Sunday 21 November 2021

Golden-winged Warbler, Maidstone, Feb 1989

The event is the biggest twitch I have been on in terms of numbers of birders present, and possibly won't be surpassed. The bird was found by Paul Doherty, who is on the York Birding committee, so I have been fortunate to hear the story of this wondrous bird's discovery direct from Paul over a pint.  You can read it in BB here.

Back in those days, I got hold of bird news via the Birdline service which you could ring and hear a recorded message of the latest sightings from around the country. My Mum always used to go mad if she caught me ringing it, as it was a premium rate number and cost a fortune! One evening, I sneakily rang Birdline and was quite stunned to hear that a Golden-winged Warbler was present in Maidstone, Kent. I had no idea what a GWW was, but for that reason knew it must be dead rare, and I knew that Kent was the other end of the country. I didn't even know which part of the world it was from! I eventually found it in my old National Geographic Birds of North America book. This happened to me again a few years later, when the Mugimaki Flycatcher was reported from Stone Creek, near Hull, but that's another story...

As luck would have it, some birding friends from York offered me a lift down to see it the following Sunday, a kindness for which I am forever in their debt.

 What a bird!
The twitch. The sleepy suburb never knew what hit them! The story goes that some birders boarded the double-decker bus so they could see over the wall into the gardens where the bird was - class! We didn't need to bother - see below...

Reading back on my notes from that day all these years later and I can still recall the day really well. I think it is funny now after only a couple of hours we decided to go for a wander elsewhere - what were we thinking?! As it turned out, we saw the bird, my first American vagrant in the UK, so it worked out well, but it would have been a long ride home if we'd dipped!
Here is my write-up - aged 14:

“I was picked up by Barry Thomas, Joanne Thomas and Harry Hulse in Bishopthorpe at 4.40am. Barry had a big BMW - it felt very posh. It was certainly very comfy, I had a sleep! We arrived 238 miles later in Maidstone, Kent at 8.15. 

We waited at the top left corner of the Larkfield Tesco car park for two hours. Never saw it. Saw Siskin, Redpoll, Blue Tit, Bullfinch etc. c10am we walked off to a nearby nature reserve on the other side of the road to look for a reported Great Grey Shrike. On the way we saw a Waxwing. The reserve was quite big with overgrown gravel pits and surrounded by Hawthorn, Willow and Alder. Saw Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Great Crested Grebe and Chiffchaff, along with Bullfinch, Fieldfare, Long-tailed Tit and others. Went back to the car park about 10.45. 

A large number of birders were standing in different parts of the car park (about 500 people) when suddenly somebody said they’d seen it in some part of the estate. We burned up the steps and ran about ¼ mile in to the housing estate. Nobody knew where to go, but just followed everybody else. After about an hour it hadn’t reappeared and the crowd more or less started dispersing. Suddenly somebody else had seen something which could have been it fly into some gardens. Again we ran but this time about 1/3 mile. After about half an hour we or no one else for that matter had seen it. We wandered back to the car for it was around midday and time for our packups (lunch). 

While sitting in the car some foreign twitchers (Dutch I think) came down the steps looking happy and punching the air. Joanne and I got out and asked them if they’d seen it. We ran and were followed by Barry and Harry and got to a bank where everyone was standing. On the other side of the road was a walled garden with a large clematis or ivy type plant where it had been seen. After a moment, it hopped up into a small bare Silver Birch and sat on a branch. It sat for about 30 seconds looking towards us. Everybody cheered! Then it turned around and faced the other way. Then it turned again and flew over our heads. When it was in the tree, it was out in the open - it was a beautiful bird. 

It was quickly located in another garden just below the level of the fence-top. It hopped on to a wall and then on to a fence and then flew into some ivy on the side wall of a house. Then it flew off. The whole viewing time was a couple of minutes. 

Then we went to Stodmarsh nature reserve. We spent from 2pm until 4.15pm there. After a bit, the Glossy Ibis was spotted high up. It was scoped easily. It rapidly spiraled down and into its roosting place, never to be seen again, at least until tomorrow. Two lifers in a day, can’t be bad. Chiffchaff, Hen Harrier and Waxwing can’t be bad either.”

Thanks to the photographers, for the pics in this post, which I have borrowed off the internet. The top one is by David Cottridge I think.

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Filey, 23/09/96

Northeastely winds had brought good numbers of migrants to the east coast of Yorkshire. News of a Marsh Warbler at the Church Ravine, Filey, prompted me to jump on a train from York and head east. A Barn Owl near Seamer from the train as a nice surprise.

I arrived to find only one other birder looking for the bird, which was in a patch of scrub near the road in the bottom of the ravine. Over the next hour or so I saw the bird numerous times at fairly close range, but often only for a split second in the open, so difficult to pick out the key features. The other birder was thinking the bird could be a Blyth's Reed Warbler and the tacking call we heard occasionally and the short-winged, raised tail appearance certainly fitted with that species. The upperparts were uniform grey-beige, with no rufous tones and no darker centres to any of the wing feathers. The underparts were a uniform yellowish buff, with a whiter throat. The tail was held cocked most of the time, with the wings drooped at the sides, the oft-cited 'banana' posture typically adoped by Blyth's. After a while, I decided that I wasn't going to add much more to the debate, so I headed off to look for other birds.

