Splitting and lumping - what's a species anyway?

I'm glad to say I've never been a 'hard core' bird lister. Of course I use a notebook, so any seawatch or raptor-watch in effect becomes a list, where numbers and weather conditions etc are all duly written down - so I suppose I am a lister in a small way. Certainly when on holiday I always note the number of raptor or seabird species seen. But I've never been a great one for chasing after birds for the sole purpose to add to a list....and in fact if I was ever to make a Devon (forget UK) list it would be notable by the amount of species that have occurred in Devon that were easily twitchable (and I knew about) that I've not bothered to go and see. This is usually because the particular species didn't really interest me, so perhaps I'm a selective lister. Yet I've probably seen more Balearic Shearwaters in Devon than anyone else (so what!), each to their own as they say.

So it was with a wry smile when I read the BOURC's recent announcement here. Yes, they are adopting the IOC Word list. Seems to make a lot of sense to me, why not have a world-wide standard, as long as its a good standard using robust data! I imagine for many listers this throws a bit of a spanner in the works. Suddenly they are losing birds on one hand (being re-lumped), while on the other they might be gaining (being split).

For me there was one particular item of interest and that was the splitting of Fea's Petrel to [Fea's Petrel] Pterodroma feae and Desertas Petrel Pterodroma deserta. This split was waiting in the wings so to speak for some time, as suggested by some authorities. But then there is always the problem when such splits of cryptic species occur - no one can now say they've seen either [Fea's] or Desertas at sea, as there's too much overlap of in-field identification features and overlap of range (from translocater based studies). [Except in the unlikely event a bird is caught and DNA sampled, but then this seems to depend on what criteria are used!]. Same thing happened when the 'Band-rumped Petrels' were split, the UK lost its accepted Maderian Storm-petrel. So the Fea's Petrels I saw off the Desertas, Maderia back in 2015 were more than likely to be Desertas, but will now have to go down as [Fea's] / Desertas, or better remain as Fea's (more on the [Fea's] in a moment), likewise, same would apply to the handful of accepted UK Fea's seen from  Scilly pelagics - no longer a species anymore! Interestingly in Flood & Fisher's (2013) Pterodroma Petrels, they did not split Fea's (into separate species) and to avoid confusion used the term Fea's to describe the two taxa (sub-species): with separate names Cape Verde Petrel  Pterodroma feae feae and Desertas Petrel Pterodroma feae desertas; a similar approach to Howell 2012. To me this seems a better way forward as the two taxa have names associated with their breeding sites and should they be deemed separate species as IOC suggest avoids confusion. But.... Flood & Fisher stated that the genetic work by Gangloff et al. (2013), which used five genes (not just the usual one mitochondrial gene), two mitochondrial and three nuclear introns, showed a family tree that only warranted the split of Zino's and Fea's Petrel to species level! So on whatever grounds the IOC has split Fea's, it would be better to use Cape Verde Petrel and Desertas Petrel to avoid confusion over names. But is IOC's criteria robust enough if others disagree and what are the rules? So get ready to call your next, "think I've got a Zino's / Fea's / Desertas Petrel"! Fea's-type is probably easier!!

But lets take a step back. One thing I ask is what is a species anyway? I wonder how many listers ask that question, they should as its fundamental to their list. An interesting take on this here (especially the last sentence). Looking on IOC's website I couldn't (easily) find a definition of what they call a species. Surely the most important thing to have available. Are many gull [species] that interbreed and have fertile hybrid young really separate species, or just one super-species? If Yelkouan Shearwater and Balearic Shearwater are breeding on Menorca and producing fertile hybrids ('Menorcan Shearwaters') are they really separate species or is it just a cline across the Mediterranean (as some authorities suggest)? Should they go back to Mediterranean  Shearwater? I'm doing myself out of a species or two here!

Some nice introductions!

There are some bird species which were introduced into the UK that have become naturalised, which somehow fill a niche without major problems and become a 'nice' accepted addition to our avifauna. But before I go further lets define introduced species. They are the ones we never had in the first place (not natural), so if and when their populations die out and we want them back we reintroduce them. Case-in-point are pheasants (and Red-legged Partridges), were introduced and then are reintroduced every year at numerous shoots throughout the UK. So why is the term reintroduced used for birds like Red Kite, Osprey, White-tailed Eagle, Cirl Bunting (also falconers gave us Goshawk back on unofficial releases) etc, surely they were never introduced in the first place? They were once part of our natural native avifauna, so they are not reintroduced when brought back, merely re-established or trans-located from suitable donor sites. [Glad to say the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013 available here, at least referred to Red Kite and Cirl Bunting (in a Cornwall context) as re-established].

