Help Me Identify a Bird

IdleRich

IdleRich
I hope you can help me as there is a bird that I see quite frequently which I just cannot identify. I live in Portugal (Santa Iria de Azoia just outside Lisbon in sight of the Tagus estuary and the nearby marshland). We moved here last December (I mean 2017) and several times during the night we witnessed a large bird flying over our house towards the river and back again. It disappeared during summer and we thought it had gone for good but we have seen it again lately. I am at my wits end trying to identify it as wherever I look the only night birds listed in Portugal are various owls and nightjars and I am certain this is neither (we do see owls here sometimes and they are nothing like this, nightjars are simply too small). I wonder if this is something blown off course or a day bird behaving strangely. Below I include the best description we have.

Size: Largish - bigger than a raven, smaller than a heron
Shape: Long thick wings, body is slim and shortish with a tail half the length (not wedge-shaped)
Colour: White/beige underneath, possibly brown on top or maybe beige but we mainly see it from below at night so could be deceived
Beak: ?
Legs: Can't see them, presumably not long
Noise: not sure yet
Flying style: Flies higher than 4th story (and sometimes much higher), purposefully as though from one place to another. Lots of flapping, no gliding, soaring or hovering
Habitat: Flies back and forth over our streets several times a night, as though from one place to another, presumably from scrubland behind our flat to the estuary or the riverside and back
Time seen: So far between 10.30pm until 5am - only in winter so far
Habits: Always on its own

Any suggestions you make would be gratefully received. No-one so far has been able to make even a guess. Or even if you know any authority body that might have some answers. I've tried websites that are supposed to identify birds but this doesn't fit any of them which makes me think it must be something that is either not supposed to be where it was or is not supposed to behave like this.
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
it's an ominous cormorant
Aaargh, what's that? I'm not getting the joke. Is that a real bird or is it some kind of legendary curse thing like a banshee or what? I don't understand! I didn't think I could become more confused on this....
 

luka

Moderator
The funny thing about this thread is Rich has been going on about this cormorant for about a year now on facebook and all his expert twitcher mates tell him its a cormorant but he's just not having it. He's determined to find a sexier explanation. I really admire this refusal to bend to mere facts and the reality principle
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
it's gotta be, i reckon
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cormorant
just your description made it ominous!
No, read the description above, from what we can see of this it is beige or even white while cormorants are dark. Also, cormorants are day birds as far as I know but we only see this during the night. Furthermore cormorants fly low as a rule and flap their wings very fast. This bird flies either high or very high - it does flap its wings a lot but not as fast as a cormorant. Also it's a completely different shape from a cormorant.

The funny thing about this thread is Rich has been going on about this cormorant for about a year now on facebook and all his expert twitcher mates tell him its a cormorant but he's just not having it. He's determined to find a sexier explanation. I really admire this refusal to bend to mere facts and the reality principle
Nah, you're getting confused here Luka*. There are two birds, one of which I saw the one and only time about a week ago in a tree near a pond in the park on other side of the river. Some guy (dunno who the fuck he was to be honest, could be an expert I suppose) said it was a cormorant and I thought that it wasn't, but then I walked around and saw it from the other side and it was.

The other bird is something that we saw at night several times last year and for the identity of which no-one has been able to come up with any suggestion at all. We saw it maybe five or six times last winter and it disappeared - we assumed, never to be seen again. The thing is that in Portugal there are only two basic types of nocturnal bird and it's definitely neither of them. We thought it was some kind of thing that wasn't supposed to be here and that it had maybe been blown off course. Once it was gone we thought it had gone for good... but two nights ago, to our huge shock we saw it again (twice) and so last night we went on the balcony again and waited for it again and sure enough we saw it once again. I reckon we'll see it tonight too cos it seems to be a creature of habit and that habit is flying slowly over our street every now and again. In fact, we'll try and take a photo of it tonight - Liza almost got one yesterday - though I guess it will just be a white blob even if we do.
I've emailed the description above to a few organisations such as the RSPB and others to see if they have any ideas. Anything at all.

It could be Luke's purple heron, last seen in Regent's canal in 2003 (allegedly).
We have seen a purple heron in the marsh by the estuary. Lots of wading birds in fact including the following; grey heron, great egrets, small egrets, flamingos, spoonbills, curlews, avocets, stilts and possibly some storks at one point. We've also seen ospreys and ravens, a couple of owls and something that might just have been a vulture although I'm not totally convinced on that one.

