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.


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


  1. Great post Archie, really pleased you connected with the little american gem!!