October saw the appearance of a ‘first’ for the UK as well as a welcome ‘second’
The best rare birds seen in the UK and Ireland during October
You’d think that a ‘first for the UK’ would comfortably grab all the headlines in any given month. But, not everything is black and white in birding, and it was instead a grey, widely-twitched ‘second for the UK’ that was the real attention grabber. Many birders have painful memories of the country’s first Grey Catbird. It was found at South Stack, Anglesey, on 4th October 2001, and spent almost the entirety of the next two days buried in thick cover in front of the assembled crowds. Claims were made of brief sightings and counter claims were made that Dunnocks and Blackcaps were being ‘strung’! To tick or not to tick? There were no such grey areas with this year’s bird. First found on 15th at Trevescan, The Lizard, Cornwall, this first-winter was a positive show-off, compared to the 2001 scaredy-cat. Occasionally, it even gave itself up for some lovely photography, and looked set for a very long stay. But it was last seen on 29th and has not been relocated since. Grey Catbirds (or Gray Catbirds if you prefer the American spelling) are dark-plumaged, black-capped, long-tailed, thrush-sized North American birds of the mimid family, which includes the thrashers, tremblers and mockingbirds. After the frustrating performance of the previous catbird, October’s bird felt like a UK first for many. But when it was found on 15th, the birding world (and certainly the social media realm of it) was still reeling from a ‘genuine’ first for the UK (pending its surely inevitable acceptance), found on the previous day. It was a White-rumped Swift, at Hornsea, East Yorkshire. Initially thought to be a Pacific Swift (itself a ‘mega’, with fewer than 10 UK records; but who wants to rush into claiming a first for the country?), it was soon realised that this bird was too small, of the wrong shape and with tell-tale white tips to the trailing edge of the secondaries (all wrong for Pacific), and the correct identification was resolved. A big clue was also the weather system at the time, bringing winds from the south and so much more likely to be carrying a southern European Swift (no matter how rare) than one from Asia.
White-rumped Swifts are essentially sub-saharan African breeders, with highly-localised migratory populations in Morocco and southern Spain. So, presumably, the Hornsea juvenile was from this ‘northern’ part of the swift’s range. Whatever, several birders were able to connect on the afternoon of 14th, though it was not refound there the next day, and it is uncertain whether reports of its refinding over Spurn the next day were 100% reliable. Of course, it being October, there was the usual rush of very respectable back-up to the two superstars of the month. From the same part of the world as the catbird came a Baltimore Oriole, on Barra, Outer Hebrides (17th to 21st), and there were also brief views of an American Robin on Lundy, Devon (26th), and Buff-bellied Pipit at Nanjizal (29th and 31st). Other landbirds from the other side of the North Atlantic included a Swainson’s Thrush on Yell, Shetland (10th to 14th), as well as a nice Scilly haul of Grey-cheeked Thrush on St Agnes, Scilly (17th to 24th; later relocated on St Mary’s on 29th); plus a Bobolink briefly on St Mary’s (15th) and a Red-eyed Vireo on Bryher (19th-24th). Eastern megas and more Partly owing to its very convenient placement, a probable Stejneger’s Stonechat was one of the most popular rarities, at Kelling, Norfolk (19th to 29th). Formerly regarded as a fareastern subspecies of Siberian Stonechat (or indeed Stonechat), Stejneger’s is now regarded by the IOC (and hence the BOU) as a full species. DNA data will probably (with luck) confirm the identity of the Norfolk bird. What was initially thought to be a Greenish Warbler, on Lundy, Devon (7th), was reidentified from photographs as a very likely Green Warbler, a closely related species from the Caucasus region. A Brown Shrike was at Weybourne (21st). Eastern Yellow Wagtails were on Unst, Shetland, and St Mary’s and Tresco, Scilly. Unst also saw a Pechora Pipit. No Shetland autumn is complete these days without a Siberian Rubythroat, and this year, a cracking male was seen and photographed on Fair Isle on 28th. A couple of River Warblers made an appearance on Shetland. Firstly, there was one at Houlland, Unst (1st to 3rd), then a couple of weeks later one was found at Wester Quarff, Mainland, Shetland (14th). Talking of warblers, a very decent ‘invasion’ of Yellowbrowed Warblers looked to be on the cards early in the month, with perhaps a few hundred reported. But, after an initial promise of Ybws for all, things started to peter out quite soon. Perhaps there will be more luck with an influx of Coues’s Arctic Redpolls which appeared to be taking place at the end of the month and into November. A nod must be given to the two Gull-billed Terns which spent
more than two weeks at Haughton Strother GP, Northumberland, as well as to the Rustic Bunting at Wanstead Flats (from 17th; with another on St Mary’s, Scilly, on 23rd). Also, there were at least 16 Little Buntings, mainly in the southwest of England, in the third week of the month. Final mention must go to a less rare but very welcome bird apparently arriving in the north and east in numbers: Waxwings are coming!
Grey Catbird, The Lizard, Cornwall, 21 October
Clockwise from above left White-rumped Swift, Hornsea, East Yorkshire, 14 OctoberProbable Stejneger’s Stonechat, Kelling, Norfolk, OctoberJuvenile Spotted Sandpiper, Jarrow, Co Durham, 17 OctoberSwainson’s Thrush, Yell, Shetland, OctoberTawny Pipit, Bryher, Scilly, 9 OctoberRed-flanked Bluetail, Spurn, East Yorkshire, 7 October