The British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) has had a close relationship with ZEISS since 1983, making it one of the longest-standing partnerships in British ornithology. Not only does ZEISS provide the bulk of the Committee’s annual sponsorship, enabling BBRC to function effectively, but, since 2015, it has also supplied all BBRC members with a pair of their flagship Victory SF binoculars. Additionally, ZEISS provides a pair of Victory SFs for the winner of the Carl Zeiss Award.
Since its inception in 1992, the Carl Zeiss Award has been presented to acknowledge exceptional rarity submissions to BBRC. From 2015, the award has been given to the best overall submission for which assessment has been completed during the previous 12 months. Every record submitted is eligible for the award, and, when assessing a record, BBRC voting members are able to nominate submissions of particular merit for the Carl Zeiss Award shortlist. The voting process is carried out blind, with each voting member reviewing the final shortlist and ranking the submissions in order without knowing the views of their colleagues. Members’ individual scores for each shortlisted submission are then summed to give an overall winner.
The final shortlist for 2022 comprised ten entries. All of the submissions that made it to that final shortlist were of top quality, though there was one clear winner, which was placed first by nine members of the Committee, a rare landslide in CZA terms. Reflecting the nature of many of the toughest identification conundrums faced by British birders today, two of the shortlisted submissions concern subspecies, while two concern a species pair or group.
The nine submissions that were runners-up of the 2023 award appear in taxonomic order, followed by the winner. Accompanying each one is a short overview of why BBRC members were drawn to each of the submissions, along with selected extracts.
Winter’s Pond, Lincolnshire, October 2022 – Steve Routledge
While an adult male Blue-winged Teal Spatula discors may not prove much of an identification challenge, young birds and females can be considerably more subtle in their appearance. A good find on the east coast, this was just reward for years of local patching one of the less-glamorous parts of the Humber by Steve Routledge. His submission contained a detailed set of notes as well as an instructive set of photographs.
Sheringham, Norfolk, October 2022 – James McCallum
This year, James McCallum features in the shortlist not once but twice. For James’s submission of Pallid Swifts Apus pallidus at Sheringham, one member of the Committee commented: ‘With an artist’s eye for light, James has provided detail on the varying impressions shown by this species in different weather conditions. Not only are the illustrations aesthetically pleasing, but the level of analysis incorporated here was a great reminder of the potentially variable impression that many Pallid Swifts can give in the field.’
The document contained sketches and notes direct from the field as well as worked-up pieces derived from these, leaving no doubt that this was a submission based on prolonged study of the four birds that were present.
Porthgwarra, Cornwall, October 2022 – Steve Rogers
A compilation submission put together by Steve Rogers, this featured a series of photographs of a ‘Band-rumped Storm-petrel’ Hydrobates castro/jabejabe/monteiroi passing Porthgwarra, showing differing angles and postures. While the photos are understandably poor, they all add to the overall context of the submission – and show that instructive photographs of seabirds seen from land are possible and can be a useful addition to a submission. One member commented: ‘A great submission, reaffirming the potential for this superspecies to be not only identified from land, but also photographed. Photographs aside, I particularly liked how different impressions from experienced observers coalesced into an utterly credible account, providing great detail on shape, flight action and observable plumage detail. The level of background detail on weather, associated seabird sightings and sea temperature anomalies all add to our archived knowledge of such rare sightings.’
Western Bonelli’s Warbler
East Hills, Norfolk, August 2022 – Mike Buckland
Persistence paid off for Mike Buckland and Ashley Banwell when they found a Western Bonelli’s Warbler Phylloscopus bonelli at East Hills, Norfolk. Mike’s submission contained a great narrative of the circumstances, as well as a sound recording and a series of illustrative photographs.