Up to the churchyard, there were clearly plenty of migrants around, with several Pied and Spotted Flycatchers zipping around in the Sycamores and Garden Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats skulking in the bushes. To my surprise, a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was showing well in the churchyard, which I later found out was a first for the Filey area, having been seen in the Glen Gardens earlier. It performed beautifully, gleaning insects from the leaves and hopping about on the twigs of the larger trees, right out in the open. Nearby, a juvenile Red-backed Shrike was in a hedge by the churchyard wall, whilst a handful of Swallows and House Martins fed along the back of the larger trees, keeping out of the fresh breeze. 

A birder told me that a Greenish Warbler had been seen in Arndale but as I'd seen one here two weeks ago, I decided not to twitch it and keep searching for my own birds. 

When I got home, I rang Birdline to see what else had been seen along the east coast. The Filey acro was being put out as a Blyth's Reed now, much to my delight!

American Coot, Stodmarsh, Kent, 17/04/96

Another first Britain, another trip to Nottingham? No, this one, an American Coot, had appeared in a ditch at Stodmarsh, a huge wetland in the heart of Kent. 

Sadly no further details were noted about how I got down to Kent this time. All I remember is that Philip was with me as he ticked Green-winged Teal the same afternoon. 

The American Coot was seen well, down to a ten metres, in a large dyke at the edge of the reedbed. Chunky, with a dark mark near the end of a thick white bill. A comparatively small white face shield topped with a red-brown flat fleshy knob. Eye red-brown. Otherwise, similar to Euro Coot, though had Moorhen-like white outertail, shorter neck and a bigger head. Quite dull, really!

After watching this beauty (!), we wandered back along the floodbank to check out the drake Green-winged Teal which was far more handsome. Plenty of summer migrants noted including Cuckoo, Willow Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Swallow and my first Swifts of the year. 

After Kent, we headed back to Norwich via Upware in Cambridgeshire. After a bit of searching, we found the first-winter Pacific Golden Plover with about 600 Euro Goldies. It was showing well in a ploughed field and in flight, where the grey underwings were easy to see in good light. At a distance it appeared small and pale, with a striking face pattern. The long legs were not that apparent when the bird was walking about feeding, but were more obvious when the bird was still. A different shape and appearance to American Golden Plover and not as grey.

Redhead, Bleasby, Notts, 9/03/96

A couple of weeks since the Cedar Waxwing and I found myself heading back to Nottinghamshire! This time, for an American duck - a Redhead, which had appeared on a lake at Bleasby. John and Fuzz decided to hire a car for the trip, very extravagant! I chipped in and the twitch was on. The Redhead was seen immediately on a large lake, associating with a group of about 25 Pochard. It was surprisingly larger than expected, sitting higher in the water and with darker plumage than the drake Pochards, so was easy to pick out from a distance. The bird's headshape was rounded and carried in a similar manner to a Red-crested Pochard. The bill was blueish with a neat black tip and white subterminal band. The bird appeared at home and actively displayed to the female Pochards in the manner of a Goldeneye, by tossing back its head. Not much else present at Bleasby besides this 'first for Britain', so we made our way back to Norwich. 

Pic from RBA

Cedar Waxwing, Nottingham, 23/02/96

It is a massive Waxwing winter, with big flocks all over the place, including here in Norwich, 130+ off the Earlham Road, 60+ in the Avenues and 20+ on Dereham Road. Three days ago, news came through of a Cedar Waxwing in Nottingham- crikey! This could potentially be the first for Britain, so we had to get there. One of John and Fuzz's mates were giving them a lift from Norwich so I bagged the spare seat. We left Norwich at an unearthly hour, arriving into Nottingham four hours later, at breakfast time. It was a cold, grey day and like Norwich, there were reports of big flocks of Waxwings all over the place. One of these flocks would contain the Cedar Waxwing, it was just a matter of finding the right flock!

For the next several hours, we cruised the streets of Nottingham looking for Waxwings, finding flocks of 150, 80, 60, 30 etc, but none of them contained the rarer bird. As morning became lunchtime and lunchtime, afternoon, our hope of seeing the Cedar Waxwing started to fade. Groups of birders shared solemn glances. There had been no reports all day. We just had to keep searching. Mid-afternoon, the news we'd been hoping for arrived - the bird was still present, feeding in Rowans opposite a petrol station in northeast Nottingham. We headed over. On arrival there were about 20 birders all scoping a row of small Rowans opposite the garage. This looked positive! We parked up, piled out and ran across the busy road. Waxwing calls filled the air with high pitched trills - at least there were birds still here. 