*Oh by the way, I read the book that you kindly sent me through the post the other day - it was really really incredibly shit
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
No seriously I really enjoyed the book that I have read, I haven't started on the other yet.
But the bird thing is driving me crazy. It's weird because it's not the complexity or the large number of options that are flummoxing us, it's the total opposite. When it flies over it's high and relatively slow so we can observe it for quite a long time and make out its details - although sometimes it's quite to hard to picture afterwards (I guess that's something to do with how memory works though, not a function of this type of bird). When I put them into any bird identifier type thing it very quickly gets to a point where none of the options you can enter are correct... it basically boils down to the fact that according to any info I can find there just aren't any birds at all that are anything like this one. Certainly not in Europe or North Africa or at night. Just have to hope that one of the experts I've emailed comes up with something that at least points us in the direction to explore.
 

luka

Moderator
I was only teasing of course. Twitter was always my furst port of call for these questions. I'd just address them to various experts there and always got my answer in minutes
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
I was only teasing of course. Twitter was always my furst port of call for these questions. I'd just address them to various experts there and always got my answer in minutes
I know. And I meant to withhold discussion of the books later when I have read them in full and made more effort to understand them. I will say that, at the moment though, I love the word choice and the shapes of the sentences, the alliteration and the rhymes and the messing around and so on. So on a micro level I really enjoy it... but I have to admit that, on a larger, macro level, I have no idea what's going on. I don't understand it yet, it's gonna take more than snatched readings on the train into town to penetrate more deeply. But I will enjoy doing that.
But back to the bird, I think it's something that is confounding those kind of searches you get on the internet cos I think it's something that is in the wrong place or behaving in the wrong way. I bet if an actual expert saw it or even heard a description s/he would most likely nail it straight away. I don't think it's a rare bird as such, it's more likely one that is confused by being blown off course or global warning or the weird chemicals coming out of the factory etc or perhaps it's just a pet escaped from someone's house.
 
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IdleRich

IdleRich
Maybe. We are looking at at least getting a photo. I do have a telescope and a spotting scope and some binoculars which would aid if the target was stil and if it wasn't nocturnal. Most of the stuff stops being useful at night though so I think we are going to be reduced to a pretty basic camera phone type thing. In our favour though is the fact that the bird is large and slow moving and, lately, the nights have been bright and clear. Liza almost managed to catch a photo the other day but it just went out of sight as she clicked the button, however I'm thinking that if we keep persevering and looking every night we ought to capture it to some extent at least eventually....
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
Well a couple of days ago my emails to various random bird experts* bore some fruit in the form of this email and the ensuing dialogue ....

I know you say it is not an owl, but I think it may be one—specifically, a Short-eared Owl. Based on eBird records, the species is predominantly found in your area only in the winter. It is the size and color and flies in the manner you described. Also, it is an unusual owl in that it hunts in the open, over grasslands and marshes; its daytime roosts often are in adjacent scrublands.
Which is definitely interesting. What he says about the behaviour of this bird makes it an almost perfect fit (and is a real eye-opener for me). The only problem is that the pictures and videos I find of this owl don't really look similar to what we've seen - but we've only seen our friend at night and from a fair distance so that's not as big an issue as it first sounds. Also, the problem with videos on youtube of the short-eared owl is that they are always of the exciting (cool) moments when it's hunting and it twists and turns and glides in total contrast to the bird we've seen, BUT, the expert says (and I do find it plausible) that the bird flies in a completely different way when hunting to the way it does when it flies from place so this difference in itself does not rule it out. The only thing is that the bird we've seen appears such an ungainly flier that it does stretch belief slightly that it could change from this ugly flapper to the red arrow on the video.
But, overall, what he says about the habits is very compelling. At the moment I'd say that I'm almost able to give it a positive ID as a short-eared owl and move on to the next thing... almost. He too suggests a video to finally put the matter to bed but sadly despite constant trips to the balcony throughout the night the thing has not revealed itself lately and even if it does it simply will not be that easy to get decent footage.

*Although I realise that most people have had enough of experts these days, especially when their so-called advice comes out contrary to what you want it to be - perhaps it would be wisest to just tell him to fuck off, suppress his report, and tell all of you that I have conclusively decided that it is either an ostrich or a phoenix and no other options will be considered henceforth.
 
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