Category Archives: 24) Buntings

Shetland Spring Birding Part 2

1/2 hour of Migrant Madness 

It was on Unst where the most favoured memory (amoung many) of the week’s holiday with Shetland Nature happened. So let’s fast forward:

Marsh Warbler at Skaw May 2013 RBMarsh Warbler at Skaw, Unst (Robbie Brookes). Part of a half hours of scarce/ rare migrant fun. below right- one of the 2 female Red-backed Shrikes that shared the same patch.

Team effort is a key element for Shetland Nature holidays, both in the group and working with Shetland residents. Tuesday afternoon, Unst resident Robbie Brookes contacted us to say he’d seen and acrocephalus Warbler at Skaw that looked interesting. Worth a check, red backed Shrike female skawwe arrived at Skaw to banks of mist rolling in on NE breeze. Woah, special conditions. We soon located a Garden Warbler, a Spotted Flycatcher and another bird ‘flew’ in’ to join them but remained obscured. With a little effort we were soon having great views of a spring Marsh Warbler and discussing the finer ID points. Up in the background popped  a female Red-backed Shrike. Fantastic! 2 minutes later another Red-backed Shrike, both on view at the same time. Hold on. Fog, nor’ east winds Now we’re cookin’. In the next half hour we found 6 Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitehroat. Then the icing on the cake: 2 of our guest returning from the beach said a couple of bird had been flitting about on the stream. Quick stroll down and BOOM! a Little Bunting; regular in autumn but very rare in spring. What a stunning bird and a life tick for most of the group.

Little Bunting Skaw 5

Little Bunting Skaw one

Little Bunting, Skaw, May 2013. This was like a little wee jewel feeding along the stream at Skaw. Having already seen Marsh Warbler, 2 Red-backed Shrikes and bunch of other migrants the previous half hour, this rare spring bunting (c 11 spring records ever in Shetland), brought adrenaline to a peak

Spotted Flycatcher  May 13Spotted Flycatcher– c 6 at Skaw in little rush of migrants

Garden Warbler Skaw unst May 13Garden Warbler, in same patch of Spearmint as the Marsh Warbler

Sanderling  May 13Sanderling– beautiful in fresh plumage and bound for the high arctic; one of the background birds on the beach at Skaw, Unst

Dunlin GutcherDunlin, on seaweed strewn beaches around Unst and Yell. Dunlin gave lovely breeding displays with wing-lifting and trilling calls. Both the Shetland breeding schinzii subspecies and more northerly bound ‘alpina’ were seen, the latter often with the Sanderling. This presumed shinzii was unusual in having such obviously white tips to the scapulars…

Against this peak birding moment in Unst we savoured the majestic Hermaness with oodles of  Bonxies, singing and displaying Dunlin and Golden Plover, another majestic  seabird cliff, stunning spring Snow Buntings on Hermaness and Lamba Ness, Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns.

Here some off the Unst ‘regulars’ –  seen on most days:

Snow Bunting Sumburgh May 2013

Twite male Sumburgh June 13

Whimbrel Unst June 13

Snipe unst June 13

Arctic Skua Unst may 2013

and the Bonxie (Great Skua) show on Hermaness couldn’t fail to impress, beginning with superb views of Golden Plover:

Golden Plover Hermaness June 2013

Bonxie 2 Hermaness June 13

Bonxie 4 Hermaness June 13

Bonxie 5 Hermaness June 13

Bonxie 6 Hermaness June 13Tim Appleton get close and personal…

Bonxie Hermaness June 13

Bonxie7 Hermaness June 13

John and Bonxie hermaness


Mount Hermon’s Breeding Birds

+ surprise new species (not fully identified!)

by Yoav P.

During the last 6 weeks I have been coordinating an extensive Breeding Bird Atlas Project on Mt. Hermon. This is Israel’s highest peak, and our only alpine habitats are there. Therefore, 17 species breed only there in Israel. The structure of the bird community on Mt. Hermon closely resembles those of E Turkey and Iran.

