Is this a really, really Great Tit?  Informed Comments Welcome!

Nial Moores, October 18th

On October 16th, after cancelled travel plans and a disappointing three-hour session at Igidae counting visible migrants, I walked up the SK bank and relocated both the long-staying Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach and a / the large flock of Eastern Great Tit Parus minor.  This flock was first found here on October 10th – a day of northerly winds and heavy migration.  On 16th, at least 265 Eastern Great Tit were counted (compared with 270 on the 10th), including groups of several dozen feeding in a sheltered and sun-washed tree-belt and many more feeding low down to the ground. One of these ground-feeders looked a little brighter, even in flight and to the naked eye.  I wondered therefore, though with little conviction, whether this might be a Northern Great Tit Parus major. Northern Great Tit has been recorded in the ROK only once before (a specimen found in a tray of Easterns by Park Jong-Gil), and is a species now known to be irrupting into Western Europe.  According to Danish birder Jens Thalund, a Northern with a Moscow ring was recovered in eastern Denmark on October 9th this year – a distance of 1500km in a straight line. Looking at the map in Mark Brazil’s field-guide, the nearest breeding Northern Great Tit could be less than 1500km from northern Gangwon Province (so less than 2000km north of Busan).  During irruptions, some from among the massive number of Easterns on the move (e.g. 2,400 counted flying out to sea from one point on Socheong on October 21st 2009) might be coming from “the north”. Could irruptions of Easterns therefore sometimes pull a few Northerns with them – even all the way down to Busan?

Lacking much experience with my new camera I took a couple of hurried digiscope images just before this bright bird was flushed into deeper cover by a Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandrius. A further 90 minutes passed, and there was no sign of anything in view but standard-looking Easterns – with the tit flock becoming more agitated due to overhead raptors and several passing crowds of colourful hikers. After multiple odd “can it be” birding moments this autumn (all in Busan), and knowing that I was over-checking every great tit because of that irruption of Northern Great Tit into Europe, I put the bird’s perceived brightness down to tiredness, too many mosquito bites and a disappointingly over-active imagination, and continued my walk on up through the woodland…

Today, I downloaded the images.

The images (Image 1 and Image 2) are indeed extremely poor. Cropped and otherwise unaltered, however, they appear to show a blur-headed great tit sensu lato with much of the underparts more or less evenly yellow, unlike the off-white underparts of an Eastern. Some of this colour might be due to reflected light from the plants, but of interest, in addition to the smoothness of the yellow on the breast sides, the vent also looks contrastingly pale (white or whitish).



Image 1 and Image 2: Northern or Eastern Great Tit?


In most light conditions, Eastern show neither yellow tones on the underparts, nor any clear contrast between the ground colour of the vent and the breast and belly-sides. Moreover, other Easterns in the same clump of vegetation and in the same light conditions which were digiscoped immediately after did not look similar to the bright individual.  The closest was one that seemed to “develop” some greenish-yellow-buff tones to the breast sides (reflected from the plants, as in Image 4), with these tones then disappearing in direct light (Images 3 and 5).




Images 3, 4 and 5: Eastern Great Tit.  Sequence of an Eastern showing some yellowish-green underpart tones due to reflection from vegetation.



Image 6 and 7: Eastern Great Tit, Igidae, October 16th, showing typical upperpart and underpart coloration.

In addition to the underparts, the upperparts in the bright individual also appear, in the images at least, much more yellowy-green than is typical in an Eastern.   This bright colour also appears to extend quite far down the upperparts. In apparent contrast, Easterns have a large white nape spot, edged by bright yellowy-green on the upper mantle, which then usually (invariably?) darkens to a rather darker-olive.   The scapulars typically appear blue-grey, rather than bluish, and the greater wing-coverts appear almost black, though with bluer edges and broad white tips (Images 6 and 7).  Therefore, apart from the mantle, Easterns are quite subtly coloured.


Image 8…A Really Great Tit, or an unusually bright Eastern Great Tit?  Same image as Image 2 – but cropped more closely, sharpened, darkened and with contrast increased by 10%.

A further search will be made for this bird on my next trip to Igidae. In the meantime, it would be most helpful to receive comments and links to images of bright Eastern Great Tit and east Russian Northern Great Tit for comparison…Thanks in advance!

7 comments on “Is this a really, really Great Tit?  Informed Comments Welcome!

  1. It looks convincing for a northern. The colour of the underparts matches that of the nape/ mantle. You never see that in Korean (“eastern”) great tits, the underparts will in all photos- no matter the light- look a contrastingly different shade to the nape and mantle.

  2. Craig Brelsford: Your bird could be a hybrid between a great tit (Parus major kapustini) and a Far Eastern great tit (Parus minor minor). The parents of your tit could have bred in northeastern Inner Mongolia. According to Harrap and Quinn, “Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches, & Treecreepers,” P. minor minor “may overlap or hybridise with race [P. major] kapustini” in the Greater Khingan Range in northeastern Inner Mongolia (p. 364). The underparts of your bird are not yellow enough in my eyes to designate the bird a full P. major. P.S. I don’t understand why you note that the great tit is irrupting into Western Europe; I thought that Parus major is the only representative of the great tit complex in W. Europe.

  3. Hi Nial. A very interesting bird. You guys are having a lot of fun this autumn! I don’t have much to add except to say that I have never seen an Eastern Great Tit in north-east China looking remotely like your bird. There must be a reasonable chance that it is a Northern, especially given the irruption ongoing in Western Europe.

