17/02/2003
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Rarity finders: Blyth's Pipit on Gringley Carr, Notts

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Saturday 28th December dawned bright and clear, a welcome change after several weeks of seemingly endless rain, mist and cloud. It seemed a good day to get in some birding and a little welcome exercise after the usual period of over-indulgence at Christmas, so along with my son, Callum, I set off to meet John Wozencroft for a day out in the field. We decided on Gringley Carr, just outside the Yorkshire border, in north Nottinghamshire, and only 10 miles from home. By 14:30 we had seen a nice collection of common birds but nothing more interesting than a distant Merlin. As it was still too early to go home, we decided to revisit a very overgrown set-aside field, where I had seen a Hen Harrier go down earlier in the day. After zig-zagging across the field for half an hour, we came to a wide ditch at the far end of the field which seemed too big an obstacle to cross, so we walked alongside it, chatting as we went.

Suddenly I heard a distinctive call, and shouted "Listen". Almost immediately, we heard the same call again, twice - a shrill, forceful "psheoo". John instinctively said "Richard's Pipit", as we picked up the bird in flight. Certainly a "large pipit", it landed about 100 metres away, deep in the rough. I did not think it sounded particularly like a Richard's so we immediately phoned two friends, Nick Whitehouse and Pete Greaves. For no apparent reason the bird lifted again, and called the same call note three times more, before again landing 100 metres away, though this time on the far side of the ditch. I was now quite certain that the bird was not a Richard's Pipit, having seen more than 30 in Britain (half of them self-found), and even more abroad in Asia. Equally I did not think that it sounded like a Tawny Pipit, a bird that I am quite familiar with, having seen a few in Britain but many more regularly during numerous trips to countries abroad.

Luckily for Nick, he was birding only half a mile away, so was with us in no time. Edging forward we approached the pipit only to flush it once more, and then again about fifteen minutes later just as Pete arrived, after which the bird flew off, high over a nearby wood and disappeared. In all, we had had four close-range and uninterrupted flight views of 100 metres each and had heard about 15 call notes. The time was now 15:45 and it seemed that our best option was to leave the area and try again next morning.

During the flight views, I looked closely at the bird's structure. Whilst definitely a "large pipit", it lacked the sheer bulk of a Richard's and overall the shape was perhaps more reminiscent of an oversize Water Pipit. More importantly, yes, it definitely looked short-tailed and compact at the rear end with tail held firmly, compared with the elongated tail of a Richard's which can readily be seen to flap about in flight. When flying on its own, it had the feel of a "large pipit", yet when it once flew alongside a Meadow Pipit, rather surprisingly, it appeared to be only about 20% or so bigger. In fact when they changed positions you had to look carefully to see which one you were looking at! As a supplementary feature, I also watched as the bird came in to land - it went straight in without any hesitation or hovering just above the ground. Between us then, we had a "large pipit", in structure both small and short-tailed, with a forceful shrill "psheoo" call note. Once I thought I heard a quiet "chup", but no more. All in all, we had everything you could expect to see on a flight-only Blyth's Pipit, and I was all but convinced.

The big problem was what to do next. Broadcasting the news to the birding media was likely to bring a lot of people to the area, an action hardly likely to win the sympathy of the local farmer! We had failed to spot it on the ground even though only four of us were present. One hundred bodies would be likely to produce little more than 100 people getting flight views and agreeing that it sounded like a Blyth's; not likely to impress the BBRC very much! I decided not to broadcast the news that evening in order to give ourselves a chance to do some tape recording next morning, which we did with John Hewitt and Graham Speight for company. Once a recording had been clinched by John McLoughlin, the news was put on 'Birdline' but as a probable, since the bird had still not been seen on the ground.

The key to its identification was observation of structure as detailed above and hearing the distinct call. The only call that I heard for certain was a "psheoo" or "pshioo", quite shrill with almost a squeaky tone and with a similar delivery to Richard's but less hoarse. It was, I suppose, nearer to a Yellow Wagtail (especially Black-headed type birds), but in practice it would not be likely to be confused with one. To my ears, Richard's has a rasping, shouted "schreep" whilst Tawny gives a slightly clipped "schlip" or "schlup". The call that we heard here was distinctive in its own right!

