Monday 16 November 2009

"Read All About It ?"

On Saturday my copy of "Birdwatch" was delivered through my letter-box. Don't ask me why but I always turn to the second last page to see what next month's issue will feature. And behold, staff writer David Callahan is apparently going to be writing a piece on the current state of Loxia:

"Got Your Bills in A Cross? Debate continues as to the true number of crossbill species in Britain, Europe and beyond. David Callahan assesses the current state of the taxonomy and what is yet to come". (Birdwatch, Issue 210, p.69)

Now, clearly I will be interested to read this, as I am sure some of you will, but what exactly can this article say, and, is there really any 'debate' concerning this subject other than on Bird Forum ? Okay, Birdlife lost the plot on Scotbill a few weeks ago.....until the RSPB reminded them of the script. Nothing against Mr. Callahan, who is a good writer, but as a rule I am generally a bit wary of journalists - remember that embarrassing Glasgow Herald article on Scotbill that their 'Environmental Correspondent" wrote ? Sure there are those Scully types that don't believe in Scottish Crossbill as the evidence is flimsy, but us Mulder types continue to observe, sound record and sometimes even catch them. The Scully types are often serious listers, who in many cases rather than buy a sound recorder and microphone to ID crossbills, choose to deny its existence as they can't see any differences and instead blow their money on plane fares to Fair Isle to see a small brown bird that shouldn't be there. The BOU seem to believe in Scottish Crossbill as a species so surely that should be that, shouldn't it ? In Britain we have 3 breeding species - Common, Parrot and Scottish. Two-Barred can occur as rare migrant. So that is the current state of the taxonomy in the UK as I see it: not a pretty sight but it is what it is.

What is still to come regarding the future of Loxia taxonomy ? In UK at least how about this as a guess:

1) Further work on classification and understanding of crossbill vocalisations, with reference to speciation and irruptive populations. More 'new' calls will be discovered (and fact, already have been. One of my main areas of focus). Possible lab based studies on song and call learning (not my thing ethically).

2) More 'refined' genetics esp. for Loxia scotica, but also the others ( Not my field, but I would gladly participate in this).

3) More Stable Isotope analysis of Common Crossbill populations especially given the current irruption ( Not my area, though I have offered to gather samples).

4) Further work on biometric and taxonomic classification of Crossbill species. (I am interested in long term studies of biometric stability of a dormant crossbill population in relation to sporadic influxes from the continent. Other workers doing their own thing with bios also.)

5) Ecological studies on feeding efficiency and 'fitness' to environment ala Benkman - possibly a PhD project ? (I am doing this with field observed wild birds). Possibly supplemented in the lab using captive birds (again, not really my thing).

My participation is only small though hopefully will make a contribution. I have already got a new call here in Scotland. My project has recently suffered some major set backs though.

In USA, well I can't keep track with the number of Red Crossbill 'species' there - I reckon there will be more though......they, so far, are hands down the cutting edge in all things crossbill ( like in so many things !). I reckon they'll possibly discover a crossbill on Mars......or send a crossbill to Mars.....or a crossbill will win X Factor. Something like that.

In Europe, more could be done on the boreal 'natal' grounds of Common and Parrot Crossbills - calls, biometrics, genetics, anything ! So if anyone in Russia fancies taking up the baton, or more precisely the Telinga ? ! I am sure the Med races will be given the same 'treatment' as our own beloved scotica, and some may reach full species status (if any ornithogical body can be bothered approving it).

Roll on next copy of Birdwatch, a fine journal for the discerning 21st Century orni-enthusiast.


Crossbill Taxonomy in Action ?

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Never Forgotten

On holiday in July this year I visited the Commando Memorial near to Spean Bridge and their historic training base at Achnacarry. It was an incredibly moving experience, being there at dusk and with the memorial set in a panaromic landscape in the shadow of the imposing Aonach Mor. Nearby there was a small personal memorial garden with tributes to fallen Royal Marine Commandos from World War II through to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. It was a poignant reminder back in July as to just how many of these and other brilliant soldiers we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course since then the losses have increased considerably. One is too many. Incredibly brave and determined soldiers from all regiments are learning to overcome and deal with horrific life changing injuries they have received and their resolve never ceases to amaze and inspire me. They too should not be forgotten.

Being an Arbroath boy the troops of 45 Commando based at Arbroath Condor were in my thoughts as they sustained bad loses in Afghanistan last year before returning from their tour of duty. I have fond memories of a fantastic day at the base open day as a young lad when the Marines inspired me to achieve the fastest time on the assault course.

I did not buy a poppy this year, not having had the opportunity. Instead, I write this in memory and tribute to the fallen and injured in all past and present campaigns, as well as those killed or injured in peace time duties.

If you are reading this and wonder why it is on Loxia Fantastica then let me offer this: whilst standing at the Memorial in July a group of Common Crossbills were calling from a small spruce plantation nearby. However, that didn't seem important at the time and nor does it now.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Those That Can, Do, Those That Can't Blog ?

I am tired of reading statements like "time spent blogging is time not spent birding or ringing" or "people spending more time in front of computer screens than birding/ringing". I sit and write this at 1am in the morning watching "Generation Kill". My crossbills have been roosting since 2.30pm. As to ringing, unless I am out dazzling Woodcock or roosting Dippers, forget it. For the record I spent all day on Monday birding and ringing. I can work, bird, ring and blog - I don't have to do them all at the same time, I am a multi tasker. I can even watch TV at the same time. The said same people that come out with this sort of nonsense probably get bladdered every Friday and Saturday night, which I do not criticise, though perhaps they should practise what they preach and stay home scrutinising their ID books or entering their data into IPMR.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Parrot Invasion !

Today saw 47 Parrot Crossbills reported vismigging through Falsterbo Observatory in southern Sweden and last week a staggering 494 passed through there. There have been over 13,000 Parrot Crossbills migrating through since 1st August !!

Now, I am not sure how these crossbills are being identified, but Parrots are generally bulkier and have bigger heads than Commons, so with an experienced observer the ID's and counts are very possibly accurate. This observatory should have experienced 'crew' so I think we can have confidence in these counts.

All these Parrots will have to turn up somewhere - Germany, Holland...... Norfolk ! So keep those eyes (and ears) peeled. I am braced for a Fair Isle or Shetland bird and I keep checking.

Happy Hunting !

Parrot Crossbill:Appearing Soon At a Pine Wood Near You ?

Sunday 1 November 2009

Scottish Crossbill

A nice portrait of a 1cy Scottish Crossbill male, one of two I caught along with two Parrot and two Common Crossbills on Deeside on 12 October:

This bird was identified as a Euring 3 ( 1 cy) by the presence of 4 juvenile greater coverts and a few juvenile type median coverts - the lesser coverts had been replaced with adult feathers. The bill profile and depth is typical for scotica.

It was also the first time I have been 'out-flanked' by a crossbill during its release ( though I still got the call !) :

"A Sky installation engineer attempts to shake hands with a Scottish Crossbill"

The recent wet and windy weather has scuppered all crossbill ringing plans for a bit. Two weeks ago today I was 'enhancing' a crossbill drinking site when all this rain started. I would be amazed if that pool has survived and has not been washed away. Until it dries out many birds will drink opportunistically at any puddles near to where they are feeding, and it will possibly be some time before they return to the habitual/ritualistic sites.

So, efforts are now focussed on fixing holes in nets, cutting nets down into 2 and 3 shelves ( which is ideal for crossbills) and making up colour rings ( to use on Waxwings if and when they arrive).