Friday 27 December 2013


Brünnich's Guillemot (first winter) - Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Dave Hutton

Whilst mopping up my daughter's spilt bottle of nail varnish remover on Boxing Day morning, my attention was drawn to my illuminated phone, lying there abandoned on the sofa. I could see that I had missed a few calls but alarmingly two of them were from Dan Pointon. I only usually hear from Dan when something 'megawise' is in the process of kicking off. I gulped, sat down to prepare myself and nervously logged on to the RBA website. A few clicks later it became evident that my suspicions were correct, there was only a BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT bobbing around along the south coast of England. In this demented year for exceptional rarities, not even the normally relaxed period between Christmas and the new year was safe from causing a touch of aviform related stress disorder.

For me, some times of the year are completely sacred and the trilogy of festive days from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day are completely out of bounds to even consider any long distance twitch. These few days are for putting family and friends first, after all they have a lot to put up with for the other 360+ days of the year I am sure you will agree?

The 27th of December is however a completely acceptable date to indulge in a spot of yuletide birding. By 9.30am Steve Allcott, Tony Barter, Dave Hutton and I were standing scouring a windswept harbour on the east side of the Isle of Portland in Dorset. A few other Warwickshire lads from Coventry had arrived before us and you could deduce from their collective grimace that it was not good news. The rarity had been present earlier in the morning however it was spotted flying off out into the choppy bay before most birders in the area could connect with it. 

Out in the harbour a first winter Black Guillemot was soon located amongst the forty or so Red-breasted Mergansers along with a Great Northern Diver and distant Black-throated Diver. My heart then jumped as an auk flew towards us and then banked away revealing plenty of white on the cheek, it was just a Common Guillemot. After a downpour of rain and hail had subsided we decided to branch out and check alternative areas of the the harbour. No sooner had we done so though, we noticed a few other birders running towards us. At long last the elusive alcid had been relocated.    

The Brünnich's Guillemot is just to the right of the nearest boat.
Photo by Adam Archer

After a few nerve racking minutes of the bird being submerged, up popped a magnificent BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT, the first twitchable example of this high Arctic species ever to grace the British mainland. Out of the 41 acceptable British records, well over half of them have involved dead birds picked up along the tideline, mainly up in the extreme Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. Only the rarity packed year of 2013 could provide us all with a relatively easy chance of connecting with such a difficult to see species. The record is even more remarkable bearing in mind the only other live bird in England was way back in 1977, although a bird at Filey, North Yorkshire on the 3rd December 2013 will no doubt become the second acceptable record for the country.

Castletown Quay, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Adam Archer

The bird was initially extremely mobile as it dived for food however it soon settled down to moor itself amongst the luxury yachts where it showed very well indeed for about thirty minutes. It then swam quickly back out of the marina and down to a small bay, about half a mile south where it teamed up with a winter plumaged Common Guillemot as a nice comparison species. At one stage they were also joined by a winter plumaged Razorbill, it was like page 211 of the Collins Bird Guide had suddenly sprung to life! 

Common Guillemot (left) & Brünnich's Guillemot (right)
Castletown Quay, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Dave Hutton

As the weather conditions improved the bird gradually floated closer towards its hoard of ecstatic admirers who were patiently perched along the quayside. It was great to see so many familiar faces full of the festive spirit and it was a hell of a memorable twitch to conclude one of the most remarkable years in British birding ever. 2013 will be long considered the year that just kept on giving. It would not surprise me if another outrageous rarity was found before the new year celebrations commence.

Steve Richards, Bob Duckhouse, Richard Challands & Dave Hutton
representing the West & East Midlands twitching fraternity!

The Brünnich's Guillemot in Great Britain

This species is almost circumpolar in the Arctic and near Arctic but in Newfoundland it breeds at a latitude equivalent to that of northern France. This reflects the lower sea temperatures on that side of the Atlantic Ocean. The nearest breeding colonies to Britain are in Iceland, Greenland and northern Norway. In winter it disperses out to sea in northern latitudes with it's southerly limit in the eastern Atlantic being well to the north of Scotland. The worldwide population is estimated to be in the region of 15 to 20 million individuals and as such it is one of the most abundant marine species in the northern hemisphere. There are nearly two million breeding pairs in Iceland alone which makes it's rarity in Britain very surprising indeed.

The first really twitchable bird came during the summer of 1989 when an individual turned up amongst the seabird colony at Sumburgh Head in Shetland. For those unable (or too young) to travel for this bird, a second chance arrived during the winter of 2005 when another bird was located in the rather convenient location around the ferry terminal in Lerwick, Shetland. A few friends successfully twitched this bird however there are some real nightmare stories of stomach churning, sixteen hour sea crossings and gut-wrenching dips. A full list of all British records, reminiscent of a birding obituary is as follows:

