Mike Weedon sings the praises of the divers which dominated January’s rare bird sightings
The best rare birds seen in the UK and Ireland throughout January
WITH THE EVENTS of the exceptional year of 2016 still prominent in the mind, 2017 certainly has a lot to live up to. And some fine birds set the ball rolling well into the New Year. Some were top rarities still hanging on since last year, but there was also a new swathe of top rare birds discovered. Perhaps the most prominent of the latter were two very showy rare divers in England during January. Easily the rarest of these two was a Pacific Diver at East Chevington NWT, Northumberland, from 18th. This was probably just the eighth example of this species in the UK. The first was a juvenile at Farnham GP, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire in January 2007, and, ten years on, this Northumberland first-winter is only the second in north-east England. The Pacific Diver relocated to Druridge Bay CP on 21st, though was back at East Chevington a month later and still present at the time of going to press. Pacific Divers are smaller and slightly more delicate than the very similar Black-throated Diver (or Arctic Loon, if you prefer), and have dark flanks (lacking a white patch on the water line), have a finer bill and usually show more of a well-defined ‘chin-strap’ line. Luckily, this Northumberland bird proved to be the tamest, most photogenic individual yet, apparently coming within 2m of some photographers, and revealing all the essential structural and plumage subtleties. The name Pacific Diver is a little misleading. These loons breed across the taiga and arctic regions of northern North America (including Alaska and the northern Canada), even reaching the Arctic/atlantic islands. And they breed along the north coast of far eastern Russia, where their distribution overlaps with the Eurasian distribution of the Black-throated Diver. Pacific Divers winter along the west (ie Pacific) coast of North America and the western Pacific, including Japan, where again, they overlap with wintering Black-throated Divers. UK occurrences possibly come from the eastern Canadian populations crossing the Atlantic. The other star diver of January was a juvenile White-billed Diver, which turned up at the highly
improbable inland site of the River Witham in Lincolnshire, near Woodhall Spa, on 20 January. Improbable though this record was, White-billed Diver being an extremely rare bird anywhere inland in the UK), it was actually found within a few miles of an adult found on the same stretch of river in February 1996. One thing that bit of river still has from 21 years ago is a large number of anglers. But, luckily, during its two-week, the 2017 bird did not succumb to the same fate as the 1996 bird, which ended up dying beside the river, after being impaled by a baited fisherman’s hook. A relatively new phenomenon, though, is the proliferation of photographers equipped with excellent digital cameras. And the White-billed Diver performed for all comers along its stretch of river, being probably the most photographed bird of the month. It stayed until 2 February, when it was watched being flushed by a ‘barge’, then flying south, then not seen again. White-billed Divers (or Yellow-billed Loons) are birds of the high arctic of Asia and north America. They are effectively the far northern replacement of the Great Northern Diver (or Common Loon), being similar in all plumages, but larger and with a huge ivory-coloured bill. In juvenile and winter plumage, they are also distinctly paler birds than Great Northerns.
Cryptic Pine Buntings
Pine Buntings stole many of the headlines during January. Those who were frustrated by the birds during the record autumn influx had ample opportunity to catch up with one or more of these very rare Siberian, chestnut-and-white-toned close relatives of the Yellowhammer. Things kicked off on New Year’s Day with a female found at Venus Pool NR, Shropshire. The bird was present until 4 January, though often distant enough that some birders apparently were happy to tick Corn Buntings as Pine Bunting. On 20th a male Pine Bunting was discovered with a Yellowhammer flock at Dunnington, North Yorkshire. Having probably arrived in the autumn, it was perhaps no surprise that this bird was still present a month (at least) after its discovery. And another male was found in the Sittingbourne area, Kent, on 24 January, also still present in late February. Who knows whether any further Pine Buntings will pop up in Yellowhammer or mixed bunting flocks during later winter into spring?
New Year survivors
A few very rare birds which have definitely been around since last year included the male Blue Rock Thrush at Stow-on-the-wold, remaining loyal to the same area and even becoming a bit territorial, seeing off rival thrushes. The female Dusky Thrush at Beeley, Derbyshire, also found its way onto many year lists, hanging on into the first week of February. The St Asaph, Clwyd, Black-throated Thrush departed on New Year’s Eve, but it only took a couple of days before a different female offered
hope to the frustrated rare thrush-anticipators by appearing at Whittle Dene Reservoirs, Northumberland. This proved to be just a one day wonder, however, only being seen on 2nd. A couple of weeks later (15th), a first-winter female Black-throated at Adwick Marshlands RSPB, South Yorkshire, finally killed off the frustrations, as it stayed in the area until 21 January. The Shetland Killdeer (at Sandwick on the Mainland), which appeared on 13 November 2016, also survived into 2017, and was still present late in February. And that other reliable stalwart wader, the Hudsonian Whimbrel, continued its hugely extended residency in Cornwall throughout yet another month. Meanwhile, the Eastern Black Redstarts stayed on to brave the winter at Skinngrove, Cleveland, and Mousehole, Cornwall, both staying into February. The Desert Wheatear at Thurlestone, Devon also continued to spend its first winter on our shores.
New rarities in January
Apart from the birds covered above, perhaps the most exciting discovery during January was late in the month (26th), when a Red-flanked Bluetail was found at Wern Ddu, Caerphilly, Glamorgan. This lovely little bird was also present to late February. Though an increasingly regular autumn visitor, wintering bluetails are very rare indeed in the UK. This bird follows only a few years after the well photographed individual at Marshfield, Gloucestershire in February 2014. One rarity that wasn’t what it appeared was an apparent Orphean Warbler which was seen and photographed at Newmarket, Suffolk. However, the photos of the damp bird proved deceptive and when the first twitchers refound the bird the next day, its small size was obvious and the bird was reidentified as a Lesser Whitethroat (probably of one of the eastern races). Another type of human error caused confusion with stonechats seen at Dungeness, Kent, and a similar female at Richmond Park, London. DNA analysis of the Kent bird apparently showed it was in fact a rare Stejneger’s Stonechat (a type of Siberian Stonechat). However, it later turned out to be a mix-up with samples (from an earlier Spurn bird), and the recent birds seen in London and Kent were in fact Stonechats, after all.
White-winged gulls were particularly widespread and numerous during January. Glaucous Gulls in particular, were well represented. Waxwings also continued to delight birders across the country, though not in the high numbers of persistent larger flocks seen in some recent influx years.
Pacific Diver , Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland 22 January
ABOVE (LEFT TO RIGHT) Drake Green-winged Teal, Venus Pool, Shropshire, 8 January
Juvenile White-billed Diver, River Witham near Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, January BELOW LEFT First-winter female Black-throated Thrush, Adwick Washlands RSPB, South Yorkshire, January Number of Pacific 3 Divers in the UK, so far, this year
Number of days 14 juvenile White-billed Diver was present on River Witham, near Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire
Number of Pine 3 Buntings in the UK during January 2017
2 Total number of Red-flanked Bluetails which have wintered in the UK
ABOVE Juvenile Glaucous Gull eating seal, Sheringham, Norfolk, 18 January
Lesser Whitethroat, Newmarket, Suffolk, 10 January
BELOW (TOP TO BOTTOM) Killdeer, Sadwick, Shetland, January