Thursday 28 May 2009

Post on Birder Hyde

I have a new post up on Birder Hyde which provides links to pages and posts dealing with the relatively recent observation that in two species of common European birds, atypically singing or calling individuals are frequently encountered.
This mostly pertains to Germany though and most of the links lead to German texts, sorry. The soundfiles will be okay for everyone though, I guess.

Here's the link to Birder Hyde.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Tit for Tat, only it's not a Tit


Who doesn't like them?

Yes, as shameful as it may appear in an age of disappearing biodiversity and increasing problems with invasive species, a rarity or vagrant spotted once in a while amongst the flocks of our common birds is the "salt in the soup" as the Germans would phrase it, or ... geez, wait ... I don't know, ... the whatever in the whatever it is that the English would use to describe the one component of the birding lot that makes it all worthwhile.

So frequently during the year's migration seasons, birders on the east side of the Atlantic venture out to search birds from the west side of the Atlantic while birders on the west side of the Atlantic do the same, only in reverse.
As a consequence of that passionate dedication, we know quite a bit about the patterns of vagrancy around the northern Atlantic and there is a striking difference:

North American vagrants can be as easy to find in the UK's autumn season as sand in your shoes after a day on the beach (but are far more pleasant than that). Finding a European bird along the Atlantic coast of North America however is no easy task but a big event of national dimensions.
This difference is not all too surprising as it can be explained easily with migration patterns and autumn storms.

However, and to the best of my knowledge, no North American species has established a pattern of regular occurrence in Europe, let alone a breeding population, even though dozens of individuals of dozens of species are storm driven to the UK and France each year. When Ring-billed Gulls started to hit European west coasts in masses each winter in the 1980ies (roughly around that time anyway), everyone thought they'd soon start to breed.
Again to the best of my knowledge, that still hasn't happened.
The Scottish Spotted Sandpipers? Well, that was one pair, one year a long time ago (in 1975), it was an unsuccessful attempt and the birds never came back. Nothing even remotely resembling the establishing of a breeding population.

In North America the picture is a completely different one: Little and Black-headed Gulls have quickly established themselves as breeding birds on the New Continent and the Lesser Black-backed is soon to follow, if it isn't breeding regularly already.

So the score is 3 : 0 at the least (Northern Wheat-ear? Eurasian Teal?), a bit of an uneven score if you ask me.

Now finally, the North American avifauna has given us in Europe a Tit for our multitude of Tats. And it is thanks to one man on a mission that we know of it.

Jens Hering, a German birdwatcher with a strong and respectable scientific touch from Saxonia, has spent a few summer seasons on the Azores, a small group of islands out in the central North Atlantic that are politically part of Portugal and biogeographically part of the Western Palearctic region, so have nothing to do whatsoever with North America. All ours.

The Azores have gained a lot of fame in European birding circles recently as a sure-fire destination for finding heaps and masses of Nearctic/North American vagrants in autumn, especially after a few decent October storms.
Very few people visit the Azores during the breeding season as most of the species breeding there can also be seen during the Nearctic Twitches in autumn or elsewhere year-round in the Western Palearctic.

Big mistake, as Jens Hering demonstrated very impressively.

In June 2008, he was able to observe several Black Ducks, yeah Black Ducks, on a small pond on the island of Flores, one of the westernmost islands of the archipelago. After much effort time-wise and physically, he was able to photograph a female Black Duck on that pond which was being followed by three ducklings aged between 14 and 20 days! Several drake Black Ducks were also in the vicinity.
His amazing find was published in the German birding magazine Limicola:

Hering, Jens (2008): Erster Brutnachweis der Dunkelente Anas rubripes für die Westpaläarktis auf den Azoren. Limicola 22: 181-187.

