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Blagdon Lake Birds

Blyth's Pipit Anthus godlewskii (Taczanowski, 1876)

(Extremely rare, vagrant.)


Blyth's Pipit, Holt Bay. Blyth's Pipit, Holt Bay.  



  1. One, first-winter, 14th-30th Dec. 2016 (N.R. Milbourne et al).



I first saw the bird on 14th December in the same place that I’d previously noted a grey, possible eastern-race, Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava on 23rd October 2013, in Holt Bay. This was clearly a pipit sp. with a body not much larger than a Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis, with striking features that included its pale colour, pale lores, sparse upper breast streaking, peachy underparts, short tail, upright gait, apparent long, pale, tarsi and a feeding action that reminded me of a Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe. I grabbed half a dozen distant pictures at the time which later confirmed my notes. It was in view for three to five minutes and disappeared while I referred to a field guide. A search later in the day with Andy Davis failed to relocate it. During discussion with Andy about its identity, I told him I suspected Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii as the most likely possibility, but he suggested quite rightly that other possible, though unlikely, candidates would need to be ruled out. While I was driving along the access road on 18th I was surprised to see it again, on its own, in the same place. I watched it for a few minutes, and then drove to the far end of the lake. I saw it again on the way back. Later, I spent a great deal of the evening researching images of Blyth’s Pipits on the internet because by now I was sure that’s what it was. During the WeBS count on 19th, Andy rang to say he was watching it, for the first time, in the same place and had taken some pictures. I said to him “It’s a Blyth’s.” Unfortunately, although the WeBS team of Roy Curber, Phillip Delve, Terry Doman, Robert Hargreaves and I were only yards away at Green Lawn; it was flushed by a helicopter before we got there. I re-found it later on Rainbow Point, and we had excellent and prolonged views. We were joined by Andy and Richard Mielcarek. Being fairly satisfied with the identification as a Blyth’s Pipit, although no call had been heard, we contacted the county recorder John Martin, and Keith Vinicombe. Richard Mielcarek described the bird to John over the phone and he suggested Blyth’s without being told of our thoughts, and Keith got to site as we finished the count and watched it until almost dark and told me he was also satisfied it was a Blyth’s Pipit. 



Size, behaviour and structure - The bird had a chat-like gait. It often hopped and jumped with both legs, ran at considerable speed when it chose to, and had a very different feeding action to the Meadow Pipits with which it associated on 19th. The Meadow Pipits moved with their heads down in a random fashion, whereas the Blyth’s feeding action was often likened to that of a plover – run directly, pick, and run etc. On the 20th I noticed that it was dipping its tail in a downward motion frequently when walking around feeding. Occasionally, it would spring up with both legs to catch an insect, or jump over a small puddle.

Head – The lores were pale, and there was quite a broad cream supercilium, particularly behind the eye which was accentuated in the field by the densely-streaked cap. It had heavy black crown streaks. The eye ring was noted, as was a short black moustachial stripe. The lateral throat-stripe was fine and indistinct and didn’t end in a blotch like a Richard’s Pipit. The nape appeared to be slightly paler than the crown. The chin was buff.

Body - The breast, belly and under tail were essentially peachy-buff in colour with a stronger cinnamon suffusion on the upper rear flanks. There was a gorget of fine pencil streaks across the upper breast, which were dark brown in colour rather than black. Over the weekend I’d read more about Blyth’s key features and knew we had to hear it call and see the tail pattern. On the 19th while I was trying to photograph it, some of the watchers told me they’d seen the classic tail pattern when it briefly spread the tail during preening. I was busy picking myself up off the ground with my camera, 600mm lens and tripod at the time, having tripped in the little copse while taking a shortcut to keep up with it! Terry Doman reckoned the white on the fifth feather was angled, for about 20-25% of its length. Richard Mielcarek saw the rump and suggested it was plain, with no obvious streaking. The tertials masked the primaries as suggested in the literature. In the field I could not see any median coverts for most of the time, but on some occasions the outer two median coverts were visible and photos show these to have dark centres with white fringes indicative of their being retained juvenile feathers. There was a fine crescent formed by the white tips on the greater coverts. I guess the overall pale colour was due to a delayed moult from juvenile to 1st-winter plumage, and lack of wear.

