Saturday, 27 January 2018

Winter Water Pipit ID

The inspiration for this post came from the superb mixed flock of Water and Rock Pipits currently on Colyford Common, but also due to the number of occasions I've been asked to assist in the ID of one or more of these birds. I really hope this helps.

The first tip of my Winter Water Pipit ID post is; Are you sure it's not a Meadow Pipit?

Meadow Pipit is the commonest and most widespread species of Pipit in the UK during the winter (well the whole year actually) and you can get them anywhere that Rock or Water Pipits occur. Hopefully this superb Meadow Pipit photo from Stephen Burch, which I've labelled, helps with this.

Meadow Pipit (c) Stephen Burch


1. Relatively small mostly pale bill.
2. Supercilium diffuse, particularly behind eye.
3. Well marked streaked mantle.
4. Green edging to flight feathers.
5. Very pale pink legs.
6. Fairly heavily streaked underparts, bold black streaks on white or buff-white underparts.

And now let's compare Meadow Pipit and Water Pipit side by side, thanks to a couple of photos I took way back in 2007 when the Axe Estuary Ringing Group caught these two birds together on Colyford Common.  Try and apply points 1-6 above to the Meadow Pipit in these pics, and then look at the same parts of the Water Pipit and check out the differences.

Water Pipit on the left

Just look at the difference in leg colour!


Plumage aside, once you've seen a few Water or Rock Pipits you'll soon notice how different they walk and feed to Meadow Pipits. The smaller Meadow Pipit usually makes a lot of fast jerky movements, unlike the often lumbered approach Water and Rock Pipits have to life.

Once you have ruled out Meadow Pipit by one or more of the above features, the next question is, is it a Water Pipit or a Rock Pipit? The books all talk about superciliums, wing-bars, outer tail feathers, habitat, etc. But in reality identifying whether you have a winter plumaged Rock Pipit or Water Pipit comes down to just one yes or no answer...

And the question; Does it have a white belly?


 Yes = Water Pipit.



No = Rock Pipit.


And I do mean white, clean Daz-white. Any olive/grey/dullness, well anything that isn't white, isn't white, so it isn't a Water Pipit. Let's try this out with a few more photos...

White = Water Pipit

White = Water Pipit

White = Water Pipit (x2)

It's pale, but it isn't white = Rock Pipit

No white-bellies here = Rock Pipit (x2)

One of each here, even out of focus white is still white!

Can't see most of this bird, but you can see enough, White = Water Pipit.


Even this shockingly shoddy photo taken during foggy weather shows how simple it can be...

I don't need to tell you which dot is a Water Pipit!


Obviously there is far more to a Water Pipit than a white belly, and these are some of the other features to look out for;

A nice grey nape contrasting with a brown mantle, so much so that they often remind me of mini-Fieldfares...



Water Pipits often also show noticeably paler rumps, whereas Rock Pipits tend to be basically one colour across the whole of their upperparts, usually olive-grey, with no/little contrast anywhere.

The underpart streaking is finer and sparser in Water Pipit. Rock Pipits usually have rounder more 'blob-like' streaks, densely packed, whereas Water Pipits, especially along the flanks, show long and narrow streaks.

Water Pipit above, Rock Pipit below.


There are other features, but be wary of some that are cited by books and other websites, because in my opinion they can be misleading. Here's a few things you may read regarding Water and Rock Pipit identification;

"Only Water Pipits show white outer tail feathers". Incorrect. Rock Pipits can show white outer-tail feathers, presumably birds of the Scandinavian littoralis race. Water Pipits should show more white in the tail though that is true.

"Two clear white-wing bars makes it a Water Pipit". Incorrect. It's surprising how vivid the wing bars can look on some Rock Pipits. They may not be as white as Water Pipits, but they can be almost as pale.

"Water Pipits live on marshes, Rock Pipits live on beaches". Incorrect. Just look at Colyford Common for starters! In winter Rock Pipits often inhabit marshes and estuaries, but also Water Pipits will overwinter on beaches.

"Water Pipits have pale legs, Rock Pipits have dark legs". Incorrect. Both species often show pale legs. Same goes for their bills, both species bills can be as pale as each other.

"Water Pipits have striking white supercilium". True, but not always. A classic Water Pipit does have wonderfully striking white super's, but not all are as extensive as others. And now and then you will come across a Rock Pipit with really impressive super's that would look just fine on any Water Pipit.


