To Do Ron, Run

LESSON TO ALL TWITCHERS: If you procrastinate, aren’t sure whether to go for a rare bird, can find every excuse not to, think it may not get accepted, etc etc. GO FOR IT.

You will always regret not going afterwards, and you will never forget that you could’ve gone, that you were offered a lift, if in the long distant future, you didn’t get a second chance.

That mentality is what finally got me off my arse to go for Europe’s first Red-winged Blackbird. I missed the first wave of plane seats, spent a week at work getting less interested in the bird, but more bothered about not having seen it, then Chris Bromley offered me a possible place on a plane on the Thursday, which didn’t come off. Subsequent conversations with Dan the Man Pointon and Ashley Howe produced the option of a day return ferry coupled with a charter boat, at relatively low cost. Add to that the promise by N Ron Bird Obs that they would check for the bird before the ferry departed, and give us a lift to it, this seemed ideal.

Matt Wilmott, Ash and I hit the road Friday evening, and after an incident involving Ash, a Tebay Services Sandwich and a Sock in the Highlands, we arrived at John ‘O Groats at 6am, the first there. We were soon joined by Andrew Kinghorn, Chris Bell, Mark Rayment, Andrew Lawson etc, all taking the ferry on, but some taking flights from thereon.

The area around John O’ Groats was alive with birds, including the ubiquitous Oystercatchers, as well as a flock of Twite and a lovely Sand Martin Colony on a small sandy cliff by the beach next to the ferry terminal.

News came that the bird was still present, so we boarded the Foot ferry for the 40-minute smooth journey to Burwick, on South Ronaldsay. From there we joined one of three coaches due to take us onwards to Kirkwall for our charter. Us and 300 American tourists that was. The 40-minute drive to Kirkwall was part of a guided tour of the islands, so we suffered a barrage of historical facts and terrible jokes, stopped at the top of a hill to give us the chance to photograph some rocks, but not at the Summer Plumaged White-billed Diver that we passed close inshore. Ah well, at least we saw some furry pigs.

The “Agricola” was waiting for us on Kirkwall Harbour, and we were soon crashing through the waves northbound, at 26 knots (about 35mph). The sea was flat calm and the mist and murk turning to sunshine, but some of the tides and currents meant a slightly bouncy ride. Feeling both feet leave the ground for about two seconds whilst ploughing through the sea at speed is quite an experience!

We arrived at North Ronaldsay at about 11.45, and were duly taxi’d to the spot by Simon, Warden and finder. It was a glorious sunny day by now and we were the only birders there. Within two minutes the bird voluntarily left the iris bed it had been in for most of the week, and flew onto a wall in a nearby garden, did a circuit of perches there, then flew back towards us and onto wires above our heads. Over the next hour it came out two or three more times, often flying right past or next to us, landing on fences, walls, houses and wires, and flycatching actively, completely unconcerned by our presence.

It was a really nice bird actually, and seemed to be behaving perfectly naturally – it called regularly as it flew around, a gentle chipping sound – surely not the behaviour of an ex cage bird, more that of a wild ship-assisted one?

After getting provisions we rejoined the charter boat and took a much easier journey back, with the wind behind us, arriving back in Kirkwall about 3.30pm. A taxi was waiting for us this time, so we could go to the White-billed Diver and actually stop to have a look. This was done – most successfully, with the bird staying very close inshore at the north end of South Ronaldsay. An absolutely stunning bird, one I had always wanted to see looking like this. Unfortunately, my camera and phone batteries were now dead, so I had to use the work mobile through the scope. This is the best I got.

The ferry back to John O’ Groats was equally eventless, and then began the seemingly eternal drive back to Worcestershire, with us all completely knackered. Fuelled purely by Ardenaline, we made it back, having shared the driving three ways, and without further need for a sock, at 4am on Sunday morning.

Now it is just the wait to see what the BOU think of its origins…..


2017 Winter Stickers

The winter of 2017 played host to a number of hangover birds from the amazing autumn of 2016, including newly found birds that had presumably been around a while, as well as some beauties that appeared and disappeared unexpectedly.

Some birds proved difficult, like the two male Pine Buntings, but others showed really well, like the stunning Eastern Black Redstart at Skinningrove and the White-billed Diver in Lincolnshire.

Here are some of my photo’s and videos of the birds I saw between January and the beginning of March.