The bird community of the mountain was not properly surveyed since the late 1980’s, and we desperately needed better data to protect the vulnerable habitats on the mountain. I worked with a fantastic team of very skilled birders, who climbed mountains, crawled through dense bush, under Syrian mortar fire, just for me – thanks Tuvia, Dotan, Nadav, Noam, Asaf and all the others. We reached some parts of the mountain very close to the Syrian and Lebanese borders, that were never visited by civilians before. That meant that in these sensitive areas we had military escort with us.

So let’s begin with the birds. In the lower elevations (1200 to 1700 m), nice open Mediterranean scrub on rocky mountains provides proper habitat for a good range of species.

Black-headed Buntings arrive rather late, but leave very early. High-speed breeders and real crackers:

Black-headed Bunting

Western Rock Nuthatch breeds in good density in these elevations. They enjoy the rough Karst rock formations. Tough little birds – check those powerful feet!

Western Rock Nuthatch

Sombre Tit is very dominant at these elevations:

Sombre Tit

Syrian Serins arrive very late too, which is quite puzzling. They leave their wintering grounds in S Israel by mid March, but don’t really arrive before early May. Where are they in between – just 250 km to migrate in such a long time. In early June we already had flying juveniles – speedy!

Syrian Serin

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear breeds in large numbers on Mt. Hermon, which is encouraging because they’re doing pretty bad in other parts of the country.

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, 2cy male

Woodchat Shrike is the commonest of four shrike species that breed on the mountain – Red-backed, Masked and aucheri Southern Grey are the other three. Our breeding woodchats are of the Middle-Eastern ssp. niloticus.

Woodchat Shrike female ssp. niloticus

Female Red-backed Shrike:


Lower elevations

One of the most interesting discoveries of our work was a breeding population of ‘chiffchaffs’ in a well-vegetated valley at about 1300 m. First found by Noam Weiss and myself, we then discovered 20 breeding pairs in that one specific valley! At first we thought they could be Mountain Chiffchaffs, as they looked pretty brown and sounded funny, but further field investigations never produced a definitive answer to their identity. They might be something like brevirostris Chiffchaff that breeds in S Turkey. Tomorrow we’ll try to catch them and take some DNA samples – hope to get back with more news on them soon.

Anyway, Chiffchaffs: some of them look very brown (thanks Zohar)

Chiffchaff sp., Mt. Hermon, April 2013 (Z. Weiss).

While others look more standard Chiffchaff greenish (thanks Lior)

Chiffchaff sp. Mt. Hermon June 2013 (L. Kislev)

They were always difficult to watch and photograph, spending most of their time in canopies of tall trees. Here’s a recording of the brown one. Either way, chiffchaffs have never been recorded breeding in Israel before.

High-altitude birding is a different story. No plant cover but often strong winds that make birding difficult. 

Crimson-winged Finch is one of the most difficult Hermon species, but we did quite well with them and found many breeding pairs.

Asian Crimson-winged Finch

Horned Larks breed up there – ssp. bicornis:

Horned Lark ssp. penicillata

White-throated Robin is a beautiful and rare breeding bird. Normally very difficult to find, we scored well with 11 breeding pairs.

White-throated RobinHill Sparrow (AKA Pale Rockfinch) is a plain but neat bird. A small population breeds normally very high up (about 2000 m), while once in every few years we have a breeding invasion into the deserts of southern Israel – they are highly nomadic and opportunistic. This year we found them in one valley only but in exceptional density, about 50 pairs in one small valley. Their cicada-like song filled the air there.

Hill Sparrow

Northern Wheatear replaces black-eared in high altitude. Our local breeding ssp. is libanotica.

Northern Wheatear ssp. libanotica

High altitude

High altitude panorama

You can read more about the survey and my daily accounts in my blog.

Lightning sometimes strikes twice – Grey-necked Bunting on Helgoland

by Jochen D.

