Paddyfield Pipit in Cornwall; 23rd October 2019

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An update, 7th November –

Both the Paddyfield and American Buff-bellied Pipits remain in the same field at Sennen, showing well at times and on occasion together. An infomative article from Magnus Robb and the Sound Approach team can be found here – The Sound Approach analysing the call in detail and comparing it to other species including Tawny and African Pipit in addition to the other more expected large pipits. Discussion elsewhere has centred on such issues as whether it could be an aberrant Tawny Pipit or even a hybrid, mechanisms by which it could have arrived here, and the state of the primaries has also been queried. The primaries would seem to be within natural range in heavy moult within passerines however, and there would seem to be no evidence of wing clipping. A return on the DNA analysis is expected next week. Until then, the bird has generally remained popular, although its detractors remain (it is a pipit). Whether it will be able to be placed straight into Category A of the British List is another matter.

A gallery of images received by us can be found on the website Here, along with those from Cornwall’s second American Buff-bellied Pipit.

Just a little bit of background to what will quite possibly be bird of the decade if it turns out to be genuine (which it is increasingly looking like it is). Many people won’t even have heard of this species before, let alone have expected one to pitch up in the UK.

Paddyfield Pipit Anthus rufulus is a ‘small’ large pipit, in the same group as Richard’s Pipit and the much rarer (UK context) vagrant Blyth’s Pipit. Weight wise it is roughly comparable to a Rock Pipit, although structurally quite different (the group having the potential to be split into a separate genus).

Described as a resident breeder and generally considered sedentary throughout it’s range, it is however a short distance altitudinal migrant in parts of the western edge of its range within Afghanistan and India. It occurs throughout Southern Asia east to the Phillipines, generally being split into 5 or 6 subspecies. It hasn’t been recorded anywhere within the WP (Western Palearctic) previously, thus if accepted, this would be a first for the region.

24/10 Mashuq Ahmad

24/10 Mashuq Ahmad

24/10 Mashuq Ahmad

24/10 Mashuq Ahmad

24/10 Richard Blackman

31/10, Mashuq Ahmad

The story of this bird thus far in brief;

‘On the 23rd October, Paul St Pierre had a flyover ‘large pipit’ which had an odd call, and Paul contacted Pete Wilson and Dawn Balmer who were nearby to come and help relocate the bird. Shortly after searching for the bird in the grassy field, Pete noticed a slightly larger pipit on the wire fence and put the scope on it. After a few seconds taking in the bird (expecting a large pipit like Richard’s or Blyth’s) he identified it as an American Buff-bellied Pipit – a great find, and only the second for Cornwall! It quickly flew off with the Meadow Pipits. Thinking this was perhaps what Paul had heard, they continued to search for the American Buff-bellied Pipit and later enjoyed nice views with some other local birders. Late in the afternoon, back in the grassy field, Paul heard the same call he’d first heard and pointed to the bird as it flew. With other commitments, Paul, Pete and Dawn left. Nick Moran was present and followed the bird that Paul pointed to, and expected to see the American Buff-bellied Pipit when he put his scope on the bird. With only the upper half of the bird showing, he was struck by the paleness of the bird and thought that surely that wasn’t the Buff-bellied Pipit! He watch the bird with Steve Rogers and Richard Menari in fading light. Thinking about it overnight and wondering what he had seen, Nick returned the next morning, along with others.

The early morning of the 24th was spent looking for the American Buff-bellied Pipit but there was no sign. Nick then came across Linton Proctor who was photographing a large pipit. Interest then switched to this, and Nick immediately recognised it as the bird he’d seen late on the previous afternoon. There were a good number of birders present, and although some seemed happy it was a Richard’s Pipit, and some suggested Blyth’s, others were struggling with the scruffy plumage of the bird due to a state of heavy moult, and the ‘chup’ call that it was heard to give. Amongst the experienced birders present, none had ever heard a Richard’s Pipit give this ‘chup’ call. Mashuq Ahmad was concerned by the call, and the look and feel of the bird – it just didn’t seem to fit. Mashuq spent much of the day there trying to get a sound recording and photographs. The pipit showed well early afternoon in one particular spot, and it spent time wing stretching and preening. Dawn Balmer wondered whether it might have excreted in that spot, and as soon as the bird had moved on, went over to investigate, and Bethany Wilson quickly spotted some fresh poo. John Martin had a sample pot on him, so the poo was collected and sent off to Martin Collinson at Aberdeen University. Fortunately Toby Phelps was able to get a sound recording and made the call available by Twitter and on this website.