The bird could be frustratingly difficult to see on the ground, hiding away in even the slightest of vegetation. The thick cover and shallow ridges and furrows made it even more difficult, and many people struggled to see it at all! It was a stealthy approach with constant scanning through a telescope that usually paid dividends. Once found, it could be approached cautiously and some good views eventually be obtained. I finally pieced together a reasonable description, but only after spending more than 30 hours at the site over a seven-day period.

Structure:

I thought that the structural differences compared to a Richard's Pipit were most apparent in flight, though they did become clearer with time when viewed on the ground. The tail length was nicely in proportion with the body size, so the bird lacked the elongated rear end of Richard's, this being particularly noticeable in flight, when the tail never waved about as it appears to do so in Richard's, being held firmly instead. In addition the leg length lacked the long-legged appearance of Richard's. Equally apparent was a neckless appearance with head tucked into shoulders, and little neck stretching even when the bird stopped feeding to look around. The bird crept rather furtively through the vegetation, with a methodical gait, stopping now and then in its quest for prey. With shallow tail wags, its manner and horizontal carriage reminded me of an Olive-backed Pipit. All this contrasted with my memories of Richard's whose pot-bellied shape is often more upright and more erect on long legs with neck (also short) which is frequently stretched upwards when looking around. Richard's somehow display a confident posture, involving frequent standing on small tussocks to look around with body and head raised 45 degrees, whereas the Blyth's often remained motionless, but within the vegetation itself, looking around with horizontal carriage.

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Head:

The overriding impression at distance was of a capped head with a very open face. The crown itself was dark brown or black, incorporating 6 or 7 whitish lines running full length from forehead to nape, giving a uniform dark lined appearance right across the crown. In this respect it lacked the blackish lateral crown stripes as often seen on Richard's, whose crown centre is slightly less well marked. Whole loral area was plain creamy/white and seemed larger in extent than on the other "large pipits", this running back into a bold and pale creamy white supercilium of even width, stretching from forehead over eye and stopping at rear edge of ear coverts. The dark eye was surrounded by a prominent whitish area, formed by the pale lores and supercilium, but also by a pale creamy area under the eye on the ear coverts. Ear coverts themselves, slightly hollow centred with a rusty tone at times, included a short blackish eyestripe to the rear of eye, fading to the back of ear coverts, whilst a crescent shaped moustachial streak formed a narrow border to front lower edge. This latter feature was fairly short and narrow, not running along the lower edge of ear coverts and not reaching up to the lores, but in most views did seem to form a narrow crescent to the front of the eye. A pale creamy submoustachial was bordered below by narrow blackish malar which ended in a narrow point just below level of eye and did not invade the lores. This extended down onto sides of lower breast where it broadened slightly into a small triangular patch, most obvious when bird in hunched position.

The capped appearance ended abruptly at the nape which was noticeably paler greyer brown incorporating less obvious and lighter brown streaks.

Mantle:

Blyth's Pipit
Photo: Andy Brett

Usually showed alternate blackish and whitish lines. When dishevelled, a more uniform blackish/brown ground colour with liberally marked with whitish streaks throughout. In dull light the mantle looked darker blackish brown, in bright light a softer grey/brown, in most views a mid- to dark brown, lined with about six or seven thin whitish lines. To the sides of mantle and stretching down to the tertials, the scapulars were contrastingly plain and a little paler, a greyish/brown stretching down to tertials. Rump was not seen well but probably similarly unmarked plain grey/brown. Alula contrastingly black when exposed.

Underparts:

Blyth's Pipit
Photo: Pete Wragg

At distance looked uniform buffish, but closer views showed a paler cream belly, with a marginally darker peachy buff tone to breast and deeper buff to flanks. Under tail whitish. Throat creamy white, bordered below by a full gorget of fine streaks, neatly aligned and perhaps 5 rows deep. Base colour to breast perhaps more peachy with flanks unstreaked and buffier.

