Thursday 17 January 2008

"Pieces of Eight" or ,"I say Species you say Faeces"

Wow ! As regular readers will know I am well versed in the martial art of defending the Scotbill cause on Bird Forum. However, things have taken an interesting twist in THIS thread where I am actually defending Parrot Crossbill as a species ! Really. Apparently all crossbills are 'one species' cos someone in a lab coat once shook a couple of test tubes about and someone else then came to this conclusion ! I have my own thoughts on this DNA research which I am not going in to here.

The sad thing is a couple of individuals have posted some well constructed thought provoking material, whilst another particular individual is being deliberately antagonistic and just spouting out a complete pile of crap. Great things blogs - I can write that eg. what I like, without a moderator shouting "naughty, naughty" ! However, being the 'vet' that I am with several 'tours of duty' under my belt I know not to rise and take 'the bait'.

I will continue to combat the whimsical ramblings and psycho babble of spectacled desk based 'ornithologists' with 'facts' and 'evidence' gained from 'experience' in the field.........or maybe I should just go and study Dippers ( or read a book on Crossbills) ?

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Dutch Parrot Fest

Anyone reading either Birding World or Birdwatch over the last couple of months may be aware of the recent influx of Parrot Crossbills into Holland and Germany in late Autumn 2007. This has produced quite a lot of interest in the form of photographs and sound recordings - the Dutch really are much more switched on than us Brits in this respect. Shame there has not been too much about the German Parrots (?).

Rather than the usual banal 'You Tubings' of random music trivia here is a small collection of video's of the Dutch Parrots.

Some great pics out there on the web too but I don't want to upset the photographers by posting them on here. With all those thirsty crossbills I hope someone is catching and ringing them ? ! Notable also that many of the birds are in their first winter.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

It's Official: Scottish Crossbill Is Doomed !

More Scottish Crossbill nonsense courtesy of bad PR can be viewed on THIS Birdforum thread.

And, just to see how hard it can be to find Scottish Crossbills these days see THIS Blog entry - a two man quest to find Scotbill in July 2007. The Scotbills were apparently so elusive that what they actually saw were in my opinion 'Parrot' Crossbills ! ( Sorry Rainer but reckon you might have to 'untick' that one ! ). To go to all that bother it might have been an idea to get a sound recording or two ? Scottish is much more confusable with Common - the birds in those photo's look bugger all like Common Crossbills.

For those who want to see a real Scottish Crossbill, here is one I prepared earlier, photographed near to its nest in March 2006 and emitting excitement call C:

And another, a 1cy from Winter 2005:

Notice the slight 'bulge' in the lower mandible - not just Parrots that have them ( or sometimes not as the case may be).

Monday 14 January 2008

Glen Esk, Tuesday 8th January

Spent a morning ringing in upper Glen Esk with on of the TRG guys ( cheers Dave !). The catch comprised mainly of Chaffinches though we also caught the usual titmice and a couple of Goldfinches and one Siskin. Total of 70 birds which insn't bad for a morning.

Juv chaffinches can be tricky (for a trainee) to age if they have replaced all of their greater coverts with adult feathers so it was really good practice for me ( and I got them all right !) - only three juv birds had at least one old greater covert. Key points to look for were 'dodgy' tertials, though some adult birds (Euring 6) had really 'punk' washed out tertials, and some of the 5's were replacing their tertials with adult feathers. Tails are also good for Chaffinches (as per Svensson) but funny things happen with tails also - a young bird may have replaced all, or some of its tail with adult feathers, or simply shat all over its tail in a bird bag making diagnosis (of shape) difficult ! A good tip for any trainees reading this is to look for any contrast between the greater coverts, tertials and primary coverts as your trainer has told you. A Euring 5 ( or bird hatched in 2007) will not normally replace its primary coverts until Summer 2008 so these feathers should be a different generation and will be worn on the tips and more pointy ( adult PCs are generally broad). The primaries themselves will look paler and have more wear. However, with Chaffinches watch out as adult male PC's naturally do not appear to be as 'glossy' black as the secondaries or primaries, and with females the difference can be subtle - I find with both it helps to 'close' the wing then look for any contrast, if there is none it is an adult.

I would encourage all serious birders to attend a ringing session. I have learned so much about plumage, moult, ageing ( and sexing). Can you sex a Goldfinch through your bins or scope ? What I have described about the wing feathers above is often possible to see from some photographs. For example, most of the recent photographs of the recent 'Dutch' Parrot Crossbills on the web are of 2cy birds Euring 5 eg. hatched 2007. Can you see why ? If not then consider doing some ringing or at least get a copy of Svennson - I am told all serious birders already have it ! ?

A ringer doing his thing and er.....looking at feathers on this Greenfinch.

Fraserburgh, Monday 7th January

A pretty gash day for crossbills due to high wind speed so thought a jolly up to the Broch was in order to see if I could spot a 'white-winged' gull. Several had been reported at The Blue Toon, however, I couldn't be arsed going cross eyed at a thousand or so gulls flying around my head and trying to pick out a Glauc or an Iceland. Have always found the Broch to be an aesthetically better place for a stroll looking for such gulls -usually they are either sitting on the water or on the quay side. Maybe that's just me ?

Took a detour of the Ugie - Bonapartes indeed -paah !

Well, the Broch turned out to be a pile of crap re-the gulls and was reflected by the fact that I was more interested in watching a Grey Seal trying to catch and eat Black-headed gulls that were sitting on the water. There were 8 seals in the inner harbour, the most I have seen. A single Goldeneye and R.B Merganser in the harbour were barely mentionable.