One of the worst birds I ever dipped on Helgoland was the 2009 Grey-necked Bunting – I left the island the day before (as many other birders). With only a handful of records in northwestern Europe the chances of seeing one on Helgoland again seemed rather low.

The morning of June 10th 2013 did not have much to offer birdwise. So I used our noon break at the bird observatory only for a short walk and then wanted to have a short nick. I was lying ca 2 seconds, when my mobile rang – as always. My assistant Klaus has just seen an Ortolan Bunting with an all grey head, but a tourist had flushed it and he could not find it back. Adrenalin was spreading fast – the Cretzschmar’s Bunting in the Netherlands was still in my mind, so I rushed to the football pitch. Still no sign of the bird, but after spreading out I flushed a reddish bunting calling unfamiliar “pit”. That was the bird and it did indeed sound neither like an Ortolan Bunting, nor like a Cretzschmar’s (although I had seen the latter only 20 years ago in Israel). Finally I saw the bird sitting and immediately identified it as a Grey-necked Bunting – the 2nd for Helgoland! Adrenalin had dropped little and now reached its peak …


There were only a handful of birders on the island and all managed to see the bird soon. Also the first two twitchers arrived by plane and managed to connect with the bird. Photographing the bird was rather difficult, as it was rather shy and flew off in ca 20 meters distance. And joggers, walkers, dogs etc made the bird staying at the same place only for a few minutes.


The 2nd day proved even more difficult – the bird was not seen in the morning, but found back around noon on the opposite site of the island. Twitching proved to be difficult as well: The first day only 3 birders arrived and were lucky to arrive in the moment the bird was refound. The last 2 days it was seen only for minutes during the day (usually best in the evening). So far only ca 15 birders came to see the bird, but if it remains until the weekend, more birders probably will arrive.

The habitat was open land with sparse (=steppe) vegetation or edges of tracks. It was usually feeding a bit hidden in the grass, hopping into the open and returning into the vegetation.


The ID of the bird was rather straightforward: Typical Ortolan Bunting head, long-billed, a moltoni-like underpart colouration. The best clue to refind the bird was it’s distinctive flight call. So far I did not manage to obtain a decent recording, but a Bunting calling “pit” should always raise the alarm bells.


The best date in the birding calendar?

What’s the one date in the year you’d want to book off work? Here in the far north of Britain, the week just gone has been one of the best of the autumn. No great surprise there – some of the rarest autumn migrants in recent years have appeared in the second half of October – though what is surprising is that while Shetland almost disappears under the weight of visiting birders and tour groups in late September and early October, by the end of the month there are none left, even on Fair Isle. Apart from those chartering planes and boats that is. In the past ten years, 23rd October has produced Siberian Rubythroat and Rufous-tailed Robin on Fair Isle so if I had to pick one date in the year to be on the magic isle, that would be a reasonable one. This year, I had five days on Fair Isle in late October, and 23rd was my last full day. Would it deliver?



The trip coincided with a spell of unusually pleasant weather, generally sunny with light and variable winds. There were plenty of migrants during my stay, although turnover was more limited than ideal. Nonetheless, you can’t really complain when every day you can see a Lanceolated Warbler and multiple Olive-backed Pipits (part of an exceptional arrival throughout Shetland this year), good numbers of thrushes, Bramblings and Snow Buntings, and a wide variety of decent birds local birds, such as Woodlark, Goldfinch, Yellow-browed Warbler and so on.