Black Ducks had been seen on Flores for quite a few years already before his breeding record, and especially the observations from 1998 and 2000 strongly suggested a successful breeding in those respective years there as well as the birds seen included not only adults but also young birds in their first year. However, as these young birds were observed in late summer and were perfectly able to fly, they did not constitute a definitive breeding record for Flores as it was quite possible they were wind-driven vagrants from North America in much the same way as the accompanying adults were.
Jens Hering now finally managed to provide the proof everyone expected but never managed for so long!

Well done!

This breeding record of the American Black Duck on the Azores seems to represent - yet again but for the last time in this post: to the best of my knowledge - the first incident ever of a North American bird species establishing what is likely a stable breeding population on the other side of the Atlantic.

By a duck.
Not a sandpiper, not a gull, not a hummingbird or motmot - nope, a mighty duck.

A little addendum some might find interesting:
As soon as he had found the breeding Black Ducks, he was faced with a tough identification challenge.
As we all know, there are three species of Black Duck on this planet, one in North America, one on the west side of the Pacific and one in Africa. With the Azores Black Ducks clearly being vagrants, anything was possible so the intrepid discoverer had to establish if those Duckies were of African or North American origin. The Pacific option was simply too far off to be worth considering.
The identification of the BD's as being American was quickly done however when one of the birds stretched its wing to expose (I am sure on purpose) the diagnostic wing pattern.
I have summarized their identification in the image below for the two most typical/representative subspecies.

Now, the alert-minded reader will not fail to notice that there can't be a Texan race of the American Black Duck as it is not known to breed or even occur regularly in that state.

Good point, indeed.
But wrong point.
So where's the good in it? No idea, I just didn't want to appear rude.

Well, you see, I have conducted my own bit of research and established beyond scientific doubt that there is an as yet undocumented population of Black Ducks in the swamps of the "Big Thicket" in far eastern Texas. When seen in flight, the Texan Black Duck's secondaries appear white from above (with the white stripes overshadowing the red ones) and the underwing is largely white as well as in all other forms of Black Duck. The Texan population lives along wooded oxbow lakes and bayous, likes to perch behind tree trunks and is really hard to photograph unless a birder's attention is drawn to it by the nasal Red-breasted Nuthatch-like calls that are so unique to that subspecies.

Go figure.

A final thought on the breeding record though: how can we know for sure the young ducklings really hatched on the Azores? When they were observed swimming around in the small pond on Flores with their mom, they were between 14 and 20 days old, and we all know that ducklings can swim right after hatching.

Now, if the ducklings hatched at the nearest North American breeding site in Newfoundland, a mere 1,938 km away, and swam towards Flores, they would only have had to swim between 97 and 138 km per day, which translates to a speed of only 4 to 5.75 km/hour.

I am pretty confident ducklings are capable of that.

Monday 25 May 2009

English makes me smile

Well, this is largely off-topic, but today's Wikipedia main page reminded me again of how funny and peculiar (in a friendly way) the English language often is to someone who did not grow up with it but learned it at school or through "doing" on prolonged stays abroad in English-speaking countries (US, Canada, southern Africa), or in short: to me.

So what was up with Wikipedia today?

Well, I am aware that many western countries, in particular the US, are having problems with a large part of their respective populations being slightly or slightly less slightly overweight. People really need to monitor their eating habits more closely and initiatives to lose weight are always welcome. However, the Diet of Worms may be pushing it a bit too far.

Something else I recently came across:

Mouse - Mice
Louse - Lice
Spouse - Spice ?

And lastly, as this is still a birding blog, I have often wondered if the Dovekie (or Little Auk) may offer a clue as to how the word Plover is really pronounced.

If only I knew how to pronounce "Dovekie"...

Wednesday 20 May 2009

A New Blog

I just started a new blog.

Okay, how much longer do I have to wait until you'll stop laughing and will read on?
Still some more?

Well, fine, you're welcome, I always enjoy good humour when I am the victim of it.

You see, you make a good point saying I should first start to blog on Belltower Birding again with anything even remotely resembling some sort of frequency.

But then, I felt that this blog was about stories I want to write.