Bare parts - The bill was short, with a fine tip and broad base. It was pinkish at the base of the lower mandible with a dark tip. The gape was pink. The legs were orange, especially when viewed from behind, and slightly more flesh-coloured when viewed from the front, but this seemed to vary depending on the intensity of sunlight and background it was viewed against. I asked a number of other viewers what colour they thought the legs were and often got the answer “pink”. The tarsus appeared long and the rear toe was the same length as the lightly curved claw.

Call - On the 20th December, the bird was left on its own when the pipit flock moved ahead of it at Rainbow Point. It suddenly flew up and overhead, when we heard its call for the first time. I wrote it down as a thin, “see-ooo”, which was high-pitched and fairly quiet. Later during its stay I heard the bird give a “chip” call as it flew out of Holt Bay towards Wood Bay past me.



I watched the bird daily, except for 25-27th Dec. inclusive, and spent most of my time trying to get visiting birders onto it. There were lots of pictures taken and some video has since appeared on the internet as well (e.g. Nigel Tucker and Jeff Hazell). I also have some video footage. It preferred to feed on the exposed lake bed either at the water’s edge or on the moss-covered sediment, occasionally coming right up to the edge of the meadows to feed among ruderal weeds. I was amazed at how much food it was apparently finding and estimated that it was defecating about once every minute or two! Its appearances became more infrequent during the last couple of days that I saw it, and despite looking for it for hours on the 30th December I didn’t see it. Kevin Shales contacted me later in the day to say he’d seen it in Holt Bay briefly after I’d gone home at 1510 hrs, before it flew to Wood Bay.

I was a little surprised at how many birders had to be ‘put on the bird’ before they could see it was different to the Meadow Pipits to be honest, although there was another rather curious pipit present that also had a more upright gait than the other Meadow Pipits, and also held its tail cocked and wing in a drooped fashion like a chat. I think this bird probably had a slight injury to one wing, but was nevertheless a Meadow Pipit. It did cause confusion for some visitors.

On a couple of occasions, I saw the Blyth’s fly south over the farm meadows towards Holt Farm or the Yeo Valley yoghurt factory. It also seemed to suddenly appear from that direction when it had gone missing, so it is possible that it spent time on the farm, having found a preferred feeding area or somewhere quiet to roost. The weather got cold towards the end of its stay, with frost on the ground in the mornings, consequently it put in more sporadic and shorter appearances at the lakeside.



The back appeared to be quite pale when I first saw it, with ill-defined streaks along the length, reminiscent of a Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris. However, I could rule Tawny out due to its pale lores. The tail was short unlike a Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi and when I saw it in flight on the first day beside a Meadow Pipit it appeared to be barely larger in size. So, this left very few candidates for its identification. Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis was easily ruled out due to the pattern of streaking, although juvenile Meadow Pipit could possibly be similar. Buff-bellied Pipits Anthus rubescens of American and Asian sub-species, as well as Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta and Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus were easily ruled out due to leg colour, and I’ve seen all of them previously so was confident none of them fitted the bill. I have seen many Olive-backed Pipits Anthus hodgsoni, both in the UK and abroad and knew the face pattern was wrong for that, while the back pattern didn’t fit Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi or Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus either, both of which I’ve also seen previously.

I had seen two Blyth’s Pipits on the Isle of Portland in 1998, but the views weren’t great as they were in long grass, and anyway, that was a long time ago! More recently I had seen seven in Goa, India, in November 2004, but again I don’t really have any particular recall of those encounters unfortunately, so this was a steep learning curve, but I’m pleased we managed to nail its identity, and in time for lots of birders to come and enjoy excellent views of it before it moved on.


Bibliography (sources of information):


  1. Bradshaw, C. 1994. Blyth’s Pipit identification. Brit. Birds 87: 136-142.
  2. Lewington, I., Alstrom, P. & Colston, P. 1991. A Field Guide to the Rare Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollinsPublishers, London.
  3. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D., & Grant, P.J. 2000. Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollinsPublishers, London.
  4. Rose, Dr H.E. (ed.). Avon Bird Report, 2016. Avon Ornithological Group.
  5. Svensson, L. 1992. Identification Guide to European Passerines. 4th edition. Stockholm.
  6. Various websites including Birdguides article 'Blyth's Pipit Identication' by Colin Bradshaw 2006, and Rare Bird Alert article 'Finders in the field: Blyth's Pipit, West Yorkshire, Dec. 2014' by Jonathan Holliday.
  7. Vinicombe, K. & Cottridge, D.M. 1996. Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland A Photographic Record. HarperCollinsPublishers, London.
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