So back to my starting point. There are some 'nice' real introductions or reintroductions. For me at least two, Little Owl and Mandarin Duck (remember Ruddy Duck, but they didn't fit in!). Sadly I hardly see any Little Owls now, as many of their former haunts in Devon are unoccupied, e.g. I remember three territories around Prawle now vacant. Something has affected their breeding ecology; just look at the BTOs abundance change map for 1968-72 vs 2008-11 here, quite striking isn't it? A large decline in the west of its former UK range. Yet Mandarin seems to be doing well , particularly where I live. When taking a local walk by the river they add a welcome splash of colour. But how many are there on my local river now? In 2012 I chanced upon a private residence, where the lady owner had started winter feeding the local Mallards and Muscovy Ducks (another introduced species here!). But what it was also attracting was 'wild' free-flying Mandarins from up and down the river. In 2012 we had a peak count of 48 there, pretty good. But in 2013 we had a peak count of 88 on 16/01/2013! We didn't quite hit those levels in 2014 just high 60s. But in 2015 again we hit 88 on 06/02/2015. 2016 was marginally lower with 80 on 04/03/201. I expect there's actually over 100 as there's a lot of coming and going and probably not all the same birds are seen on subsequent days. I.e. there is at least one uniquely plumaged 'pale' male that was not present during one of the 88 counts. In a Devon context these numbers are very high! Come spring and they spread out along the river favoring the upper reaches and some tributaries, where if you're lucky you see family parties of ducklings later on. This winter I've not seen so many, perhaps its due to a new kayak launch site that started near the feeding site!

A Mandarin melee! River Dart 20/01/2013

Wish this was my birdtable!
The handsome drake Mandarin a worthy introduction!!

Highs and lows of 2016

Well we all have our best bits of a year and for me, finally getting the Yelkouan Shearwater accepted by BOURC/ BBRC, Mike Langman and I saw off Berry Head way back takes some beating. To be honest as nearly 8 years had past, I had all but written it off (due to perceived taxonomic issues). Then for the two of us to be asked by British Birds to write a 'New for Britain' was a great honour. For a seabirder (probably) a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this!
British Birds: 109: 448-459
In fact I seemed to be on a bit of a roll with British Birds as they also published my article on Balearic Shearwaters numbers through west Lyme Bay, Devon. Its great to see some use made of 10 years' (2172 hours) of seawatching observation, for this critically endangered seabird. I added in the 2016 data (not a good year), on this blog here. I hope to do some more analysis of seabird passage this year on this blog, perhaps looking at Arctic Skua, which is cause for concern!
British Birds: 109: 350-352
But.....my 2016 Devon seawatching year was not great and 2016 will not go down as notable. I did see two Cory's Shearwaters at separate headlands, and four Great Shearwaters (a two and two singles); and two Long-tailed Skuas. To think I was seawatching at Berry Head when a Black-browed Albatross went east past Prawle and I know where I should have been. No unusual raptors seen in 2016 and the fact a Lammergeier probably went over my house while I was away was bit off. I did find an unringed White Stork low over Exminster and a Dusky Warbler at Prawle (what a rare warbler for me was quite good!). Ending the year with three Siberian Chiffchaffs at my local sewage works was nice. Of course I saw lots of good birds, too many to list as rarities for me are not everything!
Unringed White Stork over the car, Exminster 10/05/2016
[Siberian] Chiffchaff one of three near home 29/12/16. 
One great project to be involved with was WildGuides new Britain's Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, which was published in 2016. It set a new standard for a photographic guide, even pushing more conventional greats like the Collins Bird Guide hard. In fact the two together are a great combination for all birdwatchers. Its a great privilege to know your photographs (mainly seabirds, but some raptors in my case) are being used to help others in Bird identification. I think I ended up with 60 or so photographs in there. However, the book is not perfect and a couple of my photos have wrong labeling, but I doubt most people would notice unless you really know your stuff! Its 99% perfect and I'm sure a 2nd edition will be spot on. In 2016 there was a lot of 'grumpy old men' talk of buy a book, in relation to some internet postings, too right and this is a good one to get. Yes, this is what books are for, to help us all with our bird identification, then if you're still unsure and need help (as we all sometimes do) consult an expert, but at least have go yourself first. Books help with our spelling of bird names too, a bugbear of mine on certain blogs! I need help too as I'm dyslexic!!

It was also a privilege to get some Fulmar (mainly dark phase birds but also variation in bill colour) shots in Bob Flood and Ashely Fisher's latest Albatrosses & Fulmarine Petrels multimedia guide, in their North Atlantic Seabird series. I've been a great fan of their book / video combinations. What was even better the excellent illustrations within were all done by friend and local artist John Gale.

One of the lows for me was the 2015 Devon Bird Report which came out in 2016, hence in this review. Having been heavily involved in the past (1994-2009), I was also co-editor 1996-1998 (what a dyslexic editor!!). But there's more to editing than just spelling and grammar!! We once had an amazing editor in Pete Reay et al. - the halcyon years from 1999–2009. The report won 'best' award a few years on the trot and it was a honour to have been part of a great team. It was always going to be a hard act to follow. I was coaxed back in for DBR2015, but certain aspects relating to the use of my own records, are to be frank embarrassing, I won't say anymore as this review is generally upbeat. But before moving on there were couple of interesting things I found in 2016 while researching for writing the raptor account. (1) 2015 was the first year since 1969 with no accepted Honey-buzzard records! (2) It was the best Red Kite year, with a 'super' influx. But when it came to writing Red Kite, on receiving the data I thought hey there's a lot of sightings missing here, including that of 28 I remember seeing on the blog! So I painstakingly went through the Devon Bird news blog and extracted all the Red Kite records into excel. I seem to remember it added c120 new records, almost doubling the database. Guess what, many people put their sighting on the blog but then don't send them in! Perhaps people think putting things on the blog means it automatically gets into the DBR database. Well it did for Red Kite for one year only (as I passed the extract on to the data manager) and I've moved on. One thing the report always contains is excellent WeBS data etc and photographs, just needs a dam good edit and more consistent approach. Surely my five counts of 60+ Mandarins on the river Dart near home are worth an individual mention, like 88 on 06/02/2015 (I'm not after initials its the big counts that are important). Hopefully Devon Bird's new recorder will influence this and I wish him well.