The Waxwings were sitting in some tall trees behind the petrol station- there was about 80. We started to scope the flock and just as I thought I'd got on the bird, they all started to fly. To our delight, they descended into the Rowans to feed, just across the road from us. And there it was - slightly smaller than its commoner cousins, with a striking white upper border to the dark face mask, unmarked wings and when seen from the front, strikingly white undertail coverts, very different from the bright rusty chestnut of the Bohemians. The bird's wings were dark, with pale edges to the tertials and there was no red waxy tips on the secondaries indicating a first-winter bird. We were all thrilled to find this bird, almost at the last minute; in fact all birders around us were absolutely delighted and mightily relieved! 

Pic by Michael McKee

Pine Bunting, Corton, Suffolk, 29/10/95

News of a Pine Bunting on the Norfolk-Suffolk border got me feeling twitchy. It wasn't the easiest place to get to from Norwich without a car, but I could get within striking distance with a short train ride to Great Yarmouth and then a quick hitch down the A47. This worked out well and I was picked up by an old couple who were heading for Lowestoft. As luck would have it, they took pity on me and drove me to the twitch! Bonus! 

I could see a group of about thirty birders in the distance, so soon crossed the fields to join the throng. The bird was with a big group of Yellowhammers feeding in a stubble field and occasionally flying up into a hedge. After thirty tense minutes, Lee Evans claimed the bird on a hedge; I could only see Yellowhammers. Other birders questioned his identification before I picked up the real Pine Bunting, a striking male, sitting on a wire fence a little further away. What a cracker! It was a little bit distant, but a few minutes later, the flock was flushed and they flew straight over us and landed on a much closer hedge. A very striking bird, most excellent! It dropped back into the stubble and vanished, but twenty minutes later the flock flew up on to the hedge again and the Pine Bunt was soon picked out. 

As the light started to fade I decided I better get a wriggle on as it's not much fun hitching in the dark. Fortunately, a couple of birders picked me up and dropped me on the Norwich ring road, from where I had a half an hour walk home. 

Not the Pine Bunting...but it looked like this!

Saturday 20 November 2021

The Isles of Scilly, 7th - 13th October 1995 #3

11th October 1995 - St Marys

The Parula hangover was pretty monumental after celebrating at the Porthcressa and the Mermaid. Nevertheless, we were up and out fairly early, heading first to the Garrison, where we failed to find the Red-eyed Vireo. The islands were shrouded in fog with a light southeast wind, which boded well for an arrival of new birds. Sure enough, just up the road at Bhuzza Quarry, a smart Wryneck was hopping about on the grass and boulders!

We pottered down to Porthloo Beach to look for a Little Stint, but found only Dunlins and Sanderlings, one of which had neat white mantle 'braces' - perhaps this had caused a bit of confusion. A first-winter male Black Redstart was hopping about on the rocks at the top of the beach. From here we explored the island, looking for our own migrants. There were  lots of common migrants around, especially Chiffchaffs, but we couldn't find anything better than Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and a solitary Whinchat. Down at Porthellick, a Jack Snipe was still present showing extremely closely in front of the hide. 

So, a bit of a come down after yesterday's high, but we probably needed a bit more of a chilled day!

12th October 1995 - St Marys and Tresco

The fog had cleared today, with a mix of overcast skies with occasional sunny spells. We were hoping for a good bird from the east as the wind remained in that direction. But, the birding gods had other plans, and mid-morning we were watching a Wood Warbler at Newford duck pond in the middle of Marys, when news came through of an Upland Sandpiper at nearby Telegraph. This is a unique wader, a Scillies special and one that is almost easier to see here in the southwest than back across the Atlantic in its home country. Regardless, this was a much-wanted bird for all of us, so we legged it over there as quickly as we could. 

Arriving at Telegraph, there were only a handful of birders around and none of them knew where the bird was. We looked over a wall and to our surprise, the leggy wader was running about on the other side, in a grassy field! Absolutely cosmic! We drank in this fantastic Yank vagrant for about ten minutes at close range, before it suddenly took off and flew away calling towards the golf course. We high fived and celebrated our good luck. It seemed to have just arrived on the Isles, as it flew back over us a little later, before landing somewhere near Holy Vale. It was then seen to fly off high towards Cornwall, having only spent a couple of hours on the island. 

Upland Sandpiper, by

Upland Sandpiper is still a really rare bird, with ony 17 further records in the last 26 years, three of which have been on the Isles of Scilly. 


Next up, we decided to head over to Tresco to see what migrants had turned up there. We saw the Black Duck and Yellow-rumped Warbler again, but even better, an immaculate juvenile Ortolan Bunting that gave cripplingly close views, feeding on grass seeds at the edge of the ploughed field next to the Yellow-rumped Warbler. It came so close you didn't even need bins at times! Other birds included seven Greenshanks and a Green Sandpiper on the Great Pool, two female Golden Pheasants, Black Redstart and a hybrid Hooded x Carrion Crow at the Abbey Pool. 

