Friday 14 October 2016


This is very much a long, drawn out saga folks but please bear with me. I am no literary genius but hopefully I  can convey a little of what I, and no doubt many other keen birders around the British Isles have felt and experienced over the past week or so.

Siberian Accentor - Easington by Dave Hutton.

What was probably my most stressful week in birding commenced on the afternoon of Sunday 9th October. I was faffing away in the yard, pondering whether to cut the the lawn, when I heard the pager wailing away from the kitchen. I threw the gardening gloves to one side and darted into the house to find Nadia stood there with a look of genuine concern plastered all over her lovely, little face. As she presented me with the troublesome device, the information facing me did not actually come as any great surprise. The inevitable had occurred. Following a mini influx into northwest Europe, a Siberian Accentor had finally made it across to Britain. This was the first record of this long anticipated and most sought after Siberian species into our region.

Almost instantly I came to terms with the fact that I would not be able to see this 'British Bird of the Century'. I was faced with a hectic working week and to make it even more difficult, the bird in question had made landfall on Shetland. It was all rather inconvenient. My thoughts then turned to my pals who were actually on the isles as part their annual trip, a trip that ordinarily I would also been a part of. Needless to say all those lucky lads enjoyed fantastic views of the bird that afternoon as it scuttled around a small abandoned quarry near Scousburgh, on South Mainland. I was thrilled for them all and also relieved they were not stuck up on Unst, just that little bit too far out of reach when the fateful news broke. Now that would have been one crazy drive south for Jase. To be honest, I never really suffer from 'bird envy' but this all felt a little different. This was perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this species in Britain.

'The jubilant Scousburgh quarrymen!' by Jase Oliver.

A quick glance at the weather forecast for the Northern Isles that evening showed a clear, starry night. That, combined with the fact the bird had been frequenting less than ideal habitat on the top of a hill, did not bode well for it remaining in place for a second day.  I was wrong of course. On Monday morning, news eventually filtered through that the bird was still present. I quickly made contact with a few local lads, one of which was on a scheduled early morning flight from Aberdeen and another who had buckled and snaffled a place on a charter flight. I wished them the best of luck and attempted to focus my efforts on the grueling work schedule ahead.

As the day progressed, the pain and suffering got gradually worse. It is hard to express to the 'non-twitcher' why we feel the way we do when a bird of such magnitude is out of reach. Personally I know I am pretty impossible to be around. I become terribly grouchy, irritable and snappy. As the stress levels increase, my concentration levels reduce and I find it difficult to keep still. The worst symptom though is the wild churning in the pit of your stomach. I estimate that it is perhaps 387% worse than the most gut-wrenching, chum-packed, pelagic trip you will ever embark upon. You try hard to put the whole ridiculous situation into some sort of perspective and cast your mind back to past glories of stunning bird species and memorable trips you have been lucky to be part of. The problem is, that inaccessible rarity will always be there, niggling away at the back of your dark, haggard, little mind.

Siberian Accentor - Scousburgh by Tony Barter.

When you are reduced to this worrying state, you inevitably become desperate. At around lunchtime a tempting message appeared on the pager offering the final seat on a charter flight the following morning. It was a telephone number I recognised as the 'sideburned satanist' himself, Dave Mack. Within seconds I was discussing the logistics of the potential trip with him and promptly secured my place. Whilst I have never indulged in such an outrageous act of aviform based extravagance before, I have never completely ruled out a bout of so-called 'cheque book birding', if required. I always said that if a Northern Hawk-owl turned up at some far flung corner of the British Isles, I would have no hesitation in raiding my nan's building society account and eagerly handing over the required readies to some greedy pilot. In my opinion, a Siberian Accentor was up there in the rankings with such an iconic species as Surnia ulula.

Siberian Accentor - Scousburgh by Steve Nuttall.

The next step was to secure a whole day off work. As I had recently received a promotion with a whole load of additional responsibilities I knew that I was really pushing my luck. "You are f*@%ing joking aren't you!?!" came the response from my usually relaxed and highly accommodating, twitch-friendly gaffer. After a few minutes of negotiation and promises to work my fingers to the bone over the coming weeks, he eventually granted me the permission I was hoping for. Just as I hung up the phone, the 'mega alert' sounded once more. A Black-faced Bunting had been found, and surprise, surprise, it was on Shetland, this time on the island of Bressay. As for the Siberian Accentor, well that continued to show well throughout the day, however there were concerning reports that it had become quite mobile as the day progressed.

