Thursday, 6 May 2010

More mist, rain and northerlies

I'm a bit worried this May will pass us by with no letup in these northerlies. Didn't manage to get up there this morning due to an early morning work appointment.
I forgot to mention a couple of birds seen earlier in the spring and I apologise to the finders.
A cracking 1st winter Iceland Gull was found in Llandudno Bay at the base of the Little Orme on March 31st by Julian Wheldrake. Thankfully I was close by and managed to connect with the bird before it flew over the Little Orme to the Penrhyn Bay side. It was then relocated here for a few minutes before again moving on west. I wonder if it was the one that turned up on the Wirral a few days later?

A Red throated Pipit was reported by Peter Alderson on March 19th. This bird quickly moved on but a bird was photographed on the same day that could have been a trap for the unwary. Below is an article I have written for Birding North West about the bird.

An Orange-breasted Meadow Pipit on the Great Orme, March 2010 – a possible trap for the unwary.

A Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus was reported on the Great Orme on March 19th 2010. The bird had been seen briefly by Orme regular, Pete Alderson above the cemetery and he had put the record out via Rare Bird Alert and Birdguides.

Unfortunately, due to the time of day, most locals were at work or were birding elsewhere so the bird did not receive the attention it deserved. Luckily a visiting birder was on site and managed to secure a picture of a pipit showing an extremely orange breast which was presumed to be the bird that Pete had seen earlier. The bird was not heard to call and moved on through quickly, disappearing before others arrived.

The pictures taken of the Great Orme bird certainly shows a distinct bird, one that would warrant close scrutiny by any birder. However, apart from the rich, orange tone to the breast, all other characteristics point to it being a Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis.

Although the original finder is quite sure that the bird photographed was not the original bird reported, it does serve as a reminder that these orange breasted Meadow Pipits can be a trap for the unwary.

In March 2004, I stumbled across a similar bird at Morfa Madryn NR which at got my pulse racing and the fuzzy photos I took were certainly a talking point at the time amongst the local birders. I tried hard to turn the bird into a Red-throated Pipit without success. It was then, as I researched the identification of this bird that I first came across the so-called race whistleri, a form that I had never heard of before and that could apparently be found in the western parts of Ireland and Scotland.

It was extremely timely then, that the following year, Richard Porter wrote an article in Birding World about an ‘Orange-breasted’ Meadow Pipit he had seen on Blakeney Point, Norfolk in March and discussed several other birds seen in the British Isles that showed similar features.

In the article it noted that Cramp et al. (1988) gives the range of whistleri as Ireland and western Scotland. It describes it as
on average deeper and redder olive-brown above [than nominate pratensis], and with slightly heavier black streaks; streaks on underparts similar to typical nominate pratensis from Scandinavia, but ground colours on chest sides of breast, and flanks markedly deeper, cinnamon-buff. East from western Scotland, populations gradually paler, and birds from USSR on average paler and greyer than Scandinavian ones, but difference very slight. Birds from Iceland and Greenland similar to Scandinavian birds, not to whistleri. Population from western Ireland an average slightly darker than those from western Scotland and hence sometimes separated as theresae, but differences slight and variation within Britain and Ireland gradual, thus theresae does not warrant recognition.

Cramp et al. also states ‘In fresh plumage from August to mid-winter, noticeably more richly coloured than nominate pratensis, being more rufous above and much less white below, with pink-buff (not yellow-buff) suffusion. Such birds can look startlingly different from more olive or paler brown individuals of nominate pratensis and may resemble A.travialis [Tree pipit] and A.cervinus [Red-throated Pipit]’.

His conclusion was that these distinctive birds were difficult to assign and could possibly be richly coloured whistleri race birds at the extreme end of the form, or that they were individuals of Meadow Pipits showing erythrism (excess red pigmentation). As I was convinced that it was a bird of this type that I had seen at Madryn, I began to take particular note of Meadow Pipits as they passed through each spring as well as having a good look at Meadow pipits while visiting the west of Ireland and have come across birds showing a buffy orange tone on a few occasions, especially in March or early April. However, I have not seen a bird as extreme as the 2010 Orme bird. In Porters article, he notes that McGeehan or Mullarney had never come across such an extreme bird as the Blakeney Point bird in their native Ireland, strengthening the thought that these birds have a pigmentation irregularity.

When I received the photographs of the March 2010 Orme bird, I was annoyed that I hadn’t seen the bird and had a chance to study it. I put the photographs on, Surfbirds forum and the North Wales Bird forum in the hope of generating some interest. There was a rather muted response, the vast majority being in favour of whistleri Meadow Pipit. Some readers had also posted references of similar birds such as one seen in Cambridgeshire during the same month. One photo was posted by Steve Fletcher from Spain showing an even more distinctive bird than the Orme individual; one that would send most birders pulses into overdrive.

Wherever these Meadow Pipits come from, they are certainly very interesting and remain a huge trap for the unwary. It is interesting that most birds are seen in March and early April, several weeks before the first Red-throated Pipit is seen in the United Kingdom. As for the original bird seen by Pete Alderson, we will never know, but as a Red throated Pipit was seen into December at Ballycotton, Ireland last year there is always a chance that an over-wintering bird may pass through early with Meadow pipits. However a brightly coloured throat and chest is not enough to clinch one and a full suite of features would have to be noted in a claim. The heavily streaked rump, the black and white mantle stripes, the yellowish base to the bill and of course the unique drawn out ‘psssiihh’ call would all have to be included in a notebook description, or even better a photograph to quash any doubts.

Porter R. 2005 Birding World Volume 18 number 4
Alstrom P and Mild, K. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America
Cramp S. et al 1988 The Birds of the western Palearctic Vol. 5

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff Marc, nice one. I had a good search for images of whistleri at the time, and the only one i could find which was in the right area at the right time (in fact the Outer Hebrides in summer) looked nothing like the Orme bird and a lot like a nominate! However that's hardly exhaustive and as you say it seems whistleri can be quite variable. Would like to see an image of one looking like the Orme bird though. As you say there's potential for confusion, with the possibility of Meadows getting called RTP, but also vice versa i think too.
    Cheers, Mike.