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North East England (1 Viewer)

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Yeah, I thought Yellowhammer was one possibility but didn’t mention it because the OP seemed very sure on them being Shorelark.

The trouble with identifying birds long after the event, which often for inexperienced birders is unavoidable, gaps in our observations at the time tend to not stay as gaps, it seems as nature abhors a vacuum, so our minds have a logical tendency, in the process of assimilating incomplete snippets of information, to want to ‘complete’ the picture even if it means filling the gaps with predictive imagery to make sense of the memory. The danger of that is we can end up with a form of ‘false’ memory of what we saw unless we are aware of the risks of doing so.

Hi Deb,

'Useful information.

What I would say here, however, is that I had a good, long look at both the bird I think was a shore lark and the two black and white birds. There are countless times where I've felt I just haven't had a good enough, long enough or close enough look to make it even worthwhile looking in my bird book because too much guesswork would be involved and any conclusion I arrived at would be meaningless.

With these birds I had a very good look. Good enough to be able to run through my head: size, head/body/tail ratio, colour on the back, colour on the breast, any mottles and so on; and repeat that a few times. I was very lucky in that they came into an opening and stayed there for a while. In fact the two black and white birds would have been there longer were it not for dog walkers coming past. As soon as they flew off I opened my bird book, with the image fresh in my mind. At that point, I also wrote down the details in my book that I use for birds I haven't seen before (which are getting fewer by the week).

The only point I would make regarding identifying birds after the event, is that some people are more reasonable than others and that would apply to bird watchers too. I fully accept that I haven't been through the range of experience that experienced bird watchers have been through, and that quite clearly means there is more chance of someone like me getting it wrong, and I fully understand all of your points about mistaking size and so on from a distance. I have no desire to fill in the gaps because I'm interested to know what I'm seeing as opposed to tick birds off a list. As an example, I saw the back end of a bird fly past in the same valley about a week before. The back end of that bird would suggest an owl but I didn't even bother looking in my bird book or even mention it to anyone because I simply did not see enough of the bird to make it worthwhile.

I'm enjoying the conversation though, so thanks for the replies.
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
No idea what you saw, there is nothing I would describe as a Shorelark without the black band, hence I would have to guess at what other features are missing from the description.

My first thought was also Yellowhammer, which you say it wasn’t, on the basis of a bird with yellow on the breast and a brownish back. Everything else I think of with yellow on the breast, and likely in the area, tends to have some other obvious feature that I would have expected you to have seen.

Thanks, Mark.

I didn't see any yellow on the breast. I saw mottled on the upper part and white below that (if that helps).
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Paul, could I suggest you go through the gallery and pick a few photos from various species (including any from other parts of the world) that look similar to the birds you saw and post a link here (by using the share button or copying and pasting the page url)

It might then help us understand more what is actually in your mind‘s eye when you are visualising the species you saw.

By the way, just to be clear, my comments about how the mind behaves with memories or with being unable to judge size accurately applies to every birder whether they have been birding for 30 months or 30 years so don’t take it personally.

Many (1w/female) Yellowhammers this time of year don‘t show yellow breasts, some Yellowhammers are quite yellowless anyway so don’t let that be a cause for ruling Yellowhammer out.

Re the black and white birds - it’s this feature that is the sticking point for all of us here, there are no likely birds (ie that would be seen as a pair certainly in the Uk) that have this description in tandem with the other features you mention
“The other thing that just crossed my mind: when I say 'crown' it was a white stripe going all the way to the front of the head,“
 
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PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Paul, could I suggest you go through the gallery and pick a few photos from various species (including any from other parts of the world) that look similar to the birds you saw and post a link here (by using the share button or copying and pasting the page url)

It might then help us understand more what is actually in your mind‘s eye when you are visualising the species you saw.

By the way, just to be clear, my comments about how the mind behaves with memories or with being unable to judge size accurately applies to every birder whether they have been birding for 30 months or 30 years so don’t take it personally.

