The New Year dawned slowly and drearily in North Wales. Low cloud and rain obscured the view from the hill side, rivulets of rain drops ran like miniature rivers down the window so it was almost impossible to see out. It was not the kind of morning you wanted to head outside, but rather one to stay in and curl up with a book. The first day of the New Year usually sees us heading out on our own kind of ‘bird race’. Many birders do this; the turn of the year sees a new blank slate when it comes to your yearly bird list, and so many head out to try and see as many different species in one day. Naturally many get very competitive and the day is planned like a military operation in order to go to as many different habitats to get as wide a variety as possible. For us it is not ever that serious, but we do enjoy heading out and seeing how many species we can see, to kick start our year. As grey light seeped across the garden and fields revealing the dreary rain we were in no mood to venture out. So it came to it that our birding for the first few hours of 2017 was what we affectionately call ‘Arm Chair’ birding. Not an easy task with the obscured windows, and the fact that many birds seemed content to stay sheltered amongst trees and bushes rather than venturing into the open. But there was some movement, many cannot simply hide from the rain and must seek food regardless. Large numbers of Redwings and Starlings, plus a few Song Thrush were scattered through the fields over the garden hedge, occasionally lifting up in one synchronous mass to move into the hedgerow or to another field. Small finches and tits flitted from the hedges onto the garden feeders, dashing in and out of the rain.
By lunch time the rain had cleared to reveal bright blue sky and a golden sun that was already on its way to the horizon. Seizing the opportunity we headed out, the whole family bundling into the car, to a nearby industrial estate where there had been reports of those beautiful birds Waxwings. The light was deeply golden by the time we arrived, and while the Waxwings were nowhere to be seen, with only the deep red rowan berries indicating where they had been and perhaps where they would return. But there were plenty of Redwings, Fieldfare and a small group of lovely Bullfinches to delight our adventure out.
The following night and it was pitch black on the hill side. The lights of the towns below twinkled orange and white, a seemingly random pattern of clusters and straight lines. Above the stars spread out across a clear, velvet black sky in which the moon grinned like a Cheshire Cat. The dense black of trees and hedgerows were silhouetted against the twinkling vista above and below. From a strategically placed net we extracted a rather beautiful Tawny Owl. Its brilliant black eyes, like deep bottomless pools, stared straight back at me through the torch light. Once aged, measured and weighed the torch was switched off and we let the bird gain its night vision back. Then against the backdrop of twinkling stars and lights the bird silently lifted off and disappeared into the black.
Hard to believe we were now already into the third day of the New Year. Our quest for birds continued with walks along the nearby canal; a trip to the windswept, bitterly cold, coast where numerous Pintail were the highlight; and the frozen water of Venus Pool in Shropshire where although the rare Pine Bunting had done a disappearing act, Snipe and Corn Bunting were welcome early additions to our 2017 list.
And all the while, the large flock of Redwing remained in the fields outside the house. It was on the second day of the New Year that we noticed a ‘blonde bombshell’. A pale bird, the same size as the thrushes and yet completely the wrong colour. A closer look through binoculars revealed a yellowy brown back and head, almost pale gingery brown in certain lights, white belly and pale yellowy brown spots on the flanks. Based on the shape of the bird and the patterning we deduced it was likely a Song Thrush. But what was up with the plumage? Was this another, perhaps stranger case, of leucism? Like the House Sparrows with white feathers. Leucism is the absence of melanin producing cells in the feathers resulting in a lack of colour and meaning the feather is usually pure white. If the normal plumage contains carotenoids (e.g. yellows) these feathers can remain unaffected. However our ‘blonde bombshell’ had pale yellowy brown feathers that would normally be a much darker brown colour. There are a number of potential theories. We could be seeing an Erythrystic bird, a condition where there is an excess of reddish pigments. Certainly in some lights the yellow/brown feathers appeared almost pale ginger in colour. Or it could be flavism where there is an excess of yellow pigments in the feathers. Either way both are likely caused by a genetic mutation and appear to be much rarer than leucism and albinism. As to which it is the jury is still out as the bird never came really close enough to decipher whether it was pale gingery brown or predominantly yellow.
Of course our recording of the bird species we see and hear does not end with the first week of 2017. We will continue noting the species we encounter, whether through birding or ringing, and continue to submit the data to the BTO, either through our ringing databases or Bird Track. And of course we’ll continue to update Wild Barley with those adventures.