UK Bird Sightings review of 2016
A comprehensive round-up of rare birds seen in the UK during 2016
WHAT A YEAR 2016 turned out to be for rare birds in the UK! There were new species for the UK galore (lined up and waiting for official admittance to the British List), several extreme rarities which go beyond the call of ‘mega’, and more extraordinary trends and invasions than anyone could have predicted. Let us start this review of the year with those potential new additions to the UK list. The first to come a-knocking on the BOURC’S door would be a real whopper, but also perhaps the most controversial of the lot: Dalmatian Pelican. It was initially photographed off St Ives harbour, Cornwall, on 7 May, though news did not reach a wider audience for a couple of days. But there was no need to panic, as the pelican would remain in the south-west of England (mainly Cornwall) until November. The controversy it attracted was not about its identification (which was straightforward), but rather its origin. Yes, it was a ‘known’ individual, which had been recorded previously in Poland, Germany and France, but what was its ultimate provenance, a wild colony or a pen somewhere? Just when birders were getting used to potential firsts of gigantic proportions (especially with respect to wingspan), another whacked them in the face with a shocking beat of enormous wings. The dual related powers of the phone and social media were to thank for a ‘non-birder’ filming an immature Lammergeier on the Welsh side of the Severn at Sudbrook, Gwent on 12 May; initially perched, then sweeping by (the Severn Bridge in the background). Four days later, the Lammergeier was in Devon, and was seen off and on, around the Dartmoor area (by a lucky or persistent few observers), and into Cornwall, over the next 10 days or so, at least. The last report of this incredible bird was in Devon in early June. There were no indications that this individual was from a reintroduction scheme, so its chances of acceptance to the British List are perhaps at least as good, if not better, than the pelican.
Also from the ‘oversize’ category of crazy new birds for the UK was the Purple Swamphen (or Western Swamphen if you prefer, or even Purple Gallinule in old money), which was a shocking discovery at RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk on 31 July. This ultra-coloured, monster Moorhen fitted into a pattern of dispersal of the species away from its southern European (particularly Spanish) population centre into northern areas, where no swamphen had previously ventured, especially in France. This naturally helped the bird’s credentials as a truly wild bird (just about every swamphen seen in the UK previously had been of one of the eastern or Asiatic subspecies and naturally assumed to be unnatural in origin).
The bird was not for lingering, though (at this stage), and by 6 August was gone. Luckily, it turned up again on 30 August at Alkborough Flats near the Humber, in Lincolnshire. It was never to show as closely as when at Minsmere, but this presumed same bird definitely settled in well there, remaining until at least 13 November. The next potential UK first was a bit of a sorry story, though, with luck, with a happy ending. It was a Red-footed Booby found exhausted by a passer-by at St Leonard’s-on-sea, East Sussex, and taken into care for recuperation. A predicted and hoped-for (by some UK birders) release in British waters never materialised, and the booby was instead flown to the Cayman Islands for some winter sun (and its freedom) around Christmas. Also from the other side of the Atlantic was the next UK first (in-waiting), an Eastern Kingbird (a type of tyrant flycatcher), found on the ‘wild and lonely’ Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides. It was seen on 29 September late in the day at Eoligarry, and was still there the next day as the first off-island birders came to pay their respects (and gather their ticks). But in the afternoon it flew off high north-east and thorough searches could not relocate it. Now, if you head north-east from Barra, you arrive on South Uist. So, it was predicted that the kingbird may be refound there. Three days later (2 October), it was duly relocated at Bornish, South Uist, though this was the last day the lovely flycatcher was seen.
