Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Northern Exposure and Northern Bullfinch ?

The very bad recent snow has, just like last year, considerably hampered Crossbill activities so birding has been confined to whatever is withinin walking distance of the house. My last couple of local walks have produced several Bullfinches and Bramblings which is always nice in the absence of Waxwings (or Crossbills).

Today on the Old Deeside Railway Line by our house we had a male Bullfinch (British) pileata type "pee-u"-ing and feeding on dead nettles. Further along a female Brambling was associating with Chaffinches near to someones garden feeders (why do they go to someone elses feeders and not mine ? !). A walk through Allenvale Cemetery produced not at lot other than Common Buzzard being mobbed by gulls and crows.

We decided to go home back down the railway line and I am glad we did. WARNING ! - there are some photos to follow and I must add that they are not great quality having been shot in poor light with a consumer compact, however, they do show the diagnostic features that I would like to discuss.

The first bird we saw on the way back was another small pileata British type male Bullfinch with a narrow wing bars and giving the soft Brit "pee-u" call. However, it was associating with this striking male, and the first thing that alerted me something was different was the size, very obvious seeing the two birds together - this male appeared massive compared to the male that was feeding nearby. I would liken it to a Common Crossbill v. Parrot Crossbill eg. a significant size difference. Here is the 'big' male:

All photos are as they came out of the camera - no contrast or colour editing has been carried out only a slight unsharp mask. This bird is clearly a 1st winter male - juvenile 'brownish' primary coverts and alula can be seen in the photo.The other thing that was noticeable in the field, and can be seen in the photo, was the fairly wide white wing bars on greater coverts, and that these were 'saw-toothed', as well as pinky breast and pale grey upperparts and white that extended well up on to the belly and a very white and extensive rump, all good indicators of Northern Bullfinch. The black 'cap' also appears not to extend so far back on to the nape, and consequently the grey nape appears more extensive. I am not sure if this is a feature of Northern Bullfinch but Mark Lewis photographed a bird that looks identical to our one at Girdleness - could it even be the same individual ? ! :

                                                                    © MarkLewis 2010

A much better photo than ours - hope it's okay 'borrowing' it Mark ! Possibly our one doesn't have quite as 'saw-toothed' greater coverts and there is a deeper black chin bib on ours, but the 'cap' looks the same and Mark's also looks like a 1st Winter male. Ours maybe has more grey around nape, though this could just be the angle ?

On getting home I dug out the comprehensive article on Northern Bullfinch invasion 2004 by Pennington and Meek and sat down to look at the photos that we had. For those that don't have the Pennington and Meek British Birds article (BB, January 2006, Vol.99) a good discussion of Northern Bullfinch features is available at http://www.abc.se/home/m4046/angarn/domherre/bullfinch.htm

White on primaries can also be good for Northern Bullfinch and ours seems to show this ( and see first photo above), click on photo to enlarge:

And here too ? :

Extensive white underparts may also indicate Northern Bullfinch, not sure if this would quailify, also check light pink breast:

Note the faint pale line under the black cap under the eye. Mark's bird also had this feature. The article I linked to above suggests this is a feature in some Northern birds - not sure of the source though. The white on the coverts doesn't look very wide as a result of the acute angle.

One more for luck:

It is also worth checking Martin Garner's fantastic blog that pushes back the frontiers of birding, and also Northern Bullfinch identification. Martin also has a recent article on Birdguides regarding Northern Bullfinch ID but I am no longer a subscriber (£40 a year !!) so I can't check it - maybe you can.


The bird (thankfully) did call, and this was very different from the soft  "pee-u" that the (much smaller) bird it was accompanying gave. The big male gave a harsher, more "tooting" call in what we muso's would call sotto voce ("in an undertone"). I checked the recordings on the fantastic Sound Approach Book/CD when I got home a few minutes later and the calls our bird gave very closely matched those on track 95 CD2 - you should all have this book to have a listen, and if you don't you should ask Santa for it ! Trawling the internet I found calls  HERE (for "trumpeting Northern Bullfinch") and these match what we heard today, if somewhat a bit more forced (than ours).

So, is this bird a Northern Bullfinch ? Well, like Mark I can only suggest it has some features and a call that seem consistent with pyrrhula, or at least a European Bullfinch eg. not British:

a) Large size, compared directly with smaller bird it was with.
b) Tooting call; very different from bird it was feeding with.
c) Wide wing bar with "sawtooth" edging on greater coverts; White edging on primaries.
d) Extensive white on underparts; extensive white rump.
e) Pink breast seems to match photos of the type.

Seeing the two Bullfinches together today this bird certainly had 'the presence' that pyrrhula is suggested as having and again we were able to hear the calls of both birds in the field, which were different, and thus compare them. I would certainly appreciate feedback, opinions on this bird ! Maybe it is just an 'inbetweeny' one ?

Tommorrow I will try to get better photos and more importantly decent sound recordings and will report back......maybe the results will be a surprise !


Mark said...

More than happy to see my picture here! Yours looks like a really interesting bird...and I think a much better candidate for Northern than mine...Certainly the call fits with the 'trumpeter' bullfinch type, and you noticed the apparent bulk as well. Mine seems to show all the 'lesser features' while yours has the two main ones nailed as well! I'm going to have a further look into mine when I get back (i'm on a boat just now)and I'll post anything I find on the blog. Good to know that there are some proper Northern bullfinches around though!

Loxia Fan said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the use of the pics and the comments. I am not sure about the bird I saw, and am erring on the side of caution that it possibly is just a big (due to cold/puffed up) pileata ! Not sure I have aged either of our birds correctly either - all greater coverts appear to have been replaced, but lighter primary coverts and alula would be normal, a bit like an adult male Chaffinch I suppose. It is difficult to see if the alula is grey edged or brown egded, maybe better in yours - in the hand this would be easy ! They could both be adult males ? The bills in both birds are also quite small - I would presume that pyrrhula would have a noticeably larger bill, as Lee Evans suggested on the Surfbirds thread ?

Yesterday's recording were interesting - will post them later as it might act as a 'reality check' for us all when trying to turn large, or odd Bullfinches into Northern types ! Quite a bit of variation in the calls, though all but one was a clear pileata ( might have been a different group though). Only one call was odd, a single call similar to "the second type" calls for Northern on the Sound Approach CD2 track 98 - more like a buzz and with limited harmonics.

A nice learning experience for me and a chance to do some sound recording/analysis in the absence of getting (easily) to crossbills- another 3 inches of snow here last night in the city !