Spring update

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Somewhere in the Countryside

Still figuring out the subtle differences and similarities between Britain and Iberia:

Overwhelming shades of green everywhere with mostly different plants popping out from the ground. Macroscopically, the landscape is very familiar but when you zoom in, you see slightly different leaves.

Not that much new species to record but the ones I’ve observed are doing very different things from the ones I’m used to. That is equally puzzling and refreshing (never spent so much time looking at blackbirds)

I haven’t yet  got a glimpse on newts, native lizards and snakes. But still looking.

Nature seems very natural to the british people but you can see that it’s almost constantly managed. At the same time, people value their natural heritage and care for it but badgers keep on being culled, birds of prey are still being killed and moors are being burned. Not that much different from what I’m used to.

Today was warm and I was wearing short sleeves the whole day. I’m still pleasently surprised with the weather here.

The biggest negative is that I still miss some things, people and places from Home.

 

But I might just like it here.

Hedge sparrows by any other name

After moving to the British Islands, one of the first things that struck me was the different composition of bird communties and relative abundance of some species that I was not used at all in Iberia. One of those species is the Dunnock or Hedge sparrow, that turns out to be rather common here, even in urban settings (I have them breeding across the street). So, facing something new usually leads me to get in-depth investigation and try to know a lot more about small brown inconspicuous birds, specially when their behaviour and breeding habits markedly differs from their plumage.

So, what’s with the accentors?

Prunella

Dunnock close-up (Prunella modularis)

 

Accentors are a small family of brownish-greyish Palearctic passerines, usually classified under the Genus Prunella (some authors use another Genus, Laioscopus, for the two larger species). While almost all the 13 species contained under the family Prunellidae are mountain dwellers, either living above tree-line or montane forests, the dunnock is more generalist, also found in lowland forests and gardens.

All species are ground-dwelling birds that feed mostly on invertebrates during the summer months but turn to seeds and berries during winter. As a whole, this family demonstrates some complex movements, with some populations from the same species, being resident, while others being medium or short distance migrants. Usually, most species display some altitude migration and winter dispersion movements.

Their discrete habits and colours, the remote and inhospitable habitat preferences, as well as generalist living habits probably gave them some protection from human activities; Except for the Yemen accentor (P. fagani), that is classified under a Near Threatened status, the remaining species are considered of Least Concern (Birdlife international 2016).

Pcollaris

Alpine accentor wintering in Sintra, Portugal.

 

Evolution and Phylogeny

Accentors are usually associated with mountains, either on alpine (Laioscopus) or shrubby areas (Prunella). The family is endemic to the Palearctic and seems to have originated in the Himalayas and Central Asia mountains, where the highest number of species still occurs today.

Traditionally, accentors have been classified close to thrushes but it was never clear the precise relationships with other Oscine passerines, being allied with other groups such as wrens, dippers or wagtails. With the advent of molecular tools and DNA analysis, its position on the avian tree started to be elucidated. Sibley and Alquist (1981) found that accentors were closely related to Ploceidae and the two clades nested close to wagtails, sparrows, sunbirds and Fringillidae. Some studies recovered Prunellidae as being part of a group that involves Fringillidae, Estrildidae, Ploceidae and New World buntings and allies but relations among themselves were not elucidated (Ericson 2003). More recent works recover Prunellidae as the sister group to Ploceidae, with the split occurring some 14 million years ago (Drovetski 2013).

Within the family, there is a generalized consensus on the split between P. collaris and P. himalayana (sometimes classified under the Genus Laioscopus) from the rest of the accentors. These two species are distinctively larger, with different plumage and are more associated to alpine or subalpine rocky habitats. The split between large and small body accentors probably took place in the Himalayas region 7.3 million years ago. The two Laioscopus accentors diverged from each another 3 million years ago around the same area.

The small body accentors are usually associated with bush undergrowth either in montane forests or open areas. Around 4.8 million years ago the small accentors started to diversify, also in the Himalayan region. The first clade to split led to P. immaculata and the second, to P. rubeuloides. In the early Pleistocene, there was an important radiation event that coincided with dispersal of accentors from the Himalayas to the western (P. modularis, P. atrogularis, P. fagani and P. ocularis) and eastern Palearctic (P. rubida, P. montanella, P. strophiata, P. fulvescens and P. koslowi) (Drovetski 2013).

More to come!

Ex-Birdwatching

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Display cabinet at Manchester Museum

Left to right: Imperial woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis), Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), South island piopio (Turnagra capensis) and Paradise paakeet (Psephotus pulcherrimus).

This was the first time I observed these species and I didn’t even need my binoculars. Sadly, this is the only way to see them, represented by old skins and feathers lying in museums cabinets. They are all extinct now.

The same thing but different. But still the same.

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Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)

One of the first things I do when arriving at a new place or destination is to take a look at bird and other wildlife communities and compare to those I am most familiarized, in Portugal. It also comes naturally and it’s nothing intentional. When I first got to the UK, sure there were a few new species but the vast majority of birds where well known players. The things they were doing differently was what struck me; small details but nevertheless different.

The almost complete absence of house sparrows in cities; the urban bird communities are composed mainly by magpies and crows, wood pigeons (with numbers largely surpassing those of rock pigeons), robins, dunnocks, blackbirds, an assortment of tits and some finches here and there. So, basically the same species that appear all over the Western Paleartic. But the ones here are very tame; I have a magpie nest just in front of my window, I get the chance to take great photos (except for the crappy light) and lots of species come to birdfeeders (including reed buntings and blue treecreepers).

There’s waterfowl everywhere; the introduced canada geese are omnipresent, mute swans, mallards and coots are also all over the place. But there are some oddballs to me, like tufted ducks, mergansers, pochards and grebes, that only got a glimpse in Portugal but are quite common, even in urban parks and reservoirs.

The gulls: common, herring, lesser and greater black backed. Plus, black headed and some artic visitors that I wasn’t able to identify.

Birds are doing strange things: there are some kind of mixed foraging flocks composed by blackbirds tossing up leaf litter with dunnocks and robins taking runaway bugs; I am not used to thrushes and lapwings singing and displaying because I’m only used to see them on Winter.

What is lacking in less diversity in species will be compensated on different behaviours and interactions. And some new species as well.