By lunchtime on October 23rd 2012 I’d seen a variety of the birds mentioned above and spent some time photographing redpolls, including a stonking pale northwestern bird:

I had a text from Rob Fray in Shetland saying: “are you still on Fair Isle? Apparently there’s a Little Bunting near Sheila Fowlie’s.” Sheila lives at Virkie, just along the road from us. Nice bird, but not too gripping. And so, by 5.30 pm, when the light was beginning to go, it looked like 2012 wasn’t going to be a vintage October the 23rd. And then…

Fair Isle resident (and ex-obs warden) Nick Riddiford peered out of his living-room window at the gathering dusk and BOOOM! Siberian Rubythroat! We were there in minutes, but still not quickly enough. The light ebbed away fast, and the rubythroat played shy. October 23rd had delivered – again – but it hadn’t been quite the day I had played out in my head. Plans for a dawn start (in other words, who was going to get up early and make the bacon sarnies) were made. But as the evening wore on, another story developed. The one photo of the Virkie Little Bunting that had been posted on the net was causing more than usual scrutiny. Some were saying it was Britain’s second Chestnut-eared Bunting. I must admit that, from that one photo, I couldn’t see how Little Bunting could be ruled out, so I went to bed thinking that the biggest bird of the day was in Nick’s garden at Schoolton.

Dawn on October 24th. We were at Schoolton, the rubythroat was not… To add insult to injury, those of us who started looking for it elsewhere were gripped off by those who went in for tea and hospitality, and were rewarded with… a Blue Tit. Which, unlike Siberian Rubythroat, would have been a Fair Isle tick for me. Meanwhile, news came through from Shetland: the Virkie bunting was a Chestnut-eared! Boom! Suddenly, October 23rd was looking an even more stellar date, and now there was a decision to make – stay on Fair Isle and look for the missing rubythroat (and the pesky Parid) or leave as planned and go and see a second for Britain a stone’s throw from home? Daddy or chips, which to choose. Neither was a tick but in the end I opted to catch my flight as planned. The plane was delayed, which gave me more time to look for the Fair Isle birds, but by the time I left there was still no sign of the ‘throat and as for the Blue Tit… I don’t want to talk about it.

And so, by 2.00, I was back on home turf, and soon had views of Britain’s second Chestnut-eared Bunting. A fabulous little bird. No consolation to the two people who saw it the previous day that by now it was much more obliging. We all make those same mistakes – a skulky bird, brief views, too much time looking through your camera rather than your bins – they just get magnified when it’s a second for Britain, and there’s nothing you can say to ease the pain. Hopefully the forthcoming write-ups in the birding rags will present a suitably balanced picture. Go find a first, guys – and they probably will. All that aside, 23rd October had delivered once again, big style.

Almost forgotten in the melee, another great bird had been found on 23rd October, when Gary Bell came across a Pied Wheatear at nearby Quendale. That bird had, like the rubythroat, disappeared soon after being found but after an hour watching the CEB, I went off to Quendale to have a look for the wheatear with Will Miles and Jason Moss, who had come out of Fair Isle with me to see the bunting. Quendale was devoid of rare wheatears though and, with the light failing, we set off back to our house. All the bunting watchers had packed up too as we drove past Sheila’s. But suddenly, flying alongside the car, was a strikingly dark wheatear, with a very white tail! I hit the brakes, the bird flicked across in front of us and there, perched up on the fence of our neighbour’s house was… a very smart male Pied Wheatear! Sensational. It was nearly dark, and Jason hasn’t got a fancy camera so the pics are not exactly frame fillers, but he did better than I did. Chestnut-eared Bunting and Pied Wheatear, both within 400 m of my front door – that’s the nearest I can get to Jochen’s post about garden birds.

The bunting spent one more day along the Eastshore road – it presumably decided that it could do better than the howling northerlies and snow that arrived overnight on 25th/26th. The Rubythroat reappeared on Fair Isle, and both Will and Jason got to see it. (Thanks to David Parnaby for the pic below.)

By the weekend, things looked to be settling down once again, but October proved to have one last day of magic left. Sunday 28th October, Paul Harvey and I were having a thrash round a few of our favourite spots, focusing on weedy areas that might offer up a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Tree Sparrow, Lapland Bunting, Goldfinch – all nice birds in Shetland but not quite what we were looking for. We never did find any snowballs, but we did manage to stumble across a rather more unexpected seed-eater in with the sparrows at Brake:

The same day, Geoff and Donna Atherton reported a Buff-bellied Pipit on Foula. Two American passerines in a day, just to balance up all the eastern stuff from earlier in the week. Fabulous.

