Thursday, 29 November 2018

Marsh vs. Willow Tit

Marsh (løvmeis) and Willow Tits (granmeis) are notoriously difficult to separate on plumage especially in the UK where the kleischmidti subspecies of Willow Tit is a much warmer coloured bird than the borealis that we have in southern Scandinavia. I have always relied on call to identify Marsh and Willow Tits and luckily both species (like most tits) do call frequently. Even calls need to be listened to well though as Marsh Tit has some calls that are similar to Willow and Great Tit can do a very good Marsh Tit impersonation (I would never report a Marsh Tit just on call if it was from a new locality).

Plumage wise there are some very warm coloured Marsh Tits that are easy to ID without call and some pale Willows that are equally striking. There are however a lot of birds that are far less obvious, and I am rather in awe of those people who confidently identify these birds based on poor photos (although I suspect many of them do not appreciate the subtleties and variation in plumage that exists). The one time that I have entered into an ID debate was when a very good photo was posted in Facebook. After a while when nobody had commented then I gave my opinion (backed up with reasons) only to find that other people strongly believed (and with good reasons) that I was wrong.

When I found a Marsh Tit in Maridalen on Monday I found it due to it calling and then saw it (thus eliminating a Great Tit). Upon seeing it however I was struck by how striking the pale wing panel was on this bird (a feature normally used to ID Willow Tit) and how white the cheeks were. The black bid could also change in appearance depending on pose. The brown areas of the bird though were warm in colour and I saw this as a good ID character plus I also noted the pale spot on the base of the upper mandible (but only in my pictures) which is supposed to be THE diagnostic character for Marsh Tits although I have previously noted what very much looks like the same spot on Willow Tits….

What then made things harder was when I saw Willow Tits close by (confirmed by call) and they looked equally warm brown and to be honest I couldn’t find any clear plumage differences.

These pictures try to compare the birds and I have commented the key features as I see it.

The WHITISH WING PANEL is supposed to be the main ID feature to separate Marsh (bottom) and Willow Tit (top) but in this picture we can see that both species can show this feature even though it is supposed to be absent on Marsh. Note also that both have warm coloured flanks. One distinguishing feature is visible on this picture though and that is that the rear cheeks of the Marsh are slightly brown fringed and are separated from the white forecheeks by a dark line whereas the Willow has just white cheeks

Here the Marsh (top) is a bit over-exposed and the cheeks look much whiter. An old feature was that Marsh should have a glossy cap and Willow a matter cap although this feature is now known to be of a little use and I would say these pictures show the complete opposite 
This picture shows the cheeks a bit better and the browner rear cheeks and dividing line are just about visible on the Marsh (right). Marsh Tit is also supposed to show a pale spot at the base of the upper mandible (beak) which is visible here but the Willow (left) also shows this..

Another feature that is mentioned is that Willow (left) has a large black bib with a messier lower border and this picture definitely shows that, but.....

...look how the bib of Marsh Tit can change depending on angle and posture!

MARSH TIT (same bird in all photos):
Here the Marsh Tit does not look to have a particularly pale wing panel

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit with the wing panel looking quite pale but note rear cheeks

Marsh Tit - here the separating line on the cheek is clearly seen
Marsh Tit - here the pale spot at the base of the upper mandible can be seen and the markedly pale cutting edges to both upper and lower mandible are also supposedly a good pro Marsh character

here the bib of the Marsh Tit looks large
 WILLOW TIT (note different birds are photographed):
Willow Tit (granmeis) with a not particularly striking wing panel

Willow Tit - note that Willow Tit also seems to have a larger head than Marsh 

in this angle the wing panel of this Willow Tit is very obvious and a Marsh Tit would never look quite like this

Willow Tit - very white cheeks and thick white edges to the tertials

Willow Tit - does the rear cheek look slightly less white?

at this angle the Willow Tit does look to have small neat black bib and could definitely invite thoughts of it being a Marsh. The pale cutting edges to the bill are probably less obvious than on Marsh Tit

the flanks of this Willow Tit are also warm coloured 
Willow Tit

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Misty birding

Today I was out with Anders and we headed up to Mjøsa and then followed the Vorma and Glomma Rivers hoping for interesting water birds that had been pushed out from frozen lakes further inland. It was fantastic weather with temperatures down to -10C, blue skies, really thick frost on trees and the ground and no wind. The lack of wind proved a problem with mist swirling over both Mjøsa and on the rivers making viewing very difficult in places and we must have missed a lot of birds.

