Saturday, 17 October 2015

MEGA ALERT: The WILSON'S WARBLER on the Western Isles

This epic story began way back on the afternoon of Tuesday 13th October, when news was received of a WILSON'S WARBLER being discovered on the Western Isles of Scotland. I am sure when the finders, Tony Marr and Roy Dennis originally spotted this lustrous, American gem flicking around in a tranquil garden on the Butt of Lewis, they would have been oblivious to the shear panic it would create amongst keen rarity chasers the whole length of Great Britain.

Having just spent a fortnight off work, trudging around Shetland starring at rarities, there was no possibility of securing a leave of absence from my commitments, especially when I would need two consecutive days to twitch the bird by boat. That evening, after speaking to former Isle of Lewis resident Martin Scott about the how the bird was located, its elusive nature and the denseness of the garden it was favouring, I was resigned to the fact that this was an autumn rarity I may need to pass on.

Wilson's Warbler (first-winter male) - Isle of Lewis.
Photo by Stu Elsom

As the week progressed however and with the bird still being present I was starting to harbour some hope. Surely it would not linger until the weekend? On Thursday night, following a day of hard graft helping to create Grasshopper Warbler habitat at a local RSPB reserve, I received a message from Worcestershire based, rarity specialist Sean Cole. He was looking to head north, straight from work on Friday afternoon and crucially, he had space in his car. With my usual birding brethren otherwise engaged with more important matters in life, I was extremely grateful to him for coming to my rescue. A few belongings were thrown into the boot of my car that night in anticipation of what potentially lay ahead.

On Friday morning after a nervy hour or two, positive news finally came through that the Wilson's Warbler was still there. Arrangements were confirmed and before I knew it I found myself up in Cheshire that evening for a rendezvous with Sean, Cornish birder Keith Pellow and fellow Warwickshire bear, Mark Payne. We were on our way to Scotland. It was a huge gamble, especially considering the huge amount of rarities which had been hitting the east coast over the previous few days.

The trip up to the Isle of Skye passed by pretty rapidly bearing in mind the distance of over 500 miles involved. There was plenty of joviality and laughter despite the worryingly clear skies up above. We were also treated to some remarkable historical tales of twitching legendary British rarities like Brown Thrasher (Dorset 1966) and Wallcreeper (Dorset 1969 & Somerset 1976) courtesy of Keith

We also sat there awestruck as Keith relived his encounter with the only other Wilson's Warbler to reach Britain. Yes, that is correct, he did not actually need this 'mega' species for his British list, in fact it was him who confirmed the identity of the initial bird on his local patch of Rame Head in Cornwall thirty years ago. He was the only birder available at the time who had past experience of the species following a trip to Bermuda a few years before. 

Can you remember that atmospheric photograph of a bird peeking out amongst a tangle of leafless branches published in 'Rare Birds in Britain & Ireland' by Cotteridge and Vinicombe? Well that snapshot was taken by the very fellow I was sharing this trip with. 

Sunrise at Uig, Isle of Skye.
Photo by Adam Archer

We eventually arrived at a chilly Uig harbour around 4.30am where we immediately settled down for a few hours rest in a peaceful corner of the car park. Remarkably, we all managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep under our belts before dawn broke. Then again, most of us were exhausted after suffering four stressful days of pre-twitch tension and one of us was in a state of heightened relaxation bearing in mind he did not even 'need' the bird.

In order to pass the time and steady my nerves I decided to have a wander around the village. It had been a calm, star-filled evening. To make matters even worse, reports came through that the Wilson's Warbler had shown exceptionally well the previous afternoon, appearing spritely and full of energy. It had obviously recovered from its arduous journey across the Atlantic and was ready to embark on the next leg of its mysterious migration.

As I made my well up the hill out of Uig, checking the gardens for birds, I received two text messages simultaneously from Steve Nuttall and Phil Andrews. It was just after 8.45am, a hour before our ferry was due to depart. As I read the first message I leapt into the air with a mixture of pure joy and relief. Despite the favourable weather conditions, the bird was still present. With the other lads down at the quayside I fumbled around in an attempt to share the important news. Frustratingly, Keith was the only one to bother answering my call. In true chilled out, Cornish fashion, he nonchalantly relayed the message to the other birders in the harbour as I headed back down the hill strutting along the lane like some kind of smarmy, birding pimp.

The lads scanning for wildlife off the Uig to Tarbert ferry.
Photo by Adam Archer

As we boarded the ferry we were all beaming from ear to ear but we all knew there was still a long way to go. After a hearty breakfast and a hot brew we were ready to head up on deck to search for seabirds. The crossing over to Harris could not have been smoother and almost immediately we were enjoying tremendous views of a Minke Whale. There were also several small pods of Harbour Porpoise throughout the journey. Birdlife included a couple of Great Northern Diver, Great Skua and Arctic Skua among the expected Gannet, Fulmar and Kittiwake. There was also the guaranteed sightings of several winter-plumaged Black Guillemot along with small groups of Common Guillemot and Razorbill.

Entering the port of Tarbert on Harris.
Photo by Adam Archer

As we entered the beautiful port of Tarbert we could also make out a pair of distant Golden Eagles soaring over the sun-drenched mountains to the south of the village. It was already turning out to be one of those special days life throws up for you occasionally. Unfortunately there was no time to admire our immediate surroundings and within minutes of docking we were heading north, through the rugged scenery of Harris and onto the the Isle of Lewis. The closer we got to Port Nis at the northern tip of the island, the more tense I become. Just a few miles from our destination we even sped past an adult White-tailed Eagle as it flew adjacent to us near Dail Bho Dheas. Ordinarily we would have screeched to a halt and clambered around for our scopes but alas we had a more pressing appointment.

The Wilson's Warbler twitch at Port Nis.... civilised hey?
Photo by Adam Archer

As we arrived at our destination we were greeted by Tony Marr and quietly escorted to the rear garden of the property where the bird had been favouring. Unfortunately we had missed a brief sighting by just a few seconds but were reassured by Tony that we should expect it to reappear within thirty minutes or so. As the time passed by and as I stared into a small cluster of stunted apple trees I tried to envisage the bird going about its business but I struggled. It was all becoming too much to handle. 

After a long, lingering forty five minutes or so, there was a sudden movement in the top of a sycamore tree just to the left of us. Sean had got the bird in his bins first and within a few seconds a small group of us were watching Britain's (and Keith's) second Wilson's Warbler. To our astonishment it then flew right towards us and into the apple trees where it fed continuously for over fifteen minutes just a few yards away. We were all absolutely gobsmacked into a stunned silence. Well I say all, one particular birder began to emit various grunts and groans more akin to the disturbing sounds the average NGBer might make upon stumbling upon his first 'jazz mag' in a hide at Cley. I was tempted to throw a reassuring arm around him but I am sure just the slightest of touches would have finished him off.

Wilson's Warbler (first-winter male) - Isle of Lewis.
Photo by Stu Elsom

Without warning the bird then took flight to undertake its feeding circuit once more. We managed brief views of the bird around the small conifer plantation next to the garden but it always showed best when it returned to the apple trees. With the pressure off, I then began to savour the crippling views of one of the most memorable birds I will ever see in these wonderful isles of ours.

By this time, more birders had arrived off the Ullapool crossing with a few others arriving via an expensive charter flight from Nottinghamshire. It was all starting to get a little cramped in the restricted viewing area and so we made the decision to move on. We paused for a while around the harbour in order to take in the wonderful scenery and reflect on the morning so far. It would take a while for the experience to sink in.

Other species of note around the garden included a few Hebridean Wren and Stonechat along with a calling Yellow-browed Warbler. A few Twite and Redwing also passed through along with a Common Redpoll and a Brambling

Port Nis, Isle of Lewis, Western Isles.
Photo by Adam Archer

We then made our way south where we encountered a ringtail Hen Harrier near North Galson before continuing onwards to Lower Barvas to search for eagles. Despite scanning the area around the old cemetery we could only locate several Common Buzzard, Raven and Hooded Crow lurking around the rabbit warrens and sheep fields along with a single Sparrowhawk. There were also 35 Lapwing, 13 Golden Plover and 5 Common Snipe frequenting the area along with a large flock of Redwing.

Lower Barvas cemetery, Isles of Lewis, Western Isles.
Photo by Adam Archer

Late in the afternoon, close to exhaustion, we made our way south towards Stornoway to find our accommodation for the evening. After getting settled in our digs we enjoyed a well deserved lounge and the odd brew before heading into town to celebrate the events of the day. A few beers and single malts were downed and a couple of games of pool were played before we made our way back home for food, more drink and a long night of peaceful slumber. It had been a perfect day of high octane birding. We needed to recharge our batteries for another long day tomorrow.

An endangered mountain Jaguar stalking Golden Eagles.
Photo by Adam Archer

As we woke on Sunday morning it had been our intention to head back up to Port Nis for another glance at the Wilson's Warbler. It had initially been clear throughout the early part of Saturday evening before clouding over during the early hours. In contrast to the glorious weather the day before it was now cool and murky. With no positive news by 11.00am the bird had obviously departed overnight. We had succeeded in seeing the bird by the skin of our teeth. You could say we were extremely jammy but in this twitching game you sometimes need to be prepared to make your own luck.

Despite it being far from ideal raptor viewing weather we decided to head out west anyway. After a quick scan of the mountain range in the South Shawbost area I picked up the shape of an eagle perched up way in the distance. You can always know you have an eagle in your sights when the Hooded Crows mobbing it appear to be Starling size in comparison. Upon closer inspection through the scope the bird was confirmed as a magnificent adult Golden Eagle

The vast expanse of the western side of Lewis.
Photo by Adam Archer

Moving further up into prime 'goldie' habitat we eventually scored with our second adult Golden Eagle in the area. This time we enjoyed superb flight views as it flew slightly below us, into a ravine and eventually out of sight. Once again, Raven and Hooded Crow were everywhere and a single Red Grouse was flushed. After a fruitless search around the beautiful hamlet of Carlabhagh it was then time to make our way back to Stornoway for our ferry ride back to mainland Scotland.

A handsome Hooded Crow at Stornoway harbour.
Photo by Adam Archer

The trip back to Ullapool was pretty quiet overall with just a single Pomarine Skua and several Arctic Skua being the birding highlights. As with the crossing yesterday, there were also several sightings of Harbour Porpoise. We eventually docked just after 5.00pm but I was still over 500 miles away from home. As with our journey on Friday night though, the hours rolled by pretty quickly considering the distance. Time always flies when you are having a good, old laugh I suppose. 

During a brief stopover in Perth for food, we bumped into Keith Vinicombe and his pals. Unfortunately they had arrived off Shetland just twenty four hours too late and had dipped the Wilson's Warbler earlier in the day. I always feel pretty gutted for decent folk like them who have made such a massive effort for no reward. As we all know too well, this hobby can be pretty cruel at times.
   
