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Bird Watching (UK) - - Id Challenge | October: Seawatching -


There are of course two birds in this pho­to­graph, which look they are fly­ing with pow­ered flight (rather than glid­ing) over the sea. The first im­pres­sion is of neck­less, chunky black-and-white lumps of birds. They look deep bod­ied and this com­bined with the black-and-white plumage and short neck sug­gests they are one of the auk species. Adult guille­mots and Ra­zor­bills and in­deed Puffins can be ruled out by the tiny bill, which is much smaller than it would be on any of these birds. Young of these larger auks go to sea when half the size of adults, but don’t have such well de­vel­oped wings. So, we are only left with one al­ter­na­tive: the rel­a­tively scarce Lit­tle Auk, an Arc­tic breed­ing species which comes in­shore in the UK only af­ter very high winds.

KEY FEA­TURES †Neck­less, chunky black-and-white lump of a bird †Dark un­der­wings †Tiny ‘tri­an­gu­lar’ bill †White wraps round face al­most to nape


The shape of this bird is ob­vi­ously that of a gull, and judg­ing by its pro­por­tions, a large one at that. It is what some may call a ‘large, pale-headed gull’. But that is just a start­ing point. The over­all plumage is a lit­tle patchy, so this is not a fully ma­ture bird. The dark man­tle and wings rules out the large pale-backed species, such as Her­ring Gull, Yel­low-legged Gull and straight­away nar­rows it to one of the so-called ‘black-backed’ species. But which one? The dark grey rather than black­ish man­tle may sug­gest Lesser Black-backed. But younger Greats can have slightly paler backs. The strong­est ev­i­dence for which species this is comes from the bill. It is mas­sive and very deep, typ­i­cal of the largest gull, Great Black-backed Gull.

KEY FEA­TURES †Big, an­gry-look­ing, dark-backed, pale-headed gull †Dark man­tle sug­gest one of the black-backed gulls †Patchy plumage sug­gests it is not a fully adult bird †Very thick, deep bill


Most birds seen when seawatch­ing are ei­ther swim­ming or more com­monly, fly­ing past. This one is ap­par­ently just in tran­si­tion between the two modes. It is a long-necked bird with feet set well back on the body, sug­gest­ing it is adapted for sur­face div­ing. The pat­terned wings rule out divers and cor­morants and the head shape and long thin neck are un­like any of our div­ing ducks. This bird is a grebe and the white in the forewing rules out Lit­tle and Black-necked Grebes. In fact, the white on the in­ner wing (show­ing on the right wing) also rules out Slavo­nian and Red-necked Grebes and leaves us with Great Crested Grebe. The pink bill and pale face con­firm this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Great Crested Grebes are fre­quently seen on sea­watches.

KEY FEA­TURES †Long-necked, large bod­ied, duck-like bird †Legs set at back of ‘tail­less’ body †Odd white and ‘black’ wing pat­tern †Pale face and pink­ish bill


At first glance this bird may look like a gull, with its white head and grey back and well-pro­por­tioned body. But look again, and those stiff straight wings, that grey rump and tail, those pale patches on the wings and that odd bill struc­ture should steer you away from gulls and to­ward the group of seabirds known as tube-noses. That in­cludes the storm-pe­trels, the pe­trels, the shear­wa­ters and the mas­sive al­ba­trosses of the south­ern hemi­sphere. In­deed, this bird ap­pears to have al­ba­tross-like dark-shaded, dark eyes. There is only one UK tubenose which looks su­per­fi­cially like a white-headed gull, though, and it is our only mid-sized pe­trel species, the Ful­mar. Ful­mars are widely dis­trib­uted around our coasts and fre­quently seen on sea­watches.

KEY FEA­TURES †Gull-like plumage †Stiff-winged flight, like a shear­wa­ter †Grey rump and tail †Dark ‘eye­shadow’


Like Bird 4, this bird has its long wings ex­tended straight out, while it ap­pears to be fly­ing with its wings in the ver­ti­cal plane. Re­al­is­ti­cally, only tubenoses and Gan­nets will fly like this, shear­ing over the waves. Ju­ve­nile Gan­nets are largely dark all over, like this bird, but have a long, dag­ger-like bill, whereas this bird has quite a fine, ‘blunt-ended’ bill, more typ­i­cal of a tubenose, and the slim shape and long, pointed wings sug­gest a shear­wa­ter. The plumage is largely dark brown all over, with whitish or ‘sil­very’ ar­eas to the un­der­wing. Balearic Shear­wa­ters tend to have paler bel­lies and look pot-bel­lied. This all-dark, sil­ver-winged, cigar-shaped beauty is a Sooty Shear­wa­ter.

KEY FEA­TURES †Stiff, straight wings sug­gests a ‘tubenose’ †All dark brown body and head †Sil­very un­der­wing patches †Nicely pro­por­tioned cigar-shaped body


Per­haps the tough­est ID chal­lenge of the lot, this month, the photo shows a long-necked bird fly­ing in level flight. It is dark above and white be­low, and there are few other plumage fea­tures to go on. The feet are set well back on the body, which is typ­i­cal for a sur­face div­ing bird and the head ap­pears to be held lower than the plane of the slightly hump-backed body. The bill is dag­ger-shaped. The com­bi­na­tion of the struc­ture and plumage sug­gest a diver species, out of breed­ing plumage. Red-throated Divers have white above the thin up­turned bill. This looks to be ei­ther a Black-throated or Great Northern Diver. Great North­erns have a dis­tinct neck ‘col­lar’, not shown here. This is a Black-throated Diver.

KEY FEA­TURES †Goose-like, long-necked, brown-and-white bird †Dag­ger-like grey bill †Dark feath­er­ing around eye, cheeks and neck sides †Legs and feet come from ex­treme rear of bird

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