Sunday 9 February 2014


On the morning of Friday 7th February news filtered through of an American 'Myrtle Warbler', the nominate race of YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER somewhere in the north-east of England. It was spotted by lucky householder as it dangled from their fat balls during the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch way back on the 26th January. Typically, the best bird I managed whilst taking part in the very same survey was a grotty Lesser Redpoll. Anyway, as predicted the server at Birdforum HQ suddenly went into meltdown as various twonks jumped to all kinds of far fetched conclusions from hoax theories to rumours regarding selective suppression.

Little did these imbeciles realise that up in County Durham the bird was still present and negotiations were already well underway to organise access to the site. Late on Saturday night a further news update  emerged. It was possible that full details regarding the American vagrant's precise location would be provided the following day. I decided to set the alarm just in case and made sure my birding kit was ready to go.

With no news early doors on Sunday morning, I just assumed that the jittery residents had seen sense and had refused to forgo their privacy for a bunch of a frantic twitchers peering into their back garden. Then just after 9.00am the hottest birding details of the year so far bleeped through on the pager. A few calls were made, a plan of action was put in place and just after 12.30pm, Jules Allen, Steve Richards and I found ourselves 175 miles further north on the outskirts of High Shincliffe near the historic city of Durham. 

Would you want this rough looking lot hanging around your gaff?
The Myrtle Warbler twitch!
Photo by Adam Archer 

After a power stroll around the edge of the estate we soon found ourselves at one of the bird's favoured feeding areas, a small garden at the top of Whitwell Acres. All the usual garden species were carefully scrutinised but there was no sign of the 'Myrtle Warbler'. I began to have that horrible sinking feeling. Such a small highly mobile American wood warbler could go missing for hours around such an extensive housing estate or the surrounding countryside. After about thirty minutes however I noticed a bit of a kerfuffle about 400 yards down the road. Within seconds I had covered the distance like a plump, left-wing version of Sebastian Coe. By the time I reached the spot though the bird had flown into a garden where it remained hidden from sight. Within a few minutes though it had showed briefly once again before flying back up the lane. I had still not managed to glimpse the bird. I prepared myself for a frustrating afternoon.

I need not have worried though, the rarity was relocated almost immediately lurking in a roadside hedge. Fortunately some kind soul had transformed the shrubbery into an emergency feeding station and suddenly there it was pecking around a fat-filled coconut shell, my first YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER in Britain. 

YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER - High Shincliffe, County Durham
Photo by Justin Carr

Keeping a respectable distance on the other side of the road we all enjoyed superb views of the Nearctic sprite as it tucked into a hearty meal. On occasions it would get chased off by a resident European Robin but it would eventually make its way back to one of the coconut shells when the coast was clear. Interestingly when a Great Tit, Blue Tit or Coal Tit invaded its territory though it would fight rather than flee. As part of its 'keep away' routine it would call rather loudly, throw its body forward slightly, drop its wings and fan out its tail.

Other than a fleeting visit up to the garden where it was originally located, the bird spent the majority of time around the roadside feeders. It would flit off every now and then to feed higher in the canopy of the nearby trees but those coconuts were always an irresistible lure. Other birds in the area included a trio of Bohemian Waxwings as well as the odd Lesser Redpoll and good numbers of Goldfinch. After over two hours of fantastic views we then made our way back south, ecstatic with the way the afternoon had panned out.

Extra special thanks must go to both Gary Woodburn and Mark Newsome for their efforts in carefully negotiating access arrangements and going to the trouble of setting up the temporary feeding station. Without these guys none of the above would have been possible. Thanks a million gentlemen.

If you have been to see this superb bird and even if you have not, please consider making a donation. The money raised will be used to stock up the bird feeding area at the local school. Contributions will also be made to local RSPB projects and the Cameron Bespolka Trust. Please visit the Durham Bird Club website for full details on how to process your donation.


The nominate form of Yellow-rumped Warbler known as 'Myrtle Warbler' Setophaga coronata coronata breeds throughout most of North America from Alaska east through Canada to New-foundland and south to Michigan and Massachusetts. It spends the winter in most of the North American states as well as Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Another race known as 'Audubon's WarblerSetophaga coronata auduboni occurs in south-west Canada and in the western United States.

There have been just fifteen previously accepted records of this species for Britain. There have also been a further two records on the Isle of Man and fourteen records for Ireland. The British sightings are listed as follows:

2003 - Orkney - Evie, Mainland Orkney - 31st October to 6th November.
1999 - Western Isles - Grogarry, South Uist - 17th October only.
1999 - Shetland - Fair Isle - first-summer male - 3rd to 5th June.
1995 - Orkney - North Ronaldsay - first-winter - 13th October only.
1995 - Isles of Scilly - Tresco - 4th to 15th October.
1994 - Somerset - Eastville Park, Bristol - 16th to 17th November.
1994 - Pembrokeshire - Ramsey Island - 31st October to 4th November.
1985 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 10th October (second individual).
1985 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 7th to 22nd October.
1982 - Western Isles - Newton, North Uist - 22nd to 23rd October.
1977 - Shetland - Fair Isle - male - 18th May.
1973 - Isles of Scilly - Tresco - 16th to 24th October.
1968 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - first-winter - 22nd to 27th October.
1960 - Devon - Lundy - 5th to 14th November.
1955 - Devon - Newton St Cyres, near Exeter - male - 4th January to 10th February.

During the autumn of 2013 there was a bit of a mini-influx on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Firstly there were two birds on the Azores between the 15th and 16th October. Then on the 28th October one was found on the Isle of Lundy, Devon where it was reported again on the following day. Also on the 29th October another bird was located in County Galway, Ireland. Finally on the 14th November a bird was unfortunately found dead at Southampton Docks, Hampshire. All of these sightings have yet to be accepted by the relevant rarities committees.