We headed back to St Marys where we joined a moth trapping event at Porthloo Beach. This proved to be absolutely amazing, with my first Rivulet and White Speck moths being totally eclipsed by a collossal Convolvulous Hawkmoth, itself eclipsed a little later by the unbelievably impressive sight of a Death's-head Hawkmoth! This black, yellow and blue beauty was majestic and if it wasn't for the Northern Parula, would have been bird of the trip!


13th October 1995 - St Marys

Our last day dawned overcast with fog over the sea. Conditions looked promising, but failed to deliver. We septn an enjoyable day walking the lanes of St Marys looking for rares. Plenty of migrants were around including Black Redstarts, Tree Pipit, Blackcaps, another Wood Warbler, Reed and Sedge Warblers. The best we could find was a Yellow-browed Warbler at Porthellick. Always a good bird to see, but a little anticlimatic given the run of amazing birds we'd had. It was time to pack up our gear thank our hosts and head for the quay, where we boarded the Scillonian. With heavy hearts we headed back to the mainland, chatting about the fantastic birds we'd seen and worrying about what we might miss in the weeks to come. I had added nine new birds to my British list. Not too bad! 

I had managed to conceal my secret trip to the Scillies from my Mum and Dad the whole week. However, they knew. I had phoned them mid-week as I usually did, just to check in. A little later, my Dad had for some reason dialled 1471 which revealed the number of the last caller. My Dad hadn't recognised the 01404 dialling code, so looked it up. When he found out it was the Isles of Scilly, he put two and two together. Thankfully, they weren't angry at all, just interested in what I'd seen and whether I'd enjoyed myself. I had, of course!


Thursday 18 November 2021

The Isles of Scilly, 7th - 13th October 1995 #2

After a quick look in the old town churchyard, which revealed a couple of Willow Warblers and a Blackcap, we headed down to the harbour to catch a ferry to Tresco. It was an enjoyable ride across, under sunny skies and with light winds. The attractive isle soon came into view, and I was delighted to jump off on to Tresco for the first time. 

We headed first to the famous Great Pool, to look for a very rare but rather unremarkable American duck- a drake Black Duck. This bird has been resident since April 1994 and is arguably duller then its name suggests, being more like a dusky Mallard. Neverthless, a tick is a tick and we enjoyed watching this bird loafing about with the which seemed really appropriate for the continental feel of Tresco. A scan through the ducks revealed three Wigeon and a female Pintail, but apart from the Black Duck, nothing else unusual. 

Nearby, our second American bird of the day, but much more interesting - a Yellow-rumped Warbler. This little cracker was near the Great Pool, flicking about in the Sycamores and Pines alongside one of the small fields. This was an exciting bird, but we had all twitched one in Bristol the previous year, so that took the excitement down a notch or two. The bird appeared neater and browner than the Bristol bird, as opposed to grey. It was very active, though often remaining on the larger branches so was easy to watch through the scope aswell as the bins. It frequently flew out of the trees to catch flies, flashing its lovely yellow rump. I was beginning to like Tresco. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering round the lanes, checking the small fields and hedgerows for birds. There were lots of migrants around; many Goldcrests, Redstarts, Wheatears, Willow Warblers, Firecrests, etc It was great birding. 

We decided to catch the 4 o'clock boat back to 'Mary's, as there was some interesting news from the airfield. We headed straight up there after the short boat ride and quickly located a dinky and rather worn Short-toed Lark. After enjoying this little chap, we walked a bit further to a small group of birders who were watching a Richard's Pipit together with another large pipit. I was happy with the Richard's, a bogey bird of mine having dipped several on the Yorkshire coast. It was strutting around close enough to check out all those subtle differences from the Tawny Pipit we'd seen the day before.

The other bird was much less obvious. It looked different from the nearby Richard's, being long-winged and short-tailed, with a peculiar short bill, giving it a different jizz. The chatter was about other, rarer species, but my inexperience meant I wasn't adding anything useful to the discussions! We left the controversial pipit after making plenty of notes and headed to the pub for a pint after another good day on the Scillies.

This controversial pipit was accepted as a Blyth's Pipit once views improved and some key plumage features could be seen to complement the different 'feel' of the bird. Looking back after seeing a couple of other Blyth's Pipits in the UK, they really are quite distinctive birds. Fair play to the experienced birders who nailed this one at a time when it was a massive rarity.


10th October - St Agnes

Today was the day things went stratospheric. We started off at first light on the Garrison about Hugh Town, checking the woodland for migrants. The Garrison is lovely, some old fortifications, enclosing lovely woodland and offering stunning panoramic views across Hugh Town and the wider Isles. It was a gorgeous view on a lovely morning. A late Yellow Wagtail flew over calling and there was a couple of Wheatears on the grass by the track. Other than that it was fairly quiet. I wished I had a camera to get some photos. I didn't know it, but this was the calm before the storm.  

