Saturday, 25 December 2010

What A Load of Bull !

Following on from the post several days ago I have now got some pics, audio and revelations to share about 'unusual' Bullfinches....or perhaps just 'Bullfinches'. Might be worth reading Mark Lewis' recent post on his 'funny' Bullfinch as well.

It is worth re-iterating here that not ALL Northern Bullfinches give trumpet calls - there is another type that sounds very like our British sub-species pileata.

Okay, here goes, lots of pics, sonograms and audio ( a first for Loxia Fantastica) !

Wednesday 22 December 2010

We managed to find 3 Bullfinches feeding on nettles at the same location a the previous day. They were all males, including this 1st Winter bird:

The photograph shows it has only replaced an innermost greater covert ( grey-white tipped contrasting with buffy tipped ones). Interestingly, like the bird yesterday ( most likey an adult following reappraisal) this specimen also has a white edge to P9 (outermost large) and the other adjacent PP are edged white below the emarginations. Notice that is has the 'stuck on' beak rather than the 'howker' that Northern birds would have ( however, the bird is puffed up which could diminish the proporations of the mandibles). There is a pale line beneath the eye.

Also present was this larger, bright male:

The alula looks like it might have grey-white edging so possibly and adult. The outer-most greater coverts, although not extensive in their white-grey tips, nevertheless appear more adult than short, buff  juvenile ones ? Like the juvenile above, this specimen also has the white edging (quite extensive) to P9 and the adjacent inner PP are also white edged on the emarginations:

And here too:

That outer greater covert looks a bit dodgy in this pic ( but still too extensively grey-white tipped - possibly a retained adult feather ?). Alula looks very brown here as well - again adult retained or possibly juvenile ? If it is a 1st winter bird it has undergone an extensive post-juvenile moult (unlike the first bird above). Based on this and these other features I'm sticking with adult. Pale line under the eye with this one too - is this as a result of the feather tracts being displaced by the bird puffing up ? Mark's last post mentions primary projections - not sure how consistent that would be in the field but possibly useful enough to distiguish between pileata and pyrrhula combined when with other factors. On that basis, these two have short primary projections consistent with pileata.

The birds were not very vocal but I did manage to get some recordings (with Sennheiser ME67 and Fostex FR2). This recording has "tip" contact calls ( often given in flight or pre-flight), some "pee-u" calls and near the end a "buzzy" toot call ( not like Northern, but similarish):

A14h18m30s22dec2010y by Loxiafan

A sonogram of the muted contact calls and a typical (?) pileata "pee-u" (timings don't necessarily match the events on the recordings):

Notice the strange component under the main descending note ?

From the same recording here is the muted contact call followed by a single buzzy whistle note ( appearing as a horizontal line on the sonogram below):

The other decent recording I got had pileata type contact calls:

A14h32m15s22dec2010y by Loxiafan

On the sonogram these appeared to be two elements super-imposed over each other, but nevertheless giving the pileata descending structure:

So, a summary of birds seen this day (3 males):

All three had white edged primaries.
All had "stuck on" bills.
None had white on tail.
None gave 'trumpet' calls, or it seems the other 'Northern' type call ( which is similar to pileata but lower piched and more 'mournful' sounding - think Chaffinch v. Willow Warbler).

= none were pyrrhula !

The Pennington/Meek BB article is quite right to highlight some of these shared traits between pileata and pyrrhula, and what might otherwise on first reading seem like a conservative possibly non-commital paper actually turns out to be a very well researched, useful and accurate essay on the type. Get it if you don't already have it.

The big question is: was one of these birds from today the big 'tooting' male we saw on Tuesday ? Well, read on...

Thursday 23rd December

This started off with good intentions by taking the Remembird (except it switched itself off, without me knowing so no recordings - amatuerish, I know). Found 3 males at a different location and was able to ID the juvenile male as the same one as yesterday ( due to a plumage feature on the flank). These birds allowed me to get withing 4 feet of them feeding on nettles - very confiding, or just very cold and hungry to otherwise give a damn ?

Friday 24th December

After yesterday's er... equipment failure time for the nuclear option: Telinga Stereo DAT and FR2LE, the major crossbill gear. We found three birds at the same location I had them yesterday, but this time there was a juv female in tow with two males, so not the same 3 but possibly two of them.

Things started of promisingly, the juv begging for food and then these "sotto voce" toot calls (at 6 seconds on recording):

B14h52m37s24dec2010a by Loxiafan

On the sonogram these appear as horizontal flat lines, have harmonics but unfortunately don't sound like Northern trumpet calls, being higher pitched and different in timbre:

Could these be the same sotto voce tooty "honking" calls we heard from the bird on Tuesday ? Possibly. Are these calls being heard by other observers and being confused for Northern trumpeters ? I don't know, but possibly.

However, the big male then called and this was pileata-like, but didn't sound quite right - on the sonogram directly underneath you can see the component under the main element, and again this call has harmonics un-like those presented and described in the Sound Approach for 'British':

B14h52m37s24dec2010b by Loxiafan

Notice that the first call (on sonagram) sounds slightly nore 'mournful' but the other two are shorter and deeper in pitch.

The group also gave "tip" flight calls:

B14h54m09s24dec2010 by Loxiafan

Also some pileata type calls, softer in timbre:

B15h08m24s24dec2010 by Loxiafan

Nice of a passer-by to let me know I was recording Bullfinches....I'd never have known. Thanks !

And this (also from above recording) a more exagerated call, and check those mini harmonic structures within the call (click to enlarge) :

One of the males gave this call:

B15h10m39s24dec2010 by Loxiafan

Notice that these are again double element calls, and have very strong harmonics. Is this normal in pileata ?

