Wacky wagtails

Israel in spring is a great place to study Yellow Wagtail subspecies. There is a good mix of western and eastern forms, and the males are obviously very good looking in spring. Among the more distinct forms, such as nominate flava or the almost-full-species feldegg (ask the Dutch), there are some interesting ‘mixed’ birds. In late March, quite a few males that look similar to feldegg but have a supercilium are seen. Some have nice clean white supercilium:

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Male ‘superciliaris‘ Yellow Wagtail, Eilat, March 2011

Note also the prominent lower eye-ring. This bird is what I would expect a mix between feldegg and flava look like. These birds normally give a sweet ‘western-type’ call. I would expect the female to look like this:

Motacilla flava supercilliaris female Israel March 2008 Yoav Perlman

Female ‘superciliaris‘ Yellow Wagtail, Eilat, Israel, March 2008

I call these birds ‘superciliaris‘ with quotation marks because the consensus is that it is not a real subspecies, but rather a ‘fluid’ mix from E of the Balkans.

During the recent Champions of the Flyway race day in late March, I found this stunning bird at Neot Smadar sewage farm. This tiny gem of a site in the desert held a couple hundred Yellow Wagtails, mainly feldegg and flava. I had very little time so couldn’t study it properly and just fired off some images. I did hear it call – it gave a western call. But it looks very much like what I would expect from ‘xanthophrys‘ – another dodgy mix thing. This bird has a vivid yellow supercilium and dark green – blackish crown and ear coverts.

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xanthophrys‘ / ‘superciliaris‘ Yellow Wagtail, Neot Smadar, S Negev, Israel, March 2015

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xanthophrys‘ / ‘superciliaris‘ Yellow Wagtail, Neot Smadar, S Negev, Israel, March 2015

It superficially resembles taivana, which belongs to the Eastern Yellow Wagtail group, but is separated by having too much black on the crown and ear coverts (taivana is greener) and also mantle is too dark green. taivana has a vivid green-yellow mantle, and lacks a prominent lower white eyering. Check stunning images here. And of course the call of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail group is distinctive, closer to Citrine Wagtail – see here and here.

This individual was seen by other birders as well and did attract some attention, because xanthophrys types are not commonly seen in Israel. I was slightly disappointed to hear its western call. xanthophrys should have rasping eastern calls, similar to feldegg and lutea that are the supposed ancestors of this mix. So what is this bird? I am not sure, probably superciliaris too. But because both forms superciliaris and xanthophrys are mixed anyway, I am not sure whether there is a real distinction between them or are they just two ends of a cline between birds with white superciliums in the west and yellow superciliums in the east?

Another mix-type that is seen in Israel in pretty good numbers is dombrowski that breeds in Romania. dombrowski is another type of mix between flava and feldegg or beema and feldegg:

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‘dombrowski’ Yellow Wagtail, Eilat, March 2012

It looks more like a very dark flava, rather than an eye-browed feldegg. Some individuals can be slightly paler and bluer than this, but they typically are dark and dull on the head and lack a pale ear coverts patch.

And here are some of the ancestors. Male black-headed are really unmistakable, and cracking too…

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Black-headed Yellow Wagtails (feldegg), Yotvata, March 2015

Female feldegg typically have a short yellow or sometimes whitish supercilium behind the eye:

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female feldegg Yellow Wagtail, Bet Kama, N Negev, Israel, September 2013

flava Yellow Wagtails are pretty variable. Some are rather dark, deep blue-headed like this one and lack almost any pale on the ear coverts:

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flava yellow Wagtail, Arava Valley, March 2013

Some are a bit drabber, paler-headed with more pale on the ear coverts. This is a young male (2cy) – check the obvious moult contrast in the greater coverts:

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flava Yellow Wagtail, 2cy male, Neot Smadar, May 2012

beema Yellow wagtails are very pale headed, and typically have a large pale patch on the ear coverts. They have an eastern call.

