Saturday 25 September 2010

LAPLAND BUNTINGS in Worcestershire

On the afternoon of Monday 20th September, an impressive group of five Lapland Buntings were located around North Hill on the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. Having never seen this species in the West Midlands Region before, it was time to brush the dust off my walking boots and limber up for an high altitude hike. Unfortunately by the time I managed to get over to 'The Malverns' just a single bird remained, with the other birds no doubt continuing their migration southwards.

The beautiful Malvern Hills looking southwards from the North Hill area.
Photo by Adam Archer

After a slow, steady climb I eventually reached the North Hill area during late morning. As there were no other birders to be seen, it was up to me to locate the elusive rarity. It can be pretty daunting searching for a single passerine in such a wide ranging location but I do love a bird related challenge. It was time to knuckle down and methodically scrutinise every small bird that took flight.

As usual there were plenty of pesky Meadow Pipits around along with the odd Northern Wheatear to brighten up the morning. There was also a Common Kestrel patrolling the area that would helpfully flush the pipit flocks from the long grassy areas on the more sheltered areas of the hills. It was during one of these raptor fly-overs that a single bird arose and flew away from me at a great height. I could tell immediately from the distinctive flight call that I had located a Lapland Bunting (277). I was thrilled but I craved better views, preferably of the bird on the deck. Despite tracking the bird carefully from one place to another several times, it remained elusive. To add to my frustration it was way too easily flushed. I failed to get anywhere near it at all.

As the bird once more flew away from me for the final time, I heard another Lapland Bunting call nearby. As I looked up I was delighted to see another two birds fly through and land amongst an area of low growing gorse further down the valley. Hopefully this pair would be more obliging than the initial bird. After some careful stalking, I soon relocated both birds feeding in an area enclosed with an electric fence. I then enjoyed stunning views as they fed amongst the grasses no more than six feet away at times.

Lapland Bunting - Malvern Hills, Worcestershire - September 2010
Photo by Adam Archer

After getting mardy and throwing my digiscoping kit to the ground in frustration, I eventually managed to get this photograph by lying in the grass and waiting for a bird to hop by. This record shot is taken with a handheld Nikon Coolpix 4500 with just a 4 x optical zoom.

Lapland Bunting in the West Midlands Region

The Lapland Buntings that grace Britain in autumn and winter originate from two distinct areas. The nominate race lapponicus breeds in the tundra zone of Eurasia whilst the race subcalcaratus breeds in Greenland and northern Canada. It is therefore fair to suggest that the visitors to the British Isles are either from Scandinavian or Greenland populations. The differences between the races are slight, however subcalcaratus is a touch bulkier than the nominate race. It also has a slightly longer bill that is heavier and deeper at the base. The wing length is slightly longer too on average.

The first ever record of this species in the West Midlands Region was on the 21st October 1904 when a male was caught in a clap net at Acock's Green in Birmingham, West Midlands. Since this time there have been a further 20 records involving just 35 birds. Interestingly the majority of sightings have been in Staffordshire (12) followed by the West Midlands (4), Warwickshire (2) and Worcestershire (2). The first record for the County of Worcestershire was as recently as 2007 when a bird was heard at Grimley on the 7th and 8th October. These recent Lapland Buntings are therefore the first ever to be seen in the County and are well worth a visit.

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