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Sri Lanka Birding

Getting away from the dreary end of a UK winter for a week in the Sri Lanka sun sounded irresistible. In the event, the UK had the mildest of winters and a veritable heat wave during the week I was away. Still, the UK couldn’t compete in terms of either sunshine or wildlife. Our first stop was Wilpattu National Park on the north west part of the island. Out of bounds until recently because of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Wilpattu is a haven for both birds and mammals and does not have too many tourists (unlike Yala NP in the south east). We were lucky enough to stay inside the park in a basic but comfortable bungalow overlooking a lake frequented by elephants, wild pigs, deer and a selection of birds. On our game drives we had spectacular sightings of leopard, for which the park is justly famous. 

Wilpattu literally means land of little lakes and the central area of the park comprises a series shallow pans which attract many waders and herons. There were large numbers of pintailed snipe, Pacific golden plover, bar-tailed godwits, redshank, greenshank, woodsandpipers and many others. In the water itself there were pheasant tailed jacanas, black bittern, various egrets, grey and purple herons, open-billed storks, painted storks and woolly-necked storks. One of the most striking birds was the paradise flycatcher, the males – mostly of the white morph – floating like a white ribbon through the trees. On two occasions we saw white paradise flycatchers associated with back-naped monarchs (a beautiful cobalt blue flycatcher) and we were told by our guide that they often occur together. Why???

IMG_1343After Wilpattu we went to the north east of Sri Lanka, north of Trincomalee – another region that was off limits during the war. This is a dry area with relatively few people, although I predict that the beautiful coastline will soon be developed as a holiday destination. Lots of water bodies here and our main target was a huge wetland known as Kokkilai Bird Sanctuary – a massive, biologically productive lagoon. The birds were almost indifferent to the numerous fisherman: cormorants, herons, egrets, kites, sea eagles and many others.

IMG_1458There are house crows everywhere: cheeky, confiding and confident. Has anyone tested their cognitive abilities? They seemed super-smart to me and I bet they bend wire in their sleep.

Our final stop was Lion Rock, or Sigirya, a spectacular lump of rock some 200 m high situated smack in the middle of the island. Reaching the top involved a breath-taking (literally) climb up rickety steel ladders and steps, but it was worth it. Half-way up here are some great rock paintings of some special ethereal maidens.  The view from the top was fabulous and included close views of the beautiful dark race of the peregrine.

Thinking of bird watching in Sri Lanka? I recommend it. The people are charming, the food is wonderful, and this time at least, there were very few mosquitos, and without trying too hard we clocked up around 120 bird species in just two main locations in 7 days.

Tim Birkhead
16 March 2014

IMG_1259 IMG_1153 IMG_1019

IMAGE CREDITS: Map from WorldAtlas.com; all other photos by Tim Birkhead

The Seabird Wreck of 2014

Dozens of dead seabirds washed up on beaches with no obvious cause of death, like oiling, are often referred to as ‘wrecks’. They have been known for centuries, and sometimes the birds even fly long distances inland before they die. Wrecks are usually caused by stormy weather. As storm after storm battered the west coast of Britain and France this year, I wondered whether we might see a wreck of seabirds.

And we have. Today, I heard that about 25,000 dead seabirds— mainly Atlantic Puffins, but also Common Guillemots [Common Murres] and Razorbills—have been found on France’s Atlantic coast, the Channel Islands, and Wales (see news here, here, here, and here).

Major seabird wrecks in the UK since the 1960s

Major seabird wrecks in the UK since the 1960s

Estimating the numbers of birds killed during wrecks is difficult, usually involving counts of dead birds on stretches of coastline, and then some extrapolation.  But only a proportion of the birds that die at sea get washed up, so the true numbers killed by storms are higher, probably MUCH higher.

Persistent bad weather clearly makes it difficult for seabirds to forage, probably because rough seas cause fish shoals to disperse. Most birds found during wrecks are underweight and appear to have starved to death. Stormy conditions must also impose additional metabolic costs on the birds, to keep warm and fight currents and winds (Blake 1984).

