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Content with Western Subalpine Warbler?

Of the many new species that I saw on my first visit to Scilly in October 1983 a Subalpine Warbler on St Agnes was perhaps the least memorable.  An unexciting first winter bird it just didn’t get the attention it deserved.  It was a was a what we referred to as a “padder’. An expected scarce migrant overshadowed by the deluge of ultra-rare, and very attractive, Nearctic species. 

One Divided by Three
Figure 1. Distribution of the five taxa of “Subalpine” Warbler proposed by Svensson (1). Western Subalpine Warbler which originally comprised inornata and iberiae has coaleced into a single taxon Curruca iberiae. Eastern Subalpine Warbler comprises two taxa Curruca cantillans cantillans and C.c albistriata. NB the zone of overlap in Northern Italy between Moltoni’s Warbler Curruca subalpina and Eastern Subalpine Warbler ssp cantillans

Fast forward 37 years. Proposals by Svensson 2013 (1) subsequently refined by Zucon et al 2020 (2) led the IOC split the Subalpine Warbler complex into three. These species are Eastern Subalpine Warbler (Curruca cantillans), Western Subalpine Warbler (Curruca iberiae) and Moltoni’s Warbler (Curruca subalpina).  I have been lucky enough to see and photograph all three species in their breeding ranges.  Unfortunately, identification of extralimital birds is only possible by sequencing a sample of DNA or by analysis of their vocalisations. I have seen at least half a dozen “Subalpine” Warblers in the UK . Yet I only the know the identity of one – the Moltoni’s Warbler that Dave Andrews found on Blakney Point in June 2018. Others such as the female Keith Regan and I saw on Fair Isle in June 2000 remain unassigned. At the time we simply did not know what to look for!

This year’s model!

On the morning of 29th October 2021 Adam Hutt found a first calendar year (1cy) Subalpine Warbler near Content at the North end of St Mary’s.  When I arrived in the early afternoon the bird, which had been showing well, headed off on a circuit of nearby hedges.   Fortunately I relocated it some nearby gorse, and managed a few record shots whilst attempting to direct other latecomers. That evening I posted these on Twitter

Figure 3 – Initial images of the Content “Subalpine” Warbler taken on the afternoon of 29th October 2021
Blinded by the light

The strong low sun accentuated the impression of a pale grey Curruca warbler with plain tertials and a black tail (Fig 3 A). Unexpectedly this prompted some online questions as to whether Ménétries’s Warbler (Curruca mystacea) had been excluded.  However, an overnight WhatsApp conversation with Yoav Perlman dispelled this idea. Other images (Fig 3 B and C) showed contrasting centres to the tertials a pro-“Subalpine” feature.  Luckily a series of images obtained by Matt Hobbs in different light showed the overall warmer tones and put thoughts of Ménétries’s to bed.

Once out of the Ménétries’s rabbithole most observers felt this was a Western Subalpine Warbler (WSW) based on call. A persistent single syllable tack.  Such vocalisation clearly excludes Moltoni’s Warbler and Eastern Subalpine Warbler (ESW) ssp albistrata.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to exclude nominate ESW ssp cantillans without making spectrograms to analyse the call (3).

Curiously, the dark adult tail, which prompted thoughts of Ménétries’s, held a clue to the bird’s specific identity.  I returned the next morning with a view to obtaining better images and sound recordings from which I could make a spectrogram.

A Trick of the Tail

My original image of the tail (Fig 3 D) left me a little confused as the outer tail feathers (T6/5) seemed shorter than the central tail feathers. Curiously whilst they exhibited an adult type pattern, T5 seemed to have too much white in it for a classic Western. This image and associated crop (inset) confirmed that impression.  

Figure 4 Image taken in better light on the morning of of 30th October showing the tail and closed wing to the Content “Subalpine” Warbler

When the possibility of Ménétries’s was raised reference was made to a tricky Curruca Warbler seen on Linosa, Italy in November 2012 (5).  Similarly this 1cy individual had replaced its spiky sandy coloured juvenile tail feathers with dark grey adult feathers.  Moreover T6 on the Linosa individual was wholly white and T5 had a small white apical notch. However, it did not call like a Moltoni’s. This led the Italian observers, who were very familiar with ESW ssp cantillans and Moltoni’s Warbler, to consider Ménétries’s.  However further analysis of their images did not support this conclusion and that in fact it was  a WSW ssp inornata.  It must be remembered that this form is now included in the the monotypic taxon Curruca iberiae (see Fig 1).

What about the Scilly bird?  In common with the Linosa individual dark adult tail feathers contrasted with the pale body.  Interestingly the white on T5 of the Content bird was somewhat different.  In particular the extensive white on the inner web, and a significant white outer margin created a “messy” apical notch (Fig 4). This is not an ESW type of tail pattern. However it is very close to that of an acceptable adult male Western trapped on Fair Isle on 9th May 2016 (5). Sadly this is not enough to be sure!  As an illustration a silent bird caught at Spurn in May 2020 exhibited a WSW type tail. Contrarily molecular analysis showed it to be an ESW ssp cantillans –  scary stuff (6).

Getting to the Point

The images of the Scilly bird also allowed evaluation of the bird’s wing structure (Fig 4 inset).  In essence they reveal a blunt wing-tip formed formed by 5/6 unevenly spaced primaries (Fig 4 inset). This is indicative of WSW.  By comparison ESW would have long narrow primary projection formed by 7/8 evenly spaced feathers (7).  At the present time this feature is not regarded as diagnostic.  However once Moltoni’s is excluded, on the basis of call, it appears to be strongly indicative of identity.

Changing Tack

Although the evidence of the tail pattern and wing structure is persuasive it is, according to current BBRC guidelines, insufficient to conclusively prove WSW.  Unfortunately, and despite best efforts, nobody could retrieve a faecal sample for molecular analysis.  The alternative was to obtain a sound recording/spectrogram.  I was fortunate to obtain a short (4 second) cut (listen here) and made a spectrogram.