Actually the last paragraph makes a very good point. Water and Rock Pipits are a bit like first-winter Herring Gulls...they vary greatly! Often two of the same species look different, as the degree of streaking on the underparts, size of the supercilium, and often even the tone of the upperparts vary. For example some Water Pipits just look grey and white, whereas you'll come across some with really warm brown mantles, not far off Meadow Pipit colour.  That's why I think it's good to focus on the one most striking and consistent feature, does it have a white belly?

Both Water Pipits and Scandinavian Rock Pipits moult into summer plumage from late Feb/early March.  This is when identification can get a bit trickier, but even though the streaking on a Rock Pipits breast becomes much reduced, they still don't really ever look white breasted. Plus, as a Water Pipits breast turns pink, they are often completely streak free making them look more like Wagtails than Pipits! If you've never seen a summer plumage Water Pipit before, make the effort because they are absolutely worth it. Stunning birds.

And there we are.  If this post helps just one person to get to grips with Water and Rock Pipit ID, then I'm glad I took the time to compose it. Thanks for reading and happy hunting!


Thursday, 25 January 2018

Off-patch Turnstones

Not really sure why Seaton is such a black hole for Turnstone, but I don't think there's ever been a record of an over-wintering bird here. However if you travel eight miles to the west, a small flock are ever present on Sidmouth sea front virtually pick-pocketing for food, or six miles to the east of us this lovely little gang can be found around the Cobb at Lyme Regis...



And at both sites they allow super close views...



Top birds. Always great fun to watch, but clearly stubbornly site-faithful!


Monday, 22 January 2018

An Hour Out

I've done quite well today considering I've only had an hour out tops, in two parts, mid morning and late afternoon.

This morning on Beer Beach, a male Black Redstart popped up in front of me, which was presumably the recent Seaton Hole stunner I thought...

Always great to see these winter beauts


But then I saw it from the side...

No white in the wing and limited black on the throat/upper breast


Yes it was a first-winter male, which means we have definitely got at least four Black Redstarts wintering with us this year. The adult male has been at Seaton Hole almost daily, and on Saturday females were along side him, and in the middle of Seaton Town.  Chances are there's more than four, but at least we have an 'at least' figure. Today's bird was clearly not the first-winter male I had along Trevelyan Road (Seaton) on 16/11/17 as that one was already showing decent pale wing patches. Because of the date, that bird could easily have been a passing autumn migrant so I've not included it in the over-wintering total.

This evening there weren't many gulls along the Estuary to go through, but there was a single adult Med Gull. Was interesting to see it had already lost its winter mask, showing the first signs of a hood...

Only my fourth of the year!


All the Wigeon were on the sea this evening, about 250, due to shooting in the valley. Among them were a few Teal, and surprisingly a female Pintail, our first of the year...

Spot the Pintail! It wasn't always easy in the light and swell...
Eight Wigeon, two Teal (left) and female Pintail (second from back)


On Saturday, two days after 'Twilight Tim' had four Hawfinch at Colyton Church, as I was walking through Colyton with the dog, having seen no Hawfinches at the Church, I was amazed to watch a flock of nine fly in, land on a tree (which is marked with a red dot on the map below), then twenty seconds later fly off back west with a single Greenfinch...



If only flocks of Hawfinches dropped out the sky like this every winter!

Friday, 19 January 2018

Hawfinch Hysteria

This post is not for the faint-hearted. This morning I actually suffered from a Hawfinch-hypo, and you may too by the time you've read this blog post...

What is better than watching patch Hawfinches? Watching ground feeding patch Hawfinches that's what...



Am absolutely delighted that all the time I've spent in Musbury getting to grips with this group of Hawfinches rewarded me so well this morning. Such a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half of my life that I will relive so many times. Pure Hawfinch heaven.




I saw about six birds in all, including one stunning male (nice comparison of male and female in the middle section of the above video). Listen to the video as well, because in the second section there's lots of 'tic' calling, and during the third section you will hear the 'seep' call a few times.

As well as lots of on the ground views, I enjoyed some nice perched views too...



They are such great birds. Simply awesome. I really hope they never leave...

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Results Are In!

Thanks everyone for taking part in the Linnet count game, I've enjoyed watching the different estimates come in. I've had 35 responses in all, varying from 450 - 1500 birds. Here's the pic again...



