A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Pine Bunting at Venus Pools in Shropshire - MEGA!!

When news of a female Pine Bunting at Venus Pools in Shropshire broke on New Year’s Day, we were keen to catch up with this mega bunting first hand, and at only 1 hour 20 from Cheshire, the short distance to travel came as a welcome change!
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire (Jim Almond)
The female Pine Bunting by Jim Almond
Arriving on site the next day for just after 10 and with news put out earlier that the Pine Bunting had been seen and showing well in the kale mid-morning, it seemed to be a no brainer that we would connect soon.

Unfortunately however, it seemed the Pine Bunting had other ideas, and a frustrating few hours ensued in bitterly cold weather where despite the abundance of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and Corn Buntings on site, the Pine Bunting failed to put in an appearance.
Venus Pools Pine Bunting twitch
Venus Pools, Shropshire
The Pine Bunting hedge!
All good things come to those who wait however, and despite my feet having now turned into literal blocks of ice having been nestled in the frost covered grass all morning, eventually Alex picked up a very pale looking bunting moving through the hedge before dropping down in to the grassy verge below.

Getting the 20 or so birders immediately around us on it, simultaneous cries of joy went up: “That’s it – Pine Bunting!” Success! Watching this greyscale bunting hop around for a good few minutes we were able to note a number of features, the two white wing bars and white edged primaries the most notable differentiating feature, along with the pale white chest lined with delicate, fine rusty brown speckles forming a necklace of sorts. The head pattern was also notably different from the associating Reed and Corn Buntings, none of the clearly defined facial patches or rustic brown and cream tones we had been used to seeing on the Reed Buntings all morning, instead sporting a plain grey nape, overall plain grey face and we were just able to make out the fine dark lines near the eye and small white spot on the cheek.
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire (Jim Almond)
The female Pine Bunting by Jim Almond. It reminded more of an American sparrow looks wise.
Hopping back up on to the hedge for a period of time, the greyish buff tones and stripes on the back looked clearer in comparison to the nearby Reeds, while other birders watching made note of the rusty coloured rump.
The pure white wing diagnostic of Pine Buntings and eliminating any Yellowhammer doubts. Photo by Jim Almond.
Books and images of female Pine Buntings can only get you so far however, and having no field experience we were a little unsure as to what would be noticeable in the field and what wouldn’t. However, once spotted, the Pine Bunting, despite the differences being relatively subtle, did stand out, giving the overall impression of “frosty bunting that looked as if it had been frosted with frost”.

This video of a female Pine Bunting clearly shows the identification features of this tricky species, and is exactly how our bird looked in the field.

This great document explores the identification of Pine Buntings in all plumage stages in extreme detail, and is a fantastic tool when trying to clinch the ID of what can be a tricky species. The excellent Birding Frontiers article also illustrates what to look for when separating female Pine Buntings from other similar species. 

It was, nevertheless, great to have other birders on site who had direct experience with often tricky female Pine Buntings, having seen multiple different individuals before and all offering their confirmation that this was indeed the bird we had travelled to see. Certainly, throughout the afternoon there were a lot of false alarms and confusion in the crowds, with several faintly marked Reed Buntings trapping the unwary while later in the week a Corn Bunting with extensive white on the primaries tricked more than one observer on separate occasions. With Corn Buntings having a much larger, chunkier bill, overall “yellow ochre” colouring and extensive black markings on the chest however, careful observation should be enough to eliminate these as a potential pitfall.
Corn Bunting
Corn Bunting - note the thicker bill and darker spotted chest
Unfortunately, the very few record shots that we did manage to take did very little to do the Pine Bunting justice, my poor ability at taking photos with my phone through a scope attributing to this! 
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire
Dreadful photo!
Rather disappointingly, some individuals who weren’t actually on site tried to ID the bird from this one poor record shot, ignoring ours and everyone else’s field observations in the process and maintaining that it wasn’t the Pine Bunting. It is always worth remembering that field observations on site are always a better way to judge the ID of a bird as opposed to one single photograph depicting the bird in poor quality and at a bad angle, as the recent Orphean Warbler/Lesser Whitethroat mix up in Suffolk just goes to prove. It’s much better to take detailed field notes in correlation with other observers who have past experience of the species in question in the field, than to try and judge from a single shot. 
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
It's hard to make out the details on this set of photos of the Pine Bunting too, illustrating how certain features can be affected by picture quality.
Indeed, if a record shot showing the bird clearly IDable to others is required for all new species seen by a person, then the Dorset Short-toed Eagle, Blyth’s Pipit, Pied-billed Grebe and Wilson’s Phalarope would all have to be taken off my list for a start!
Short-toed Eagle - Dorset
Blyth's Pipit - Yorkshire
Pied-billed Grebe - Gloucestershire
Wilson's Phalarope - Essex
All of which showed well through the scope, despite the poor record shots!
With no confirmed sightings of the Shropshire Pine Bunting since the 2nd, and with the vast majority of photos over the following days depicting the aberrant Corn Bunting, our eastern visitor seems to have moved on. After such strong easterlies during the autumn however and with a bit of a mini influx of Pine Buntings occurring this year, there may well be more hiding out there in Yellowhammer flocks across the country!
Venus Pools, Shropshire

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