Interrogating the Xeno-canto archive I found few recordings of calls definitely attributable to each taxon of interest. A problem compounded by XC using outdated taxonomy. I did not look for a Moltoni’s recording as it was clearly excluded by the call. In the end I identified three representative recordings for the comparative purposes.  Click on the links to listen:

XC369011Western Subalpine Warbler Curruca iberiae (Near Monpellier, France)

XC413121Eastern Subalpine Warbler Curruca cantillans cantillans (Tuscany, Italy)

XC652064Eastern Subalpine Warbler Curruca cantillans albistriata (Thessalia, Greece)

I selected a 4 second cut from each recording and prepared a spectrogram. To aid comparison these are presented using the same axes as for the Scilly bird.

Figure 5: Spectograms derived from the recorded calls of the Content “Subalpine” Warbler (Panel A); Western Subalpine Warbler – XC369011 (Panel B); Eastern Subalpine Warbler ssp cantillans – XC413121 (Panel C) and Eastern Subalpine Warbler ssp albistrata – XC652064 (Panel D)
Sounds right?

The Scilly bird certainly never gave the double call associated with ESW ssp albistrata (panel D). To my eyes the spectrogram of the Scilly individual (Panel A) exhibits the “dense vertical structure” of WSW calls (panel B) noted by Menzies et al (3).  Both spectrograms reflect the hard tack uttered by the Scilly bird and XC369011.  To my ears this is quite different to the softer “t’chek” note of ESW ssp cantillans (XC413121). This difference is reflected in the spectrogram which appears to be more “open”.  In other words it is less dense and possible to pick out individual harmonics.  Note also the range of frequencies represented is somewhat less that those present in the Scilly bird and XC369011. Interestingly spectrograms of the calls of the Linosa bird (4) appear consistent with its identification as WSW.


In conclusion a 1cy Subalpine Warbler sensu lato was present on St Mary’s Isles of Scilly between 29th October and 3rd November 2021.  DLSR images clearly showed an adult type tail pattern coupled with a short blunt primary projection.  Generally these are features associated with Western Subalpine Warbler.  Analysis of a recording of the call appears to support the identification of this bird as a Western Subalpine Warbler.

  1. Svensson, L. (2013) A taxonomic revision of the Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 113:240–248
  2. Zuccon, D., et al (2020). Type specimens matter: new insights on the systematics, taxonomy and nomenclature of the subalpine warbler (Sylvia cantillans) complex. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 190: 314-341 doi:10.1093/zoolinnean/zlz169

  3. Menzie, S., Gil-Velasco, M., & Collinson, J. M. (2015). First genetically confirmed Eastern Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans for Sweden. Ornis Svecica, 25(1–2): 40–44.

  4. Corso A. et al A Subalpine Trap: an interesting “cantillans” makes things hard! in Birding Frontiers ed Martin Garner

  5. Subalpine Warblers on Fair Isle  downloaded from Fair Isle Bird Observatory and Guesthouse

  6. Eastern Subalpine Warbler in Spurn Bird Observatory News 8th August 2020
  7. Corso A. et al (2021) Identifying Western Subalpine Warbler and Eastern Subalpine Warbler by primary projection Dutch Birding 43: 45-50

An Unexpected Journey

A breeding plumage Bar-tailed Godwit on a local marsh in late April is one of the species inland birdwatchers dream about.  Not a rarity, but scarce away from the coast a few turn up each spring as they cross the country en-route from West Africa to the high Arctic.  One recently graced West Earlham marsh just a couple of miles from my house in Norwich.  Normally I would never have to force myself to leave the house to see such a special bird.  The morning of Sunday 18th April was diferent. It was less than 48 hours after I had undergone a diagnostic procedure under general anaesthetic. I needed to go for the Godwit as my next tentative step on an unwanted and unexpected journey. One that began nearly four years ago.

Episode One – July 2017

I had booked a few days leave to go on a wildlife watching trip to Scotland with James Lowen, Will Soar and Ian Robinson. Two days before departure my pee turned strawberry red! The need for urgent medical attention caused me to withdraw from what was a spectacularly successful trip. The gross hematuria (visable blood in urine) cleared up after six days. Less than two weeks after referral by my GP I attended the Hematuria Clinic at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Despite exhaustive investigation, the consultant urologist could not find the cause and discharged me. After the investigation Ingrid and I relaxed with a trip to North Norfolk. Restored by coffee and cake at the Artemis cafe in Cley we moved to Holt Country Park. Here we enjoyed a fine range of butterflies and both Hummingbird and my first Broad-bordered Bee Hawk Moth.

Broad-bordered Bee Hawk Moth (Hemaris fuciformis. – Holt County Park, Norfolk August 2017
Episode Two – April 2018

Nine months later I was recently returned from a successful trip to Western Sahara with Graham Clarke.  Most days I was travelling to Carleton Marshes SWT reserve trying to see the American Bittern.  I experienced exactly the same symptoms, was again referred to the two week pathway and discharged without diagnosis.  The consultant explained that I might be one of those rare individuals who bled episodically. Much in the same way that some folk are prone to nosebleeds.  Hmm… – next time how do I know if that is true or it is something sinister? 

American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) – Carlton Marshes SWT Suffolk, April 2018
Episode Three – December 2020

Ingrid had accepted a job offer in Truro and I had made the decision to leave UEA and move to Cornwall. In early December 2020 and despite the complexities of the tier system we visited Truro. After a good look around and viewing a couple of properties we brought Kat back from University for Xmas. We both felt all set for our next adventure. Except just before Xmas the hematuria came back. Same presentation – six days of bright red pee and it cleared up. What should I do? Stick or twist? Am I just one of those unlucky individuals with unexplained episodic bleeding? My rational head ruled and I phoned the GP. They quickly excluded a UTI and sought guidance from the NNUH urologists. The urologists did not hesitate–my last investigation was 2.5 years old and they wanted me back PDQ.

