Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Halloween Richard's Pipit and The Case Of The Dove

Saturday 31st October 2009. Or, in short terms; Halloween. A week earlier, it was my last day in Corsica and I had been looking at Dartford Warblers and Sardinian Warblers in the lush maquis shrub. But now I was back in Aberdeen, and had been so since the 26th. I didn't find it hard to settle back in to Scotland and Aberdeen, despite the drastic differences between it and Corsica, and I didn't feel at all 'birdwatched out', so to speak. In fact, I found myself out birding that next Saturday. However, this wouldn't have happened if I hadn't have been lured out by a particular species of bird....

Whilst I was in Corsica I was very disappointed to find that, due to a horrific spell of heavy rain and stormy weather, that I had missed the biggest fall of Firecrests in Aberdeenshire to date, with maybe up to 10 birds present in coastal areas of the county at one time, with birds at the Ythan, the nearby town of Collieston, Rattray Head, Longhaven... the list goes on. Not just that, there were also good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers, a couple of Red-breasted Flycatchers and Pallas's Warblers, and a Radde's Warbler all reported, the latter species reported in the battery at Girdleness, a location I had been searching meticulously all year for passerines! To know I had missed all this got me annoyed. My Dad, despite being in Aberdeen whilst the birds were reported, wasn't able to see any of them either, and by the time I had arrived back all the birds reported had cleared off. However, that Saturday morning when I checked Birdguides, I was in for a surprise.... A Richard's Pipit had been reported at Girdlness. After a year thus far pretty much devoid of any rare passerine species at Girdleness, my Dad and I thought it only fair to go down and see this bird. Not only that, but we had missed the Richard's Pipit at West Runton in October, making it even more justifiable to go down there.

The bird was reported at roughly 10:45am, seen flitting in the long grass beside the golf course on St Fitticks road. This long grass was near to a derelict building and a purple burger van. Obviously readers that haven't been to Girdleness won't associate with this particular area, but if your wondering, here was where it had been seen. Yes, its not exactly the nicest area to behold, but still!

When we arrived we saw around 6 birders with their eyes on the area pictued above. We walked up to them, and got some information as to the pipit's exact whereabouts.

"It's in the long grass towards the wall and the fence at the back there," said one man, " Its hard to see through the bins but with the scope you should be able to see it. Its a bit flighty, and may occasionally go up onto the wall too."

Excitedly I set up our equipment and focused on the area where the bird had been seen. For a minute or so I couldn't find the bird, but eventually, and to my delight, I saw the head of a bird pop up above the long grass. It was the Richard's Pipit. There really was no mistaking it. It was a very large pipit, looking bigger than something of Skylark size, with long legs and a very long tail (almost wagtail length tail). I noticed some markings on the breast but generally the bird was very pale.The lorals were black, and the characterstic stance with the head turned upwards was one of its main giveaway features. I also noticed a very prominent, creamy supercilium on the bird. Here is a picture of the bird. This is not my own, it is Ken Hall's, who saw it on a different occasion from me. I thank him for giving me permission to use his photo.

The pipit stayed in the long grass by the derelict building for a good half an hour. On a couple of occasions it flitted up on to the wall, giving better views than in the grass, but it generally spent most of its time in the grass, meaning we weren't watching it constantly for half an hour, just every couple of minutes appear above the grass. When the bird did show it was so satisfying to watch; it was my first rare pipit ever, and its general behaviour and plumage patterns were interesting to study. It was funny to think that it had come all the way from Siberia, and was now flying about just outside Aberdeen! Presumably it had also been brought in by the nasty weather that had occured that week. When a group of boisterous children dressed up in their halloween costumes waded through the grass, shouting their heads off, the pipit took to the air. It stayed in flight for a while, but was tracked by each and every birder until it landed on the other side of the road. Watching it whilst in the air was interesting. The flight pattern was undulating, yet another similar feature it had to wagtails. In flight the longness of the tail was also more prominent, and it really just looked like an oversized wagtail. It was a good distance away when it was re-located (on the grass near a muddy pool on the other side of the road from the derelict building and the golf course) so views weren't really as satisfactory as before, despite the bird not being concealed by the long grass. But you could still see it there. Eventually a few impatient birders decided they were going to try and get closer to it for some record shots and better views. This was a bad move, as they managed to scare off the bird, and from then on it wasn't relocated that day. Overall I was very happy to have seen the Richard's Pipit, and it was great just to hear the bird reported and drive down to see it straight afterwards. It was also a life tick for me. I guess you could call that outing twitching, but hardly extreme twitching when it was basically in my local patch just a 15 minutes drive away and a few miles from my house in the centre of Aberdeen! The pipit would later be seen by other observers, and stayed around for another few days after my sighting.

