UK Bird Sight­ings re­view of 2016

Bird Watching (UK) - - Con­tents -

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.

An­other whop­per

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.

Out­landish pre­dic­tions

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


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

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