Saturday, 28 February 2015

Infamous Grouse

The Famous Oslo Grouse has proven quite popular with birders and it has been suggested that it is an even more exceptional record than I first thought.

When I saw the bird I did not consider that it was anything other than a Willow Grouse (lirype). Ptarmigan (fjellrype) looks pretty much identical in white winter plumage but the chance of this bird being that species did not warrant any thought, or so I thought. After all the habitat did not suit the high montane Ptarmigan and of the two species Ptarmigan is hardly ever seen seen away from its breeding sites whereas Willow Grouse is known to wander. It has however been pointed out that the bill of the Oslo bird is very small and in white winter plumage that is one of the few clues to separate these two species whose white plumage is identical. Male Ptarmigan has black lores (the area between the bill and eye) but female Ptarmigan and both sexes of Willow Grouse have white lores. The Oslo bird has white lores so this rules out male Ptarmigan but not female. Otherwise, Ptarmigan is a slightly smaller bird but size is notoriously difficult to judge on lone birds. The calls of the two species are slightly different but I have not heard it call and the one observer who has heard it heard a call unfamiliar to him for either species!

There is one other difference which is the colour of the claws. BWP describes the colour as blue-black for Ptarmigan and horn-brown for Willow Grouse. I have not found many photos on the web to confirm this although have not found anything to suggest this colour description is wrong. The colour of the Oslo birds claws are difficult to see due to a lot of feathering but this picture by Per Buertange shows them to be horn-brown. It has also been stated (this was a statement by one person which has not yet been supported by others) that exactly the excess feathering is a Willow Grouse character.

Bill size can be easily checked on photos on the web and it is clear that there is a huge amount of individual variation between the species with some Ptarmigan having in my eyes monster bills whereas some Willow Grouse (females?) have small bills that match the Oslo bird. I also took a picture on 12 Feb of a Willow Grouse in Hedmark that matches the Oslo bird. This bird was in a lowland, forest habitat with a flock of similar birds so is for me undoubtedly a Willow Grouse. Also BWP confirms the large individual variation with the following measurements being given:

                                    male                female

Ptarmigan                  9.0 - 10.6          8.2 - 9.8
Willow Grouse        10.0 - 12.8          9.8 - 12.3

So what do I think the bird is? Well I find the thought of it being a Ptarmigan so outrageous that I still believe it to be a small-billed female Willow Grouse which the claw colour supports. Here is a picture showing the bill of the Oslo bird (right) with a comparison to the bird I photographed in Hedmark. If the claw colour (and feathering of the claws) are not diagnostic then it is difficult to know how to 100% prove the ID of this bird. Trapping it to take measurements would be ethically wrong but it is probably possible to take DNA from its droppings.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Snow Buntings in Maridalen

It was always going to be difficult to match yesterday’s excitement but it is spring and those birds do keep coming so every day now and for the next 3 months has the potential to surprise. Despite a new fall of snow overnight the positive temperatures caused it to melt during the day and when the sun peeked through in the afternoon it again felt like spring. The second half of next week is forecast to have freezing temperatures again so spring might have to take a short pause but that just adds to the suspense.

Today I visited Bygdøy where the fields now held 23 Greylag Geese (grågås) and a small flock of Fieldfares (gråtrost) contained my first Starling (stær) of the year. The sea off Huk was pretty quiet but three Long-tailed Ducks included a fine male – unfortunately though they were far too distant for photos.
I threw out loads of bread to the gulls in Frognerpark but no Iceland Gull showed up and I suspect that the ringed bird of the last two springs has chosen a new migration route this year after having been seen recently in England.

Maridalen produced the day’s excitement. The lake is still frozen and the fields covered in snow but this didn’t stop the first Whooper Swans and Greylag Geese from flying over and a field corner where the snow had melted held 2 Snow Buntings (snøspurv)! Last year was very good for this species in Maridalen (after only two previous records for me) and hopefully this year will also be good. 
Two Snow Buntings. Possibly a pair but I'm not fully up to speed on how to separate them in winter plumage

This adult (female I believe due to size) Goshawk (hønsehauk) was perched up near a nest site and hopefully indicates that they will breed this year although I have yet to see any display flights

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Famous Oslo Grouse

One of the great things with birding is that it never fails to surprise. On Facebook yesterday there was a fascinating report of a Grouse (rype) seen in a small wood within urban Oslo. I didn’t really expect this bird to be “twitchable” so made no plans to go looking for it today. Instead I headed out east again where Stig Helge Brasnes could report that the spring flood had started at Kjelle and the first geese and swans were thee. He had also seen some crossbills nearby recently which could well have been Parrot (furukorsnebb) and I had a hope of getting some photos. Weather-wise the temperatures are holding just above zero so the thaw is continuing but with a fresh southerly wind and rain in the air it was quite unpleasant being out. There were only small numbers of geese and swans with 30 Whoopers (sangsvane), 55 Canada Geese and 5 Greylags (grågås) but they should build up to many hundreds over the next couple of weeks. My first two Lapwings (vipe )of the year were as hoped for as was a heard only Skylark (sanglerke) and a Great Grey Shrike (varsler). I searched for crossbills but found none although it was far from ideal conditions for searching for forest birds.
With good time on my hands I headed home wondering what else I should do. I stopped at Langtjernet on the chance that the Caspian Gull may still be around but there were very few gulls. However the hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow that has been seen a few times was on the ice and looking pretty ugly.