Next Steps

A telephone consultation advised, within the constraints of a post-Xmas Covid surge, another CT scan and a blood test.  Both were completed by late-February just before I left UEA after 30 years and moved Ingrid to Truro. Two weeks after I returned from Cornwall I received an unexpected phone call to arrange a date for a urological day procedure. “Yes sure but I don’t know anything about this”.  The consultant’s letter arrived an hour later.  The CT scan had revealed an abnormal area in my renal pelvis (where the urinary tract joins the kidney) The consultant wanted to perform a diagnostic uretoscopy +/- biopsy for 16th April at the James Paget Hospital in Great Yarmouth.

I  put the investigation out of my mind when I went back down to Cornwall at the end of March.  I brought Ingrid back to Norwich for the Easter weekend and her second Covid jab.   It was a short lived period of calm. On Easter Monday I drove Ingrid to Reading Station and we stopped off to see my Mother and explain the situation.

A diversionary yomp around Happisburgh with Graham on Saturday 10th April brought my first Wheatears of the Spring.  The next day further distraction came in the form of a charming Little Ringed Plover on West Earlham.

Outcome of the Investigation

I was back out East on Tuesday 13th for pre-operative observations and a covid swab.  After this I self-isolated for three days until John Geeson kindly drove me out to the James Paget on 16th for my 7am admission.  The procedure, done under general anaesthetic, was successful. When I came around the surgeon came to speak to me. He was able to inspect my bladdder/left urether – all clear.  However when he reached the renal pelvis he found a tumour. This appeared to be a Transitional Cell Carcinoma (TCC) which he biopsied for the purpose of grading. The treatment – radical nephroureterectomy.  This is the removal of the kidney, entire ureter, and a small piece of bladder where the ureter and bladder connect.

John collected me that afternoon and took me home where my son Hugh was waiting for me.  That evening I shared my cancer diagnosis with my family and some via video calls.  Although difficult I was grateful for modern technology so that I could see the love and support in their faces.  

TCC in the renal pelvis (also called upper tract urothelial carcinoma – UTUC) accounts for ca 5% of kidney cancers.  The incidence is about 2:100,000. It affects twice as many males as females and the average age of diagnosis is late sixties.  For anybody wishing to understand a little more please look at the pages produced by Macmillan.

Hello I’m still here!

The next day is a bit of a blur as the anasthetic wore off and I got used to the discomfort of a urethal stent.  After 24 hours I could remove the compression socks and have a shower.  News of the Godwit broke that evening and when it was present early the next day there was no stopping me.  The bird showed well close to the bund.  As I photographed it in the warm sun I chatted to many passing dog walkers who showed an interest.  Most importantly it reaffirmed to me that whatever the future holds I will not become Nick the cancer patient.  I am Nick the academic/biochemist/birder/moth-er/photographer, Ingrid’s husband and Hugh & Kat’s father.

The pace quickens..

On discharge the surgeon told me that the pathology report would be 10-14 days.  This indicative timeline was confirmed when the stent was removed on Tuesday 20th.  Much more comfortable I received a call from or estate agent. An acceptable offer for our house was progress but represented more uncertainty.  Never mind we had a holiday on Scilly to look forward to and the pathology results would be available on my return?

In fact the pathology report was with the consultant within a week.  A treatment plan was agreed on Monday 26th and I met the consultant on Wednesday 28th.  His feedback was a low-grade tumour (TCC) confined to the renal pelvis. Treatment would be laproscopic (keyhole) nephrouterectomy that would take place asap after two further tests. Blood was taken there and then by a nurse.  A CT scan, we agreed, would wait until after Scilly. Also huge kudos to my GP who got me a second Covid jab at very short notice.

I drove to Truro the next day (29/4) and the day after (30/4) I had a phone call with one of the specialist nurses.  She was very reassuring and walked me through the diagnosis, surgical procedure and recovery.  The NNUH called at the end of our holiday (7/5) to give me the date for surgery (18/5).  Since returning to Norwich I have been busy with appointments.  I have also caught up with friends and former colleagues whose perspective, humour and support has been invaluable.  


You couldn’t make this up, but as I write this (16/5) there is a Caspian Tern on UEA Broad. An impressive find by Dave Andrews and far rarer in the UK than the Godwit. Nick the birder wants to drive 2km and see it hawk over the lake that was part of my life for 30 years. However I am in strict, post covid-swab, self-isolation. Breaking this could endanger the surgical team  and/or risk cancellation.  So Nick the cancer patient must stay put and enjoy it vicariously.  Severely gripped off Nick the birder is frustrated he did not see it from the bedroom when it flew to Whitlingham and back! 

The Eagles are Coming!

The title deliberately references the sub-title of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  A framed print of the original book cover hangs in our bedroom.  A memento of a awesome Oxford weekend in 2018 shortly after Episode Two, when Ingrid and I saw David Byrne’s remarkable American Utopia.  Like the hobbit Bilbo I find myself on an unexpected journey. 

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the great eagles intervene to rescue the main protagonists when all appears lost. In real life there are no such miracles. Surgery is intended to be curative – we shall see.  Whatever the outcome, I must recover from and adapt to life with one kidney.  Other challenges may lie ahead, but what Tolkien’s eagles do symbolise is strength and hope.  Qualities that I will need in abundance in the coming weeks. 

My plan for my first post work autumn was to split my time between Batumi and Scilly.  The first looks unlikely and the second in the balance.  However, if Nick the birder returns to Georgia one future September when the eagles are coming through something will have gone right.  And that is something to hold on to.

Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) – Batumi, Georgia, August 2019

A Scilly Spring Week

Despite the fact that I first went to Scilly in October 1983, I only ever spent one day on the islands in the Spring. A hugely enjoyable Great Blue Heron twitch to Bryher with James Lowen, David Bradnum and Yoav Perlman in April 2015.  So when Ingrid and I had an option on our usual cottage on St Mary’s for the first week in May we grabbed it.  As May approached and my need for urgent medical treatment became apparent we were grateful for our first Scilly spring.

The week started well.  I stepped off the quay at lunchtime on 1st May and one of two long-staying Iceland Gulls flew over my head.  After a cup of coffee and a pasty at our digs in Thomas Porth I set forth.  Crossing Lower Moors the recently arrived Purple Heron flew from town in the direction of Porthellick.  Two Scilly “ticks” in 90 minutes was just what I needed. And when I reached the pumping station the Woodchat Shrike found that morning was showing well although too distant for photos.  After the shrike I carried on with one my favourite walks. The coastal path from Old Town to Porthhellick via Giants Castle and Salakee Down was simply glorious.

Looking towards Porthellick from Salakee Down

I spent too long on the East side of Porthellick not seeing the Red-throated Pipit. Predictably I left 10 mins before it turned up.  I was more succesful the following afternoon after a lovely lunch at Juliets.  The pipit came with the added bonus of a long conversation with Bob Flood.

After the wash out that was Bank Holiday Monday the rest of the week followed a predictable pattern.  I walked 10+ miles each day in the cold northerly winds seeing very few migrants. All very frustrating, but not without interest.  For instance the pair of Blackcap that breed in the scrub around Watermill Cove but feed on the wrack.  And the huge summer breeding population of Linnets that is gone by the time I turn up in October.

Mid-week Ingrid and I took a trip to Bryher and enjoyed a nice walk around Samson Hill before lunch at Fraggle Rock. En route I turned up a rather smart, but nervous Blue-headed Wagtail on the pool.

Blue-headed Wagtail, Bryher

One thing that surprised me was the number of Whimbrel still staging in the islands.  I assume their northward progress was impeded by the constant northerlies.  Their choice of habitat appeared quite catholic – fields, rocky shore, beaches and freshwater pools

Whimbrel, Porthminnack, St Mary’s

Our Scilly spring week was over all too soon and we left on Friday 7th ahead of another storm.   Yet once again the islands had offered healing and my head was in a much better place to deal with my diagnosis and planned treatment.

Sunset over Samson from Little Avalon

Migrant Moths on Penninis

Along with it’s reputation for rare migrant birds, Scilly is also an excellent place to trap migrant moths.  Penninis Head is the most southerly point on St Mary’s and the penninsular runs North to South.  Sheltered spots amongst boulders and dry stone walls are ideal sites to trap recent arrivals from Iberia and North Africa.  With our accomodation being at the base of the headland I felt there was a good chance of success.

A brace of Radford’s

The first night of our stay (17th October) I set my battery operated actinic trap in the grounds of our lodge. The result was disappointing; lots of Feathered Ranunculus and Lunar Underwings, but little else. Fortunately staying on Penninis Farm gave access to some fields on the West side of the headland. Two nights later I placed the trap in a corner of a rough pasture lfacing St Agnes.

Radford’s Flame Shoulder (Ochlopleura leucogaster) is a Southern European species first recorded in the UK in 1983 (Walberton, West Sussex). There were about 100 records over the next 30 years with most occuring in October. Since 2016 it appear to have become more regular with 2020 being an especially good year all along the South coast. And insects have even appeared as far North as Essex.

I retrieved the trap the following morning and took it back to our lodge. Amongst good numbers of the usual suspects there was a small selection of immigrant or likely immigrant species. This included Angle Shades, Turnip and Whitespeck and two pristine Radford’s Flame Shoulder.

Radford’s Flame Shoulder (Ochlopleura leucogaster). The concolourous link between the pale costal streak and light collar reliably differentiates this species from Flame Shoulder (Ochlopleura plecta). The latter is a resident species that flies earlier in the year. This feature is best seen by photographing as resting moth side on as suggested by Chris Lewis on his British Lepidoptera website.

Other migrants were familar from my first foray into migramt moth trapping on The Lizard in September 2019. These included one each of Scarce Bordered Straw, Delicate and Dark Swoardgrass. 

Scarce Bordered Straw Helicoverpa armigera
The Delicate Mythimna vitellina
Dark Sword-grass Agrotis ipsilon
Micros not migrants

Two nights later I tried the same location again. No migrants and a more autumnal feel to the local moths. But, to my suprise, there were two micro-moths in the trap; Crocidosema plebejana and Scrobipalpa ocellatella. Both are rocky shore specialists, confined to the South and South-West, that fly late in the season.

Crocidosema plebejana (Southern Bell)
Scrobipalpa ocellatella (Beet Moth)

Given that I only trapped for three nights I was very pleased with the outcome.  On three counts.  Firstly the nice mixture of migrant moths and local species, like Feathered Ranunculus, that I don’t see at home.  Secondly catching some micros was a bonus – I had hardly caught any since late August,  Finally it was excellent to see my battery operated actinic get such good results.  Small portable traps give flexibility in a way that mains operated traps with MV bulbs do not.  A useful lesson for the future.


Lockdown Moth-trapping

By the time the UK lockdown started on 23rd March I was already working from home. University teaching had gone on-line and my last physical seminar was on the afternoon of Friday 13th March. During an extended period of home working during the lockdown moth-trapping would be an important part of my routine.

A slow start…

That night I ran my actinic Heath Trap and caught just five moths of three species (5/3). However on the wall behind the trap was a tiny pale grey micro-moth. It reminded me of the Lichen Button (Acleris literana)that I had seen on Wiveton church in late January. Not surprising as it was another species of Acleris; either logiana (Grey Birch Button) or kochiella (Elm Button). Based on the images both Keith Kerr and Dave Appleton favoured logiana an identifcation later confirmed under Keith’s microscope. A new species for me, TG20D and only the sixth to be recorded in the TG20 hectad.

