Red-throated Pipit on Mizen Head - a good shot of an elusive bird

October 14, 2017  •  1 Comment

I’m taking a weekend birding and shooting around Crookhaven and Mizen Head in Co. Cork and I was lucky enough to get a good shot of a Red-Throated Pipit Anthus cervinus (left) in the marsh at Lissigriffin Lake this morning. This relative of the common Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis (right) breeds in Arctic Russia and migrates to the Africa and the Middle East for the winter, with an occasional autumn vagrant getting to Ireland. This bird was found by Conor Foley earlier in the week and after a combined search this morning by Vanessa Dunne, John Cusack, Brian McCluskey and myself it popped up on a tuft for a few seconds. Normally they are impossible to see on the ground in their favoured marshy habitat. They are usually only seen in flight as they make their distinctive call – a  “fine, drawn out, squeaky pssiih” to quote the Collins Bird Guide.


I got this image at about 7-10m with my Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm Mark I lens using aperture priority and auto ISO. I also set the minimum shutter speed to 1/1,000th of a second – high shutter speeds are essential for small birds because they often seem to have a sort of a shudder that causes motion blur. With the aperture set to 5.6, the widest available at 400mm, the ISO automatically went to 1600. This may seem high, but it’s not a problem for modern DSLRs – and even 3200 or 6400 are worth it to get a sharp image. I recently become a convert to using Auto ISO because there’s no messing trying to change settings if the light changes. This especially important if I only get a few seconds to get a shot of rarity as was the case here. Today, the light was fairly flat and I was shooting at ground level, so I used evaluative metering – the camera’s automatic option. If I was shooting a small bird against the sky, I would use spot metering to ebsure the bird was not too dark. Finally, I used the smallest spot focus – the tiny box inside the small box in the viewfinder. This can be harder to get on your subject but with so much clutter from the surrounding vegetation, I needed to be sure I was getting a single focus point on the bird.

Before I got the shot of the Red-throated Pipit, we had a few false alarms with Meadow Pipits and this allowed me to get a comparison shot under similar conditions. The Meadow Pipit was a bit further away so I’ve cropped it to about 1/16th of the area of original versus about 1/8th for the Red-throated to make them look approximately equally in this comparison shot. In life, the Meadow Pipit is marginally larger but the difference is not likely to be noticeable in the field. The key point of the comparison, however, is to show the much more contrasty look of the Red-throated Pipit and the strong wedge-shaped mark on the lower side of the throat. The edges of the tertials, just visible on the birds lower back are also noticeable paler than on the Meadow Pipit. As is the case with so many first-year migrants, this bird does not show the eponymous red throat other than a hint of buff in the centre. Only adults show the full feature. To finish, I was well pleased to get good shots of a difficult bird that I’ve only ever seen in flight previously.


Excellant John
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