So what do the guesstimates look like?  Well I've quickly put this little bar chart together, which I hope makes sense. I have rounded all guesses up/down to the nearest '50' to neaten it up...



As you can see the most popular estimate was the 600 bracket (575-624), with 800 being the second favoured. The 500-700 range received 60% of votes, with the average of all answers working out at 688.  And the answer? Well I took a series of three photos just after I took the above pic, slightly more zoomed in. I have since stitched them together and counted...



After each '00' I changed colour, except for the turquoise on the right, that's 45 birds. Which means the answer is 845 Linnet! Although to be pedantic, in the original photo there's clearly still a few birds flying in, about 15, so 830 would also be correct.  But as I was only after estimates, anyone guessing 800-850 is a winner for me, so well done @bucko41 @CharmouthBirder @cornishbirder @freddyalway @surreywallcreep and @WhitleyBirder.

It's been a bit of a wake up call for me though. I often have to count lots and quickly, and whenever I double check (with photos) I'm always there or there abouts. But my god, I was way out with these! And I think I know why...

Pretty much all occasions I've had to conduct quick mass counts involve larger birds, mostly wading birds and wildfowl, also Wood Pigeons and Starlings/thrushes. And I seem to be able to mass count large numbers of these just fine, but my eye is clearly simply untrained to big numbers of small birds. And thinking about it some more, I'm not surprised, because how often do we see large flocks of finches/buntings these days? Anything up to 250/300 I would count bird by bird, and I can't think of many occasions that I've had a single flock of 300+ small passerines to count!

There were 900-950 Linnet in total in this field, just west of Greendale Farm Shop, which I was really impressed about. A truly massive gathering. I would love to have access to this field and have the chance to give the place a good grilling. With that many birds about, who knows what else could be lurking in there...

Thanks again everyone for getting involved. Those of you that were brave enough anyway :)


Friday, 12 January 2018

A Counting Conundrum and Cattle Egret

So what are your counting skills like? Or estimating skills I should say... We popped into Greendale Farm Shop today (along the A3052 near Westpoint) and I was astonished to see the number of Linnets feeding in a neighboring field. I estimated 500 birds when I quickly counted this flock perched up, but what do you think?



I'll post the answer in a blog post on Sunday night, but before that I'd love to read your guesstimates. And I don't mean sit there and count them one by one, take a quick look, count them like you would a large flock of moving birds in the field, and let me know what number you come up with. Be so interesting to see the variation in responses. Is my 500 bang on the money, or would you go higher or lower?

I've been off work this week, and for the last few nights have been trying to get to grips with the Egret roost, but I've kept missing them! They keep switching sides, one night roosting on the Borrow Pit then the next night roosting in Axmouth - and I kept picking the wrong side!  Tonight finally I was in the right spot, and at Axmouth one Cattle Egret (which I reckon is a wintering bird that's been with us since Nov 2017, just been spending the day time north of the patch) and 48 Little Egrets came into roost.

Also tonight there were good numbers of large gulls on the lower Estuary at dusk. Sadly there was nothing better in them than this dodgy looking third-winter (I think) hybrid-type...



And lastly, Sue Murphy saw the two Musbury Hawfinch this afternoon, both from the car park near the Church.  Delighted that someone else has managed to catch up with them.

Right then, get guesstimating folks... 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

More Local Hawfinches

Yet again the day's highlight came within the last hour of light... A stroll with Jess and Harry from Musbury up to Musbury Castle rewarded me with two sightings of Hawfinch. One flew low north east over my head and landed in distant trees half way along the footpath from Musbury to Higher Bruckland Farm (just within the patch boundary!). Then when we returned to the car, which was parked in the small car park by the Church in Musbury, I could hear Hawfinch calling. It took some searching but I finally located it in the top of a tree just down and across Church Hill from us. Also saw 250+ Redwing and four Yellowhammer in the fields below Musbury Castle.

Earlier in the day, two adult Dark-bellied Brent Geese were sat on the sea with the Wigeon flock off Seaton Beach. They didn't stay long though, and after five minutes flew off west. January is easily the best month of the year to connect with this bellied-variety of Brent here, although most records are of birds passing offshore.

It was nice to get a mist net up for a few hours today too, my first bird ringing session of 2018. Although it was a modest catch with just eight new birds ringed, there was one rather nice highlight. It's a species that comes into the garden frequently, but up until today has always managed to avoid my nets...



