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Urban birding, Soho-style

Our Soho Square bird list is nothing to boast about. Just 25 species in 11 years! But then we are in central London, without a blade of grass for miles, if you discount the obsessively manicured gardens of Soho Square itself. Even this little patch of green is barely visible underneath the masses of random, sun-seeking bodies that fill the square on sunny days, and it’s shaded by tall sterile plane trees that support a lot less microfauna than a good, solid native oak. Nevertheless, we’ve had our moments: the occasional Mallard strolling across the lawns looking for a puddle of water, a fly-over Grey Wagtail, Redwings migrating overhead in winter, and even a Willow Warbler once in August. A Sparrowhawk eating a pigeon caused quite a stir amongst the non-birding staff of our office, and has been seen a couple of times subsequently. A few years ago, a flock of 120 Waxwings descended on Fitzroy Square, just a few minutes to the north of us. This was sensational for Central London, and when we were walking back to the office a flock flew south along Charlotte Street towards Soho Square – but we weren’t there to get it on the list!

The Bloomsbury Sparrowhawk tucks into an unfortunate pigeon. Photo by Nick Humphrey.

This year, after years without an addition to the list, we’ve had two. A pair of Goldfinches has taken up residence in the square. They were first found by Jim, but are now to be heard singing or twittering on most days. Then, a snatch of song on 6th May alerted me to the presence of a Black Redstart in Frith Street. It did not show itself, and a frustrating few days went by before it was heard again. The next time it was a few streets away, but again it was not seen. Finally, I nailed it back in Frith Street, and I was lucky enough to actually see a pair. Since then, it’s been fairly regular in the Frith and Greek Street area, being recorded as far afield as Chinatown and Great Marlborough Street.

Black Redstart, taken earlier from the office window*. What a cracker.

We’d been hoping for this city speciality for some time. Jim thought he’d got one a couple of years ago, but it turned out to be someone’s Canary singing away from the balcony of a top floor flat! Black Redstart is a rare breeding bird in Britain. It only started breeding in Britain on bombsites in London in 1940, and its population remains fairly stable at only around 100 pairs in the entire country, mostly in towns or on power stations. So, it’s a pretty scarce bird, and to have a pair around your usually rather birdless office is quite a treat.

St Anne's Court, Soho. Scene of Jim's canary-based ID disgrace.

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*this is a lie.

The nitter-natter of tiny feet

This week, editor extraordinaire Julie brings us a stirring tale of lice and labour ..

 

When was my first time?

Well it wasn’t when I was a child.

My first experience with nits was exactly a year ago. At eight and a half months pregnant  my toddler daughter came home on her last day at nursery with ‘the letter‘.

We’ve timed that well, I thought, after a quick scan of her scalp. She’ll spend the summer home with me and her soon-to-arrive sibling completely nit-free.

Two weeks later I had another squint at her head as I washed her hair. What the hey?! Forcing myself to take a closer look I discovered an impressive infestation.

Nits in action

That night while my daughter played happily in the bath I slathered conditioner on her hair. Nit-comb and tissue paper in hand I was ready to start the eradication process.

One comprehensive round of clearing later I knew I was supposed to wait five days before checking for newly hatched lice. But, with nothing but time on my hands, it became an irresistible daily urge to take a peek every bath-time. Did that speck just move? Is that one? Is it a different colour to the ones I removed before?

I thought I’d  just ask my mum to check me. Seconds later she was presenting me with exhibits on a white tissue to examine and confirm. No! NO! Surely not me too? Days from my due date I had to concede that, yes, my cuddly little bed-invading toddler had passed on her infestation.

Action stations. I would not have a baby while there were things on my head having babies of their own!

A head louse, yesterday.

My mum was a godsend and as the first days after my due date passed I was just relieved. I’ll be able to get rid of the little bleeders before the babe arrives, I thought.

By day ten after my due date I was too hot, tired and emotional to do anything except eat ice lollies, keep my feet elevated and hope that something was going to happen today.

Due date +12: my daughter’s head was looking more louse-free by the day. And I was now so adept at the conditioner/comb combo that, despite my long locks, I could do a pretty good job on my own, then ask my mum to check through my workmanship.

So there I was, sitting on my bed watching Timothy Olyphant being Justified combing through my softly slathered tresses when I thought, “hmm, was that a twinge?” I quickly finished combing, jumped back in the shower to rinse off and realised if it’s making me groan out loud it’s not a twinge, it’s a contraction. And after two weeks wait they came fast.