2011 - Moray - Burghead - 17th November only
2007 - Aberdeenshire - Girdle Ness - 7th November only
2007 - Shetland - Scousburgh, Mainland - 25th March - dead
2006 - Shetland - West Sandwick, Yell - 4th May - dead
2005 - Shetland - Lerwick, Mainland & Bressay - 30th November to 20th December
2001 - Orkney - North Ronaldsay - first winter on 29th January - dead
2000 - Orkney - Scapa Flow - 21st December - dead
1997 - Shetland - Fetlar - 26th to 30th December
1996 - Highland - Kilchoan Bay, Ardnamurchan - 27th March only
1995 - At Sea - north of sea area Fair Isle - 23rd January only
1995 - Shetland - Gulberwick, Mainland - taken into care on 4th January (released 1st February)
1994 - Shetland - Wadbister Voe, Mainland - 12th February - dead
1994 - Lothian - Seafield - 6th February only
1993 - Lothian - Musselburgh - 27th March only
1992 - Western Isles - Hirta, St Kilda - 26th May to 8th June
1991 - Orkney - Sule Skerry - 25th January only
1989 - Shetland - Sumburgh Head, Mainland - 16th June to 12th July
1988 - Highland - Dunnet Bay - male on 9th March - dead
1987 - Shetland - Hamnavoe, West Burra - 3rd to 7th February - dead
1985 - Orkney - Scapa Bay - 9th January - dead
1984 - Orkney - Birsay, Mainland - 20th March - dead
1983 - Shetland - Banna Minn, West Burra - 30th October - dead
1982 - Highland - Golspie, Sutherland - 24th December - dead
1982 - Orkney - Stromness, Mainland - 3rd April - dead
1982 - Highland - Brora, Sutherland - 3rd February - dead
1981 - Orkney - Bay of Ireland, Stenness, Mainland - 29th December - dead
1981 - Aberdeenshire - Johnshaven Beach, Kincardine - 25th January - dead
1980 - At Sea - sea area Viking (Brent Oilfield) - 26th December only
1980 - Shetland - Fair Isle - adult from 16th to 17th October
1980 - Shetland - Burrafirth, Unst - 24th February - dead
1980 - Lothian - Kilspindie Beach - 9th February - dead
1980 - Lothian - Ferry Ness - 9th February - dead
1979 - Aberdeenshire - Rattray Head - 25th February - dead
1978 - Aberdeenshire - St Cyrus - 14th July - dead
1977 - Shetland - Sumburgh, Mainland - 18th December - dead
1977 - Northumberland - Farne Islands - 13th July only
1976 - Highland - Reay Beach, Thurso - 31st January - dead
1969 - Argyll - Loch Caolisport, Knapdale - 11th October - dead
1968 - Shetland - Norwick, Unst - 20th March - dead
1960 - Lancashire - Middleton Sands, near Morecambe - adult on 15th April - dead
1908 - Lothian - Craigielaw Point - female on 10th December - dead

Saturday 7 December 2013


BAIKAL TEAL hungry birders scan Crossens Outer Marsh.
Photo by Adam Archer

Having let the hysterical, duck-bashing dust settle down for a week or so, we finally decided to embark on a trip to Lancashire (I refuse to use the word M*rseyside on my blog) for a rather splendid looking BAIKAL TEAL that despite the opinions of the many 'quackerphobes' is full of eastern promise. This species should be spending the winter months waddling around in the wetlands of Korea, Japan or south-east China however it seems to have been caught up with a flock of Eurasian Wigeon at some stage and has decided to spend at least some of its time munching away on marshland south east of Blackpool instead.

After a relatively late start from a twitching perspective we finally arrived at the seawall overlooking Crossens Outer Marsh, north of Southport at around 9.00am. The chilly winter air was filled with the whistling of thousands of Eurasian Wigeon and the skies were adorned with flocks of hundreds of  Northern Lapwing and European Golden Plover, it was end of year birding at its very best.

As for the BAIKAL TEAL there had been no sign of it yet. I could tell this easily by the body language of the ensemble of miserable looking twitchers in the distance. They were huddled together in a loose line, moping around, scratching their heads and no doubt chatting the same drivel you hear these days when the target bird is not on view.  Just a quick tip for you folks, the rare bird may not always be in the exact same spot as it was the previous day. If this bird has flown thousands of miles to grace us with its presence then it is not averse to stretching its wings again and finding a new spot to feed or rest in.

With this in mind I decided to go it alone and scan the flocks of wigeon and teal that were present adjacent to Marine Drive. Whilst picking my way through the roosting birds I was eventually joined by some friendly faces from the West Midlands to help in the search. After about thirty minutes I finally located an interesting looking duck that was fast asleep amongst the bulkier looking wigeon. A few moments later it moved slightly and my heart rate quickened...... it moved forward once more and 'bang' there it was, a fine looking moulting male BAIKAL TEAL, my first ever sighting of this species in Britain.

BAIKAL TEAL (adult male) - Crossens Outer Marsh, Merseyside
Photo by Dave Hutton

After a quick whistle and a waving of my arms I signalled to everyone that the bird was showing. I then spent the next twenty minutes or so trying to make sure everyone could get on it. Unfortunately a combination of the poor light, strong winds and the fact that it would slip back into the midst of the flock meant that it was quite difficult to pick up. In the process I nearly lost my patience and elbowed one particular southerner in the chops for making sarcastic remarks about my directions. Look with your eyes you ungrateful twat and not with your mouth! One elderly gentleman with one of those snazzy new Swarovski scopes was struggling too and I kindly offered to assist. Little did he know that whilst he repeatedly asked me if I had found it in his scope I was actually watching it in glorious HD. Cheeky hey? Finally, after all the excitement had subsided we enjoyed some pretty decent views for the next hour. It was then time to find somewhere to thaw out and grab a bite to eat.  

Johnny Hague proves that note-taking is not dead
in British birding!
Photo by Adam Archer

With our stomachs full of inferior quality American cuisine we then headed back for seconds and hopefully some additional views of the rarity. This time we pulled off Marine Drive to find the BAIKAL TEAL almost immediately. It was actually one of the closest birds on view but alas it was fast asleep on a grassy knoll. Fortunately after about it twenty minutes or so it yawned, had a quack flap and a stretch and started to feed again providing us with the best views of the day.