The Dunnington (York) Pine Bunting showed very briefly on 30th January, then much better on 1st March – but on the latter date, although it sat in a tree for a whole minute and I had my camera, I spent more time getting another birder onto the bird and watching it, than preparing to photograph it, so failed to get a picture. Here is one taken by John Pringle.Pine Bunting John Pringle

The Licnolnshire White-billed Diver showed well on 30th January, although the photo’s and video, taken in late afternoon winter light, do not do it justice.

Look at that beak!!


On the 1st of February, I got lucky with the Beeley Dusky Thrush, now settled in a field at the end of the village, and on the day I went, feeding with a Redwing below a big tree, and very difficult to find for the five birders present. I managed to get a fellow birder a new bird, though, so I was as happy as he was.

Managed a couple of reasonable comparison shots, given the distance.

A wintering Yellow-browed Warbler four miles from home and just into Staffordshire, proved quite difficult to see, and took two attempts to get photos.

Finally, a visit to an Orchid site in the Cotswolds to get photographs of rosettes, found me only 8 miles from Stow-on-the-Wold, so it would have been rude not to go there for some lunch – oh and the cage-hopping Blue Rock Thrush, which showed well for all of a minute as it popped up out of the garden in Fisher Close and onto the fence, before popping back down again, Enough was enough, and some photos and video were obtained, so time to depart as the rain started.



Blue Rock Thrush and Stonechats updates

More evidence has emerged on the Stow BRT and the Richmond and Dungeness Stonechats, thanks to Martin Collinson of Aberdeen University running DNA checks on material collected from all three birds.

Blue Rock Thrush

The bird would appear to be from the Western Europe/North African populations, making its credentials much better for natural vagrancy. Apparently, most (but not all) captive birds could be of the eastern populations, where of course, there is more trapping and a bigger cagebird trade. Whilst there weren’t many  other notable rarities from that area in the autumn of 2016, there was a Western Orphean Warbler in Shetland, so the Rock Thrush wasn’t alone.

With regard to the bill, there is still mixed opinion on this, and I didn’t notice anything untoward in the field (but wasn’t really looking that closely, as it was only on photo’s afterwards I noticed anything odd), I have since looked at a lot of photographs, and there doesn’t actually seem to be anything wrong with it. On some photo’s, the bill is fractionally open, and this combined with the angle, makes the tip look odd.

Steve Gantlett posted some pictures on his website that apparently showed some kind of fine thread around one leg, but it was very difficult to make out, and even if it was there and not a photographic artefact, it didn’t look like anything that was – or would have been – put there by humans.

As for the drooping wing, it still has that, and although it seemed to add to the suspicion on the wildness of the bird, it is hard to decide whether that is significant. People also mentioned gapeworm, and I’m not sure exactly what that is or how you tell a bird has it – or what significance it might have.

The only other factor against it as a wild vagrant is its age, and it has to be said, that is still the biggest problem for me – when added to its location and time of year.

Given there will not be any proof either way, everyone has their own opinion, and every pro and con can be argued strongly either way, I guess the best way forward is to have an amnesty on this bird and let it on.

On one condition: the same applies to other birds with equal measures of doubt. In this I would include from the top of my head: Demoiselle Crane, 1993, Booted Eagle, 1999, Falcated Duck, 1987, Dalmatian Pelican 2016. There really does have to be an “all or nothing” approach – balanced with pragmatism of course. A Budgie in the next garden in Stow would have a different level of probability!

At the end of the day, what is the difference between this bird and the wintering Rock Thrush in Kent in 1983, the Baltimore Orioles wintering in Gardens in 1989 and 2003, etc etc etc?


The initial DNA result from the Dungeness bird proved to be erroneous as a result of a lab error. A mix-up of samples meant the wrong bird was assigned to Stejneger’s. That sample was from another bird, at Spurn, and the Dungeness one was re-tested and proven to be a Common Stonechat. It matched the Richmond one in appearance, and the DNA on that bird also proved to be the same. This is good news in a way, as it means the field features for identifying these birds are upheld strongly, giving birders peace of mind that if there is no DNA, at least they should still be identifiable.

Stejneger’s is due to be countable as a British tick when the IOC taxonomy is adopted by the BOURC on 1st January 2018, so another one to go for in the future.



