Lapland Bunting origins, ageing and sexing

Greenland is a long way away

Distances birds travel sometimes just trip off the tongue. So here’s a thing:

Lapland Buntings are one of only two passerines (small birds) which I know of that routinely cross an ocean on migration. Bonkers!

Lapland Bunting 4th Sumburgh Headf (1 of 1)

It was argued for (with some opposition) a while back, that some of our Lapland Buntings were coming from Greenland and not Scandinavia. See Here and Birding World article HERE

Hans Schekkerman graciously wrote from the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago about his article from 1989 which I totally missed!

“Hi Martin,
This mail was triggered by the Lapland Bunting note on your latest blog post. I hadn’t seen the earlier posts nor your Birding World paper. Attached find a paper I wrote in the Dutch journal Limosa on Lapland Buntings trapped at the ringing station where I was (and to a lesser extent still am) involved. I argued that in autumn both Greenlandic and Scandinavian birds occur in The Netherlands, with Greenland birds predominating in the smaller numbers occurring early in the autumn. At least in males, wing lengths decrease over time (fig 5) and early-autumn wings were closer to published wing lengths from Greenland than from Scandinavia. There are English captions and a summary, and besides Dutch is easy..
Following this paper we started to measure bill lengths of our trapped buntings (as these seem to differ even more between the subspecies than wings), but unfortunately numbers trapped dropped considerably around that same time, and I have never come round to analyse whether the smallish sample produced anything interesting..
Best whishes, Hans”

Thanks Hans. Read his paper:

Schekkerman 1989 Limosa – Biometrie en herkomst van IJsgorzen in Nederland


First winter male at Sumburgh, Shetland

I have learnt some bits. Not surprising, but still. On Shetland recently, a little highlight especially for my companion Yoav Perlman, were close views of this Lapland Bunting. Featured briefly here.

So what can we see to try to see of it’s a male or female and how old it is:

Lapland Bunting 3a (1 of 1)

A fairly bright bird with some nice reddish/ chestnut bits. Check out that nape… It also has a fairly obvious blackish ‘bib’ of spots (not streaks) just emerging on the breast. These are what I have looked for as having a greater bias towards males plumage than females. By comparison some birds – presumed to be females – have very grey streaked napes and streaked grey breast (not black spots). It is argued that adult females can have male-like features, so it’s not always straightforward. Here’s a lovely pic showcasing what could be a 1cy female recently at Bempton RSPB by Tony Dixon. See HERE

So using to the ‘ringer’s Bible,’ Svensson. The Sumburgh bird shows:

  • The bill base on this bird is brown (1cy) not yellow (adult)
  • The tail feathers look slightly pointed and frayed to me (1cy) and not broader + rounded (adult)
  • The crown feathers have quite extensive black fringe – better for male than female.


Lapland Bunting 4th Sumburgh Headf (1 of 1)

Lapland Bunting 5a (1 of 1) Lapland Bunting 6a (1 of 1)

Above: The tail feathers reach a gentle pointed tip and that right one is frayed 🙂

Lapland Bunting 8a (1 of 1)

Above: Good view of the crown reveals a lot of black fringing to the central crown feathers. Svensson indicated this is better for male than female.

So I do think the Sumburgh bird is a 1cy (first winter) male. The chestnut nape and black spotty breast stand-up 🙂

Lapland Bunting a 4th Sumburgh Head (1 of 1)


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