coverts, being all retained juvenile ff, so no "breaks" or moult contrast should show until spring when new ff would be obvious. There are a couple of problems with this as more "northern" taxa such as smithsonianus (hereafter just "smith"- I don't want to keep on typing anus!) breed and therefore moult later, so 2nd w. (2nd basic) birds are less likely than argenteus to begin another moult (usually a few median cov.s etc.) before winter suspends it.

        2nd w. smithsonianus (upper mid. showing underwing) Jericho farm 20/3/2015

    The Jericho bird looked better for 1st w. on the upper wing and tail cov.s  but crucially the corresponding undersides were too messy and- on the underwing- too pale, thus better for 2nd w. In addition the bird had a more blotchy body, the newest grey scap.s looked plain, it lacked the dark sub-terminal marks on the inner pp typical of 1st w. and had a clean white outer edge to r6 all favouring 2nd w. (M.Ahmad

      2nd w. smithsonianus  Jericho farm. My sketches made 20/3 (after returning from field). Note
       depicted in low sun from left.

    Now I have to deal with the Hayle birds- I don't like discussing my own records as the bird's should stand on their own merits. The problem is I know both birds are flawed in that they don't have the full suite of characteristics for 2nd w. smith- unlike the Jericho bird- but given the infamous variability of L.W.H.G. at this age the question remains are they smiths?

fig 1

fig 2

fig 3

fig 4

fig 5
fig 6
      2nd w. Larus sp. (pos. smithsonianus) Hayle; top 31/1, lowest 21/2, rest 2/2/15.

       Sketches from notes of 2nd w. Larus sp. (pos. smithsonianus) Hayle, 28/3/15