BAIKAL TEAL (adult male) - Crossens Outer Marsh, Merseyside
Photo by Dave Hutton

Other highlights around both Crossens Outer Marsh and on Marshside RSPB included a distant Great White Egret, 6 Little Egret, plenty of Pink-footed Geese, 2 male Pintail, 2,400 Eurasian Wigeon, 280 Eurasian Teal, 220 Northern Lapwing, 520 European Golden Plover, 60 Black-tailed Godwit, 5 Ruff, 44 Dunlin, a female Merlin and a single European Stonechat.

BAIKAL TEAL (adult male) - Crossens Outer Marsh, Merseyside
Photo by Dave Hutton

The BAIKAL TEAL in Britain

This species breeds across north-east Russia as far west as the River Yenisey and migrates to south-east China, Japan and Korea for the winter. It was thought to be in considerable decline during the end of the last century however current evidence suggests this was either inaccurate or the species has enjoyed a remarkable reversal in fortunes in recent years. Rumours are that during November 2001 there was an estimated 350,000 birds distributed throughout one area of South Korea alone.

It was always considered a species that could be a potential vagrant to Britain and other areas of northern Europe either as a reverse migrant or as an abmigrant based on the fact that its breeding area in the west overlaps with that of both Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Teal. Interestingly the arrival of the Crossens Marsh BAIKAL TEAL has coincided with record numbers of Eurasian Wigeon being present in the area. As a result, this individuals credentials have got to be as good as any of the previously accepted records of the species in Britain.

This species was readmitted to category of A of the British List by the BOURC during October 2009 following isotope analysis of a BAIKAL TEAL that was shot in Denmark in November 2005. The results from the stable isotopes suggested that the feathers grown on its breeding grounds in the east were markedly different to those feathers that had grown on its wintering grounds. This more or less proved it to be genuine wild vagrant. Following this, a review of past sightings was undertaken providing us with just four accepted records for Britain as follows:

1906 - Essex - Tillingham - first winter male shot on the 1st January.
2001 - Suffolk - Minsmere RSPB - first winter male from 18th November to 29th December.
2002 - Oxfordshire - Dix Pit, Stanton Harcourt - male from 22nd to 24th December.
2010 - Essex - Chigborough Lakes - juvenile male on 2nd October.

There was also another sighting earlier in 2013 when an adult male BAIKAL TEAL flew in off the sea with a couple of Eurasian Wigeon and spent the day at Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire.  This could potentially be the same individual that was present across the Irish Sea in County Wexford from the 8th to 9th February 2013.

Saturday 23 November 2013

An influx of PARROT CROSSBILLS in North Norfolk

PARROT CROSSBILL (male) - Holt Country Park, Norfolk
Photo by Dave Hutton

During the middle part of October it appeared there had been quite a movement of PARROT CROSSBILLS in northern Europe. On the 11th alone over 60 birds were noted at Nordjylland in Denmark which would have put birders along the British east coast on high alert. Low and behold four birds were then located the very next day at Shoeburyness in Essex. A scattering of birds were then reported from Yorkshire and Norfolk over the next few days with more birds as far apart as Kent and Shetland towards the end of the month and into early November.

On the 11th November a dozen birds were then located at a slightly inland location near Holt in Norfolk. After only seeing this type of Loxia species up in the Highlands of Scotland I was pretty keen to have a gander at this reliable group of birds and with a lull in the rarity proceedings I organised a hastily arranged trip out east with Dave Hutton and Julian Allen.

PARROT CROSSBILL (female) - Holt Country Park, Norfolk
Photo by Dave Hutton

Upon arrival at Holt Country Park there were a few birders milling around the car park but none of them seemed to be fixed on anything in particular. After remembering what my birding brother and Holt resident Kieran Nixon had told me the day before though, we strolled out to the park entrance to start our search there. As if by magic feeding up high in the canopy of an isolated pine tree there they were, a group of at least five hefty looking PARROT CROSSBILLS.

PARROT CROSSBILL (male) - Holt Country Park, Norfolk
Photo by Dave Hutton

Despite their size, like all crossbill types they could be quite difficult to see as you craned your neck skywards. Their presence however was given away as they bounded around the tree, plucking off pine cones at the stem before flying off a short distance to find a sturdy branch on which to enjoy their meal. Unlike Common Crossbills and Two-barred Crossbills there is nothing subtle and acrobatic about the feeding manner of a PARROT CROSSBILL and it was brilliant to watch. Eventually we managed to count a total of eleven birds as they flew from tree to tree, five of which were male birds.

PARROT CROSSBILL (female) - Holt Country Park, Norfolk
Photo by Dave Hutton

After a hour or so the party then split up into smaller groups to continue feeding and became quite mobile. This gave me the opportunity to forage around underneath their favoured trees and recover a small quantity of recently discarded cones as souvenirs. They would be a welcome edition to our Victorian style collection of natural curiosities. Some of the birds then showed very well indeed feeding lower down in a birch tree near the visitor centre before heading off elsewhere. Other birds in the area included a few Marsh Tits, numerous Coal Tits and the odd Nuthatch whilst a few skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead in an easterly direction.