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beema Yellow Wagtail, Eilat, April 2014

lutea is a striking bird. Not dissimilar to the British Yellow Wagtails. Some have slightly greener ear coverts and crown. They have an eastern call as well. They are uncommon in Israel, but they are one of the dominant forms seen in East Africa in winter.

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lutea Yellow Wagtail, Chem-Chem Lake, Kenya, December 2010

 

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Saunders’s and Little Terns ID pitfalls

This is a topic I talked about briefly in my 2015 Spurn Migfest talk. Saunders’s Tern is one of the rarest and least-known breeding birds in the WP. Despite having a large range around the Indian Ocean, including Red Sea, coastal East Africa, Arabia and Indian Subcontinent, it is still a poorly-known species worldwide. ID of adults in summer is better described. Compared to its sister Sternula species, Little Tern, it is smaller and slimmer. Seeing them side by side (I have seen two in Israel alongside Little Terns), you get a similar comparison to Common versus Arctic Tern in differences in size, structure and derived flight pattern – about 10% smaller and more delicate, and flight more light and bouncy. Calls are also different – check the Xeno Canto page with lots of variation in call but the mainstream seems to be softer and less coarse than Little Tern. Some plumage features seem to be rather robust – first of all, contrary to what some birders may think, adult summer saunders’s are paler above than adult little, very pale silvery-white. They have a larger dark primary patch, usually 4-5 dark primaries, compared to the normal 2-3 dark primaries in adult littles. Also, littles have a contrasting white rump and tail, at least the outer tail feathers (apprently greyer central tail feathers are quite normal in Little Terns). Saunders’s has concolorous (pale) grey mantle, rump and entire tail. And that’s it more or less. All the other features mentioned in literature are of unknown validity, mainly becuase the limits of variation within Saunders’s Tern, even adults in summer plumage, are little known.

But that’s not the only reason why separating these two species is challenging. Interestingly, the amount of variation shown by adult summer Little Tern, which is such a familiar and popular European bird, a photographer’s favourite, is not well described. More on this below.

My interest in them increased a few months ago. I noticed this Saunders’s-type tern in a blogpost of my good friend from kuwait Mike Pope from late April 2015:

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Tern sp. with little Tern in background, Sea City, Kuwait, 25/4/15 by Mike Pope

This bird made some alarm bells go off – look at this broad wing patch (4 parimaries), concolorous rump and complete grey tail – this must be a Saunders’s Tern, no? I flagged it up to Mike, he circulated among some experts, and the views were leaning towards Saunder’s tern – that would have been a long overdue first for Kuwait.

But then the plot thickened. I circulated Mike’s report among my fellow IRDC members. Yosef Kiat has been ringing Common and Little Terns for several years now in a breeding colony at Atlit, south of Haifa, on the Med Coast. He sent me some images of Little Terns from the breeding colony this late summer that knocked me off my chair. I was aware of the variation they show there, I did join him several times on his nocturnal adventures there, but have never seen extreme birds like these. First, a 2cy bird – this bird hatched in the colony to ‘normal’ looking Little Tern parents in 2014, and was retrapped this year:

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2cy Little Tern, Atlit, israel, 25 August 2015 by Yosef Kiat

Look at the grey rump and tail: perhaps outer tail feathers are slightly paler than the heavily abraded and dirty central tail feathers, but I am sure in the field this would look like a solid grey tail.

And take a look at this 1cy bird, hatched 2015, again to’normal’ Little Tern parents, wow!

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1cy Little Tern, Atlit, 1/9/15 by Yosef Kiat

Hmmm…. Grey rump, grey tail… And the wing looks like this – in the field it would look like a huge dark wedge:

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1cy Little Tern, Atlit, Israel, 1/9/15 by Yosef Kiat

Also this summer, in June, Yuda Siliki, an Israeli birder sent me this nice comparison of Little Terns from Ma’agan Michael – these birds are from the same colony in Atlit. Check out the variation in supposed features for Saunders’s Tern – shape of forehead patch and extent of dark bill tip. Saunders’s has much more limited white foreahead, not unlike the lower individual, but the white patch needs to more squared off in saunders’s, less of a supercilium above and behind the eye, but still check the amount of variation among the two. Also, what about the amount of dark on the bill tip? Saunders’s should have more extensive dark than little, so what’s going on here?