And looking at my posts, I noticed that I recently had simply one or two too many "Look, I found this odd bird, here are the pictures, any suggestions?" - themed posts, and I found that a bit disruptive and rather boring - although the many visitors were nice.

So anyway, for these ID-Issues I started a new blog.

It is called "Dr. Jekyll and Birder Hyde" (don't ask, I won't tell you anyway) and will feature my mystery birds as I find them.

The first mystery post is up, an egg shell I recently found in Germany. So if you have any kind of knowledge on egg shells, give it a shot over at Birder Hyde.
You'll be a better person for it - just come back, Tom, will you.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

A Reply to Patrick's Question

Patrick (you know, the ONLY Patrick) has a new post up here which I find really neat. Here's what he has to say:

"Ok, time for a poll. What's your favorite warbler song? Let's stick with North American wood warblers. "

What a great idea!

It is May after all, and as birders get ready to storm the Parks, Points and Presqu'Iles in search of warblers, he has lured them into listening to their bird song CDs and refine their acoustic birding skills.

Clever, in a very educational way.

I read some of the comments with great interest and lo and behold (or rather shock and awe):
it got me thinking.

And you see, there is a problem.

The problem with Patrick's question is that most of the answers in the comments section are by North American birders. Therefore, and very naturally so, these answers are biased as the commenters are all born and raised amongst the warblers or other birds of North America and connect certain great/memorable birding moments with a certain warbler song.
So it is not really the song they find is their greatest/favourite one but that particular connection or memory.

Problem recognized is problem solved.

If your locals are all under the influence, ask the sober stranger.

It is thus with great pleasure that I present (trumpets, please) here on Belltowerbirding and (as of currently) nowhere else the un-biased truth, the fact beyond the fiction of other people's mindset, the truly and objectively so greatest warbler song in all of North America.

Here is what the newbie - the European birder who has only spend a ridiculous two springs in North America - has to say about it:

North American warblers look absolutely amazing but their songs are - frankly - mostly crap. Come on, it is no use denying, I have made personal painful experiences with the subject:

I spent hours and hours listening to the Stokes' CDs while driving from migration hot spot to migration hot spot trying to memorize those songs but essentially and to the untrained / unbiased ear they all sound exactly the same!

"Blackburnian Warbler: chip chip cheeeep
Chestnut-sided Warbler: cheeep chip chip cheeeep
Black-throated Green Warbler: chip cheeeep chip cheeeep"

As I was driving in a rental, I gave the CD player a few decent blows as I thought the CD was stuck on "repeat".

Turns out it wasn't.

I then returned the CD to the store and demanded a refund as the cover had promised something like 50 different bird songs which obviously wasn't the case, just the same song 50 times.

They appeared to be amused, but I got neither my money back, nor my 50 different bird songs. You see, I just didn't realize that exactly this would be what I'd get at Point Pelee and elsewhere:

Chips and cheeps.

Good side: hardly any heard-only lifers.
Bad side: a handful of missed lifers.


And if one warbler - like the Ovenbird - sound unlike the other warblers, it sounds like a completely different North American bird species, so it's no better than the rest.
Yes, you may find it ridiculous but for a first-time-spring-birder in North America, it is hard to tell an Ovenbird from a Cardinal or a Carolina Wren.

Teacher-teacher-tea-kettle-tea-kettle-teacher-tea-kettle my behind!
Come on, these birds just can't ever be serious, right?
The jester-pesters.
In a very friendly way, I kid because I still love birds, of course, and warblers in particular.

Well, you are right, rant off for now.

So what is - viewed neutrally - the best warbler song in North America?

Well, obviously it is the Blue-winged Warbler.


Well, because its song is a deep, sad and desperate sigh of disappointment, a sigh resulting from the desperation that it (and its whole group) have such great looks but just cannot sing very well and that this will get you very far in the humans' music industry but it just ain't no good when you're a bird.