Birders at Holt Country Park
Photo by Adam Archer

We then decided to go coastal and head the short distance up to Cley NWT. With the weather deteriorating though we opted for the shelter of the cafe first for a quick brew whilst a heavy rain shower passed through. It was then over to the Swarovski Hide on the beach where we found the water levels to be disappointingly high. The only highlights here was a handsome male Merlin perched up on a gate in the distance, a few marauding Marsh Harriers and a dozen Pintail. A quick seawatch produced a small group of Common Scoter and a single male Eider whilst Jules picked up the odd Red-throated Diver bobbing around in the choppy conditions.

Dave in that diagnostic photographers stance!
Photo by Adam Archer

We had better results birding along the East Bank where a super Marsh Harrier showed extremely well perched up attempting to dry itself off. We also managed to find a highly mobile flock of 350 Dark-bellied Brent Geese as they commuted from the cereal fields behind Walsey Hills down to the freshmarsh north of the road. After a patient bit of scanning Jules eventually picked up the single American vagrant goose amongst them, an adult Black Brant. Further along the bank we managed to pick out a new Norfolk bird for me, a rather messy looking first winter drake Scaup on Arnold's Marsh. There were also a few more waders in this area which included a single Bar-tailed Godwit, a Curlew, 16 Redshank and 80 Dunlin. With another shower drifting across it was then time to make our way back to the car, dry off and head back home.

Marsh Harrier (immature) - Cley NWT, Norfolk
Photo by Dave Hutton

As a bonus, whilst passing through Guyhirn, Cambridgeshire I picked up some suspicious grey shapes in the middle of a stubble field. Upon closer inspection they were as we expected, a trio of stunning adult Common Cranes. There have been up to nine birds in this general area on and off over the past few weeks but we considered ourselves lucky to connect with a few of them considering the vastness of this ideal fenland feeding area. After fifteen minutes admiring them from the side of the busy road and as the sun set in the west it was time to continue our journey back to Warwickshire. It had been yet another great day of British birding from start to finish.

An actual pine cone discarded by one of the
Photo by Adam Archer

The Parrot Crossbill in Britain

This species breeds from Scandinavia eastwards to the Kola Peninsula and Pechora River in north west Russia. It is mainly resident, however it is irruptive when the pine crop fails. During 2002 a report was published stating that Parrot Crossbill could be found breeding in parts of northern and north eastern Scotland where both Common Crossbill and Scottish Crossbill also exist. There is some evidence that suggests all three Loxia types there behave as good species when breeding sympatrically however DNA analysis has not revealed any notable difference between each of the taxa. The excellent new Bird Atlas 2007-2011 states that following a survey during Spring 2008 it was estimated that 131 birds were present, largely around Strathspey and Deeside. 

Since the first Parrot Crossbill was taken at Blythburgh in Suffolk during 1818 there have been three notable influxes into Britain. These came during 1962/63 (79 accepted individuals), 1982/83 (109 accepted individuals) and 1990/91 (264 accepted individuals). Following these influxes the odd pair also bred in England and Scotland. Away from these very occasional irruptions the species is a very rare creature indeed, especially in England.

Sunday 17 November 2013


Photo by Dave Hutton

Following the re-identification of a chunky Lesser Whitethroat in a secluded Welsh garden, the birding based social media and internet forums were plunged into some kind of Sylvia induced meltdown. Whilst some of those who spied the Hartlepool Head WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER last year tried hard to convince themselves that this latest individual was an EASTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER, those that missed out last year were just happy that another ORPHEAN WARBLER had turned up so quickly. 

For a write up of my 2012 twitch click on this link.... 'Hartlepool Orphean Adventure' .

The two Marshals onsite at Orlandon Kilns did a sterling job!
Photo by Adam Archer

Despite the hype and hysteria I knew in my mind and heart that we were dealing with Britain's second hortensis in successive years. This did not stop me embarking on the long, winding journey through the valleys and down into the extreme south west of Cymru though. With Dave Hutton at the helm I joined Johnny 'Vegas' Hague and Tony Barter for our trip to Pembrokeshire, a trip that took us nigh on four bloody hours to complete. Upon leaving the car park on top of the hill by foot, 'Dave Laurel & Johnny Hardy' tested our stamina further by taking us the wrong way to Orlandon Kilns, not once but twice. Only the ORPHEAN WARBLER itself had a worse sense of direction than this pair of reprobates.

Anyway, thanks to Shropshire birder Mike Stokes we eventually found the correct location but due to our early morning stroll we had to wait outside until the garden emptied a little. To stress out the lads who needed this bird even further there was more bad news, the rarity had not been seen for nearly ninety minutes. Johnny Hague was beginning to sweat like Lee GR Evans in advance of an appointment to see his GP. Noticing that a cardiac arrest or two was imminent the kindly steward who was helping to organise the event promised to get us into the garden as soon as the bird returned.    

After about fifteen minutes the bird did return and as promised we were ushered onto the property without delay.

Photo by Dave Hutton

Within a few seconds I was watching my second WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER in Britain. The bird performed superbly as it stalked insects in surrounding trees and even better as it feasted on decaying apples in the garden itself. It would go missing for a few minutes but would always return to the same few trees, totally unconcerned about the thirty or so birders quietly admiring it. Other birds in the vicinity included a single Blackcap, a Chiffchaff and a few Goldcrest among the more usual garden avifauna. The odd Raven also passed overhead, cronking away as they went. I was really glad I made the effort to see this rare visitor from southern Europe and north Africa. The views were way better than those I had last year and the whole twitch itself was much more relaxed and civilised. 

