Wise Birding Holidays

Friday, 13 April 2018

East Budleigh Sparrow DNA

On the 3rd November 2017, good friend and fellow naturalist Dave W sent me a photo of an "odd" looking sparrow that he had photographed in his East Budleigh garden. Dave is always good at noticing anything out of the ordinary, so I was keen to view his photos. My first thoughts were that it seemed to fit the plumage of an Italian Sparrow (Passer italiae), a species originating from the hybridisation of House and Spanish Sparrows and considered by some to be a full species. I excitedly requested further photos. 
Ironically, Italian Sparrow was a species Dave was unfamiliar with as it was not illustrated in his first edition Collins Bird Guide. I was grateful for the opinion of Devon birder Tim Worfolk, who illustrated the Italian Sparrow plates for HBW. His comments based on the photos alone were reassuringly positive.

It was difficult to predict the interest that such a bird would have in the birding world. 
I knew there was still a big question over the bird's origin, but on plumage alone the bird looked very good. So I prepared Dave as best I could knowing there would certainly be some interest, particularly in light of the recent decision for British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) to adopt the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) World Bird List where Italian Sparrow is treated as a full species.

After final discussions with Dave W to make sure he was happy and with the re-assurance that the bird was now visiting bird feeders (provided by RSPB) that we had put up away from Dave's garden to give a more suitable public viewing area, we agreed to release the news to the wider world. I did this through Twitter and the Devon Birds website on 11th Nov 2017 therefore allowing anyone the opportunity to see this interesting bird.

The "East Budleigh Sparrow" has since received a steady flow of visitors from various parts of the country. Thanks must go to Dave (for first noticing the bird), the good will of many of Dave's immediate neighbours, the RSPB for the feeders and the very understanding East Budleigh residents.

It is not the first time that a sparrow resembling an Italian Sparrow has been seen in the UK. A number of records have been reported from Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire at least. However, none appear to look quite as clean and pure on plumage alone when compared to the East Budleigh bird.

In 2018, once interest from birders had waned, an application was made to the BTO to trap the bird and take a DNA sample (3 flank feathers), with a view to hopefully finding out more about its true origin. Permission was granted from the BTO and Dave agreed for the bird to be caught in his garden where it was trapped in a mist net on the 9th April 2018. The bird was caught with minimal fuss and processed very swiftly  thanks to the efforts of a very professional small team of licensed ringers, led by Steve Waite. 
See Steve Waite's account HERE

The feather sample has now been sent to Prof Martin Collinson of Aberdeen University, who has now become the British guru on such avian DNA tests. 

My understanding is that the DNA tests are unlikely to be able to show 100% Italian vs Spanish, but hopefully it will be able to confirm if either of the bird's immediate parents were a House Sparrow, or not!

Whatever the outcome of the results, it is certainly an interesting bird and it will be great to find out the story behind its origin.  
If you wish to see the bird, it is still present as of the 14th April at least and seems to be showing interest in the female House Sparrows. 
Please view only from the designated areas on the map at the bottom of the page.

Molecular analyses found that italiae possesses DNA from both Spanish (P. hispaniolensis) and House (P.domesticus) Sparrows. Nevertheless, it is morphologically distinct from both parent species, and has reached species level and is now treated as a distinct species by some taxonomy groups. From Handbook of Birds of the World Alive

Possible Italian Sparrow: East Budleigh, April 9th 2018

The head area showed some paler flecking.
On closer inspection this was buff in colour and there were no obvious grey feathers coming through the crown.

Though House Sparrows have a slightly down curved upper mandible, this is clearly much longer than normal.
Such bill abnormalities are not uncommon in the wild with various passerines

Steve Waite taking bill measurements of the bird

Hopefully some of the questions as to the bird's true identity will be answered from these feathers and the associated DNA

East Budleigh Sparrow by Steve Waite

Tuesday, 10 April 2018


A vist to the Otter this afternoon primarily to look at the gulls resulted in no gulls but a lovely Osprey! I first picked up the bird due to the commotion of gulls that appeared over the town and then harassed the bird until it was lost to view as it headed east, hence not many gulls when I arrived on the estuary! 

Still, certainly no complaints as this was only my third Osprey on the patch. The previous two records were:
one over the golf course on 11th April 2013 
and a late bird on 30th October thanks to a timely text from Steve Waite after he had seen it on the Axe before heading my way!

I don't think I will be winning any awards for these shots, but at least they are identifiable!

Osprey, Otter Estuary 10th April 2018

Osprey, Otter Estuary 10th April 2018

Osprey, Otter Estuary 10th April 2018

Monday, 9 April 2018

Glaucous Gull

A nice surprise on the River Otter this morning was finding this 2nd calendar year Glaucous Gull. It looks very much like the bird seen at Dawlish on 16th March:

It is only my second Glaucous Gull on the patch with the last one being the bird I first saw on 16th April 2011 which stayed for 6 months! 
See Here: http://creamteabirding.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/bruiser.html

Glaucous Gull, River Otter April 9th 2018

Glaucous Gull, River Otter April 9th 2018

Glaucous Gull, River Otter April 9th 2018

Glaucous Gull, River Otter April 9th 2018
Glaucous Gull, River Otter April 9th 2018

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Pipits and Wagtails

Good to finally see some migrants arriving on the patch over the last couple of days! Willow Warblers, Swallows and Sand Martins were the most commonly recorded, as well as 2 White Wagtails on the cricket pitch yesterday.

At least 2 Water Pipits coming into summer plumage in wet fields north of White Bridge today, but generally very difficult to see!
A small group of Rock Pipits on the cricket pitch yesterday with a  distinctive bird showing some possible littoralis features (Scandinavian Rock Pipit), but also well within the variation of petrosus.