Description A stunning little warbler with beautiful, clean, silky-white underparts from chin to undertail. Face-on, it lacked any supercilium or eye-stripe and just looked white-headed with two big, black eyes, emphasised by its pale, unmarked lores. Side-on, it showed pale lores, a subtle dark eyebrow, a faint, white supercilium with a pale-yellow wash, and pale-grey ear-coverts along with a nice, complete, pale eye-ring, accentuated by its big, black eyes. The crown and nape were pale grey washing down the mantle, where a hint of a yellow-green hue was just apparent on the scapulars. The fringes of the coverts and secondaries were strongly yellow, especially when caught by the sunlight, forming a distinct yellowish wing-panel and contrasting with dark grey tertials. The alula was blackish, standing out on the yellow wing. The primaries were dark grey, as was the tail, which showed a few yellow feather fringes, most apparent towards the tip. The rump was not seen.
Its bill was very pale pinkish when seen from below, with a darker, grey upper mandible apparent [when viewed] side-on. Its legs were greyish-pink.
Its call was subtly distinctive: a loud, disyllabic, upwards-inflected whistling ‘huu-eeef’, with both components given equal emphasis. It was superficially similar to a loud Willow Warbler [P. trochilus], but more persistent, repeated over, with the suggestion of Greenfinch [Chloris chloris] in tone, and each call seeming to bounce gently into the next.
Blakeney Point, Norfolk, August 2022 – James McCallum
This is the second of James McCallum’s submissions in this year’s shortlist, and once again he has provided a wonderfully evocative series of quick watercolours that convey the distinctive appearance of a Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola.
‘Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat’
North Ronaldsay, Orkney, October 2022 – Lauren Evans
This was a particularly impressive submission of a ringed ‘Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat’ Curruca curruca halimodendri from Lauren Evans, with input from Dante Shepherd and Tom Gale. Committee members were pleased that, despite the bird being trapped, ringed and providing a DNA sample, there was still a full account of it in the field. Indeed, it was confidently identified in the field through a combination of size, plumage, jizz and call before it ever reached the ringer’s hands – or its DNA was analysed in the lab, for that matter. The submission contains many photo comparisons with other DNA-proven birds, as well as comparisons of sonograms from birds within the breeding range of halimodendri, not only proving the case for this individual but also furthering the Committee’s confidence in the acceptance of future records.
Members of the Committee said: ‘Too often, the Committee receive disappointing submissions of ringed birds, no doubt since in many cases the identification is backed up by DNA analysis. This submission took a refreshingly different approach, attempting to elucidate not only on the in-hand identification but also on field-identification features. With analysis of voice, structure and plumage, including comparison photographs of birds of proven identification of both halimodendri and “Siberian Lesser Whitethroat” C. c. blythi, this description provided much food for thought.’
‘This was an excellent and well-structured record of a particularly thorny ID issue for British birders currently. Obviously ultimately backed by the genetic findings, it acts as a good reference, via bringing together the different types of evidence, perhaps developing a greater confidence in the ID of this taxon. Succinct and well presented.’
And: ‘A great account of a subtly distinctive bird, provisionally identified in the field, documented with photographs and biometrics and confirmed by DNA analysis. This bird will help greatly in advancing our understanding of how to identify this subspecies in the field.’
Budle Point, Northumberland, October 2022 – Ross Ahmed
After his success last year with his winning ‘American Black Tern’ Chlidonias niger surinamensis submission, Ross is again featured in the CZA write-up, this time with a shortlisted submission of an ‘Eastern Stonechat’. The submission is notable for its remarkable restraint in not trying to shoehorn the record into one or other of two species, SiberianSaxicola maurus or Amur Stonechat S. stejnegeri. A range of images were submitted (plates 011–019), with good comparisons to proven Siberian and Amur, and while some images lean towards Amur, the lack of diagnostic features (and a DNA sample) at the time of submission led Ross to leave it simply as Eastern. The quality of the submission means that this is a record the Committee could easily revisit in a forthcoming review.