There was also the Devon Bird Atlas published in 2016 with much pomp and ceremony. I'm not a great fan of atlases but of course did my bit to help, bit of surveying, then validating at the data collection stage, and then writing etc. The problem with Atlases the day they are produced they are already out of date. One thing the Devon atlas showed me is how flawed some of Sitters data was (just look at Kestrel, massive observer bias and that applies to other species). At the end of the day we still see the trends of what we already know is happening. But as birds don't recognise county boundaries, for me the National BTO Atlas 2007-11 is far more meaningful. Mark Avery wrote a review of Devon's, a bit harsh but to the point here. Its OK Mark I certainly wasn't offended. In Mark's review he called Sitters Atlas excellent, but how can it be if the data is flawed?

But what about my other great passion, monitoring raptors? Well a mixed year. At my local site the Peregrines produced four young (well four were present just prior to fledging). So that was the first time in 28 years of my monitoring (and the site being occupied) they had produced a four! I was really looking forward to watching four young playing over the town. But we never speak too soon with this site as they can be targeted just post-fledging (poisoned by folk who do not like Peregrines, as they have been in a least four times in the past). Well the young seemed to fledge OK, but something was wrong, I was not seeing them playing around as they should. Subsequent visits located just two young females, not flying well and unable to get any height! I first suspected mild poisoning and monitored them intently over the next days, although I wasn't altogether convinced their symptoms matched poisoning. From previous experience, with the modern pesticide abuse (Aldicarb & Carbofuran as used in 2005 & 2011), which sadly I've seen here, death is usually pretty quick and you just find the corpse. Anyway, their condition was not improving, they would just sit around low down with no major flights or play. So I contacted some falconer friends for advice and asked if they could help me catch them and take them in, to assess their condition and possibly keep for treatment. This meant seeing whether suitable facilities were available, Dave Scott could do it and Leonard Hurrell at a pinch!
They look like two healthy juvenile females, full cropped because the adults are feeding them. But they're too thin! Time to call an expert.
So friend and raptor rehabilitation guru Dave Scott came over and we managed to catch one of the two. On examination, there was little pectoral muscle on her breast bone, hence her inability to fly well (we couldn't catch the other). Poor bird had a bad parasite infestation of worms, seen when looking down her throat. Despite the parents feeding them well, the worms were taking all the nutrition before it could be assimilated into muscle - no muscle and can't fly to build muscle either.  Two days later I managed to catch the 2nd female who had become weaker and took her over to Dave's. He ordered up the right treatment from consulting his contacts and the slow process of de-worming these fine girls began. If I (we) had not intervened they would have died, the presumed fate of their other two siblings. Sadly in all this they missed that vital window with the adults of being taught to hunt. Although it was hoped to get them back quickly it took too long for them to be de-wormed properly and regain their condition, so now Dave has taken on the role of parent and will teach them to hunt for release into the wild. An unsung hero largely financed by himself, though I was able to arrange a donation towards their upkeep and treatment.

So last but not least to my passion for Goshawks. Over many years I've built up very good working relations with many landowners and forestry organisations. Finding breeding sites, helping plan around the birds. E.g forestry operations to take place so they don't affect the birds breeding success; and where possible putting in retentions (safe mature stands to keep the birds nesting in). Its a good relationship and we've had much success to the point where the birds are doing OK. One particular valley though had a major setback a few years ago when the area was taken over by a massive pheasant rearing shoot and my single productive pair there, unsurprisingly disappeared!! Luckily the area was subsequently bought by a conservation friendly organisation. Great news and I located two new pairs there after two years, but..... also there was now much better public access. Move on to 2015 and unfortunately one path passing close by a nest had a bad effect as with increased public access the site failed and the other site raised just a single. So one from two pairs in 2015 was not good. So for 2016 with the kind cooperation of the landowners I asked if we could close the track for the breeding season, as the birds had built a new nest that was easily looked down into, to see if it made a difference. The outcome was very successful and this pair reared four and the other three. That's seven more young in that valley and they take many Grey Squirrels as this family portrait shows. I should say of course I'm licenced to work with Goshawk and Peregrines.
In all my years of monitoring I seldom find a nest that can be looked into by a track. Closure of the track meant four young fledged - a great success.

Lets see what 2017 brings! Happy New Year.