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Friday, 14 January 2011

ASIATIC LESSER WHITETHROAT-type in IRELAND

On Thursday, I made a trip up to Drogheda Co. Louth, in the company of Alyn Walsh and at the invitation of Chris Honan, to view a Lesser Whitethroat that showed up in Chris' and his neighbours' gardens just after Christmas.

First noticed by Chris' neighbour, Kevin McGuigan, who recognised it as being "like a Blackcap but without a cap" he notified Chris of an unfamiliar bird visiting his bird feeders. Chris subsequently obtained a couple of record shots, which confirmed that it was a Lesser Whitethroat, but its somewhat unusual appearance was immediately interesting. Suspecting that it might be one of the Asian forms of Lesser Whitethroat, Alyn and I accepted Chris' kind invitation to investigate this possibility further by in-the-field observation, sound-recording and if possible, trapping, in order to obtain detailed biometrics and feather samples for DNA analysis.

Within a minute of arriving at Chris's house we were watching the bird at close range, and it was present on and off throughout the afternoon, making frequent visits to the feeders in Chris's and Kevin's front gardens.

Field identification of out-of-range Lesser Whitethroats to a particular taxon is nigh on impossible, though there are several characters that may be used to separate Asian forms, in a broad sense, from the familiar nominate form that breeds throughout Western Europe.

Biometrics offer further clues but DNA may, ultimately, be required to assign birds to a definite taxon with a high degree of confidence. To our great delight, Chris and Alyn were successful in catching the bird in a well-placed mist net! A thorough but efficient examination was carried out, a couple of tiny feather samples were collected, the bird was ringed, photographed and released, upon which it immediately resumed feeding, just as it had been earlier in the day. The wing formula, very extensive clean white in the outer tail feathers and the distinctive call (heard a couple of times but unfortunately notrecorded) point strongly to the bird being referable to one of the Asian forms of Lesser Whitethroat, most probably halimodendri or minula.

It is hoped that DNA analysis will enable us to confirm the identification, one way or the other, but this might take some time.

Anyone interested in seeing this bird for themselves is welcome to do so, though of course they will be expected to conduct themselves with due regard for the fact that their observations will, inevitably, be directed into one or other of the front gardens of Chris' neighbours. All the people living here seem to be exceptionally friendly and tolerant, so let's make sure that none of us does anything to change this attitude!

Chris kindly provided the following directions, from Drogheda:On the Termonfeckin Road (just outside Drogheda town centre), go under arailway bridge. As you go up an incline there's a garage on your right and immediately after that, the entrance to Westcourt is on your right. After entering Westcourt, the entrance to The Priory is the first turn to the left. The first turn on the right in the Priory brings you to the cul-de-sac where the bird has been seen at feeders on trees in gardens on the right (No. 9) and left (No. 16). As you enter the cul-de-sac, there is space for at least three or four cars to be parked on the left, alongside a white wall, where they will not be in anyone's way. It is easy from here to spot the bird feeders on both sides of the road.

I have sent some photographs of the bird to the irishbirding.com website which hopefully will be uploaded in the morning. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Chris and Sue Honan for the greatwelcome and hospitality extended to Alyn, myself, and a couple of other local birders who dropped by. Likewise to Kevin, whose sharp observation ledto the discovery of this very interesting bird and whose well-filled (with Christmas cake!) feeder seems to be sustaining it. With a bit of luck it will stay around for another while (Killian Mullarney)