Sunday, January 14, 2018

Back from the ashes: African White-backed Vulture in Extremadura, Spain 17/5/17

17/5/17 was one of my last days of PhD fieldwork in Spain. We worked north-east of Trujillo in Extremadura. My route of point-counts and transects in agro-steppe habitat was about 3 km east of the small village of Torecillas de la Tiesa. Shortly after 07:00 I walked towards a group of vultures sat on the ground, clearly attracted by a carcass. From a distance I could see that the group contained Eurasian Griffons and several Cinereous Vultures too. Then I noticed a very small and extremely pale vulture, and alarm bells went off inside my head. I was still quite distant from the vultures, but I took some record shots, and quickly sent them off to a couple of local birders. This is a screenshot of a Whatsapp conversation:

I then approached the vultures very slowly, improving my photos as I got closer. It was still rather chilly, early in the morning, and the vultures were not keen to take off and give up their breakfast. I got some pretty good photos of the bird. It eventually took off but only to land about 100m away. I was getting really excited about this bird. I googled some photos on my phone and it looked alright! Then my Spanish friends got back to me, after studying more back-of-camera photos I had sent them, and said it was probably just a heavily-bleached and miserable Eurasian Griffon. I had trouble to accept that verdict, but I had little more time to spend on this bird (I had other birds to count) and walked away leaving the vultures there around the carcass. I posted this bird in my blog, half-hoping someone would pick it up from there. But that never happened, and then it was back to the UK and to my university & family duties. I let go of this bird and forgot all about it. Because of storage space shortage, on the evening of the find I deleted most of the photos I took of the vulture, and kept only five originals (luckily).

Fast forward to a few days ago. I looked for something in Dick Forsman's recent Raptor ID book. As I browsed through the book, I came across the African White-backed Vulture (AWBV) plates, and suddenly I had this 'bingo!' moment. Everything I could see seemed to fit with my bird. I did some homework, read as much as I can about this relatively under-described vulture. I organised my thoughts into words, and sent my photos with an explanation why I think it's AWBV to several vulture experts, including Dick Forsman and a few Spanish friends. Dick replied back quickly, confirming it's AWBV, elaborating even more on what I had written him. The Spanish experts were less confident, and some repeated the opinion given to me in the field in May 2017, that it's an extremely small, bleached and unhealthy Eurasian Griffon (EG). However, confirmation I received from two top Spanish birders that I respect very much gave me enough confidence to move forward with this identification.

Here are the features that support the identification as AWBV:
  • Size much smaller than EG; I estimated about 15-20% smaller body size. It was also much slimmer, with a small head. I never saw the bird properly in flight, so I cannot describe proportions and wing structure. Unfortunately I did not keep the original of this back-of-camera image - this is what I sent by Whatsapp - how it looked like from a distance:

  • First step is to age the bird. Based on it's moult stage and wear, it should be 18-30 months old. AWBV breed in Africa during the northern winter. They seem to be able to moult year-round, while EG moults apparently only in summer. This bird had already replaced all its secondaries in May (see open-wing photos below) and was about halfway through it's primary moult. Most upperwing greater coverts are unreplaced, still with juvenile pattern, pretty worn and pointed. It is unclear to me whether the unmoulted primaries are juvenile or 2nd-generation - they are in pretty good shape unlike how juvenile primaries would be expected. However, the old greater coverts look juvenile.
  • Head, bill, cere and eye all very dark. Dirty or stained faces and bill always need to be taken into account, but this birds' dark parts look genuinely dark. EG of similar age would show pale bill, cere and eye.

  • This bird is missing almost all of its upperwing coverts and mantle feathers. All is left is white downy feathers. This all-in-one-go moult is apparently normal for this sub-Saharan breeder (DF). It's hard to tell what's going on in the underparts from my photos, but it seems that also many feathers are missing in underwing coverts and belly.

  • Several diagnostic AWBV features are visible in the above photo and in the photos below. First of all, the new greater coverts in the underwing have a diagnostic AWBV pattern - white with black spot at tip.

  • Another diagnostic AWBV feature visible here is the pattern of the few old axillaries - dark greyish-brown with pale shaft streak.

  • In the photo below, note the very long tarsus. In EG, the shorter tarsus is shorter than the middle toe, while in AWBV, and in this bird, the tarsus length is approximately equal to the length of the middle toe. Note also that the legs are dark grey. In EG they are paler.

