Thursday 30 November 2017

Parrots in The Pines 29th November 2017

At the beginning of October this year I went with some friends for two weeks birding in Shetland. I saw many good birds but one particular bird stuck in my memory more than most and that was an encounter with some half dozen Parrot Crossbills that had invaded Shetland for the first time in twenty five years, irrupting from their Scandinavian or Russian forest homes due to a failure of the pine cone crop and it  was no coincidence that the Faeroe Islands were also invaded by Parrot Crossbills, in considerably larger numbers, at the same time as the birds that arrived in Shetland.

Parrot Crossbills are no ordinary crossbills, being larger, more powerful and more chunky than their Common Crossbill cousins, possessing a hefty, deep bill that looks similar to that of a parrot hence the name but more than this they possess a chutzpah that gives them enormous appeal to those who seek to encounter them, such as myself. They can hardly be called physically attractive being rather short and squat with a disproportionately large head, bull neck and possessing small beady eyes. Such an outlandish appendage as their monstrous bill does not help, but strangely this, plus the fact they are very rare outside their breeding areas and the adult males are a deep red colour, serves to impart a certain charisma to them. Maybe I am biased but there is definitely an indefinable 'something' about them which fascinates me.

In the last seven days at least, two flocks of Parrot Crossbills have been found in England, well south of their normal range, presumably irrupting for the same reason as the ones in Shetland last month.There is currently a flock of at least 40 at Santon Warren in Norfolk and another flock of 16 in Swinley Forest at Wishmoor Bottom, which is an area of heathland and pine woodland in Berkshire, part of which is utilised for training by the nearby Sandhurst Military Academy but the rest is open to the public to roam at will. 

Parrot Crossbills normally live and breed in the pine forests of Scandinavia then range eastwards to the Kola Peninsular and Pechora in Russia although, since 1991 they have colonised Scotland and by 2007 at least a hundred pairs were thought to breed mainly in the Abernethy Forest, although the latest RSPB estimate now has them at only sixty five pairs. Parrot Crossbills are usually sedentary and they are a very rare irruptive vagrant outside their breeding areas, so the presence of  at least two flocks well away and well south of their normal range is cause for much interest and speculation.

The first recorded Parrot Crossbill in Britain was a female collected at Blythburgh Suffolk in 1818 and prior to the major influx of 1962/63 only two records for Britain have been accepted, a female trapped on the Isle of May in Scotland on 18th September 1953 and an immature male killed by a car near Catleugh, Northumberland on 16th September 1954.

There have been at least three major irruptions of Parrot Crossbills to Britain recorded; 1962/1963 when records of 79 separate birds were accepted by the BBRC (British  Birds Rarities Committee), 1982/1983 when 109 records were accepted and 1990/1991 when 264 records were accepted. Since then the odd individual bird has been found away from their Scandinavian, Russian and Scottish breeding areas and I myself saw a female associating with Common Crossbills on a bitterly cold day, the 2nd February 2012, at Blackdown NT on the Surrey/Sussex border, and a flock of 14 at Budby in Nottinghamshire in December 2013 which remained into 2014. These were the last I had seen apart from the ones on Shetland this year but I never dreamed I would have the chance to see them in England again so soon, until today that is. Many birders have been eagerly awaiting this opportunity to encounter these wonderful birds in an easily accessible part of Britain and now their chance to do so has come. Many are making the most of this as it could be a long time until it happens again.

Peter had sent me a text on Monday suggesting we might go for the Parrot Crossbills in Norfolk but on Tuesday suggested we go for the Parrot Crossbills in Berkshire, rather than make an unnecessarily long journey to see the more distant ones in Norfolk. I was happy to concur and we met up at Peter's home in Garsington at 9.30 am, as arranged, on a sunny but bitterly cold Wednesday morning.

We set off in Peter's car on the hour long drive to Wishmoor Bottom which lies on the borders of Surrey and Berkshire and soon found ourselves at the end of Kings Ride, near Camberley, where we parked and, following instructions on RBA, set off on the half mile walk along a gently rising track heading north through part of the two thousand hectares of open heathland and mainly coniferous woodland that comprises Wishmoor Bottom. Following the detailed instructions on my RBA app, after half a mile we turned right and shortly after turned left, following a wide grass track that brought us out onto an area of open heathland with scattered lone pine trees. This looked just the spot and according to the RBA grid reference it was but there was no sign of any crossbills or other birders.