Water Pipit, North of White Bridge

Water Pipit, North of White Bridge

Rock Pipits - A distinctive bird with bold supercilium and fairly prominent wing bars, showing some subtle littoralis features

Rock Pipit, Budleigh Cricket Pitch

Rock Pipit, Budleigh Cricket Pitch

A group of resting Swallows and a Sand Martin fresh in from Africa!

White Wagtail, Budleigh Cricket Pitch

Friday, 6 April 2018

Western Sahara - Specialities

Some of the desert specialities from the Western Sahara.
We enjoyed a fabulous tour full of specialities and some great migration spectacles. 
A respectable tally of 128 birds and 10 mammals.
Just some of the highlights included: Golden Nightjar, African Dunn’s Lark, Sudan Golden Sparrow, Cricket Warbler and African Royal Tern. Plus numerous migrating Bluethroats, Subalpine Warblers, Wrynecks, Redstarts as well as a couple of surprises in the form of a Spotted Crake and a Great Bittern! Mammals were exceptional too with great views of Sand Cat, African Wildcat, Fennec and Ruppell’s Fox and Atlantic Hump-backed Dolphin!
A good selection of reptiles were also seen including Sand Viper and Spiny-tailed Lizard.

Many more highlights can be seen at:
Includes a sound recording of the Golden Nightjar.

Male Sudan Golden Sparrow - one of five birds seen in Oued Jenna

Male Sudan Golden Sparrow - Oued Jenna

Dunn's Lark - Distributed along S edge of Sahara in SW Western Sahara, Mauritania, N & C Mali, S Niger,
NC Chad and C Sudan. Split from "Arabian Lark" (Eremalauda eremodites) found in Middle East: Jordan, N & C Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, S Yemen and SW Oman. Sporadic breeding in S Israel and Syria. Cited from HBW Alive

Cricket Warbler by Tour participant Peter Alfrey

Tree full of Desert Sparrows - The flocks were quite amazing with over 400 birds seen in one day!

Male and Female Desert Sparrow near Derraman

Pharaoh Eagle Owl

Sand Viper on the Aousserd Road by tour participant Peter Alfrey
Birding the Aousserd Road
Fennec Fox by tour participant Peter Alfrey - Check out those ears!

Caspian and "African" Royal Tern - Dakhla Bay
Atlantic Hump-backed Dolphin by tour participant Peter Alfrey - Really exciting to see this critically endangered mammal.
This species is endemic to the tropical to subtropical west coast of Africa, from the western Sahara to Angola. It is a shallow water
specialist and there have been very few records reported from WS in the last couple of years.

Birding Dakhla Bay

The erlangeri race of Lanner Falcon is a true stunner

Lanner Falcon over Oued Jenna

Lanner Falcon

"Desert" Grey Shrike, Oued Jenna

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Western Sahara: Migration through the Desert!

I have just returned from my second trip to the Western Sahara region leading a Wise Birding Tour. This region of North Africa has become popular with birders in recent years for the recent exciting discovery of Golden Nightjars that appear to be breeding in the area as well as other species that are difficult to find within the Western Palearctic region such as Cricket Warbler, African Dunn’s Lark and Sudan Golden Sparrow. 

This part of North Africa also has to be the best place in the world to see the Sand Cat. A species that until fairy recently was a notoriously difficult mammal to see in the wild.

However, regardless of the above specialities, for me the region is just as exciting for its incredible migration spectacle. There is something about seeing migrants in the desert that just re-affirms how amazing  migration is and what an incredible journey it is for many birds. There is also the excitement of simply not knowing what is going to appear from the next patch of habitat. Whether that be in the desert or a tiny park in the centre of Dakhla!

Just some of the highlights of the migration can be seen below:
Many more photos can be found on Peter Alfrey's Blog HERE

The desert landscape near the small settlement of Aousserd.

White-spotted Bluethroat - We saw at least a dozen different birds during our week, seemingly co-inciding with a number of UK records.

White-spotted Bluethroat - According to HBW Alive,  In North Africa, cyanecula (White-spotted form) is commoner
 on passage, and almost all birds wintering there are cyanecula too.

European Bee-Eater - Small flocks of between 20-50 birds were recorded daily in the desert.

Black Kite - Up to 250+ birds were seen on one day migrating through the desert. Interestingly, they seemed to be avoiding the coast.

Marsh Harrier - A common sight with small numbers seen moving through on a daily basis.

Montagu's Harrier - Three birds were recorded and just one beautiful male above.

Western Orphean Warbler - 3 birds seen feeding in the many Acacia trees near Laglatt.

Common Nightingale - 1-3 birds recorded in the various bits of habitat in the desert and on the coast.

Tree Pipit - A commonly seen species in any bit of suitable cover.

Woodchat Shrike - A common migrant in any suitable bit of cover.

Wryneck - Small numbers encountered in the desert and on the coast.

Bluethroat - One of the many seen

Eurasian Bittern - Biggest surprise of the trip was this bird I flushed from a pool in the desert. Apparently only the second record  for the Western Sahara region. The first record wasn't actually seen and comes from a satellite tagged bird!
A female equipped with a satellite transmitter on 17 June 2010 in the Netherlands was located on 26 October along the coast of the Moroccan
Atlantic Sahara then at the Mauritania-Senegal border on 28 June 2010 and finally in Gambia on 5 November.
The spring return of 2011 took place through the interior of Oued Ad Deheb and Saquiat Al Hamra, then through the Lower Draa.
Observations of Eurasian Bittern are rare in Mauritania, but not exceptional (Isenmann et al. 2010).
Eurasian Bittern - A crazy sight in the desert!