Monday, 7 April 2014

Tale of a Teal and a Perplexing Pipit Puzzle

Since my last update I’ve seen a few bits n’ bobs. The dusky warbler in Suffolk – an elusive little thing, I was surprised to see it on arrival, but failed to get decent views in the 3.5 hours I waited.

Then there was the teal. A drake Baikal in fact, just 20 minutes from home. It was found on a WeBs count a fortnight earlier and news wasn’t released at the time as it was assumed to be an escape. But when Mike Everett came across it and put the news on the Cambirds Google Group it was MEGA’d by the info services – ensuring it was taken seriously by the birding community.

I was in London when news broke but got it at last light, having spent an hour trying to find the right spot on a right wild goose chase – or should I say plastic duck chase? Who knows where it’s from, but with the species now firmly established in Cat A of the British list I don’t see why this one won’t be given the benefit of the doubt.

Anyway I had a MEGA on one of my local patches so was happy to give it the benefit of the doubt, returning a few days later for seconds. These two trips gave me my first migrants of the year (garganey & sand martin though I’d also had a few singing chiffs and blackcaps prior to this) and some notable mammals – badger and weasel crossed the road in front of my car on the outskirts of nearby villages and a large bat was hunting over the guided busway close to where I’d parked on my first visit. It could have been a noctule but was inaudible and quite low-flying (and possibly not quite big enough) leaving me with thoughts of Leisler’s. I returned with a bat detector on my second visit but couldn’t relocate it, neither did I notice the nearby mink, which was apparently lying freshly dead on the busway just yards from where I parked.

A quick stop at Connaught Water a few days later failed to produce the hoped-for smew (and no mandarins either) but there was a nice sinensis cormorant in breeding plumage.

continental cormorant (sinensis), Connaught Water

I don’t usually check these but as this one was conveniently close with an obvious whitish head and some deep orange bare facial skin I thought it would be a continental one so grabbed a passing shot, one that shows the correct shape of facial skin for this form, with the rear border falling at roughly a right-angle to the gape-line. A useful plate illustrating this difference can be seen here

Yesterday I headed to the Ouse Washes for a few hours. The Washes were graced with typically good numbers of birds – 2 pairs of garganey, 50+ ruff, a few hundred black’wits and at least 80 pintail were all noteworthy. A spoonbill over the back (present since the previous day) represents only my second county record, and a flyover yellow wag was my first of the year.

And then I came across this pipit.

I’ve had some tricky gulls to sort out recently but passerines have generally been straightforward. Not so the small blushing pipit creeping about near Welches Dam Hide. It was on its own and so was I. And I didn’t know what it was. It spent much of its time part hidden in the vegetation in windy conditions and took on different appearances as the sun peeped in and out of the clouds; I went from water pipit to Littoralis rock but it was clearly neither of these, and I was forced to consider other options – coutelli water pipit and Siberian buff-bellied (spp japonicus) can both show similar toned underparts to this bird but I’m not that familiar with them, though I knew the whole rock-water-buff-bellied pipit complex consisted of birds with plain mantles, unlike the one I was watching. I knew meadow pipit can sometimes be rather pinky-orange below, but this bird had a grey head, too, though several other features seemed to fit meadow pipit. It was time to get some photos and sort it out afterwards.

Aberrant meadow pipit ('whistleri-type' or erythristic), Ouse Washes

Aberrant meadow pipit ('whistleri-type' or erythristic), Ouse Washes

Aberrant meadow pipit ('whistleri-type' or erythristic), Ouse Washes

Aberrant meadow pipit ('whistleri-type' or erythristic), Ouse Washes

Aberrant meadow pipit ('whistleri-type' or erythristic), Ouse Washes
 After doing some reading up at home I was happy the bird was an aberrant meadow pipit, one of the ‘funny’ ones occasionally misidentified as red-throated pipit and regularly attributed to the claimed Irish & Hebridean race whistleri, but possibly just an erythristic (excess red pigment) form of nominate pratensis. Among the features which indicate this bird is a meadow pipit are the small pale bill, virtually complete white eye-ring only broken marginally at either end (more obviously in front of the eye in rock/ water-types), clean cut black streaking below, heavily streaked mantle, streaked crown, indistinct supercilium and pale legs. Its call seemed less squeaky than a normal mipit's and it didn't call on take-off. It shows moult contrast on the greater coverts but I think this can be shown by both young and older birds, rendering ageing perhaps unsafe at this time of year. Of note is the fact that the pinky-buff of the underparts is echoed throughout the bird's plumage forming the ground colour of the mantle and also showing through on the grey of the head. Could this be more suggestive of a pigment condition perhaps? Personally I'm not sure I buy the whistleri theory - only a tiny proportion of whistleri look anything other than nominate pratensis and some individuals seen elsewhere (eg here) have been in heavy moult and perhaps more local in origin than from the Celtic West. 'Whistleri' is however a good search term for Googling if you are wanting to see more pics of these birds. There is a marked peak in records in March and April and this bird fits the pattern neatly - what are they and where have they come from? We may yet find out. For another at this time of year in Cambridgeshire (from 2006) see here

A couple of my own pics taken in the Hebs last year appear below and show just how similar most birds are to nominate pratensis. For further reading see Richard Porter's article on these aberrant type meadow pipits in Birding World (2005) with particular reference to one photographed on Blakeney Point.

meadow pipit (pres race whistleri), Harris (August 2013)

meadow pipit (pres race whistleri), Harris (August 2013)
 And to finish with I noticed this pair of great tits at my garden feeder this morning. The female is very washed out - they're like chalk & cheese! Could this be down to simple variation? The colours are similar to some juvs I seen but it's too early for a juvenile and there's no yellow flanges. I've seen some odd great tits before, including a couple of melanistic-looking ones in the Midlands. Or perhaps it could even be a bird of eastern origin? Comments welcome! 

Porter R. 2005 Birding World Volume 18 number 4

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