Uncertainty held sway briefly as we stood looking around. I was feeling the cold, as now out in the open, the northerly wind, although light, added a few more minus degrees to the air temperature. Peter then saw a line of birders, beyond some bushes, standing in another open area a few hundred metres further on, looking up at a single gaunt Scots pine. 

We took a small track  and quickly joined them where we found they were already looking at the unmistakeable profiles of crossbills, Parrot Crossbills, at the very top of the tree, silhouetted against a pale, sullen grey sky that had long since clouded over and obliterated any vestige of sun. I took some pictures but the birds were distant and too far away for my camera and lens combination to cope. In my binoculars I could see the red males and olive green females hopping around in the topmost branches of the tree, nibbling at the numerous cones or snipping one off and holding it aloft briefly, almost as if in triumph, their prize held firmly in their huge mandibles.

To see them side on one could not fail to notice the depth and size of their bills and the large heads and powerful necks that supported them. Almost like a mini Hawfinch.

With around another fifteen birders we watched them in the tree and edged a little closer and then closer still. The crossbills seemed oblivious to us and carried on acrobatically clambering around the tree top feeding on the cones, flying from one part of the tree to another but always maintaining a position near the top of the tree and in close company. It was impossible to count them as some were far inside the canopy and virtually invisible in the density of pine needles and fretwork of twigs and branches.

Twenty minutes later some of them started calling persistently, to my ears a more melodious  mellifluous call, that is slightly softer, deeper and tuneful and not so metallic and clipped as the call of a Common Crossbill. Then the birds burst forth from the tree in a loose assemblage and flew in a bounding flight across the heath to land in another cone laden pine some three hundred metres distant. I counted sixteen birds in the flock. We all followed  to where they had landed and now we could see them so much better, as some of the birds were feeding lower in the tree with no longer a pale background of sky but the deep green of pine fronds behind them. Much better for photography and even for viewing through binoculars and telescope.

Adult male Parrot Crossbill
With virtually everyone possessing a camera of varying quality these days, we positioned ourselves individually around the tree at a  discrete distance and took images of the birds, male and female, adult and juvenile, to our hearts content, the birds either feeding or just sitting not doing much at all as if they had fed enough and were content to watch their fellow crossbills continue to strip the cones.

Their specialised diet consists virtually exclusively of the  large, hard, thick scaled cones of Scots Pine or other species of pine cone and very occasionally insects. They expertly strip the scales off the cone, one by one, to extract the seed, either feeding from the cone in situ or snipping it off and holding it down with their foot on a pine branch and dealing with it that way. This feeding behaviour is yet another similarity to a  real parrot. Such a dry diet can create a thirst and once during our two hour observation, some of the flock flew down to a puddle to drink very briefly but they were obviously uneasy about being on the ground and quickly flew back up into the tree.

One of the Parrot Crossbill's favourite  pine trees
For the next forty five minutes we watched them feeding in their chosen pine tree, individual birds appearing and then disappearing in the thick green pine fronds. An adult male, glorious in his brick red plumage rested quietly on top of a pine twig just looking around, his lightweight body being gently swayed by the wind disturbed twig he had chosen to perch on. 

Just below him an orange and yellow juvenile male was tearing a cone to shreds and a grey and green female fed in similar fashion slightly higher up. Unlike the birds I saw in Shetland, which fed quietly and did not call, the birds here softly 'chipped' to each other, maybe because there were more of them and they wished to maintain contact with each other in the depths of the pine. I watched as an immature male hung almost upside down from a pine frond to pluck off his cone of choice. Another parrot like mannerism. 

Parrot Crossbill acrobatics

Note the long, pink and sticky tongue to which the pine seed adheres once
it is extracted from the sheath by the bird's bill

Immature male Parrot Crossbills. Note the orange
plumage rather 
than pink or red and areas of grey and
yellow feathering.The narrow 
wing bar is probably another
sign of immaturity as also is the paler
less substantial bill 
The males plumage from what I observed today can be very variable, from adults showing a deep red body and head with brown wings and brown forked tail, while some, probably younger birds, show a faint pale wing bar on their greater coverts, and others, presumably younger males and born earlier this year exhibit an orange, green and pink combination, although crossbill's plumage can be notoriously confusing and makes ageing individual birds difficult. The females are much more muted in colour, being an amalgamation of dull olive and yellowish green with distinctly greyish tones to their heads making them inconspicuous amongst the pine shoots.

