Friday, 19 December 2014

The Five Bird Theory - Penduline Tits at Topsham Rec

19th December 2014 - Topsham


I'd just spent a frustrating hour hoping to get a better look at a Med Gull in order to read it's colour ring and wishing I'd brought my scope. I was on the point of leaving when the gulls all took flight briefly so, hoping my Med Gull had resettled somewhere closer, I turned back for a final scan before giving up. Behind the gulls I picked up three small passerines at the edge of the reeds, small for Reed Buntings I thought, and there was something familiar about the way they moved. Without a scope the only way I was going to get a better view was with my camera. Luckily the light was good and I could use a low ISO and not worry too much about motion blur, all the same I steadied my lens against a tree and blasted off a couple of dozen shots. Cropping in massively on the back of my camera I saw a couple of pale nondescript shapes and then a tiny masked bandit - pretty much as I saw at BGM on Sunday last week - Penduline Tits!

After a couple of minutes they disappeared and unless they prefer to feed on the edges the chances of seeing them again must be slim.

I expected my photos to be poor - the distance was a little over 100m - and they were, but they did reveal something interesting. At BGM on the 7th I saw one bird with a solid dark mask and two with only a faint ghost of a mask. All three of my birds appear to have prominent masks. Here's the photos - and though they may well be the worst I've ever posted I make no apologies. [edit - just realised I've labelled all photos with wrong date, should be 19/12/2014]

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground. How many can you see?

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground

I went through all the photos and cut and pasted to group images for each bird, I've labelled them A,B and C. I've also enlarged them for 'easier' viewing.

Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird A

Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird A
Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird B
Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird C

Finally here's a composite of both B and C together - I found them hard to separate in these shots.

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Birds B and C

The apparent head pattern of each bird varies considerably between photos but each at times shows a strong dark mask; clearly the two faint masked birds from BGM are not here, and two new birds are. The obvious question now is: can they be aged and sexed?

Svensson (1992) states that Penduline Tits in autumn can be aged by the extent of the facial mask, 'small, short' in 1Y, and crown and nape 'largely brownish' (also by a moult limit in the greater coverts but we can forget about that from these photos); mask prominent and crown and nape 'grey, in some tinged brown' in adults. On the other hand Blasco-Zumeta and Heinz (date?) in their excellent guide to ageing and sexing Penduline Tits (for PDF see References) have photos showing 1Y males looking a lot like adults in the extent of their mask; whether this is just a feature of Iberian birds is not clear. So none of these three look like 1Y's according to Svensson at least. Two of the birds I saw last week certainly were not adults, as was a bird photographed by Dave Stone at Dart's Farm on the 15th, see Devon Bird News (his other bird, an adult, looks like a female to me). Incidentally, since all 1Y's will have undergone a partial moult by now they will be 1st winters rather than juveniles.

If they aren't 1Y's can they be sexed? According to Svensson there are three main features:

Mask - extensive and onto forehead in males, narrow and little on forehead in females.

Mantle - deep rufous in males, yellowish red-brown in females (from photos there should also be greater contrast with the nape in males).

Breast - much rufous flecking in males, no or little rufous in females.

While there is a definite mask on all three birds, on none does it clearly extend on to the forehead. There is a suggestion of a contrast between pale nape and dark mantle on some shots but I'm not confident about it. As for the difference in breast flecking, clearly not visible on these images. Frankly I think I may be pushing a little hard on what are some really poor photos but if anyone has other opinions I'd love to hear.

At the very least I can confidently say I've seen at least five Penduline Tits in Topsham this December, not to mention a new patch bird. Now we just need some more photos.

References

Blasco-Zumeta, Javier, and Heinze, Gerd-Michael. Identification Atlas of Aragón's Birds - Penduline Tit. PDF available here

Svensson, Lars. Identification Guide to European Passerines, 4th edition 1992.

5 comments:

  1. Great stuff Tim and brilliant patch find. Makes you wonder just how many more are lurking in suitable habitat??!

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  2. Thanks Chris, I was delighted as you can imagine. Just wish they'd been this side of the river and hung around a bit. Still, I believe I've now seen at least 5 for certain and from the spread of sightings and the various descriptions I've heard there could be twice that. Seems they're not just in reed mace either. Only a matter of time before you get some on the Otter I'm sure.

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  3. I read your article on the Lanius cristatus shrikes. I need your help in identifying a shrike which I suspect is Lanius cristatus arenarius.

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  4. Hi, happy to help. Do you have photos? If so, you could email them to me at timworfolk-AT-gmail.com.

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