The only real sign of birds on the move was an enormous flock of 530 Canada Geese on the Glomma River at Årnes. This is a very late record for such a large flock and is actually the second largest flock recorded in the whole of Norway in 2018. The largest flock of 550 birds was in Hedmark a month or so ago and this is undoubtedly the same flock that is now finally and slowly making its way south. A single Greylag was the only other goose in their midst unfortunately and Whooper and Mute Swans were only present in small numbers.
There were far fewer ducks than I was expecting with around 100 Tufted, not many more Mallards, a few Goldeneye, 2 Common Scoter, only a single Goosander and best of all a male Long-tailed Duck all we had. We had no divers and just 3 Slavonian Grebes.

Raptors were confined to a single Rough-legged Buzzard which is a very rare winter bird in these parts and a surprising find given the complete absence of other raptors and Great Grey Shrikes during the day suggesting there are no rodents in these areas.

We took a drive through the forests of Nes and I had a very strong feeling we were going to find a Great Grey Owl but that feeling was just plain wrong and a single Pygmy Owl was about the only bird we saw in 30 or so kilometres!

The Gloma River at Årnes with ice forming, thick frost on the trees and fields and loads of Canada Geese

some of the Canada Geese with Whooper Swans and Mallards

the male Long-tailed Duck (havelle) when the mist lifted a bit

Today's Pygmy Owl

Tufted Ducks (toppand) on the Vorma Rivers at Eidsvoll

Monday, 26 November 2018

An X day in Maridalen

The cold temperatures continue and we awoke to -7C today with blue skies and no wind. A relaxed trip around Maridalen didn’t reveal huge quantities of birds but there was quality there and I had a long overdue patch tick.

The lake held a single Guillemot but not the Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters that Halvard H had seen yesterday.

Friday’s Pygmy Owl was in the same spot again but this time in sunlight and was clearly looking for mice or shrews and during the half an hour I was watching flew down once into long grass but without catching anything as far as I could see.

The feeding stations had good numbers of the commoner tits including Crested and Willow and while watching some of these I saw a slightly larger bird fly into a tree top and a check with the bins revealed my first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker of the year in Maridalen. This species has been very scarce this year but with luck this female will hang around and get some male company in the spring. Whilst photographing this bird I heard a call that I could hardly believe – “pitchoo”. It sounded suspiciously like a Marsh Tit but in over 15 years of birding in Maridalen I have never seen the species and the couple of times I have heard this noise before it has turned out to be a Great Tit (which can make a similar noise and means one should never register Marsh Tit on call in areas where you don’t expect the species). I pulled myself away from the ‘pecker and located the bird which indeed looked like a Marsh Tit. But then again it also looked like a Willow Tit. I find these two species often almost impossible to separate on plumage (although extreme individuals of both species can be striking) and this individual was one that I would without doubt have passed off as (the commoner and expected) Willow Tit if I had not heard it call. I did get to see it very well and took good photos but still could not really tell it was a Marsh just on plumage. Shortly afterwards I saw a number of Willow Tits and also here couldn’t really see the difference to the Marsh Tit.

Here are a few pictures where you can see, yourself, it you can see the differences between Marsh and Willow Tit and I’ll try to have a more detailed post later in the week comparing the two species.

Marsh Tit (løvmeis) my first ever in Maridalen and only second in Oslo 

and a Willow Tit (granmeis) for comparison

another Willow Tit

female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (dvergspett)

Pygmy Owl (spurveugle) again

male Bullfinvh (dompap)

Crested Tit (toppmeis)

Green Woodpecker (grønnspett)

Red Squirrel

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Pygmy Owl

Friday was properly cold. Mid-morning in Maridalen and the thermometer in the car showed -11C. Maridalsvannet is too deep to freeze over so quickly but Østensjøvannet was 99% frozen when I drove past. There was no real sign of any cold weather movement of birds but in Maridalen a very hungry looking Pygmy Owl was hunting from wires in the middle of the day and may well have been finding things tough.

Somebody visited the King Eider in a boat on Thursday (see my previous post) and you can click here to see what it really looks like now.