Photo by Dave Hutton

On the way back to the Midlands someone had the bright idea to visit Cosmeston Lakes Country Park near Cardiff. Here we dipped a recent Turtle Dove, I got savaged by a Basset Hound and Bart slipped over in the mud causing a minor earthquake. Apparently the inhabitants of Lundy had to evacuate the island due to a high tsunami risk. Despite all of this it was yet another enjoyable day of really rare birds, incessant piss taking, childish giggles and hearty laughter.

Bart reaches climax after seeing his first ORPHEAN WARBER!
Photo by Adam Archer

For an alternative take on the very same trip click here.... 'The Drunkbirder'

Special thanks to 'The Royle Family' - Peter and Rosemary for letting us mooch around your garden. You are lovely people who will be rewarded for your kindness in Heaven. Thanks a million!

Wednesday 30 October 2013


Porthgwarra, Cornwall
Photo by Adam Archer

After the rigours of the previous weekend I was hoping to take it pretty easy this week, catch up with my blog, make short work of a bottle of single malt whisky and relax a bit. The trouble is with the weather conditions looking ideal to displace a few stray American migrants over the Atlantic and deposit them slap bang into the midst of south west England that was never really going to happen.

It all started to kick off around lunchtime on Monday when news came through of a YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER on the island of Lundy out in the middle of the Bristol Channel. Then during mid afternoon an AMERICAN MOURNING DOVE was found in a garden on the Isle of Rhum off the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. To be honest I was not too fussed about the 'Myrtle Warbler' bearing in mind the pretty inaccessible location at this time of the year and luckily I had connected with an AMERICAN MOURNING DOVE previously during a memorable trip to North Uist in 2007.

Then on Tuesday morning I started to get all twitchy for the umpteenth time in the past fortnight. When would the madness ever end? Firstly a HERMIT THRUSH was found down in my beloved Cornwall followed quickly by news of yet another YELLOW-RUMPED WARBER but this time in Ireland. Then news of a LESSER KESTREL filtered through from Devon. At this stage I was not concentrating properly and nearly suffered a mild stroke as a consequence. For a few seconds I thought my pager said there was an AMERICAN KESTREL in Devon. I obviously had nearctic vagrants on the brain!

Thanks to my extremely understanding gaffer at work and my equally understanding boss at home, I found myself driving over to Coventry during the early hours of the morning. I was to meet up with 'The People's 2013 Year Listing Champion' John Jennings and his live in butler Martin Smyth for a hastily arranged soujourn down to Cornwall. During the long journey down the M5 I noticed that it was a mostly bright, clear night. I usually love to stare up at the stars in childlike wonder but I cannot abide the spangly little f*ckers when I am on my way to see a rare bird. I tried to remain optimistic but my recent run of good luck had to end at some stage. Would this be it?

Photo by Adam Archer

We eventually reached the rugged, beautiful valley of Porthgwarra at around 8.00am to find a whole load of glum looking birders milling around. There had obviously been no sign of the diminutive American thrush since first light. Despite the no-show I was far from despondent though. From experience I know how birds can disappear for long periods within the dense, tangly undergrowth of the Cornish valleys. There was still plenty of time for the bird to make an appearance and I remained pretty relaxed. Then suddenly whilst patiently viewing the sallows from the car park there came the distinctive sound of twitchers on the move, a rustling of waterproof clothing and the chinking of tripods and scopes. We joined the stream of birders that were heading for the narrow access lane on the other side of the trees.

The bird had apparently been seen well but very briefly as it fed on flies within the shelter of the small patch of woodland. We all positioned ourselves and waited. Up popped a European Robin. We waited some more. Then up popped a Wren. When this happens you become unfairly cynical. Had they really spied the rarity or was it just a figment of their over active imagination. An agonising forty minutes passed before I heard a quiet whistle just behind me. I turned around to see Josh Jones rooted to the spot and pointing wildly towards his feet. In the loudest whisper ever uttered I clearly heard him say "It's f*cking down here!" I peeked into the area towards where he was gesticulating and there it was flicking around in the leaf litter just twelve feet away, a magnificent HERMIT THRUSH. Unfortunately within about ten seconds the news rapidly spread and before we knew it our small group of six had swelled to nearly one hundred panicky individuals. Needless to say the bird picked up on the commotion and promptly flew off into the tangle of vegetation.

Typical views of the HERMIT THRUSH (first winter)!
Photo by Chris Bromley

For the second time in a few days I had been blessed to feel the rush of American aviform induced adrenalin pump through my emotionally drained body. It felt soooooooo good. As soon as the birders settled down slightly the bird showed once more, totally oblivious to the chaos it was causing around it. Luckily for the second time that morning I had chosen my viewing spot wisely and I continued to enjoy pretty amazing views as it took turns in feeding on the ground and then hopping up to snatch an elderberry or two for dessert. It would then disappear for a while but eventually return to more or less the same spot on its feeding circuit. As long as you remained cool you could obtain some pretty fine views indeed.

We then moved across to a blustery Mount's Bay. After a short stroll along the beachfront at Long Rock we managed to pick up a juvenile WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER feeding amongst a mixed flock of other wind tossed waders. Other species included 5 Ringed Plover, 13 Bar-tailed Godwits, 5 Dunlin, a single Sanderling and 6 Turnstone. There were also good numbers of Rock Pipit and Pied Wagtail feeding along the beach.  We finished off with a half-hearted attempt to look for a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling but failed in our quest after a ten minute search amongst the Starling flock on the nearby retail park. Before heading back home we celebrated in true Cornish style with a pasty from Philps Bakery in Hayle. It was yet another superb day chasing rarities in my most favourite part of the world.

