Saturday, March 31, 2007

Status of the Birds of Heriot-Watt Campus

Early morning walk... hereby my exhaustive and binocular-free list of the birds of Heriot-Watt, Riccarton campus.

Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck (there's a loch - not exactly a crystal lagoon, but it does the job), Oystercatcher, Common Moorhen, Common Buzzard, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Woodpigeon, Stock Dove, Collared Dove, Great-spotted Woodpecker (really this time, drumming), Pied Wagtail, Song Thrush, Blackbird, (Winter) Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Goldcrest, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Carrion Crow, Rook (a rookery, maybe about 30 nests), Magpie, Chaffinch, European Goldfinch, and Greenfinch, Yellowhammer.

Also loads of cute baby bunnies, and a nice cinnamon-colured adult.

Lunchtime on campus added Common Kestrel, Bullfinch and House Sparrow to what I now realise was not an exhaustively researched list of the birds of Heriot Watt.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Edinburgh Fringe

or on the fringes of Edinburgh, more like. At a meeting at Heriot-Watt University (work meeting - woodpecker-free zone). Interesting point of note... very few people from Edinburgh University here, which I suspect is because they all knew what a pain in the butt it is to get to this place. Honestly. Funny, on the 'how to find us' instructions it mentioned the airport, buses, taxis, cars, etc, but didn't have a section for 'rail'. But aha! Martin knows best, I noticed on the campus map that Curriehill railway station is right next door, so thought that was the best option and hopped on the train.

What the campus map didn't tell me was that when you get off at Curriehill, this so called railway station is a platform in the middle of the countryside, fields all around and no Heriot-Watt in sight. And if there was just one road snaking off into the distance, at least you'd know which way you had to walk, but no! There's a fork, left or right, both roads snaking off into the countryside, so I was a bit stuck. Fortunately, I met a wee mon walking his dog (hooray for dog walkers!). Apparently if I went right, that took me to the front entrance, but it was a long way (boo!). If I went left, that took me to the back entrance... I had to bear right, come to a cottage built into the wall (true! I thought I'd walked into an episode of Dungeons and Dragons), turn right again and I was there. Left it is then, through the Lothian countryside. Got a Tree Sparrow and arrived at the secret back passage of Herriot-Watt. Student Halls! Blimey, they all smell the same - whether it's the cheap carpets or the varnished wood or what, but it took me right back to my youth. Been here 2 days and have seen a Goldcrest, some Mallards, 2 Blue Tits, Rooks, and a Great-spotted Woodpecker. Not quite a woodpecker-free zone then, except I'm lying about the woodpecker. Ho hum. Back Sunday.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


CaMPaGULAN has a new member. Courtesy of this link, I bring you...

Percy Roycroft Lowe (1870-1948), O.B.E., M.B., B.C., M.A., M.B.O.U., was born at Stamford, Lincolnshire. He went to Jesus College, Cambridge, and then studied medicine at Guy's Hospital, London. Lowe began studying and collecting birds while serving as a civilian surgeon in the South African War in 1899. As a private physician he made six yachting voyages to the Caribbean with his employer. Lowe's book, A naturalist on desert islands (1911) describes these cruises. In 1919 he joined the staff of The Natural History Museum London in charge of birds. Lowe was President (1938-1943) and Medallist of the British Ornithologists' Union, Chairman (1927-1930) of the British Ornithologists' Club and editor of its

I believe this particular Percy has set some sort of record for very gratuitous use of letters after names. I don't even know what 'B.C.' is?!

8/10 owners say their Eagle Owls prefer cats

... and the other 2 take babies out of prams. True.

Sadly, a largely disappointing Cage and Aviary Birds this week. Interesting article about captive-breeding African Pied Crows and Azure-winged Magpies, and a couple of good adverts. Prepare to dig deep in your wallet for...

Bald Eagle, Male 06, Good temperament and manned. Not flown yet. £4000

on the other hand, check down the back of the sofa for...

Harris Hawk September 06, can be seen with parents £250 or swap what have you got?

Oooh. And this illuminating paragraph buried in a couple of columns of 'Everything you ever wanted to know about Eagle Owls'
'So many of these owls are kept as captive specimens in the UK that it is considered irresponsible to allow a pair to breed unchecked. A long-lived pair will produce a clutch of four eggs annually for 20 or more years, which makes for a challenging exercise in placing young birds in suitable homes. It is believed that several are lost into the wild each year, some deliberately. But the only pair known to be breeding in the wild in the UK (one of which was recently shot) has produced 23 youngsters over several years and only one has been recovered - found dead.'

Formatted blah blah blah

For those who like their Ivorybill papers fully formatted in final journal form, you can now get that version here

If enough people download it again, I'll get the coveted 'Highly Accessed' tag, so fill your boots. :-)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Most exciting thing that happened to me today... I managed to carve into my finger with our new super-sharp kitchen knife. AGAIN. That's the third time in the last 2 weeks - have got a right hand covered in scars that deseerves a Purple Heart or something. My own cutlery is trying to kill me. Was a nice day today though. Got outside into a cool easterly. Sky Larks singing all over the shop. If it had been the first week of May, I wouldn't have been hurrying to work. Course it was the last week of March - I still wasn't hurrying to work, what with it being Sunday and all, but prospects for a migrant or two much reduced. I say cool wind, actually it was freezing.