Pygmy Owl (spurveugle) 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Colour ringed Bearded Tit

After the excitement of Jæren it was always going to be tough birding around Oslo again at this time of the year. A trip with Anders to Fornebu on Tuesday did give us two birds that I didn’t have at Jæren, namely Chiffchaff and Arctic Redpoll. We had two Chiffchaffs, and both sounded “normal” (i.e. not tristis) and the one we saw well had a normal green tinged plumage. The Arctic Redpoll was with 10 Common Redpolls and was one of those birds (probably a 1cy female) that one has to work with to be convinced that it is on the Arctic side of the plumage cline rather than being a pale Common Redpoll but the small bill was, for me, the clincher with this bird.

Today, I did have a good day though and by any standard. With no wind, sun, and temperatures that never rose above zero it was a good day to be out. Small pools and even the edges of Maridalsvannet were frozen. No Bearded Tits have turned up at Fornebu this year which is a real shame as they always brighten up an otherwise dull winter’s day birding. It isn’t every winter that they turn up at Fornebu but it has always been the most reliable place to find them in Akershus. Another site that has had records is Pollevanet which has a very large reedbed but is very close to a busy road making it difficult to work. The last records here were from winter 2006/7 but the site does not get too much coverage. A couple of records of Beardies in a small reedbed only 5km from Pollevannet in the first half of October had me expecting that they would also be found (relocate to) at Pollevannet. There have been no records but it doesn’t look like any one has looked either, so I decided to do something about that today. The traffic noise wasn’t too bad and with no wind I felt confident that if there were any there then I would hear them, and sure enough I did 😊 There were a minimum of 8 birds feeding low in the reeds but with a bit of encouragement I was able to see them better and best of all one the males bore a colour ring! We have had a bird with a normal metal ring at Fornebu before but despite quite good photos it was never possible to read the ring but earlier this autumn a ringer at the Great Big Dump (Øra in Østfold) which holds the only regular breeding colony of Beardies in Norway started ringing with colour rings.  I have aired my views on ringing enough times before so don’t need to get into the quagmire again but now, finally, someone was ringing and clearly wanted to get refinds (there are of course others who colour ring in Norway so please nobody get (too) offended). Ringing with a purpose!

The bird had a white ring with the code 44A is the first bird to be resighted of in total 78 that were colour ringed this autumn at Øra.

After this I drove some country lanes on Nesodden where I thought there might be an owl or two to find but failed here. I did end up though at a watch point where at a range of 2.7km (equates to 1.7km for viewing a medium sized tern…..) I could see the small island in the fjord where the Oslo King Eider has been hanging around for the last month or so. This was going to be pushing things a bit but with the lighting being very good and sea nearly flat it was actually possible to pick out the bird (although I certainly helped to know what to look for)! although I was not able to age it as a 2cy 😉 He was on his own and feeding close to the rocks. I suspect that he is now here for the winter as he has not chosen to leave with the Common Eiders (very few are left) and with luck will relocate to somewhere more viewable.

After this I found at least one Arctic Redpoll with a flock of 80 or so Common Redpolls although they were very difficult to view, and I suspect that there were more Arctic in there. I passed many potential Great Grey Shrikes during the day but had only one bird (and the only raptor or owl I had was a Sparrowhawk) so I suspect there are very few rodents around.

The lack of wind made Maridalsvannet easier to check out and a single Guillemot is still going strong but may well have to soon deal with ice if the cold weather continues as forecast.

male Bearded Tit (skjeggmeis) with ring 44A. One of 78 colour ringed birds from Øra this autumn. I am not able to make out anything on the metal ring which shows the real benefit of colour rings

five birds of the at least 8 I saw

it is carrying quite a bit of bling so isn't necessarily good for the bird
the inset shows a male King Eider (praktærfugl) honestly! It is facing to the right so we see its white breast, black body and white vental area. In the scope the grey head was also visible

The Arctic Redpoll from Fornebu. Not the palest of birds and the white rump does have streaking  but that is OK as long as other characters are good. We don't see the undertail coverts properly but there is no obvious streaking. The bill is small and pointed and it is large headed. The head is also very buffy and the ground colour on the mantle is pale and cold. Enough for me to call it an Arctic but I would prefer a nice male!
big white rump of today's Arctic Redpoll (polarsisik) 

"normal" Chiffchaff from Fornebu