Tail:

Usually looked raggy, probably due to it always being wet. Tail length appeared to be about equal to tertial length. Full details of the tail pattern were hardly revealed, but were glimpsed when preening. Such brief views showed the outer tail feather to be edged wholly white, whilst the next to outermost seemed dark except for a broad white area right across tip.

It appeared to be a first-winter bird, as was perhaps to be expected. The overall impression of the wing during field views, was of a broad pale creamy bar across the tips of the median coverts, and a less obvious one on the greater coverts. In all field views, the median coverts appeared to have blackish and quite blunt centres, incorporating a short black point downwards which invaded, but did not break, the broad creamy white fringe. Initially it was quite a surprise to see close range photographs which showed a quite pointed tip to the central median coverts. The shape however may still be compatible with adult type median coverts of a Blyth's Pipit, since the dark centres to these feathers are less sharply pointed than would be expected for Richard's with sides that are not concave leading down to (and therefore enhancing) the point as in Richard's. The point therefore does not appear sharp and perhaps more importantly, the whitish (not buffish) fringe is broad and can be seen to extend around the feather edges more prominently than on Richard's. All or most of its median coverts appeared to be replaced adult type. I was not entirely sure about the outer two or three of these coverts since they were so small and difficult to view. They were definitely edged a richer buff, and could perhaps have been either retained juvenile or adult types. The inner two greater coverts were replaced adult types with a broader, bold, whitish fringe which contrasted with the rest.

The bird appeared to only have two tertials, the lower and middle, though it could be that the upper was just growing on the left-hand side. The moulted middle tertial was an adult feather possessing blackish centre with a broad rufous-buff fringe which contrasted with the longest tertial beneath, which had only a narrow whitish fringe and looked raggy in comparison (a juvenile feather). The primary projection equalled the length of the longest tertial. From behind, the tertials were obviously the darkest part of the bird.

Bill

Looked short and fine for a bird of its size, though this (and many of the other plumage features) became more apparent the longer that I watched the bird. Bill quite deep based and finely tipped, (though I did think it looked quite blunt when first seen!) pinkish throughout except for dark horn culmen and tip to both mandibles.

Legs

Blyth's Pipit
Photo: John Malloy

Feet and claws all bright pinky/yellow, in fact a very bright pinky/orange in good light. On several occasions the bird stood upright on mole hills when the length of the hind claw could be judged; this was the same length as the hind toe, so lacked the ridiculous length seen on most Richard's.

Seen to eat several small caterpillars.

Conclusion

Without doubt the single most important feature was the call.

In general, the bird was very like a Richard's Pipit. Structural and behavioural characteristics, as outlined above, were perhaps the more constant and observable differences rather than plumage criteria. As a rough guide, I would say this individual was generally a more contrasting bird than my memories of Richard's Pipit, especially:

  • a darker, more boldly and evenly lined crown (Richard's usually showing a broad dark lateral crown stripe with less obvious but still lined crown centre), which contrasted with a paler more greyish nape (Richard's more uniformly marked with crown, nape and mantle all a similar mid-brown colour tone.
  • a darker and more obviously lined dark/light mantle (Richard's similarly marked but duller and more uniform).
  • a breast marked with more streaks forming a fuller gorget across whole breast.
  • cream rather than buff edges to coverts.
  • perhaps brighter orange/pink colour to legs, feet and claws.

The above description has been written without any recourse to literature; it therefore describes the bird as I saw it. One of the most interesting factors is that the bird was identified without scrutiny of the median coverts. This was perhaps a good thing since these feathers do not appear to be "textbook" in shape. Has the importance and shape of these feathers been over-emphasised in the past?

The landowner kindly allowed unlimited access to his field throughout the Christmas holiday. Unfortunately permission was rescinded once the farm returned to work so it is uncertain as to whether the bird is still present at the time of writing (but it was definitely there on 5th January 2003).

There have been just 10 previous records of this rare pipit in the British Isles – see the Online Guide to Rarer British Birds - all but one of which have been since 1990 as birders have become better acquainted with the identification features of this species.
Written by: Lance J Degnan, Doncaster