Great Crested Grebe, Rutland

Shorter days and falling temperatures force birds to spend more time foraging and less time vocalising, so it’s a relatively quiet period for sound-recording (but see below).

In Rutland, my most notable sightings during the past fortnight have included leucistic male Red-crested Pochard, Red-throated Diver (rare here), Slavonian and 2 Black-necked Grebes, the long-staying escaped Bufflehead, the largest flock of Greenfinches (90+) I’ve seen for some time, 2 Whooper Swans, and a Hawfinch yesterday at Leighfield well away from more traditional local sites.

Whilst visiting family in Oxford we visited Harcourt Arboretum on 10th to look at the Peacocks. We saw at least three males and a female with three juveniles, but their credentials as self-sustaining seemed unconvincing.

The undoubted highlight of the period was a visit to Suffolk on 13th. Following advice from Peter Kennerley I arrived at Dunwich at dawn, and by the time I had walked to Walberswick had already seen 3 Great White Egrets, 2 Bitterns and a Short-eared Owl amongst other things. Better still, I had the place to myself along with the Eastern Yellow Wagtail which was vocal (recordings on xc) and gave excellent views – the first I’ve seen since the ‘split’. Later that morning I also sound-recorded Bearded Tits at Walberswick followed by Firecrest (which I wasn’t really expecting) and Dartford Warbler at Dunwich Heath.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Walberswick

Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Fair Isle, May 2013

It must have taken a perceptive man to recognise Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Blyth’s Pipit as new species, yet Edward Blyth (1810 – 1873) has become an unduly neglected figure, mentioned merely in a footnote by Moss (2018) in ‘Mrs Moreau’s Warbler’. A slightly sanitised appreciation was included by Mearns & Mearns (1988) in ’Biographies for Birdwatchers’, but happily a more complete account by Christine Brandon-Jones can be found in Journal of the History of Biology 30: 145–178, 1997.

During his life Blyth experienced a series of personal setbacks and tragedies, including the death of his father when he was ten, poor health, poverty, the death of his wife after just three years of marriage, alcoholism and, perhaps, exploitation by the establishment. In India, where he was employed by the Asiatic Society whilst working at the Calcutta Natural History Museum, he lived for more than twenty years on a salary of £300 per year and a small house allowance of £4 per month. Brandon-Jones concluded: Financial exigency drove him to India, kept him there for twenty-one years, and led him into the animal trade. Darwin and other British scientists profited, not financially but intellectually, from Blyth’s experience close to the ground, and they, like the Zoological Society of London, were happy to obtain animals from him as it suited them. The trade in live animals that fed the appetite for zoos and wild animal menageries also contributed to the science of zoology and systematics, through the constant supply of novelties from which new species could be determined and studied. Yet, Blyth and other naturalists found to their cost, exploitation by the scientific establishment did not lead to acceptance by it.

Means & Mearns suggest that Blyth “was probably responsible for implanting many ideas in Darwin’s mind”, though if so any influence went largely unacknowledged. His health problems and abrasive manner, combined with ongoing financial difficulties, will have made some establishment figures wary, yet he published numerous papers and was recognised as an Extraordinary Member by the BOU.

The powers of perception which enabled Edward Blyth to recognise the two subtle brown birds named after him merit remembrance, so next time you are amongst the many who still struggle with their identification spare a thought for their eponymous hero.

A – September 2018, Shetland

In May 2018 Roger Riddington found a pair of Green-winged Teal at Hillwell, Shetland. The identification of the female was established by prolonged observation and clear images, and was subsequently documented in British Birds. Attention was drawn to the importance of the tertial-pattern as an identification feature.

As noted in that short article, female Green-winged can occasionally show a tertial pattern similar to Eurasian. The article said relatively little about variation in Eurasian, but unsurprisingly there is some in both the extent and shape of the black subterminal line and the white fringe.