Lichen Button (Acleris. literana) – 26th January 2020
Acleris logiana (Grey Birch Button) – 14th March 2020

Before the restrictions tightened I took a short trip down the A11 to Roudham Services.  The layby is surrounded by woodland and the walls of the well lit toilet block are attractive to moths. In past years this has been a reliable site for two early spring species; Small Brindled Beauty and Yellow Horned.  The first is quite scarce, but Yellow Horned is quite common in suitable habitat (birch).  I quickly found one and relocated it to Eaton for 24 hours for a photoshoot.  

Yellow Horned (Achlya flavicornis)- March 13th 2020

The next two and a half weeks were very cool and trapping was hard going.  I was catching 3/4 of the common  Hebrew Character, Common and Small Quakers and Clouded Drab most nights.  Occasional relief came in the form of the odd Twin-spotted Quaker and Early Grey.

Twin-spotted Quaker (Anorthoa munda) – 17th March 2020
Early Grey (Xylocampa areola) – 4th April 2020
A change in the weather

The weekend of 4th/5th of April was much warmer.  Multiple reports of male Emperor Moths coming to pheromone lures on Saturday made sure I gave it a go on Sunday.  Twenty minutes after deployment an Emperor buzzed my lure, but some inept netcraft saw him disappear over the back fence.  Never mind!  A few minutes later he returned and I didn’t mess up my second chance.  Whilst he cooled off in the fridge a second individual briefly inspected the lure.  My first multiple siting after singles in 2017 and 2019.

Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia) – 5th April 2020

The warmer weather encouraged me to switch to the bigger and more poweful MV trap. I was not disappointed with 17/10 including four new species for the year (nfy): Nut-tree Tussock, Herald, Double-striped Pug and Oak Nycteoline. Three of these species would have recently emerged

Nut-tree Tussock (Colocasia coryli) – 5th April 2020
Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix) – 5th April 2020

The next couple of nights were quieter with only Early Thorn the only nfy. However as it warmed up ahead of the Easter weekend numbers picked with 23/13 overnight on 8th April. Engrailed plus Brindled Pug and Beauty were all expected nfy.

Brindled Beauty (Lycia hirtaria) – 8th April 2020
Brindled Pug (Eupithecia abbreviata)

Not expected was another pale grey moth on the wall behind the trap. This was a new species for me; Early Tooth-striped. The first record for TG20D tetrad and just the third ever recorded in TG20.

Early Tooth-striped (Trichopteryx carpinata) – 8th April 2020
Who needs Easter eggs?

The catch on Easter Saturday morning was small although there were three noteworthy moths. None of this trio were in the trap, but were on the house wall and other nearby surfaces. A crisp olive and lemon Frosted Green was just the second for the garden. It was certainly much better looking than last year’s rather worn individual. In comparison Streamer is a regular garden moth in mid-April, but definitely one of my favourites. The extensive mauve suffusion is shown off to good effect on this lovely fresh individual.

Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens) – 10th April 2020
Streamer (Anticlea derivata) – 10th April 2020

However pride of place went to another new species for me; Lunar Marbled Brown.  This species is bigger than I had expected with a series of wavy crossbands in muted cream and brown tones.  The black “lunar” mark is towards the top edge of the broad cream band.

Lunar Marbled Brown (Drymonia ruficornis) – 10th April 2020

After dark on the evening of 11th April there was a lot of activity in the mild still conditions. The next morning did not disappoint and there was a fine array of moths spread across the house wall and in the trap. There were high counts of Brindled Beauty and Streamer (4 each) and 7 nfy including, Least Black Arches, Muslin Moth. Scorched Carpet Swallow Prominent and my second garden Mullein.

Least Black Arches (Nola confusalis) -11th April 2020
Mullein (Cucullia verbasci) – 11th April 2020

The two nfy micro-moths were Many-plume and Bee Moth. A couple of tiny black and white micro-moths looked more interesting. I identifed them with the aid of my photographs as Mompha subbistrigella (Garden Mompha). Although this species is new to me it is not uncommon and quite well recorded around Norwich.

Mompha subbistrigella (Garden Mompha) – April 11th 2020

Unfortunately wind and rain on the night of 12th April brought this enjoyable period of lockdown moth-trapping to an end. That said although the current restrictions are set to continue this cool spell will soon pass. And as we appraoch May there will be be many more good nights  as numbers and diversity increase.

Mount Amasa and Ashalim

The rocky slopes of Mount Amasa in central Israel typify hillsides found across much of the Mediterranean basin.  The mosaic of boulders, scrub and open area is home to species such a Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinan Warbler and Woodlark. Proximity to the Judean Desert means that some desert species are also present, e.g. Mourning Wheatear and Scrub Warbler.  Moreover the climate and terroir, as Ingrid and I later discovered, suits vineyards that produce very fine wine.  Even more remarkable is the fact that there are wheatears all year round!  I winter Finsch’s Wheatears from Turkey and the Caucasus replace the Eastern Black-eared Wheatears that breed each summer. Their Hebrew names which translate as Winter and Summer Wheatear reflect the seasonal occurance of these two species.

Wine from Mount Amasa was served in our hotel

Mount Amasa is about the same distance from Eilat as Tel Aviv. This  together with the quality birding made it a sensible place to meet  Yoav Perlman. Plus Yoav wanted to see if the Persian Wheatear that had spent the last two winters here had returned.  We met in the car park of Tel Arad National Park  an importantant archeological site with a series of well preserved artefacts dating back to the Canaanite period (Early Bronze Age). I transferred my gear to Yoav’s car and we drove the few km up the road to the trailhead.

