Tag Archives: Richard’s Pipit

A Twitch to Kent : Day Three

I am on a weekend minibus trip to Kent in an effort to see rare birds which have been blown off course on their migration. So far we have managed to see a Glossy Ibis and an Isabelline Shrike.

Sunday, October 16th, 1988.

There is still no Richard’s Pipit, so as a total last resort, we start looking around for our own birds. As a strategy, it is totally ludicrous. We find a male Brambling on some recently ploughed fields:

Brambling%20male zzzzzzzz

Then we meet one of the wardens who is wandering around looking for all the world like a refugee from Woodstock. He asks says if we’d like to see something really impressive. I personally don’t want to go into the bushes with him, but everybody else does. It turns out to be a second male Brambling that he has just caught in the nets, and to be fair, it is a very beautiful bird indeed, in far better plumage than any other Brambling that I have ever seen:

Male-brambling-on-a-tree-trunk xxxxxx
We spend half an hour in some other bushes looking in vain for a Firecrest, the smallest bird normally encountered in the wild in England. It is a very rare bird in our own county of Nottinghamshire:

c608px-Mad-Firecrest-B

We are just beginning to lose interest when suddenly someone runs up and shouts that there is an Olive-backed Pipit at the Observatory. It has been caught in their nets within the last half hour and has been taken inside the building to be weighed, measured, and then ticked off. The wardens  have promised to keep the bird in a nice comfortable bag until everyone has got there to see it released.
Nevertheless, I just have to run. I might be fat, but when I have to move I can. It’s a little bit
like a hippopotamus on its way to the water hole, not elegant but very effective, at least up to a range of 100 yards or so. I just manage to avoid a heart attack, by jogging the last bit fairly sedately:

0361-South-Luangwa-Mfuwe

There is a good crowd of people there already. I go into the office to watch the bird being weighed and measured. All I manage to see through the crowd of people, though, is the back of the bird’s head, emerging incongruously between two of the fingers of the warden holding it. Does that qualify for a tick?
It’s a bit like saying you’ve seen Bruce Willis just by seeing the top of his bald head in the middle of a crowd of security men.

I do know somebody who actually ticked Golden Oriole based only on the top of the bird’s head visible over the edge of the domed nest, emerging only as the wind rocked the whole precarious structure:

nest Golden_Oriole_(Oriolvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

Surely this, though, is unique in its desperation.  Let’s hope so. A real Golden Oriole is a bird well worth seeing in its entirety:

male oriolre

After a token ten minutes’ delay, the warden brings the Olive-backed Pipit onto the area of grass in front of his office, removes it from the bag, and holds it up to the fully assembled multitude to look at and photograph.
Not a particularly spectacular bird, even if it is a very rare one. It’s a lot drabber than I imagined and doesn’t as far as I am concerned, have a lot of olive on the back. It’s a rich rather brown colour, with heavy streaking and spotting underneath:

OBP
Unfortunately, I forget that there is an important black spot behind the eye which is a diagnostic feature and which I should be looking for. Never mind. It can’t be that obvious anyway, or else I would have noticed it.
Certainly, in the subsequent photographs of the bird that I buy, this feature is not outstanding by any stretch of the imagination:

OBPPPPPPPPPPP

After ten minutes or so of being paraded around like a sporting trophy, the pipit is taken to a nearby field and released. It disappears into the adjacent wood like a bullet from a gun. It seems pleased to exchange its fifteen minutes of fame for the chance to get back to the serious business of looking for insects on the floor of the forest.

Nowadays, Olive-backed Pipit is not really a very rare bird in England. A couple of years or so after this, I managed to see a much more obliging bird, in the woods near the beach at Holkham in north Norfolk. This individual had never seen human beings before, and, if you stood absolutely still, was happy to approach you very closely. Indeed, as I leaned against a handy tree, it actually came so near to my feet that my binoculars would not focus on it.

 

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A Twitch to Kent : Day Two

In a previous article, I told the story of going down to Kent in a minibus in an effort to see rare birds, or, at the very least, some different species to those in Nottinghamshire. On the Friday, we saw a Glossy Ibis:

gloucsglossyibis

Saturday, October 15th, 1988.

“Next day sees us up at the crack of dawn, to look for the Mediterranean Gulls that are supposed to frequent nearby Copt Point. This is reputed to be a very good place for them, with up to 40 or 50 of them at the right time of year. It should be easy. Black-headed Gull bad:

BHG Mediterranean Gull good:

Med%20Gull%20Sa

We are out on the promenade at the first light of dawn, but we don’t succeed in finding any. We dofind a Yellow-legged Herring Gull. The clue is in the name:

ylhg xxxxxxx

There is a juvenile Kittiwake too:

kitti xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Apart from these moderately interesting finds, we are totally unable to find our quarry.

This is not in actual fact totally surprising, because, as it emerges in conversation at breakfast, we were not even at the correct place.

