Horned Lark, Surrey. Note the pattern of the median coverts, as described by Small 2002. There is some variation, but this feature merits further investigation.

Cold snaps have been interspersed with unseasonally warm weather as winter hurtles towards spring.

Highlights during the past fortnight have included Barn Owls and Hen Harriers on the Lincolnshire Wash, Woodcocks in several local woods, and a Nordic Jackdaw at Horn Mill.

Yesterday was a red letter day. In calm, sunny conditions I began at Staines where the Horned Lark gave good views and called twice (distinctly more ‘throaty’ than Shore Lark). On the way back to Rutland I stopped at Bedford Purlieus, Cambridgeshire, in the early afternoon. As sometimes happens I had nearly completed my circuit and was close to my starting point when whilst watching a group of Marsh Tits I saw a male British Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. They seem to have disappeared from Rutland, and I haven’t seen one for several years, so it was a pleasing find. As an aside, although we can’t prove it, the only Shetland record is very likely to have involved a nominate migrant from Scandinavia/Russia.

I have also begun searching former Rutland sites for Willow Tit, which will be the subject of a future post.

Horned Lark, Surrey. Note the warm, almost rufous, uppertail-coverts.

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Welcome to my world: a Canada x Greylag behind four of the subjects of this post at EBR

Previously I posted about a flock of 10 presumed Barnacle x canada hybrids at EBR. Nine remain, and better views over the last couple of days have enabled me to confirm that they are Barnacle x Cackling Goose hybrids. Three more closely resemble Cackling Goose, and one may actually be a Cackling Goose (minima) – see additional images and captions below for more details.

They are unringed, full-winged and wary, but will have come either from a collection in Britain or from feral populations in the Netherlands where Kampe-Persson (2010) commented that “due to mixing and hybridisation with Barnacle Geese the species is hard to count”.

As ever, informed comments will be welcome.

Detail of two of the birds. The one on the right most closely resembles Barnacle, but e.g. the head pattern and upperparts aren’t quite right. The one on the left doesn’t show any features which seem incorrect for Cackling (minima), but given the variation in the rest of the flock I am inclined to be cautious about its identity. 

The hybrid at front resembles Cackling, and even has a small pale crescent on its neck, but note how similar its upperparts are to the hybrids behind and the shadow of Barnacle’s breast pattern (though minima can show something like this). 

Part of the flock in flight

All nine on the water – when swimming they all appear dark-breasted

Part of the flock coming ashore

British Bullfinch, Cambridgeshire

I have posted previously about endemic British taxa (and more will follow); many of them merit further observation and study:

https://rutlandbutterflies.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/red-grouse/
https://birdingontheedge.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/juvenile-shetland-starlings/
https://rutlandbutterflies.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/pine-crossbills/

https://rutlandbutterflies.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/meadow-pipit-revisited/ (now considered monotypic)

Today’s subject is the British Bullfinch pileata. Compared with the nominate Northern Bullfinches pyrrhula which we see on Shetland and occasionally on the east coast, they are reasonably distinctive, being visibly smaller and less brightly coloured; females have browner flanks. The call is less varied, and I have never heard British Bullfinches give the ‘trumpeting’ call which I have heard given by several Northerns.

Bullfinches are remarkable. Despite what may seem a limited vocal repertoire, captive birds have been taught to imitate flutes and whistles. British birds are sedentary, and form durable pair bonds. Unlike Northern birds which have a preference for spruce, British birds are most frequently seen along mature hedgerows. They are currently present in good numbers, so it is a good time to study them.

Great Northern, Rutland

The first week of 2018 has been an opportunity to begin to rediscover some special birds.

In Rutland, highlights have included Hawfinch (lingering from the autumn’s record influx), male Smew, Great Northern Diver, wintering Common Sandpiper and Chiffchaffs, and a covey of 10 Grey Partridges (no longer a regular sight).

This morning we visited Thorney Toll, Cambridgeshire, to see the wintering Rough-legged Buzzard which gave prolonged if distant views perched in a Hawthorn hedge and flying occasionally.

Distant Rough-legged Buzzard, Cambridgeshire 

Perlin – PeregrinexMerlin

I have posted previously about hybrid falcons – here: https://rutlandbutterflies.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/hybrid-falcons/ and here: https://rutlandbutterflies.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/more-hybrid-falcons/ See also Birding World 5: 101-106. On wild raptors hybridising, see the chapter in Forsman 2016.

This time the subject is the so-called Perlin, a hybrid between Peregrine (normally male) and Merlin (normally female). This hybrid is not as popular as some of the large falcon hybrids, and I have never knowingly seen an escape, but it is worth knowing about as another potentially confusing by-product of our long-standing fascination with hawks.

Black-headed Bunting, Foula, June

This year I have chosen two of the rare migrants which I discovered in Shetland, one from spring and the other from autumn.

Black-headed Bunting, Foula, June
The history of this species in Britain is problematical. Early records included some examples of fraud (see BOURC’s 43rd Report, Ibis 157: 186-192), and records prior to the past ten years occurred at time when the species was popular in trade (see for example Martin 1980, Cage & Aviary Birds). Since the EU trade ban was put in place in 2007, we have had an opportunity to establish more clearly the pattern of occurrence of wild birds. It will be interesting to look at the recent pattern in another ten years or so, and compare it with historical patterns.

Buff-bellied Pipit, Grutness, October
The history of records of this species is in comparison clean and uncluttered. The first was found on St Kilda in September 1910 by Eagle Clarke, so I am in good company. Since the first there have sometimes been long gaps between records, though in some years there have been multiple records including birds in inland counties. These presumably reflect fluctuations in population levels, amongst other things. To date all British records have involved American rubescens, but we should also look out for japonicus as a potential winter vagrant to Britain.

Buff-bellied Pipit, Grutness, October

Grey Wagtail, Rutland

The past few days have brought a few cold-weather birds and minor surprises, including Smew at EBR, Great Northern and Whooper Swans at RW (where Common Sandpiper and Rock Pipit on 8th were both unusual in December), and two Chiffchaffs (both ringed) at Oakham STW. A visit to Geeston STW did not produce any Chiffchaffs, but this striking Grey Wagtail lent grace and colour.