So, that was my Halloween basically, nothing else went on! A few weeks later, or to be precise 14th November, I was out again for my first proper birdwatch since I had returned from Corsica (the Richard's Pipit experience was basically just a pop down to see it and then back home again, not really a proper birding day!). I planned to check all three places that I regularly visit: Girdleness, the Ythan Estuary and the Loch of Strathbeg. We started out at Girdleness, where we particularly hoped to pick up a flock of 8 Snow Buntings that had been spotted in Greyhope Bay car park near the lighthouse. From reports from previous observers of this flock, we found out that they were showing very well there, and were feeding on birdseed presumably put out from them by a mystery individual. After a little look round the corner at Nigg Bay and the golf course on St Fitticks Road (just in case the Richard's Pipit was still present!), we headed to Greyhope Bay. When we arrived there, sure enough there were the Snow Buntings, feeding busily at the far edge of the car park. Beside them a man was kneeling, camera in hand and taking pictures of the flock. This man we soon discovered was Andrew Whitehouse, who I'd been acquainted with in September at the Scottish Birdforum Bash. We quickly greeted, and then he left to check the rest of the Ness. At this point I went with the camera to approach the buntings, which had flown to the otherside of the car park when a member of public had driven off. This time I managed to get wonderfully close to them without scaring them off, maybe 5ft away from them. Picture-wise however there was just one problem. It was horribly windy, and as I tried to picture the birds the image was horribly blurry and at times shot nowhere near the actually birds. I decided to wait for a while until the the wind died down a bit, and took the chance to just look at the birds, which was just fantastic! They were all winter plumage birds, each with superb colourations; generally very pale and white, but with a mottled pale ginger, blackish and white above, and pale ginger and white below. 7 of the 8 birds were female, with the male clearly standing out from his female companions with quite a lot more white visible in his plumage. The views of them really couldn't have been better, and it was just magical being right up close to them, being able to experience what its like being that close to nature. It was just brilliant. The wind did eventually die down a little, enough for me to get some shots. They're pretty crappy pictures of a flock of birds that were maximum 10ft away from me, but its the best I could do in the conditions I was facing and with the limited technology I have! Here are some of them, the first of which is probably the best.

I sat there by the birds for half an hour, just admiring them. I must admit they are one of my favourite species of passerine. My Dad watched them from the car whilst looking for other things in the bay. I eventually joined him in the car, where he pointed out a Black-throated Diver pretty close to the shore, a good year tick for us. There were also a few Red-throated Divers close in shore (the Black-throated clearly much darker than these birds), the albino oystercatcher known to Ness birders as The Freak, and a count of 18 Purple Sandpipers. We decided, having had very satisfying views of the Snow Buntings and having checked the rest of the area that we would push off from Girdleness and get on with the rest of our day as we'd planned. However, just as we were leaving, we saw Andrew again. As he saw us, he walked over to the car. He had something to tell us. What was it?

"A Rufous Turtle Dove has just been reported at Collieston"

'Rufous Turtle Dove?!' I thought to myself in excitement, 'Now that's seriously rare!'

" Feel free to hop in Andrew," replied my Dad, " We were going up that way anyway!"