Female Parrot Crossbills
With unhurried movements we re-positioned ourselves at intervals to get the best angle for a photo.It was a quiet and relaxed atmosphere as everyone enjoyed these close views of the crossbills going about their everyday lives. We almost felt privileged as neither myself or Peter thought it would be as good as this. I can only assume our fellow birders felt the same too. 

Birders watching the Parrot Crossbills
Then, at a signal unknown and unrecognised by us the crossbills flew again, departing with loud calls and returned to the original tree and fed once again on the abundant cones.There is certainly no shortage of food for the crossbills here, so they may remain for some time. Let's hope so.

We followed them again and stood near the tree and watched. An immature male and a female sat near to each other in the bare twigs and branches towards the outside of the tree. The female moved closer to the male who then fed her with presumably regurgitated pine seed as she solicited him with shivering wings and upheld beak. The sun even broke through, briefly illuminating the orange and yellow plumage of the male. We had spent only fifteen minutes here and then all the crossbills flew back to the tree from whence they had come. 

We followed once more as this was sort of on the way back across the heathland to the car.We stopped at the tree and watched them once again, fussing and fiddling with the cones. Just one more photo for each of us, well maybe two, even three more but we had done really well.

An old male Parrot Crossbill. Just look at that bill!

Peter asked me the time. 'It's one pm Pete. Fancy going? 'We have been here almost two hours and I don't think we can do better than this.' Peter agreed. 'Yes I'm happy to leave' so we slowly walked back across the heath and along the muddy, wet track through the woodland and back to the car. I no longer felt the cold, now inwardly warmed by my audience with the Parrot Crossbills of Wishmoor Bottom. I may well go back if they stay. It was that good.


For Peter's account of the day see here

Sunday 26 November 2017

An American Horned Lark at Staines Reservoir 25th November 2017

On Friday evening I looked at my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app just before bedtime to see what birds had been reported during the day and was intrigued to see a late entry about a 'probable' American Horned Lark being found at Staines Reservoir in Surrey.

I turned out the light and went to sleep thinking no more about it.

Saturday morning was crisp, sunny and the sky a crystal clear blue. Beautiful and just the day to clear up all those little domestic chores that had been mounting up.

I consulted my RBA app as I do, first thing every morning, just to see what was about but with no firm intention of doing anything about it even if there was.

There was the usual long list of Hawfinch sightings from all over the southern half of England as the unprecedented invasion of Hawfinches from mainland Europe continues. Presumably there has been a failure of their food supply in their normal haunts and they are forced to seek pastures new such as England in order to survive.

Near the top of the RBA list, there it was again, a report of the probable American Horned Lark still at Staines Reservoir at 7.30am this morning. So, it was still there and my resolve about the chores began to weaken. 

Horned Lark used to be included on the British List under the name North American Horned Lark based on a specimen claimed to have been obtained from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland by the now largely discredited Richard Meinertzhagen and unsurprisingly this record was later removed. There have been at least two subsequent claims of Horned Larks being found in Britain. The first was of one commuting between St Agnes and Tresco in The Isles of Scilly, England from 2nd-31st October 2001.The second was at Askernish in South Uist, Scotland from 9th-11th October 2014 but neither have been accepted. 

There has also been a claim of a possible one in County Down, Northern Ireland in 1998 and another in Iceland in 1981 but again neither record was conclusively proved.

If accepted this latest individual at Staines Reservoir would be the first record ever for Britain.  

My good intentions began to waver even more as I considered all of this.

Horned Lark, or Shore Lark which is what we call it here, is a widespread species, its range extending across Europe, Scandinavia, North Africa, Asia and North America. Currently it is  'lumped' i.e the species is divided into a considerable number of subspecies which are listed under one species called Horned Lark in the rest of the world and Shore Lark here in good old Blighty, but this may well change, as the current taxonomic status of the Horned/Shore Lark group is in a state of flux, with DNA evidence indicating the potential for no less than six species to be recognised, five in the Palearctic and one in the Nearctic. If this were to happen then 'our' Shore Lark would become a single species Eremophila flava and probably lose the name Shore Lark and all the Nearctic (North American) subspecies would be lumped as one species called North American Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris. The remaining four potential species would presumably come from subspecies in other parts of its Palearctic range.

Presently, depending on what authority you consult, there are at least forty two subspecies of Horned Lark described. Most are non migratory. The bird at Staines is considered probably to be from one of the two northern and migratory North American subspecies, either Eremophila alpestris alpestris or E.a. hoyti.