Despite being an unexpected find on Barra, the Eastern Kingbird’s rediscovery on South Uist was entirely predictable (and predicted) based on observations. Also predicted, to the day, in the case of Bird Watching’s James Lowen (on Twitter), was the arrival of a bird which few British birders had ever seen outside the pages of their field guides. The outrageous prognostications came as a result of movements afoot in Fennoscandia. By early October Siberian Accentors had started appearing in Finland and Sweden. And on 9 October, the bubble burst as another of the BW extended family, Hugh Harrop (our Shetland UKBS correspondent) and his friend and colleague, Judd Hunt, stumbled upon arguably the most outstanding ‘first’ of the year, a magnificent Siberian Accentor at Scousburgh, Mainland, Shetland. On-island birding ‘crews’ filled their boots, and the rest of the country was green with envy over this incredible find and ‘twitch’. Some made it up to Shetland for the next day, but by 11 October there was no sign. Still, two days later, another Siberian Accentor appeared at the far more accessible site of Easington, East Yorkshire. The floodgates were opened and the rest is well-covered history. At least a dozen Siberian Accentors were found in the UK over the next few weeks, with the largest number (four) on the islands of Shetland, and the latest (and the westernmost) on the Scottish mainland at Avoch, on the Black Isle, Highland. The Easington bird was most southerly, as
The outrageous prognostications came as a result of movements afoot in Fennoscandia. By early October, Siberian Accentors had started appearing in Finland...
well as the most obliging and well watched, and nearly all were on the east of the country. ‘Our’ birds were part of an influx involving more than 230 Siberian Accentors into northern Europe. And every one of these lovely, colourful Russian dunnocks which turned up in the UK would have felt like a new bird for the UK for the finders. The final UK first which will get a mention here is currently regarded as a subspecies of the humble White Wagtail. But this version from the east was a real beauty, a Masked Wagtail, which took up residence at Camrose, Pembrokeshire for nearly a month from the end of November to Boxing Day. It was apparently a first-winter male, and a delight to all who saw it. In Ireland, new species for the country included a Vega Gull at Duncannon, Co Wexford, for four days in mid–january, as well as a Brown Booby, which was found dead at Owenahincha, Co Cork also in January.
Other bird stars But 2016 was not just about the prolific host of new birds. There was a generous dollop of quality extreme rarities, as anyone who has been looking at UK Bird Sightings for the last year or so would testify. Who could forget, for instance, the lovely Great Knot (the UK’S fifth), which was rarely showy, but often present, at RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk, from 15 June to 4 July? There were chances to catch up with such usually incredibly ‘hard-to-twitch’ birds as Brünnich’s Guillemot. There were two individuals ‘on show’, one in January at Scapa Bay, Mainland, Orkney, and in the autumn, one at Anstruther, Fife (25-29 September). The latter bird was well photographed, but sadly succumbed. It was found dead in the harbour on 30 September. Others from the ‘seabird’ bracket of great rarities included a Thayer’s Gull at RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk, in March, and a very welcome Forster’s Tern at Mistley, Essex, and then into Suffolk, in November. Black-browed Albatrosses also caused something of a stir in 2016, with one passing Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire on 5 October, delighting birders who had gathered to watch the UK’S (potentially) fourth ever Eastern Crowned Warbler there, that day. It was tracked as it passed Filey and Flamborough and probably the same immature was seen past Cley, Norfolk, the next day! Back to Minsmere, for a moment, in addition to the Purple Swamphen and Thayer’s Gull, this majestic Suffolk site also produced a Cliff Swallow (on 5-6 November). Remarkably, this first for the county (and only the 11th in the UK) was the second of the autumn, with a different Cliff Swallow, also on St Mary’s Scilly in early September. But there was a whole range of other weird and wonderful extreme rarities, sending listers to all corners of our little cluster of islands. Take, for instance, the Oriental (Rufous) Turtle Dove in gardens at Otford, Kent
since February (with news reaching the wider public in early April; and the bird remaining to mid-may). Then again, another of the same subspecies (meena) was in gardens at North Rose, Mainland, Shetland for a couple of weeks in November. Other stand-out rarities were the Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist in late May, followed by a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on Lewis (both Outer Hebrides) in late September. And there was a Green Warbler on Unst, Shetland, in May; a Two-barred Greenish Warbler on Papa Westray, Orkney in October.