Usual dross down the valley to the beach. I mean, beautiful Greenfinch displays, Song Thrushes singing, serenaded by Winter Wrens, charmed by European Goldfinches, flushed the pair of White-throated Dippers again etc. You know the score. Offshore though, things are starting to liven up, with an unexpected passage of 50+ Common Gulls, plenty of Northern Fulmars back n' forth, and some Black-legged Kittiwakes on the sea. Lines of Common Guillemots and Razorbills going north, mostly, and some rafts of up to 50 birds ebbing and flowing off the breeding cliffs. My first Atlantic Puffin of the year, a single Red-throated Diver north, 3 Northern Gannets. 150 Herring Gulls sat on the rocks, with 13 Common Eiders, which included some green-grey-billed ones, for a change! Couple of Great Cormorants settled down at the breeding area on Fraggle Rock, and 3 European Shags fishing close inshore. We are set for summer! Went for a walk round Cran Hill, and scoping off there spotted a Bottle-nosed Dolphin going north too.

Cran Hill, awash with song - over 20 Skylarks on view at one point, with 6 of them singing simultaneously, I could barely get to sleep. Also Yellowhammers joining in, complaining because they got cheese again with their bread. I sneaked up on the overripe dung heap in the farmyard at the back of Cran Hill. It didn't see me coming. And neither did 2 Pied Wagtails, a Grey Wag and 12 Linnets feeding thereupon. By this time it was starting to warm up and I got into that mode where I start scoping the surrounding fields looking for Northern Wheatears. Wasn't happening, but it might have.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

What the papers say...

Some recent comments on the Ivorybill paper:

In the comments section here:
'What a waste of papers (and electrons). What downgrades Collinson's work is his lack of credentials for the work he did for this paper- e.g., he is an amateur doing an amateur analysis. His expertise appears to be cell development. Because he knows how to write a paper in journal style, he was able to get this amateur analysis published in an online-only journal.'

From Fishcrow:
'J. Martin Collinson says, "My guess is that we've missed the boat on the ivory-billed woodpecker and they're already gone." This pronouncement comes from someone who has probably never spent time in ivorybill habitat. In an article posted at Birder's World, he contradicts himself with the statement, "There appears to be no reason to question the anecdotal sight records of Ivory-billed Woodpecker presented in Fitzpatrick et al (or in many online sources), because some of them appear credible..." Collinson's article is the shoddiest piece of work I have seen on the ivorybill.'

There are also extensive critiques by David Martin and Bill Pulliam in the comments linked to the paper.


On a different note, I think it's really worth listening to the audio file of a searcher's story presented here. To my mind... speaking as someone who has never spent time in ivorybill habitat... there are some very telling statements in there. See if you can pick them out.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Inaugural meeting of CaMPaGULAN

Order! Order! Order! I say.
Egg and Chips and a mug of tea, 2 sugars!

Wow, that joke is so old, it thinks 'if I could walk that way I wouldn't need the talcum powder' is a witty new rejoinder.

I'm calling the first meeting of CaMPaGULAN to order. Thanks to Bob McGowan and
Cole & Trobe (2000) The Egg Collectors of Great Britain and Ireland we now have full and frank information on the mysterious Percy Bunyard (19th March). Turns out he was a major player in the oological field, and the sale of his collection was a big deal. Only he had the kind of personality where he fell out with everyone, so when he died, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and he never got an obituary. He was one of the hardcore egg collectors who took immaculately prepared egg series along to the British Ornithologists' Club meetings for over 40 years, long after a series of extremely rowdy and forthright meetings has resulted in a breakaway Oological Association for exiled eggers and a distinct cold shoulder for oology in the BOC. Another major egger was the Rev Jourdain, and for much of the 1920s the MAJOR reason for going along to BOC meetings was to hear those two bickering. They sold tickets.
'Bunyard's retorts' it says here, 'abusive in the extreme would be countered by Jourdain's pointedly sarcastic rejoinders.' Apparently most were on Jourdain's side, because he was more of a purist (personal collection, well authenticated) cf. Bunyard's collection of substantially bought and traded specimens, some of which were of dodgy authenticity. Both were gifted oologists, apparently, which I assume means they were very good at climbing trees. Bunyards collection and presentations were immaculate. Although he mostly stayed in Britain, he distinguished himself in the field by going to Finland and robbing 18 bar-tailed Godwit nests - no mean feat.

At the sale of his eggs, as advertised in BB, the star of the show was a well-marked clutch of Greater Yellowlegs that went for £27, probably representing a few weeks' wages for most people at the time?