'Team Wilson' (minus Sean) at Carlabhagh, Isle of Lewis.
From left to right: Keith Pellow, Adam Archer (me) & Mark Payne.
Photo by Sean Cole

After bidding farewell to the lads in Cheshire, I continued my journey back to Warwickshire alone, finally arriving home around 2.30am on Monday morning. My alarm clock would be sounding at 5.45am but did I care? Of course not, I had had one of the most enjoyable weekends of birding ever, with some of the finest fellows you could wish to meet...... and I had watched a Wilson's Warbler at point blank range, in the autumn sunshine, in one of my favourite birding locations in the country. It just does not get any better than that.

Extra special thanks to Sean Cole for driving and organising the trip to absolute perfection, even down to providing evening meals for us all on Saturday night and plenty of snacks to keep us all going throughout the weekend. Also big thanks to Mark Payne for the laughs and to Keith Pellow for simply being an old school birding legend.

The WILSONS WARBLER factfile

This species breeds from Alaska south through the Rocky Mountains to southern California and northern New Mexico and east across Canada to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia as well as in some of the bordering states of the United States. It is more common in the west although it is also one of the five most abundant breeding 'wood warblers' in Newfoundland. It spends the winter months mainly from the northern regions of Mexico down to western Panama. It is also found in the extreme southeastern area of Texas, along the upper Texas Gulf coast and throughout southern Louisiana.

The eastern population of this medium-to-long distance migrant move south to the Gulf coast, which they then follow around to their wintering areas without apparently crossing the sea. The breeding grounds are vacated in early August with the arrival on their wintering grounds from early September. Taking this migration strategy into consideration it makes the chance of a bird being displaced extremely unlikely, as a result the two British records are very special occurrences indeed.

It was named by Alexander Wilson, in tribute of himself, and why not considering he was the first person to describe the genus. Wilson (1766 to 1813) was a pioneering American ornithologist and one of the first to study American birds in their native habitats. He was actually born in Paisley, Scotland, just 250 miles southeast of where the Western Isles bird was found. Originally a poet and an advocate of workers rights, he was sent to prison for writing satirical verses attacking unscrupulous employers, the original ASBO birder!

Upon his release in 1794 he emigrated to the United States where he worked as a village school master. It was at this time he began to collect material for a comprehensive study of America's birdlife. From 1808 to 1813 he published seven volumes of his work American Ornithology. An additional two volumes were also published following his death. He also had Wilson's Storm-petrel (1820), Wilson's Plover (1814), Wilson's Snipe (1825), Wilson's Phalarope (1819) and Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise (1850) named in his honour. In addition, he also laid claim to Wilson's Thrush (1817) until it was renamed Veery in later years.

As touched upon above, there have now been just two records of Wilson's Warbler in Britain with another in County Cork, Eire during September 2013. There are no other accepted records for the Western Palearctic however there is an unconfirmed report of a sighting in Greenland. Both British records are detailed as follows:

2015 - Western Isles - Port Nis, Isle of Lewis - first-winter male - 13th to 17th October.
1985 - Cornwall - Rame Head - male - 13th October only.

My Raven pals at West Side, Isle of Lewis.
Photo by Sean Cole

WILSON'S WARBLER footage by Pete Hines


Sunday, 12 July 2015

The RED-FOOTED FALCON in Staffordshire

RED-FOOTED FALCON (first-summer male)
Brindley Ford, Staffordshire.
Photo by Adam Archer

Late last Thursday night, there was exciting news of a RED-FOOTED FALCON that had been photographed earlier that day just north of Stoke-on-Trent. Despite a few local birders following up the lead, there was no sign of the bird by dusk. Unfortunately, it seemed as though a regional MEGA had slipped through the net.

The following morning though, a few tenacious clay-heads decided to give it another shot and at around 7.00am Phil Jones relocated the bird, a handsome first-summer male (the bird, not Phil). It was a very long day in the office that Friday as news, both positive and occasionally negative filtered through. Then came the inevitable gripping photographs from pals who had seen the bird, just to add to the agony.

At around 3.30pm, I finally abandoned work and took the 'highway from hell' M6 motorway north from Birmingham up to the Potteries. A few hours later I had finally reached the sun-drenched, former colliery site of Chattersley Whitfield and within seconds I was watching the bird. The falcon showed remarkably well as it scoured the area for insects around a horse paddock.

RED-FOOTED FALCON (first-summer male)
Brindley Ford, Staffordshire.
Photo by Adam Archer

As the evening progressed, more and more familiar faces showed up to admire the bird. A good number of West Midlanders were in attendance as was the odd twitcher or two from further afield. One of those was the infamous 'Andrew Ridgeley of birding' who strutted around bedecked in fake snakeskin slip-ons, Persil-white terry towelling socks, a skimpy pair of goldcrest smugglers and not a great deal else! To be honest I was quiet surprised to see him on site bearing in mind his staunch Nigel Farage style political views. Perhaps this was an eastern European immigrant he actually welcomed making landfall in his precious, 'over-crowded' country.

A scruffy miner takes a peek after a long shift down t'pit!
Photo by Adam Archer

Other birds on site included a curious Little Owl perched up along the perimeter fence at the back of the paddock, the odd Kestrel and a flock of 8 Mistle Thrush. It was pretty difficult to tear myself away from such a regional rarity showing so well, but with hunger finally getting the better of me and after a few hours of excellent views, I headed back home very happy indeed. At last, I had managed to see a RED-FOOTED FALCON in the West Midland Bird Club recording area. This was a long overdue 'tick' for the vast majority of Staffordshire County listers with the last truly 'twitchable' bird being over forty years ago.

RED-FOOTED FALCON (first-summer male)
Brindley Ford, Staffordshire.
Photo by Adam Archer

Following a strenuous Saturday spent watching non-league football and sampling local cider at an ale festival in Hereford, Sunday was planned to be a day of quiet reflection and recuperation. By the afternoon though I had become restless and after a quick visit to see Nadia and a rather showy Water Rail chick at Sandwell Valley RSPB, I decided to head back up to Stoke-on-Trent for seconds of the RED-FOOTED FALCON.

This time I had remembered to pack my binoculars and bridge camera and not just my scope as I had on Friday evening. Once again, the falcon performed incredibly well for the crowd as it hunted around its favoured horse field. Unfortunately, it seemed as though a few photographers were not quite satisfied with the bird's already confiding nature and had decided to provide a bit of supplementary feeding. As well as the usual mealworms being offered there were even rumours of locusts being thrown into the paddock the previous day. In my opinion it is about time that a bird photographer's 'Code of Conduct' was introduced in order to put an end to such stupidity.

Between bouts of raptor appreciation there was also a juvenile Black Redstart to enjoy nearby. With plenty of suitable, secure breeding habitat around the colliery site and reports of an adult female bird too, surely this had to be a locally fledged bird.

Black Redstart (juvenile)
Chatterley Whitfield Colliery, Brindley Ford, Staffordshire.
Photo by Adam Archer

The RED-FOOTED FALCON in the West Midlands Region

This continental species of falcon breeds in a band that stretches east from Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary through Russia as far as the Lena River. The European population is estimated at between 23,000 and 55,000 pairs with around ninety per cent of these breeding in Ukraine and Russia. The main wintering areas are in Botswana, southwest Africa, South Africa and western Zimbabwe.

Although a regular spring overshoot to Britain their numbers fluctuate year on year. As touched on above though, this is an extreme rarity in the West Midland region and if accepted, the Brindley Ford individual will be just the eighth record for the entire region.

All previous records are as follows:

2003 - Warwickshire - Wormleighton Reservoir - first-summer male - 15th May only.
2002 - Staffordshire - Essington Quarry Pools (sex & age unknown) - 27th July only.
2001 - Worcestershire - Westwood Pool - adult female - 15th May only.
1977 - Staffordshire - Brewood - male - 23rd August only.
1973 - Staffordshire - Chasewater - immature male - 28th May to 6th June.
1967 - Warwickshire - Middleton Hall - immature male - 14th to 21st May.
1870 - Warwickshire - Welford-on-Avon - adult male - June (no exact date).

Monday, 29 June 2015

The MELODIOUS WARBLER in the West Midlands

Melodious Warbler (singing male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

During the early part of the afternoon on the 11th June, exciting news emerged of a Marsh Warbler singing just a stone's throw away from the private Marsh Lane Nature Reserve near Hampton-in-Arden. A hour later, following better views of the bird by the finder Alan Dean and Nick Barlow, the identification received an upgrade to either an Icterine Warbler or a Melodious Warbler.

Whatever species it was, I needed both of these scarce Hippolais warblers for my Warwickshire County list* and my West Midlands regional list. Finally by 3.00pm, after close scrutiny of the song and further improved views, the identification was clinched as a definite Melodious Warbler. Obviously, I was eager to leave work and get myself to Cornets End as quickly as possible.

* Along with the vast majority of Warwickshire birders, I do not recognise the 'metropolitan county' of the West Midlands for bird listing purposes and follow the old 'Vice County 38' recording structure.

Melodious Warbler (male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

Upon arrival at Mercote Mill Farm there were just three other birders on site. After an agonising twenty minutes or so I eventually heard a brief snatch of song followed by fleeting views of a pale-coloured, beefy looking warbler in the bright early evening sunshine. From the bird's uncooperative behaviour I could understand why it had taken a while for the correct identification to be confirmed. Following a further wait of around thirty minutes the Melodious Warbler then showed amazingly well out in the open, belting out its fabulous song from various vantage points on both sides of the bridleway. 

Melodious Warbler (singing male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

The rare visitor from southern Europe performed well for a while before disappearing into a patch of gorse and immediate falling silent. As familiar faces from around our region started to gather, eager as I was to see the bird, there was no sign or sound for well over two hours. Then, just as folks started to get a little desperate and despondent, the Melodious Warbler appeared once again, singing loudly just above our heads. The time was a little before 8.00pm. The bird then started to become restless and even left its small territory to fly along the entire length of a nearby hedgerow for a while. Fortunately, it returned to the favoured area of scrub before dusk where everyone eventually enjoyed decent views.    

Melodious Warbler showing shortish primary projection.
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

As I write, the bird is still present (up until 29th June) and is still tenaciously holding territory in a vain attempt to attract a mate. Even when in full song this is a species that is not usually that easy to observe in comparison to its more conspicuous cousin the Icterine Warbler. With a little patience though you can be rewarded with some stunning views, as demonstrated by this collection of fine photographs provided by Dave Hutton

During my visits I have heard quite a selection of mimicry, with Whitethroat being the most common. Other species copied include Blackbird (alarm call), Song Thrush ('zit' call), colybita Chiffchaff (contact call) as well as both Swallow and Sand Martin and very rarely the 'zerrrrr' of a Wren has been heard. If any visiting birders can add to this repertoire then I would be grateful if you could let me know.

Melodious Warbler (male)
Mercote Mill Farm, Cornets End, West Midlands.
Photo by Dave Hutton

The MELODIOUS WARBLER in the West Midlands region

As most keen birders will already know, seeing this species in Britain during spring is a very rare treat indeed. The vast majority of Melodious Warblers that occur in Britain are young birds recorded from August until mid-October following their presumed random dispersal from their breeding grounds in southern Europe. As would be expected, most of the records in Britain occur along the south and southwest coasts of England from Dorset to the Isles of Scilly at this time of the year.