Still with a bag full of time to play with I realised that it would only be a small detour on the way home to the area where the grouse was seen yesterday. I wasn’t going to search for a needle though so found the phone number of the lady who had reported the bird and rang her. She was most pleasant and helpful and described exactly where she had seen the bird yesterday which was not deep in the wood but right on its edge by a road. I drove there, got out of the car and as Garner would say BOOM! There was a fluffy white bundle of feathers just metres away from me!! I must admit I began to think it was a stuffed bird and I was the victim of an early 1 April prank but it moved! I watched it, filmed it and photographed for around an hour and saw it feeding, shitting, ducking when a falcon-like Pigeon flew over and generally looking healthy. The fact that it was sat in exactly the same place as yesterday, in a city, by a building site though does suggest that this bird is a beer short of a six-pack, a spanner short of a tool box etc etc. But what a bird, my best views ever of the species and something I never, ever, thought would end up on my Oslo list. Edit: this bird has turned out to be a Ptarmigan and not a Willow Grouse - unbelievable!
I even got the tripod out and made an effort with regards to my photos and video.



and some of today's other birds which were also quite noteworthy but got rather eclipsed by the now Famous Grouse.
a hybrid Carrion Crow (svartkråke) x Hooded Crow (kråke)

Great Grey Shrike in still wintery conditions

I think it was difficult for this Lapwing to find much food on the frozen field

both the Lapwings - the long head plumes show them both to be males

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Some shrikes

My recent comments about it being spring were rather hasty. With more snow today it definitely still felt like winter. I went out east looking for arrivals of geese and swans which were already here in good numbers at this time last year but there was hardly anything to see which just goes to highlight how early spring did come last year. Although larger rivers are free of ice and there is only a thin layer of snow on the fields (last autumns stubble being visible) lakes are still frozen and there is no melt water yet with the latter being I think the major variable with regard the arrival of migrating waterfowl.

My travels did reveal a total of 4 Great Grey Shrikes (varsler) which is a bit of a return to the status of a couple of years ago. A few Greylag (grågås) and Canada Geese had returned but 7 Greylags heading south at Udenes Church (the Bean Goose site) probably had the right idea. The Scottish Bean Geese (sædgås) are now in Denmark and with the right weather may turn up here in the next couple of weeks. The mudbank is exposed in the river which is a good sign (last year it wasn’t exposed when the geese first arrived which I think caused them some issues with regards roosting). Even though it was rather lite on birds today it was great to be at this location again and I am very impatient for the geese to return,

A heard only flyover Snow Bunting (snøspurv) was a species I had hoped for although it would have been nice to see it! Three Parrot Crossbills (furukorsnebb) were also hoped for as a pair had been reported recently in the same area. I heard them first and after my recent run-ins with their two smaller cousins I was satisfied to hear the difference in the flight call. One female perched briefly in a tree top but flew off whilst I leant into the car to get the camera. Hopefully they are going to breed in this area which is rich in pine trees so will give future opportunities for close contact.

Three of the days shrikes had the honour of being digitally recorded but almost all pictures ended up being deleted. Here is the best shot I managed.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Snow Siskins

I was very premature with my comments about spring yesterday. Overnight the cloudless sky gave way to overcast conditions and lots of fresh wet snow. It also brought a garden record with the highest number of birds ever recorded. There has been a good number of Siskins (grønnsisik) in the garden over the last month with a maximum count of 22 which in itself was a record for this species. After we were away in the mountains and the food ran dry in the feeders there have only been a handful of Siskins in the garden but this morning there were 30 or so when I looked out at breakfast. Later I looked more closely and came up with a total of 70 and then mid-afternoon I counted them as they sat on wires and there were 110!! They are eating me out of house and home as well with the feeders needing to be replenished three times during the day. There is very little else in the garden and no other finches but if the Siskins remain over the next few weeks they will hopefully attract other birds. And there are plenty of birds in the area: a garden only 500m away has Bramblings (bjørkefink), Yellowhamers (gulspurv), Goldfinch (stillits) and Greenfinch (grønnfink) but fewer Siskins ;-)

The falling snow made birding pretty hopeless but I did check out Fornebu and Bygdøy where 6 Greylag Geese (grågås) were clearly newly in and are a foretaste of the next month where migrating geese will be the major attraction for me.
a record numbers of Siskins in the garden was today's highlight

