Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Just a Mipit

Yup, this post is on Meadow Pipits. No groaning back there. You've been warned enough times this blog focuses on common species, you know, the ones we know loads about.

Or not. The BTO's Migration atlas points out there are major gaps in our knowledge of the winter ecology of Meadow Pipits. First 'whaaaaaa?' moment. At the time of publication the data was clear; no evidence to date for foreign Meadow Pipits wintering in Britain and Ireland. This is just another of those species, like the Robin, where the zugunruhe is strong in autumn, and the birds we count coasting are not arriving to join us here, they moving much further south. The vast majority of subsequent encounters of birds ringed in UK during winter have also been in the UK.

So another urban myth gets put to bed for the moment- all those County Reports saying 'winter visitor' really need to qualify that statement; most birders will read that as foreign birds, whereas we are more likely getting some visitors from other parts of Blighty. And no real idea of distances yet, either. Sites where numbers increase could just be a readjustment from, say, inland to the coast. Open minds are needed. Brit breeders do move to the coast, and do leave, down to places such as Iberia, but how much is partial migration? Just some of the local population involved? The last Migration Atlas relative abundance maps make you ask questions; a clear shift from north of the Watford Gap, to a spread south of the Watford Gap in winter. No ringing evidence of cold-weather movements within a winter, everything saying site faithful.

Tabulated Mipit records in the County Reports add little information. Often winter counts equate to a number similar to a breeding population plus surviving young. Do all the southern birds make for the south and are all our wintering birds narfeners? Is it a partial migrant? We just really don't know enough to answer with confidence. Yet some in this county are saying with certainty Mipits in the hand can be identified as birds from the Western Isles, or further. 'Showing characteristics of..', maybe. 'Having the whiff of a clinal appearance found in a slightly larger percentage elsewhere', maybe more so. But nothing is proven. Don't believe all you are told.

Mipits! So much to find out. So much to challenge.


But for this note, let's look at winter roosting. Searching Google Scolar provides little to update the old statement in Birds of the Western Palearctic: 'Roosting. Little information. Nocturnal and probably communal outside breeding season.On ground under plants and amongst grass in the open, also in young plantations, base of osiers and hedges used mainly in bad weather..'

Here on the southern Medway, reedbed roosting does occur in the midwinter, but needs qualifing. Opened areas of reedbed, where dry. AKA the autumn's netrides. It may be they prefer the unimproved pasture alongside the  reedbeds, with double figure counts routine here. Brownfield wasteground goes down a treat. Similar numbers can be found in one open areas among the stalks of umbellifers, teasels. Then there's my local site, rank grassland with the double figure counts on a brownfield site reseeded c. 15 years ago, and cut each autumn.

They do like it. It is some little way off their feeding areas, as there is a clear urban flightline. As long as I can remember for the three decades I have lived on the edge of the medway Towns, Meadow Pipits have moved eastwards in the morning over Rainham, between the main A2 and the B2004 Lower Rainham Road. In the first winters back from working away in Sussex, the old landfill was surefire. This past winter, although from the boundary fence nothing appears to have changed, the site has been largely deserted. The birds now turn north towards Ham Green. What is most odd is that it is a turn once they overfly the old roost- prior to that, they are have still moved east over lower Rainham. It is almost as if they have added a dog-leg extension onto the old flightpath. And where do they go to during the day? How far do they travel?


We ignore them as common birds at our peril. The species is amber-listed thanks to a downward trend in numbers since the 1970s. Although many texts state a common species on coastal marshes, texts specific to North Kent point at times when it was anything but. How many would be noteworthy this time of year along the southern shore of the Medway? We certainly have fewer than the more 'coastal' north Kent marshes. Say within the more-developed western basin? Any number noteworthy up and including the Country Park. Double figures around the central Peninsulas, then 20+ worth recording when you reach the flatlands of Barksore and Chetney. And details of any roost, of course.

Main thing is, don't ignore 'em.

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