I suppose in retrospect that the bay were looking at was not a great candidate to be called Copt Point, but as strangers we knew no better, and we were given no directions. We should have been about half a mile further north of where we were, so we all go there first thing after breakfast. I am a little embarrassed . I have never failed to find a major landmark before.
We spend half an hour here, and soon find the Mediterranean Gulls. There are about six of them, mostly in winter plumage, sitting out on the rocks near the sewage outlet, about 50 yards from the beach. There are hundreds, if not thousands of Black-headed Gulls, but the Mediterranean Gulls stand out quite well, with their more thickset appearance, and their all white wing tips. Black-headed Gull bad. Mediterranean Gull good:

difficult to pick out

They are still relatively boring though. This will not be the main bird for the day, thank goodness, because we have had a tremendously lucky break. After trying to convince everyone yesterday that it might be a good idea to drive to Dorset to see the Isabelline Shrike, we find out that a second bird has been found at Sandwich Bay, just a few miles up the road from where we are, and adjoining the famous golf course.
We scurry over there in the minibus, everybody greedily totting up another potential tick on their life list.
Everybody is so excited . Isabelline Shrike will be a tick for everybody. There is a Richard’s Pipit there too, which will be another tick for me and a good few others:

rich pipt

There is a Yellow-browed Warbler, which will be a third tick for quite a few people. Everything looks good:

tYBW

As we arrive, we see a crowd looking very intently indeed at a closely cropped meadow, just the place for a Richard’s Pipit.
We rush past them all, after checking with someone that the pipit is still there.
This is a major mistake, but we are all overwhelmed by the desire to go off and see the Isabelline Shrike, which is a much rarer bird. It is quite a walk, just the distance to get the adrenaline flowing.
When we arrive, there’s quite a crowd, all standing on the opposite side of the railway track, looking back into the overgrown hedge which runs alongside the rails. Suddenly a train arrives and the great whooshing noise as it goes past persuades the shrike to move out of the foliage and to perch out in the open:

isabellineshrike cdrfvgxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It is a rather bland bird, completely buffy brown, with the beginnings of a hooked beak, and the most obvious feature of all, a fairly bright red tail. It is clearly nothing like a Red-backed shrike, and I can understand why the two new species have been split from the one old one.
Now we go back for the Richard’s Pipit, only to find that the people there were all looking at what was in fact a Common Redstart, not a particularly rare species at a migration spot like this:Common_redstart_female

Nevertheless, we give it an hour or so for the pipit, looking around the neighbouring fields where the warden says that the bird has been seen over the past few days. No luck, I’m afraid. Now the day just degenerates into rumour and counter rumour. We hear that Trumpeter Finch has been seen and heard flying over, but we dismiss that out of hand:

trumpeter

Little do we know that we are just a couple of hours from the discovery of what, at the time, was a very rare bird indeed.

Nowadays, almost thirty years later, Isabelline Shrike has been split into three different species. One is called Turkestan Shrike, the second is Daurian Shrike and the third is Chinese Shrike. The bird we saw at Sandwich was one of the most frequently encountered  types in England at the time, and I think nowadays, it would have been listed as a Daurian Shrike. I used to get very hot under the collar about things like that when I was younger. But now,  I realise that it’s just somebody who wants a couple more ticks than they would have got in 1988.

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Victorian Cormorants and Victorian Shags

To keep birdwatchers on their toes, many birds exist in what are called “species pairs”. This means that you may know that a particular bird is either a Ruff or a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but it will not necessarily be that easy to separate them:

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And there are literally hundreds of these species pairs, some easy, some not quite so simple. House Sparrow and Tree Sparrow are unmistakable, but what about that rare vagrant to England, the Spanish Sparrow?

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Montagu’s Harrier and Pallid Harrier, for females or juveniles at least, will require careful and probably lengthy examination:

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Occasionally, a particular bird will never be identified for definite. Nearly thirty years ago, I drove all the way to Weymouth in Dorset, a round trip of nearly 500 miles, to see a Pipit which was present from mid March to early May 1989, in a field near the Observatory. Look for the orange arrow:

wetymouth

It was either a Richard’s Pipit (not that rare) or a Blyth’s Pipit (one of the first two or three ever in England). Here they are:

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And the controversy has never really been solved. Indeed, this particular bird is usually known to twitchers as the “Portland Pipit” after the Bird Observatory in whose fields it spent the winter.

In the Victorian era, of course, without modern telescopes worth more than my car, and, more importantly, field guides with colour photographs, many birds remained unidentifiable especially if they were both fairly rare. One such pair, which I still find challenging enough even now, is the Cormorant and the Shag. Here is a Cormorant:

gret corm xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

And here is a Shag:

shagbbnn xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

You can probably guess what the Victorian solution was to this problem, at least as far as a rare bird was concerned. You shot the bird, if at all possible.