It was now early Tuesday morning and I found myself heading north into Yorkshire. After a quick detour to Potterick Carr to pick up Dave, we were on our way to a small private airfield near York, our pockets bursting with wads of unused twenty pound notes. On site, at the dark, damp village of Full Sutton we met up with RBA bird news operative Will Soar and another couple to complete the passenger list. This village is more infamous for housing deranged serial killers such as Dennis Nilsen at its maximum security prison than it is for acting as a base to assist mentally defective twitchers to fly from one end of the country to another.

'Waiting for news on the Shetland bird!' by Adam Archer.

As we nervously awaited the gloom of an autumn dawn to lift, the lack of positive news was excruciating. I paced around our 'executive departure lounge' praying that the bird would see fit to hang on for just one more day. As the minutes ticked by though I could not help but think about those clear overnight weather conditions and how the bird had become restless during the previous day. It was not too long before we were put out of our misery, the bird had indeed departed. We were truly gutted.

Our attention then focused on the possibility of using this opportunity to twitch the Black-faced Bunting as a consolation prize. After careful consideration I decided to vote against it bearing in mind the bird had been pretty elusive as it fed within the dense cover of a crop field. Despite its undoubted rarity status I did not even consider this species to be in the same league as the Siberian Accentor.

As a birding alternative, Dave and I decided to head east and attempt to find our own eastern vagrant at Flamborough Head. Our first search concentrated around Old Fall Hedge and the Plantation. Despite numerous Chiffchaff and Goldcrest flitting around the best we could do was a single Common Redstart and a few Brambling. We then headed down to the lighthouse area where we failed to see the reported Olive-backed Pipit with Brett Richards. It was still great to see good numbers of Redwing freshly arriving and streaming inland though. Our final location for the day was South Landing where we heard an elusive Yellow-browed Warbler calling away. Whilst peering down into the ravine my imagination ran away with me as I fantasized about another Siberian Accentor picking its way methodically along the stream there. I had a funny feeling another would appear this autumn, somewhere along the east coast and once again I would have to pull out all the stops in order to see it.

Whilst Wednesday was spent in the office busily catching up with outstanding tasks, Thursday would be more relaxed but way more physically demanding. As part of my employers commitment to helping our local communities I had been granted time off to volunteer at our local RSPB reserve at Middleton Lakes. Along with a few more work colleagues we de-thatched a grassy embankment for the benefit of Common Blue butterflies and cleared a fairly large area of willow scrub to attract more breeding pairs of Grasshopper Warbler. By mid-afternoon we had completed our tasks. I was filthy, sweaty, dehydrated and pretty exhausted, however it was just the medicine I needed to smooth away the mental stresses and strains of the previous few days.

As we took a stroll around reserve pointing out Lapwing and Snipe to our accompanying city folk, the pager emitted that dreaded wail once again.  As I retrieved it from my pocket and took a glimpse of the screen I was practically knocked off my muddy feet. Unable to speak, I automatically stretched out my arm and presented the news to reserve warden and dear friend Katie Thorpe. I remember asking her "What time does it get dark nowadays?", "Errrrr it will probably be too dark for birding at around seven." she replied. It was a miracle, another Siberian Accentor had been found at Easington in East Yorkshire. Had the birding Gods rewarded me for my few hours of conservation work or was it because I was wearing my lucky Spurn Bird Obs hoodie? By the time I had ran back to the car park it was 3.30pm. I had just three hours to make the 180 mile journey to Easington in rush hour traffic. The odds were stacked well and truly against me but I just had to take a punt.

I had only visited the mighty Spurn area the previous Saturday to witness the spectacle of autumn migration. That day, thousands of thrushes including Redwing, Fieldfare, Blackbird and Continental Song Thrush were very much in evidence along with the odd Ring Ouzel. Huge numbers of migrating Robin from the continent were also present along with hundreds of Goldcrest. Other crowd pleasers included Woodcock, Jack Snipe and Short-eared Owl. On the scarcity front we managed to pick up a couple of Red-breasted Flycatcher and single Yellow-browed Warbler. The undoubted highlights however were a Rustic Bunting at Church Fields, Kilnsea and a rather obliging Olive-backed Pipit at Easington Gas Works. It was near this location where England's first ever Siberian Accentor had been found by Lance Degnan.

Olive-backed Pipit - Easington by Steve Routledge.