  • Most upperwing greater coverts are old. There are few new greater coverts (a few inner coverts, and a few outer coverts - note that they are broader and have a more rounded tip), and importantly they are uniformly dark grey with no or very neat pale fringes, unlike the prominently pale-fringed pattern of second-generation EG greater coverts. This is another diagnostic AWBV feature. 

  • Pattern of uppertail coverts, dark with pale tips, is also good for AWBV (as per DF), and the pale-tipped greater covers are OK for AWBV as well. 

  • Note that in all images where underwing is visible, dark carpal / alula coverts are prominent. This is typical in mature or maturing AWBV, not seen in EG as far as I noticed.
  • AWBV has 12 tail feathers, while EG has 14. This bird has about 3 missing tail feathers. It's not easy to count exactly how many there are, but I think it's 12.

  • Moult stage of this bird is also indicative of AWBV. As AWBV moults year-round, compared to EG that moults only in summer, AWBV of similar age to EG should be much more advanced in their moult. Whether this bird is approximately 18 months old (second generation) or 30 (third generation), its moult is very advanced compared to similar aged EG. This bird has moulted all of it's secondaries (still growing the last, outermost secondary). EG at this primary moult stage would should very few, if any, moulted secondaries. Apparently, AWBV are able to replace all secondaries at a younger age than EG due to the longer 'available' period for moult.
Sadly, African White-backed Vulture is Critically Endangered, like many other vultures in Africa and Asia. It is a mega rarity in the Western Palearctic. If accepted by the Spanish rarities committee, this would be the 5th Spanish record. All previous four records were near Straits of Gibraltar, between 2008 and 2016. There are two records in Portugal: 2006 and 2014; the 2014 record is still under review but looks pretty good IMO. There are two more WP records, both in Morocco, 2014 and 2017 (after my record 馃槑). This is potentially also the first record for Extremadura. Most of these details are from Guillermo Rodr铆guez and Javier Elloriaga's excellent article: Identification of Rppell's Vulture and White-backed Vulture and vagrancy in the WP (2016) Dutch Birding 38: 349-375. Thanks also to Pedro Ramalho and Pedro Nicolau for the information about Portuguese records.

African White-backed Vulture distribution, from BirdLife Datazone

Personally, I am happy with this identification as AWBV, but must add some necessary reservations. From a rarities committee point of view, this might be a somewhat complicated decision, because of the 'apparently abnormal' appearence. It does give a 'sick' impression with all those missing plumage feathers, but perhaps this is normal moult for AWBV? While DF wrote to me that it is normal, I hope that Spanish RC manages to find support for this; also for the very advanced secondary moult. The open wing photos don't give an impression of a narrow and pointed wing shape as should be in AWBV. However, I think that it's hard to say anything about wing shape in these photos. Also, this bird might be in the upper size limit of AWBV. It is photographically size-comparable with only one EG, so hard to say exactly. I can only say that in the field I was struck by how tiny it was.

I am grateful to Dick Forsman for his quick and super-professional help with this case, as always. I also hugely appreciate the opinions and expertise of several Spanish friends whom I sent the photos and information to. Those who agree this is AWBV and those who don't are all top birders and vulture experts,  and I respect their opinions. Some of them are RC members, so I will not mention their names here, to allow them free judgement of the record when it gets circulated in their committees.

I regret that nobody else saw this bird. Several local birders could have seen it - I am sure it stayed in that area for a while, as long as the carcass was still attractive. But because I was talked away from my initial identification as AWBV, this bird went off the radar quickly and nobody followed it up. I should have done my research earlier, but I didn't, which is a pity. Who knows, maybe it's still hanging around with other vultures somewhere in Extremadura? Time will tell.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Snow Buntings on New Year's Day

Yesterday I went with my family to Winterton, where we met up with Terry and Marie. We were not alone. Many hundreds of punters swarmed the beach. Can't imagine what was going on in Horsey... It was a tough day for wildlife, though I spotted only few morons harassing the seals; most people behaved well, much to the credit of Horsey Seal Wardens. While most people were keen on getting seal selfies, Terry and I were much more interested in the flock of 40+ Snow Buntings on the beach. Poor birds - on a day like yesterday they had no rest. They were constantly on the move, being inadvertently flushed from spot to spot, but remained surprisingly loyal to the busiest section of the beach. I didn't try to get close to them, hence these 'atmospheric' shots and large crops. I was also just with my miniature 400mm lens... Nevertheless, they are fantastic birds and the males are simply stunning.

