Identifying birds can be a difficult and frustrating task, even at the best of times.
While even the least knowledgeable among us can usually discern a great tit from a blue tit, it can be slightly harder to differentiate a house sparrow from a dunnock, harder again to determine between a marsh tit and willow tit, and don’t even get me started on gulls or warblers!
Often, time and place can help confirm identification, as can conservation status. But what do you do when faced with a bird that looks similar to a couple of species in your bird book, but just doesn’t tick all the boxes?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a scaup had been seen on the lagoons up on the reserve. We have had scaup here before in autumn and winter, so while this duck is quite rare they are not unheard of here at this time of year.
Now, one or two of the reports we received here at the Visitor Centre may well have been legitimate, but it seems some people may well have fallen foul of that identification nightmare: the hybrid.
Quite simply, a hybrid occurs when two species breed with each other and the resulting offspring has the genes of two different species. Ducks are notorious for this.
Chris Jones , of Gwent Ornithogical Society and county recorder, said of the bird seen at Newport Wetlands: “Although the bird does look like a female scaup with the broad white blaze around the base of the bill, the bird is in fact a hybrid female pochard, which probably has some scaup genes. “
Chris said the reasons for this are the profile of the bird being that of a pochard, along with the shape, colourations and patterning of the bill. The black on the tip of the bill is far too extensive for a scaup, which is only black on the little curved tip at the very end.
It seems this individual has a bit of a soft spot for Newport Wetlands as this is at least the fourth year it’s returned here.
So now you know! And if you’re ever unsure of a sighting, the best thing to do is take a photo, upload it to our forum and ask. Hopefully someone will have the answer.
As the acres of dense green reeds now start to give way to their golden brown of winter it becomes easier to see the numerous birds who call Newport Wetlands home.
And now the lull of August and early September have slipped away, there’s plenty of wildlife on the reserve to get excited about.
Bearded tits are being seen by the dozen and in the calm, still weather of the last week it’s been difficult to walk through the reedbeds without hearing their unique ‘pinging’ sound.
The songs of Cetti’s warbler, willow warbler and chiffchaff can still be heard throughout the reserve, though the latter two have already started to leave our shores, heading south for the winter.
Several stonechats can be seen in the southern reedbed of the environs near the Visitor Centre at the moment and a pair of little grebe continue to entertain out on the scrape. And speaking of entertainment, it seems our mute swan Bad Bob has made his way back to the scrape and environs with his mate.
Treecreeper and nuthatch were seen on Saturday, whinchat was spotted on Sunday and there have also been plenty of sightings of little owl on the reserve. In fact, last week some fresh blood was injected into the reserve’s little owl population, when City Wildlife Care released a bird in Perry Lane.
But the two birds of the week were scaup and woodlark. The scaup was first seen on Friday and was also spotted on Saturday and Sunday on the lagoon near the hide. This diving duck is best seen between late October and March, so it’s great to have one on the water here at this time.
But the star species has to be the woodlark. Spotted on the ground near the pylons on the eastern side of the reedbeds, this bird caused a bit of a stir at the Visitors Centre. It can usually only be found in eastern and southern England and there are only around 3,000 breeding pairs in the UK. You can check out the photos taken by one of our regular visitors who found the woodlark on our forum.
Don’t forget, if you want to improve your bird identification skills, we have Beginner’s Bird Identification on Saturday between 10.00am and 12.00pm. The charge is £5.50 per adult or £3.00 for RSPB members. Give us a call on 01633 636363 to book you place.