When this bird was identified last Monday five days after first being found, I at once recognised an exceptional opportunity to gain a difficult lifer. When any British mainland Blyth’s Pipit has appeared on RBA in the past it always seemed like a tricky species even to get sight of never mind distinguish from the very similar Richard’s Pipit, indeed citations are often qualified by the word “probable”. But this individual had been showing well on open ground around a lake shore near Bristol all this week prior to my visit on a fine winter’s day today.
Since the first modern British record of Blyth’s Pipit in 1988, this rare vagrant from eastern Asia has become increasingly regular in late autumn, with a few lingering into winter. But most of these are encountered in the Hebrides and Scillies where I have never been. The majority of large Pipits seen after early October are the Siberian breeder Richard’s Pipit that averages around 120 a year. I have observed the latter twice at Weymouth, Dorset (Jan 2012) and on Portugal’s Sagres peninsula (Jan 2014).
Blagdon Lake (ST508595), at the northern edge of the Mendip Hills, is managed by Bristol Water primarily as a private fishing facility, but bird watching is accommodated for permit holders. Access is currently allowed for visitors wishing to see this rarity. Around 11:30am I arrived at the fishing lodge car park (as instructed on RBA) to find very few cars and fewer birders. The consensus amongst a confused smattering of us was to walk east along the lake’s perimeter road and see what we found. Then birders driving back the other way let us know that vehicle access had been opened up closer to the area that the Pipit favoured.
On relocating to a spot known as “Green Lawn” birders were dispersing and I was told the BP had just flown to an area east of the trees (pictured below). There were three locations at the eastern and of the lake that it commuted between in company with several Meadow Pipits. So I walked on and fortunately found myself in company with two very knowledgeable and helpful volunteer wardens who quickly put myself and others onto our quest. With the tick gained that familiar surge of relief known to all birders swept through me and it was then possible to relax and enjoy. And this little number performed very well.
The Helm guide to confusion species describes Blyth’s rather aptly as exhibiting few diagnostic features but “a host of minor differences that create the impression of something distinctly different”. Having had the benefit of watching this bird for a few days, the wardens described all those nuances as the first winter Pipit moved ever closer along the shore. I will not go into detail but to me it stood out amongst the Mipits for being much more long-legged with an upright stance. It had an energetic feeding action, often raising or tilting its head to one side when the smallish bill became apparent. Something different indeed! Eventually all the Pipits flew back to Green Lawn where I captured a record shot (below) that shows the bird’s generally buffy hue and long reddish legs.
On this twitch I was struck by the very welcoming outlook of local birders who were helping visitors to get onto the rarity. One of them said this was the biggest gathering so far this week, and save for an inevitable person with a camera trying to get far too close everything was conducted in a good spirit. I also met bird warden Nigel Milbourne who publishes the Blagdon Lake web site (see here), and would like to express here my appreciation for his efforts in putting information out and negotiating visitor access with Bristol Water. Mission accomplished and with the great assistance of these true birding colleagues a rather difficult lifer in the bag.