Rufous Turtle Doves are otherwise known as Oriental Turtle Doves. There are just 8 records of this species in the UK, and when Andrew told us of this bird being reported I knew that we were possibly in for an amazing day's birding! With keeness we headed up to Collieston. On the way, I had a look at what the bird looked like in the Collin's Guide, and to me, it wasn't that much different from a European Turtle Dove; just browner, a bit bigger and with more rufous on the wing. This Rufous Turtle Dove was reported to be of the subspecies Streptopelia orientalis meena, or in shortened terms, meena. The other subspecies is Streptopelia orientalis orientalis. The latter is seen in Siberia, whilst meena is seen in parts of Central Asia. On the way the three of us basically discussed the bird and its characteristics, and Andrew gave us the exact location of the bird, saying that it was in a garden towards the Sand Loch, which is a loch just outside the village and is part of the Forvie National Reserve. As we arrived in Collieston we were slightly confused as how to get to this location. However, we were lucky enough to bump into a man with binoculars walking down the villages main road. This man happened to be the spotter of the bird (I will leave his name anonymous). He kindly gave us directions, and we soon found a place to park and were advancing to where the bird was being watched. As we left the village behind us and the land opened out into the rolling Aberdeenshire countryside, we saw a good number of birders in the distance, all with scopes and with their eyes on a stubble field. We approached them.

" Is the Dove showing?" I asked one of the birders excitedly as we joined the group.

" Not right now....," he replied, " Before you arrived it was showing well in one of the trees in the garden of the house nearest to us looking awfully bedraggled and exhausted. The horrible weather must have nearly killed the poor thing... But yes, it has flown into this stubble field ford food and is at present not showing. Its been seen a couple of times since its been in there though, and is close to the top of where the field rises slightly. If you have patience it should eventually show, considering how many of us are here trying to see it."

With this information the three of us set up our equipment and waited. The weather, however, made it difficult to be patinet. It was just foul. Earlier in the day it had been sunny, but by the time we reached Collieston it had gone grey. The wind, as it had been earlier was still very strong, but it was much colder than before. Having the incredibly strong wind beating against your face constantly and being cold was not by any means a pleasurable experience, and you had this sort of tendency to want to retire back to the car. However, in the end, patience paid off, when a birder made an ejaculation of delight:

" Its showing again! Towards the top of the dip like before!"

At the time I was using the scope, and I was quickly onto the bird. Above the stubble, you could see its head and the upper part of its body. As I watched it, it struck me as hardly that different from an ordinary European Turtle Dove. It was clearly one of those birds that had very subtle differences from a related species (e.g. Pacific Golden and Golden Plover). Despite the bird bearing very little difference I was still delighted to watch it. I didn't have a clue that I'd be seeing something of such rarity! It stayed in view for 30 seconds, and then popped out of view again. From watching the bird for that short period of time I drew a few conclusions. It did appear more dusky, dark and brown in comparison to a Turtle Dove, especially on the neck and belly. I also noticed a few rufous feathers on the upper back and wings which were quite prominent. A couple of minutes later, it showed again, but for hardly as long, maybe for 15 seconds max. This, for me, however, weren't good enough views. I would have much preferred to have seen it in the garden before, when it was showing well rather than briefly. Having shown twice, we all waited for it appear again..... but it didn't. 20 minutes or so passed, and a lot of us were getting concerned. Had it gone over the dip in the field? None of us really wanted to enter the field as we thought it would be private property. Also, the horrible weather conditions were continuing to get to us all. What to do now?

Eventually, the spotter of the Dove appeared and he told us that it should be ok to enter the field. With this confirmation, a mass of us entered the field in the hope that we'd flush it up. It was a rather comical sight, watching up to 15 birders trudging through a field in search of a single dove, but how else were we going to re-find the bird? The whole of the field was covered, and a few birders including Andrew checked the adjacent fields for the bird But nothing.... Where was it? We all congregated back by the garden as we had done originally, with those that had had good views of it in the garden heading home. How much longer could we stand before we too would head off? Would that be the last we'd see of the bird? We were nigh on giving up when all of a sudden there was another shout:

" Here it is. Its just flown into the shelter of a bush on the otherside of the road from the stubble field!"

Relief, immense relief! That's what we all experienced. Having tried to re-locate it for a good hour and a half in the bitter weather conditions, this was our reward! The views were excellent, at maybe only 10 feet away, just perfect for pictures. You didn't even need to look at it through the bins. Andrew got a picture, and he has very kindly let me use his picture for this blog. Thanks very much Andrew!