'One comes to the conclusion that Percy Bunyard deserved better recognition than the ornithological establishment was prepared to allow him.... Bunyard's last exhibit in May 1937 consisted of a long series of Blackbird clutches, mostly from Kentish orchards, one of his interesting conclusions being that erythristic eggs tended to be larger and heavier than more normal sets. By the time of the B.O.C. Chairman's annual address in November of the same year Percy Bunyard had passed on, and an important link with the old school of oologists had been severed.'
Cole & Trobe (2000) The Egg Collectors of Great Britain and Ireland

With no other competent business, I draw the inaugural meeting of CaMPaGULAN to a close. DONM to be determined.
Martin Collinson MA, PhD, MBOU (but you can call me Percy).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Heroes of the Birding Revolution VIII - Ernst Hartert

Ernst Hartert, 1859-1933

Born in Hamburg, Germany, on October 29th 1859, to an army General, who was later posted to Pillau, Prussia, as a Kommandent. Whatever happened to Prussia? Home of colourful kings, some wars that everyone has heard of but few can explain (Austro-Prussian War, anyone?), vast estates, and eventual abolition. At school we had a history teacher who was always umming and erring as he talked, and he often dropped his ‘aitches’. Not like I drop them, from being common, but a kind of well-spoken way of knowing when to drop your aitches. I remember he was telling us about cruel King Frederick William of Prussia, who would spit on his family’s plates before the food was served, and, I quote… “ was a beggarly sod who errrr… used to drag his daughters round the errrr…. palace by their errrrrr…. ’air!”. True. I’ve forgotten EVERYTHING else he told us about Frederick William, and indeed even why we were being told about him. Just goes to show. I’m not show what it shows, but there’s a lesson there.

Ernst, a keen self-taught naturalist from childhood, became an avid egg collector in the flushing meadows and babbling streams of Konisberg, learnt to skin birds and would head off into the marshes on a whim. His researches as a young adult lead to the publication of the bird life of Prussia (274 species documented – not bad) in an Austrian magazine. In 1885/6, at the age of 25, he headed off on a 16 month tour of Africa, collecting and skinning birds, then a year later followed up with a trip to the Far East and India – Sumatra, Penang, Calcutta, Assam, Bombay. Actually he was collecting insects mostly, at least at first. Bagged some birds though, and on his return he was lured to England by the siren wail of God’s Own Job at the British Museum errrr… cataloguing the Swifts and Nightjars, it says here. But which of us can truly resist a good goatsucker? He published this, and then sensibly ran away – took his wife round Central America to have a good long hard look at some live birds. Six months later, 1892, with a nice tan and a stomach upset that scared small children in the street, he really did land God’s Own Job – Director of the fabulously wealthy Lord Rothschild’s Museum at Tring, where he stayed for 38 years contributing to the amassing of the greatest private collection of birds in the World (eventually 280,000 specimens), and, importantly, keeping on top of their classification and taxonomy. He joined the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1893 and then the Club and spent 40 years attending their dinners and bringing along interesting specimens. He made many trips to North Africa to collect birds, often in the company of Lord Rothschild, assembling a fantastic representation of the region’s birds. He also had a special interest in East India and the Far East, and wrote many papers in Novitates Zoologicae (the Tring in-house journal), Bull. BOC, Ibis, British Birds, and the like.

He became an honorary member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1902. Between 1903 and 1922 he published his greatest work, Die Vogel der palaarktischen Fauna, a product of a brilliantly organised mind backed up by the greatest reference collection ever seen. Publication was in 3 parts but suspended during the Great War. As a German in Britain, this was what BB called, with probably outrageous understatement, a time of ‘great difficulty’ for Hartert. Although he was at home in Britain, he retained his accent and continental airs, which must have lead to daily difficulties, even though his son died fighting on the British side. After the war, he instigated the revival of the International Ornithological Congress, on the sound basis that birds do not recognise political boundaries. Birds do recognise vicious territorial disputes, but maybe it wasn’t good to carry the analogy too far.

To ignorant monoglot Brits (not pointing any fingers) it is actually his 1912 Hand-list of British Birds that remains the most enduring influence. Hartert was first author of four, the other three being the British Birds triumvirate of editors – Harry Witherby (Hero of the Birding Revolution), FCR Jourdain (future edition: Egg-collecting Hero of the Birding Revolution – not yet documented) and Norman Ticehurst (future edition: Hero of the Birding Revolution). I’ve pasted in a random page – looks pretty normal to us, but it is impossible to describe how revolutionary (at least in Europe) it was at the time, with subspecies recognised by use of trinomials, and strict adherence to the International Rules of Zoological Nomenclature, even when it meant changing a lot of well established scientific names. It was his advocacy, as one half of the Seebohm-Hartert axis, of the recognition of subspecies and the use of trinomials that changed Europe’s landscape. The Practical Handbook of British Birds came next (1924), for which he was the expert in nomenclature and classification. He recognised and named 18 new subspecies of British bird, documented numerous type specimens from around the world, and landed the BOU’s Salvin Gold medal in 1929, one year before retirement and the trip back ‘home’ to Berlin. Back in Berlin, he was given a room to himself to work in the Berlin Museum, which he used until his death on 11th November 1933. After Hartert left Britain, the Rothschild Collection was sold and packaged off to the States under circumstances that Lord Rothschild would probably have preferred to have avoided – between the loss of the Tring collection and the Ernie’s death, the heyday of ‘British’ taxonomy was over, and a long-term decline set in.