As you can see from the list above this County Durham Yellow-rumped Warbler is only the third 'twitchable' mainland record in nearly sixty years. It also becomes only the second one to seemingly over winter in Britain. If you have not been to see it already, I recommend you go pretty sharpish!

The YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER in County Durham by Steve Clifton

Saturday 1 February 2014

The HUME'S WARBLER in Warwickshire

Edison Road Outflow
Photo by Adam Archer

Last Saturday morning I was sitting down, practising my deep breathing and relaxation exercises when a text message came through from the self proclaimed 'Voice of the Tame Valley' Tom Perrins. It clearly stated that Warwickshire's photographic genius and dear friend Dave Hutton had found a presumed 'Hume's Leaf Warbler' just fifteen minutes from where I live. Luckily I was perched on the toilet when I read it otherwise things may have got messy! I pulled up my pants, obviously washed my hands and raced upstairs to tell Nadia. I stormed into the steamy bathroom and peered into the shower cubicle like an ornithological Norman Bates. "Quick, hurry up, Dave's found a Yellow-browed Warbler and it might be a Hume's!" I yelled.

After what seemed like three months but was probably in reality more like twenty minutes, Nadia was ready at long last. Within another twenty minutes we were on site at the edge of Hams Hall Industrial Estate near Coleshill. One of the marvellous aspects of British birding is that it takes you to some of the most picturesque corners of this incredible country of ours. Occasionally though it can also take you to some right old shite holes. South Gare, Seaforth and Spurn spring to mind. This noisy, stinking, rubbish-strewn, graffiti-daubed, muddy corner of North Warwickshire make all the aforementioned iconic birding locations seem like the Seychelles however. 

The salubrious surroundings of Hams Hall Industrial Estate.
Photo by Adam Archer

We quickly located Dave Hutton and Bob Duckhouse, the only birders present so far. There was no sign of the critter so I quickly whipped out my iPad to play Dave the calls of both Yellow-browed Warbler and Hume's Warbler from my 'Calls of Eastern Vagrants' CD. He screwed up his rosy cheeks as I went through the various calls of the much commoner Yellow-browed Warbler. His expression changed however as I played him the slightly harsher, lower pitched, disyllabic 'dsu-weet' of Hume's Warbler. "That's it!" he calmly announced. His initial suspicions were confirmed, there was a bloody HUME'S WARBLER in Warwickshire. What the hell was this delicate waif doing flitting around Shakespeare's County when it should be picking off insects around southern Afghanistan or the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent?

Within a few minutes the distinctive call was heard once again and suddenly there it was feeding amongst the leafless branches of the roadside trees. The bird was highly mobile and elusive but it did show quite well with a little patience, sometimes fly-catching in the midday sunshine. In appearance it had slightly more pallid upper parts than those of Yellow-browed Warbler. There was also a broad, buffish wing bar over the greater coverts and rather indistinct second wing bar over the median coverts. In addition the supercilium was more distinct behind the eye than between the bill and the eye and the bill looked darker and slightly spikier overall.

Eager to obtain some more views of the bird I returned to the area again this morning. Despite the cool breeze the sun was out, which is always a good sign for bringing out an elusive Phylloscopus warbler. This time the bird performed incredibly well for a while however it was not as vocal as the previous weekend. This proved a problem when the bird went missing as it was more difficult to relocate. Further distant views were also had it fed on the opposite side of the River Tame.

HUME'S WARBLER - Near Coleshill, Warwickshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

Fortunately Dave Hutton at last managed to obtain an excellent shot of his once-in-a-lifetime County find as it moved through the roadside vegetation. As the day progressed though, the strength of the wind increased and typically the bird went to ground and disappeared for nearly four hours this afternoon. For those of you who are considering paying this eastern beauty a visit, learn the vocalisations of Hume's Warbler, keep quiet and listen hard. It will save you traipsing around aimlessly in the quagmire if you just stand still and pick it up the call. Oh and make sure you take your wellies too.

On the opposite side of the road bridge there are at least 6 Common Chiffchaff around the outfall and a Green Sandpiper favours the area pictured at the top of this post. Also keep a look out for a Firecrest or a Siberian Chiffchaff both of which have graced the area with their presence over the past few years.

Please do not be put off by the dodgy surroundings!
Photo by Adam Archer

HUME'S WARBLER in Great Britain

This species Phylloscopus humei breeds in the Altai mountain region to western Mongolia, south through Tien Shan and Pamirs to north-east Afghanistan, the north-west Himalayas and the mountains of north-west China. As touched on above they usually spend the winter in southern Afghanistan across to Pakistan, northern India and Bangladesh. Another race, mandellii, breeds in central China from Shanxi to southern Yunnan, west to the lower slopes of the Tibetan plateau.

Following the analysis of the mitochondrial DNA sequences, a substantial divergence between Hume's Warbler (P. h. humei and P. h. mandellii) and Yellow-browed Warber (P. inornatus) was evident. Playback experiments also concluded that neither humei or mandellii reacted to the song of inornatus.  The BOURC therefore announced in 1997 that they would be treated as separate species.

By the end of 2012 there had been 125 accepted records of this species in Britain. The first was in 1966 when a bird was present at Beachy Head, Sussex from the 13th to the 17th November. The majority of sightings have been around coastal locations along the eastern counties of Britain. The only previous accepted inland record comes from the neighbouring County of Staffordshire when a bird was found at Westport Lake, Stoke-on-Trent on 20th December 1994. There has however been another inland Hume's Warbler this winter at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire. This bird stayed faithful to the same private area from the 7th until the 24th December at least. Could this Warwickshire individual be the Northamptonshire bird?