Finding two new bird species

Linosa is a little black volcanic island south of Sicily. It is one of the three islands of the Pelagie Archipelago, alongside with Lampedusa and Lampione (both lime stone islands from the African Plateau).

It is black, it is fully covered by green, it is really isolated and scarcely populated (about 350-400 people)…and it is the best birding site in Italy and among the best in the whole Mediterranean if you want to find rare birds, vagrants or irregular migrants, from Siberia, from North Africa, from the Far Asia, from the Iberian Peninsula or Northern Europe.

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This is the reason why a small birding team of keen and devoted birders that also love “isolation”, silence and peace, the MISC, visit Linosa every year since 2007: Ottavio Janni, Miki Viganò, Hans Larsson, Igor Maiorano, Lucio Maniscalco, Raimondo Fianati and myself.

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Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni). One of the 9 recorded at Linosa in autumn 2017. Since 2007, this species, formerly considered a vagrant in Italy, was recorded annually.

During these eleven years we documented more rare birds than everybody else in Italy, (and probably of anybody in the Mediterranean basin) and we also changed the status and phenology of several species completely which were formerly considered very rare vagrants for our country. So nowadays, thanks to our study, they are scarce but regular migrants (i.e. Yellow-browed Warbler, Olive-backed Pipit, Little Bunting, etc.).

But the best year ever was this fall. During eleven, now historic days, from 15th October to 26th October 2017, we found two new birds for Italy: a juvenile Pallas’s Reed Bunting and a juvenile Blyth’s Pipit. Both never documented before in the country, both extremely hard to identify in the field.

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Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla).

We should talk about subtle shades or hues of pink or drab-brownish and creamy… this makes the difference, this makes the rare one and differentiates them from the closer matching species as Common Reed Bunting and Richard’s Pipit. When you need to tell in a few, vital, frantic seconds the exact real tinge of a small lower mandible, or the fine detail of the pattern of a narrow supercilium and the colour wash over the flanks and belly, then you only need the best binocular in the market – the Leica Noctivid 10×42.

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Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi), juvenile, Linosa island, Sicily, 15th October 2017. A first record for Italy (photo by CIRO AMATA)

And I was more than happy to be so lucky to have one pair in my hands when I first flushed the Pallas’s Reed Bunting, and check fast and without hesitation, even if I was panicking, the colour of the really tiny lower mandible of the Bunting. Through the lens of my Noctivid, even though it was mid-day with strong light, without any colour aberration, a wonderful light pink tinge was clearly visible – yes! – a Pallas’s Reed Bunting. And the flight call immediately confirmed it, it was a dream come true.

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Blyth’s Pipit (Anthus godlewskii) juvenile, Linosa island, Sicily, 26th October 2017. A first record for Italy (photo by IGOR MAIORANO)

Then, once calmed down, with the support of the whole MISC team, we checked the colour of the lesser coverts, not rich chestnut but dull drab-brown, then the shape of the upper mandible, then photographs and sound recordings.It was the seventh ever for Europe and the Western Palearctic (outside the west most breeding range in Russia), and only the second in juvenile plumage.

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Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi)

Eleven days later, we spotted a medium-sized Anthus (Pipit) sp. almost totally hidden by dense and high grass. Again, with my Leica Noctivid at hands, I quickly checked the supercilium shape and colour, first doubts arise… could it be or not?

Is it really an odd Richard’s Pipit, or, rather another first for Italy in the view of our Leica bins? Please, walk out the grass, please show us your median coverts, your flanks and lower parts and…and yes! The underparts are uniformly tawny all over, delicately creamy-buff or almost apricot, the mantle is densely and uniformly dark streaked as well as the crown, supercilium behind the eye is narrowing, bill is fine, pointed and not heavy looking, almost Turdus-like as in Richard’s. We are so happy! Thanks Leica!! An optic legend for legendary birders.

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Yellow-Browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus).