Tuesday 29 May 2012


When most rare birds are found in Britain you will more often than not find me slumped at my desk, at work, in the middle of Birmingham staring at a computer screen and tapping away at a keyboard. This morning was no exception. First of all a EUROPEAN ROLLER was reported from Spurn Point. I was already starting to get twitchy, wishing I was out birding somewhere along the English east coast. A few minutes later it got worse, a whole lot worse in fact. A WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER had been trapped and ringed up on Hartlepool Headland. I could almost sense listers up and down the country running around like headless coursers. I could almost hear the clattering of a hundred tripods. I could almost smell the acrid exhaust fumes as a hundred birder's cars screeched off towards Cleveland.

After bribing a few work colleagues and pleading with my sympathetic gaffer, arrangements were made and I finally departed the office at around 11.30am. Back at home I was met by Snapper and after a quick change of clothes and a bite to eat we were on our way. Our progress north was a pretty stressful affair. Despite the positive news that the bird was still present around the outer bowling green, we were receiving snippets of information that gave us cause for concern. The bird had shown on and off throughout the morning but had been completely motionless for a large portion of the time. To make matters even more distressing, when the bird had been processed by the ringers it had shown a 'pectoral score' of zero. In other words, the bird was in a dire physical state following its extended migration from Africa.

Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland
Photo by Martyn Sidwell

After speeding past a very relaxed looking Lee Evans on the A1, we eventually made it on site just before 3.00pm. After a quick dash up the road we quickly located a friendly face amongst the large crowd of twitchers when our pal Steve Nuttall was found perched upon the edge of the bowling green. His very first words to us were "I've got a really bad feeling about this lads!". About a hour before, the bird had seemed to perk up a little and had began to feed around the sparse shrubbery. All was going well until it was chased off by a male Blackbird and it had not been seen since. My heart sank. 

We continued to scrutinise any movement for a further twenty minutes before what looked like a large, grey coloured warbler darted from left to right and promptly disappeared. It had to be either the WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER or a rogue Blackcap. My heart began to race. After a further twenty minutes there were muffled voices across the other side of the green, the bird had been seen again. I rushed across a few yards to my right where I noticed another familiar face. After a few nervous seconds fellow Warwickshire birder Mike 'Dog' Doughty had put me onto the bird as it clumsily made its way towards the top of a bush. There it remained with just its head and shoulders on view. It was looking restless, it was going to fly and after a few seconds it did just that, high over the pavilion, across the tennis courts and over the roofs of some nearby houses.  It was a mixture of sheer delight and relief that we had seen the bird however the brief views were very disappointing indeed. We had to try and relocate it, especially as ASBO original Ian Moore had turned up just seconds before the bird had flown. I will never forget the look on his distraught, little face.

At this stage the crowd started to disperse. Some birders headed home, satisfied with their views whilst others joined in the search. All the while eager birders from further afield were turning up in various states of panic.  After a quick look around the inner bowling green area I mentioned to Snapper that we should try The Croft, a small walled garden nearby where I had seen a juvenile Woodchat Shrike during October 2010.  We had just entered the gates when the rarity suddenly appeared above us perched up in young tree. After brief scope views it then nervously skirted the perimeter of the gardens before flying over the High Street and towards the back of St Hilda's Church. It then flew once more and was lost to view yet again.  Surely it was making its way back to the refuge of the bowling green.

As we made our way along Marine Drive we picked up that distinctive shape of a 'large grey warbler' fly over our heads once again as we approached the entrance to the outer bowling green. As the bird perched up in a sycamore it was evident that we had relocated the WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER again.  For the second time that day throngs of birders descended upon the area and before we knew it we were surrounded by scopes and cameras.

The crowd waits in anticipation!

The bird showed on and off for a while before it settled to bask motionless in the sunlight for over a hour. The rigours of its jaunt around the headland had obviously taken its toll on its already depleted energy levels. At least while the bird rested it gave birders of all abilities the opportunity to see it even though it was largely obscured. Luckily where I stood most of the bird could be seen and the majority of the identification features could be picked out quite easily through the scope. Just after 6.00pm we left Hartlepool thrilled with how the day had eventually turned out and ecstatic with a very nice addition to our British lists.     

Phil Locker, 'The Birding Bouncer' was drafted in to control the crowds!

ORPHEAN WARBLER in Great Britain

It has been over thirty years since the last twitchable ORPHEAN WARBLER has graced the British Isles when a first winter male bird appeared on the Isles of Scilly for a week during October 1981. There have been two records since but one was a single day immature bird in Aberdeenshire and another was a suppressed male singing in a garden in Cornwall. Only the original record in 1955 has been attributed to a specific race following the DNA analysis of a single tail feather that was shed at the time. Results showed that in all probability it was of the race hortensis from western Europe.  The full details of all British records are as follows:

1955 - Western Orphean Warbler - trapped at Portland Bill, Dorset - 20th September only
1967 - Orphean Warbler - trapped at Porthgwarra, Cornwall - 22nd October only
1981 - Orphean Warbler - first winter male on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly - 16th to 22nd October
1982 - Orphean Warbler - immature trapped at Seaton Park, Aberdeenshire - 10th October only
1991 - Orphean Warbler - singing male at Saltash, Cornwall - 20th to 22nd May
2012 - Western Orphean Warbler - first summer male trapped at Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland - 29 May only

Although not yet accepted by BOURC, many authorities around Europe accept that Orphean Warbler now consists of two separate species following evidence put forward by Shirihai et al in 2001:

Western Orphean Warbler Sylvia (hortensis) hortensis - This form breeds in North Africa from Morocco to north-west Libya, north through the Iberian peninsula to southern France with small numbers in southern Switzerland and Italy. It spends the winter in sub-Saharan Africa from southern Mauretania and northern Senegal to Chad.

Eastern Orphean Warbler Sylvia (hortensis) crassirostris - This form is actually split into three 'subspecies'. The form crassirostris breeds in Slovenia and Croatia south through the Balkans to Greece and east through Turkey as well as Armenia, north-east Libya and Israel. The form balchanica breeds in southern Transcaspia, Turkmenistan, Iran and Jordan and east through to Pakistan, Afghanistan and north to the Tien Shan Mountains in south-east Kazakhstan. Not a great deal is known regarding the breeding area of the form jerdoni however it apparently winters in the Indian subcontinent.

The recommendation for splitting the Western and Eastern forms was based upon DNA differences, upperpart tone, undertail pattern, bill biometrics, the extent of the dark hood in adult male's, the whiteness of the underparts and the differences in song.  It may well prove impossible for BOURC to assign the other historical British records to race however most Spring records probably relate to hortensis

Monday 28 May 2012

GREY PLOVER at Alvecote Pools

After thirty-odd years of working my local patch I have only ever had the odd brief, fly through Grey Plover and all of those sightings have come from the Staffordshire side of the complex.  I was therefore thrilled to bits to hear one call this morning whilst scanning Mill Pool and even more excited when the bird, a magnificent summer-plumaged individual dropped down to feed on the tiny exposed spit. After initially becoming the victim of a bit of Lapwing bullying the bird managed to hold its own and settle down for the day.

Grey Plover - Mill Pool, Alvecote Pools SSSI, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer 

After spending most of the day feeding on and off around the sandy spit on Mill Pool the bird eventually got pushed off by a group of Black-headed Gulls early this evening. It then fed around the grassy margins of the same pool until I left the site at around 8.30pm.  It was great to enjoy the bird to the maximum whilst being drenched in the warm, spring sunshine.

Grey Plover - Mill Pool, Alvecote Pools SSSI, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer 

The only disappointment of the day was missing an Osprey pass through whilst I was having my lunch at about 2.30pm.  Other highlights however included another batch of Lapwing chicks around Teal Pool and a Ringed Plover and a single Common Sandpiper again around Mill Pool.

Lapwing - Teal Pool, Alvecote Pools SSSI, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer
Ringed Plover - Mill Pool, Alvecote Pools, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer

Monday 21 May 2012


Ladywalk signage..... with Peacock butterfly

After suffering the unbearable pain of toothache and popping more pain killers than Michael Jackson once did when he stubbed his toe, I lay there in bed this afternoon feeling very sorry for myself indeed. My misery was even more deep as I had missed two excellent local birds over the weekend. Firstly a Sanderling dropped in at Alvecote Pools on Saturday, a much needed 'patch tick' and secondly a male Bluethroat sang its heart out at Doxey Marsh in Staffordshire all day yesterday. This would have been a blinding additional to my regional species tally.  Needless to say, both birds decided to depart before I made it back from Norfolk.

Then the phone rang. It was a text message from the self-proclaimed 'Voice of the Tame Valley', Tom Perrins. A European Nightjar had been found just down the road at Ladywalk Nature Reserve. Despite hearing and seeing loads of these birds over the years in the neighbouring County of Staffordshire, this was a species that was mega rare in Shakespeare's County of Warwickshire.

European Nightjar - Ladywalk WMBC Reserve, Warwickshire.
Photo by Adam Archer


Within a few minutes we were on site and watching the bird from the hide as it roosted in a silver birch tree on the opposite side of Rudd Pool. This was not the usual favoured heathland habitat of this species, however I have seen European Nightjar in stranger locations. Around this time last year I witnessed the unbelievable spectacle of a bird singing from lamp posts on a busy retail park just outside Barnsley in South Yorkshire. At one stage I even had to flush the bird as it rested in the middle of the road completely unaware of a fast approaching bus!

European Nightjar - Ladywalk WMBC Reserve, Warwickshire.
Photo by Dave Hutton

I then headed around to a different viewing position where the bird showed closer but a little obscured. Whilst we stood admiring the recent arrival from sub-Saharan Africa it gave us a short rendition of its distinctive churring song. It was amazing to witness the throat gently vibrating away as it emitted one of the strangest sounds the natural world has to offer. To make the whole experience even better I did not feel the pain of my troublesome tooth once..... nature is the greatest cure!  

Sunday 6 May 2012

A Morning on Cannock Chase

A nice relaxing Sunday morning stroll around Cannock Chase this morning provided a much needed fix of Spring migrants. After the appalling weather over the past few weeks, the sun was shining and the birds were certainly making the most of it.  The obvious highlights were the recent arrivals from the African continent who choose our glorious islands to raise their next generation.  At least one Cuckoo was spotted hunting caterpillars on the heathland and at least four Wood Warblers showed well in various parts of the woodland.  A pair of Pied Flycatchers remained elusive and a handsome male Common Redstart sang its heart out high in the canopy.  An added bonus was a flock of 18 Common Crossbill, a few of which performed well feeding on pine cones just above our heads.

Treebeard (left) meets Nadia (right)!

Other highlights included my first Garden Warbler of the year, numerous Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Willow Warbler and single sightings Common Whitethroat and Tree Pipit.  The best of the resident bunch of woodland specialities included Sparrowhawk, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Goldcrest.

Unfortunately I am unable to provide exact locations of my sightings due to the continued risk of egg-collectors operating in the area. Whilst out in the field at this time of the year please remain cautious of what information you pass on to folks. Already this Spring there have been instances where a known local egg thief has been targeting scarce breeding species.  If you witness any suspicious behaviour then please gather as much information as possible, including detailed descriptions of the individuals concerned and take a note of car registration numbers if possible.  Do not hesitate to pass this information onto the Police at the earliest opportunity. 

Thursday 3 May 2012

Possible ATLAS FLYCATCHER in Yorkshire!