Am sure you all recognise that eye, yes a Jackdaw...



As you can just about see in the above photo, this bird had a few white/partially white feathers in its wings. This leucism is quite common in corvids, although I see it most often in Carrion Crows and less so in the other species...




Tuesday, 9 January 2018

White-fronted Goose and Caspian Gull

Well that was an exciting hour out!

Mid afternoon Ian Mc texted with news of our second White-fronted Goose in three years on Colyford Marsh. But he soon texted again with more news, it had flown off... Thankfully Martin Wolinski was in the Tower Hide and phoned in excitement as an adult White-fronted Goose had just landed on the mud in front of him. Thanks for the call Martin.

By the time I got out this afternoon, it was back on Colyford Marsh where it thought it was a Shelduck...



But quickly saw sense, flew south, and decided it actually wanted to be a gull...



Although this is our second in three years, I missed the last one so it's my first on patch for a staggering six years and three months! The last one I saw/found here was a Greenland flavirostris bird. My last European White-front albifrons was six months before that, also a lone adult bird, but oddly in the month of May!  White-fronted Geese are going the same way as all the grey goose species and winter swans for us, getting scarcer and scarcer. Whooper Swans and White-fronted Geese were virtually annual on the Axe ten plus years ago, presumably it's the milder winters meaning these species simply don't need to fly as far south and west.

As the post title suggests, there was more to the afternoon than the Goose. Just before 4pm the White-fronted Goose disappeared (I think it followed a small flock of Canada Geese south west) but was, amazingly, replaced by a gorgeous snowy-headed first-winter Caspian Gull! Another somewhat overdue bird, as I said the other day, our first since Nov 2015.  

This is the seventh Caspian Gull I've found here, the ninth I've seen here (the Axe's thirteenth), and was just as gorgeous as all of them, but it was without doubt the most frustrating. My first views of it were very distant and in rapidly diminishing light. I drove to a different view point where it was closer, but after a brief clear view, gull after gull decided to stand in front of it before the whole flock took to the air and the Casp flew off south. Arse. Hopefully it sticks around.

So my first views looked like this...



Knowing the pictures would be so poor, I tried a video. This didn't prove much better...





Then I moved. Head and back end showing well here, just missing the middle bit (second gull left of the male Mallard)...



Not even a head in this picture, but it does show the wing quite well (note the solidly dark tertials with narrow pale tips, plain greater coverts and the amount of grey on the mantle)...



See what I mean - frustrating. I never managed the money shot, but thankfully saw all the key features, and most are visible in these pics somewhere (though some squinting may be required!). It wasn't a massive bird, larger than surrounding Herrings but not by much, and although its bill was narrow and longer than the Herrings, again it wasn't massive. This makes me think it's a female.  

My photos are so poor that I'm not going to do my usual 'this is what makes it a Caspian Gull' notes. I will if I get some better shots I promise.

So great to see on social media that lots of people are coming over/getting out to enjoy the Colyford Common Water Pipits. They really are great value, I can't recommend them enough. And as today proves, who knows what else you might find...

Monday, 8 January 2018

Even More Water Pipits

Jess and I had a house sort out day today, which often happens once the Chirstmas decs have come down in early January. But as morning turned to afternoon, Harry made it clear he needed a nap, so I selflessly offered to take him out for a walk so he could enjoy a bit of peace and quiet and knock out some zzz's. Amazingly we wound up at Colyford Common again...

Much duller light today, but thankfully less wind, although a few more people were around which meant the Pipits were a bit more flighty.  There were more of them though, and twice I counted twelve birds, an impressive ten Water Pipits and two Rock Pipits. Thanks to the versatile Nikon P900 I managed to take (record) shots of all twelve in one scan. Now you're welcome to switch off now, as what follows is nothing better than poor photos of twelve Pipits, but crucially they are poor photos of twelve different Pipits...

Rock Pipit one
Rock Pipit two (back) and Water Pipit one
Water Pipit two
Water Pipits three and four
Water Pipit five
Water Pipits six and seven (seven is unidentifiable in this pic I'm afraid)
Water Pipit eight
Water Pipits nine and ten


Wow, I'm impressed if you're still with me! If so, the exciting news is that if you check back tomorrow there will no doubt be even MORE Water Pipit photos ;-)