  4. Can someone discuss at greater length this “irruption of Northern Great Tit into Europe”? P. major major ranges from Western Europe to Lake Baikal. Are you saying that greater numbers of P. major major are being recorded in Europe now, possibly as a result of westward movements of P. major major from interior Eurasia?

  5. Thank you everybody for your comments, either posted here or directly by email: much appreciated.

    I have also never knowingly seen an Eastern Great Tit like this one in over 20 years of fieldwork here in the ROK and in Japan, or during too-rare visits to China. Unfortunately I could not find the bird today, but it gave me more time to test my camera and to practise digiscoping Eastern Greats! Now I am better convinced that the colour in the images is NOT an artefact of any camera setting, and as pointed out above in the first comment such a setting would not have created that reduced contrast between upperparts and underparts visible in the images.

    Re the possibility of a hybrid origin…Thank you for this suggestion. I guess it is possible. However, it seems rather unlikely and quite hard to prove in this case!

    The 2003 paper on Great Tits by Kvist et al states that “Hybridization is… known to occur relatively frequently in the contact zone between major and minor in the middle Amur valley, even though the differences between the minor and major birds in coloration, behaviour and vocalization are relatively large.” The same paper also states that “J. Martens (unpublished data) noted that coloration, especially lipochromes of breast and belly, forms a continuous transition from pure major (bright yellow breast and belly) to pure minor (light greyish) even within a single village” However, if I understand it correctly, their genetic testing found only one certain hybrid, and many more birds that were either major or minor. Unless others have evidence to the contrary, to claim this individual as a hybrid would therefore require this individual to come from a relatively small region of overlap (relative to those parts of their ranges not within that contact zone), and for this individual to show coloration/plumage which is out of the range of major and / or other features suggestive of minor.

    Although my digiscope images are extremely poor, I see nothing in the upperparts to suggest minor influence: does anyone else?

    Therefore it seems only the underparts might be able to indicate a hybrid influence. As in minor, there is quite a lot of individual variation in major, with adult males tending to be brighter yellow on the underparts and females paler. The unevenness of the underpart band suggests that the Busan bird was a female. I now believe therefore that – as the colour seems not to be a camera artefact – this yellow is within the range of a dull female major. This is especially as images of birds with similar levels of (or with even less) yellow saturation on the underparts seem fairly easy to find on Google – including major far from that minor-major contact zone. Was for example today kindly sent a link to a wonderful Swiss website (thank you Mr. Sutherland!) which includes three images of major: one I would call bright yellow, one pale yellow, and one even has a minor like nape and pale-washed flanks (see the Great Tit page on the Wild Echoes website)!

    On range and irruptions: I am a little puzzled by the comment that “P. major major ranges from Western Europe to Lake Baikal.” Kvist et al. 2003 map major east to the western shore of the Sea of Okhotsk, and I would assume that this paper is based on quite detailed knowledge.

    Many major tend to be sedentary. However, it is one of those species discussed by Newton in his 2006 paper on irruptive migration: ” over an 11-year period (1950–60), Great Tits Parus major [ranged] from 2 to 7438, Blue Tits Parus caeruleus from 7 to 3595 and Coal Tits Parus ater from nil to 18 785 (Ulfstrand et al. 1974). These annual fluctuations are far greater than those recorded in more regular long-distance migrants”.

    Yes, major is THE Great Tit in western Europe, and yes, this year there appears to be large numbers of major on the move within and into parts of Western Europe (birds being recorded at bird observatories and in areas where they are not usually present or numerous: even one on Fair Isle this week). As noted above, there was already a bird with a Moscow band recovered in e astern Denmark (this gives a minimum distance of 1500km movement – and of course birds might or might not be moving much further than this).

    Why mention it? Well, I did not mean to suggest that long-distance movement and unusually high numbers of Northern Great Tits in the west of their range necessarily will mean high numbers or long-range movement in the east of their range too. But it does indicate that in some parts of their range major are on the move (for whatever reason)– and moving long distances. And at the same time, there is, perhaps, some larger than average movement of minor too (the likely main carrier species for vagrant major). What little information there has been available in this region over the years too suggests that some winters irruptions in some species seem to have occurred in both Far East Asia and parts of western Europe, while in other years and species, there (as yet) appears to have been correlation at all. All fascinating stuff!

    PS IF folks want the full references, please ask and I will post.

  6. Hi Craig – if I’m understanding your question correctly have a look at There has been a huge movement of both Blue and Great Tits from (presumably) eastern populations this autumn. Both are common species in western Europe of course, but what irruption means is the movement of numbers of a species (usually due to food shortages) away from their normal range to either somewhere else within the species total range, or into a new area where it’s not normally found (eg P major perhaps making it all the way to Igidae). So while P major is widespread in Europe, it is still ‘irruptive’ if parts of the population are moving out of one area into another.

  7. Hi Nial
    Like you I’ve never seen a ‘Great Tit’ this colour outside of Europe – the mantle colour seems the strongest indication to me of major. From my own experience too, underparts do colour up from reflections like you say, but the upperparts far more rarely do so . Besides which, and I know this hardly constitutes ‘evidence’ for such a record, you have a very finely developed gut instinct and if you think it was likely to be a major then I reckon it probably was!

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