A vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit (aka known as American Pipit or confusingly Water Pipit here in the US) is being seen at a coastal marsh in the north-western part of the UK. Buff-bellied Pipits, of the race japonicus, also occur in Asia and winter in the Middle East and this race and the Nearctic race rubescens show a great deal of variation and so separating these two in a vagrancy context may be difficult with some individuals.
While Buff-bellied Pipit, of the Nearctic race rubescens (American Buff-bellied Pipit) has occurred several times in Britain and Ireland, the Siberian race japonicus (Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit) has not, so it is worth noting the plumage features of any vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit to determine race.
Basically, the dumb-down cliff notes are that Siberian birds are:
- rather pale below with a noticeable eyering
- large, club-ended malar and streaked blackish below with rather tear-shaped spots/streaks.
American birds are:
- rather plainer above,
- being less streaked, more buff-below with rather more brownish, blurry streaking.
However, individual variation and wear and geographical variation across their ranges makes the “simple” criteria just mentioned somewhat useless in a vagrancy context, and identification is often easier if you are standing in Israel or Connecticut respectively!
The individual in Cheshire can be seen at (scroll down for the images if necessary) :
Initially, on a comment I posted on Martin Garner’s Birding Frontiers site I had thought the bird seemed fine for American Buff-bellied Pipit, but further photos seemed to show a bird with rather contrasting upper wingbar, rather large blobby malar and well-defined dark streaks on the underparts. I was cautious and wondered if the bird could be a Siberian Buff-bellied, but having no field experience of that race, I was in unchartered waters and wanted to add some caution to my initial support of the bird.
So, I dug up some pictures I had taken of a bird here in New Haven for comparison (see below) and also a link to Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit here:
All three images, American Buff-bellied Pipit (rubescens), New Haven, CT, January 14th 2008.
Based on Pyle et al., 1987, the pointed centres to the median coverts and the blurry, non-indented edges to the greater coverts makes this bird a first-winter (HY). The Cheshire bird is a first-winter by the same features.
Overall a buff-brown bird, with non-contrasting wingbars and dull buff underparts. Underpart streaking is brown, not blackish and there is no pale contrasting eyering or large, dark, ‘blobby’ malar. Note the dark brown, not pale legs.
After reviewing images, and taking into consideration variability, with all things considered, the Cheshire bird is more likely American based on the overall plumage tones, plainer mantle and underpart color but it is certainly not straightforward. If the bird had been the rather white-below, heavily streaked Siberian birds, perhaps it would be easier, but since they vary so much, a vagrant may often be hard to assign to race.
American Buff-bellied’s have a distinctive, di-syllabic “pip-it”, “pip-it” calls that may help distinguish it from Siberian birds but I have no experience with that race.
A great educational bird that has generated some insightful discussions in the UK for those that want to read more on this bird:
After a flurry of Snowies hanging out at Long Beach over Christmas, despite consecutive days of doing the death march down Long Beach before sunrise, with fellow friends AJ Hand and Jim Zipp, we failed to score any photo opps.
When I returned home I found out one bird, that had been frequenting the harbor near my house, had showed up again briefly. But, when I arrived at the spot there was no owl to be found. Grabbing some breakfast before I went over to check the War Memorial at the bottom of my street, I got a post from John Oshlic saying he had the bird actually perched on top of the war memorial. “Err, Nick, I’ll have those eggs and home fries to go…NOW!”
Two shakes of a lamb’s tail later and breaking the speed limit, I had clocked the little beauty from the exit ramp as I got off the highway..cool! Turns out, it was an ugly little bugger!!
The bird’s right eye seemed to be injured but it was hard to determine if the stain was old blood or from something else.
An unprecedented number of Snowy Owls irrupted south this winter and made for some awesome opportunities to see these majestic creatures. Unfortunately since these flights are prompted by too many birds and not enough food, some were emaciated and starving and some were found dead as result. CT did well with several birds being rather photogenic. Thankfully many photographers remained respectable, though people trying to take photos of them with their smartphones continue to piss off everyone that understands that you can’t use your smartphone for bird photography unless the bird is embedded up your nostril. Really people…enough with the phone nonsense :)
I used to think I could age and sex some Snowy Owls. While I think the heavily barred birds with boldly barred napes and minimal white “bibs” are females, and the lightly marked and almost white birds with broken tailbands are males, this isn’t always the case.
