Pitsford Pied Wagtail: seeing things in black and white

When Matthew Care posted two tweets containing mobile phone images of a Pied Wagtail on Pitsford dam showing, as he put it, ‘isolated black breast and white wing patch’, it appeared, at least in some quarters, that there were enough ingredients there to alert local birders to the possibility that it might be something worth investigating.

Amur Wagtail was flagged up as a possibility. However remote this may seem, this south-east Asian subspecies has already reached Britain (see here) and the classic eastern vagrant month of October would surely be a prime time to find one.

The images, taken only with a mobile phone camera, left a lot to be desired from an ID perspective, as well as leaving a lot to the imagination, thus telling only half the story. The bird depicted in the images, despite also looking unusually ‘white-faced’ (the origin of the scientific name leucopsis for the Amur race of White Wagtail) was surely just a Pied Wagtail, wasn’t it? It is well known that pictures can lie and it had to be worth a look, to be sure, to be sure.

The bird was in the same place, on the wall of the valve tower walkway, when I arrived late afternoon and after a quick look, I set up my camera to get some digiscoped shots. Unfortunately, at the same time, an Anglian Water engineer proceeded down the walkway and entered the tower. The bird quickly took flight and I was left with the rather messy images, below.

While the bird did indeed show a lot of white in the wing (formed by unusually broad white fringes to median coverts, greater coverts and tertials – probably freshly moulted and unworn) and an isolated, triangular black breast patch, it was the latter which lent the impression of a greater extent of white to the head. Although there are published images (see here for example) of Amur Wagtail showing the same amount of white in the wing as this bird appears to, the ‘norm’ for Amur Wagtail is more of an extensive white ‘block’ which, when combined with clean white flanks, gives this race a much cleaner, more striking appearance than the bird at Pitsford. Indeed it’s the extensive grey and blackish flanks of the Pitsford individual which, at a glance, kill the chances of it being anything other than the Pied it actually is.

However, there is nothing wrong with flagging up anything which, at first sight, appears unusual – lest something juicy should slip the net …

From the long grass … Richard’s Pipit at Borough Hill

I received a text from Gary Pullan, late this morning, advising that Mark Spirito had just seen a large pipit with a ‘sparrow-like call’ to the right of the concrete track, which runs north-south along the top of Borough Hill. With Richard’s mooted in the text I sent a few texts and put the news out via Twitter before setting off to see if I could locate it, phoning Mark on the way in order to get further details. Although he was no longer on site, he subsequently advised that he had picked it up in flight after hearing a distinctive, though unfamiliar, call and that the bird had landed at the golf course end of the hill where, after another brief flight view, he had been unable to relocate it.

Upon arrival at Borough Hill I joined Chris Coe and Allan Maybury who were already on the concrete track. After a briefly watching a nearby Stonechat, we decided to split up to make a sweep of the general area. With Borough Hill summit currently ungrazed and overgrown the going was not easy underfoot. We covered the area to the right of the track as well as to the immediate left of the track, right down to the golf course perimeter fence and then back again to the compound. Chris and Allan departed and I was about to do the same when Mark phoned to say he had listened to online examples of the call of Richard’s Pipit and he was now confident that the Borough Hill pipit was a Richard’s Pipit.

I changed my mind about leaving and decided to have another go at trying to relocate the bird, this time concentrating well to the left of the track. After a while I reached the hedge which crosses the hill before the golf course, having put up a few Skylarks and Meadow Pipits on the way. I was about to turn back when a large pipit came up from the grass about 25 metres away and, remaining silent, it flew little more than 100 metres to alight in full view on top of the hedge which runs alongside the western perimeter track.

Brief ‘scope views revealed a lanky, large-billed, long-legged, long-tailed pipit which exhibited all the usual features of Richard’s. It was looking good! Viewing was rapidly curtailed, however, by two passing dog-walkers who flushed the bird over the hedge and I watched as it disappeared out of site. Quickly crossing to the hedge I entered the area beyond it via a small stile and unintentionally flushed the bird from the top of a low bush nearby. Fortunately if flew no more than 50 metres, uttering a single rasping “schreeep” as it did so. It was indeed a Richard’s Pipit! It pitched down in a rough area close to an Oak tree and I made no further attempt to pursue it.

I made a few phone calls before being rejoined on site by Chris Coe, who was just in time to see the bird as it broke cover, calling, having been flushed by another dog-walker. Unfortunately this is an occupational hazard at this site which is popular with other members of the public! The Richard’s Pipit flew back toward the main hill summit but it remained in the general area where it was seen again by several other birders, including Dave James and Graham Martin, until at least 15.45, when it was seen flying toward the main car park.

This is only the 8th County record, the previous records were in 1883 (2), 1966, 1968, 1994 (2) and 1995 – the latter having also been at Borough Hill on 10th October.

Full marks to Mark Spirito for finding this bird! An excellent county record! If anyone is able to obtain any photographs I would be pleased to receive them … but it is always going to be difficult in the long, long grass of Borough Hill.

Header image: Richard’s Pipit, India (JM Garg) Wikimedia Commons

Flava of the month: postscript

Martin Garner kindly commented as follows:

The issue of Blue-headed Wagtail in non adult male plumage is always tricky. I’ve had a go a number of times and I suppose if a bird shows very white supercilium and throat with a greyish tone to the head and ear covets then I think I probably have one but it’s very difficult to be certain. So in short I think you are right to point towards Blue-headed for your bird but I don’t think you can be certain.

Here is another image of the same bird, rear view, hinting at bluish tones to the nape. Compare the somewhat dowdy Yellow Wagtail below, taken at the same locality on the same date.

Flava of the month?

This autumn has been particularly good for Yellow Wagtail passage with double-figure counts from a number of localities, the best of which to date is a count by Simon Towers of 30+ on the old cricket pitch at Yelvertoft on 17th September. Good numbers have also been regularly present at Hollowell Reservoir and they are relatively easy to see on the recently mown, extensive grassy area and nearby shoreline around the Guilsborough Bay ‘point’. At least six were present today, including this rather striking first-winter, which was also present in the same area yesterday.

Unlike the others, which included a mix of adults and ‘diluted colour’ juveniles well into first-winter plumage and an apparently unmoulted ‘brown’ juvenile – the latter well late for this time of year), this individual was much more strongly coloured with a grey head, contrasting bright white throat and broad, flicked-up supercilium. The median coverts, greater coverts and tertials were all new post-juvenile first-winter feathers with clean, broad white fringes contrasting with dark centres. None of the other first-winters approached this rather boldly marked and contrasty individual, which was always easy to locate within the small group.

This bird is a good candidate for first-winter Blue-headed Wagtail (flava) but I believe its plumage probably falls within the range of that of British Yellow Wagtail (flavissima) – despite most of these normally being a rather ‘washed out’ grey with less obvious supercilia. And then there’s the problem of the occurrence of racial hybrids … Whether flava or flavissima it’s a nice bird to see and I would welcome thoughts and comments on its possible racial identity.