I have only, to my knowledge, seen two subspecies of Horned Lark, the ones that visit us here in Britain in small numbers every winter E.a.flava and currently called Shore Lark and the subspecies that inhabits The Atlas Mountains in Morocco E.a.atlas, which look very different to those that come from Scandinavia and /or Asia to winter in Britain.

The North African race of Horned Lark E.a atlas Oukameiden Morocco 2013

Shore Lark E.a. flava Norfolk England 2011

Shore Lark E.a flava Spurn England  2016
Probable American Horned Lark  E.a alpestris or E.a.hoyti  
Staines England 2017
I pondered the situation further over a slice of toast and decided that the chores could wait and I would go and see, what for me would be a new bird and one that might possibly one day become a species. Although it would be nice to get a new bird on my list I was anxious to view the bird in the flesh and see just what differences in plumage and appearance it presented, compared to the more familiar Shore Larks that I had seen in Norfolk a week ago.

I duly set off for Staines Reservoir, a very familiar site to me, as many years ago I used to work at Heathrow Airport which is adjacent to the reservoir and would spend my lunch hours watching birds from the mile long central Causeway that divides the two huge, northern and southern basins of water that comprise Staines Reservoir.

The journey was simple on a Saturday morning, as compared to the traffic mayhem of a weekday the roads were being only lightly used, and after an hour I turned off the M25 and found myself parking by the small western entrance gate to Staines Reservoir. The parking here is restricted and unofficial, being just a tiny, muddy, unsurfaced area by a busy road, that can accommodate no more than five cars.

I was amazed that I could find a space to park here as I assumed that many people would want to come to see this supposed American Horned Lark.

I had got everything together from the car and was just about to go through the gate when a large Mercedes drew up alongside me and an Australian lady, with husband driving, asked me if I could tell her where the M25 was. They had just arrived from Australia on a flight this very morning, hired a car and wanted to get to Hastings in East Sussex. She had a map that the car hire company had given her but they were now completely lost. I gave them directions which were basically to go back the way they had come and turn left at the first roundabout. I even held up the traffic on the road whilst they made a U turn. Suitably thankful they headed off for Hastings while I headed up the steep incline to get to the Causeway.

My diversion with the Australian couple had occupied about fifteen minutes and the walk along the Causeway was another five minutes. I could see around twenty birders, two to three hundred metres distant, clustered by the railings on the left side of the Causeway, peering over where the American Horned Lark was presumably feeding on the concrete bank of the northern basin.

Just as I got to them a small brown bird flew up and over me, calling. It sounded a bit like a Shore Lark but the call was markedly different to the Shore Larks I had seen and heard in Norfolk just eight days ago. I followed the bird's flight and it landed distantly on an area of exposed mud in the southern basin, which is currently drained for repair.

I quickly got the scope erected and soon had the lark in my scope. Its behaviour was the same as any Shore Lark, shuffling about on bent legs, low to the ground, picking at morsels it found on the mud.The light was truly awful as I was looking south with the sun shining into my eyes but I could see enough to note this bird had very little yellow on its head but looked predominantly white on its forehead and  cheeks and the black mask was not that obvious.

I watched and then it flew directly into the sun and was lost to view by everyone. Oh dear. I had hoped for better than this but at least I had seen it but any thoughts or aspirations of quietly studying its plumage were for now just a forlorn hope.

After the lark had flown I stood with my fellow birders scattered along the Causeway, all of us not sure quite what to do now. It was bitterly cold as a northwest wind with nothing to hinder it blew across the blue waters of the northern basin and into my face.The sun shone bright but there was no warmth from it. I hunkered down into my cosy RAB goose feather lined jacket thanking the fates that I had also remembered to don a thermal vest. My experiences at my local Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire had taught me well!

The mile long Causeway between the North basin on the left 
and the South basin on the right. The Horned Lark favoured 
the bank on the left side of the Causeway behind the railings

My body was warm but my exposed face was beginning to freeze into a rictus and my eyes began to water as, cold and disconsolate I mused on the fact that if I had not spent time with the Australian couple I would have seen the lark close to and on the ground, though I was glad I had been able to assist them and would have had it no other way. Nonetheless I mused, if there is justice in this world then by rights my good citizen act should be rewarded by the lark returning immediately and giving me stunning views. I smiled a wry smile, reflecting if only life were so straightforward.

There was, however, cause for slight optimism that the lark might return, by way of talking to another birder next to me. I learnt from him that the lark had been around for possibly three weeks but mainly on the nearby Queen Mary Reservoir which was entry by permit only, but lately it had taken to favouring Staines Reservoir, where access to the Causeway is unrestricted due to it being a public footpath.