The last two major wrecks in the UK occurred in the autumn of 1969 in the southern Irish Sea and in February 1983 on the east coast of Britain.

The 1969 wreck (Holdgate 1971) resulted in the death of at least 12,000 birds, mainly guillemots [referred to as murres in the Americas]. The effect of that wreck was apparent the following summer when counts on Skomer, an island off the southwest coast of Wales, revealed a large drop in the breeding population. Counts of breeding Common Guillemots started on Skomer in the early 1960s; indeed, this was the first location to initiate such annual counts and they proved their value for they demonstrated the number of birds lost as a result on the 1969 wreck. The counts continue to this day and are part of the important business of monitoring.

The 1969 wreck pushed the already-declining Skomer guillemot population to its lowest recorded level, to about 2000 pairs. To put this into perspective: I estimated from old photographs, that there may have been around 100,000 pairs of guillemots on Skomer in the 1930s, so the decline was immense, and the effect of the 1969 wreck almost catastrophic.

During the 1960s there was widespread concern about toxic chemicals, and it was thought that some kind of poisoning might have been responsible for the wreck, not least because there was no sign of any other mortality factor. The 1960s was also a time of widespread oil pollution killing seabirds (Votier et al. 2005), but those involved in the Irish seabirds wreck were not victims of oil.

Remains of Puffin washed up on beach 21 Feb 2014

Remains of Puffin washed up on beach 21 Feb 2014

The birds were underweight, and chemical analysis revealed high levels of PCBs, so it was thought that PCB poisoning might have been the cause of the mortality (Holdgate 1971). With hindsight it became clear that the wreck was the result of bad weather disrupting feeding, and the birds had starved. The birds had metabolized all their body reserves and in doing so had released PCBs stored in their body fat.

The wreck in February 1983, also followed a period of stormy weather, and resulted in 34,000 dead seabirds (31,600 auks, including 10,000 dead guillemots and 18,000 razorbills and 1600 puffins (Underwood & Stowe 1984). This was the largest wreck of auks so far in the UK.

The current wreck also seems to be due to the persistent westerly storms during the early part of 2014. The English Channel and the sea off northern France are all important wintering areas for guillemots – based on what we know from ringing [banding] recoveries (Votier et al. 2008). Razorbills winter in the same areas as guillemots, as far as we know, but puffins are renowned for wintering across the north Atlantic. The birds found dead will be from various breeding colonies, but it seems certain that it will include guillemots from Skomer. Puffins seem to be the main victims of the 2014 wreck with several thousand found dead so far. It seems likely that many of the birds killed in this wreck will be from the Skomer breeding colony.

The origins of these birds will undoubtedly be confirmed when we start to get ringing recoveries. Indeed, we have several already, three puffins, one razorbill and one guillemot all bearing a GLS tags, and all from Skomer Island.  Given the relatively small number of auks bearing GLS devices on Skomer, this is an alarmingly high proportion. We don’t yet know whether there have been ringing [banding] recoveries of birds from other breeding colonies.

Newgale Razorbill PM muscle mass 22 02 14 J Walmsley

Remains of Rzorbill showing emaciated breast muscles, washed up at Newgale, 22 Feb 2014

The effects of this wreck on the Skomer seabird populations will also be confirmed during our monitoring programme in 2014 – providing we obtain the funding to carry it out.

Since 1972 I have been monitoring the population biology of guillemots on Skomer (and since the mid-1980s I have done this in collaboration with my colleague Professor Ben Hatchwell at Sheffield University). Long-term studies are essential when birds are long-lived and guillemots are just that—wrecks apart, typically living 20-30 years. Since the 1960s successive island wardens have counted the total number of guillemots on the Skomer cliffs each year, and my group has monitored guillemot adult and immature survival, breeding success, timing of breeding and the chick’s diet. Such monitoring is vital for assessing the health of a population, but also for giving us a picture of the state of the marine environment (Votier et al. 2005; Meade et al 2012).