I haven’t yet seen Eurasian with a typical Green-winged tertial pattern, but some of the variation (and see Reeber 2015 for help with age-related variation) is illustrated in these three images and merits further investigation.

B – Jan 2019, Rutland

C – Jan 2019, Rutland

Small Copper, Rutland

During the past month or so we have spent time with family, mostly for happy reasons but also because my father suffered an unexpected stroke. Fortunately it was at the mild end of the scale and he is recovering, but these things always cause concern.

Avian and other highlights have included Purple Emperors in north Northants and Rutland (where they are now established and quite easily seen), a series of Yellow-legged Gulls at Eyebrook Reservoir, regular encounters with Osprey and Hobby, and the Little Bustard at Methley which for various reasons was my first in Britain. Two nocturnal recordings made in early August captured just Pied Wagtail, Jackdaw and Magpie (the first nocturnal corvids I’ve recorded, possibly disturbed by human activity).

Now the time has come to look back north to Shetland where we shall be returning soon. What will the autumn bring, and will nocturnal recording prove more productive than it did in spring?

Little Bustard, Yorkshire

(Lesser) Redpoll, Aberdeenshire

Every year there is a day when birdsong fades away. This year it was 10th July. I had made some recordings in Cambridgeshire in the morning, but the afternoon in Rutland was almost silent and this morning (11th July) the ‘dawn chorus’ was minimal. As I have had time to tackle sound recording regularly over the spring and early summer, it presents an opportunity to review some of what I have learned.

1. Gear
For diurnal recording I mainly use an H4nPro, which is portable without being an encumbrance and delivers good results in suitable conditions. It is prudent to carry spare batteries if recording over long periods. Failing that I sometimes use an iPhone with Rode Rec app, which can deliver satisfactory (if less good) results. For nocturnal recording I use an AudioMoth which is easy to set up and delivers reliable results albeit of variable quality.

2. Conditions
Conditions are critical: wind and rain both ruin recordings, which significantly constrains opportunities in Shetland. For some species, recording is only likely to be successful at certain times of day or night and certain stages of the year, so planning is important. Nocturnal recording is very much a work in progress with much still to learn. This spring I detected more nocturnal migration over Rutland than Shetland; we shall see how autumn compares.

3. Identification
For recordings which are placed in the public domain, it is essential that identifications are correct if they are to be a reliable resource. During diurnal recording it is normally possible to confirm identifications visually (even so I have doubts about some published recordings involving tricky taxa), but this is not possible during nocturnal recording which requires caution: I personally don’t attempt identifications unless there is a clearly audible recording combined with sonogram.

4. Application
It is relatively easy to share results by using xeno-canto or other platforms. For Europe we still lack a reasonably comprehensive published sound guide like the ones for North America by Pieplow – although their format might seem old-fashioned for this type of guide they are immensely useful so I hope that an equivalent for Europe will be published before long.

Making sound recordings of birds is almost like beginning again; we all quickly realise how little we really know. You can listen to a selection of my results here:

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Oslo

During our short stay in late June we visited Bergen and Oslo. Some birds, especially Greenfinches, were refreshingly numerous in comparison with their current low numbers in many parts of Britain, and it was a good opportunity to compare subspecies of some common birds in Norway with those in Britain.

In addition to much of cultural interest, avian highlights included my first Swifts of the year(!), Hawfinches feeding young, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, and Peregrine.

Given the observation by an American visitor that Norway is ‘just like Alaska without the animals’, we were perhaps fortunate to see this Red Squirrel:

Red Squirrel, Bergen

Wall Lizard, Dorset

After visiting family in Devon and Dorset at the weekend we spent a day on and near the Purbeck coast, where highlights included introduced Wall Lizards at Winspit Quarry and a good showing of Early Spider Orchids at Dancing Ledge.

During the day we also saw sparring Peregrines and numerous Stonechats, though migrant birds were few. Two Adders, a variety of butterflies including our first Small Copper of the year, and Black Oil Beetle all kept us on our toes.

Early Spider Orchid, Dorset