Initially I made good progress north despite a few heavy rain showers, the infuriating middle lane hoggers and the odd speed restriction. As I approached Hull though, it all started to get pretty grim. There was heavy traffic congestion around the city and to make matters worse the light and the weather were beginning to deteriorate. After what seemed like a lifetime I eventually made my way through and continued east along the north shore of the River Humber. Just I was feeling positive though, a message came through to say the bird had flown off and had been lost to view. My heart sank, I was just twenty minutes or so away. Despite the foul weather I decided to continue onward and check out the site for myself. Upon arrival there was still enough light to see the odd Robin and Dunnock hopping around but alas the other, rarer accentor species was still nowhere to been seen.

It is at times like these that I really start to question my sanity. What the hell had I been thinking? As dozens of native Yorkshiremen bounded around congratulating one another, there was I, silently shivering away, starring at a rusty rubbish skip in some old school playground. Just half an hour previously a Siberian Accentor had been hopping around that same skip just a few yards away, delighting the euphoric locals. I decided to depart the scene and head further along the lane to see if the bird was feeding inside the gas terminal compound as the Olive-backed Pipit had done a few days previously. Again there was no sign.

As I slowly strolled back I witnessed what was probably the most sorrowful sight ever, in all my years of birding. A middle-aged fellow was leaning forward into the chain linked fence, on the phone to who I assumed to be his wife. He was trying his hardest to hold a conversation but while he was doing so he sobbed away uncontrollably like a distraught toddler. He had missed the bird by just a few seconds and was obviously taking it far worse than I was. I lingered briefly to check he was OK, patted him on his shoulder and headed for the shelter of the car.

I now had a tough decision to make. Should I make my way back home and return on Saturday? Or should I spend the night in the car and hope the bird showed early enough for me to nail it then make my way into the office afterwards? If I took the second option I would need to get the agreement from my boss whose patience with me was already wearing very thin indeed. With no signal on my phone I decided to head back west towards Hull and submit my sheepish request via e-mail.

Luckily, I have a lovely great aunt called Dorothy who lives in the village of Bilton, just east of the city. Hers is a house I have fond memories of from when I was a young lad. Many memorable weekends were enjoyed up here with my beloved nan and gramps. There were days out to Spurn, Bempton and Hornsea with her and my late uncle George. We would also head off to the Humber to see the huge ships slowly manoeuvre in and out of the docks and I can even remember the mighty suspension bridge being built. What sticks in my memory most though is the birds, hundreds of waders feeding out on the mud and calling overhead. Back then it did not matter too much whether or not I could identify them. I was just happy to soak up the whole spectacle through my terrible old pair of Boots binoculars. As a young lad brought up on a council estate in the landlocked West Midlands, these trips away to the coast meant so much to me. It was also the Christmas money I received from these fine folk that I used towards my first ever Young Ornithologist's Club subscription.

Needless to say I was convinced by my aunt to stay over that evening. She was busily changing the sheets on her bed for me even before I had received a positive reply from my boss. After a slap up meal of haddock and chips together with a nice strong brew, we chatted away until late about the good old days. I was now warm, relaxed and content, so much so I almost forgot about the Siberian Accentor I hoped was all tucked up and roosting safely just down the road. Eventually, I received the reply I was hoping for. I was allowed to come into work a few hours later than usual that Friday morning.

Just after 5.00am, following a decent night's sleep I was wide awake are raring to go. The weather throughout the evening had been extremely wet and windy so I was pretty confident the pesky eastern waif would still be in the area. The only real concern I had was whether the bird would show early enough. In order to drive back south to Birmingham and get down to a hard day's graft I needed to leave the site no later than 8.00am. I downed a strong mug of coffee, chomped on a few Hobnobs, hugged my aunt and off I went. Yet another trip to the Holderness coast beckoned. Would I be a little more lucky with my third attempt at seeing this b*stard of a bird?

At around 6.30am I cautiously made way past the gas terminal, with its heavy police presence and entered the sleepy little village of Easington once more. Despite the darkness there were already a fair number of Gore-Tex-clad birders hobbling around the place. It was reminiscent of a scene from some 1970's zombie apocalypse movie. The usual stereotypical Harold Shipman lookalikes joined up with the Benny from Crossroads types who in turn mingled with members of the Bill Oddie appreciation society. A weekday twitch for a 'mega of megas' always brings out the retired throwbacks to the heyday of British twitching. Try and imagine a pre-battle scene from Lord of the Rings where axes and swords are replaced with scopes and tripods and the pretty, little elves are yet to turn up. This is kind of what one of these occasions can look like.