The birder told me the lark had once before disappeared, earlier this morning, flying over to the adjacent King George's Reservoir on the other side of the road but had then returned and given great views as it fed on the weedy and shaded concrete bank by the Causeway where we now stood, on the southern side of Staines Reservoir's north basin.

I could but hope. I stood firm and tried to ignore the persistent chilling wind, turning my back to it and stomping my feet to keep some form of circulation going. In a flight of unjustified and fanciful optimism I got my camera from my bag and hung it on the railings as if this very act would will the lark to return. It didn't. Slowly other birders trickled away, the cold wind and lack of action disheartening them and becoming too much to bear. I had arrived at just after nine thirty, seen the bird for less than five minutes and now it was ten thirty and not looking good.

Other birders were arriving to replace those leaving but there was never more than twenty to thirty of us present. Passing birders asked me if I had seen the lark and I told them yes, but not very well, and recounted how it had flown off. Pied Wagtails, no more than small dark silhouettes against the bright sun as they flew over the Causeway to land on the concrete banks, set off mild hopeful stirrings amongst us that each one might be the lark returning but we were always to be disappointed.

A lady birder I had spoken to earlier returned, having revived herself with a coffee and a warm up in her car. Very sensible too but I stood firm and just held on. It was getting attritional but I just had to hope the lark would stick to its routine of disappearing and then suddenly returning.

It was now eleven o clock. I met a birder, Keith, who I vaguely knew from a previous twitch to North Uist and we passed the time of day as other birders loafed about, leaning on the railings and chatting or looking at the planes taking off from nearby Heathrow Airport. Huge triangular, red, white and blue tails of parked British Airways planes rose, like immense shark's dorsal fins, above the trees on the northern perimeter of the reservoir.

A small dark shape rocketed low over the Causeway, as I chatted with Keith and landed on the concrete bank behind the railings. We both said in unison, incredulously,  

'That was it, wasn't it?

It was. The American Horned Lark had returned.  Scopes were left standing where they were as this was a bins and camera situation, it was so close.

We peered over the railings. There was no real crush as there were so few of us. The lark shuffled along amongst the weeds and moss that were eking out an existence in the cracks of the cold, grey concrete bank.

The lark when I first saw it was facing away and superficially looked very dark brown and streaky above but this could have been due to the bank being in the shade. It was about the size of a Skylark, possibly a fraction smaller and kept low to the ground.

When it turned its head I could see it had a pale yellow throat but the rest of its head had no yellow at all, the yellow being replaced by white and there was only a scruffy black mask and upper breast band. The subtleties of its different plumage details were beyond me as I have no experience of Horned Larks from North America but I am told the flank colouring and contrasting whiter underparts, the neater breast streaking, darker upperparts with broader streaking on the head and mantle, subtle colour differences such as a pinker tone to the sides of the breast and on its rump, differences in the lesser and median wing coverts, darker primaries and secondaries and less yellow on the face are all pointers to a Horned Lark of either of the two subspecies alpestris or hoyti. All in all it would appear that a Horned Lark of the two subspecies mentioned is more contrastingly marked, with neater stronger markings than the Shore Larks we get here in Britain.

We will just have to wait and see what the verdict is from those who have extensive experience of Horned Larks and their plumage, but for now I was just keen to study this bird for future reference and resisted coming to a firm opinion that at best would be ill informed. All I can say is that it looked like no other Shore Lark I have seen and I have seen quite a few.

It showed little alarm but was unsettled, obviously not finding its current situation to its liking. It would pick at the ground desultorily for a few minutes but then fly along the bank for fifty metres to change position but always remained faithful to the bank. We followed, dragging our scopes and tripods with us but in the end everyone just left their scopes where they were and followed the lark as it regularly flew back and fore along the bank looking for a spot to its liking.

Finally it settled down amongst the weeds and moss and started feeding in earnest. From the photos I took it showed it was finding, amongst other things small caterpillars in the moss. It was noticeable it did not relish being out on the exposed concrete but would seek shelter behind the low growing plants.

We duly followed it from our position on the Causeway as it busied along from one plant to the next where it would dig around in the leaves and moss for prey. For twenty minutes it fed and then, calling loudly, the call still sounding strange, it flew off across the northern basin towards King George's Reservoir and was gone from view.

This was my cue. It was time to go and get something warm to drink to ease the chill before heading for home.