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Adult Little Terns, ma’agan Michael, Israel, 7/6/15 by Yuda Siliki

I think it is very interesting to explore this species pair now. They were found breeding only recently in southwest Sinai, just 150 km away from the Mediterranean. For a long-distance migrant to hop into the Med is no big deal, and then it could practically turn up anywhere around the Mediterranean. An adult in summer plumage should be possible to pick out among Little Terns, but what about a young bird? and a non-breeding bird? Headache. If you read carefully Klaus Malling Olsen’s tern book he does state that in non-breeding and juvenile plumages it would not be safe to separate the species. With the circumstancial evidence provided here I tend to agree, but it is hard for me to accept that they cannot be separated. There must be something out there to teach us.

This is how some Saunders’s Tern breeding in Sinai look like – many thanks to Rich Bonser for allowing me to use his brilliant pics. Adults have a nice prominent wing patch, but only three dark primaries here. Is it moulting? Unclear. It has a small forehead patch, that doesn’t extend above and behind the eye:

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Adult Saunders’s Tern, Ras Sudr, Sinai, Egypt, July 2013 by Richard Bonser

Difficult light conditions here. Rump is grey – however in this image tail looks paler?

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Adult Saunders’s Tern, Ras Sudr, Sinai, Egypt, July 2013 by Richard Bonser

This bird in better light conditions does show the rump and tail pattern nicely. It is in active primary moult, so wing patch much reduced here:

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Adult Saunders’s Tern, Ras Sudr, Sinai, Egypt, July 2013 by Richard Bonser

More extensive white forehead patch here, but again does not extend back above eye:

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Adult Saunders’s Tern, Ras Sudr, Sinai, Egypt, July 2013 by Richard Bonser

Very pale silvery white above. Solid dark bill tip as in all photos. There is some talk about Saunder’s having duller leg colour but I think this feature is not worth much. This is so dependent on the hormonal condition the bird is in during breeding. Also bill tip must change according to breeding condition?

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Adult Saunders’s Tern, Ras Sudr, Siani, Egypt, July 2013 by Richard Bonser

That’s a 1cy. I do not know if the colony at Ras Sudr is mixed with Little Terns or not, but in Rich’s blog this is a 1cy Saunders’s Tern – I will go with the flow. Not dissimilar to the Atlit 1cy Little Tern above? Pretty pallid bird but extensive wing patch. Greater and lesser primary coverts very dark here, but is it different to how the Atlit 1cy would look like in the field? I am not sure.

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1cy Saunders’s Tern, Ras Sudr, Sinai, Egypt, July 2013 by Richard Bonser

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1cy Saunders’s Tern, Ras Sudr, Sinai, Egypt, July 2013 by Richard Bonser

It would be great to study the amount of variation the Sinai Saunders’s Terns show in key features like forehead patch, bill tip and tail pattern. Also how many dark primaries do they have before moult?

One incredible place to study Saunders’s Tern in non-breeding would be Kenya. I visited Sabaki river mouth, north of Malindi in December 2010. There is a roost of hundreds of thousands of Saunders’s Terns (!) there during the northern winter. I was there at daytime so there were only few thousands… But they were all distant, and scoping them into the sun didn’t provide me with much insight on their ID. I wonder if anyone rings them there, or at least photograhps them.

But one very important piece missing in the jigsaw is how much variation ‘our’ Little Terns show, in adult summer plumage and also in other plumages. Does this variation that I have shown here in Israeli birds occur in northern populations as well? The Little Terns I have seen here in the UK looked all bog standard, but I didn’t study any juveniles. I guess that few 2cy Little Terns return in summer to N Europe? Would be great to get some feedback from ringers and birders with field experience.