The stayed on the deck for few seconds at a time

Before being flushed again:

When we sat down to have our picnic, one brave bird did creep up closer to us:

The conditions for seal photography were less than ideal, so I didn't really bother. Nice to see seal pups going in for their first dips, just before disappearing into the Big Blue.

Grey Seal

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Welney Whoopers

Yesterday I went to Welney Wetland Centre with my family. It was a lovely day after a very wet system passed through Norfolk. Much of the Ouse Washes were underwater, and aprt for the main hide all the reserved was flooded and closed off. This winter swan numbers are relatively low, yet. Still, Welney delivers and the experience, especially for my family, was superb. Not the best photography conditions out of the main hide, but can't complain. Whooper Swans are always beautiful, and in yesterday's light they looked even better.

I find the young birds very delicate and pretty too

Only when this bird took off

I noticed it is ringed. It's an Icelandic bird ringed at Welney in December 2014 - thanks for the details Kane!

Check those red-eyed Pochards!

Because of the flood, every dry square inch was occupied by roosting birds

BIG numbers of Black-tailed Godwits

One of three Great White Egrets on the reserve:

Sorry for the crooked panorama

Tree Sparrows on the visitor centre feeders were actually a Norfolk tick for me (if I kept a Norfolk list)

Nice, relaxed birding to end the year - roll on 2018! A good way to start 2018 would be Ross's Gull...

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Special post - best of 2017

2017 was a funny year, with high wildlife peaks, mostly outside of England, and rather long idle periods of no birding. In my final year as a PhD student, I had to be a better boy and sit down on my arse more than I had wanted. Still, I think I managed to experience some decent wildlife, learned new things and acquired a new skill or two, so all-in-all a pretty good year. Without further ado, here are my best birding wildlife moments of 2017.

In the first few days of the January I was still in Israel, where I managed to see fine bird or two, including this Egyptian Nightjar:

After I returned back home to the UK, my twitching year started with a hattrick - a few good birds got the twitching machine going. First, a trip up to the northeast provided me with two WP ticks - Pacific Diver and Black Scoter, both in Northumberland. Not the best photo of the scoter, I know, it was hard work!

Pacific Diver, Druridge Bay CP

Black Scoter,  Goswick  

And just a few days later, I headed not that far, to Lincolnshire, for the stunning White-billed Diver on River Whitham. It was actually a global lifer for me:

In February I flew to India where I met up with my brother Gidon, Amir Balaban and another friend,  Eli for a rather short trip. We focused on two parks. First, we spent three days in Ranthambhore NP in Rajasthan, that provided what it says on the tin - Tigers. We had fantastic encounters with two tigers, and I even got to do a tiger selfie 馃槉 

Beautiful Arrowhead

For various reasons the holistic wildlife experience there was slightly on the slow side; still we saw some decent stuff, like this Brown Fish Owl:

Our next destination was Kaziranga NP in Assam, which was awesome in so many ways. Wish I had a few more days there.

Asian or Greater One-horned Rhino (VU) - Kaziranga is THE place to see them

With Pacific Golden Plover etc.

Pied Harrier - WOW bird

Great Hornbill

Check those eyelashes!

March went by without any widlife highlights. In April I got out of my hibernation. Before going away for PhD fieldwork in Iberia, I got in to some Emperor Moth action courtesy of James Lowen, my moth tutor and guru. 

I spent most of April and May in the field, in Alentejo (Portugal) and Extremadura (Spain). I worked with two brilliant field assistants and friends, Dan and Re'a. We counted birds in agro-steppe landscapes for my PhD project. We saw some cool birds daily, but the variety was somewhat dull. But hard to complain when one gets daily encounters with globally threatened birds like Little Bustard:

Or birds of European conservation concern like Montagu's Harrier:

On our days off we tried to do as much 'recreational' birding as possible. Because the utter lack of migration there, we focused on local breeding specialties. I had three global lifers - none exceptionally rare, but this was the first time I had visited the region this time of year:

White-rumped Swift - Monfrague NP

Western Olivaceous Warbler - Lobon

Red-necked Nightjar - Don Alvaro

And a few other goodies such as this Iberian Imperial Eagle also at Monfrague:

We were lucky to find two different Pallid Harriers; this one in La Serena

Under the influence of Dan, I developed my interest in butterflies, and by the end of our time there I could identify most species...

