Sunday, 6 October 2013

Meadow Pipit Ringing at Farlington Marshes

It has been an interesting week that started with the finding of a yellow-browed warbler at the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trusts Testwood Lakes reserve. I was at the site for a staff meeting and had arranged with a colleague to go birding at lunchtime in search of one. Whilst standing at our cars getting our binoculars we heard one calling, and immediately found it in a small patch of scrub. The story of the find is here. Saturday morning proved very busy with an unseasonably high number of birds ringed at Titchfield Haven (I will write about that later) and today was another busy day, but this time at Farlington Marshes.

The Sun Rising over Farlington Marshes

Today began with a pre-dawn start at the Marsh. The aim was to try and catch some meadow pipits out in the point field, and so we had to arrive early to get the nets up. The method for catching meadow pipits involves putting three nets in a triangle, around an isolated shrub. A recording of their song in the middle attracts the birds into the trapping area. We only put up four nets, two in two small areas of scrub and two in a right angle around a small bush. We didn't quite follow the normal method, but were convinced it would work.

Our Pipits Nets Set in a Right Angle

Our first net round produced a handful of blackcaps and a couple of robins. The next round added a few more blackcaps and our first meadow pipits; after that it was mainly meadow pipits. We ended the session on 88 birds, 54 of which were meadow pipits; blackcap was the next most numerous species. The other species included chiffchaff, greenfinch, dunnock, robin, sedge warbler and right at the end of the session a handful of starling.

A flock of several hundred starlings made a spectacular sight, particularly
as they were wheeling around overhead harassing a couple of kestrels. We
were fortunate in that the flock tended to miss our nets except on one occasion
when six  birds were caught.

Ageing meadow pipits is not something that I have covered before so having had the chance to study so many birds it seems like the ideal time to do it. Adult meadow pipits undergo a complete moult after breeding, whereas juvenile birds only do a partial moult. This means that in the autumn there should be evidence of juvenile feathers in the wing. 

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis - note the long hind claw in this image. The most
likely confusion species in the British Isles, Tree Pipit A. trivialis
has a much shorter hind claw.

According to Svensson some birds moult a number of their medium and greater coverts and tertials, therefore birds should be identifiable by the contrast between the new (adult) and old (juvenile) feathers. Adult birds on the other hand will have wing feathers, all of the same generation and therefore no contrast will be present. The following series of photos illustrate this.

The image above illustrates a bird that was presumed to be an adult since there was no obvious moult limit in the wing, and the fringing on the greater and medium coverts and tertials is olive-buff in colouration. The 'tooth' on the medium coverts is also not strongly pronounced. This bird had previously lost its tail and was in the process of moulting it back in.

The image above illustrates an example of a first year birds wing. The greater coverts are pale fringed with the exception of the second covert from the left. This feather is an adult type feather and is strongly coloured buff.

In the image above it is possible to see the pronounced 'tooth' of the first year type medium coverts. The majority of the greater coverts are adult type feathers, with the exception of the innermost covert.

Above is another example of a first year birds wing. It is possible to see the contrast between the juvenile and adult coverts in the medium and greater coverts. In addition the two uppermost tertials have been replaced, but the lower one is still juvenile.

The majority of the tail in the image above is adult, but it is possible to see one remaining juvenile tail feather (the lower of the two central tail feathers). This image illustrates the difference in colour and shape with adult feather broader, more rounded at the tip and strongly coloured buff. The amount of wear on the tail feathers, their shape and the extent of white in the outer tail feathers was a very useful feature.

The most notable thing with handling so many birds was the difference in colouration between individuals. Some first year birds had very pale, almost white fringing, whereas others has fringing coloured similar to adult birds. It is important not to pay too much attention to the colour of fringing when ageing birds but look for evidence of a moult limit in the wings and tail and signs of abrasion.

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