The 2020 BBRC AGM took place on Saturday 25th April, in the kitchens and living rooms of members across the country. The coronavirus lockdown gave us no choice, although we had been contemplating a move to a virtual meeting, at least in some years, for a while. The downside of not being able to interact socially outside the business aspects of the meeting was outweighed by the almost complete turnout (a computing issue meant that Richard Schofield was unable to join us) and a full agenda was dealt with within a single day. What follows is a summary of some key decisions and outcomes from the meeting.
After much consideration, we decided to add two species to the BBRC list. Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus was actually a national rarity for some geographical areas when the BBRC was formed, in the late 1950s, but was removed entirely in 1963. It has been a scarce but regular migrant, mainly to a few key sites in the south and southeast, ever since. In recent years, however, its occurrences have declined to the point that it now fulfils our criteria for being a national rarity once again. There have been only 96 records accepted by county and regional committees in the last ten years, and there are more than ten records in just six of those years. (A rarity by our definition has fewer than 100 records in the last ten years, and/or fewer than ten records in seven of those last ten years.) The downward trend is clear to see in fig. 1, and there was unanimous agreement to return Kentish Plover to the national fold.
The decision to reinstate Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis may initially seem more surprising. It also goes against one of our own guidelines, namely that we should not consider birds being added to or removed from the BBRC list for at least ten years after last making a change in status; and Lesser Scaup was removed from the BBRC list only in 2015. In this case, however, the decline in records is so marked that we feel we can longer justify it not being a rarity. Fig. 2 shows that over the last ten-year period there have been just 66 records of Lesser Scaup, and in only one of those years were there more than ten records – which makes it far rarer than many other ‘classic’ rarities. From the first in 1987, the species remained stubbornly rare until the first decade of the new millennium, when numbers soared to a peak of 25 in 2007. In fact, it was removed from the list in 2015, just as records were declining again. In hindsight this was the wrong decision, and was perhaps affected by our ability to distinguish newly arrived individuals from returnees (which is always difficult in rare wildfowl), but there will always be outliers to test our rules.
Both Lesser Scaup and Kentish Plover will go onto the BBRC list immediately, backdated to 1st January 2020. To fill in the missing years of data, we will use statistics from the Scarce Migrant Birds report and we are as ever grateful to Steve White (and his predecessor Pete Fraser) for their help.
We also looked at other species, and in particular at Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus, which also just about qualifies for inclusion as a national rarity. However, as for Lesser Scaup, it was removed from the list in 2015 and, since the statistics are nowhere near as dramatic as for Lesser Scaup, for now we opted to leave it as a scarce migrant. We also considered Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis, since the decline of this once-regular visitor has been widely noted (see the most recent Scarce Migrants report, Brit. Birds 112: 464). The statistics show that this is still too frequent to be considered nationally rare, but the number of first-year birds has declined to the point that we may have to revisit this decision in the not-too-distant future.
New guidance for Subalpine Warblers
The ‘Subalpine Warbler’ complex remains a challenge for birders and committees, and the landscape doesn’t seem likely to become significantly more straightforward anytime soon. The complex is currently treated as two species, Subalpine Sylvia cantillans and Moltoni’s Warbler S. subalpina, but IOC signalled their intention in May this year to treat the two Subalpine Warbler groups (Western Subalpine S. c. iberiae/inornata and Eastern Subalpine S. c. cantillans/albistriata) as separate species www.worldbirdnames.org/updates/update-diary. This will presumably see the complex divided into three species in the near future. From now on, any submissions attempting to identify male Western Subalpine or Eastern Subalpine in spring will require at least two of the following three criteria:
- Details of underpart coloration
- An unambiguous tail pattern, with the detail of T5 photographed
- Call (well-described or recorded)
For spring females and all birds in autumn, whether Subalpine or Moltoni’s, we have to be even stricter and require both of the following to achieve species/group-level identification:
- Tail pattern (as above)
- Call (as above)
In all cases, DNA can provide a certain identification. However, we urge all observers to continue documenting any Subalpine Warbler as thoroughly as possible, even when DNA is available, to allow for a continued assessment of characteristics. For birds in the hand, photos of the underparts should be taken from different angles, and particular attention should be paid to the age of the bird and the state of moult within the tail. These criteria bring our assessment of the complex closer in line with that of other northern European committees (Vår Fågelvärld 2017 (6): 48–51; Vår Fuglefauna 42: 140–147).
Guidance for sound recording
The recent surge in popularity in autonomous recording devices (both audio and video) has resulted in much discussion about the best protocols for accepting claims of scarce and rare species. BBRC has decided to adopt the following approach to sound recordings:
- We would prefer at least three calls to be audible on the recording, although we acknowledge that in the case of particularly clear and close recordings this may not always be necessary.