SHAG-03 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

With all that in mind, let’s take a trip back to the real era of Steampunk:

“According to H.E. Forrest in a letter to “The Zoologist” magazine, it was on an unrecorded date during the year of 1863 that a single Cormorant was shot at Lamb Close Reservoir near Eastwood and acquired for the collection of Joseph Whitaker:

“The keeper had seen it about some few days and noticed when he put it up, it always flew over the boathouse to another pond beyond. He told Mr Percy Smith, who was staying there, who the next morning took his gun and stood by the side of the boathouse; the keeper rowed round the lake, the bird rose, came as usual and was shot. Just as Mr Smith was lowering his gun, another large bird followed and shared the same fate; on getting to it, he found it was an immature Great Black-backed Gull; thus he brought off a very curious right and left, and secured two very rare Notts birds, which through his kindness are now in my collection.”

cormorant d xxxxxx

Thirty years later, in 1893 came the appearance of another Victorian anecdote about cormorants, this time concerning a famous bird at Newark on Trent. Once again Joseph Whitaker tells the tale:

“I am indebted to Mr Cornelius Brown of Newark on Trent for the following very interesting note : during October 1893 Newark was a centre of interest to naturalists and others owing to the visit of a friendly cormorant which continued to perch week after week on the arrow on the top of the spire of the Parish Church. The Times, Standard, and most of the leading newspapers noticed the incident while Punch magazine had some poetry upon it. The bird went away several hours each day to fish in the Trent, and returned after its sport to its lofty perch, where it might be seen trimming its feathers and making himself smart and comfortable. It left on Friday, November 17th, the day after a heavy storm, after a state of eight weeks save one day.”

The poem appeared in the comical magazine Punch on November 11th, 1893, and is a surprisingly radical comment on the church in general and clergymen in particular. It went thus:

“We are told a Cormorant sits, and doth not tire,
For a whole month, perched upon Newark spire!
Vinny Bourne’s jackdaw is beaten, it is clear
Yet there are cormorants who, year after year,
Perch in the Church. But these omnivorous people
Favour the pulpit mostly, not the steeple
Thrivers upon fat livings find, no doubt,
Cormorant within is cosier than without.”

Wikipedia tells the tale of Vincent “Vinny” Bourne, a Classical scholar who wrote a comic poem about a jackdaw which lived on a steeple.(In Latin, of course)

cornoran

For some people, the Cormorant was a bird of very ill omen. Out in the wilds of Lincolnshire:

“On Sunday, September 9th, 1860, a Cormorant took its position on the steeple of Boston Church, much to the alarm of the superstitious. There it remained with the exception of two hours absence, till early on Monday morning, when it was shot by the caretaker of the church. The fears of the credulous were singularly confirmed when the news arrived of the loss of the P.S.Lady Elgin at sea with 300 passengers, amongst whom were Mr Ingram, Member of Parliament from Boston, and his son, on the very morning when the bird was first seen.”

corm flying xxxxx

The Shag is very similar to the Cormorant, but is slightly smaller, a fact which is much more obvious when the birds are seen together. A single bird is often nowhere near as easy to identify as it is supposed to be. In the Victorian era both species were very rare in Nottinghamshire, so the chance of seeing the two together in order to make a comparison was never going to happen. For this reason, people had great difficulty in distinguishing between the two species of birds.

However in 1879, Joseph Whitaker wrote a letter to “The Zoologist” about some Shags which had turned up in the City of Nottingham itself.

“ON COMMON BIRDS IN NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.- ….Early in the same month, as some workmen at Nottingham were one morning proceeding to their work,  they came across two Shags, flapping about in Cross Street, and after an exciting chase caught them both. They were taken to T.White, birdstuffer, who tells me they dived for fish in his tank, eating several; he kept them alive for two days, but finding they “did not look like living”, killed and stuffed them. I have purchased them for my collection. Another was caught in a street close by, and the fourth was shot on Mapperley Plains. They were all young birds, possibly from the same nest, and having wandered away, got lost; or they may have been driven inland by a gale.”

shags xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

In one of his newspaper articles about birds in North Nottinghamshire, published in the Nottingham Evening Post on June 21st, 1937 , Clifford W. Greatorex, a Fellow of the Zoological Society told the following story:

 “Finally, mention must be made of a Shag, three or four examples of which were recorded in early spring from various parts of North Notts. Contrary to a widely held opinion, the Shag does travel inland occasionally, although its inland visits are not so frequent as those of the more familiar and more abundant Cormorant.

sahg scilli xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

One of these visitors from the coast lingered on a part of Welbeck Lake, where it was seen by several reliable observers and its instinctive characteristics noted. Another, apparently injured in some way, was found in a field near a North Notts Village.

shag rutl xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The finder induced this bird, which could not fly, to enter a small pond, where it remained, and for the greater part of the week was fed by school children who brought it herrings, soaked bread and table scraps, all of which were devoured with avidity. Unfortunately, however, its injuries proved fatal, and one morning the young folk were grieved to find their new pet lying dead upon the bank.”

Nowadays, Shags remain fairly numerous on the rocky coasts of England, particularly in the west, but overall, they are probably diminishing in number. They are still very rare inland. Cormorants are extremely numerous, enjoying the many lakes conveniently filled with large fish for anglers to pit their wits against. At the moment, they are a protected species, but this may not last too much longer.

In the meantime, Cormorants will continue to entertain, as greedy but ever optimistic birds:

great-cormorant xxxxxxx

 

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