Ernst Johann Otto Hartert. At the turn of the 20th century you dragged European taxonomy kicking and screaming into a modern age, in the face of extraordinary resistance to the use and recognition of subspecies. You single-handedly managed the greatest logistical one-man taxonomic band ever known, in the shape of the Rothschild collection, and sorted out the mess left by other people’s attempts to organise their own collections, without which European taxonomy could not move on. For this you are recognised as a Hero of the Birding Revolution, first class.

Adapted from his obituary in British Birds, February 1934.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Land that Time Forgot

London, February 1939, to be precise. I found this advert in that month's number of British Birds.

Ach - you just don't find people called Percy any more. Especially not egg collectors called Percy Bunyard. I can imagine he probably had pince-nez spectacles and wore waistcoats, and smoked Turkish cigarettes from a silver case. Where did that world go? No one calls themself MBOU any more either. Shame that. I'm going to set up a new pressure group: CaMPaGULAN i.e. Campaign for More Percys and gratuitous Use of Letters After Names. I'm 95% certain this will catch on. In fact I can't see anything that might possibly go wrong.

Note to kids: egg collecting is BAD. Bad as in old fashioned use of the word, i.e. 'bad', not the 21st century definition that implies 'good'.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Who was it said 'From the troubles of the World, I turn to birds'? So, back on the Newtonhill patch and an almost entirely woodpecker-free posting, except
1) I just realised that of the 118 press reports (!), many had me as being Scottish , which is an insult to the good people of Scotland. I am, as Diane would say, and does, a sassenach git. BUT I realised I missed a fantastic chance to do that interview with CBS in a comedy Scotch accent in the style of Private Frazer from Dad's Army. I do that really well: 'We're doomed! We're doomed... and so are the IBWOs!' Sorry Nearctic readers, you have to have seen the programme on TV.
2) Lordy, the BBC. Now you know where the licence fee is going. And Scientific American. And Fox News! That is just insane. It must be 'The British are Nuts!' week on Fox. Have been on their website for 15 minutes and I seem to have developed this overwhelming desire to invade Iran. Anyway, enough.... back to birds.

It was such a good storm last night. Looked out the back window first thing this morning and all our garden furniture had transmigrated majestically across the lawn and was trying to get into the neighbour's garden. Some of it actually had hopped the fence. Good effort. Wind was from the NW and Cripes! it was suddenly snowing. Piled on a few extra jumpers... down at Elsick Mill, I surprised a pair of White-throated Dippers, who were cavorting together next to the culvert where the nest has been in previous years (though not last year). Neither of these was the ringed bird from times past, so I guess that one has moved on or found a special peace of its own somewhere. The Dippers have really got a move on this year. Argh! I hate it when (apart from today) we have really nice early springs and the birds kick off early. You aren't allowed to enjoy it, cos it's probably global warming and spells DEATH for us all, or something. It certainly spells wet carpets for the houses by the beach. Private Frazer welled up within me... 'we're DOOMED!'.
A Northern Lapwing flying determinedly over Cow Field was a patch year tick. They all count.

Down on the beach, it was lovely, out of the wind. Just me, a Rock Pipit, 3 Common Eiders (noooo!!! I can feel a sermon about racial identification coming on!) and a flock of nasty annoying little flies from somewhere (note to self... probably something dead - don't go look). The female Eider was drinking seawater. I guess she has no choice, but eugh! Doesn't she know this is Newtonhill, where we still pump untreated sewage onto the mussel beds? That last sentence is dangerously close to the '40% of lies' category, but we do pump sewage. Oh, I can't help it. I had really good views of 12 male Common Eiders, including the bird I shall now name 'roundy-lobes' (it's less offensive that 'wtf') from last week. In fact there was lots of variation in both the shape of the bill and the colour between the birds. 12/12 had some yellow in the bill, at least on the basal 1/3. Only 2 of those I would describe as largely greenish grey bill, 10/12 were 'mostly yellow', and 5 of those were entirely bright yellow apart from a ghouly pale yellow-green nail area. IN shape, apart from roundy-lobes, there was another 'half-roundy', and lots of subtly different varieties of pointy lobes. Even restricting myself to the birds I saw really well, and only today, there appears to be a lot of variation that rivals the intra-taxon variation. See the illustration (pasted here) of different subspp. from the idiosyncratic, often overlooked but very beautiful Ducks of Britain and the Northern Hemisphere by John Gooders and Trevor Boyer. Most birds on my patch are like the middle one, perhaps a little less extreme, less than 20% are like the top one. One of them is like the v-nigra, but withot the nigra-v. This bad obsession is messing my mind, but I don't think any of them are anything other than locals. Don't give me that look - I report, you decide.

