Rar­ity Round-up

Mike Wee­don sings the praises of the divers which dom­i­nated Jan­uary’s rare bird sight­ings

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

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.

Other trends

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

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