One minute I was casually checking some bushes, the next I was sprinting back down the hill towards Hugh Town. Birders coming the other way asked what was going on. "F*****G PARULA ON AGNES!" Everybody was freaking out and flooding down the road like lemmings towards the harbour. A Parula?! A Northern Parula on St Agnes. Absolutely no way! NO WAY! This is my dream Yank rarity! 

To our delight, we got straight on the first boat. Birders were crammed in, full of nervous anticipation. There was lots of swearing, bickering and hilarity. This is the Scilly Season, right here. I am amazed nobody ended up in the harbour. 

After what seemed like ages, the skipper pointed us towards birding nirvana and gunned the engine. Here we go! The tension was palpable, CBs crackled. Advice on the quickest way to the 'right spot' were shared around freely. It felt like we were all in this together, even though we were surrounded by strangers: together we would prevail, or together we would fail.

Soon, we arrived at Aggie and we piled off the boat. Was it rude to run? No, that was the benefit of youth, so we legged it up the hill, leaving the older guys to eat our dust. After a breathless few minutes, we arrived in a small copse of large trees. There was only a handful of birders present. The atmosphere was electric. 

There! A small bird flitted and landed on the trunk of the tree. Bins up and BOOM!! The most exquisite sight filled my bins - a Northern Parula - all powder blue, bronze, orange, white, yellow and lime green! Simply stunning. The tiny warbler zipped around like a Goldcrest, hovering here and there to pick off an aphid, before hopping about on the branches, or hanging off the large leaves. A warbler yes, but those colours! Absolutely lovely. Seeing rarities on the Scillies could be a challenge, but this was easy. Plenty of room and the bird showing right in front of us at sufficient height to allow everybody to see it. More birders arrived as my heart level lowered - the air was full of the 'aaahs' and 'where is it?' and 'holy c**p that's stunning!'. Absolutely brilliant. We had prevailed! 

We were completely dazed after this miraculous episode. I felt I needed a lie down. Instead we wandered the island, birding. Up on the delightfully-named Wingletang Down, a juvenile Dotterel was hanging out with a couple of Golden Plovers. The Dotterel was clearly using its mind tricks on the usually-flighty plovers and all three allowed a close approach. Next up was the tiny islet of Gugh (pronounched Goo) which was accessed by a short stroll along a sand bar. The bar was submerged at high tide, but within a little while we had checked all possible spots for birds and having found nothing we walked back to Agnes without getting wet feet. 

To finish off our visit to Agnes in style, we walked round to Periglis Cove where we located a small roost of Ringed Plovers on the rocks. Our search quickly revealed the juvenile Baird's Sandpiper among the plovers, it being the only other wader present. As ever, a smart bird, looking very dapper in fresh juvenile plumage with neatly scalloped upperparts and a distinctive head pattern. 

Wow! How good is St Agnes?

Time was getting on, so we headed for the quay, passing breathless, sweating birders who still hadn't caught up with the Parula. Good luck lads! We jumped on the boat and were soon back on Mary's. We decided to head back up to the Garrison to see what we could find, as we still had a couple of hours light left. There seemed to be more migrants about than first thing, including a Firecrest, Turtle Dove, and a Hummingbird Hawkmoth was feeding on Red Valerian along the road. A few birders up the track were looking a bit agitated, so we strolled up - they had just found a Red-eyed Vireo! Nuts! The bird was showing straight away, perhaps a little duller than the bird at the churchyard, with less yellow on the undertail coverts. Nevertheless, another cracking bird and a fine end to an amazing day. 


We later found out that there had been six Red-eyed Vireos on the Scillies today! Two on Tresco and four new birds on St Mary's! The Northern Parula was the sixth record for the Isles of Scilly and the 16th record for Britain & Ireland. It has become much rarer with one in Ireland in 2003 and one on Tiree in 2010 the only subsequent records.

The Isles of Scilly, 7th - 13th October 1995 #1

The chance to go to the fabled Isles of Scilly, rare bird central, in October was a massive opportunity. I had just been dumped by my girlfriend Vicky (who I am now married to!) and needed a break from university life. I lived in a shared house with my ex and felt pretty down in the dumps, so accepted the offer from birding mates John Pilgrim and Fuzz to head down to the southwest. One problem, I was supposed to be at uni, so would have to keep this secret from my folks! I don't remember many of the details of this trip, although I do remember the birds which were fantastic and fortunately I kept a lot of notes from the trip, which will form the basis of this account. I had visited St Mary's once before, on a day trip aboard the Scillonian with my oldest birding mate Dunc, to twitch a Little Bunting. Which we saw!


7th October - the journey to the Isles of Scilly

The first leg of our journey involved travelling with John Pilgrim and Fuzz in completely the wrong direction from Penzance, to Southend in Essex. Surely this was just making the journey longer? I helpfully pointed this out, but was ignored. We arrived at John's mate Vince's house at 2.30am and headed straight back the other way, towards Cornwall. This felt like a better direction of travel.