Friday, March 16, 2007

APB Avril Rennie - Clancey info

Bob McGowan has written a section on Phillip Clancey for the upcoming 'Birds of Scotland 3' and would really like to get in touch. Can you leave us an email address? Ta. Apparently it involves shooting birds out of a moving taxi!

Argh! The backlash! Meow!

But what gives? Backlash from the Skeptics? :-O
'Gutless wonder' 'witless flack', 'Apparently Collison [sic] hasn't read enough of our blog postings'.
Actually I think I've just read one too many.

Dudes, get this... I can't fight all your battles. Don't make me come over there! But as you've rattled my cavity under the eyes of robo-birder, I'll pop out and preen. Tyler Hicks has twice described sightings that appear to be IBWOs on the basis of seeing more than one field mark. That's the science bit. They are credible sightings, in that some people might believe them. They are a lot of other sightings that I'm 80% sure are total nonsense. This is the birder Martin speaking, not the scientist, it's a gut feeling. The overall pattern of sightings (poor, fleeting, without optics, large number of competent observers dipping out while others get multiple sightings, failure to get photos) screams 'error' to me. As such, even though some of the sightings are credible, I don't believe that Ivory-bills are currently being sighted. None of these records would last 10 minutes in front of a rarities committee assessing a record of that magnitude. That's not so hard is it? Now.... fascinating though the above undoubtedly is, it did NOT belong in BMC Biology. As many of you will have read ad nauseum by now, one photo or video, or even a decent observation, would end this debate tomorrow. The longer this drags on without a decent sighting... well?

Backlash part 2.
This was inevitable, and is in fact welcome. That is the challenge - to prove me wrong and end this debate

Backlash Part 3
Notes from Soggy Bottom
Bill has long been a source of thoughtful analysis of the Luneau video, and I don't dismiss his opinons lightly, or indeed at all.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Scotland

Hey, today has been a most atypical day. Lots of media coverage, not that that's why we do it, but this is important. My favourites:

Science Now
USA Today
As It Happens (CBS) (part 3 - from about 3 minutes to about 20 minutes - need Real Player)

Associated Press rang me this afternoon and within 2 hours there were 60+ media reports of variations of this text

Of course, I prefer the birding things. Very thorough job by these people
Birder's World Field of View
which has at least saved me the trouble of writing a CV for my next job (I'm applying to be Head of the Department of Cryptozoology in the University of the Highlands and Islands - Departmental motto 'Primo Ivory-billum, deinde creatura Loch Ness'). No! That's a joke. There is no
Department of Cryptozoology in the University of the Highlands and Islands, at least that I'm aware of. And my flippant motto is totally out of keeping with the serious scientific, respectful and grown up ethos that we are all trying to maintain in this. Talking of which, I very much liked this one:
Bootstrap Analysis
oooh, now there's a thought. Does the action of typing all my uncensored thoughts, on a blog that is 50% factual but drivel, 40% invented lies and 10% scalpel-like incisive wit (mostly in the comments!) detract from the serious points I try to make? That would be an ecumenical matter. Work is work, and serious. Birding is hobby, and frivolous (but much more important). Existence or not of Woody Woodpecker is kind-of on the boundary of serious work and hobby, and might just be tainted by my intemperate comments here. Fact: I am currently a source of much amusement among the family and friends of Mrs Doc. Apparently I should stop playing with my pecker. I don't even understand that.

Big respect to Cyberthrush for his comments, which reflect the balanced approach and magnanimity of most Ivorybill believers to this evidence. I agree that we should move on from the Luneau video and see whether the rest of the evidence for IBWO survival stands up. Many MANY thanks to Davids Nolin and Luneau for permission to use their videos.

New things... David Sibley and colleagues have published a letter in Science today that reiterates why the Luneau bird could not have been an Ivory-bill. You need a subscription, but I'm sure the authors will provide a pdf to serious researchers and birders. They actually make my paper irrelevant.

I really do not want to go into further discussion of the evidence just now until the dust has settled. But a couple of 'holding' points.
1) The issue of deinterlacing was thoroughly discussed during 6 months of review and revision. The referees and editors were distinguished by their relentlessness and stringency, not their willingness to wave this through unchecked.
2) I would advise against identifying the Arkansas bird on the basis of its ability to maintain a fast wingspeed for wingbeats 4-12. It's clutching at straws that may alr
eady have broken.

