Mike couldn’t resist taking a pilgrimage to south Lincolnshire to pay homage to one of the most beautiful rare birds of the winter
Mike marvels at a beautiful rare winter bird in Lincolnshire – a Bluethroat
WHEN I WAS a young man, back in the mid 1980s, in the days of free university education and student grants, Interrailing in the summer holidays was, if you will pardon my French, de rigueur. For about £120 (which seemed cheap even then) you could travel just about anywhere in Europe (apart from the still Communist east, if I remember rightly) for a month. It was September 1985 when my friend Simon and I headed off to have a look round Europe on a shoestring. Naturally, I wanted to do a bit of birding, and armed with a copy of Gooders’ Where to Watch Birds in Europe, persuaded my travelling companion that we should start by heading up to Abisko, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. But we had gear for Mediterranean sun and not for Arctic camping. I remember wearing just about all my clothes in my sleeping bag and still being utterly frozen during the early autumn Arctic night. But, I digress. My real point is that it was 32 years ago, in northern Sweden, that I saw my first Bluethroat, though, sadly, not in the full breeding finery that I knew so well from staring at pictures in books. Then, it is the blue which grabs you. Blue in birds is always beautiful. Think Kingfishers, or even Blue Tits, think Jays’ wing feathers. In North America, they have bluebirds, in Asia a host of lovely chats and flycatchers adorned in glorious blue. When I saw my first male Blue-andwhite Flycatcher in a spring forest in Hokkaido (northern Japan), I felt my knees go weak and had to lean on a tree for support! But, I digress, again. I am trying to reminisce about Bluethroats. I love them. I’ve gorged on views of them across Europe from Spain to Hungary; in Asia in Jordan, Kazakhstan and India; and even in Egypt on spring passage. As is hinted at by their being in the genus Luscinia (ie the same as the nightingales), these little chats are also beautiful singers, belting out their rapid mimicry-filled song from a reedbed or from a wet forest edge. But it is their looks which make them such desirable birds, for us birdwatchers and lovers of blue… However, until last autumn, I had never seen one in the UK. This may surprise some, as they are ‘regular’ passage birds, and there was no real excuse (stinginess?) why I didn’t go to see the showy whitespotted singer which was at Welney WWT, Norfolk for a couple of months in spring 2010. My first in the UK was a bird I found with my friend Will in Skegness in early October 2016. We were watching a Wheatear on a narrow track when a Bluethroat came out of the adjacent bushes and flashed its unmistakable orange and black tail. It hopped around some more and vanished for good. As Bluethroats are now far less regular than they used to be on passage in the UK, we were pretty pleased with our find. And it was a UK tick for me, of course. But this feeling must have been nothing compared to the visiting birder who found a Bluethroat at Willow Tree Fen LWT, in south Lincolnshire, on 10 February. It was a nasty, cold, sleety, snowy day, that Friday; but the photos filtering onto Twitter unmistakably showed a Bluethroat. Naming no names, some cried foul, pointing out that grass in the photos looked too ‘summery’, the gravel too dry for the location claimed. And, surely, there has never been a February Bluethroat in the UK, has there? The next morning, there was talk of hats being prepared for human consumption, as the Bluethroat was in exactly the same spot as it had been in Friday’s snow. Will took my son Ed and I to twitch the dear bedraggled beauty in the freezing wet of Sunday. What a cracker! I took the Tuesday off work to see it again in sunshine, when it seemed like a new bird, sleek and perky. As was clear from Sunday, it didn’t really need the excessive mealworms some photographers had scattered over the track; it was feeding well, naturally, and was tamely approaching, fearlessly, towards the waiting (lens-wielding) humans. It really is a lovely bird. I say ‘is,’ as two weeks after the Bluethroat’s discovery, it is still showing to all comers. It has a lively, charismatic character, but best of all is the splash of blue on the breast that delights the eye every time. Perhaps, if it stays a bit longer, it may even get a blue throat!
The grass... looked too ‘summery’, the gravel too dry. And surely there has never been a Bluethroat in February, has there?
TRUE BLUE In dry, sunny conditions, the Lincolnshire Bluethroat was utterly beautiful