'Dawn of the Easington Dead' by Bill Urwin.

Ignoring the masses pitched up along the lane, I quietly slipped into the wooded area alongside the school and staked my claim to a prime position a little way back from the fence line. The atmosphere at this time was almost serene as everyone chatted in hushed whispers and shuffled gently into position. As the darkness began to slowly lift though you could feel the edginess in the air. Suddenly a bird flew into view and a huge surge forward ensued. It reminded me of being stood up on the Stretford End at Old Trafford as a kid during the early 80's. The cause of such panic was just a Robin. At this stage the fine guys of Spurn Bird Observatory started to lose their patience and urged everyone to step back towards the lane. Understandably most folk were reluctant to do this and deliberately sauntered back as slowly as possible like an annoying Premiership footballer being substituted in injury time when his team are a goal up.

Just as the last birders had made it back to the lane, exactly the same thing happened again, another bird had flown in creating the second surge within a few short minutes. On this occasion though it was no false alarm. I lifted my bins and there, just a few yards away was a Siberian Accentor, perched on top of a skip and completely oblivious to the chaos it was causing. At this stage all hell began to break loose as around 500 eager birders tried their best to catch a glimpse of this amazing specimen. Behind me, other birders argued, shouted and jostled whilst some took it way too far resulting in a bit of a scuffle. I did my level best to filter out all of the nonsense though and enjoy the show.

Siberian Accentor - Easington by Mike Watson.

The bird performed remarkably well as it fed among the moss covered surface of the old school playground. It would occasionally fly up into cover briefly but would soon resume its feeding routine down on the deck giving everyone a chance to connect. Call me selfish but I admit to remaining in position for well over thirty minutes. I justified this by explaining to the organisers I would be leaving shortly to go to work. In any case, the bird was obviously settled and everyone would get their fill eventually. Finally, after six stressful days and three exhausting attempts I had actually witnessed a Siberian Accentor in Britain. It was another one of those days in birding that I will never forget.

Following a pretty straightforward journey back south and a quick stop off at home for a shave and a change of clothes, I was back in the office in Birmingham for 11.15am. It was now time to put birds to the back of my mind for a while and use my charm and unrivaled work ethic to avoid disciplinary action.

So you would imagine that this is the conclusion to this sorry state of affairs but you would be wrong. In my preoccupied state of selfishness I had not realised I was not the only person in our household who was suffering from a touch of bird envy. Of course it was now the weekend and Nadia wanted to see the accentor too.

At around 4.45am we were collected by our pals Kate and Fergus and for the fourth time in a week I was off to County of the White Rose. Whilst the other three in the car were all quite apprehensive, I remained pretty cool, for obvious reasons. I guaranteed them that the bird would still be there and indeed it was.  Despite there still being hundreds of folks who needed to see the bird, that Saturday morning was far more relaxed and civilised. The fine lads and lasses of Spurn Bird Obs were again on site acting as stewards and a structured queuing system was implemented. You waited your turn in an orderly line along the gas works perimeter fence and eventually you would receive a full, hassle free ten minute slot to gawp in awe of the stripy-faced critter.

Siberian Accentor by Dave Hutton.

Once again the rarity showed exceptionally well feeding in its favourite area. Another early morning start and lack of quality sleep the night before were all but forgotten as the crippling views helped energize my soul. With everyone now pretty chuffed it was time to move on to Kilnsea and see what other birding delights awaited us.  As with the week before, those relentless easterly winds had continued to bring in the Redwings, Robins and Goldcrests in decent numbers. There had to be other special birds lurking somewhere among them all and indeed there was.

Shore Lark - Kilnsea by Dave Hutton.

Our first stop was at The Bluebell where a Shore Lark performed like a star feeding unconcerned around the car park. This is a species that is not quite as common in Britain as it used to be during our winter months, and was my first sighting for a good couple of years. We then moved up to the Crown and Anchor pub for a mooch around, however our visit was cut short when news of a trapped Pallas's Warbler was received. After a quick romp around to Church Fields we enjoyed in-the-hand views of the gorgeous sprite before it was safely released. Other species in this area included a few Brambling, Redpoll and Siskin as well as the resident Tree Sparrows.

'Pallas's Warbler showing well!' by Adam Archer.

With Woodcock flying past at regular intervals and a few late Swallow and House Martin heading south you really did not know where to point your binoculars at times. There were masses of birds absolutely everywhere you looked. We then decided to try for one of the Dusky Warblers which had been reported and so we headed down to the canal zone. It was not long before we could hear the distinctive 'teck' repeating away, deep from within a small patch of reeds. After a bit of selective 'pishing' though it suddenly appeared, providing us all with superb views.