In Europe the species breeds throughout the Iberian peninsula and France, north to the southern parts of Belgium, southeast Netherlands, southwest Germany and southwest Switzerland. There are also breeding populations on the island of Corsica, throughout Italy and out over to western Slovenia and northwest Croatia. In northwest Africa it can also be found albeit far less abundantly in northern Morocco, northern Algeria and in northwest Tunisia.

During winter the species non-breeding range consists of tropical west Africa from the Gambia, southern Senegal, southern Mali and Nigeria south to the Guinea coast and extending eastwards to central Cameroon.

From a British perspective we were averaging around 32 records of Melodious Warbler per year around the mid-1990s however this has now fallen to around 20 records per year, despite an increase in observer coverage. This may well reflect a decline in the species overall breeding density despite a slight increase in their range northeast in recent years.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it is therefore far from surprising the species is an extremely rare visitor to our region. The only other records are as follows:

2000 - Warwickshire - Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve - Adult - 3rd June only (trapped and ringed) - Andy Hale, Fred Stokes and Dave Stone.
1996 - Staffordshire - The Westlands, Newcastle-under-Lyne - 20th May only - WJ Low.

From a historical perspective the first official record of Melodious Warbler for Britain was of a bird killed near Looe, Cornwall on the 12th May 1905. There is a degree of controversy regarding this initial record however as a previous bird was allegedly shot dead some years before on the 30th April 1897 at Burwash, Sussex. Unfortunately this earlier record became tainted as the skin came into contact with the infamous Mr George Bristow. It was therefore later dismissed and rejected as part of the Hastings Rarities scandal.

Special thanks to Alan Dean for initially finding the bird and for providing all us rarity starved West Midland birders the opportunity to sample an avian taste of continental Europe right on our doorstep. An excellent account from Alan along with a study of the song and identification pointers can be found on his website at Birds In Particular.

My thanks and appreciation also go to Dave Hutton for letting me use a few of his excellent photographs here. It has taken him multiple visits and many hours in the field to finally get a series of shots he is happy with, being the perfectionist that he is.

This particular blog post is dedicated to the memory of West Midlands birding legend Eric Philips who sadly passed away suddenly on the 30th May 2015. A moving tribute to the great man by Steve Nuttall can be found at Belvide Birding. The many comments at the end of Steve's post show just how well regarded he was by all who knew him. 

Rest in peace Eric, the birding community of the West Midlands will miss you greatly. 

A 1970's caricature of Eric by Bryan Bland.

Video Footage: The Melodious Warbler by Philip Parsons


Monday, 15 June 2015

The CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING on Bardsey Island - Part Two

A view from Porth Meudwy towards Aberdaron.
Photo by Adam Archer

Whilst stuck in traffic just north of Southampton yesterday, I briefly considered taking a second shot at the CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING we had dipped just twenty four hours before. Throughout the day I had received pager messages reminding me of the bird's continued presence around the lighthouse on Bardsey Island. I also received calls and texts from frantic mates asking what I was doing and what the logistics were for getting over to the Welsh island.

With work commitments the following day there was no way I would be able to make it. If I was to put my efforts into a further attempt then it would need to be later in the week.  Then, whilst visiting our birding friends Kate and Fergus in Stratford-upon-Avon, my mind began to drift. I knew Nadia could sense my twitchiness and she looked concerned. I joked that we should all head to Wales overnight. Despite the room being full of bird nuts, the house fell quiet and I was looked upon as if I should be sectioned with immediate effect.

Whilst heading back home something snapped inside me. Maybe it was the fact that crossings on the Tuesday looked risky and the crossings on the Wednesday had already been ruled out due to the weather forecast. I told Nadia that I would text my boss to see if I could book a day's holiday. If by some miracle he would agree to such a ridiculous request at 10.00pm on a Sunday evening then I would make my way over to Wales. Within a few seconds I had received a text in response to say 'OK'! I could hardly believe it. There was now just the small matter of getting a few hours sleep and seeing if anyone else from the West Midlands was crazy enough to join me.

Initially there was no interest from the usual suspects and other lads I knew who were on their way were already fully booked. Then just as I was nodding off, Jase Oliver texted me to say he had changed his mind. He agreed to be at mine place at 00.45am for an extremely early departure.  

Colin Evans - The man for all your Bardsey boating needs!
Photo by Adam Archer

The journey was a true test of our endurance but sharing the driving and downing a strong coffee or two meant we arrived safely at Porth Meudwy just after 4.00am. There were already plenty of empty vehicles parked up which meant only one thing, the queuing for the boat crossing had already started in ernest. We quickly grabbed our kit and scrambled down to the quayside where we found a crowd of bleary-eyed reprobates shuffling around in the half light. A gentleman with a scrap of paper then lurched forward to take our names. A list had been made and thankfully we were both secured on a crossing. The only problem was, we were down for the third boat which was not due to leave for Bardsey until 9.30am.

To be fair, the hours passed by pretty quickly with plenty of banter and laughter with Steve Nuttall, Dave Jackson and the rest of the West Midlands brethren. We also received news that the CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING was still present at around 7.00am which managed to stem the nervousness slightly and keep birders fairly relaxed. The only tense moment came when the boatman Colin Evans arrived and was immediately mobbed by a well known year lister who happened to share the same surname. There were accusations that names had been put onto the list who were not even on site and that the number of folks on the list did not match those of us waiting at the quayside.