The 'Birding Emperor of East Yorkshire'; Sir Brett Richards located a funky looking first summer male ficedula at Flamborough last Saturday and Mmmmmm it looked to be a pretty interesting bird indeed.  With no sign of it on Sunday it was then relocated along Lighthouse Road on the Monday. At this stage the mystery bird was caught and processed and then released nearby amidst the wooded ravine of South Landing.  The measurements taken fell within those expected of ATLAS FLYCATCHER but a bird of this particular age is not safely identified on plumage alone. With this in mind a few precious feathers that became loose were safely collected in the hope that DNA analysis could clinch the identification for certain.  Other possibilities are that the bird is an Iberian Pied Flycatcher or maybe a hybrid Pied x Collared Flycatcher.

Throughout the week the bird's identity was discussed at great length, see Surfbirds for one of the best internet discussions.  With other ATLAS FLYCATCHERS being claimed elsewhere in Europe this Spring: two in mainland Italy, two on Sicily, one in Spain and another dodging the trappers on Malta, surely this increases the probability that we could have a British first on our tick-hungry hands?

The Funky Flamborough Ficedula... but what is it?
Photo by Steve Nuttall

With the debate continuing I eventually cracked under the immense pressure and managed to take the afternoon off work this afternoon. I had a good feeling in my bones that this bird could be the next 'big one' and I did not want to miss the possible opportunity of a lifetime.  The journey from Birmingham to Bridlington (via Coventry) went smoothly enough and just after 3.00pm we arrived on site.  Initially the bird was quite elusive but after a bit of perseverance we eventually enjoyed superb views of it along the south east side of the valley. At one stage it called continuously for about a minute as it fed close to a roosting Tawny Owl. It was not reminiscent of the sharp hwit call of the familiar Pied Flycatcher but was more like a subtle hweeet type sound.  Happy that we had witnessed all of the prime features for ourselves we then made our way back to the car park via the seaward end of the ravine. As we climbed the steep hill I picked up the bird yet again and even closer views were obtained this time.

..... and so we all await the results of the DNA analysis with baited breath!

If you have an opinion on what you think this intriguing bird actually is then please feel free to vote in the poll on the right hand side.....

ATLAS FLYCATCHER... the story so far!

Back in the days the humble Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca was spilt into four different subspecies. The race that breeds in Britain and other areas of northern and western Europe is F. h. hypoleuca and known as European or Western Pied Flycatcher. Further east the race F. h. sibirica or Siberian Pied Flycatcher breeds east of the Ural mountain range. Down in south west Europe the race F. h. iberiae or Iberian Pied Flycatcher has a localised breeding range in southern Spain and Portugal. The final race in the group was F. h. speculigera that breeds across the Mediterranean along the Atlas mountain range of north west Africa.

The structure above was then revised during 2001 when the DNA diversity of the 'black & white flycatcher' complex was studied in more detail.  The news at this time surprised most birders when it was discovered that Semi-collared Flycatcher was the ancestor of both Pied Flycatcher and Collared Flycatcher and that these were more closely related to each other than either of them was to Semi-collared Flycatcher. In addition it was also realised that the 'race' breeding in north west Africa was both phylogenetically and morphologically distinct. As a result of this conclusion the authors of the study recommended that this form should be treated as a separate species and named Atlas Flycatcher. The genetic distance of this 'new' species suggested that genetically it was further diverged from both Pied and Collared Flycatchers than they actually are from each other.

Atlas Flycatcher arrives on its breeding grounds at the end of April. It has been recorded on migration in Senegal and Algeria and there is just a single winter record from the Ivory Coast.  Back in 2003 Graham Etherington and Brian Small mentioned in their Birding World identification article that there was a possibility as with all trans-Saharan migrants that there was a chance of spring overshoots occurring in Britain and north west Europe.  They also stated that the end of April or the beginning of May would be the most likely period for their arrival here.  Could their prophecy come true over the next few weeks?

STOP PRESS - 12 May 2012

The DNA results have now been received!  Martin Collinson and his students at Aberdeen University have concluded that the bird is actually a European Pied Flycatcher.  Surely such a shocking announcement as this should have been televised live on The Jeremy Kyle Show.