Unexpected wintering Bluethroat in Lincolnshire was easily the most popular rare bird of February
The best rare birds seen in the UK and Ireland throughout February
FEBRUARY WAS A month when many or even most of the rarest birds of the winter decided it wasn’t quite time to depart quite yet. Three new ‘megas’ were found to add to the high quality array present across the country, for those willing to travel. But it was a bird which isn’t normally associated with the term ‘mega’ which was probably the most popular, and certainly the most photographed bird of the month. This was a Bluethroat, a bird which is generally thought of as an increasingly scarce spring and autumn passage migrant, with (very rarely) the odd male hanging on to sing. Wintering Bluethroats are almost unheard of. So, the discovery of one along the entrance track of Willow Tree Fen LWT, South Lincolnshire by visiting birdwatcher/photographer Alan Meloy was unexpected to say the least, on a snowy and grim Friday (10 February). Indeed, the finding drew some unfounded scepticism on social media, with one or two even questioning whether the bird had been photographed at this site and at this time (the photos which appeared being unmistakably a Bluethroat). Such exciting news had to be checked out, though, and the next day, news broke of the first-winter male Bluethroat appearing in the same spot, halfway along the grass and reed fringed entrance track. And it was reputedly showing very well. The twitch was on, and even early photographs demonstrated quite how tame the little chat could be, apparently approaching to within a couple of feet of some lucky photographers, as it fed on invertebrates (caterpillars and worms) in the damp verges. Hundreds of birdwatchers from around the country visited south Lincolnshire to watch and photograph this little beauty and it was present throughout the month, into March, when it even started to do a bit of singing (or at least sub-singing). Its appearances for the waiting crowds of photographers became less frequent later in the month, however, as it had taken to bingeing on mealworms before disappearing into the reeds for extended periods to digest. Some visitors also disgraced themselves by pursuing it into the reeds, breaking tape designed to stop them trampling habitat and leading the management team to
install ugly orange fencing… By mid-march, it had started to develop its blue throat, but had also started making odd convulsive head movements, as it if were choking. Let’s hope this doesn’t spell the end for this bird. And let us also hope that the ‘choking’ was not (as speculated by some observers) brought on by the excessive provision of mealworms…
The rarest ‘newcomers’ during February were a Royal Tern on Guernsey, a newly discovered Siberian Accentor in the Highlands and a new Pacific Diver in Devon. The first-winter Royal Tern was first seen at Miellette Bay, Guernsey, Channel Islands, on 5 February. It was still present a month later, occasionally showing extremely well. In the UK, there have only been five accepted records of Royal Tern (with three in Wales, one in Cornwall and one in Lothian). So, many Uk-based birders are hoping that the Guernsey tern will make the crossing to the British mainland sometime soon. Vagrant Royal Terns potentially come from populations on either side of the Atlantic, with birds breeding in North America and Africa. Last summer, a bird proved (by DNA sample) to be of African origin (of the subspecies albididorsalis) was in Co. Mayo, Ireland. But it is suspected that the Guernsey bird is of American origin, which may be confirmed from DNA in a faecal sample which has been collected. The Siberian Accentor would have been a bigger story had it not have been on private land, at Invergordon, Highland (from 8 February at least). As you will doubtless know, Siberian Accentor was unheard of in the UK until October last year, when there was a well documented ‘invasion’ across western Europe, including a dozen or so individuals in the UK. Most were in Scotland, especially in the Northern Isles, and the furthest south was at Easington, East Yorkshire. It had long been speculated that there was a possibility of one or more overwintering; and the February’s bird is most likely to have done just that. Devon’s Pacific Diver was a juvenile (like the showy Northumberland bird), which was first found off Broadsands on 16 February and ‘still showing’ (very intermittently) into the second week of March.
Very rare birds hanging on from January included the other wintering Pacific Divers: in Cornwall (returning adult off Penzance) and the Druridge Bay, Northumberland, juvenile. The Blue Rock Thrush in Gloucestershire, Dusky Thrush in Derbyshire and Eastern Black Redstart in Cleveland also extended their stays by another month. The Desert Wheatear at Thurlestone, Devon, also stayed into March (at least to 7th) and the Red-flanked Bluetail in Caerphilly, Glamorgan was last reported on 21 February. Similarly, the ever-lingering Killdeer stayed put in Shetland and the North Yorkshire Pine Bunting (at Dunnington) was present well into March (when it even started showing reasonably well). Needless to say, the ‘Cornish’ Hudsonian Whimbrel also stayed throughout February. Will it
Number of 5 accepted records of Royal Tern in the UK
16 Number of Cattle Egrets roosting together in Cornwall during February.
3 Number of species of accentor which have occurred in the UK
still be present at this time next year when the BOU will officially ‘lump’ it back with the Whimbrel as a single species? In Dorset, Portland’s Hume’s Leaf Warbler, which has been present since December, was still going strong into March. In the same county, the Lesser Yellowlegs present at Lytchett Bay since mid-september stayed put into March. Meanwhile, south Devon’s long-staying adult Bonaparte’s Gull was still about until 17 February. The striking male Northern Harrier on North Ronaldsay, Orkney, also remained in place throughout the month.
New rarities on the block
Rivalling the Orkney Northern Harrier in the (fictitious) best-looking raptor competition, was juvenile harrier photographed at New Holkham, Norfolk on 24 February, which was identified as a Pallid Harrier. It was later seen at several sites in north Norfolk, though favoured the New Holkham area, sometimes showing extremely well, to mid-march. February saw a considerable influx of Cattle Egrets across the country, but particularly in the South West, including a flock of 11 with cows near Plymouth, in south Devon. There were also up to 16 Cattle Egrets coming to roost at Helston Loe Pool, Cornwall during the month. Individuals were present at at least 30 sites around the country during February. A Little Bunting at Great Barford GP, Bedfordshire (from 2 February) was a great find for the county. It was still present into March. Other Little Buntings in February included birds in Trinity Hill, Devon, Ports Down Hill, Hampshire, and Nanjizal Valley, Cornwall. January’s singing male Serin at Tide Mills, East Sussex, was still at the ruins until at least 26 February.
First-winter male Bluethroat, Willow Tree Fen LWT, Lincolnshire, 14 February
ABOVE (CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) Eastern Black Redstart, Skinningrove, Cleveland, 5 February
American Wigeon, Dale, Pembrokeshire, 18 February
Desert Wheatear, Leasfoot Beach, Thurlestone, Devon, 4 March
ABOVE White-billed Diver, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, January
RIGHT Juvenile Pallid Harrier, Holkham area, Norfolk, February
BELOW Juvenile Pallid Harrier, Holkham area, Norfolk, February