In the end we managed to assure Colin that everything was organised and at 7.30am the first consignment of a dozen eager birders were off. In all, it was agreed that seven trips would be made throughout the day and that would be the limit. Unfortunately birders continued to arrive as the morning progressed. Unfortunately for the latecomers they would need to come back early the following day or find an alternative way across to the island.

The favoured feeding area in the compound.
Photo by Adam Archer

Just before 10.00am, Jase and I were on site and in prime position at the lighthouse. The word on the street was that the bird had been coming to seed within the compound about every forty minutes or so but would only stay for a short while before flying off again. It was also spotted singing from a patch of gorse nearby but would go missing for agonisingly long periods. The birders already on site were obviously happy that they had connected with the bunting but had been disappointed by the brevity of the views.

A view of beautiful Bardsey looking north from the lighthouse.
Photo by Adam Archer

As the clock ticked away the resident House Martins and the odd Northern Wheatear and Pied Wagtail were the only birds to be seen around the lighthouse. A scan of the gorse produced many Meadow Pipit and Linnet along with the occasional Stonechat. This was exactly the same roll call as Saturday. Over a hour had passed and there was still no sight or sound of the elusive mega rarity. The look on Jase's face said it all. I reminded him we still had plenty of time, as I handed him my hankie to blot away the tears welling up in his desperate eyes. If required, we would be able to stay on the island until 5.30pm.

Then at around 11.15am a mystery bird flew low over the cropped turf right in front us, bounded over the stone wall and landed in the seeded area. I could see movement amongst the thrift but initially I could not make out any features on the bird at all. All of a sudden, the top of a steely blue head appeared along with a beady, black eye framed by a cream coloured orbital ring. It was the CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING. I did my best to call out instructions and ensure as many people could get onto the bird as possible. Eventually though the bird appeared out in the open and showed well as long as you were in the right position. Panic then ensued amongst the crowd and I sensed the bird was becoming agitated. After a few minutes of it nervously feeding it then flew off towards the area of gorse and promptly disappeared. 

CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING (male)
Bardsey Island, Gwynedd.
Photo courtesy of Bardsey Bird Observatory

We had done it. All of the pain, nervousness and fatigue evaporated in an instant. The dip just forty eight hours previously was now well and truly laid to rest. We had really done it.  I turned to Jase, shook his hand and slapped him on his back. He did the same back to me but not quite as gentle. At times like this though I always spare a thought for my pals who are not there to share the moment with me, especially Steve Allcott, Tony Barter and Steve Richards who we had made the journey with on that fateful Saturday. 

 Twitch on.... that's me in the cream cap!
Bardsey Island, Gwynedd.
Photo courtesy of Bardsey Bird Observatory

At last we could now relax and enjoy the occasion but I was hungry for more prolonged views. Finally, about a hour later the bird flew in once again. This time the crowd were more settled and remained deathly quiet as the bird fed happily just a few yards away. The exemplary behaviour resulted in the bird remaining in view for a full twelve minutes. This was ample time to appreciate such a wonderful bird in amazingly beautiful surroundings. The sun had even decided to make an appearance on what had started out as a particularly dull and overcast day.

We remained on site for a further hour or so but the bird did not return for a third time. With our stomachs rumbling we made our way down to the cafe to grab a bite to each and quench our thirst. After all the excitement and with the adrenaline levels now beginning to get back to some kind of normality, tiredness began to kick in. We took a slow walk back down to the quayside in hope that we could catch an earlier boat back to the mainland.

A dozen happy birders on the return trip to Porth Meudwy.
Photo by Adam Archer

Other species encountered around the island included a flock of 73 Common Scoter offshore and two pairs of Chough. There were also a trio of Raven in flight over the mountain as well as many Gulliemot, Razorbill and Kittiwake around the rocky shoreline. The odd Puffin and Gannet was also spotted from the boat on the return crossing.

Well what a hectic three days of early starts, lack of sleep, highs, lows and awesome birding that turned out to be!

Special thanks must go to Steve Stansfield and the rest of the superb staff and volunteers at Bardsey Bird Observatory. They were all really supportive during the 'no show' on the Saturday and fantastically well organised and patient during our time there on Monday. To check for updates please see their excellent blog at Bardsey Wildlife. A special mention must also go to the boatman Colin Evans for his efforts in getting as many people over to the island as he could. 

Me (left) and Jase (the other one) with Bardsey to the rear.
Photo by Dave Jackson

The CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING in Great Britain 

The breeding range of this species is restricted to southeast Europe and the Middle East. It breeds in Greece, Albania, western and southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan and spends the winter in Sudan and Eritrea. If accepted this will be just the sixth record for Britain and the first for Wales. We await the first record for England with baited breath. All previous records are as follows:

2014 - Shetland - Burkle and Boini Mire, Fair Isle - Male - 27th April to 2nd May.
2008 - Orkney - Sangar, North Ronaldsay - First-winter male - 19th to 21st September.
1998 - Orkney - Stronsay - Male - 14th to 18th May.
1979 - Shetland - Fair Isle - Male - 9th to 10th June.
1967 - Shetland - Fair Isle - Male - 10th to 20th June (trapped and ringed on 14th June).

Proof of our attendance.
Courtesy of the Bird Journal App'

Sunday, 14 June 2015

GREATER YELLOWLEGS & HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL on the English South Coast

After the slight disappointment of the previous day it was time to brush myself down and pick myself back up. The ideal way for me to do this is to get back out in the field as soon as possible and immerse myself in whatever delights nature has to offer. Luckily Nadia was also keen to make the most of her day off and so we decided to get up early and head south. There had been a stunning male BLACK-EARED WHEATEAR of the eastern race melanoleuca showing well in the New Forest, Hampshire yesterday. The plan was to make that bird our priority and then explore the area for butterflies and dragonflies.