Birds with vermiculated inner greater coverts and primary tips may be first-years (HY) but I’m not sure older birds cannot show these in successive moults, so it really is hard to age and sex birds of unknown age in the field. Individuals often get lighter with age, stay the same, or get darker so there is a whole gamut of variation and overlap. Apparently according to Russian research, first borns in the nest are often paler than successive hatchlings which are darker! Also, some HY males (aged in the hand from banding / specimens) may overlap with adult females and may only be differentiated by size. Pyle mentions tail (?) feather shape (blunt and rounded vs bluntly pointed) as a means of ageing some birds, but this seems hardly useful in the field.
The only main way of ageing Snowy Owls to calendar year (after HY/SY) is perhaps during June-September when birds have an incomplete primary moult and it MAY be possible to differentiate between old and new primaries.
I have seen few birds in New England I would call “females. This fits the migration pattern which basically is that females, being larger and dominant, take territory further north and it is the males that are “pushed” out further south. It also makes sense, from a probability point of view, that many of these birds are likely HY birds.
So, it seems from conventional wisdom that while we may think a bird is a young bird, or most likely a female (if large and boldly barred) we are likely guessing a lot more than we think we are.
A first-year white-winged gull turned up last year at Long Beach, Stratford, CT It was well photographed and identified by various observers as a Glaucous Gull, then perhaps a hybrid. However, the pix show a bird that fits with kumlieni, albeit a very big one! I had mentioned my opinion at the time, but the bird continued to be discussed ad nauseum with some observers believing the bird to possibly be a hybrid, an opinion I was at odds with since there didn’t seem to be any hybrid characters. Although it returned this winter, it was still reported as a Glaucous Gull despite it having dark-washed primaries, a feature never shown by hyperboreus.
After a careful analysis of the photos, I concluded the pro-Glaucous features to be:
- It was big!
The pro-kumlieni features to be:
- It didn’t look like a Glaucous Gull!
Thankfully, it returned this winter in it’s second-winter plumage sporting the expected dusky webs to the outer primaries diagnostic of kumlieni. The bird’s large size was apparent, but not outside the range of kumlieni and I think many observers got too hung up on size and didn’t really assess the bird’s plumage features which, as shown are perfectly kumlieni.
Note the rather slim body and pointed wings and proportionately large eye. The solid, dusky tail and dusky outer webs to the outer primaries are diagnostic of kumlieni. The large mirror on P10 is visible in the enlarged version.
2nd November, Fairfield County, CT
“Hey..check your email and check out Frank’s pix of that hummingbird ..” was the cryptic message Nick Bonomo sent me on a balmy Saturday afternoon. I was out with Alex and his friend on the beach and couldn’t make out crap on my phone, but Nick’s message implied that all might not be kosher with it. I got back to the house and while talking on the phone, I pulled up Frank Mantlik’s photo’s of a “Ruby-throated Hummingbird” he had photographed a few days earlier at a private residence.
At that moment, as the images came up, I spat coffee all over my computer and realised why Nick had called me. It had outer primaries like a .!!@@ hockey stick. It was a young male BLACK-CHINNED HUMMMINGBIRD -1st state record!! Tripping overmyself to grab my gear and make phonecalls, it was apparent that several people had reached the same conclusion and were running around like headless chickens trying to find out if it was still there…problem..the bird had been there a week and it was 3 days prior that Frank had taken the images.
Frank called the homeowner to check and she said she hadn’t seen it in several days..arrgghhhh!!! But, as amazing as birding is, as she was talking to him on the phone, she saw the bird fly past her and feed on some salvia!!! TWITCH ON!!!
As soon as I arrived, the bird immediately flew in and performed down to feet..amazing. It came in several times, occasionally making flights up to hawk insects.Kudos to the homeowner for her hospitality and to Frank for sending out the photos..it could have gone so horribly wrong!
3rd November -Lighthouse Point, New Haven, CT
With strong NNW winds predicted I spent most of the day with the crowd at Lighthouse. We were not disappointed. A big push of buteos – Red-shoulderd, tails, Peregrines, harriers, small numbers of accipiters and best of all a handful of Bald Eagles and 5!! GOLDEN EAGLES and a juv. GOSHAWK sans tail!
Finally, in what has been a lacklustre fall, I dragged my ass into the field to look for birds. A previously reported Lark Sparrow had been seen at Hammonassett State Park, CT so since that was still a nemesis bird in the state, I thought I would spend some time there and give it a go. A great spot for birding, I figured it would be a great place to spend a nice few hours in the field on a glorious fall morning.
Arriving at the spot, I was told it had been seen earlier feeding with some sparrows. I patiently waited and saw nothing. After everyone had disappeared, it suddenly appeared, feeding in the leaf litter in front of me. Unfortunately it was flushed by a cyclist and so good views were brief.