- Submissions must include the original recording, preferably the entire file, or at least many minutes either side of the calls in question, as context can be an important part of the assessment process. We prefer these files to be supplied in .wav format.
There is still much to be learnt about nocturnal migration calls and, while the current enthusiasm for ‘nocmig’ is certainly welcome and we very much encourage it, it must also be recognised that this is an emerging discipline and that we need to be cautious. Many calls will be faint or distant and, while it is impossible to define the parameters of what will or will not be acceptable, we urge observers to err on the side of caution with claimed nocmig records. For the sake of completeness, our policy on non-recorded calling flyovers, for species such as Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus, remains unchanged: the observer must hear at least three calls, must describe them well and must see the bird.
Finally, we are delighted that Magnus Robb has accepted our invitation to become BBRC’s sound identification consultant.
Call for new members
As part of the Committee’s annual cycle, it is now sadly time for Nic Hallam and Richard Schofield to step down as voting members. Both have been highly valued members of the team and of many an AGM. Their input will be sorely missed. To replace them, BBRC is nominating two candidates, one from the north and one from the south.
Phil Crockett grew up in Cambridgeshire but it was at Aberdeen University that he discovered his passion for rarities; the discovery (together with others from the University Bird Club) of the first of three Ross’s Gulls Rhodostethia rosea that turned up at Fraserburgh in 1993 was particularly special. Even before that he was spending time in spring and autumn on Shetland, initially twitching the rarities but increasingly driven by the bug of finding his own rarities, often with like-minded friends. By the late 1990s, Phil decided to settle back in North-east Scotland, and it was an easy choice to move to Collieston, close to the Ythan Estuary and the Forvie NNR, and he is now reasonably well tolerated by his neighbours. Since then he has travelled more widely to different parts of the world, but his chief passion in birding is his Collieston patch and the surrounding areas. Finding the first Eastern Olivaceous Warbler for North-east Scotland, in Collieston in 2000, cemented his belief in patch birding. Other finds he has particularly enjoyed through this time include Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva (2), Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla (2), Great Snipe Gallinago media, Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus, Lanceolated Locustella lanceolata and Moltoni’s Warblers Sylvia subalpina, Isabelline Oenanthe isabellina, Desert O. deserti (2) and Pied Wheatears O. pleschanka, Pechora Anthus gustavi and Red-throated Pipits A. cervinus. He had a spell on the local rarities committee and now hopes to continue that development, while still spending as much free time as his family will allow wandering in and around Collieston, where there are still a few pairs of Corn Buntings to enjoy.
Michael McKee is originally from Fort William but moved to Berkshire when he was 11. An interest in wildlife developed at a young age but it was after the move south that an active birding life began with school weekends spent around the local sewage farm and west London reservoirs. After graduating from Exeter University, he visited Shetland every autumn. His first trip to Foula, in 1993, produced a Pechora Pipit and a Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica, which kicked off his rarity-finding bug. Since then almost every trip to Shetland has produced at least one rarity, highlights being Brown and Lesser Grey Shrikes Lanius minor, Pallas’s Grasshopper Helopsaltes certhiola (2) and Lanceolated Warblers (7), White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea, Isabelline Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis, Pechora Pipit (6), Yellow-breasted Bunting E. aureola, White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys and Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus. Other rarity highlights include two Buff-bellied Pipits A. rubescens in Berkshire and a Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica on Tiree. He has carried a camera since these first Shetland trips and spends a lot of time photographing any rarities he sees. Many of his photos have appeared in BB and in 2017 he was the winner of the Carl Zeiss Award. He has birded widely around the world including North, Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. In 2016 Michael moved to west Cornwall, where he now birds the valleys and headlands of Penwith in search of that next rarity.
While Michael and Phil have the support of BBRC, we are very keen to encourage further nominations of potential candidates with suitable experience. The key aspects of that experience are as follows:
- a widely acknowledged expertise in identification
- proven reliability in the field
- a track record of high-quality submissions of descriptions of scarce and rare birds to county records committees and BBRC
- experience of record assessment
- regional credibility
- the capacity to handle the volume of work involved in assessing upwards of 700 web-based records per year
- the capacity to work quickly and efficiently and be familiar with Word, Excel and pdf documents
Further nominations should be sent to the BBRC chairman (firstname.lastname@example.org) before 31st July 2020, with a proposer and seconder, a brief summary of the nominee’s experience and the written agreement of the nominee. After this date, if we have received further nominations, a voting slip and list of all candidates with relevant details will be sent to all county recorders and bird observatory wardens for an election, as per section 2.2.3 of our Constitution (see www.bbrc.org.uk/constitution).
For extra information, contact Paul French at email@example.com