A large white bird with a red patch on the head

Been learning about birds since the lockdown started.

Northeast Scotland, Scot pine woodland near the sea.

Today I saw a beautiful bird, which is definitively uncommon where I live. I was walking on the woods behind my house, so I know most of its birds there pretty well (on the trees: tits, chaffinches, bullfinch, goldfinch, chiffchaff, crows, magpie, pigeons, and as the forests ends and the dunes begin, it's the territory of the yellowhammer and song thrush, and further away the skylark, sand martins and a few other duneland birds which I am unfamiliar with).

What attracted me first to this bird, was its short song, a bit of a loud thrill, so I immediately suspected a finch, and with some warbling and complexity I suspected something else. Also it was as loud as a thrush. So I said to myself "this is a very unusual bird" as this is the forest in my backyard which I have been following for birdlife since April. When I pointed my binoculars I saw a largeish white bird (halfway between a sparrow and a pigeon), mostly bright white belly, and some small patch of bright red on its face (almost like when you spot a goldfinch but this bird was bigger than it and with much more white color), and it seems there was also some bit of black near its head or back. But I saw it mostly from its belly (so I cannot say how the back and tail was), as it was near the top of a lonely spruce in a forest of Scot pines, only saw it for 20 seconds before it flew away and then I could not find it again.

After browsing my guidebook, at first my guess went to a great woodpecker, because of the size and white belly and red colour in the head. But I could not remember seeing a prominent bill, and more importantly, the song/call of the bird I saw, does not match the different woodpeckers. Also I did not hear any drumming. So it must have been another bird which I cannot identify! Any ideas?

It was not a linnet, redpoll, whitethroat, which are some of other birds that also have red patches near the head. Size was also bigger, as well as song/call. The more I search, the more I realise that my sight does not match any of the birds in my guidebooks.

Below is the list of birds I am familiar with.

I am familiar with the following birds that occur near my house/woods: sparrow, robin, chaffinch, goldfinch, bullfinch, yellowhammer, swift, sand martin, starling, blackbird, magpie, crows, jackdaw, pied wagtail, oystercatcher, most gull species; wood pigeon, dove, I am also familiar with the meadow pipit, but I only find it further away

I am more or less familar with these birds: wren and dunnoch, siskin and greenfinch, all tits, song and mistle thrush, skylark (only if singing), jay (only if singing), buzzard and eagles (only if flying near), osprey (only if flying near and diving in), and some other seabirds and waders

I haven't seen these birds yet, so I still do not exactly how they look like: all buntings, all flycatchers, all woodpeckers, all warblers (which are still hard to ID!), treecreeper, linnet and twite, tree sparrow, other larks, wheatwear, redpoll, redwing, restart, fieldfare, most warblers, other wagtails, hawfinch, brambling, crossbill, whitethroat, bluethroat, all crests, long tail tit, merlin, kestrel, harrier, hawks, nuthatch, shrikes, chough, nightingale, dipper, waxwing, wryneck

And these ones I am also not very familiar with them, I have seen birds that I tentatively identify them as such: reed bunting, garden warbler, blackcap, whinchat and stonechat, chiffchaff (when they were not singing)

  • Could it have been a rosefinch, do you think?  That would be smaller than you describe, but I find myself misjudging size of birds seen from strange angles and through binoculars, so maybe ...

    "it was near the top of a lonely spruce in a forest of Scot pines"

    I can recall at the age of about six being told by my teacher that I shouldn't paint birds sitting on top of trees; birds perch in trees.  My experience says otherwise.  Practically every bird in our local wood seems to perch at the very top of its chosen tree! 

  • From what has been written, it was a goldfinch. Size is difficult to judge. If it looks like a finch, sings like a goldfinch, has red on face, black on head and a white belly, it is a goldfinch.
  • In reply to Robbo:

    Definitively it was not a goldfinch. Where I live, goldfinch is an extremely abundant bird. I see them every day, and hear them even more often, every day. The bird I saw did not sing like a goldfinch.

    I think it might not have been a finch at all. If it was singing from the branch, with an uprising posture, then I would have missed the back of the bird, and the plumage of the belly could have looked bigger and whiter than it would actually look like from a closer look. So I would now consider starting with any bird with a pale belly and some red near the head or back.

    It was a pity that I have no audio or photo record of this bird. It was indeed quite unusual.
  • Hiya, the only likely thing that I can think of other than goldfinch with a pale belly and red/black at its face is a redpoll, but those are tiny and you already said that it wasn't one.

    Left field and unlikely guesses would be a swallow - white belly, red face, bigger than goldfinch, but I've never seen them perch and sing; or bluethroat which has some red and black around its face (but mostly blue, which you haven't mentioned) and sings loudly.

    Otherwise there isn't really much that can match that description at all :-(
  • I have seen swallows perched singing on treetops. Not often but occasionally. It's a pretty good shout that I didn't think of. However, the description includes 'black'.
  • Thanks for your comments.
    I dont think it was a swallow.
    Misinterpreting the size is possible as well misinterpreting the colors (due to lightning effects).

    The other day I saw what seemed to be again the same bird. Again the bird was alone. In the same pine woods and quite near the same tree I spotted it a few days ago (about blackbird sized). It made an allarm call repeatedly and again it looked like it had a fluffy white belly but flew always nervously so I could barely see other details. It made an alarm call Trrr Trrr Trrrr Trrrr Trrr. It might have been another bird species but I got the feeling it was the same as a few days ago.

    My range of options which I am considering include (though it does not match the call): a great spotted woodpecker, a rosefinch, a redpoll, a shrike, a pink starling, bluethroat, jay, a smaller bird of prey like a kestrel, or merlin, and even a mistle thrush with worn plumage (thus not revealing the darker belly markings). Some of these options are rare birds in Scotland. I really do not think it was a swallow and definitively not a goldffinch. I am hoping to spot it again and get new details. The mystery and the search for its identity is the fun of it!

  • You really need to get a pic, however poor, then we stand some chance of identifying it. Are you using binoculars when you see this bird? There’s a huge difference in the range of options you’re considering, If you’re considering GS Woodpecker, Bluethroat and Merlin as possibles any attempts at ID are really nothing much more than a guess.
  • I agree re photo needing to be provided, not least because features are shifting.

    Ultimately, using the facts provided in the first post, the top one has to be goldfinch as nothing else looks remotely like one and the facts fit goldfinch. i.e. red face, singing in July from high up in a tree, black on head, white underneath, finch like and even likened to a goldfinch. Those were the features provided.

    The second bird I would wildly guess at robin as that again has red front, whiteish underneath but also matches the alarm call to some extent.

    IMO we'll never know.
  • Indeed. I suspect this one might go the same way as the breeding American Robins and the Ravens who were daily garden visitors.