Dusky Warbler by Dave Hutton.

As we made our way south towards 'the breach', a Black Redstart was a nice year tick around the old observatory site. At this point a few skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed over along with the odd White-fronted Goose among them. As well as the feathery highlights, it was also great to share the day with some friends who we had not seen in a while. There was also a large contingent of familiar faces from back home, everyone of them strolling around with broad smiles on their relieved faces. The 'Peaky Birders' of the West Midlands really do know how to enjoy themselves on such occasions.

Before heading off, we stopped over at Kilnsea Church where two different Pallas's Warblers showed well on and off in the early afternoon sunshine. The final bird before we left was a mobile and often elusive Yellow-browed Warbler in the Crown and Anchor car park. It had been a splendid end to a pretty manic week.

Oh, I forgot to mention. As we enjoyed this Spurn spectacular, the peace was momentarily shattered by yet another 'mega alert'. Remarkably a third Siberian Accentor had made landfall in Britain, this time near Saltburn in Cleveland. There was absolutely no way I was bothering with that one though.

The Siberian Accentor in Great Britain

This species breeds throughout the taiga zone of northern Siberia across to the western side of the Ural mountains. It spends the winter months mainly in northern China and Korea with a few birds also reaching Japan. Obviously this the first time in our rich ornithological history that the Siberian Accentor has graced our shores however the rest of Europe seems to have done quite well in the past. During October 1987 there was even an 'invasion' of three birds into Sweden.

What has occurred this October though is totally unprecedented with a host of birds turning up in northwest Europe. As it stands at the 12th December, a total of 237 birds have been recorded since the 24th September including 79 in Sweden, 75 in Finland and 12 in Denmark.  Since 15th October a further eleven birds have also made it to Britain, therefore all sightings so far, are as follows:
  1. Shetland - Scousburgh, South Mainland - 9th to 10th October 2016.
  2. East Yorkshire - Easington - 13th to 19th October 2016.
  3. Cleveland - Huntcliff, Saltburn-by-the-Sea - 15th & 17th October 2016.
  4. County Durham - Hendon South Dock, Sunderland - 16th to 18th October 2016.
  5. Northumberland - Holy Island - 18th October 2016.
  6. Shetland - Troila Geo, Fair Isle - 20th October 2016.
  7. Shetland - Kirn O'Skroo, Fair Isle - 22nd October 2016.
  8. Shetland - Lund, Isle of Unst - 22nd to 27th October 2016. 
  9. Orkney - Deerness, Mainland - 24th to 28th October 2016.
  10. Northumberland - Holy Island - 25th October 2016.
  11. Shetland - South Dale, Fetlar - 26th October 2016.
  12. Northumberland - Newbiggin-by-the-Sea - 29th to 30th October 2016.
  13. Highland - Avoch, Black Isle - 6th to 13th November 2016.
  14. Highland - Invergordon, Highland - 8th to 14th February 2017.
Please note that all of the above records are pending acceptance. Once the Records Committee of the British Ornithologist's Union accepts the Shetland bird as the 'First for Britain' then the rest will follow. I am already looking forward to the 'Report on Rare Birds in Great Britain' article ..... in the October 2020 edition of British Birds!

2017 Update:  On the 18th May 2017 it was announced by the BOU that Siberian Accentor had officially been added to Category A of the British list.

There have also been unconfirmed sightings of probable birds at Seahouses, Northumberland on the 16th October and at Thorntonloch, Lothian on the 20th October. I am pretty sure we will receive a fair few more before the autumn is out and maybe one will spend the winter in a garden somewhere. Keep checking beneath your feeders folks!

This blog has been brought to life by the following wonderful people - Tony Barter, Dave Hutton, Steve Nuttall, Jase Oliver, Steve Routledge, Bill Urwin & Mike Watson. Thank you for the photos chaps, I really appreciate it.

Special thanks Lance Degnan for finding the Easington bird and to Spurn Bird Observatory for organising the event. Their team of volunteers did a superb job in handling what was in theory, a nightmare scenario . Please donate generously folks!

Extra special thanks and love goes to my beautiful wife Nadia Archer for putting up with me and my fragile mental state during the past fortnight. Extra special thanks also go to my aunt Dorothy Champkin for the free board and lodgings on that horrible Thursday night 'dip'.