At 4.30pm I was on the bed with Timothy, by 6.20pm I was on a hospital bed meeting baby.

Olyphant: expressed 'sympathy' for Julie's plight.

She was born with a beautiful dark head of hair which, like lice, is subtly changing colour with age, but thankfully within which the little blighters have yet to be found. But now she’s at nursery too I know it’s only a matter of time until I reach for those combs again.

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This blog was inspired by the brilliant NIT HEADS blog, by Richard Jones and Justine Crow. Richard and Justine are currently writing The Little Book of Nits – indispensable advice for any parent. Coming soon …

Neat Parakeets

With their emerald-green plumage, bright red bills and raucous calls, Ring-necked Parakeets seem to be everywhere these days. Admittedly rather pretty, these tropical parrots have been ‘naturalised’ as UK birds since the early 1970s. Theories abound on how they got here in the first place; some say they escaped from a studio during the filming of the African Queen; others claim that Jimi Hendrix liberated a few to jolly up London a bit. All enjoyable bunkum, but either way, their population has boomed over the last decade; they are now common throughout the London area, and are spreading fast.

Pretty with pink.

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I love Paris in the springtime; I was there a couple of months back. Like many other European cities, Paris, too, now has its very own recently established parakeet flock. I was pleased to watch a group screetching away merrily in some trees outside the Panthéon, before taking off in a swooping green flash across the city.

Later that day, I ambled into the Musée de Cluny, and popped inside to see, among many wonders, one of mediaeval Europe’s most famous tapestries – La Dame à la Licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six imposing, largely red panels, five of which are loosely based on the ‘senses’. Made around 1490, they truly are a wonderful sight. Among the richly detailed needlework, and nestled among the intricate leopards, monkeys and giant white rabbits on the panel known as ‘taste’, I was truly gobsmacked to see this:

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Its a parakeet! But on a tapestry made in 15th-century France. It has to be a Psittacula parakeet, but which one? The absence of a red on the wing strongly suggests that this is Ring-necked (as opposed to Alexandrine, the only other contender). How on earth did this exotic wonder crop up in a tapestry in mediaevel France? The bicoloured bill is suggestive of the north Indian subspecies of this bird (as opposed to the geographically closer African one).

A little research suggests that the species has a long history in aviculture, so it may be that the bird our Lady is feeding was actually bred in captivity. Or it might have been traded across from eastern Europe or, who knows, even further afield. Either way, birds of the same introduced exotic species that was swooping above my head some half an hour before were presumably kept in the very same city, more than 500 years before.

So although it seems like they’ve only just bustled into our lives, these noisy green parakeets have been with us in Europe for a long time – I had no idea just how long.

Ring-necked Parakeets on the Eiffel Tower, yesterday.

 

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Learn more lots more about parrots in this Helm guide:

Flower focus

I have just returned from a great 10-day trip to the hills of Andalusia in Spain. The birding was, frankly, a bit of a wash-out, partly because I was busy walking over tough terrain, partly because it was bit too early for migrants (a soaring Black Stork provided a sensational exception), and partly because it did rain rather a lot. So attention turned from the skies to the ground, with a spot of orchid-hunting on the shrubby hillsides.

I must admit I’ve never really been interested (at all) in flowers, but I was inspired by the enthusiasm of our guide, Dave from Walk Andalucia. It was a bit early in the year, and the ground had been stripped bare by severe rain over the winter, but after a day of searching we found this little beauty, right next to the car park.

Its a Sawfly Orchid, one of the bee orchids, flowers that are among nature’s craftiest tricksters. Each species depends on a single species of insect (in this case, a sawfly) to spread its pollen about. The flowers look a bit like a female sawfly, and they release chemicals called pheremones into the air; these mimic the pheremones released by the insects to attract a mate. To a male sawfly, the combination is irresistible. Seduced by the flowers sexy looks and great scent, he swoops in to ‘mate’, but ends up with nothing more than a dusting of pollen for his trouble, and flies away. Should he be fooled again the pollen will be transferred to another orchid, at which point seeds can develop.

Close to the Sawfly Orchid was another species, the Early Purple Orchis mascula.