On a nostalgic note I saw this fine example of a vessel leave the harbour:

This is former Fisheries Research Vessel (F.R.V) "Clupea" and used to belong to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland with whom I was a Scientific Officer in a previous life. In fact I did my first 'sea trip' on "Clupea" in March 1986 in the Clyde at Ballantrae Bank, monitoring and 'sampling' a spring spawning ground for Herring ( 'Clupea harrengus' is the scientific name for Herring, or certianly used to be - maybe it's been split since then !). Most Herring spawn in the Autumn in the North Sea ( so it probably is a different type or subspecies).

As part of that trip we spent a lot of time tied up at various ports in the Clyde (and the Crianlarich Ferry Quay), the worst of which by far was Campbelltown on the Mull of Kintyre. I vowed then if I never saw Campbelltown again I would be a happy man. I have never been back. When Paul McCartney wrote his famous ode "Mull of Kintyre" it is clear to me he had never been to Campbelltown. If any readers from Campbelltown are reading this and are offended - get over it ! Your town is shit.

Most surreal memory from that trip was watching a Gannet dive bomb a Herring lying on the aft deck of the ship. The bird clunked into the metal deck at great speed, and dazed like a punch drunk boxer, shook it's head, picked up the herring and flew off !

Have got many great anecdotes from my days as a fledgling marine biologist but they will have to wait for my memoirs I am afraid - some of the people are still alive.

I promise, no more gulls from now on, only real birds like Crossbills. To paraphrase The Oddie "aren't Gulls Crap" !

6th January Lower Deeside ( near Banchory)

Spent the afternoon at one of my study sites that I historically visit on either Christmas Eve or Hogmany every year. I didn't this year and was feeling a bit guilty. Quite a good little site with all the main conifer species so a chance of getting a variety of types at various times of the year. So I shunned the multitude of Pine Crossbills I would undoubtedly have seen and instead got all 'Common'.

A total of 30 contacts and maxima of 11 birds. All birds were what I call 1B types - you Sound Approachers call 'em what you like but my New Year's resolution is to never use 'such' terms again ( no offence SA guys !). You see, for me there was (crossbill call) life before the Sound Approach book came out: however, it is nevertheless a very good book. These crossbills had been feeding in Larch and at dusk I spotted three still feeding frantically and flitting from tree to tree.

Larch - 9 out of 10 Crossbills prefer it you know ? Apparently.

Saturday 5 January 2008

" Fit's bin gai'n o'wn "*

Happy New Year to all Loxia Fanatics (all two of you).

Not been doing much crossbilling for a variety of reasons, mainly cos the weather has been so crap - high winds and very wet, both not good for recording crossbills even if you can find them. Must have only about a dozen or so decent recordings for December.

I have been doing a bit more ringing ( of non crossbill passerines) in an effort to (finally) get this C permit once and for all. Hopefully, not long to wait now ( hint to my trainer who might be reading this ! ).

Did have 21 Crossbills at a well known local pinewood site last Sunday (30th) and got a freaky excitement call that tested me - it sounded like one type but 'looked' like another. In these instances I go with my ears. Also got an EcC Scottish tooping at the same time and it was interesting to actually hear the differences - see what I mean about using your ears. Flight calls included 2 Fc2's, 1 Fc4 with the remainder of Fc's being what I would class as typical 'pine crossbills'.

An interesting thread on exercising caution in interpreting crossbill sonograms is here on Bird Forum. My advice to wanabee crossbill call experts is to use your ears as much as your eyes - reading sonograms correctly is far more of an art form than an exact science. Many potential errors can be averted by simply listening to your recordings and comparing to library known 'specimen' calls. Okay, I know what you are thinking " fine for you with your finely tuned musicians ears". Well, maybe it helps but it does not substitute for experience in the field - this knowledge and skill has to be earned as much as learned. Humor me with this parable -Two female singers sing the same song, lets say the Theme from the Titanic "My Heart Will Go On" (or something!). One is Kylie Minogue the other is Grace Jones. Okay, could you tell both singers apart ? Maybe even recognise them 'blind' ? You would at least be able to describe a difference even if you hadn't heard either vocalist before. Well, if the answer is "yes" then you should also be able to hear the difference between a Scottish and a Parrot toop and flight call, the difference between a Fc1 and a Fc2 and even the difference between a 'scarce' type and a '1B' type toop. The reason for this is that in telling the difference between Grace and Kylie you are determining the tonal quality and timbre of each singers voice, in essence their 'jizz' in sound ( please don't google "jizz" and "Kylie" in the same search.....I know someone will now !). One has a higher voice the other a sultry lower voice, possibly mezzo sporano versus alto. That explains pitch but within this each singer will be producing different overtones or harmonics that enrichen their tone, or timbre. For more practice watch the new show on tribute acts on BBC1 on Saturdays - did the tribute Rod Stewart sound like the real Rod Stewart ( I didn't think so ! ).

In terms of refining this 'model' it is the same with the classical afficionado being able to recognize the differences between Beethoven and Mozart, whereas to many unfamiliar listeners they may sound the same. Each composer has different stylistic characteristics, or 'habits', that are made up of many things including form, harmony, melody and rhythm ( as well as orchestration). Well crossbill calls also have form ( to a degree) and certainly have meter.

These are all things that can be determined by the best recording hardware you can ever hope to own: your ears and brain. Sonograms merely provide us with a photographic 'snapshots' of sound events and allow us to classify and order them based on their differences and similarities. They also allow scientists to quantify and verify (or have verified) their data sets.

Philosophy lecture over. Where else can you have crossbills, Kylie and the Theme from the Titanic ? Promise some nice recordings and maybe piccies from tommorrows crossbill hunt. Hopefully an eagle or two as well......meantime go use those ears !

*Doric translation: "What has been happening"