Several uncomfortable hours later we rolled into the ferry car park at Penzance in deepest Cornwall. The harbour was engulfed in fog and it was raining. Great. The Scillonian was due to sail at 11am but the reception staff told us the bad news that it would not be sailing then due to the weather. This dampened our spirits a little as it was wasting birding time just hanging around. As it turned out, by 1pm, the conditions were improving and we set sail half an hour later. The crossing was fairly uneventful, though pretty darn rough, into a strong wind. We did pick out four Euro Storm Petrels, a few Arctic and Great Skuas and best of all, a Grey Phalarope. The frequent rain showers had an unexpected effect on me: a week or so earlier, I had decided in my wisdom to dye my hair bright purple. No idea why, just youthful idiocy. The dowsing in rain water began to leach the purple dye out of my hair and down my face. By the time we arrived at St Mary's my mates were in hysterics laughing at my purple streaked face. It wasn't until later that I realised why the mirth, when I saw in the mirror the state of me.

We disembarked with our bins, scopes and rucsacs swinging around in the strong wind. We were full of anticipation. There had been plenty of birding news coming out from the Isles over the past few days including several American vagrants, mixing with some European class. This should be good! 

What to do first? Well, we only had a couple of hours before dark, so we hightailed it to the digs, to drop off our gear. Nobody was in, obviously, they were out birding, so we dumped our bags by the door and headed off towards the local church, praying for good luck, figuratively of course. There had been a Red-eyed Vireo in the churchyard, a stonking American vagrant and one we all 'needed'. News wasn't inspiring - the bird hadn't been seen since first thing. There were a lot of trees here; big trees. Plenty of cover for a small bird to vanish in, especially one like a vireo which often remains motionless for a while. We gave it a look, then despite feeling like we were giving up too easily, we decided to head up to the airfield just outside town. This definitely proved to be a better idea and we soon picked up the juvenile Tawny Pipit running about on the grass. Tick number one for the trip and whilst distant, we could still make out the dark lores and line of contrasting median coverts on this big pale pipit. Also noted, were a couple of Wheatears. Our early start and lack of sleep was beginning to catch up with us, so we wandered back to Hugh Town happy with our good start.


Our digs were a rather attractive terraced cottage, rented by some older Essex birders in the heart of Hugh Town. They'd very kindly allowed us to crash on their living room floor rent free (from what I can remember). We all chipped in a fiver and John bought a load of cheap tins of kidney beans and tomatoes, rice, curry powder and chilli powder. Thus, every night, we rustled up a very cheap dinner of curried beans and rice, or chilli beans and rice. Then the four of us joined three other birders to sleep in a row on the living room floor. The cacophony of snoring was impressive and the smell in the room by morning was delightful.  The remaining money we spent on bacon sandwiches, crisps and beer. Oh and boat fares to get us between islands. 


8th October- St Mary's

The news from the other birders was that the Red-eyed Vireo had been seen yesterday afternoon in the churchyard and so this had to be our target. We headed straight over there as soon as it was light enough to bird. Most birders who had already been on the island had connected with this bird, so there were only about 20 or so birders looking for the vireo. It was seen a couple of times in the morning but always managed to slink away before any of us got a look at it. Late morning, I decided to wander off from where the main group were staking out. Just after midday, a movement in a tall Elm caught by eye - there it was! I watched it for a few moments, drinking in this amazing bird. It surprised me by shooting out to catch a fly, before returning to a branch where it sat motionless. I called the other birders and managed to lose sight of the vireo in the process. Fortunately, the bird flew a short distance and we all got back on it. We followed the bird as it moved along the line of trees, arriving in an Elm in the churchyard again where it gave brilliant views. It would often sit motionless, which could make it difficult to locate which is probably why the bird has been elusive at times. An absolutely cracking bird with an unusual jizz, unlike anything I've seen previously. Probably a bit larger than a Garden Warbler, though sleek with a pot-belly, and a strange, long-sloping forehead and thick protruding bill and a peaked crown. The upperparts were a vivid green, in some lights as bright as a Firecrest, contrasting with silky white underparts and a lemon yellow undertail. The head pattern was most striking, with a powder blue-grey crown edged with jet, sparking white eyebrows and a black eyestripe. This was the bird Richard Millington famously described as a 'hyperzonky megacrippler'. REVs have become one of the most frequently recorded American vagrants, so they are not quite as rare as they used to be, but it certainly lived up to its name -an absolute cracker. 


We floated off round the island on a massive high. We ticked off places famed for hosting amazing rarities in the past, such as Porthellick Pool, which today hosted a lovely Jack Snipe, bobbing away like a mad thing; A brief Little Bunting and Firecrests at Salakee, like tiny sprites in the hedge; and a selection of flycatchers in Holy Vale. This was a lovely introduction to Scilly birding, but a big surprise was to some. We decided to head up to have another look at the Tawny Pipit. As we approached the airfield, a guy with a CB suddenly shouted 'Alpine Swift over Penninis!' What?! Where is Penninis we asked? Behind you, was his rather theatrical response. We swang round, put up our bins and were astonished to see the big swift powering into the wind low over the headland. Unbelievable! After a minute, it went over the brow of the headland and disappeared from sight. According to the guy with the CB, the bird turned up in St Agnes airspace three minutes later. Complete aerial power! This was a massive bonus, and after ticking the vireo earlier, we were completely beside ourselves. A little further on, we tracked down the Tawny Pipit again, this time showing at much closer range than yesterday. 