The tragedy is that after so many years of monitoring, our funds for this research have just dried up. The recently formed Natural Resources Wales (formerly Countryside Council for Wales CCW) have slashed budgets and as a consequence the long-term monitoring of Skomer’s guillemots has been terminated.  So just at the time when the climate seems to fluctuating widely and when monitoring is most needed…

Tim Birkhead
3 March 2014

FOLLOWUP: Michael McCarthy writes in THE INDEPENDENT on the seabird wreck and the disastrous funding cuts to research on the Skomer seabirds by Natural Resources Wales.


Blake, B. F. 1984 Diet sand fish stock availability as possible factors in the mass death of auks in the North sea. Journal of  Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 76L: 89-103

Holdgate, M. W.  1969. The Seabird Wreck of 1969 in the Irish Sea : a report by the Natural Environment Research Council. London.

Meade, J. Hatchwell, B. J., Blanchard, J. L. & T. R. Birkhead, 2012. The population increase of common guillemots Uria aalge on Skomer Isalnd is explained by intrinsic demographic properties. Journal of Avian Biology 43: 1-7.

Underwood, L.SA. & Stowe, T. J. 1984. Massive wreck of seabirds in eastern Britain in 1983. Bird Study 31: 79-88.

Votier SC, Hatchwell BJ, Beckerman A, McCleery RH and others (2005) Oil pollution and climate have wide-scale impacts on seabird demographics. Ecology Letters 8:1157–1164

Votier SC, Birkhead TR, Oro D, Trinder M and others (2008) Recruitment and survival of immature seabirds in relation to oil spills and climate variability. Journal of Animal Ecology 77: 974–983

Guillemot washed up on beach at Marloes Sands, 25 Feb 2014

Guillemot washed up on beach at Marloes Sands, 25 Feb 2014

IMAGE CREDITS: Map modified from Wikipedia Commons; puffin courtesy S. Kessel; razorbill courtesy J. Walmsley; guillemot courtesy B. Bueche

Who was Henry Seebohm?

Henry Seebohm

After my good friend Jürgen Haffer died in 2010, his widow sent me some of his books. These included the 1976 reprint of Henry Seebohm’s Birds of Siberia, originally published in 1880 as Siberia in Europe, recounting his two monumental journeys to Siberia. I hadn’t previously read it, but I found it a revelation and one that captures a distinctive era of ornithology.

Seebohm (1832-1895) lived in Sheffield, northern England, where he owned a steel manufacturing business. He used his wealth to undertake ornithological collecting trips, including two to Siberia: one to the Petchora River in 1875, the other in 1877 to the Yensei River.

Pechora (left) and Yenesei (right) Rivers

At first sight Birds of Siberia appears to be little more than a list of birds shot, interspersed with notes on the anthropology of the Samoyed people. As I was reading, I wished I had kept a list of the species and numbers collected—but I then discovered that the last chapter gives the full score from his first trip: about 1000 skins of 110 species and 600 eggs.

At one level we think of this kind of slaughter as shocking because it wouldn’t happen today. On the other hand, we shouldn’t judge Seebohm by today’s ethical or scientific standards. There were undoubtedly many more birds then and this was the way ornithology was conducted in the late 1800s. Seebohm would have been equally shocked if we had told him that in hundred years time ornithologists would be studying the personalities of birds (and in the future, we’ll look back on that too with amazemen

After shooting some ridiculously tame yellow-browed warblers, a Siberian chiff-chaff and a European willow warbler, Seebohm wrote  ‘it seems too bad to shoot these charming little birds, but as the “Old Bushman” says, what is hit is history, and what is missed is mystery [italics in the original:  I’m not sure who the ‘Old Bushman’ is, and curiously, that phrase is attributed on Wikipedia to the childrens’ author Arthur Ransome from a later date: Ransome presumably read either Seebohm or the Old Bushman].

