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

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