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Iduna issues

On October 1st Noam Weiss trapped this intriguing Iduna warbler at IBRCE, Eilat. Noam is the director of the IBRCE, and is one of the most experienced ringers in Israel. Noam must have handled in his extensive ringing carrier several thousand Eastern Olivaceous Warblers I. elaeica, the default Iduna in Israel, and he was immediately struck by this individual – how pallid and sandy it was, and this amazing bill!

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Noam understood he had an unusual bird in his hands, and did what an experienced ringer should do in cases like this: he took full measurements of the bird, made sure he had enough photographs in good light conditions, and collected a couple of belly feathers that were shed during the normal ringing process, for DNA analysis. He suspected it could be opaca, based on its very long bill. There are no accepted records of opaca in Israel, yet…

Naom’s bird was rather large, larger than average elaeica, with a wing length of 67 mm. The wing formula wasn’t helpful – especially the 2nd primary that falls between P6/7 – OK for both species:

Wing

The bill length fits opaca, with length to skull of 19.6 mm, but the bill width was too narrow and fits elaeica better – 4.4 mm. Also note the bill shape from below – in opaca it’s supposed to be convex, with swollen mandibles, while elaeica shows straight or slightly concave mandibles:

Bill

A few other pointers to this bird being elaeica are:

  1. Pale wing panel on secondaries – opaca lacks a wing panel.
  2. Overall tones – though this bird lacks the typically olive-grey tones of elaeica, it still lacks the brown, almost Acrocephalus tones of opaca.
  3. The lores are pretty dark, and supercilium rather pronounced. opaca has a more open-faced impression with pale lores.

Back

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After consulting with members of the Spanish rarities committee, including Manolo Garcia, the consensus on this bird is that it is an unusual elaeica with a deformed bill, and not opaca. But maybe DNA analysis provides different insights? We will know more soon. Thumbs up to Noam for picking out this interesting bird, and sharing the images and information with me.

Here are a few images of normal elaeica from Israel. They normally are darker and have stronger olive tones, though this is often hard to perceive in photographs, as it depends on light conditions and on how images are manipulated in editing software. This is an individual in May – look at the pointed and narrow bill:

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And this is a cute 1cy, recently fledged (huge awww factor), after a limited post-juvenile moult. Very short and thin bill:

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Identification of Iduna warblers has been discussed on Birding Frontiers before – check this post with some images of opaca and reiseri. But always there is more to learn!

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Just for fun

Casual results from a quick visit to the Natural History Museum at Tring

‘Isabelline’ Shrikes – adult males:

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White / Pied Wagtails – all 2cy males in spring / summer

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All images in this post are copyright of the Natural History Museum London.

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Rueppell’s or hybrid or what?

On July 15th, Eitan and Judith Kaufman went birding at the scenic Gamla NR in N Israel . This reserve is well-known for its vultures that often fly past the lookout at very close range. Among the Eurasian Griffons, they noticed this very striking-looking vulture, that made one quick pass in front of them:

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Vulture Sp., Gamla NR, N Israel, 15 July 2014. Photo by Eitan Kaufman.

They sent the photo to several Israeli birders, and immediately the alarm bells went off – from above this bird looked very good for Rueppell’s Vulture. Hot on the heels after the first Rueppell’s for Israel that was found in May 2014 by Ezra Hadad in C Israel but unfortunately was non-twitchable, we were all hoping that this bird shows better. The image was sent to Dick Forsman, who agreed that this bird had a good potential to be an adult Rueppell’s Vulture of the NE African race erlangeri, but he did clearly state that some bird are virtually impossible to separate from Eurasian Griffon, and that hybrids are known from Ethiopia.

Next morning quite a few birders assembled at the Gamla lookout, and when the air heated up and the vultures left their roost, soon the suspect was relocated. from above it looked very good, but from below – oh no! Pretty identical to Eurasian Griffon! Very plain from below, too plain, especially the undertail coverts. This bird stayed around Gamla for a couple more weeks. This image is by Shachar Alterman:

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Vulture sp., Gamla NR, N Israel, 4 August 2014. Photo by Shachar Alterman.