Southern Gatekeepr

Back in the UK, in June, I returned to work in full blast, but still managed to twitch the Elegant Tern down at RSPB Pagham Harbour in West Sussex (and another global lifer):

Later in the month, and during July, with the warming evenings, open windows meant moths inside the house. Moths were found mainly in my bathroom - I have young kids so we leave the light there switched on overnight. Not quite a moth trap but every morning, with the help of my kids, I found some moths. Most were common species, but there were some nice-looking moths, and I even have a copyright on a Twitter hashtag: #bathrommmoths. This Orange Swift, snoozing on my daughter's towel, was one of the finer moths of the summer:

James continued to provide me opportunities to get to know proper moths. Using his set-up I got some decent photos too:

Yellow-legged Clearwing

In August I travelled with my family up to Scotland. We started with a few days on Shetland, staying with our good friends Roger and Agnes. About two hours after disembarking the ferry, we found ourselves face-to-face with a pod of Orcas, hunting for seals in small bays as they sailed south past Virkie. Unbelievable.

The rest of our stay in Shetland provided us with several other brilliant wildlife experiences. The boat trip to Noss NNR with our friends from Shetland Seabird Tours was incredible:

On Sumburgh Head I joined a couple of overnight Storm-petrel ringing session, that brought in also good numbers of Leach's Petrels:

Sumburgh Head also provided daytime intimate encounters with Puffins:

After those magical days on Shetland we headed back to the mainland, where we stayed for a few days in the lovely Grant Arms Hotel, courtesy of Birdwatching and Wildlife Club. Weather was quite horrible most of the time, but I managed to see Capercaillie and another embarassing lifer - Red Grouse:


Red Grouse

Autumn 2017 will be remembered as the worst ever for East Anglian birders. The winds were wrong all season, and we basically had no birds. Early in September, I joined Spurn Migfest. The event was a huge success, but the star bird of the week came from the wrong direction:

Long-billed Dowitcher

In mid month I went southwest with some friends, to pick up a few quality birds dumped by Storm Aileen: Least Sandpiper and Stilt Sandpiper, both at Lodmoor RSPB in Dorset. 

Least Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper

And on the way back home we connected with two lost inland seabirds:

Best views ever of Sabine's Gull

Grey Phalarope

Towards the end of the month I saw the only top-quality sibe of the autumn to turn up in Norfolk, Pallas's Grashopper Warbler found by my mate Stu. No photos of it but that day I also saw an Arctic Warbler nearby at Wells:

The rest of the autumn went by without any distractions from my PhD, thankfully... In the last week of October I headed over to Yorkshire and Wales with my family, but I saw no birds of note at all. Snowdonia was stunning nevertheless:

In November I returned to Israel for a very quick and busy trip. I had very little time for birding. But one morning in the desert delivered two prominent highlights of my year. At a distance of few hundred meters from each other, two camera-uber-friendly mega wheatears put on an outrageous show:

Red-rumped Wheatear

Basalt Wheatear

Nearby I also twitched a rare and beautiful butterfly in Israel, Blue Pansy:

Towards the end of the month, back in frozen Norfolk, I enjoyed another global lifer - Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham:

Followed shortly in early December by a Coues's Arctic Redpoll at Eccles, my last proper bird of the year:

And that was that. The rest of December was devoted to work, family, and more work. But looking back at 2017 as a whole, it was a pretty brilliant year.

As always, I am grateful to all the friends who shared with me these wildlife highlights. They are too many to mention by name, but guys - you are awesome! Deep love and gratitude to my wife and kids who allow me to spread my wings a bit (too much). Apologies to my bosses for all the days I was off work... And of course, special thanks to all my followers and readers. Year 9 of this blog; this year I crossed a special landmark - 1,000,000 pageviews. I hope that in 2018 I will increase the activity volume of this blog, with my expected PhD graduation, and return to Israel next summer. I also intend to twitch a bit more as long as I am in the UK - currently three birds are waiting for me in the southwest...

I wish everyone a fantastic 2018, full of brilliant wildlife experiences. May this year bring better news for our planet, environment and people. Happy New Year!