St Michael's Mount from Long Rock Beach
Photo by Adam Archer

HERMIT THRUSH in Cornwall - Video Footage

Saturday 26 October 2013


CAPE MAY WARBLER (first winter female)
Photo by Chris Bromley

On Wednesday lunchtime whilst mooching around the mean city streets of Birmingham looking for a bite to eat, the mundane existence of my working week was suddenly given a swift kick in the b*llocks. News was received that a presumed CAPE MAY WARBLER had been located on the most northerly outpost of my beloved Great Britain, the Isle of Unst in Shetland. A 'presumed' CAPE MAY WARBLER? My mind raced ahead of itself. Surely not? This was a species of North American warbler that had only reached Europe once before. Perhaps it was 'just' a particularly drab YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER? There had to be some kind of mistake. Then whilst sat at my desk the identification was confirmed. I was stunned.

Fast forward to Friday morning and I somehow found myself heading up the hellish M6 motorway with the Wolftown Cosa Nostra - Steve Allcott, Tony Barter and Jason Oliver. In their company I felt like Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) in a f*cked up birding version of the movie 'Goodfellas'. I learned a lot about myself during that long, tortuous journey up to Aberdeen as well as picking up a few other valuable nuggets of knowledge. I discovered the benefits of truck stops over service stations with their huge, cheap breakfasts and Polish hookers. I discovered that Bart was once a professional wrestler called the 'VAT Man' and that shock horror, the whole thing was choreographed and rigged. I also discovered that no matter how tough someone is, they can get all misty eyed and nostalgic when it comes to reminiscing over 1970's children's TV programmes.

Anyway back to the bird. About a hour into our journey north we received confirmation that our prize target was still present. We all cheered and willed it to linger for just one more day until we could get up there. A few hours later I then received a most disturbing call from my pal Steve Nuttall who at that time should have been watching the rarity after catching the ferry over to Shetland the previous evening. "How you doing mate?" I asked. "Well not too good actually, haven't you heard?" came his concerning response. At this point my heart sank. The first thought that sprang to mind was the bird had been snaffled by a hungry Merlin or even worse some mangy feral feline. 

It therefore came as a bit of a selfish relief when I discovered the real reason behind Steve's woes. At around 4.00am some poor soul had decided to jump from the vessel and take their own life. As a result of this tragedy the ferry had to turn back to help search for the body which resulted in Steve and his crew finally hitting Lerwick during lunchtime, a delay of nearly five hours. There was no way they would have time to head all the way up to Unst from Mainland Shetland and be back in Lerwick for the return ferry back to Aberdeen that same day. I tried to reassure him that everything would work out fine.

We eventually reached the ferry terminal in Aberdeen ourselves at tea time and met up with the final member of our team, Rob 'Moth Arms' Gilbert who had made his way there by train from Stoke. We settled into the bar onboard MV Hjaltland and tried to relax in the knowledge that Steve had finally connected with the CAPE MAY WARBLER before dusk and that the weather up on Unst had been pretty appalling by the time the bird had gone to roost. Our chances of success tomorrow had definitely increased upon hearing such news. The crossing itself was not too bad at all and by 6.30am we were all tucking into our breakfasts after a decent night of sleep. As dawn broke on Saturday morning we quickly disembarked and Jason jostled for a prime position in the queue for the hire car. The lady in charge of distributing the vehicles amongst the eager twitchers obviously took a dislike to us though. We raced out to the car park to find a diminutive Toyota Aygo awaiting us.

The cramped Toyota 'No Go'!
Photo by Adam Archer

As four and a half burly birders plus baggage crammed into a space just a tad bigger than an oil drum I was half expecting to see Norris McWhirter standing kerbside as we tootled out of Lerwick. It had to be some kind of Guinness World Record. The only thing missing was Roy Castle and his trumpet fanfare. After a constricted forty-five minutes or so we finally rolled into the hamlet of Toft for the ferry crossing over to the Isle of Yell. It was nearly nine o'clock and there was still no positive news regarding the CAPE MAY WARBLER. As we sped from the bottom to the very top of Yell for our second brief ferry ride none of us had any phone signal. I knew Steve Nuttall and the lads would be doing their very best to locate the bird but now I had no way of receiving that potentially joyous call from him.  The atmosphere in the car became extremely tense and nobody uttered a single word until we reached Belmont. 

Unfortunately there was no room for us on the first ferry over to Unst and it would be a long, stressful wait for the next. At this point the wind started to increase in force and the rain began to fall. The whole team began to show signs of despondency and they quickly went their separate ways to search for birds. I on the other hand took shelter in the dark, dank waiting room and spent the time starring down at my phone. Suddenly I had a brainwave. Perhaps I could log onto someones WiFi and search the internet for news. Remarkably there was a router nearby where a password was not required. This is Shetland of course, why would anyone need a password? I jammed in and left a desperate plea for news on Birdforum. I then checked the Rare Bird Alert website but there was no news there either. My last hope was Twitter and as I refreshed my Tweets I noticed a message on Bird National. I read it over around three or four times carefully checking the time and date..... the CAPE MAY WARBLER was still bloody present!

