Gene Genie

I remember, when I were a lad in Yorkshire, when identifying birds was a matter of looking them up in my Observers Book of British Birds and writing down exactly what I had seen. That is no more!!! We are now in the realms of DNA analysis to determine what species we have seen, DNA probably standing for we Don’t kNow Anything without getting a sample of poo or a feather and sending it to a lab for examination, how did our hobby get so complicated?!

This is very pertinent to my birding this October because by sheer coincidence the last 3 species that I have travelled to see have all been contentious bird IDs which birders have argued over and many have said cannot be resolved without DNA analysis.

The first of these was a flycatcher seen in Trow Quarry, Durham which from photographs resembled the rare Taiga Flycatcher rather than its close cousin Red-breasted Flycatcher. The former species has only been seen 3 times before in the UK (and proven!) so it would be pretty mega if it was one. Weighing up the evidence I decided to travel for this ‘Lifer’ hoping that it was the rarer of the two very similar species. I headed up to the NE from Cheshire, setting off in the dark and arriving very early morning to find a good dozen or so folk already there and the bird showing well. The flycatcher was watched actively feeding along the base of the ‘cliff face’ in the open quarry and observers were split as to its true identity. The tail pattern looked good for Taiga but in some lights the bird looked too warm-plumaged to fit that species well. I felt pretty happy that I wasn’t watching a ‘bog standard’ Red-breasted Fly, both in plumage and behaviour but would I have to wait for DNA analysis as some had suggested. Luckily the two species can be confidently separated by call and the day i was there a recording of call was made. Subsequent analysis and sonograms proved beyond doubt that the bird WAS a Taiga Flycatcher – success and a Life Tick for me! All without the dreaded wait for poo analysis!!

A week or so later another rarity appeared not too far away from Cheshire and I fancied a trip to see it and a day out. This time the bird was a shrike and the confusion was between Brown Shrike or Turkestan Shrike, two species that I had previously seen so the ID was not as crucial for me on this one. I headed over to South Kirkby in West Yorkshire and walked onto Johnny Brown’s Common to the bird’s favoured field. Two groups of birders were watching so aware of the need to social distance I joined the smaller group of 5 birders which dwindled to 2 soon afterwards as the others that had seen the bird well decided to leave. We watched as the bird feed on insects and perched up on dead umbellifers at the field margin. Again in different lights the bird looked to fit either species description, no wonder this had been voted as a candidate for DNA analysis. After a long session of scoping the bird and grabbing several record shots I am firmly in the Brown Shrike camp, as were my fellow birders in the group I was in. Much discussion online is wavering towards Brown Shrike as the ID too but with no poo sample collected it will be up to the British Birds Rarity Committee to make the final decision. As it is only a Year Tick for me I can chill on this particular one, but it will be important for others, so we will see!!

Then another good bird turns up, and, guess what, the ID is another contentious one! This time I was up early and heading in the dark across the Pennines once again, this time to South Gare near Redcar in Cleveland. Arriving not long after dawn only one birder was present looking over the bird’s favoured reedbed - it is useful that these birds stick to specific areas! I was soon scoping my quarry – an ‘Eastern’ Stonechat species. The difficulty here is that there are two very similar species, namely Siberian Stonechat and Stejneger’s Stonechat. Only the latter would be a lifer, in fact a proven Siberian Stonechat had been close to my home in Cheshire at the turn of 2019 and 2020. That bird had had a poo sample collected and ID was proven by DNA analysis albeit after a number of us had come down very heavily on the ID being Siberian, which it was finally proven to be. Opinion on the Cleveland bird was strongly weighted towards Stejneger’s so I had taken a risk in travelling to see it for another Life Tick. Over the next hour I watched the bird and took note of all of the plumage characteristic and joined the majority in plumping for ID as Stejneger’s Stonechat. The bird had dark upper plumage, a warm apricot flush to the breast but with the central breast paler, a pale throat, a defined supercilium, a well defined black tail with a uniformly rich apricot uppertail and rump, and black axillaries seen in flight. I was informed that a poo sample has already been sent off for this bird so ID will be clinched soon. I am confident another Life Tick is on its way! To make the most of the day I did a bit more birding adding a stunning male Firecrest to the day list as well as a long seawatch which saw Black-throated Diver, Red-throated Diver, Manx Shearwater, Arctic Skua, Gannet, Kittiwake, Eider and Guillemot go into the notebook. On the shore a lone Bar-tailed Godwit was nice to see with Dunlin and Oystercatchers as well as a Rock Pipit.

But the biggest highlight of the day, the month, the whole of 2020 and beyond was not a bird species! A group of large gulls were mobbing something in the water below them about half a mile offshore. As I swung my scope round and focused I had to zoom in for clarification, but there was a dark reptilian head protruding from the sea’s surface with a ridged dark back behind it. I was looking at a TURTLE!!!!! I watched in disbelief as it slowly drifted along, gulls in tow and then slowly, smoothly sank away under the surface. Despite watching for another 20 minutes there was no further sign. As Turtles dive deep and for long periods this was expected but you live in hope! Not being well up on turtle ID, having never seen one nor expected to, I suspected it to be a Leatherback Turtle but need to look up ID o be sure. All other plans for the day were shelved as I wanted to get home and research my find. Locals were found and told, a call was made to my pal Chris at Rare Bird Alert and then I headed off home. All my research backs up my first thoughts, it was a Leatherback Turtle, it looked very big and dark and some of the pictures on the web could have been taken of my specimen they look so spot on! At last something Mega that I could ID without a poo sample – lucky that one, as I wasn’t about to swim half a mile out in the freezing North Sea for anything!!

So one definite Lifer in the bag, one more almost certain, pending DNA analysis, and a Year Tick whichever way the shrike ID goes But the biggest bonus was a once in a lifetime find of a Leatherback Turtle in British Waters, it is great how anything can happen in this fabulous hobby of ours!!

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