Very important. It is NOT my intention to suggest that anyone has overstated their case wrt the id* of the Luneau bird, or acted in bad grace or even done anything wrong.
Given the date, maybe we should Beware the Id's of March!
The point is that poor views of Pileated Woodpeckers, from behind, might look like we expect Ivory-bills to look. In that respect, a fleeing
Pileated might catch the observer out. I believe, obviously, that in this case the observers (of the video) were caught out, and a mistake was made. Other people have seen my paper and are still convinced that the Luneau bird was an Ivory-bill. We started off with a video of a bird that appeared to be totally unlike a Pileated - that was the extent of our knowledge in 2004/5. Sibley and colleagues, and many others, chipped away at that perception (I'd like to think this current paper will play a part) until as of 15th March 2007 we have a video of a bird in Arkansas that is pretty much like a Pileated, but with a couple of oddities. The white on the back, the white patch peeking out from behind the tree, wingbeats 4-12, are things I can only explain in an arm-waving sort of way just now. BUT... showing that a particular feature is a bit odd is a million billion miles away from 'this is proof of Ivory-bills'. This morning I thought the ball was back in IBWO-believers/Cornell court to prove me wrong. I would be delighted to be proved wrong. This evening I find, courtesy of Associated Press, that the challenge is to find a Pileated Woodpecker that flies like the Luneau bird. Well, no. Sibley et al. have shown why the Luneau bird wasn't an Ivory-bill. I've contributed to showing why it might easily have been a Pileated. Today at work, there was something odd about my apple (it was a funny colour - a bit yellow). 'Something odd' about my apple did not make it an orange. I'd shown it couldn't be an orange. It was consistent with an apple. There were features of my apple that I couldn't explain, but it was still an apple. That was by way of being a metaphor, but true.

So, you learn something new every day... well I try not to. I was so frazzled by time of getting home,
while Mrs Doc (Diane) had a girly night with friends and red wine in the next room I went out and bought the Spongebob Squarepants film DVD and watched that by myself. I couldn't handle the sophisticated humour - the first time I laughed was about 20 min in when Spongebob and Patrick synchronised an enormous burp. It's a good film, and I did learn something, viz. you don't need a licence to drive a sandwich. I'm taking the sandwich to work tomorrow.

While I'm getting all these hits, I want to feature , again, this piece of genius, for those who missed it first time.
I have it on the BEST authority that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is about to prove its existence by marching on the Pentagon. I'm not sure why, yet.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Paper

Collinson JM. 2007. Video analysis of the escape flight of Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus: does the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis persist in continental North America? BMC Biology 5: 8.

Now online from here as a provisional pdf.

Things have gone a bit wacky here - will try and answer all queries in turn.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This is for Avril: Phillip Clancey 1917-2001

Phillip Clancey 1917-2001

An outstandingly talented man - ornithologist, author, artist and Director of the Durban Museum and Art Gallery for 30 years (1952-1982). He was not, as far as I know (and I *do* know), involved with Coelacanth discovery. A Glaswegian! Schooled in Glasgow, studying at Glasgow School of Art. 'Cin yer mither sew?' and all that. Nearly died several times in the Second World War. An ornithologist right through the middle, with taxonomy written through him like a stick of rock. Made extensive studies of British birds and named many new subspecies. Many of these were very subtle and indeed, only Clancey could really tell them apart. But in the context of the time, well, he wasn't the only one doing it.

Clancey travelled the east side of Africa, from the Middle East down to South Africa, studying birds with the fearful Col. Richard Meinertzhagen. They really did not get on. Seven months of bickering. And not just bickering. Meinertzhagen was a mental wreck at this time; he regarded Clancey as very opinionated and felt that he was inclined to be dismissive of anyone who didn't agree with his views. 'He's a bloody young fool - he thinks he knows everything, but is useless!' Clancey felt the same about Meinertzhagen.
Maybe they were both right :-)) . Certainly Clancey - a distinguished and very able ornithologist even then - felt abused and dissed being used as Meinertzhagen's baggage boy. They ended up having a massive argument about Black-throated Bustards and their driver returned from a shopping trip to find both men with their shotguns trained on each other - he had to talk them down! Another reason for the animousity, or maybe an excuse, was that Clancey first suspected, and then proved to his own satisfaction, that Meinertzhagen was a liar and a fraud. It started with some South African Longclaw specimens, and finished with proof of fraudulent redpolls, which was the basis for Alan Knox to subsequently formalise the process of exposing Meinertzhagen.

Clancey moved to South Africa for good in 1950 - he liked it so much he Directed the Museum. Wrote bucketloads of books about South African Birds, many of which are still standard references today. Hundreds of papers, especially on taxonomy. Many South African bird subspecies defined and named by him. Over 40000 skins assembled for the collection at the Durban Museum. Discovered the Lemon-breasted Canary Serinus citrinipectus new to science (it's yellow - did you guess?). When he died, he was the undisputed grandaddy of South African ornithology, and a major figure in the European scene too.

His legacy... in the interests of presenting my usual thoughtful and balanced apparaisal of both sides of any argument.... I'm compelled to mention that not all his work has been universally accepted. In a British context at least, many of the subspecies he named were purged by his peers shortly before (and perhaps more overtly after?) he went off to South Africa. And sadly, probably rightly so - the plumage and biometric features on which they were based were often too slight to be useful, perhaps even verging on the imaginary.

