I read an interesting paper yesterday that will appear in the next edition of Bulletin of the BOC. It’s co-authored by Hadoram Shirihai – Bloomsbury author, fearless adventurer and probably my favourite ornithologist.
Perhaps the most difficult of all bird groups to separate to species is the seabirds, and this is where Hadoram’s specialism lies. While he does his share of museum work, Hadoram is happy to head out into the field to look for things himself, often in spectacularly demanding conditions. And what can be tougher than spending week after week far out at sea, up and down and up and down among the choppy waves, doling out barrelfulls of a mixture of fish oil and fish guts to tempt in shearwaters, petrels and storm-petrels? For a firmly committed land-lubber like me it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
The fruits of this hands-on approach to seabirdology are impressive. Recent investigations include the first at-sea identification of Zino’s Petrel off Madeira, and some sensational rediscoveries of species ‘ lost’, presumed extinct. While the search for Jamaican Petrel was fruitless (this one really does seem to be a goner), Beck’s Petrel – a diminuitive version of Tahiti Petrel – was rediscovered by Hadoram off the coast of New Ireland in 2007, 79 years after the last (and indeed first) record. And in this latest paper he’s hit the jackpot again, with the discovery of a new ‘taxon’ related to Collared Petrel, found in surprising numbers off the coast of Vanuatu in the eastern Pacific. Bretagnolle and Shirihai dub the new bird the Magnificent Petrel, and here’s why.
This beauty was photographed in a mixed-species seabird flock, along with Wedge-tailed and Audubon’s Shearwaters, Sooty Terns, ‘tens of noddies’ and Red-footed Boobies. Imagine that. The authors haven’t plunged in to state that its a new species, though there seem to be good grounds for it to be so (and there is DNA work in prep.).
I like seabirds a lot. Though to my shame I have never actually seen one. I realise this is bad. I thought I saw a Herald Petrel when I was on Rarotonga last year, but it turned out to be a frigatebird – a new low in a litany of misidentification.
Hadoram’s next book for Bloomsbury Hadoram’s previous book for Bloomsbury
Yesterday I had a long and fascinating amble around the new exhibition at the British Museum on the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This was a series of spells to help the dead on their path through the netherworld, which were painted onto papyrus and placed in the sarcophagus with the mummy. Rich with colour, the parchments really do form a stunning exhibit.
A couple of the gods caught my eye. First, Ra, god of the sun. Obviously half man-half falcon, but which falcon? I must admit I wasn’t sure. A quick flick through Raptors of the World reveals that there are only a few possible candidates, assuming the Egyptians wouldn’t have gone for a passage migrant.
I’m going to stick my neck out and state that the god Ra was at least part-Lanner Falcon. Ra has a clear white cheek, which, though perhaps not as obvious as it might be on my little illustration above, suggests the yellowish-cheeked Barbary wasn’t the one they had in mind. The artists on the Book of the Dead produced a seriously impressive likeness of this fine falcon, complete with a stylised rufous nape.
All good fun. But then I stumbled upon this beaky chap, doodling on the wall. Without looking below, what’s your first thought?
Mine was ‘Slender-billed Curlew’. It turns out that this is Thoth, who apparently has the head of an ibis. Fair enough, I guess, though as I looked for more examples of this god it became apparent that the thickness of Thoth’s bill seems pretty variable. I wonder though … while SBC today is Critically Endangered and quite possibly extinct, this map from the Slender-billed Curlew Working Group shows that there are historic records of regular wintering in the Nile Delta, and presumably this was the case back when pyramids were in vogue, while we know from other reliefs that the locals back then loved a spot of fowling.
Perhaps there was a dab of conflation of SBC with ibis in Thoth – who knows? Though I’m willing to accept the alternative hypothesis – probably not. What do you think?
Regular readers will know that I’m slightly obsessed with curlews, and my elevation of one to the level of deity is maybe not that surprising.
A few months back, I asked the more ID-aware among you to have a go at identifying a pickled bird’s head, freshly photographed on the desk of my esteemed colleague Nigel Redman.
Maybe this was a bit tricky.
The answer is its a Rhinoceros Auklet. What do we know about this rather mysterious seabird? Well, it breeds in colonies around the coastal North Pacific – a hotspot of auk diversity – from Sakhalin and Hokkaido via the Kuriles to western Canada and California. The horn that gives it its name appears during the breeding season, when it digs burrows in the earth for nesting. The parent birds visit the colony at night, bringing tasty treats of fish for the chicks. After fledging the auklets head out to sea, far from land, for the winter.
Nigel’s gruesome find stems from a trip to Verkhovski Island in Peter the Great Bay, near Vladivostock. The unfortunate bird had been caught and neatly decapitated by a Peregrine. Like any good birder Nigel salvaged his prize, popped it into pickling vodka (the only spirit to hand) and brought it back to dear old Blighty, for the dual purpose of impressing people like me while driving non-ornithological members of staff away in disgust.
There’s rather an interesting piece by David Callahan in this month’s Birdwatch magazine, discussing which species might soon become ‘Firsts’ for Britain – in other words, extreme vagrants that might be recorded here for the first time. There have been some astonishing finds over the last few years, from a Long-billed Murrelet off the coast of Devon (and, ludicrously, one on landlocked Lake Zurich in 1997 – how on earth did that get there?) to the famous Ancient Murrelet of Lundy, and the undoubted crowning glory, last year’s now-legendary Tufted Puffin off the north coast of Kent.