Cardiff Bay, Glamorgan, May 2021 – Peter Howlett, Phil Bristow and Graham Smith
Containing submissions from both Peter Howlett and Phil Bristow, plus a presentation of the sound recordings from Graham Smith, this was a detailed account with excellent documentation and an assessment of what is an unfamiliar plumage of ‘Black-headed Wagtail’ Motacilla flava feldegg in a British context. Despite the bird’s striking appearance, the observers made sure they recorded it and the submission contained an analysis of the calls, including comments from Magnus Robb. The Committee had no hesitation in accepting this record of what can, at times, be a difficult taxon to assess.
North Ronaldsay, Orkney, November 2021 – Tom Gale
This Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii was clearly a challenging bird to identify, being both distant and flighty at all times. Getting enough evidence for a rarity submission would always prove challenging but, with persistence, Tom Gale managed to get the all-important sound recordings and even some indicative photographs. This was a well-written and honest submission. Once again, analysis of the call was backed up with correspondence from Magnus Robb.
The Carl Zeiss Award 2023 winner: Kelp Gull
Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire, August 2022 – Richard Patient
Richard Patient’s Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus submission was the standout winner this year, being placed first by nine of the ten voters. The extreme rarity of a find is not an automatic green light for inclusion in the CZA shortlist, and the only other submission of a British first that has won since the award moved to recognising the quality of the submission rather than simply a series of photographs was that for the Zino’s Petrel Pterodroma madeira in 2021. Rather, the quality of the submission and the time put into writing it were what attracted Committee members.
‘Richard not only included a very thorough description, backed up by both annotated photographs and comparison photographs from his travels abroad, but also discussions on ageing and subspecific identification. In voting on this record, it was very difficult to add meaningfully to any aspect of what was provided, which says it all’, said one Committee member.
Richard’s 20-page submission was impressive for the breadth of information it contained. It covered all the relevant points regarding the identification and ageing of the bird, supported by photographs. Its notable that, despite this thorough submission, Richard wisely did not attribute this bird to subspecies, a conservative stance mirrored by some European gull gurus who looked at this record.
Another BBRC member said: ‘This is a hugely detailed and informative account of a fantastic British ‘first’, with first-class photo documentation of the bird’s plumage state and an educational discussion of its ageing.’
This record is accepted by BBRC but is currently in circulation with BOURC.
I considered the following to be the key features, in comparison with Great Black-backed Gull:
Legs Those of the Kelp being greenish-grey, legs long (particularly the tibia) and thinner.
Upperparts colour According to Olsen (2018), adult Kelp has Kodak grey scale 13.5–15 upperparts, whereas those of Great Black-backed adult are Kodak grey scale 11–13.
In direct comparison between the two species, the Kelp Gull looked obviously darker. There was usually little visible contrast between the mantle and primaries of the Kelp Gull at rest, whereas there is generally an obvious tonal difference between these feathers on a Great Black-backed.
Size Distinctly smaller than Great Black-backed Gull.
Shape A different stance, with the chest often appearing thrust forward, the outermost point then being about level with the gonys of the bill. The stance of Great Black-backed usually appeared more upright with the chest looking more vertical and with the outermost point then only reaching level with the base of the bill.
The primaries of the Kelp Gull projected noticeably beyond the tail too; it often had a ‘long-winged, flat-backed’ appearance.
Head and bill Great Black-backed Gull noticeably larger headed, and with a larger beak.
Richard is awarded a pair of Zeiss Victory SF 8x42. We have no doubt they will soon be instrumental in further good rarity finds.
BBRC is grateful to all those observers who submit their records of rarities for consideration, either directly to the Committee or via our arrangement with websites (BirdGuides www.birdguides.com and Rare Bird Alert www.rarebirdalert.co.uk). We are extremely grateful to ZEISS for their continued support of the Committee and this award.
Olsen, K. M. 2018. Gulls of the World: a photographic guide. Princeton University Press.
Paul French, BBRC Chairman, 1 Greenfield Bungalows, Easington, East Yorkshire HU12 0TZ; e-mail [email protected]