I burst open the door of the waiting room, raised my eyes to the heavens, held out my arms and hollered at the top of my voice "IT'S STILL THERE!" Embarrassingly there was not a single other birder in sight. I raced down to the only other car of birders in the queue and tapped on their window to give them the happy news. At last I had someone to share the elation with. Eventually the other lads all made their way back to the car one by one and it was broad grins and childish excitement all round. As the ferry rolled into Gutcher we flew out of the harbour and up to Baltasound at pace.

We abandoned our tiny vehicle near The Manse and headed across to another of the birds favoured feeding spots, a derelict house with a trio of stunted sycamores enclosed within a small walled garden. There were just eight other birders on site and the news was not good at all. The rarity had not been seen since the initial sighting about two hours earlier. Whilst some staked out the garden in case the bird returned, others including myself started to search the weedy fields and drystone walls nearby. It was agonising. It had taken us a total of 26 hours and we had travelled over 700 miles to reach our destination. We were determined not to leave Shetland empty handed. To 'dip out' was simply not an option. 

The favoured haunt of the CAPE MAY WARBLER!
Baltasound, Isle of Unst, Shetland.
Photo by Adam Archer

As I carefully surveyed an area around some old farm buildings I heard a loud whistle emanating in the distance. I lifted my bins to see Steve Nuttall peering into the garden of a bungalow two fields away waving his arms. Without delay I sprinted over the rough grassland as fast as my legs could carry me. Following in my wake were about twenty other birders trying to keep up. I hurdled a gate and continued down a lane where I finally reached the garden. "It may have flew towards you!" shouted Steve. I lifted my bins to scan the sparse vegetation and suddenly a strange warbler type bird flew right across my line of sight. It had to be the bird. In order to compose myself I took a few deep breaths as one by one other birders arrived at my side. Suddenly it appeared once again perched up on the garden fence. "There it is!" I yelled followed quickly by the inevitable "Where is it?" "Directions please!" "Help meeeeee!" "F*ck!" from everyone else. 

Baltasound, Isle of Unst, Shetland.
Photo by Adam Archer

After a tantalisingly brief view, the bird then took flight again and headed further down the lane. Here it fed for around ten minutes in a lone sycamore tree at the side of a garage. As the bird settled down so did the nerves of every twitcher on site. All the trials and tribulations had been well worth it. I was now one of the few privileged birders in Britain to spend a few precious moments with a CAPE MAY WARBER in his own beloved country. Yes, our journey had been a long, drawn out stressful affair but spare a thought for this tiny bundle of feathers that had made an arduous journey of over 2,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. It really is one of the wonders of the natural world how birds like this migrate and how they survive such ordeals. The bird continued to be very mobile and after a few brief views in various locations it finally flew off towards an old churchyard and promptly disappeared.

Jase Oliver watches in awe!
Photo by Adam Archer

With the pressure off and after much hand shaking and back slapping we slowly made our way back to the spooky house in the hope that the bird would return there at some point. As we approached the walled garden it appeared that lady luck was well and truly on our side. There it was again, a splendid first winter female CAPE MAY WARBLER gleaning insects from the underside of the sycamore leaves just a few yards away. For the next hour or so the bird provided us all with tremendous views in the trees and as it hopped around picking through the leaf litter. It was even heard to call on a number of occasions, a sharp, high pitched 'zipp'. It seemed to call only when it became agitated by another bird intruding on its patch though such as a European Robin or a Shetland Wren, both of which were promptly chased off.

CAPE MAY WARBLER (first winter female)
Photo by Steve Nuttall

CAPE MAY WARBLER (first winter female)
Photo by Steve Nuttall

For no particular reason the bird then took flight once more and headed over towards The Manse, an imposing old house with a single sycamore growing in the corner of a bare, desolate garden. Here it started throwing its weight around once more as it turfed out two male Blackcaps before continuing its feeding routine. With the car nearby I decided to grab my scope to see if I could rattle off a few digi-scoped photographs. After asking Jase for the car keys I soon sensed a degree of panic in his demeanour. His usual ruddy complexion quickly transformed into that of a pale-faced geisha girl. He continued to pat himself down as if his body had suddenly caught fire. He had only lost the f*cking keys!

What the hell were we going to do? There would be no way that the car hire company could get a spare set up to us in time for our ferry back to Aberdeen. We considered abandoning the car on Unst and catching a lift back to Lerwick but nobody had space for one extra birder never mind five. We tried to remain calm and split up to search the five square miles of muddy tracks, grassy fields, overgrown ditches and derelict buildings we had all been hiking around. There was more chance of a RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET appearing on this side of the Atlantic than those keys being found. 

I attempted to apply a degree of logic to the situation. I played back the scene over and over again in my mind when the bird was initially located. I remember Jase jogging along the fence line of the bungalow when I initially picked up the bird in the garden. There was a good chance that the keys had been jarred from his coat pocket at this point. I made my way over to the area and within a minute I spotted a tiny white triangle poking out from the long grass. Finding those car keys was undoubtedly the second miracle of the day. We returned back to The Manse for one more fix of the rarity before fleeing the scene. Once again it performed like a star, even hopping out onto the wall at one stage in order to indulge in a spot of fly-catching.

CAPE MAY WARBLER (first winter female)
Photo by Steve Nuttall

Before heading south we called in at Halligarth in Baltasound where we saw and heard several Siberian Chiffchaff. A female Merlin also dropped in for a few moments and a winter plumaged Slavonian Grebe was picked up by Steve feeding on a small loch nearby. Other birds of note included a fly over Common Crossbill and a single Common Redpoll.