The adult male gave these same calls:

B15h13m32s24dec2010 by Loxiafan

Again, these have double elements (which make the call sound flutey) and the harmonics also give it a hollow timbre. These do not sound like any of the various Bullfinch calls I have been listening to on-line and on the CD's I have. I am not claiming it is a new type, merely commenting on the apparent variation that seems evident here.

So, where does this leave us all ? Well, for me, wishing I was out recording some crossbills ! Funnily enough I was surprised by how many of the Bullfinch calls were crossbill-like !There seems a lot of variation in Bullfinch calls considering I am recording a very small population within a stones throw of my house.  I am >95% certain the Bullfinches I have observed and recorded over the last few days are British pileata types. The large male on Tuesday gave a call similar to those B1452 above - it was the only call we heard it give and it was very different from the bird "pee-u" ing next to it. With no recording of it to reference it is not a leap of imagination to deduce that on recall (from memory) it could be confused with those Northern trumpet calls, as it appeared to "toot" - I initially thought our bird on Tuesday sounded like the second type on CD2 track 95 of Sound Approach. Listening to a recording these sotto voce toot calls, assuming they are the same as the ones we heard (and didn't record), sound closer to the "second type" calls on the SA CD2 - track 98 but are quite different in timbre and pitch.

To sum up "All that glitters is not gold" and "All that 'toots' is not (necessarily) Northern" !

Would definitely appreciate feedback and comments and if anyone has heard British Bullfinch give these sotto voce toots or double-element variations to the main call. The former call seems intermittent though the bird above today gave several repetitions of the call. Could this call be being confused by other birders at trumpeters ? Given the 'overlap' of other features this may be a concern. Are they normal calls for pileata ?
It seems getting good field audio recordings may become a requirement for rarities commitees when considering Northern Bullfinch.......

.....I am glad I was conservative in my diagnosis on Tuesday !

Meantime, I think I'll stick to Crossbill vocalizations !

Merry Christmas to Everyone, hope it's a good one !

© Lindsay Cargill 2010

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

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 !

Friday, 17 December 2010

Watch Out ! 'Ere Comes The Old 'Bill ! EDITED

Apologies for paucity of posting lately - catching waxwings, catching up with work, catching colds yada yada...

After my revelatory "new" Scottish Crossbill call announcement, which to my dismay has not yet featured on the front of "Time" magazine, "New Scientist" or the Graham Norton Show, I thought it would be helpful if I posted an 'old' Scottish Crossbill call (click to enlarge):

This flight call was recorded at Glen Tanar NNR on 8th August 2004 with my then trusty Monocor Shotgun mic direct to Sony 710-MD. This call is very much per the literature (Summers et al, 2002) in that it matches frequency and structure for Fc3 = Scottish Crossbill. Note that it appears to show the all important trailing element behind the main "up-down" components of the first element. This is the feature that is generally used to categorize scotica. However, it is very different in visual spectogram appearance and in sound to the 'new' type one I posted on here ( a few posts down). The "new" call is higher piched and the second element is usually higher in energy than in the "old" one. It is as if the call has evolved ....or perhaps it is the crossbills that have evolved ? !

My view ? Well I am not for one minute saying that the example of the "old" Scottish Crossbill from Glen Tanar is not a 'Scottish Crossbill'....except that it seems consistent with birds that I have handled and sound recorded that would be classified as Parrot Crossbill, albeit at the lower spectrum of minimum bill depths (11.9 mm upwards). It also doesn't sound like the 'new' call types ( which appear to biometrically match scotica) - if we take away the second element, which possibly appears to be a harmonic trace of the main call, what we effectively have is a Parrot Crossbill call = Fc2, in fact many caught and released Parrots give a call that contains these type of 'traces':

Not all Parrot Fc's are inflected in the main downward component ! The harmonics here are admittedly much fainter than the Glen Tanar example above, but in terms of sound this is negligible (compared with the new Scottish call). In Parrot, most of the energy is in the main downward component of the first element and it is this, and the lower overall frequency, that avoid confusion with the Fc1 variant I call the "parroty" Fc1. Here is a Common Crossbill call, a Fc1 "Parroty" type that also contains the harmonic artefact:

In essence the'trace' element appears and sounds as an artefact not a feature of the call. In the 'new' Scottish call the second element cannot be a 'harmonic trace' because, if you look at it closely, it modulates whereas the intial element (that it would be tracing) doesn't:

This may be as a consequence of the bird using its double syrinx ? You can really see that these calls look nothing like anything else on this page ! I should add, that although I refer to these particular Scottish calls as 'new' I have actually recorded them since 2004, they are new in that they don't seem to have been described proviously and certainly not matched to biometrics. In the 'new' call the second element functions as a feature of the call, ideed it is the most important structure in giving the call its particular timbre and resonance. To me, this new call sounds completely different, and more importantly it matches the bios and ecology of Scottish Crossbill. However, some Common Crossbills here in Scotland may also give di-syllabic calls that closely resemble these 'new' Scotbill types - the clincher here seems to be that the second element is higher in frequency in relation to the first element with Scottish, though this is pers.obs based on in the hand bios. Time will tell. A final word on harmonics if you use fine microphones ( I use Telinga Stereo DAT, Twin Science and Sennheiser ME67) these harmonics are usually more apparent, especially at closer distances.

So, rather appropriately for this time of year "in with the new out with old" ? But remember folks, I am the one that thinks that the (Scottish) Parrot  Crossbills are the REAL (relict) Scottish Crossbills, so I don't know where that leaves us with regards to "old" and "new" 'Scottish Crossbills' that currently occur in NE Scotland ? Perhaps they are emerging "species" or morphotypes (is that a real word) ? 

Next up, a discussion (including audio examples !) of variant Common Crossbill Fc1's as this really needs addressing.

© Lindsay Cargill 2010, 2009, 2004