I wondered what happened to all those shot birds? Seebohm and his companions ate the flesh of those they considered palatable, such as hazel grouse and golden plover. But where are all those study skins? Did any survive? My own departmental museum—the Alfred Denny Museum (http://www.shef.ac.uk/alfred-denny-museum)—of which I am curator, boasts a mounted pair black grouse from Archangel, Siberia, collected and donated by Seebohm. Many of his other specimens—both taxidermic mounts and study skins—are in Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum, and some are in the Natural History Museum (BMNH) at Tring.

As Seebohm discovered, the switch from winter to summer in Siberia occurs without the pleasnatries of spring, and is heralded by the northward sweep of vast numbers of migrant shorebirds, landbirds, wildfowl and raptors. Seebohm watched in awe, overwhelmed by the incontrovertible evidence for migration before his eyes, reflecting that only a few decades previously the very existence of migration had been in doubt.  By the 1870s, however, migration was considered the greatest of ornithological mysteries. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then to find tucked away amidst the list of birds shot and eggs collected, Seebohm includes two fascinating chapters on migration, summarizing both the current state of knowledge and his own his views.

Later, Seebohm presciently identified daylength as the proximate cue timing the onset of migration. Apparently no one noticed. A few years previously, in 1870, the Finnish poet Johan Runeberg had suggested the same idea in one of his poems—but that idea was squashed by Alfred Newton[RD1] , the pompous old man of Victorian era ornithology. We don’t know whether Sebohm knew of Runeberg’s poem, probably not. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the idea took hold, thanks to a publication by the physiologist William Sharpey. The full story is told in The Wisdom of Birds (Birkhead 2008:181-184).

The main purpose of Seebohm’s life-long ornithological work was—like that of all serious ornithologists of the day—to study the classification and geographical distribution of birds. His trips to Siberia revealed marked geographic differences in plumage and size in species he was familiar with in Europe: ‘the Siberian form of the lesser spotted woodpecker … has the whole of the under parts unspotted silky white…It is larger than the South European form… ‘.  The Siberian form of the nuthatch…is another case in point. Examples from the Yenesei, and also from the north island of Japan, have the underparts almost pure white’.

It was because of this geographic variation that Seebohm favoured the trinomial system of nomenclature (TTB: 90): ‘Here again the confirmed habit of the older ornithologists of either treating these little differences as specific, or of ignoring them altogether, is much to be deplored ….  I venture to suggest, as a punishment for their delinquencies, that they should be exiled to Siberia for a summer to learn to harmonise their system of nomenclature with the facts of nature’.

Alfred Newton despised Seebohm, saying this of his books: ‘downright errors and wild conjectures there are enough, and they are confidently asserted with the misuse of language and absence of reasoning power that mark all the author’s writings, though the air of scientific treatment … has deluded many an unwary reader’ (Newton 1896: 44 n 1). On the other hand, Mullens and Swan (1917) wrote that: ‘Seebohm’s name will ever rank high among those of British ornithologists, not only as the author of one of the most important histories of British birds, but as … a successful businessman…[and who became] a really scientific ornithologist’.

It seems to me that Seebohm has been overlooked and his ornithological work, especially that on migration and systematics, would benefit from a present-day appraisal. Jürgen Haffer knew this, and just before he died was beginning to research Seebohm. Indeed, his copy of Birds of Siberia that I inherited has a few pencil annotations, marking passages he felt were significant. Someone needs to take up the challenge.


Birkhead TR. 2008. The Wisdom of Birds. London: Bloomsbury.
Mullens WH, Swann HK. 1917. A Bibliography of British Ornithology. London: Witherby & Co.
Newton A. 1896. A Dictionary of Birds. London: A & C Black.
Seebohm H. 1880. Siberia in Europe. London: John Murray.
TTB= Birkhead T, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie B. 2014. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

…Tim Birkhead 2 January 2014