We had walked a long way, but it had been awesome. Back to the digs for tea and then we went down to the Porthcressa for a pint and the bird log. 


Each night, the Porthcressa hosted many of the visiting birders who shared news, views and on occasion, blows. It was also the chance to buy photographs and to make plans for the next day. Occasionally, moth trappers would bring along some of their more interesting specimens to show to the gathered throng.





Little Crake, Bough Beech Reservoir, 28/03/97

A mad overnight drive down to Kent from York, with me navigating and consuming several cans of cheap bitter. Dunc did a great job putting up with my 'hilarious' map skills and frequent requests for loo stops. We found the site easily and to our surprise, despite arriving at 4.30am there were already a number of cars there, containing snoring birders. It was still dark and with clear skies, allowing great views of the Halle Bop comet overhead in the morning sky. We decided to get some kip during which time we heard the object of our trip singing, a non-impressive series of repetitive quacks. As dawn broke a crowd of birders had gathered alongt he causeway across the reservoir and as I couldn't sleep due to excitement, I kept an eye on them for any behaviour that suggested they could see the crake. At about 5.30am, they began looking intently down their scopes, so I woke Dunc and we both tumbled out of the car, rather bleary eyed. To our delight, the cracking Little Crake was walking along the lake edge in the dawn sun no more than 14 metres from the car! Cracking views were had before the bird disappeared under the near bank. Further and more prolonged views were had a little later though in poorer light further along the lake shore. A most successful start to the day! 

(pic by Alan Tate,

At 7am we headed towards South Norwood Lake on the southern edge of London where a Pied-billed Grebe had been holding territory for a couple of weeks. 

We found the grebe easily and watched this smart Yank at close range, displaying and calling as well as some casual nest building. In cracking summer plumage, this was a really enjoyable tick having dipped the species twice before in recent years. Having scored two lifers in Kent by 8am, we decided we'd had enough of the softy south and wanted to get on the road back to Yorkshire. 


Hull had two more American vagrants on offer, so that would be our next destination. First up, a female Bufflehead, a small American diving duck at Bransholme Sewage Works. This bird was of uncertain origin, sporting a metal ring on one leg. However, it behaved like a wild bird and there was another more 'authentic' Yank duck just down the road, so it was worth seeing 'just in case'! The bird was found easily floating about with the local wildfowl in this most unglamorous of locations in the  middle of a rough part of Hull. Definitely not as stunning as the handsome drake I had seen at Nottingham in 1994, but very cute with a cool head pattern. 

Further east we went to Hornsea Mere, a much more attractive location. We were shown a duck by a hide full of twitchers which seemed to us to be 'just' a Tufted Duck, albeit with a white patch round the base of the bill. We exclaimed our disapproval and headed round to another hide where we quicky found the real Lesser Scaup. This subtle bird is only the second British record of a female type Lesser Scaup in the UK and a good Yorkshire tick for us both. So not a bad end to a fantastic Day!

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Black-and-white Warbler, Norwich, 11 and 13 November 1996

To my utter astonishment a Black-and-white Warbler, a tiny stripy American bird had been discovered in Norwich, my university town. But where was I? Not in Norwich, but back in York visiting my parents for the weekend. I was sick with anxiety all weekend, desperate to get back down to Norwich to see this mega bird. 

I returned on Sunday evening and made plans to go straight over after my lectures had finished. On Monday afternoon, I headed over to Trowse on the east side of Norwich heartened by the news that the bird was still present. Throngs of twitchers were wandering about when I arrived but nobody had any recent news. Some birders had seen the bird earlier, but it had moved off with a tit flock hours ago. I decided to have a walk along the road, checking out anything that moved.

(pic pinched from a RBA tweet, which didn't credit a photographer- thanks whoever you are!)

Suddenly, twitchers were running. I joined them and found a small group of birders watching a fast-moving tit flock. Following directions called out by one of the birders, I struggled for a moment, until there! The Black-and-white Warbler -fantastic! A real avian humbug, creeping about on the bigger branches, and then flitting Chiffchaff like among the twigs. What a cracker. After a few minutes, the flock started to move along the belt of trees and I lost the bird. After another hour or so, I was beginning to freeze and there was no further sign, so I headed back home.


Two days later, I returned under sunny skies for another look. Again, after a short wait, the bird appeared in some riverside Sycamores where it gave much more prolonged views with two Blue Tits. An absolutel cracker and something I never expected to see in Norwich!