James Lidster heard the recording and contacted bird sound experts Magnus Robb and Thijs Fijen with Toby’s recording. Magnus quickly eliminated Richard’s & Blyth’s and made the ridiculous suggestion that it actually sounded very good for Paddyfield.

Per Twitter – “James, I agree with you that this is definitely not a Richard’s Pipit. I have sound recorded hundreds, and they are regular winterers here in Portugal, and I never heard one make a sound like that. However, I don’t think it can be made to match Blyth’s either. The maximum frquency of the fundamental reaches 8kHz, whereas in Blyth’s it only reaches about 5 kHz.
The bizarre thing is, it’s a dead ringer for a Paddyfield Pipit.”

During the following week the bird was looked for but not seen, the search hampered by some atrocious weather. On the 31st, Paul St Pierre was back in the field at Sennen and Mashuq was just about to join him when Mashuq was informed of the suggestion that the bird might be a Paddyfield Pipit. They relocated the bird and Mashuq managed to get a good recording that contained a sequence of calls – all ‘chup’ calls. This recording was quickly sent onto Magnus via Nick Moran, and this further reinforced his view that it fitted Paddyfield Pipit perfectly.

It makes sense now that the bird Paul originally saw and heard briefly in flight on the 23rd was this pipit, and the American Buff-bellied Pipit was a rather fortunate distraction!

And the rest, as they say, is history … ‘

 

The bird is currently thought to probably be an adult, and in heavy moult, appearing quite scruffy and undergoing primary moult (this condition is not at odds with a generally scruffy appearance for this species in many images online). It could however still be a first winter bird if it is from a ‘winter breeding’ population further south and some species moult into adult plumage once on their wintering gounds – this could well be a possibility for this species, although not stated in the literature.

Features distinguishing it from the generally larger Richard’s Pipit include shorter tail and shorter hindclaw, and the diagnostic call. Other plumage features distinguishing it from both Richard’s and Blyth’s are difficult at the moment as it is in such extensive moult. A faecal sample has been collected for DNA analysis.

Of note there are two recent accepted extra-limital records from the United Arab Emirates, and it has also been noted landing on a ship 60km offshore from the Indian Subcontinent. (As a difficult nondescript species it does however have the potential to have been overlooked on the fringes of the WP (eg Kuwait or elsewhere))

It seems unlikely that this is an escape (an unlikely cagebird) and an extensive ship-assisted voyage would also be unlikely for an insectivore.

Quite what it is doing here, and how it got here is thus anybody’s guess. Notwithstanding the UAE records, this would probably have to be one of, if not the, most outstanding vagrant avian records ever. To have ended up here has taken it 180 degrees and several thousands of miles away from an area that it should be in, which for a bird not generally considered to be migratory puts it perhaps in a league beyond our usual fare of expected Siberian waifs and Asian strays.

The vagaries of migration still go to show us how little we actually know and understand. A Paddyfield Pipit in a muddy field in West Cornwall? That was certainly not on anyone’s radar ….

 

Sonograms showing the Sennen bird and Paddyfield Pipit calls in the field –

Sound recording by Mashuq Ahmad

For more comment or photos on social media see the @cbwps1 twitter feed, or search twitter for ‘Paddyfield Pipit’

Apologies in advance if anyone notable involved in the process of pinning this bird down has been left out or uncredited in this remarkable unfolding story.

Dan Chaney/CBWPS News Team