Female Pine Bunting: Time to Look!

Martin Garner

Finding a female Pine Bunting in November 2003 at Flamborough Head let to the discovery that for every male Pine Bunting trapped on the near continent, 2 FEMALE Pine Buntings were trapped.  Female Pine Buntings seem to be overlooked in Britain (1 female to every 5 males in Britain).

Brydon Thomason and Mike Pennington found a female Pine Bunting on Unst, Shetland in November 2011. Here are Brydon’s photos in a reblogged post as we are ‘in’ the right time of year…

female Pine Bunting, Clibberswick, Unst, Shetland, November 2011. © Brydon Thomason

Follow-up notes on the 2003 Flamborough bird:

What intrigued me was that the bird did not make me immediately think ‘Pine Bunting’ (* see full account at end), given the field conditions and my limited experience, and I wondered again the likelihood of female Pine Buntings simply being overlooked in this country as they are so much less striking than males. Pine Buntings are likely to be buried away in Yellowhammer flocks under conditions whereby the flocks are often not easy to scrutinise. The following statistics might enable us to be better informed and more inspired in looking for Pine Buntings in Britain:

According to Occhiato (2003) the situation with wintering birds in Italy can be summarised as follows:

They arrive from second half of October, but chiefly in first half of November. Maximum numbers occur mid-December to mid-February. The last birds leave the wintering grounds during first week of March.

70% of 110 birds were first-winters.

Ratio of one male to every two females!

Of 12 trapped birds in December 1995, six were male, six were female and nine of the 12 were first-winters.

If we compare these figures with the vagrants occurring in Northwest Europe we find a significantly different situation. Of about 40 records in Britain up to 2003, only eight of these are listed as females, most of the rest were identified as males. Thus a rough ratio of about one female to five males. Also interesting is that of male Pine Buntings, half of the records have been recorded in mainland Britain, widely spread from Dorset, and London, through the middle of the country to the east and north east coasts. In contrast most of the female Pine Buntings  (six of the eight records) have occurred in the Northern Isles (five) and Scillies (one) where Yellowhammers are rare or scarce. The only accepted records of females on the mainland are the Big Waters bird 18th of February to 16th of March 1990 and amazingly a female found dead at a roadside in Ewhurst, Surrey on 29th January 1989.

To compliment this picture there have been 31 records of 32 individuals of Pine Bunting in the Netherlands. Of these, 24 were sexed as male and nine as female (a ratio of nearly one female to every three males) and most records concern birds trapped at ringing stations ( A. van den Berg pers comms).

It would seem to be clear that female Pine Buntings are being overlooked in mainland Britain and indeed in Western Europe. Targeting a few more winter Yellowhammer flocks would not be a bad pursuit!

Click on labelled images for larger size

female Pine Bunting, Clibberswick, Unst, Shetland, November 2011. © Brydon Thomason

Account of find and field appearance of Flamborough bird, November 2003

 * female Pine Bunting are overlooked

* could occur anywhere in inland Britain

* well worth a winter search for

 Looking for a Pine Bunting…

I am a glutton for trying to ‘target’ the finding of rare birds. Mostly it feels like chasing the wind, but once in a while the ‘genning up’ on, and making targeted attempts at, finding rarities has its payoffs. One species that has been in my sights over the last couple of years is Pine Bunting. I had been chewing on the theory that we must get more Yellowhammer/Pine Bunting hybrids/intergrades in Britain than are reported, particularly as ‘yellow hybrids’ (i.e. birds more like Yellowhammers but with some Pine Bunting characters) occur in a ratio of one hybrid to seven Yellowhammers, no further away than the Southeast Baltic and Estonia/ Latvia region (Panov 2003). I had even taken to ‘bothering’ various folk about certain ‘interesting’ Yellowhammers photographed in Britain, but no-one seemed that bothered! Undeterred, I figured I was probably not that likely to find a real Pine Bunting, but I could at least study the Yellowhammers a bit more and see if I could discern the presence of birds with hybrid characters.

With this background in mind, I decided to visit Flamborough Head on 12th November 2003, with the chief hope of seeing the Hume’s Warbler which had been present in Old Fall Plantation the previous few days. John McLoughlin had the same idea so we agreed to meet early morning at Flamborough. I was down Old Fall hedge before first light which eventually had the positive result of great looks at the Hume’s with no-one around but was also negative because the late arriving McLoughlin (new baby was the lame excuse) found two Tundra Bean Geese in the daylight which I had almost certainly walked past in the dark!

There were clearly some migrant birds following the overnight rain and a blustery southeast wind , so I decided to check  South Landing next, where I found good numbers of winter thrushes, and continental versions of Chaffinch, Robin and several pale Dunnocks. Encouraged I grabbed a bite of lunch and headed off more purposefully with Yellowhammer study in mind. Having checked out Holmes Gut, I then decide to tackle the northern section of the outer head which I knew to be one of the best areas for Yellowhammers due to a Pheasant rearing programme and the consequent abundance of seed. I came to wish that I had not then decided to call at the house of an affable Mike Pearson’s for a brief ‘hello’, as he informed me that Andrew Allport had seen a Pine Bunting the previous day near the road at the end of Old Fall hedge. As my plan had been to look through the Yellowhammers anyway, I was obviously excited at the prospect of a real Pine Bunting being around and really frustrated as any chance of a ‘self-find’ would be contaminated by prior knowledge!