Many (1w/female) Yellowhammers this time of year don‘t show yellow breasts, some Yellowhammers are quite yellowless anyway so don’t let that be a cause for ruling Yellowhammer out.

Re the black and white birds - it’s this feature that is the sticking point for all of us here, there are no likely birds (ie that would be seen as a pair certainly in the Uk) that have this description in tandem with the other features you mention
“The other thing that just crossed my mind: when I say 'crown' it was a white stripe going all the way to the front of the head,“

Hi Deb,

The closest I can find is a female black and white warbler which I appreciate is rarely seen here in England.

I've posted a couple of links for comparison because I saw these birds at say 30 to 40 metres so in terms of what I saw it would be what they look like at that distance. The first link, nothing like that, too much black and white; the second link more like it.

pictures of a female black and white warbler - Google Search

1399 × 933 (google.co.uk)

In terms of the bird I think may be a shore lark, other than posting a link to a shore lark the closest I can find is a cirl bunting given the distinctive yellow stripes but what makes me pretty sure it wasn't, apart from the rarity in this part of England, is that this bird was mottled only farther up the breast and plain white below that. The bird I saw had distinctive yellow stripes on a bird's head that wasn't predominantly yellow.

cirl bunting - Google Search

Edited to add: 30 to 40 metres through binoculars.
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Thanks Paul of that is really helpful.

Re. The Cirl Bunting suggestion - that really lends support for a female Yellowhammer (even the most seasoned of birders get these confused, they are a known confusion species.

The other possibility is a female Reed Bunting
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Thanks Paul of that is really helpful.

Re. The Cirl Bunting suggestion - that really lends support for a female Yellowhammer (even the most seasoned of birders get these confused, they are a known confusion species.

The other possibility is a female Reed Bunting

Thanks Deb. Of all the birds mentioned the female Reed Bunting you mention is easily the closest, outside of a shore lark. The one in your link not particularly, but I've just had a look at other pictures and from certain angles, yes, lots of similarities. The one below, similar.

CAMBRIDGESHIRE BIRD CLUB GALLERY: Reed Bunting (cambsbirdclub.blogspot.com)

Side on difficult to tell which is more likely, but front on, yes, the little reed bunting in the link above is more like what I saw - although I did get a better look from the side. I've just had a look 'round for pictures of shore larks and none of them are in trees which suggests it wasn't a shore lark. Either way, next time I see a female reed bunting or if I ever see a shore lark - I'll know exactly what I'm looking at due to studying pictures. So, thanks for your help with that. I've seen plenty of reed buntings in the past, 'turns out they were all male!
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
I've just had a look 'round for pictures of shore larks and none of them are in trees which suggests it wasn't a shore lark.
I must have missed this point earlier, I assumed you had seen them on coastal ground (shingle/beach scrub!) I agree Paul, that would pretty much rule out Shore lark so Reed Bunting is looking like a good bet here. Don’t forget, as you indicated before, there’s no cookie cutter birds in a species particular plumage so guidebook images, even online photo images won’t always be perfect matches for birds you will see in the field.

Still thinking on your on your black & white birds .....your American warbler links suggest the white head stripe may have been at the side of the crown (lateral crown stripe) which might give us a little breathing room here ...
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
I must have missed this point earlier, I assumed you had seen them on coastal ground (shingle/beach scrub!) I agree Paul, that would pretty much rule out Shore lark so Reed Bunting is looking like a good bet here. Don’t forget, as you indicated before, there’s no cookie cutter birds in a species particular plumage so guidebook images, even online photo images won’t always be perfect matches for birds you will see in the field.

Still thinking on your on your black & white birds .....your American warbler links suggest the white head stripe may have been at the side of the crown (lateral crown stripe) which might give us a little breathing room here ...

Hi Deb,

I'm still not wholly sold on the female reed bunting because the yellow seemed much sharper, but given other markings it does seem a good possibility. With a bit of luck I'll see this bird again down there and take notice of a few other things that would make it more certain.