Winter Wheatears and a Big Surprise

Under bright blue skies we walked out across a flat grassy plain towards the foothills.  The elevation and strong wind made me regret not having a coat.  But conversation was a good distraction and as we gained height there was plenty to see. In particular good numbers of Finsch’s Wheatear along with Stonechats and Spectacled Warblers.  Yoav’s keen ears picked out other species including Woodlark and Scrub Warbler, but nothing was coming close.  And there was no sign of the Persian Wheatear on its favoured ridge. To mitigate the wind chill we took shelter in a hollow to see if the wheatears would come to us.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) , Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

After about ten minutes with little success all hell let loose! A startled fox dashed down the path with a large raptor in hot pursuit.  I tried to process what we were seeing when Yoav excitedly called it as a Goshawk. The first he had seen in Israel for ca 20 years.  I was instructed to get a photo as Yoav’s camera was in his bag. The huge female did a U-turn and appeared to pitch in on the opposite hillside. We left our shelter and scrambled up the  hillside, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it. I walked down the valley to try and photograph the wheatears whilst Yoav scoured the upper slopes for the Persian but with no luck.

Finsch's Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii), Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Finsch’s Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii)
Ashalim Reservoir

We left Mount Amasa and retreived my car then visited nearby Arad for a quick coffee and sandwich.  Our next destination was Ashalim Reservoir at the edge of the Dead Sea industrial zone.   Patches of open water held plenty of duck, including an impressive 47 Ferruginous Duck.  The extensive reedbeds were full of wintering Chiffchaffs feeding alongside the resident Clamorous Reed Warblers. Dead Sea Sparrows darted in and out of the vegetation and overhead were Marsh Harriers and a Long-legged Buzzard  This very birdy area eventually produced our target species, African Swamphen.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis) – 4th January 2020

Recently the Western Palearctic taxa in the “Purple Swamphen” complex were split into three species. Western (Purple) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is found in the Iberian Penninsular and North Africa. In Turkey, the Caucausus and the Arabian Penninsular it is replaced by Grey-headed Swamphen (Porphyrio policephalus).  The third species, African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis),  recently extended its range northwards from the Nile Valley into Israel.  To be honest it was not even on my radar for this trip and that made for an even more welcome WP tick (#718).

A Great Spotted Cuckoo put in a brief appearance which was a sure sign that spring had arrived in Israel.  Unfortunately our time had gone very quickly and Yoav needed to back in Tel Aviv.  


There was just over two hours of daylight left.  Yoav suggested a site just off Route 90 for Arabian Warbler to visit on the way back to Eilat.  This black hooded lump of Sylvia warbler starts to sing in early January and should have been easy to find.  I followed Yoav’s directions to a wadi just South of Hazeva full of mature Acacias.  As directed, I explored the wadi both to the North and South of the parking area but to no avail.

Wadi South of Hazeva – mature Acacias like tehse are favoured by Arabian Warbler.

Unfortunately the only Sylvia warbler I saw in the wadi was a very photogenic Sardinian Warbler.  An Arabian (Great) Grey Shrike was the only one of the trip and  putting the fear of God into the local bulbuls.

Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)

There was a gorgeous sunset to enjoy before I rejoined Route 90 and returned to Eilat to join Ingrid for dinner.

Sunset over the Ararva Valley

Pink and Grey

After two fine sunny days the weather took a turn for the worse. My plan was to go out for the morning and look for Sinai Rosefinch then meet Ingrid for lunch. I started at Km 35 on Route 90 and looked for a Steppe Grey Shrike, but with no luck. I drove back towards Eilat and took the turning west at Km19 towards the Eilat Mountains.

Grey skies over the track to Amram’s Pillars.

After a few kilometers the road divides. I took the right-hand fork towards Amram’s Pillars. These natural pillars of red sandstone are a popular tourist attraction and a good place ot look for desert birds. As I parked I noticed two tiny birds with long tails scurrying over the boulders that edged the car-park. These were the two showiest Scrub Warblers that one could wish for. One even posed for me on top of one of the boulders.

Scrub Warbler, Scotocerca inquieta, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Scrub Warbler (Scotocerca inquieta)

I walked the start of a couple of the trails leading from the car-park without going as far as the pillars. It was the Israeli weekend and many hikers and dog walkers were enjoying their day off. As a consequence there were no birds. I drove back towards the camp site and noticed a few small birds feeding on a low sandstone rock. One of these was very pink indeed! I turned the car around and edged back to the rock. A small flock of Sinai Rosefinches was attending a feeding station. I manouvered the car to use it as a hide and enjoyed excellent views. The raspberry pink male with it’s snowy forehead was a delight because on my previous winter visit I saw only the dun females.

Sinai Rosefinch, Carpodacus synoicus, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus)

My time was up and I needed to return to the hotel.  Unfortunately Ingrid was still unwell and wished to stay in bed.  I looked in vain for two other local scarcities; Hume’s warbler and Striated Scops Owl.  But the weather got worse with a cool wind and intermittent rain.  And after a half hearted look at North Beach and the Canal I gave in for the day.

Uvda Valley Wheatears and a lifer

The Uvda Valley Wheatears

The Uvda Valley is about a one hour drive NW of Eilat.  Autumn rains caused the desert to bloom making it attractive to a  range of  wintering passerines espcially wheatears.  These included two Israeli rarities; Kurdish Wheatear and Basalt (Mourning) Wheatear that I was keen to see.  The black and white nominate form of Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens) is common throughout Israeli desert regions.  In contrast the striking all black Basalt Wheatear (O. l. warriae) is a scarce (increasing?) winter visitor from NE Jordan and Syria. These represent two of eight taxa in a complex distributed across the arid regions of North and East Africa and the Middle East .  Historically  Basalt Wheatear was regarded as a colour morph of Mourning Wheatear. However recent work suggests that it is at very least a distinctive subspecies and quite possibly a good species.

