The whistleri conundrum

Yesterday, whilst on duty at Cley NWT, I was walking along East Bank towards the car park when I noticed a pipit fly up from the grass at the edge of the drain and drop down a short distance away. Knowing that there’d been a report of a Water Pipit on the Serpentine a couple of days before I was keen to see the bird at close quarters. When I did eventually locate it, at medium range, I was somewhat surprised to find that I was looking at a pipit sp with obvious apricot underparts! However, it was quickly apparent that this wasn’t the hoped for Water Pipit but a probable aberrant Meadow Pipit. Despite at times looking rather reminiscent of a Red-throated Pipit, apart from it’s distinctive coloured underparts, all other id features conformed to Meadow Pipit – with olive tones on it’s back and head, weak but defined streaking on the flanks and pinkish/yellow legs. The bird didn’t call whilst I was watching but  it was heard to do so later in the morning – giving confirmation of it’s id as Meadow Pipit.

I remained curious about the bird and mentioned it to Steve Gantlett and Carl Chapman – who saw the bird shortly after me. Steve very kindly alerted me to an article by Richard Porter in Birding World, in which he recounts a similar encounter with a pipit on Blakeney Point in March 2004. The question examined in the article is whether or not such ‘orange breasted’ Meadow Pipits are possibly of the Irish or western Scottish race whistleri? Due to the general variation of plumage in Meadow Pipits, shifting taxonomy and the apparent infrequency of records of ‘orange breasted’ pipits, the question of the origins of such birds goes largely unresolved.

For a more coherent account of the issues raised by ‘orange breasted’ pipits read Birding World  2005 (18: 169-172) and watch out for much better photos of the Cley bird on Carl’s blog. I leave you with these cautionary words from Richard Porter:

This short contribution may encourage a greater awareness of the whistleri conundrum. Suffice to say that some Meadow Pipits in the west of their range and elsewhere can be decidedly orange-buff below, and sometimes they have greatly reduced streaking on the under-parts. Perhaps the birds addressed in this note are extreme forms of whistleri, or maybe they are simply individuals showing erythrism (excess red pigmentation), but what is equally important from a birding point of view is the fact that such birds can resemble Red-throated Pipit (or indeed superficially, Water Pipit! TW) Unless looked at carefully, they can be a pitfall for the unwary.

In the mean time you’ll have to put up with my rather inferior grab shots!

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‘orange bellied’ Meadow Pipit – Cley NWT, 30th March 2015 

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This entry was posted in Birding.

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