Phillip Clancey, collosus, character, ornithologist - we salute you!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Sunday 11th March
Just when I thought I'd put Common Eiders to bed, at least for a while, this happens. I'm not going to go all McKinney on you, but what the b***** f****** p****** b****** h*** b******* is that??

Three male Common Eiders on the sea. One a 'conventional' green-grey-billed bird (actually in the minority around here). Another a yellow-billed 'fake-borealis' jobby. Third one, has a bright yellow bill, with a paler whitish washed-out nail, more white coming up the crown so it looked white-topped, and a weird head-bill profile that was almost convex and lacked the 'step' seen on other birds (step on other birds shown in the smaller diagram). Weirder still, the 'pointy' processes at the top of the bill were all rounded, recalling dresseri, although of course it wasn't dresseri. The green neck patches did not even think about the fleeting possibility of starting to encroach under the eyes.

Ivory-bill Update

Paper will be published in BMC Biology on Thursday 15th. Amazingly I just got a 30 minute interview from USA Today. That's huge. Beats the pishy North-east Scotland Press and Journal ('cat stuck in tree, cow misbehaves at show') hands down. No offence P+J - we love you really.

Look momma, another edition of Cage and Aviary Birds!

...but sadly not a lot new in it this week for trade-aware birdspotters.

Of interest...
For Sale, Baikal Teal, drakes, £30 each. Now THAT is cheap. Also Azure-winged Magpies, £375 pr. THAT is expensive, but perhaps worth it. And 'Rainbow' (Painted?) Bunting cock, 'very fit but missing nape feathers', £70.

Things that made me chuckle...
'Wanted One Female Hawfinch for breeding purposes (Wales)'
I assume the ad was placed by a Punterfinch, or possibly a Pimpfinch.
Stay with me, I did say it was a slow week.

Why don't you see penguins in Britain? Because they're afraid of Wales.

That joke doesn't work on so many levels, but it was on page 11, right next to an even worse one..
Why do penguins carry fish in their beaks? Because they haven't got any pockets.
That last one is true, not funny.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

In 'Cage and Aviary Birds' this week....

'RSPB opposes ending bird registration scheme
The RSPB has warned that the withdrawal of a scheme requiring bird keepers to register individuals of the most threatened species held in captivity could lead to an increase in the number of birds, especially peregrine falcons and goshawks, plundered from the wild in Northern England....
...Goshawk numbers are at an all-time record high and need control, not protection, Cage & AviaryBirds argued...
...But Cage and Aviary Birds, the Hawk Board, the British Bird Council, the Pet Care Trust, the
Sustainable Users Network*, and others have argued for complete deregulation. Editor Donald Taylor said: " We believe organisations in favour of registration, such as the RSPB, should meet the full cost if it is retained." '

*By all the seven levels of hell, what the bejeezus is the 'Sustainable Users Network???

Meanwhile... all spare a thought for Bedfordshire-based bird keeper Tony Philip, who has given up the hobby after his collection of 22 redpolls, 18 goldfinches, 6 bullfinches, 23 greenfinches (including pied and lutinos), 2 chaffinches and 2 bramblings (bramblefinches), worth £4000, were stolen on New Year's Eve. If you are offered cheap bullfinches in your local pub on Saturday night, try and get a look at the ring numbers.

The heated debate about whether Siberian bullfinches and goldfinches should be allowed to compete as 'British birds' at shows rumbles on. I think the British Bird Council is going to have to annex Siberia. That might do the British List some good as well.

For Sale:
European Eagle Owls
Snowy Owls (£250 each)
Golden Eagle
European Goldfinches £60 ea
Siberian Bullfinches £190 pr
Bramblings £40 ea
Chaffinches £3o ea
Crowned Cranes £1300 pr
Sacred Ibis £350 pr
Green Wood Hoopoe £425 pr
White-cheeked Starling £75 ea
White-shouldered Starling £75 ea
Yellow-vented Bulbul £60 ea
Wheatears £160 pr
White-faced Whistling Ducks £80 pr
Red-breasted Geese £225 pr
Black Swans £200 pr
Hawfinches, good condition, £95 each
Chestnut-breasted Negro Finches £50 pr

My favourites are...
'Quail, jumbo, £5 ea' ????
'Homing Pigeons, ready to go' -eh? surely they should be ready to come back?
'Zebra Finches, line bred' I think that means they are euphemistically 'monkeyfeathers'

Monday, March 05, 2007

Crikey, by Jove, and wtf?

What happened here? 20 visitors to the Secret Freezer on Saturday (and very welcome you were too, btw) , then I mention the word 'Ivory' at the tail end of a sociological post about bus drivers(!) (or maybe I announced it - :-)
and this happens.