Despite best efforts at an early(ish) start I was doubly thwarted. First by lack of planning; no packed breakfast. Second by a call from Yoav, surprised that I was not already in the field, who wished to plan for Sunday.  When I arrived at the given coordinates it was already mid-morning. Although Noam Weiss and clients were already leaving they had seen both birds.  Despite clear directions it took me over two hours to track down the Kurdish Wheatear.  After showing well for <1min  it  flew off 200+ m. to another patch of bushes and I couldn’t relocate it.  A real shame as although not a WP tick, I saw this species in Turkey 34 years ago, it might as well be!

Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)
Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)

Time was moving on as I walked NW up the valley to try to find the regular Basalt; one of four wintering in the area. It was slow going with many distractions like this confiding female Hooded Wheatear.

Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha)

And a noisy flock of more than forty Trumpeter Finches to name but a few.

Trumpeter Fich Bucanetes githagineus, Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus)
Mourning Glory

I spent some time with this Mourning Wheatear perplexed by the coarse and extensive streaking on the crown. Later I discovered Dutch birder Leo Boon the author of a 2004 article “Mourning wheatears” – illustrated in Dutch Birding had photographed the same bird.  He wondered if it was of the Eastern form O.l. persica that breeds in Iran.  Leo recorded video and collected poo for DNA  extraction/sequencing.  I await the outcome with interest.

Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica)

Nearby a promising looking black wheatear sitting on top of a bush about 250 m away turned out to be the boy. 

Basalt Wheatear Oenanthe (lugens) warriae), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Basalt Wheatear (Oenanthe (lugens) warriae)

The Basalt Wheatear was clearly not happy that  I hadn’t brought a tribute of mealworms and promptly went walkabout. Not before giveing couple of distant fly pasts to show off it’s distinctive wing and tail patterns. More than happy I said farewell to the Uvda Valley wheatears and returned to the car. I drove to Yotvat to find something to eat and had a brief poke around the north circular field,  Finding nothing of note I headed South in search for my next target. 

Samar, a small kibbutz about 40 km North of Eilat, has recently hosted a family of Black Scrub Robins. This sub-Saharan species has recently colonised the Southern Arava.   The one remaining bird, I was told, had moved location and become a bit elusive.  Passing through the sturdy gates of the kibbutz I stopped to photograph an approachable pair of Spur-winged Lapwings.

Afternoon Delight
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus)

The horse paddocks, reputed to be the bird’s new favourite haunt, were easy enough to find.  But because it was the Israeli weekend the young kibbutz residents were busy grooming  their animals and cleaning tack. I explored a few areas of nearby scrub finding little of note, although a couple of Graceful Prinias posed for the camera.

Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis)

Back at the paddocks the Black Scrub Robin (WP #717) crept out from cover to drink at a leaky pipe. As I lined up the camera the BCS was spooked by a passer by and flew to the kibbutz perimeter. Before I could catch up and recompose it dropped into a well-lit hollow under some tall bushes.  This was absolutely perfect except for the chain link fence between me and the bird! Here the BCS strutted its stuff. A magnificant all black bird frequently showing off the rows of white spots on the underside of its huge tail.  An absolute delight but just impossible to photograph…

After another 30 minutes or so of frustration I gave up and headed back to the hotel to catch up with Ingrid and have dinner.  There would be much to talk about after an enjoyable if slightly frustrating day.

An Unexpected Visitor

Ingrid and I flew to Amsterdam on New Years Eve and spent the night at an airport hotel. Early the next morning we flew to the newly constructed Ramon Airport just North of Eilat. However it did take two attempts. The first flight returning to Schipol after an hour because a sensor warning light came on in the cockpit. Consequently we arrived after dark and took a bus (runs every 30 mins) to our hotel near the Coral Beach. I was excited by a return to southern Israel 25 years after our last visit. Although I had no idea that an unexpected visitor from Africa was going to make the first day especially so.

After a good sleep and breakfast I took a bus into town to collect a pre-booked hire car. Two things I should have done at the same time. First use one of the ATMs in the centre of town. These recognise UK debit cards and issue small denomination notes. Seconly buy a local SIM card ca £20 for all the data you will use in a week (or even a month!).

When a new bird is not a tick!

I collected my gear and drove North thruugh Eilat noting the much changed skyline around the North Beach. I turned off East towards the Wadi Araba Border Crossing into Jordan and the Eilat Ornithological Park.

The excellent information boards at the entrance to the International Birding and Research Centre Eilat

The park which serves as HQ for the IBRCE (International Birding and Research Centre Eilat) is undergoing a makeover. Improved trails and hides will enhance the experience for coachloads of tourists who come to learn about the work of the centre. The purpose of my visit was twofold. First of all to pick up some information on the scarce wintering species in the Southern Arava. Secondly to try and see one the 5+ Oriental Honey Buzzards that were wintering in the area. I completely failed on the OHBs but enjoyed some of the common wintering species. Both around the park and on the adjacent saltpans.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), Israel, January 2020
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) – IBRCE
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) – IBRCE

Just as I was leaving I saw a tweet about an African Crake that had been taken into care in Eilat!! A real WTF moment. That on day one of your trip a species with <15 Western Palearctic records has arrived on your doorstep. But! To cut a long story short the African Crake (a species in the same genus as Corncrake) arrived at the IRBCE in a bag. Found in a city garage and rescued from a cat it was lively but injured. Quite rightly it was taken into veterinary care, but not before a photoshoot.

An unexpected visitor African Crake (Crex egregia)
African Crake (Crex egregia) – IBRCE

Regrettably I cannot count African Crake on my Western Palearctic list. Listing birds is a personal thing and even more so in the WP because, like the UK constitution, the rules are unwritten. However for consistency I choose to follow the principles used by the American Birding Association for their recording area.