Trends and invasions
Last year was also a year of major trends. As we touched on in last month’s UKBS, it was a brilliant year for rare thrushes. For instance, there were half a dozen White’s Thrushes in October (mainly on Shetland), and three Swainson’s Thrushes in late September and early October. And there were six to eight Black-throated Thrushes in the autumn and winter. In addition to this collection from east and west, the prizes included a Siberian Thrush on Unst, Shetland in October, a couple of Dusky Thrushes (Scilly and Derbyshire) and an Eyebrowed Thrush at Bolam Lake, Northumberland. And don’t forget the Blue Rock Thrush which is still going strong at Stow-in-the-wold, Gloucestershire into the end of January 2017. The smaller thrushes, or chats, were also extremely well represented, especially in the autumn. This was exemplified by the appearance of at least six Isabelline Wheatears in October, including the first inland record, at Wardy Hill, Cambridgeshire in late October. Desert Wheatears were also particularly well represented,
including a couple of long-stayers (in East Sussex and Devon) among the half dozen throughout October and November. Siberian Stonechats were also present in good numbers, with about 18 individuals found in the autumn, plus a couple of Caspian Stonechats and at least a couple of Stejneger’s Stonechats. We can’t leave the chats without a mention of Eastern Black Redstart. Five of these beautiful eastern visitors found their way to the UK during the autumn, including a couple of inland birds. The most popular of these was a first-winter male at Skinningrove, Cleveland, which appeared on 27 October and was still toughing it out in late January 2017! Other major ‘trends’ during the year included a taste of the Alps, with at least three Alpine Accentors (in Hampshire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire) representing the UK’S part of an extra-limital surge of the species on the continent in April. And for those who want a bit of piney freshness with your Alpine air, the autumn and winter featured a record-breaking influx of Pine Buntings, with a dozen or more recorded across the country, including a flock of three together on Fair Isle, Shetland. More must have been missed and, indeed, more are coming out of the undergrowth, with a couple of males appearing in the last couple of weeks of January 2017. Last year produced more Gyr Falcons than you could dream of, record-breaking numbers of autumnal Yellow-browed Warblers (with some estimating that there may have been tens of thousands of the blighters in the country). This year has already begun with an amazingly showy Pacific Diver in Northumberland and a White-billed Diver on the same stretch of the River Witham in Lincolnshire, where one was found 21 years ago. A little bit of history repeating; and if we get anything like the rare action this year as last, it will be fantastic. But the beauty of it all, is it’s just so darn unpredictable, apart from the predictable bits!
Just when birders were getting used to potential firsts of gigantic proportions (especially with respect to wingspan), another whacked them in the face
PURPLE SWAMPHEN Minsmere, Suffolk, 31 July
Vega Gull, Duncannon Harbour, Co. Wexford, Ireland, 13 January
SERIN Fen Drayton Lakes RSPB, Cambridgeshire, 13 January
GREAT SPOTTED CUCKOO Great Spotted Cuckoo, Portland, Dorset, 13 May
ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK Burra, Shetland, May
WESTERN BONELLI’S WARBLER Gibraltar Point, Lincolnshire, 8 May
ICTERINE WARBLER Garrison, St Mary’s, Scilly, 19 August
SQUACCO HERON Barton Pits, Lincolnshire, 9 August
GLOSSY IBIS Marazion, Cornwall, 6 February
DARK-EYED JUNCO Point of Ayre, Isle of Man, 3 April
Eastern Crowned Warbler, Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire, 6 October
BLACKBILLED CUCKOO Bayhead, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, May
ROYAL TERN Beale Point, Co. Kerry, Ireland, 23 August
Least Sandpiper, Seaton Marshes, Devon, August
GREAT KNOT Titchwell, Norfolk, 15 June
TEREK SANDPIPER Tacumshin Lake, Co. Wexford, Ireland, 22 August
EASTERN KINGBIRD Barra, Outer Hebrides, 30 September