Googling Ethiopian Rueppell’s Vultures images, I found none that have completely ‘blank’ underparts like this bird. erlangeri is less striking than the C African race rueppellii, but surely pure erlangeri cannot be so plain from below? I wonder if anyone has images of known hybrids either from E Africa of elsewhere in Africa. Have any hybrids wondered into Europe via Gibraltar? Certainly worth looking out for.

Here are some ‘real’ Rueppell’s:

This is the first for Israel, found and photographed by Ezra Hadad, 5 May 2014. It was on the move with two other Eurasian Griffons and was not seen subsequently. This is a younger bird – probably 3cy – note especially the undertail coverts:

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Rueppell’s Vulture, Gva’ot Gad, NR, C Israel, 5 May 2014. Photo by Ezra Hadad. The first for Israel.

Here is an adult rueppell’s from Portugal, with an Eurasian griffon, by Rami Mizrahi, November 2011:

Rueppell's Vulture (left) and Eurasian Griffon (right), Portugal, November 2011. Photo by Rami Mizrachi.

Rueppell’s Vulture (left) and Eurasian Griffon (right), Portugal, November 2011. Photo by Rami Mizrachi.

And a few from Kenya, December 2008:

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Rueppell’s Vulture of nominate race rueppellii, Masai Mara, Kenya, December 2008.

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Rueppell’s Vultures with African White-backed Vultures G. africanus, Masai Mara, Kenya, December 2008.

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Birding essentials: the Muckboot

I’ve never written anything about wellies before. Ever. A welly is a welly is a welly, right? That’s what I thought for most of my birding life. For two or three years in the late 80s and early 90s, I was sufficiently misguided to be seen in standard Hunter green wellies (OK, look, I was at Oxford at the time – and at least I chopped those stupid buckles off, lest they get snagged in a mistnet). Apart from that, I’ve generally bought a cheap and serviceable pair of black rubber wellies, thrown ‘em away when they leaked and not thought much more about it. Arriving in Shetland in 1992 soon highlighted the design flaws in Hunter wellies. Those nice soft rubber soles that make them comfortable for walking wear down smooth remarkably quickly and the boots become potentially lethal anywhere near a cliff edge after that. Equally, like most wellies, there’s little or no support for your feet in a pair. And, lets face it, they look a bit poncy as well. Nul point to the Hunter!

More than 200 years ago, the Duke of Wellington, fed up with trudging off to battle in the common-or-garden hessian boot that was standard issue for the cavalry back in the eighteenth century, dispatched a telegram to his bootmaker to look lively and come up something better. The bootmaker, Hoby of London, fairly got his act together and the resulting creation, lovingly crafted in baby-soft calfskin leather, was a revelation. Ok, that may be a mite OTT, but they caught on. Apparently, the boot was not only hardwearing for battle, it was comfortable for the evening too (which in the Duke’s case no doubt meant banqueting with the great and the good as well as nipping down the Nag’s Head for a jar or two with the chaps).

DukeWellingtonJamesLonsdaleHere is the Duke at Waterloo wearing his own design and looking generally pleased with himself. I read somewhere that Wellington’s dashing new boots quickly caught on with patriotic British gentlemen. Not only that, they were considered fashionable and foppish and worn by dandies, and they remained the main fashion for men through the 1840s. Well!

Back to reality… Some five years ago, maybe more, Muckboots www.muckbootcompany.com started to appear in Shetland. Proud owners in the vanguard of the movement reckoned they were the proverbial dogsb***ocks. They were warm, cosy and comfortable, and they looked alright too. Perfect for a birding dandy. I confess, I was sceptical, ‘specially after looking at the price tag. I caved in about three years ago though, and having just bought my second pair last autumn, was delighted to receive a pair of the new Arctic Sport muckers for review. Hence this post…