While Rhinoceros Auklet wasn’t mentioned by David as a possible First for Britain in the near future, maybe it should have been. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled, though I doubt I’ll manage to whistle one up the next time I go to Rainham Marshes. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to have to go to Siberia one day to see one of these funky little beasts – hopefully this time with the head still in the vicinity of the shoulders.
The full story of Britain’s Firsts can be found in these two Poyser monographs:
Earlier this year, a lot of London year-listers will have traipsed round the North Circular to Finchley, and to the Total Garage on Regent’s Park Road. Why? To see a lonely, solitary Waxwing, which hung about in these suburban surroundings for a month or so before starting the long flight north. It hasn’t been a vintage Waxwing year …
Unlike 2005, when Britain experienced a true waxwing invasion, with thousands of these striking pink birds sweeping south across the frozen country. In mid-January, we got wind of a flock of waxwings not far from our office, which is slap-bang in the middle of London. Its not often you get to see flocks of anything round here, let alone a scarce winter
visitor, so Nigel and I downed tools and set off in hot pursuit.
We were greeted just outside Warren Street tube station by a remarkable site – a flock of 110 waxwings, alternating between some tall plane trees in a nearby square and a very small tree with berries on the pavement, with an attending flock of around 110 birders. You couldn’t have got better views of either.
One of the birds had flown into an office-block window, had kicked the bucket, and was lying forlornly on the pavement. Obviously I couldn’t just leave it there – the curse of the wandering zoologist – so I was soon on my way back to the office with a pocketfull of dead waxwing. This proved useful for scaring the more squeamish among my fellow editors, but I must admit after taking the bird home I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. A brief period in the freezer was clearly unsatisactory, so this poor bird’s long journey from the Arctic north ended with it being pickled in a large onion jar in my shed, where it resides to this day.
Team Helm does actually have previous when it comes to pickling interesting things that turn up on our travels. For example, one of the many reasons for which Nigel is renowned in the company is the permanent presence on his desk of this admittedly gruesome item.
Now, here’s a question for the more ID-aware among you. The head of which species is pickled in this jar?
Send your answers to us by the 26th June … a Helm field guide of the winner’s choice awaits, with the winner picked at random from correct entries (UK entrants only; editor’s decision is final!).
Learn more about the land of the waxwing here:
Since the beginning of May, you may have noticed that a number of brightly coloured elephants have appeared around the streets of London. As well as being an interesting attraction for tourists and commuters, the elephants are there to raise an important issue – the future of the endangered Asian elephants.
As one of the world’s largest mammals, Asian elephants understandably need lots of room to roam. There are over 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and their habitats are getting smaller and sparser. With the worlds’ population increasing rapidly, the elephants’ habitat is slowly disappearing and this is causing hostility between elephants and local communities.
This is the fourth, annual elephant parade and also the largest. The first parade in Rotterdam in 2007 showcased 50 elephants, seventy appeared in Antwerp the year after, over 100 elephants graced the streets of Amsterdam in 2009 and this year, running simultaneously with the London parade, is one in Dierenpark Emmen in the Netherlands.
The London Elephant Parade has been organised by the charity, Elephant Family to raise both awareness and money for the cause. Organisers hope to raise around £2million from the 260 elephants, which have been designed by artists and celebrities, and will be sold individually at auction.
For those of us who are unable to house an elephant ourselves, we are able to purchase mini elephants from the Elephant Parade Online Shop.
You can get involved in lots of other ways too, by signing the petition, donating money on the website, buying mini (or life size…) elephants, texting ‘elephant’ to 83118 and more!
The money raised goes towards securing ‘corridors’, ancient migratory routes that the elephants and other herds use to find new forests and fresh supplies of food and also moving entire villages out of the elephants’ way.
On May 22nd, the artists behind the eye-catching elephants will be standing proudly beside their elephants between 10am and 1pm to answer your questions and discuss their inspiration for the designs.
The elephants are in London until July 4th so get up to London, download the map from the website and get elephant spotting! It is such a worthwhile cause and even the smallest donation can help to make a big difference.
Written by Laura Skerritt
If you’d like to find out more about Indian elephants, check out our fantastic Field Guide to Indian Mammals
I recently spent a weekend walking in Scotland on the island of Skye and discovered that the Scottish highlands is home to some of Britain’s most interesting wildlife…
My personal favourite were the highland cattle
The landscape was breathtaking and it was a great place for walking and enjoying the outdoors. Dolphins, porpoises, seals, otters and puffins can be seen in the water.
However, one of the most exciting things is the range of birds of prey that you can see- if you’re lucky. Golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, kestrels and buzzards can be spotted and there are several places that offer wildlife-spotting boat trips. I went out on one of these boats and they took us to see a white-tailed eagles nest which had two chicks inside and then threw fish off the boat so that the eagle swooped down to the water to catch the fish and we got a fantastic close-up view. It was really breathtaking to see as they are huge and magnificent birds with an enormous wing span.
Written by Ellen Parnevelas.
To find out more about Scottish wildlife check out RSPB Handbook of Scottish Birds: