Pipit Quiz – The Answer!

Thank you to everyone who voted in the ‘just for fun’ pipit quiz.. and apologies for keeping you in suspense for so long with the answer..  I have been in Dandong (Liaoning Province, on the border with North Korea) for a few days of shorebirding.  It was superb.  More about that later.

As I write this post, the percentages of the voting came out as follows:

Blyth’s Pipit – 78.38%

Richard’s Pipit – 16.22%

Don’t Know – 5.4%

The correct answer is RICHARD’S PIPIT..  so congratulations to the 16.22% of you who voted correctly.  And to those of you who voted for Blyth’s, there is absolutely no shame in getting this one wrong – it was a very difficult quiz question!

So, why is it a Richard’s Pipit?  Well, first up I should say that I was confused by this individual and I would have been in the “Don’t Know” category!  But after consulting with literature here and here, and some very helpful comments from Paul Holt, I am now confident that this is a Richard’s.

Separating Richard’s and Blyth’s Pipits is not easy – the differences are subtle and there is individual variation, making some individuals hard to identify, particularly if the bird does not call.  It is only relatively recently that vagrants have been identified in the field in Western Europe – up until a few decades ago, first year birds were thought to be inseparable if they were not in the hand.  However, after lots of field observations by some very skilled people, subtle differences have been shown to allow reliable separation in the field, even if one does not hear the bird call.

Structure.  Blyth’s often appears ‘slighter’ with a shorter tail, shorter legs and ‘softer’ face, sometimes recalling a smaller pipit.  It’s stance is often more horizontal than the very ‘upright’ stance typical of Richard’s.

The bill.  On a Blyth’s, the bill is generally shorter, blunter and more ‘conical’ than Richard’s.  This is a little subjective and of course is only useful if you can compare directly or have good experience of Richard’s Pipit.  Whilst not at the longer end of Richard’s Pipit variation, the bill on this bird is more like typical Richard’s than Blyth’s.

The crown.  On a Blyth’s, the crown streaking is usually dense and uniform, showing clear streaks rather than more ‘coagulated’ markings as on Richard’s.  Blyth’s is therefore said to exhibit a ‘capped’ effect.  Although this bird could be described as somewhat ‘capped’, the streaking is more ‘coagulated’ as is typical of Richard’s.

The mantle.  The streaking on the mantle is usually stronger and more uniform on a Blyth’s.  This bird shows mantle streaking typical of Richard’s.

The dark centres to the adult median coverts (perhaps the most important feature).  On a Richard’s, the centres to the adult median coverts are somewhat pointed or triangular.  On Blyth’s they are more prominent and squarer.  On Richard’s, the margins to the median coverts are wider and buffish; on Blyth’s the margins tend to be narrower and more contrasting.  This bird shows quite prominent and buffish margins to the median coverts, more typical of Richard’s.

The rear claw.  If seen well, the rear claw can be a useful indicator.  It is shorter on Blyth’s.  Again, only really useful in the field if one has good experience of Richard’s.  Claw not visible in this image.

Perhaps the most useful pointer to separate these birds in the field is the call.   This bird called once and, to my ears, was typical of the strident ‘shreep’ of Richard’s.  Sorry that you did not have the benefit of that!!

So, there you go…  I am not sure I will always get the identification of these pipits right but I am now more informed and will have a better chance when I come across these large pipits in the future.

Always more to learn in birding, which is what makes it such a great hobby…!

Blyth’s Pipits and more…

On Tuesday I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with Paul Holt (fresh back from leading tours to Bhutan and Taiwan).  We started at Houbajia Zhuangcun on the eastern side (the best place to view any cranes lingering in the area) and then visited the north-west side near Bulaotun where the water levels are providing some good habitat for waders.

Our first surprise was on the walk down to the reservoir from the village at Houbajia Zhuangcun as every field seemed to be full of pipits.  It was immediately obvious that there were many Richard’s Pipits around along with good numbers of Buff-bellied and Red-throated with the occasional Olive-backed flying overhead.  No sooner as Paul said he thought there must be a Blyth’s on site, we turned a corner and flushed four largish pipits that called as they took to the air revealing themselves to be Blyth’s!  They circled and landed again, allowing us to secure some wonderful views of these scarce pipits on the deck.  Seeing them alongside Richard’s Pipits was very instructive and, although I would hesitate to identify a silent Blyth’s unless I had extremely good views, Paul was able to give me some very good insights into how to separate Blyth’s from Richard’s on the ground.  The shorter bill, more heavily streaked mantle, shorter tail and, of course, the shape of the dark centres to the tertials if seen well enough, are all features to look for but, for me, the most obvious difference is structural, particularly noticeable in flight.  Blyth’s look noticeably shorter-tailed in flight and can even recall a smaller pipit at times.  We spent a long time watching these pipits and it probably took us an hour and a half to get to the reservoir, a walk that usually takes about 10 minutes!

I only managed a couple of images of Blyth’s in flight…  I won’t apologise for spending most of my time studying them through my telescope rather than stalking them for photographs!  Below is a comparison of Blyth’s and Richard’s.

Blyth’s (upper) and Richard’s (lower) Pipits in flight. In this direct comparison, one can see the slightly shorter tail and shorter bill of Blyth’s. The much-superior Richard’s Pipit image is by Graham Catley.

Of course, call is one of the ways to separate these two; you can hear the calls of Blyth’s and Richard’s Pipits on Xeno Canto Asia.  The Pipit frenzy also included good numbers of Red-throated and Buff-bellied and I was able to capture these images of these good-looking species.

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus in breeding plumage, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Red-throated Pipit, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012

In the damper fields near to the reservoir we encountered several Eastern Yellow Wagtails, mostly of the subspecies macronyx, and a few stunning Citrine Wagtails, including one with a very dark back (on close inspection it was a very dark grey back with some black speckling), recalling the subspecies calcarata.  Possibly an intergrade?  A male Bluethroat then appeared and began to sing from an exposed perch in a small reedbed.

As we were enjoying the pipits and wagtails, a corvid flew by us and headed south..  with the naked eye it looked as if it had a pale neck and a quick lift of the binoculars confirmed it was a Collared Crow!  This species is now rare in Beijing and yet, after seeing my first only two days before, here I was watching a second!  It was Paul’s first sighting in the capital for around 10 years…  It is almost certainly a different individual to that seen by Colm Moore and me at the Ming Tombs, so maybe there has been a mini-influx.  It reappeared a few minutes later in the company of a pair of Carrion Crows.

Collared Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Collared Crow with Carrion Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012.

When we eventually reached the reservoir, we checked the stubbly area frequented by cranes this winter and counted 5 White-naped Cranes and 4 Common Cranes but there was no sign of the single immature Siberian Crane that had been present from mid-March.  After an hour or so watching from here we moved on to the north-western side to check out the wader site near Bulaotun.  As we arrived, we were greeted with huge numbers of Little Buntings… they were everywhere: in the fields, in the bushes, on the tracks and, occasionally, if spooked by a raptor or a local farmer, the air would be filled with clouds of Little Buntings.. an awesome sight.  Many were singing, providing a wonderful soundtrack as we scanned through the flocks.  A single male Yellow-breasted Bunting was with the group and it, too, sang on occasion.  We estimated around 700 Little Buntings along one hedgerow but the real number on site was certainly much higher – many were hidden feeding in the crops.

A short recording of the cacophony can be heard here:

Little Buntings

Waders on site included over 150 Black-winged Stilts, 80+  Wood Sandpipers, 30+ Common Snipe, a few Marsh Sandpipers, a couple of Spotted Redshank, a single Common Redshank, 10 Common Sandpipers, 6 Black-tailed Godwits and 30 Little Ringed Plovers. 2 Eurasian Spoonbills, 6 Great Egrets and 2 Little Egrets added a splash of white and an Osprey, several Eastern Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Kestrels and a handful of Amur Falcons provided the raptor interest.

A quick look at another site at Bulaotun rewarded us with a stunning male Pied Harrier, a single Hobby (chasing Little Buntings), 5 Greater Short-toed Larks, 14 Siberian Stonechats and 20 Oriental Pratincoles.

Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012. Note lack of a white trailing edge to the wing (the best feature with which to distinguish Oriental from Collared Pratincole).

It was another fantastic day’s birding in the Chinese capital and I am indebted to Paul for his pipit masterclass…!