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to go on much longer. I can get the review over with in very few words. Basically Muckboots are really good. Courtesy of their neoprene lining they are toasty warm. When it’s cold, they are on a different planet from conventional wellies. They have a decent sole that doesn’t wear down like the aforementioned hunters. I haven’t fallen off a cliff once in Muckboots. They are close-fitting round your calves, and they are dead comfortable to wear – all day. (By the way, ignore the usual welly advice and don’t buy a size up to wear with thick socks – just get your normal shoe size.) Most people seem to find them comfortable immediately; I find that I need a few outings in a new pair before they feel like slippers. For me, the very best thing about them is unquestionably that they give you proper ankle support, courtesy of the firm, yet still lightweight rubber that encases the foot and ankle. That was the real reason I bought them – in my advancing middle age, and with footballing injuries of old becoming an increasing problem, getting through an autumn of slogging up Quendale and trying to avoid twisted ankles in rabbit holes was becoming a challenge. Now, I admit it, I wouldn’t be without Muckboots. I would honestly have said that before those nice gentlemen at Muckboot sent me a pair to write about.

UntitledDrawbacks? On a hot day they can get too hot – but no worse than any other welly. But if you want a pair for walking the dog on a cold winter’s morning get the Arctic Sport (which are fleece-lined inside the neoprene); and if you want a year-round allrounder the Muckmaster (shown, previously known as the Tayboot) is what you need. [And try and avoid green. Black is the new black after all. Darling.]

And, coming back to drawbacks, the price. £80-ish is ballpark. But, and here’s the thing: they should last just as long as an average pair of walking boots, which cost the same or more if you get a waterproof pair. And if you’re birding iris beds and wet ditches in the autumn – and let’s face it, where else would you be birding in autumn? – wellies and overtrousers are de rigueur. Walking boots, gaiters and overtrousers, or any combination thereof, just don’t cut it.

In short, dear reader, the modern birding dandy is wearing Muckboots. You simply can’t afford not to!

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Pallid Swift Identification

under pressure

by Martin G.

I think this is my first ever solo observer ‘rarity’ record. Of course it would go and involve a species that’s reckoned to be one of the trickiest identification challenges in British birding. A briefly seen fly by Pallid Swift claim. I am tempted just to hide away and say nothin’!
In short I took our dog Ebony for an evening walk, last Saturday evening (26th Oct.) near North Landing Flamborough. I wasn’t expecting to see much but my first Ring Ouzel of the autumn was very welcome. It was hard to see but having manged a couple of photos of it diving into a bush I approached for a closer view. I then noticed a swift sp. flying towards me. I literally thought ‘Oh No!” I knew this could be good, or torture.  I identified this  bird as Pallid for myself within about 15 seconds- structure really good, big pale face, pale brown ‘window’ from below (secondaries and inner primaries) and obvious brown tones glimpsed on upperparts. Not much though, and all a little subjective! Then it flew further away and into low harsh light and as it did I grabbed my camera and rattled off a few images, before putting news out. The whole encounter might have lasted about a minute (or less!) . Despite a good effort put in by friends the bird could not be located and wasn’t seen again.
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Ring ouzel b Holmes gut 27.10.13Ring Ouzel diving into bush in Homes Gut. Just before a swift appeared…

The images are poor. The bird is flying into low evening light, at some distance from me, so they are heavily cropped. I was very curious to see what ‘evidence’ could be obtained in this brief fly by view. Of course I had my own field observation and impression… and these photos.

I have had some feedback on these photos from 3 friends. I will put these comments up later, but before then, given some interest in the challenges of Common and Pallid Swift ID (views, light, experience, pros and cons of photographs etc) I wondered if some might like to have a look at the images that I have had to wrestle with:

Pallid Swift d Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift f Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift j Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift g Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift h Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift m Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift n Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

and if you are bored with Pallid Swift stuff- then perhaps you can appreciate this ending to an email from Swedish birder, Hans Larsson I got a couple of days ago:
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BTW, I went to our only prominent cliffs in my part of the province of Scania yesterday in hope for a Pallid. To my surprise I did found a Swift, but it turned out to be a White-rumped! Still in shock today…

Best wishes,

Hans

more photos here

White-rumped2Video:

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