Later, we found this:

The last of our orchid discoveries. A glance at Marjorie Blamey’s excellent Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean reveals that these bee orchids are really, really hard to tell apart. But I think this is the Dull Bee Orchid, Ophrys fusca. If any orchid experts out there want to put me right, by all means drop me a line …

So, orchids – jewels of the undergrowth. I’ll be looking hard in spring for some English varieties. But just to show we did enjoy some fauna to go with out floral finds, here’s a sumptuous Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina.

Learn more about Europe’s orchids in this A&C Black title:

Sailing the Seven Seas (for seabirds)

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 – A&C Black 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.

Hadoram searching for Zino's

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.

Pterodroma (brevipes) magnificens - what a bird.

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.

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Hadoram’s next book for A&C Black                                       Hadoram’s previous book for A&C Black

Mythological birding

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.

Ra (left); various falcons (right)

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?

Thoth hard at work.

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.

Slender-billed Curlew records, 1900-2002.

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.

Learn more about Lanners here

Admiring auklets

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.

Let's all learn to love auklets.

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.

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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.

A now-famous photo of one of the greatest finds in UK birding.

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:

Seeking skulkers

Small, drab, dull-brown birds that like to skulk deep in the undergrowth are of disproportionate interest to large swathes of the birding community, and I must admit I’m as susceptible as the next man to their allure. So I’m particularly pleased to be working at the moment on our forthcoming Helm Identification Guide Reed and Bush Warblers, which is jam-packed with hard-to-see (and often extremely-hard-to-identify) species such as these.

I was double-pleased, when researching the images, to find that there were a few species that have simply never been photographed (or if they have I can’t find any!), and one of these was the Cook Islands Reed Warbler. And I was about to go to the Cook Islands. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and fill this gap myself.

The bird occurs on two islands – Mitiaro, which is virtually impossible to get to, and Mangaia, which is only very, very difficult to get to. I plumped for the latter.

To say Mangaia is remote is something of an understatement – I was met off the tiny plane from Rarotonga by the Minister of Tourism, who told me that not only was I the only tourist on the island, I was the only one they’d had for three weeks. Its an amazing place, once you get past the initial shock – the people are warm, friendly and rugby-obsessed, and there’s good birding to be done – watching two species of tropicbirds soaring high above the coral cliffs was a sight I’ll never forget. However, the undoubted star of the show is the island’s endemic kingfisher, found nowhere else in the world.

White-tailed Tropicbirds do their thing, high above the taro swamp.

And then there’s the reed warbler. Very much a bird for the connoisseur, this little brownish-yellow bird is common throughout the island, even in the ghastly, useless introduced pine plantation on the coral plateau that girdles the island. It doesn’t seem too bothered by the lack of habitat, or the infestation of rats and cats the island seems to suffer. Its jangling song, a bit like a Blackcap after a few too many rums, became a welcome soundtrack for my time on the island.

My favourite acro. What's not to love?

The world will see the fruits of my subtropical labour of love when the book comes out in November … if by chance you’re heading to Henderson Island in the Pacific before then and you fancy tracking down and photographing a small, brown, endemic warbler, do let me know …

Learn more about Cook Island, Henderson, and many other warblers here:

A birder in government

Not many people know this, but the newly appointed Deputy Chief Whip in the coalition government is a birder. He is John Randall, known to his closest friends as Alex. He’s an old chum of mine and was even best man at my first wedding, many years ago now. In those days, he used to lead a few birdwatching tours to places such as Hungary and Poland, and at that time I too was a Birdquest tour leader, in my pre-publishing days. We all had fewer commitments then before marriage and families intervened and we were free to travel to exotic destinations to watch birds.

Alex was elected as MP for Uxbridge in 1997, in a move that surprised even his closest friends. Since then he has diligently worked in the whips office in opposition, with rather little time for birding, though he does manage to get away on a few family holidays (for example a trip to Borneo last year with one of his sons).

I won’t bore you all with tales of lunches in the House of Commons, but Alex did send me the photo below recently. He’s on his way to the State Opening of Parliament (no, he doesn’t travel to work like that every day!). Apparently one of the perks of his new job is to ride in this fancy coach behind Her Majesty. How the other half lives!

If you want to find out more detail about John Randall, check out his entry in the latest edition of Who’s Who.

The tale of the pickled waxwing

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.

Jim’s waxwing, pre-vinegar.

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 jmartin@acblack.com 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:

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