So there we are. 23rd October is MY favourite date in the birding calendar. All you frontier birders out there, you need to weigh up the potential rewards of coming to Shetland later than tradition has it that you should. Me, I know where I’m going to be on 23rd October next year. I’m already booked in on Fair Isle. Maybe see you there. I fancy a rare accentor…

First Lapland Bunting

In U.K. this autumn

by Martin

Not like it’s really rare or anything, but I enjoyed it! Having been inspired (yet again) by a long conversation with Magnus R. at the Birdfair I gave myself a week to improve my sound recording (= do more).  Opened my nocturnal effort with Tree Pipit over my (almost) city centre home in early hours of 20th August. Onwards then!

4:30 am on 23rd August and rain at Rod Moor. So breaking dawn I headed to Strines where I could hear distant Crossbills (most likely ‘Glip’) amoung dawn chorus. This site got me an adult male Two-barred Crossbill over 10 years ago at this time of year. Mustn’t forget to look again.

Rain stopped, back to Rod Moor. Soon the odd Tree Pipit could be heard. Then c 7:00 am I thought I heard a Lapland Bunting. Normally I would have just dismissed it, too brief, very early. A ‘maybe’ but not secured. However I was recording and knew I could check once back home. Feeling somewhat incredulous it did sound just like a Lapland Bunting in my headphones and the sonagram was bang-on. Double checked with friends who all agreed.

Listen here for yourself: Lapland Bunting

and see sonagram of what you are listening to:

Sonagram showing Lapland Bunting ‘tew’ call and trill. Rod Moor, 23 August 2012. First of the Autumn in the U.K.

I also scored at least 6 Tree Pipits flying over.

Here’s what I am up to (queue cheesy video):

More examples of recording action.

Normal migrating Tree Pipit. Listen here:

Sonagram of what you are listening to:

Here’s a recording of Meadow Pipits and a sneaky Tree Pipit which just calls once

Listen here:

Sonagram of what you are listening to. Can you ‘see’ the Tree Pipit call? :

Closer up:

Close-up: The calls  visible  are of a House Martin, followed by weak Tree Pipit and in bolder  black , 3 Meadow Pipit calls.

And a presumed local bird A Robin singing normally nearly all the time but on one occasion broke into a ‘Willow Warbler imitation’.

have a listen: here

sonagram of what you are listening to:

Singing European Robin, with ‘Willow Warbler imitation’, followed by normal song.

Jankowski’s Bunting: A Very Rare Bird Indeed

By Terry T

The Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii) is a very rare bird. So rare that, without immediate action, it could slip away before the end of this decade. Unfortunately this little bird isn’t big or furry and doesn’t have a spoon-shaped bill. Instead it falls into the “Little Brown Job” (LBJ) category of birds. Added to the fact that it lives in a rarely visited part of northeast China, this means that its rapid and accelerating journey towards extinction has been progressing with seemingly little effort to save it and even less public awareness. That, I hope, is about to change.

Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii). A male on the breeding grounds in northeast China. Image copyright Martin Hale.

This beautiful bunting, sometimes known by the more descriptive, but less endearing, name of Rufous-backed Bunting, was once described as locally common across its range including Far Eastern Russia, North-eastern China (Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia) and North Korea. But in the last couple of decades, in particular, it has suffered a calamitous population decline. It is now thought to be extinct in Russia, its status is unknown in the small historical range in North Korea and there are only a handful of known individuals hanging on at a few sites in northeast China.

Although there are probably some sites yet to be discovered, the total number of individuals seen in 2012 so far is, as far as I am aware, under 30.