Unfortunately for the second day in succession though, the pesky rare bird had other ideas. As we made our way down the A34, a message was received to say there was no sign of the wheatear. Our tactics were changed and instead of branching off west we decided to head east along the south coast. As we made our way past Portsmouth another golden nugget of rarity news I had been dreading came through. The CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING had reappeared on Bardsey. I was far from surprised and although it was difficult to swallow I was determined to block it out of my mind and enjoy our day.   

Bee Orchid at Pagham Harbour RSPB.
Photo by Adam Archer

The first port of call was Pagham Harbour in West Sussex, an area that carries an anti-Archer curse as far as I am concerned. Over the years, I have always failed to see whatever special vagrant had been there the day before. Out of all the rarities and scarcities that have turned up at this famous site, the best I have done is a singing SAVI'S WARBLER and that remained hidden out of sight all day. As we arrived along the west side of the estuary near Thrift Shelf, it appeared as though the jinx was still in place. An HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL that had been showing since first light had decided to fly off and roost on an island and out of sight just ten minutes before we arrived.

After a scan of the area for a while we managed to find a couple of Whimbrel and Curlew as well as a trio of Bar-tailed Godwit but unfortunately there was no sign of the American Numenius. With the weather looking to take a turn for the worse we decided to cut our losses and return to the site at low tide instead. A quick scan of Ferry Pool on the way back to the RSPB visitor centre produced my first Green Sandpiper of the year, at long last. Also feeding in this area were 6 Avocet, 88 Black-tailed Godwit and few Common Redshank.

We then stopped of to gather supplies for a picnic and headed back west and into Hampshire where we hoped for better luck with another American shore bird. The sun was now beginning to shine and the temperature increased considerably as we parked up in the pleasant village of Titchfield. After weaving our way through the dozens of irresponsible dog owners and their unruly mutts we eventually reached Posbrook Floods. We were told on our way down that the adult GREATER YELLOWLEGS was showing well however upon our arrival there was no sign. It had apparently strutted off out of sight to roost with the godwit flock. Could our luck get any worse? After trying numerous different positions along the path though, I eventually spotted the obscured bird fast asleep with its head tucked under its wing.

All we could do was relax in the sunshine, scoff our M&S meal deals, enjoy the surroundings and wait. Eventually, the stunning wader reappeared and started to feed back out in the open where we enjoyed fantastic views. It was interesting to note it feeding with a bit of a sweeping Avocet type motion in comparison with the stop and probe action of the accompanying 70 or so Black-tailed Godwits.

GREATER YELLOWLEGS (adult)
Titchfield, Hampshire.
Photo by Dave Aitken

I had only seen one other GREATER YELLOWLEGS in Britain before, a first-winter bird up in Northumberland during November 2011 so it was great to connect with an adult bird in all its summer finery. After feeding for a while it eventually headed back out of sight, much to the annoyance of those birders just arriving. Once again I managed to find it roosting through a narrow gap in the willows but the views were far from ideal. With the afternoon whizzing by we decided to give the dreaded Pagham Harbour another shot before heading home.

GREATER YELLOWLEGS (adult)
Titchfield, Hampshire.
Photo by Dave Aitken

Earlier on in the afternoon the HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL had been spotted distantly from the east side of the estuary before flying back towards Church Norton. With the tide now well on its way back out, we were hopeful that the bird would pop out from where it was hiding and show itself for a while. We arrived back on site to find plenty of birders scanning the area but still there was no sign. Whilst Nadia snuggled down for a nap I continued to search the area but once again all I could find was the odd Curlew, Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit. A couple of Little Tern and Common Tern passed through and a Hobby made a brief appearance.

As we had to be back in Warwickshire that evening to see friends we decided that 4.30pm would be the deadline to call it a day. As the clock ticked away and I began to grow weary from the two consecutive early mornings I noticed Kev Hale strolling by. It appeared that he was also a victim of the evil Pagham curse. Whilst we stood there moaning and feeling sorry for ourselves for while I heard a whimbrel type call. As I lifted my bins there it was, a dark-rumped whimbrel with darkish underwings flying south. Luckily the bird landed nearby amongst a pair of our usual pale-rumped European birds and started to feed.

HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL
Pagham Harbour, Church Norton, West Sussex.
Photo by Dave Aitken

Unlike the solitary HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL I had seen in Cumbria in 2007, it was useful to view this bird in the company of its European cousins. The American vagrant was a sandier brown colour in comparison and had a noticeably longer bill with a distinctive pinkish base to the lower mandible. The head markings were way more defined and there were buffy tones to the vent. It was one distinctive bird indeed. 

We watched the bird for about twenty five minutes as it picked out small crabs from the surface of the mud, waved them around for a while and swallowed them whole. It is always tough to turn your back on a rarity that is showing so well, but eventually we had no choice but to head back northwest. It had been pretty exhausting but nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable day.

HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL
Pagham Harbour, Church Norton, West Sussex.
Photo by Dave Aitken

The HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL in Great Britain

Up until 2011 the Whimbrel of the Old World and the New World were lumped together as belonging to the very same species. A split was then announced by the British Ornithologist's Union following research into the morphological distinctiveness and corresponding differences in DNA of hudsonicus. If accepted, the Pagham bird will become only the ninth individual for the British Isles and just the third for England. All previous records are as follows:

2013 - Shetland - Mid Yell & Whalefirth, Yell - Juvenile - 30th September to 2nd October.
2009 - Western Isles - Bornish, South Uist - Juvenile - 12th September only.
2008 - Isles of Scilly - Porthloo, St Mary's - Juvenile - 5th to 28th September.
2007 - Shetland - Buness, Fair Isle - Adult - 29th to 31st August.
2007 - Cumbria - Walney Island - First-summer - 14th June to 19th August.
2002 - Gwent - Goldcliff Pools - 3rd to 4th May (presumed to be the same bird as 2000).
2000 - Gwent - Goldcliff Pools - 6th to 7th May.
1974 - Shetland - Out Skerries - 24th July to 8th August.
1955 - Shetland - Malcolm's Head, Fair Isle - 27th to 31st May. 

HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL
Pagham Harbour, Church Norton, West Sussex.
Photo by Dave Aitken

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING on Bardsey Island - Part One

On Wednesday the 10th of June it was was brought to the attention of Britain's tick obsessed birders that a CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING had made landfall on the relatively accessible island of Bardsey in North Wales. Unfortunately there was only one brief sighting of this extremely rare vagrant near the bird observatory. Despite an extensive search there was no sign at all during the rest of that day or the following day either. Then, just as we all thought the trail had gone cold, the bird reappeared once more, early on Friday afternoon in the south of the island. A couple of brief views were obtained but the bird was highly elusive and extremely mobile and once again the rarity disappeared with not so much as a sniff of the bird again by dusk.

In preparation of our visit to Cymru!
Photo by Adam Archer

After weighing up the pros and cons of heading to Bardsey we eventually made a group decision to make the journey west and give it our best shot. With my risk assessing brain in overdrive I estimated that we only had about a 5% chance of success. The lads thought it cynical of me but I was just trying to be realistic and not set our expectations too high. Then again, I had a far better chance of seeing a CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING over in Gwynedd than I did moping around in North Warwickshire. 

After finding a BLACK KITE and seeing a Melodious Warbler in my home county earlier in the week, I knew the chance of something else as mouth-wateringly rare dropping in locally would be miniscule. We were relatively safe to turn our backs on the West Midlands and head across to Cymru for a day. 

After a very early start we arrived at Porth Meudwy just west of Aberdaron at about 7.15am. After a hike down to the beach we were greeted by the familiar face of Steve Richards who quickly informed us that a boat load of a dozen eager birders had already departed. As we awaited the next crossing in the rain, a Chough showed well and the local Fulmar population wheeled around the cliffs providing a bit of pre-twitch entertainment.

The Bardsey crossing: Steve Richards, Jason Oliver & Jack Oliver.
Photo by Adam Archer

On the rapid crossing over to Bardsey we encountered the odd Shag and Cormorant as well as several Manx Shearwater gliding by. As we approached the island we also saw several Puffin with good numbers of both Razorbill and Guillemot too. As we docked we were greeted by Steve Stansfield, the warden of the Bird Observatory who provided us with a plotted history of the bunting's movements and a few rules to adhere to during our brief visit. Following our induction, we then split into small groups to begin the search.

With the first group of birders having already covered the southern section around the lighthouse we decided to grill the western side and northern tip of the island. As we made our way through the fields dodging the sheep and cattle we could see that both Meadow Pipit and Linnet were present in decent numbers along with several Northern Wheatear and the odd Stonechat. Every single passerine we encountered was scrutinised. 

The site of St Mary's Abbey.
Photo by Adam Archer

Although the island is just over a mile long and only half a mile at its widest point, it was soon pretty evident that a degree of luck, as well as hard work would be required if we were to relocate the rarity, especially with the blustery and damp weather conditions. As we approached the old ruins of the 13th century St Mary's Abbey, I stopped briefly to pay homage to the 20,000 Saints that the island is known for. Maybe one of them could take control of my spiritual side and point me in the right direction? With only thirty other birders bothering to make the journey to Bardsey we needed all the assistance we could muster, whether it be alive or dead.

A steady walk scanning Mynydd Enill, the rocky, gorse strewn ridge along the east of the island looked pretty good for harbouring a CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING. All we could find though were the usual suspects, mainly Meadow Pipits and Linnets along with the occasional pair of Chough. After a quick search around the Bird Observatory, Steve Richards and I decided to head back south and concentrate around the lighthouse and the southerly tip.

Bardsey Lighthouse (built 1821)
Photo by Adam Archer

The area around the lighthouse was busy with feeding Oystercatcher, Linnet, Meadow Pipit, Northern Wheatear and House Martin. There was also the odd pair of Rock Pipit, Pied Wagtail and Stonechat along with a few Starling. Offshore there were a scattering a Shelduck and an estimated 30 Grey Seals loafing in the bay. Despite our best efforts there was no sign of our target bird and so we concluded the search back along the main track that runs north to south along the length of the island.

Grey Seal on Bardsey Island, Gwynedd.
Photo by Adam Archer

Grey Seals on Bardsey Island, Gwynedd.
Photo by Adam Archer

After just over three hours of searching, our time on the island had come to an end. Although disappointed at not seeing a CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING, I had thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. Bardsey is a beautiful island full of character and history. In medieval times, it was said that three pilgrimages to Bardsey had the equivalent benefit to the soul as one to Rome. I was convinced that the bird was still lurking in some quiet area of Ynys Enlli (Welsh for 'the island in the currents') and I had a sneaky, little feeling that a second pilgrimage would be required sometime soon. I honesty did not believe we had heard the last of this elusive visitor from southeast Europe.