29 of the 110 Siskins in the garden today
with the snow settling on their backs these 2 Greylag Geese are probably regretting their choice to be the first ones back in Oslo

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sunday sun

Spring does seem to be here now with plus temperatures and loads of birds singing. From the house I can hear singing Blackbird (svarttrost), Robin (rødstrupe), Siskin (grønnsisik), Blue Tit (blåmeis) and Great Tit (kjøttmeis). There is still snow on the ground but in the town it is melting and at the Botanical Gardens the snow has pretty much gone. I had hoped to find more signs of spring here but my first Chaffinch (bokfink) of the year was the only new bird although it was nice to hear the Hawfinches (kjernebiter) singing.

Amongst the Tree (pilfink) and House Sparrows (gråspurv) I had a hybrid between these two species. This is the first time I have seen an example of this not too rare pairing but unfortunately I did not manage a photo before it flew to another area of the gardens.
I also visited Frongerpark hoping that the Iceland Gull (grønnlandsmåke) of the last two springs may have returned but it hasn't, yet.......
A single Waxwing (sidensvans) in the Botanical Gardens was the days photographic highlight.


my first Chaffinch of the year
It isn't just gulls that carry bling in Oslo. I hope this male House Sparrow appreciates how important he is for science (or at least some students degree.....)

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Many wing bars

Today (Wednesday) was our last day in the mountains and whilst the girls enjoyed a final ski I enjoyed sunny and warm conditions with much less wind than yesterday. Crossbills were obvious today and there were lots of 2BCs! I saw at least 3 pairs and they were singing and courtship feeding so it looks like they will at least attempt to breed here which will be one of only a handful of breeding records ever recorded in the Norwegian bird record database. I had an equal number of Common Crossbills and they were also in pairs. There is a very heavy crop of cones on the spruce trees and the spruce forests extend as far as the eye can see so there is likely to be a very large number of crossbills breeding in this area.

I had both male and female 2BCs singing which is not mentioned in BWP although it is mentioned for Common Crossbill. This time use of playback did result in one pair coming to investigate but does not seem to be a particularly useful method for locating this species. I located most of the birds walking slowly around the area and listening for them as they were quite vocal and by the end of the morning I had become proficient in separating Common and Two-barred on their normal (non trumpet) call. They are a pretty confiding species although due to the deep snow I was reliant on them being close to the road and on the right side of the tree of which eventually both a male and a female (although from different pairs) eventually obliged.

On the way home we stopped at a fjord where I had been told there were a pair of Mandarins and sure enough they were there among 60 or so Mallards. It was quite a barren fjord and not so easy to understand what was keeping them here.

male 2BC in the sun

female 2BC
courtship feeding

male in profile
curious female
both crossbills and Waxwings have barbed tongues which must come in useful when feeding


male Common and Two barred Crossbills. Even when the wing bars are not on show the difference in the red colour allows them to be separated

male Mandarin


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Mountain landscapes

It is getting quite windy in the mountains but today there was sun. Despite this there were still no soaring eagles and unfortunately no photo opportunities to equal yesterdays with the crossbills which with the sun could have resulted in some smashing pics. The Crossbills were quite obvious in the morning with Common flying around calling and a couple of males singing. I did not see any 2BCs perched but heard them a few times and had a single bird and then a pair flying around. Come the afternoon when the wind died down for an hour or so the crossbills all seemed to have vanished but were I assume just busily feeding somewhere.
I only had one bird photo that is worth sharing but the landscape pictures aren't too bad.
female Common Crossbill (grankorsnebb)


Monday, 16 February 2015

Better Crossbills

No soaring eagles today as the area was decked in low cloud which combined with a fresh wind made it quite unpleasant outside (temperature was -7C) and a 5mm thick layer of ice covered everything. With the appropriate clothes on though I took the kids out tobogganing and snow hole excavating and had my ears cocked for any sound of birds. There was not much to hear but eventually I did hear crossbills and located a small group not far away in some small trees. I collected the camera and was able to get close. A pair of Common Crossbills had the company of a (the?) male Two-barred Crossbill and whilst feasting my eyes at less than 10 metres range I could hear that there had to be another 2BC and sure enough a female joined the male. The male yesterday seemed to be alone so these may well have been new birds. Either way I enjoyed the couple of minutes they gave me before they moved on.

Later in the day whilst trying to relocate them (unsuccessfully) a Pygmy Owl (spurveugle) shot over my head with a couple of very agitated Common Crossbills flying away from it – a shot of a Pygmy Owl with a red male Crossbill in its claws would surely classify as a money shot?
pair of 2BC - great birds

the female - probably a 2cy due to quite thin white tips to the tertials

the male is an adult with thick white tips to the tertials

male Common Crossbill (grankorsnebb)

female Common Crossbill