Stonechat conundrum

Stejneger’s Stonechat, the most easterly subspecies of Stonechat, has been accepted onto the British list recently. I missed one at Portland by a day in 2012, and basically couldn’t be bothered to go for any of the birds that had turned up during the mega Sibe autumn of 2016. But now, in January, with one last day off before a return to work, I had two options. The question was: do I go to Richmond Park, 130 miles away and just off the M4, or to Dungeness, an extra one and a half hours’ drive? The former had a possible Siberian Stonechat, maybe a Stejneger’s, the latter had a bird confirmed as Stejneger’s by DNA.

One major problem: neither bird actually looked like a Stejneger’s. The DNA is to be re-run on the Dungeness bird as a result.

So, I took the easy option and went for the closest bird. At least if that was not one, but the Dungeness one turned out to be a definite one, I could go later – chances are, both would be there much longer and last out the winter.

On the way, I stopped to check the Waxwings at Chaddesely Corbett on the way to the M42. Yep, still there next to the Fox Pub.


Arriving at Richmond Park after a very smooth journey, I tried to find the correct spot in the Park, having rough directions but not being familiar with the place. It was a frosty morning. Ring-necked Parakeets were the dominant birds. How do the locals put up with that terrible, constant noise? Good to see, but yuk to listen to.

One bird seemed to be biting at the bark on the trunk of a tree next to what looked like a nest hole. Beautiful!


Eventually, I saw the Stonechat pop up onto the top of some grass. Definitely the correct bird, lovely and pale.

Over the next hour or so I watched it at close range and managed to get some pictures, which came out okay due to the excellent winter light.

In my opinion this bird is not a Siberian Stonechat of any type. It should have a clean pale rump and dark “armpits”, niether of which it has. As such, I guess it has to be a funny-coloured Common Stonechat.

Hopefully I just may get proven wrong, but either way it was a really stunning little bird.


Blue Rock Thrush conundrum

As has been the pattern of late, a mystery garden bird posted onto the internet produced a mass twitch for a mega rarity.

The housing estate just south of Stow-on-the-Wold was probably less able to cope with a large number of hapless wanderers than the villages of Camrose or Beeley. And so it proved, especially as the location was broadcast without prior access arrangements being made.

This was home to the Blue Rock Thrush, the 7th record for Britain, and the first twitchable one since May 2000 – so a very popular bird, given its discovery during the Christmas holiday period in the midlands.

Incongruously, it sat on house roofs watching its admirers, before dropping down into gardens to eat pork pie (apparently).

This is just about as bad as it gets going for a rarity to be honest. A bird that doesn’t do much, on houses, and questionable in origin to boot. But, we had spent a couple of days in Bath, and Stow was only a slight detour. Luckily, I had seen the previous bird, a female of unquestionable provenance that snapped up insects from large boulders on cliffs in West Cornwall, on a sunny spring day. Prior to that, a bird sat on a concrete tower block in Hemel Hemstead had missing toes and broken beak, but was proof that BRT is kept in captivity. Hence the concerns over this bird.

The trouble with a bird like this is, if you need it, that you have to go, just in case. And of course if you do need it, you are much more likely to see the positives. If you don’t, you are perhaps more likely to be more objective over its origins and likelihood of acceptance as a wild bird. So what are the positives and negatives?

On the plus side:

  • If it is of one of the eastern races (and it appears that this is virtually impossible to prove due to  clinal variation and much overlap between races), then it has an unquestionably solid supporting cast of birds of similar origins.
  • Its preference for gardens and roofs doesn’t go against it – they winter in gardens and on buildings across their range
  • It shows no obvious damage to its plumage, beak or feet/claws, or other signs of captivity. (The upper mandible tip may possibly be blunted and it droops its right wing, but see below)
  • It isn’t tame, and is behaving very much like birds I’ve seen in many other countries.

On the negative side:

  • It is an adult male. For me the most problematic thing. Autumn vagrants are rarely adults. VERY rarely adults.If you add to this the fact that it is quite a pretty male, that adds to the possibility of it being an escaped cagebird. And as we have seen above, they are kept in captivity, and when they escape, they can fly.
  • It does droop one wing, which may be indicative of disease or a past injury. Thing is, either could be perfectly natural or contracted in the wild. But you don’t see many injured wild birds for long – they get predated or succumb quite quickly. Add this to the possibility that its upper mandible might be blunted (it usually hooks slightly over the lower mandible, but doesn’t on this bird), and do we have circumstantial evidence of captive origin?
  • If it is not one of the eastern races, it is difficult to assess how and/or when it might have arrived, with no supporting cast or weather conditions to support natural vagrancy.