On the black and white birds, definitely a white stripe down the middle of the head. Both birds turned front on directly opposite where I was standing.
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Hi Deb,

I'm still not wholly sold on the female reed bunting because the yellow seemed much sharper, but given other markings it does seem a good possibility. With a bit of luck I'll see this bird again down there and take notice of a few other things that would make it more certain.

On the black and white birds, definitely a white stripe down the middle of the head. Both birds turned front on directly opposite where I was standing.
No worries - I expect people will be queuing up keen to prove me and the others that have made suggestions so far, wrong, which is often the case when an ID can’t be proven on these forums and just as many disagreeing with those! 😏 so I expect you will get other guesses.

For my part, I don’t know what else any of your birds can be other than what we have come up so far.
Which I would conclude as very possibly being Yellowhammer/Reed Bunting, Sparrowhawk and Long-tailed Tits (the thin tails are often not noticeable as they flit through winter foliage) which is the only species of British passerine that has a wide central white crown stripe surrounded by black. A vagrant/rarity or even escape species largely unlike on account of there being two birds obviously together.

(It’s also worth mentioning that views through binoculars of birds we commonly see with the naked eye can also take people by surprise- a lot of features that we absorb with the naked eye can look very different when magnified.)

Sorry not to have been more help.
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
No worries - I expect people will be queuing up keen to prove me and the others that have made suggestions so far, wrong, which is often the case when an ID can’t be proven on these forums and just as many disagreeing with those! 😏 so I expect you will get other guesses.

For my part, I don’t know what else any of your birds can be other than what we have come up so far.
Which I would conclude as very possibly being Yellowhammer/Reed Bunting, Sparrowhawk and Long-tailed Tits (the thin tails are often not noticeable as they flit through winter foliage) which is the only species of British passerine that has a wide central white crown stripe surrounded by black. A vagrant/rarity or even escape species largely unlike on account of there being two birds obviously together.

(It’s also worth mentioning that views through binoculars of birds we commonly see with the naked eye can also take people by surprise- a lot of features that we absorb with the naked eye can look very different when magnified.)

Sorry not to have been more help.

Hi Deb,

It's been very helpful. For example, I now have a very good idea of what a female reed bunting looks like, whereas I didn't before this conversation. In terms of the sparrowhawk, I take the general point that colour and an assessment of size within a minute time frame can be deceiving and in those situations behaviour is a better marker and I wouldn't dispute any advice relating to a bird of prey because quite frankly, apart from the obvious, such as a kestrel's prolonged hovering or the size of a buzzard, I'd struggle to place them (due to not being overly interested in them and therefore not taking the time to differentiate between them).

The thing that keeps leading me back to the sharp yellow colours on this bird's head is that I've seen a few birds with a line around the eye such as chiff chaff, willow warbler, whinchat etc through my binoculars but the sharp colours on this bird took me back a bit. Anyway, I think at this point there are a few possibilities and I'm not certain either way, but what this conversation has further nudged me towards is taking a camera with me, so it's also made my mind up in that respect!
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
It’s been a pleasure Paul - there is one thing can be sure of, even if there’s no closure here on your IDs, you will find people on BF who share your enthusiasm and obvious love of birdwatching so welcome again to BF and enjoy with the rest of us, exploring all the different forums and media 👍

Ps. Taking fieldnotes as you did is, imo, an excellent way of increasing your skills and a great habit to get into
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
It’s been a pleasure Paul - there is one thing can be sure of, even if there’s no closure here on your IDs, you will find people on BF who share your enthusiasm and obvious love of birdwatching so welcome again to BF and enjoy with the rest of us, exploring all the different forums and media 👍

Ps. Taking fieldnotes as you did is, imo, an excellent way of increasing your skills and a great habit to get into

Cheers, Deb, and thanks for taking the time to reply.
 

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