The problem with Scandinavian Rock Pipit in winter is that many individuals are inseparable from our nominate Anthus petrosus petrosus (subsequently referred to as ‘petrosus’). That has led to several county and regional bird reports being a bit reluctant to document Anthus petrosus littoralis unless this relates to individuals (usually in spring) which show a subtle combination of characters which suggest they are not petrosus (e.g. well-defined supercilium, ‘cleaner’ more individual breast streaking and noticeable white (not muddy white) outer tail feathers, with the more clear-cut individuals superficially resembling Water Pipit)
It has been increasingly apparent in this country that there is a quite specific outer saltmarsh habitat which does not 'proximately overlap' with rocky coasts and shorelines which has its own wintering population of Rock Pipits. The problem with this habitat is that at many sites the birds are 'impossible' to watch closely and document unless there are high spring tides forcing them to the inner end of the saltmarsh within observational range. Therefore opportunities to study them can be limited to just two or three tides per winter period month. This is because they feed in the outer saltmarsh creeks and are very reluctant to leave this area unless the adjoining saltmarsh is completely inundated by the tide. Birders also tend to ‘ignore’ them as they search for the occasional Water Pipit (or hope for a long-shot Buff-bellied Pipit) during these limited opportunities.
Here is an extract from the Christchurch Harbour Ornithological Group website: "The location of winter pipits within the recording area can be used as an indicator as to the likely species or race. Rock Pipit seen on the Hengistbury shoreline or Stanpit river bank are almost exclusively Western European petrosus birds, some of which are thought to be resident and form the Hengistbury breeding population. However, Rock Pipit encountered on the saline marshes of Stanpit are candidates for littoralis race. Of course, many are simply indistinguishable from petrosus , but there are often individuals that stand out from the crowd". See also: http://www.manchesterbirding.com/logicalityoflittoralisiddocmanchesterbirding.com.pdf
for a closer look at the problem of field identification
In north Germany, for example, there are no breeding (or wintering) petrosus Rock Pipit and the species is exclusively of the form littoralis and a denizen of the muddy outer saltmarsh creeks. Here it feeds on e.g. hydrobia which is, of course, an abundant food source in our own outer saltmarsh creeks and utilised by e.g. Redshank and Shelduck (ref: Dierschke and Bairlein: Habitat selection of wintering passerines in saltmarshes)
Here in Lancashire/Morecambe Bay, with one small exception, we do not have resident 'rocky coast pipits' breeding nearby. Apart from an isolated pair in at least 2015 on Chapel Island in the Leven Estuary, the nearest breeding birds are St Bees in Cumbria and North Wales. The migration Atlas, utilising ringing data, also deems petrosus as 'mainly sedentary', whilst conversely the Scandinavian form is known to be migratory. However, we do receive the occasional 'dark smudgy-breasted individuals with 'no' supercilium' at rocky sites such as Heysham Harbour with two cases of late spring birds holding temporary territory around Heysham Head/Harbour, including "a few" observations of parachute flight. It is presumed that these might be wandering petrosus, but we have no ringing evidence, just a combination of habitat and temporary territorial behaviour
However, by far and away the preferred habitat for Rock Pipit in Lancashire is exactly that of known littoralis in Germany; outer saltmarsh creeks. We have already had confirmation of this with two previous sightings of Scandinavian birds - one fully documented, the other not narrowed down to an individual. Now we have a third, but unlike the two previous ones, this was well-photographed.
As can be seen from the photograph of this latest colour-ringed bird, there is little or nothing to suggest that it is any different from our resident petrosus, but, in Lancashire, as in many other coastal counties, it is surely time to assume all the saltmarsh Rock Pipits are littoralis by virtue of clear-cut habitat preference (beware the occasional Water Pipit). This should be reflected in county and regional bird reports and indeed, in a county such as Lancashire, maybe the ones deserving individual documentation are the occasional rocky habitat individuals suggesting dispersing petrosus! Caution is obviously needed with birds on passage e.g. small numbers of presumed littoralis pass through Heysham on especially autumn passage and documentation of littoralis should be limited to winter residents flushed out during saltmarsh inundation
Thanks to Chris Batty (photo supplier) and Andrew Cornall for persevering with this bird, leading to documentation and the Lancaster RSPB group for first drawing attention to it
Ring no:Stavanger 8E28835
Yellow colour ring HJP (Left tarsus metal ring. Right tarsus yellow ring with three black letters HJP engraved).
Age/sex:: Adult female (hatched 2013 or before).
Biometrics: Wing 83 mm. Weight: 19,8 g.
Ringing date: 22.08.2013, 0900 hrs.
Ringing place: Makkevika (62*30'N-006*02'E) Giske, Giske, Møre &Romsdal, Norway.
Remarks: Caught in walk-in-trap at our wader station (Giske Ornithological Station).
Ringer: Sunnmøre Ringing Group.
Finding date: 09.02-12.02.2016, almost certainly the bird seen in January
Observed: Pilling Marsh (53*56'N-002*53'W) Lancashire, England / UK.
Observers: Andrew Cornall and Chris Batty
Colour-ringing in Norway:
Sunnmøre Ringing Group hope that you will look for flagged Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula), Common Sandpiper(Actitis hypoleuca), Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)and Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea). All these species have metal ring on left tarsus, red colour ring on left tibia and yellow flag on right tibia engraved with 3 black letters.