Evening on the saltpans

After the excitement of the crake I drove a little further North to the saltpans at Km20. It was now late afternoon and looking over the saltpans towards Jordan the light was excellent. Greater Flamingos are the stars of the show here with three big flocks totalling about 450 birds.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Including the long-staying melanistic individual.

mealanistic Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Waders feeding in the shallow edges to the saltpans included Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, Dunlin and both Kentish and Ringled Plovers.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) – Km 20 Saltpans
Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) – Km 20 Saltpans
Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) – Km 20 Saltpans

By now the light was starting to go. After a couple of false starts I found the gap in the fence that allowed entry to the Km19 sewage works. In the time I had left I didn’t manage much beyond the exptected herons and duck. Although overhead were some impressive flights of Greater Cormorants heading south from I don’t where to a roost site at the coast. As dusk fell I called it a day and headed back to Eilat for an excellent dinner at a local seafood restaurant.

Managing the Light

My grandmother referred to the days around the winter solstice as “the dark days before Christmas”.  I sometimes think this phrase speaks to her understanding of the powerful impact that limited hours of daylight and grey skies can have on our wellbeing.  Circumstances that combined with the demands of the holiday season make it imperative to make best use of the few sunny days that come along; especially for birder/photographers.  

The first of these was Sunday 15th December and my orginal intention was to head over to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo where an adult male Black-throated Thrush found earlier in the week was holding court.  However mindful of the need to drive to Maidenhead the following weekend, and the fact that I had seen half a dozen Black-throated Thrushes in the UK it seem best to but that one on the back-burner.  Instead I headed South to the RSPB’s Hollesley Marshes reserve in Suffolk where I was able to watch the long-staying Siberian Stonechat happily feeding out of the wind some 200 m away

After an hour or so it was clear that the Stonechat was not coming closer so I made the short journey around the Deben estuary to Felixstowe Ferry where a Black-necked Grebe had taken up residence on a small beach side pool.  

The beachside pool at Felixstowe Ferry

From a photographic perspective this was much more satisfactory.  Lying on the flat rocks with the setting sun behind me the grebe would pop up just 5 metres away.  Unfortuntely for most of my visit it seemed encumbered by some green nylon fishing line that had got wrapped around its lower neck.  Fortunately this did no seem to impair feeding and about half way through my visit the bird appeared to be disentangling itself (upper image).  The lower image shows it to be free of the twine and I know for certain it remained on that pool for a further three days hopefully safe from dog walkers and stone throwers before it made its way back out to sea.

Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019
Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019

As it turned out that a combination of work, assorted Christmas preparations and multiple trips to the dentist meant that it was not possible to make the Maidenhead trip until Sunday 22nd.   Fortunately an early start was not needed as Whipsnade does not open to the public until 10.00 hrs and the forecast was that the ealy rain would not clear until 11.00 hrs.  It is always good when a plan comes together and as I was parking just after 11 the first visiting birders were leaving and the day was brightening. To cap it all a very kind lady walked up to me and gave me a voucher for half price entry.  Over the next hour the bird did not disappoint showing well in and around its favoured cotoneaster bush before moving into a nearby animal pen all in very good light that showed off the nucanced charcoal tones that offset it’s bright yellow bill base.

Black-throated Thrush (Turdus atrogularis) ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire, 22nd Dec 2019

More than happy with my views and photo opportunities completed a leisurely journey across the Chilterns to Maidenhead and spent a pleasent afternoon with my Mother and Sister before an early evening return to Norwich.

In many ways seemed an excellent way  to end the birding year. However as so often is the case, there was a late surprise  in the form of another Eastern Yellow Wagtail found frequenting a West Norfolk dung heap during the afternoon of 23rd December. And this individual was not an esoteric study in greyscale with a funny call, but a handsome first winter male of the nominate subspecies Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis aka Alaskan (Yellow) Wagtail or Blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail.  For a quick refresher on Yellow Wagtail taxonomy see my recent post;  On the Beach.  As for English names of recent splits please! Just don’t get me started!  

The  more immediate problem was that I was finishing at work,  Christmas Eve was going to be spent shopping and making preparations for Christmas Day and Boxing Day guests and the only sunny day in the forseeable future was Christmas Day.  And although I have long since stopped caring about county lists this appeared to be a very pretty bird and worth the effort.

In the event the family kindly made sure this was not a problem – with presents exchanged by 11.30hrs and Christmas Dinner preparations in Hugh’s capable hands I was given an unexpected bonus present in the for of an exeat. Unsurprisingly there were just a couple of observers present and as I unpacked my gear and the wagtail moved from a large roadside muck heap to a stubble field where it fed distantly for about ten minutes before flying off South-East.  Others decided to await its return but I walked down a farm track to the a second pile of sludge and manure where it had fed the previous day. 

Prime habitat for a vagrant wagtail

Creeping around the back of the site to get the low sun behind me I surprised the EYW which flew calling into a nearby copse before returning to feed on the piles of manure and in the slurry pools which appeared full of insects. For the next 45 minutes myself and one other photographer had this confiding beauty to ourselves whilst skeins of Pink-footed Geese called over head and flocks of Fieldfare bounced along the hedgerows.  What was there not to like?

Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019

I eventually tore myself away so that I could drive home on the near empty roads in the light and was back home by 15.30hrs to enjoy the rest of our family Christmas Day including the fine meal served up by Hugh.

The outstanding spread that awaited me later that evening….

Some final thoughts on the EYW.  If we accept the identification of this bird as an EYW on the basis of it’s flight call then maybe it can be ascribed as a candidate ssp tschutschensis on the basis of the blue-grey crown and nape (appears slate grey in some lights), white supercillium that stops short of the bill base and dark grey lores. As for it’s origins despite the “Alaskan” moniker tschutschensis breeds as close as NE Kazhakstan; nearer than many far-eastern species that reach our shores.  Conceivably analysis of DNA extracted from a stray feather or faeces may reveal more.  But for now that can wait as I savour a memorable encounter on a sunny Christmas Day.