Habitat destruction is almost certainly the main cause of the decline. Jankowski’s Buntings just love grassland peppered with Siberian Apricot (Prunus sibirica) bushes. Over-grazing and a devastating, long-term, drought in the region have decimated its habitat. This, combined (pun unintended) with the cutting of grassland for hay during the breeding season, is thought to have been responsible for the precipitous drop in numbers of Jankowski’s Buntings in recent years. And, on top of that, although northeast China regularly experiences cold winters with temperatures down to -30 degrees C, a particularly harsh winter in 2000-2001, during which unusually deep snow covered the region, is thought to have hit hard the already vulnerable population.


Despite the alarm bells, all is not yet lost. BirdLife International, in partnership with local groups, has recently begun a project to raise awareness of this bird’s plight and establish a robust conservation action plan.  Following the first conservation workshop dedicated to the Jankowski’s Bunting in June 2012 in Jilin Province, there is now a glimmer of hope that some of the pieces of the jigsaw needed to help preserve this species are being put in place.  A growing number of local people are interested in doing what they can to protect the bird’s habitat through more sympathetic land management, an education and awareness programme is planned for local schools, and more widely via social media, and population surveys are being conducted by the Beijing Birdwatching Society at known, and potential new, sites to try to establish a more accurate picture of population levels.  The missing ingredient, to ensure this work is carried out and coordinated effectively, is funding.  That is why BirdLife has set up a JustGiving page to encourage donations from concerned individuals and corporations to help raise the cash required to make this project viable.  An initial target of £10,000 has been set to help fund this particular project in the first year.  To get the ball rolling Birding Beijing has made a three-year financial commitment and become a Species Champion under the BirdLife Preventing Extinction Programme to support Jankowski’s Bunting and other globally threatened species.

Despite being thought to be mostly sedentary and/or a partial migrant (even this is not fully known!), there are historic records of the Jankowski’s Bunting from Beijing and it is also the “Endangered” species with a population closest to the Chinese capital. Living in Beijing, I certainly feel a sense of responsibility to do something to help protect this bird before it slips into extinction.  I hope others will, too.  The resilience of nature is such that, given the right support, species can return from the brink.  If man shows the will, nature will find a way.

Jankowski’s Bunting was first described by Polish zoologist Wladyslaw Taczanowski in 1888 from a specimen of an adult male collected by fellow Pole, Michal Jankowski during an expedition in 1886. Michal Jankowski (1840-1903) was a Polish exile sent to Siberia 1864 and worked with other prominent ornithologists Dybowski and Godlewski (of Godlewski’s Bunting and Blyth’s Pipit fame) on several expeditions to Far Eastern Russia, northeast China and Korea.

Many thanks to Jim Lawrence, Mike Crosby, Vivian Fu and Simba Chan from BirdLife International for their input to this blog post and to Martin Hale for use of the Jankowski’s Bunting image.  Exceptionally, this post has been simultaneously published on Birding Beijing and Birding Frontiers.

Cretzschmar’s Bunting

Tricky ID’s

Seems ridiculous to say but both Cretzschmar’s and Ortolan Buntings can in the space of a few hours, become backcloth birds in southern Israel in spring. Just a walk in the small urban parks produces flock of both species, sometimes 40-60 birds feeding together. Yes, it is ridiculous! Both of these photos were taken just last month in Eilat.

Adult males Cretzschmar’s are gorgeous and not difficult to identify, often with extra orange colour in the lores which Ortolans Bunting don’t show- as in the male below.

First winter and females Cretzschmar’s are a whole other ballgame, which is why this bird, photographed in Belgium 2 days ago is fascinating! Follow the interesting discussion here. Great chance to learn and be circumspect towards of any UK ‘Ortolan’s’ this next week…

male Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Eilat, April 2012

Seeing young Ortolan’s and Cretzschmar’s Buntings in the past I have often thought some Cretzschmar’s to be a real challenge and could so easily be overlooked in NW Europe. I think young Ortolans can often have a white eye ring. So boils down to subtle plumage tones and (one again) most importantly distinctive call.

female Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Eilat, April 2012