Upon arriving back on the Mainland we headed out west to the small fishing village of Walls. Here we found a very pleasant lady tending her flower beds in a garden which contained a rarity from a more easterly direction. The kind madam beckoned us onto her property and within a few minutes we were all enjoying point blank views of a stunning RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, my fifth in Britain. Although quite mobile at first the bird eventually decided to feed out in the middle of the road reminiscent of a Pied Wagtail. Only dream scenarios like these can happen on Shetland.

RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL - Walls, West Mainland
Photo by Steve Nuttall

The atmosphere throughout the ferry back to Aberdeen that evening was full of joy and merriment. All birders onboard were over the moon on how the day had panned out, even those like Steve Nuttall and Kev Clements who were making their way home a full day later than anticipated. It was time to neck a few drinks in the bar and then retire to our secret drinkers corner where many plastic cups of single malt whisky were raised in celebration. It was then time to head to the lounge and find a quiet place on the floor to rest my weary head for the evening. According to the weather forecasts we were in for a choppy overnight sailing.

Tony 'VAT Man' Barter & Jason 'No Keys' Oliver celebrate!
Photo by Adam Archer

Following an evening of disturbed sleep due to the sound of crashing waves and twisting metal I did not feel too great when I eventually woke. As we disembarked the ferry and made our way through the torrential rain to the car I felt as though I was still being tossed from side to side. I was not looking forward to the long car journey ahead at all. As we made our way south though the weather started to improve. It was then decided that we would make a detour over to St Abb's Head where an adult male SARDINIAN WARBLER had been in residence for a number of months. This was the first time I had visited this beautiful location and I was well impressed. Unfortunately though, despite a thorough search of the area north of the loch we failed in our efforts to locate the Mediterranean rarity. The only birds of note were 23 Pink-footed Geese passing over, 2 Siskin and 3 Bullfinch.

A rainbow over St Abb's Head, Borders
Photo by Adam Archer

With a tremendous looking stormy front moving in over the Atlantic from the south-west, the conversation during the journey back was filled with birding predictions for the following week. None of us however managed to predict what would hit Ireland that afternoon. Amazingly a RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET had been trapped on Cape Clear Island. Just like the CAPE MAY WARBLER we had seen the day before this was only the second ever sighting of this North American species in Europe. One thing was certain, the south west of England was sure to provide us with something tasty over the coming days. I felt another trip to the Isles of Scilly would be inevitable for the following weekend.

Finally at around 7.00pm on Sunday evening I arrived back home in North Warwickshire. I was absolutely shattered and even twelve hours after staggering of that boat, I still felt as though I was at sea. Despite the mild exhaustion and the proverbial roller coaster ride of the past few days though I can honestly say I had loved every single second of it. The higher the risk, the better the reward. What an adventure! 

Sunday 20 October 2013

A HOOPOE in Nottinghamshire

HOOPOE - Annesley Pit Top, Nottinghamshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

After the rigours of the previous day on the English south coast I did not really fancy venturing too far today, especially as I had developed an agonising pain in the neck. Luckily I had some top notch drugs left over from my recent operation, so after popping a few pills during the early hours of the morning I was back in birding business.

The original plan was to visit the patch and count wildfowl or something similarly yawn inducing however whilst lying in bed I was stimulated by something a touch more exotic. News of a Hoopoe  came through from Annesley Pit Top just up the road in Nottinghamshire. After receiving a bit of local gen from Stevie Dunn and hearing that the bird was showing very well at times, Dave Hutton and I decided to pay the bird a fleeting visit.

Typically as we entered the car park in Newstead Village a quick phone call for directions resulted in disappointment. The Hoopoe had just flown off high over a line of conifers and had disappeared. Undeterred though we squelched away up through the mud hoping that we could relocate it somewhere around the former mining site. As we approached the first lagoons we met the familiar faces of Stevie Dunn and Rich Challands. Unfortunately there was no still no sign of the bird but there were a few folks still searching the area. Then whilst chatting to the lads my attention was drawn to a pair of Carrion Crows calling as they flew along a distant hill top. Noisy corvids are always worth checking out and whilst investigating the commotion I was delighted to see the distinctive silhouette of a Hoopoe in flight as it tried to shake off the attention of the curious crows.

As we all made our way towards the top of the hill the bird then did us all a favour and flapped its way back down towards the lagoon where it was originally found earlier in the day. After a careful search of the rough grassland we then enjoyed superb views as it probed its way along a muddy embankment.

HOOPOE - Annesley Pit Top, Nottinghamshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

After around ten minutes the bird then flew up towards the higher pools and with Dave not particularly satisfied with his initial set of photos we decided to hunt it down again. Soon enough, the scarce migrant from across continent was found once more as it fed along a track before being flushed by a couple of horse riders. At this stage the bird made its way to the relatively undisturbed edge of a lower pool where we enjoyed prolonged scope views as it mooched around searching for grubs.

Stevie Dunn (left) & Rich Challands (right)....
... which birder do you think blends in better with his surroundings?

Other birds around this excellent site included a trio of winter plumaged Black-necked Grebes, 5 Little Grebes, 51 Common Pochard and a couple of Green Woodpecker. At one stage I also heard a Rock Pipit but failed to see it unfortunately. There were also reasonable numbers of Skylark, Meadow Pipit and a scattering of Linnet and Lesser Redpoll.

This Hoopoe sighting became only my fifth ever of this species in Britain. Remarkably I am still yet to see one outside the Midlands.

HOOPOE - Annesley Pit Top, Nottinghamshire
Photo by Dave Hutton