As you can see here though, the bird was fairly knackered, all fluffed up in a ball like shape, looking very sleepy. Now I could see its whole body it was clear just how brown it was; it was way darker than any Turtle Dove I had seen previously. It stayed there for a good half an hour, with many people getting record shots of the bird. Unfortunately my camera was out of battery due to all the faffing about I had to do to get pictures of the Snow Buntings I had seen earlier that day, so I wasn't able to get any pictures of my own. Eventually, it took off from its shelter area and headed seawards. Having now had much better views, we decided it was time to head off, as it was near to getting dark. The original plan for the day, which was to check all three of my patches, had clearly not gone through, but for good reasons. Seeing that the Rufous Turtle Dove I was watching was a mega rarity and the 8th bird to ever have turned up in the UK, it was well worth staying to see the bird at Collieston, despite the amount of time that was wasted looking for it! I also love doves in general. I think they are beautiful birds, with some exquisite plumages. It was just brilliant watching it as it was a lovely looking bird and I knew it was the rarest bird in the country at that point So, very satisified, we headed back to Aberdeen, dropping off Andrew at his home in Torry on the way.

That evening I logged on to Birdforum to see what people's reaction to the Rufous Turtle Dove's arrival. I read the whole thread on the bird, and most people's reactions seemed to be surprised and rather jealous of the bird. Some people all the way down from England were willing to come up and twitch it, and a lot were eager to see pictures of the bird. Eventually the first picture was shown. This picture was the start of huge controversy.... It was now being doubted whether this bird was a Rufous Turtle Dove at all... On the thread loads of complex and in depth discussion took place, with people giving their opinions on the bird and giving comparison pictures of definite Rufous Turtle Doves. Post by post, I watched what was happening on the thread, and each time I was getting more worried... Most people were saying that it was a Turtle Dove, and very few people gave evidence to how the bird could be a Rufous Turtle Dove....

The next day it was concluded that the bird was actually a Turtle Dove, with a major world birder giving his say elsewhere on the Internet that it was a Turtle and the local county bird recorder Paul Baxter and well known aberdeenshire birder Andy Webb also giving their opinions, stating that the horrible wind and rain had caused a false impression, making it seem a lot browner and different than a normal Turtle Dove. Obviously, if the dove isn't accepted by the county bird recorder then it isn't a Rufous Turtle Dove. This did annoy me to be frank, as I had been deprived of what would have been the rarest bird I had ever seen, and I had spent all that time looking for it. I am sure quite a few of all the birders that went to see it would have felt similar to me. However, even though the dove was confirmed a Eursian Turtle, I was still pretty happy. Turtle Doves are basically vagrants in Scotland, and there have been very few records of them in the country I imagine. I also had only seen two Turtle Doves prior to this bird, with both being seen in South-east England, so its very rare for me to see them anyway! It would definitely be a first for Scotland for most that went to see it, so it was still good to have put in the effort to go there. I guess everyone conclude that it was an 'educational' bird, and certainly one that most have learnt from. If you're interested in looking at the topic in which all this controversy over what species the dove was took place (if you haven't already), see here:

I am now that bit closer to getting up to date with my blog. Eventually I will make it!

Anyway, thanks for reading this entry,



  1. Great Post!!!
    What a shame the TD turned out to be a bog standard one.
    nice pic's you have there (and Andrew's/Ken's)

  2. Hey Ashley, thanks very much for your comment and for complimenting my photos. Obviously Ken and Andrew's are better than mine!

    I know it was a shame that it was just a TD, but a brilliant day nonetheless! It was nice to be able to see three quality species soon after I got back from Corsica. In my next entry I will be charting my late year and early winter birding experiences, including when I went in search of the King Eider in Burghead, Morayshire.



  3. Hi joseph great post and pictures, well done on the Richards pipit and sorry the TD turned out not to be a RTD , but as you said TD are good birds to and it was educational .

  4. Hi Robbie. Cheers for your kind words. Yeah it was a shame, but you have to get over these things.