British Bullfinch, Cambridgeshire

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

RBA cover 

There are still a few copies left of the Rutland Butterfly Atlas – so if you know anyone young or old with an interest it might make a nice stocking-filler.

Once they have gone the project will have broken even. If you have difficulty finding a copy at the AWBC, Rutland Museum or Walkers, please email

Leucistic male Red-crested Pochard with typical female, Rutland

In 1991 I published a short paper (Birding World 4: 171-175) in which I argued that the majority of British records of Red-crested Pochard are likely to involve birds of captive or feral origin. Although not everyone likes the idea, most recorders seem to agree. Nonetheless, it is good practice to review the evidence from time to time.

Today I observed a flock of 38 Red-crested Pochards at Rutland Water, of which four (three males and a female) were leucistic. Since leucistic birds are very unusual in wild populations, this provides support for the view that they are likely to be of captive or feral origin. They seem to have become an established part of the local avifauna, and should be recorded accordingly.

Leucistic female and male Red-crested Pochard (left) with typical male, Rutland