I spent about an hour walking down to Flatmere, checking the feeder areas and attendant Yellowhammers, with the highlight of two day-flying Barn Owls and a redpoll over. Walking back up the hedge not far from roadside pool, there were clearly quite large numbers of birds around a Pheasant feeder, mostly Yellowhammers (about 40) with a few Reed Buntings, Linnets and Tree Sparrows. Unfortunately most of the birds were hidden, feeding in a ditch, periodically rising up through a section of hedge where they could be seen. I opted for a wait and see strategy and after about 20 minutes one bird in particular caught my attention.

Perched facing slightly away from me and a foot or so ‘into’ the hedge was a ‘Yellowhammer- type’ bird but eye-catchingly colder, paler and particularly greyer above compared with other female Yellowhammers. There was no yellow immediately visible, but this did not trouble me much as (particularly young) female Yellowhammers often give a first impression of lacking yellow in certain views. The supercilium was particularly broad and buffy-looking with no hint of yellow or olive. At this point I had no sense of adrenaline rush, having checked many ‘dull Yellowhammers’  in the past, which kept me rather cautious, so  I casually glanced down at the primary fringes which were in clear view ( as the bird was only about 30 feet away). It was immediately apparent that most of the outer edge of the outer three (ish) primaries was white; not just white, but as I focused my telescope ….gleaming white! I know in theory this meant that this bird had to be a Pine Bunting. I was still rather non-plussed about it. I had only seen male Pine Bunting, and as these are so vivid I suppose I expected a female Pine Bunting to be equally striking. For some reason (perhaps, my recollection of reading about the ‘Big Waters Pine Bunting’) I expected a bird with an obviously whitish supercilium and looking grey and white overall and perhaps obviously so around the face. The feature that most bothered me at the time was the big buffy/light brown supercilium…it wasn’t what I expected for a female Pine Bunting.

I then spent the next five minutes or so noting all that I could see of the bird. As it continued facing slightly away, part of the lower belly was obscured, so I moved around to try and get a better view. Unfortunately this created general disturbance in the bush and my interesting bird dropped down, out of sight. A further disturbance then caused most of about 30-40 birds to explode out of the hedge and fly off in different directions. As daylight was beginning to fade I headed back to the car with a mix of emotions. It definitely had white primary fringes, and was clearly colder grey brown in plumage tones with no yellow in the plumage, but it looked so ‘relatively boring’ and I had expected more obvious white to jump out at me in the face pattern. Was that big buffy supercilium okay for a Pine Bunting? Fortunately I had a copy of the Collins Bird Guide with me in the car and to my delight it appeared the features I was struggling with on this bird appeared to be normal for Pine Bunting. So all things considered it seemed to be one. Now I had another dilemma. The bird was on private land (for which I had permission to visit) and the landowner, I knew, was particularly sensitive about NOT wanting hoards of people near the Pheasant- rearing area. I made the assumption that this must be A.A.’s bird from the previous day (even though I did not know what sex his bird was) and as he had seen it near an area open to the public, there was every chance the bird could fly back here.  I rang John McLoughlin with the news, though I still wanted the opportunity to find out more about the appearance of female Pine Buntings once back at home, to remove any niggling doubts due to my lack of experience. Also as I had not seen every part of the plumage (seeing the central part of the lower belly had eluded me) I asked him to put out a cautiously worded message in the hope that the bird would revisit the public area with the roving Yellowhammers.


Chiefly like a Yellowhammer in overall plumage patterns, with the following features noted: Bill bi-coloured as Yellowhammer. Crown well streaked with evenly fine dark ‘ticked’ lines. Facial pattern overall like Yellowhammer but with strikingly broad (looked broader than most Yellowhammer) buffy or light brown-washed supercilium. Head pattern overall felt a little ‘stronger’/ more well defined  (especially dark area around ear coverts) than Yellowhammer. Paler, creamy submoustachial stripe and throat with dark ticks of streaking down from malar point. No yellow whatsoever in facial pattern, submoustachial area or throat (carefully looked) thus this area was overall lighter in tone than Yellowhammer. Underparts not fully visible, but flanks well streaked dark brownish/ to  blackish (some) on light buff -washed flanks, buff colour fading to dirty whitish/ off white towards belly and lower breast. Central belly frustratingly not visible. Undertail coverts just visible appeared buffy-white/off-white again with no yellow tones in all visible area parts of underparts, despite scrutiny. Nape greyish and paler than Yellowhammer, with whole of rest of upperparts dark streaked and with dark centres to flight feathers, but ground colour colder, paler and greyer looking than any other Yellowhammer (this is what first caught my attention in particular the greyish background colour to the mantle and  scapulars). Wing coverts tipped buffy/cream. Gleaming white fringe to most of the visible length of about three or more outer primaries (I was too busy determining in my own mind that these fringes really were white and not subtly yellow to count exactly how many feathers were involved). Rump also stood out somehow as different from Yellowhammers, with the rufous feathers looking cleaner and paler than on Yellowhammer, with clean, crisp whitish fringes. Tail feathers fringed white, again no yellow apparent. No call heard.

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