I should mention Ivory-bills more often. Ivory Ivory Ivory! As I've appeared on the Ivory-bill Skeptic page (more than once now), I'll get my retaliation in first... I'm not really an Ivory-bill Skeptic - I'm a universal data skeptic! :-) Just ask the lab. Although I do get to do some rarity record assessment it's not really my forte. It's not what the upcoming paper is about, but I really have no reason to doubt the recent sight-records. What DOES ring alarm bells for me (in general - not IBWOs), in the realm of birding record assessment, is any one or more of the following:
1) Repeated 'possible' sightings without positive confirmation
2) When poor sightings suggest a rarity but good sightings turn out to be something common.
When brief sightings suggest a rarity but prolonged sightings turn out to be something common.
4) When a small number of people see the rarity several times, while other equally competent observers never see it at all.
Leave it to the believers and skeptics to decide how many of those apply to Ivory-bills.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bark at the Mow-own

Did you see the lunar eclipse last night? I was watching it out of the back of a freezing cold bus between Arbroath and Stonehaven

....of which more later. The last lunar eclipse, six years ago, I remember we were stood looking out of the front door at home in sunny Winchburgh, watching the moon go a shade of blood red. Diane was heavily pregnant with Lizzie nearly two weeks overdue(!) and I *knew* it was a bad omen. I was joking that our baby would be born evil. Next day Diane went into hospital and our baby was born evil. It just shows that you should be careful what you wish for.
Anyway, Saturday I went down to Edinburgh to gatecrash the BBRC AGM on the foreshore at Cramond, at a Globetrotter Inn efficiently staffed by 20-year old Australians. A very educational afternoon, and put a few names to a few faces. Still not much wiser about borealis Common Eiders, although I could buy the theory that they are irruptive and occasionally they or their DNA makes it into our resident populations. Every bird-related event I go to seems to coincide with major engineering works on the railways (grrrrr..), and this was no exception, with no trains between Dundee and Aberdeen. So on the way back got onto this unpromising-looking coach in the dark at Dundee. The driver was outside having a faaaagggg with the door open, so I understood the bus might be a bit chilly when we got on. But when we set off it got colder - no heating but a healthy blast of cold air coming in all the vents. I was freezing my swonnicles off and in a foul mood all the way back as we trundled up the coast road. Really needed a pee as well, which didn't improve my mood either, but the moon cheered me up. Even though I was the only passenger by then, the driver wouldn't stop at Newtonhill, but no sweat I thought I'd hop on a bus at Stonehaven. Argh! Where have the bus stops gone? I went to where they used to be, and they weren't there, and by that time on Saturday evening there was no one to ask except a crowd of refreshed young men throwing their shoes at passing cars. So got a taxi and £13 later was home in a worse mood.
AND our computer had died during the day. One minute working, next completely deid apparently, not a light on, nothing. Amazing. Only Friday (yes the DAY BEFORE) I'd backed up everything onto the laptop for the first time in months, for no real reason. Nae problemo then, I just spent the morning getting the laptop back into online operation - £25 to renew the antivirus crap (grrrr....), and a lengthy and entertaining cabaret of a phone call to a centre in India when my renewal didn't process properly. Then the fun of waiting for 45 Windows updates to install, and to work through all the warnings about various things that were trying to contact the internet for the first time. It took me til 2 pm before we had a functional computer. And the kids were driving me nuts, until it was 'right, get your coat on, we're off out!' and I made them run around the swing park in sub-zero temperature with 25 mph windchill for an hour until the fight had left them. Diane came round in the car to see if they were cold and wanted to go home, but I judged they hadn't yet suffered enough.
So I guess I'm saying I didn't do any birding. But there was a good reason! Also Peter peed on my jeans in an artistic way that made it look like I was the one who'd peed. Like his Dad, he's an artiste.

So....... my paper about Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was accepted by BMC Biology, and I expect it to be published online in the next few days (Open Access online - I'll post the website as and when). Those of you who know me will know roughly the message what's in it. It's kinda daunting with all the media interest surrounding the issue, that I'm starting to regret already sticking my head above the parapet in such a public and permanent way. Still, the truth will out - hold your nose and here goes.

Friday, March 02, 2007


If you lost interest in borealis Common Eiders, look away now. Here's a sensible post from Id frontiers today, by Harry Lehto:
Interesting Eider discussion. From your web page [Norman van
Swelm's site] I quote
"So I propose to re-acknowledge the northeast Canadian
orange-billed (male) Eiders as borealis : the Canadian Eider
and the green-billed arctic Eiders as arctica : the Greenland
I have not been looking very carefully at the detailed bill
color of Eiders in Finland, but if my memory serves correct
and Sampo Laukkanen's and other's photographs on reflect the truth e.g.
then I have hard time claiming that these are green-billed
birds. Well, they are not orange either. I have no doubt that
these birds are from the local breeding population.
Please accept my ignorance on the intricacies on the racial
identification of Eiders, but how would you separate the Brouwesrdam
Jan 27 2007 from a Finnish Eider shown in the pictures above?
These Finnish birds are like the ones I see off Newtonhill, and astonishingly like Norman's Dutch birds.

On the other hand, I've had *this* pointed out to me, a photo by Bruce Mactavish of a rather fine v-nigra (see if you can spot it!) among borealis in Newfoundland.