Black-faced Bunting, Pennington Flash, 10/3/94

I was woken on Wednesday 9th March by John and Fuzz who had been paged news of a probable Black-faced Bunting, a potential first for Britain, which had turned up near Manchester. No way! The following hour was hectic trying to arrange a lift for tomorrow, as I already had a day off from lectures. We secured the offer of a lift to Manchester with a non-birding mate who was going to York, but he couldn't bring us back to Norwich. This was no good. Fortunately, John and Fuzz came good and managed to get us a lift with a lad called Tim. This seemed a much better option so we gratefully accepted their offer. After a nervous night during which we were too excited about the chance of seeing a first for Britain to sleep, we headed over to John and Fuzz's accomodation block at 3.45am. We left at 4am. 

By 9am we had arrived at Pennington and were a little surprised to see loads of birders cars already there, but then it was a potential first for Britain. I guess we were lucky we hadn't come on Saturday, when it would be a lot busier! We saw some of the older UEA students already leaving - what time had they left Norwich?! They told us the bird was showing on and off, which filled us with relief. Anyway, after a short walk, we arrived at a bird feeding area in a patch of bushes, where the bunting had been hanging out for the last few days. Due to the large crowd of birders present when we arrrived, I didn't have much chance of seeing the bird even though it was in view. However, a small number of birders left after this sighting, so I managed to squeeze to the front of the crowd. Shortly, the drab Dunnock-like bunting hopped into view on the ground. This bird, which I had barely heard of, was now on my list, though whether it would be accepted as a wild bird remains to be seen (it was!). The bunting shuffled about feeding on grain, along with lots of finches and Reed Buntings. It was quite non-descript, with Dunnock being the closest in terms of colour. I think it was fair enough that the finders were unsure of the identification at first as most of us present had never even heard of this species. 

 (pic from BBRC tweet, no photo credit)

It turned out to be a really sociable twitch with best mate Dunc Poyser there who had come over form Edgehill College. There were also other people I knew from Yorkshire and who I'd met a few years previously on Fair Isle, so once I'd enjoyed my views of the bird, I backed off and enjoyed catching up with all these birders. We headed home all very pleased which helped get us through a nightmare journey which took over six hours!

OBP and Lesser White-fronted Geese, Essex and Kent, 12/02/94

The University of East Anglia Bird Club organised regular 'van trips' which were birding trips using one of the UEA minibuses. This was great as we inevitably twitched what ever rarities were around at the time and also because most of us birders had no car and had to travel by bus or hitchhiking, so this was a real treat. 

Today was a van trip. As usual the van picked us up an hour later than planned. The aim was to head to Kent for a Lesser White-fronted Goose that would be a lifer for most members of the bird club, including me. There had been no sightings of the goose the previous day, so we decided to go for the wintering Olive-backed Pipit in Essex first. The journey to Pitsea was quite entertaining as Mark Gurney, one of our fellow birders, had been out on the beer the night before and was sick as a dog. I was also pretty rough and slept most of the way to Essex. We arrived at Pitsea Country Park at 11.30am and were told by birders already on site that the OBP had not been seen since 9am the previous morning, so our spirits dropped and we felt the arrival of an imminent dip. The OBP had been wintering under the trees in this community woodland and was going strong despite the cold weather. Whilst not unprecedented, a wintering OBP in Britain was an incredibly rare event, so we were all keen to see the bird, even though most of us had seen the bird at Holkham on a van trip back in October. 

Shortly, we noticed that John Pilgrim and Fuzz had disappeared and when a birder suddenly hurtled past, we realised that the OBP may have been located. Another birder from the van trip, Nick Robinson had found the bird and we were soon on location. Sure enough, this lovely pipit was showing really well, walking about in the leaf litter, pumping its tail. It gave excellent views down to three metres in good sunlight. This lifted everbody's spirits and when news of the Lesser Whitefront came through on the pager, we all piled back into the van with renewed enthusiasm. Off we went, to Kent.

At Capel Fleet, I was stunned by the sheer volume of birdlife present. The grasslands swarmed with ducks, geese and swans. Absolutely incredible! Large flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers loafed, with Teal and Wigeon abundant along the flashes and ditches. Four Hen Harriers and one Marsh Harrier caused chaos among the smaller birds, flushing flocks of Skylarks, Starlings and smaller waders. Epic stuff.

After a little walk we arrived at the best place to view for the LWFG to find several birders already scanning through a huge flock of European White-fronted Geese. It looked pretty daunting as most of the geese were feeding and partly obscured by reeds and other vegetation. I began to feel quite pessimistic until one of the other birders casually mentioned he had found the Lesser Whitefront and seconds later I had managed to find this petite version of the Euro White-fronts strolling around with its commoner cousins. Luckily, the bird was at the nearest side of the flock and the yellow eyering could be seen easily, although the small size, short neck, stumpy beak and headshape were the most obvious features that stood out from the flock. After a good grilling, we went to Laysdown Caravan Park where we failed to located last week's Iceland Gull. We then visited the amusement arcade and fish and chip shop which was a much better plan and a good end to the day, before jumping back in the van for the long drive back to Norwich.