But of course, with so many unprovable variables, it is going to be down to benefit of the doubt with this bird. Luckily, we have a committee that makes decisions on such things, so birders can keep a list with impunity. But I suspect that many who saw this bird as their first British one, will be going for the next one…….

Pics below taken using the excellent camera support that is Trudy’s head. She gamely stood there and risked ridicule – or plaudits – while I snapped away, tripodless. Unfortunately by the time we got there, the sun was behind the bird most of the time, so its colour and subtlety could not be fully appreciated. But if I put decent photos on here you’d be disappointed!



Dusky Thrush in Derbyshire

Rachel Jones had found a female Dusky Thrush in an orchard at Beeley, Derbyshire, on the 4th December 2016. She had noticed it was unusual-looking, so posted some photo’s on a Facebook group. Predictably, she was soon deluged by requests for a location.

By the next morning, access had been arranged and the twitchers descended on the village. The Duke’s Barn Activity Centre provided car parking and food, and the villagers tolerated and welcomed the birders with good spirit.

I visited on the Saturday, and we were treated to a free minibus ride from one of the Chatsworth House Car parks.

Arriving late morning, the bird had been showing to the crowds, but I had finished my excellent sausage sandwich before it was relocated, so after a quick walk to the orchard, the bird performed beautifully, demolishing apples before flying into a conifer hedge, where it was less exposed but still showing well through the scope.

Unfortunately, the camera decided to focus on the branches behind the bird, so both my photos and video are pretty ropey. But here they are anyway:

As I write this, on December 29th, the autumn and winter are still giving, with a Blue Rock Thrush having appeared in Gloucestershire and a couple of Stejneger’s Stonechats, so watch this space for more rubbish content including excellent birds. With the Dusky Thrush still present, I can hopefully go back and get some better photo’s.




Masked Wagtail in West Wales

Britain’s first ever MASKED WAGTAIL was found in the tiny village of Camrose, near Haverfordwest in the far west of Wales, at the end of November. The power of the internet once again alerted this mega to the birding fraternity, and got it identified quickly on Tuesday 29th November, 2016.

Whilst this is almost universally considered a subspecies of Pied/White Wagtail, so therefore not countable as a “tick”, it is a very attractive bird, and was showing very well, so many UK twitchers visited the spot for what is known as “insurance purposes”. Given that it was relatively quiet for decent birds, this little gem seemed especially attractive in the cold winter gloom.

Mark Sutton and I made the journey on Saturday 3rd December, and the bird showed really well, especially on the road where it risked life and limb to feed on what looks like seed put out for it. A bit of a funny place to spread food for the cute little rare – perhaps one of the locals has tired of the twitchers already?

Luckily, at this time, the novelty of green-cloaked geeks with big lenses and high end optics had not worn off on the day of our visit. Some came out of their houses for a chat, others offered tea, and some very polite and considerate motorists actually waited while birders watched  the bird cross the road!

Here is a brief video of the bird:

Also some pictures:

After the incredible autumn of Eastern vagrants, the winter is not relenting. Almost as soon as most twitchers saw this first for Britain, news of Britain’s 12th Dusky thrush broke on Sunday 4th December – in an orchard in the Derbyshire Peak District – quite a way inland. Present for approximately ten days, it is still showing to birders today, Tuesday 6th. Add to that not just one or even two Dusky Warblers in the southwest midlands, at Ripple Pits, and that would seem remarkable. But, an EASTERN BLACK REDSTART was also found at Ripple today – Britain’s first inland record of this absolute stunning central Asian vagrant.

This quality of birds turning up in random inland places bodes well for the winter to come; clearly there are some birds that were not found on arrival during autumn that have settled here for the winter, and the chances are that there are more to be found.

The two key questions are – what and where?

My prediction is for a garden-dwelling Siberian Rubythroat, maybe one of those Siberian Accentors, or perhaps even a major shock/surprise in the form of a wintering Pallas’s Sandgrouse!!!???