After a while the bird flew out of some conifers, giving it’s “tink-tink” call and flew across the campground. I followed it and soon relocated it feeding out on the grass. I went all Seal Team Six on it and belly crawled close..unfortunately it remained in the shade for over half an hour. At this point, just as I was going to need a chiropractor for my neck, it shuffled into some sunlight for a few seconds and I managed a few shots.
Definitely a crippler as sparrows go!
After a nice early breakfast courtesy of the Fairfield Inn, Phil Rusch, Nick Bonomo, Simon Harvey and myself found ourselves at dawn in Pillar Point Harbor, all prepped for a pelagic out of Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County run by an old acquaintance, Alvaro Jaramillo. I had done several trips out of Monterey in the late 80s and mid-90s with Debi Shearwater but had never ventured out of Half Moon Bay, conveniently only 35 minutes drive from SFO airport! This particular tour of duty involved a couple of Debi’s trips but while birding was OK, for seasoned veterans it was lacklustre. It seemed all the most interesting birds were being seen in Half Moon Bay this fall! So Saturday 14th September so us ready to rock and roll…and roll we did..it was a bit bumpy on the way out!
It was great to see Alvaro and catch up a bit – we had first met when I was a research assistant at Long Point, Ontario in 1991 and he was living in the area. A great, incredibly knowledgeable guy, well-respected in the field community for his field skills he had recently left Fieldguides Inc. to go solo with his travel company Alvaro’s Adventures, http://alvarosadventures.com and part of his operation includes running several CA pelagic trips throughout the year that have produced a burgeoning list of seabirds that have included such vagrants as Hawaiian Petrel, Short-tailed Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Great-winged Petrel and MANY Laysan Albatrosses.
One of the first notable differences from the other pelagics, was complimentary coffee and croissants on the boat as we waited to get underway..nice touch! Alvaro ran a nice trip, engaged with all the participants and gave an educational running commentary about the birds and marine life of Half Moon Bay. A nice trip with a great selection of birds, and I would thoroughly recommend anyone taking a trip out west to take advantage of the convenience of Half Moon Bay trips with Alvaro.
To book e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 650-504-7779.
Click Images for original size
South Polar Skua
Pacific White-sided Dolphin
Northern Right Whale Dolphin
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola
While spending time in Cape May with my son, I stopped at the Magnasite Plant in the early evening of the 28th September 2013 to look for Northern Harriers and Merlins that often hunt at dusk in this area. I bumped into Jonathan Wasse and Peter Lansdown, visiting from the UK, and as we were chatting, Jonathan noticed a gull soaring over land and said “That Herring Gull is doing a good job imitating a skua (jaeger)”. Even distorted by the windshield, it didn’t look like a gull and immediately looked interesting and jaeger-like. Jumping out of the car, I snapped a few flight shots as the bird flew over us and drifted away towards Lily Lake. Clearly a juvenile Parasitic from the views we had and quite strange to see it circling over land.
That was the end of that…or so I thought. The following day, I arrived at the hawk watch at Cape May Point, when I was greeted with shouts of “Jaeger on the pond!” Indeed there was! A juvenile jaeger was sitting on the pond close to the platform. From the looks of it, it was the same bird we saw the evening before..and perhaps the same bird that had been seen briefly at the same spot the day before by the CMBO-appointed hawkwatcher Tom Reed.
- Longish-spiky bill , not really stout with a dark-tip that appeared to be a 1/3 or so of the bill
- Disproportionately small head, with streaky cheeks and a short, steep forehead. The slightly raised crown giving a more triangular-shaped head rather than a domed, rounded head
- Overall warm cinnamon/nutmeg tones to the plumage, especially the pale upper part feathers and primary tips
- Prominent, chevron-shaped primary tips, tinged pale buff-brown, not white.
An ‘orange-billed’ tern currently in Ireland shows characters of Elegant Tern and has again raised the spectre of doubt about whether these are pure vagrant Elegant Terns or….something else. An assumed returning Elegant Tern was present in a tern colony in France in the 80s and was thought to be the perpetrator of confusing hybrids and coupled with the possibilities of offspring from known Lessser-crested x Sandwich Terns in Europe, it has caused headaches for adjudication panels throughout Europe, given that Elegant Terns are a rare visitor to the eastern seabord of the US. The fact that the UK has had more claims of Elegant Terns than they should have for this west coast species only adds to the issue of whether such claims are hybrids, especially when these claims involve individuals that actually bear an uncanny resemblance to real Elegant Terns…
Pix of the current Irish bird are here:
I just returned from California where I saw several thousand Elegant Terns, and given the similar time of year thought I would post a few for comparison. I haven’t had time to go through these and do ant research to determine if my ageing is correct, but I am sure someone will correct me, but for now, hope these will be a reference for comparison.