2013 has been an amazing, unforgettable, unpredictable and wholly unexpected year for rare birds in Britain. Whilst there have been no first for Britain (Ruby-crowned Kinglet in Ireland was a first, but we won't call that Brtain...), there have been more Megas than in any other year (I think!). There have been several '2nd for Britains' including the Cape May Warbler which had only turned up once in 1977. In addition, there was an amazing record of 2 Ivory Gulls together, which was the first multiple occurrence since the early 1900's.
Annoyingly, while this year has been the best ever nationally, a large proportion of birds that have turned up have been on islands or about as far away as it's possible to go without getting a boat. Combine this with my lack of income, very busy fieldwork season and other priorities, this has by no means been the most successful twitching year with 12 lifers (out of a possible 150 or so (probably...)).
My first newby of the year almost didn't come at all. Whilst packing up the car to come back to Bangor from Preston, I did a quick sweep of Facebook and saw a post saying 'Killdeer Alston Res'! I did a very quick check of Birdguides and there right in front og me was a Killdeer only 4 miles from my house! The more remarkable thing was that it was found by Gavin Thomas whom had found another/the same Killdeer whilst on holiday in Ireland just a couple of weeks prior! What are the chances of finding a 2nd back on your patch in Lancs. I managed to see the bird after it disappeared for a short while, but was very lucky in that only a relatively small handful on people got to see it before it buggered off, never to be seen again. Great bird!
In terms of 'gripability', this could well be the highlight of the year as so few people saw it and so many were shocked when I announced I had!
My second lifer of the year came from Heysham Outfalls. I took my time to get this bird, but managed relatively good scope views as this adult summer fed on the sand of the incoming tide. A bird that I've wanted for a while now.
It seemed like an age before I eventually got a few more new species, but this didn't come til the end of July
The 3rd lifer of the year required two visits. A Caspian Tern turned up on a resevoir in Cheshire on Acre Nook for roost. I arrived the followed morning for just after the crack of dawn to several glum, damp faces as there was no sign. That evening, news came out with 50 minutes of light left, so my parents and I made the hour's journey and somehow made it in time to get nice scope views of a dappled black headed Caspo! Awesome!
Cheshire was also the scene of lifer number 4. I joined Mark Breaks (and later Alex Jones) at Neumann's Flash. Arriving onsite to a scrum in one of the screen hides, we were all looking through the smallest of gaps through vegetation onto a partially obscured island about 50m away. Hardly ideal with heads getting in the way and the bird proving to be elusive and quite skittish. With persistence however, pleasing scope views were had of this charismatic wader. I must confess though, this species always has a reputation of being 'one of the best waders you'll see', so I built this up a lot in my head. I don't know whether or not it was due to the bird feeding waist deep in water, so the legs weren't showing, but I can't say I was blown away by this bird. I think I preferred the juvenile Ruff onsite!
When Amy (my girlfriend) invited me to the Isles of Scilly for a summer holiday in mid-August, two thoughts went through my head. 1. 'Well, she's a keeper!' 2. 'Oo! Pelagics!!'. I managed to get on two pelagics with Amy whislt on holiday, run by Joe Pender, and the first one was amazing. It started off with a pair of Cory's coming into view from 11 o clock. They swept right across the port side giving amazing views and great potential for photographic opportunities. This pelagic ended with c20 Cory's seen! The 2nd pelagic didn't see any Cory's which was quite surprising, but a couple of seawatches for interisland cruises and off Hell Bay, Bryher, I managed to pick out a few more totalling c30 for the trip.
The next lifer took it's time whilst on pelagic 1, but eventually came in and gave great views as 3-5 individuals spent time around the boat and even followed the boat back in to almost Penninnis Head! This are much more impressive than the lazy Cory's, which makes sense being a big-Puffinius. The 2nd pelagic saw one more circling the boat, but finding one flying past Hell Bay on a quick seawatch was a real thrill.
Balearic Shearwaters are like buses... On the Scillonion III on the journey back to the mainland, I picked up a distant Balearic on the southern side of the boat, which is a very long awaited UK lifer after trying on countless occasions in the Irish Sea and seeing so many off Cap de Creus in Spain. It was to my great surprise then, when I was at the Spurn Migration Festival and a cracking Balearic flew south with a small flock of Manxies and a single (out of place) Knot. This was much more enjoyable and it was with birding friends who could see it too and I was also able to compare it in size to the nearby Manxies.
Photo taken in Spain in 2008Sardinian Warbler
Now, readers of this blog may have seen my 'Top Ten UK Targets' list on the right of my blog. From day 1, Sardi has been on it. I have seen hundreds abroad and they are stupendously brilliant birds, but because they are so common abroad, I've never really had a chance to take in their amazingness. I therefore wanted one in Britain to really appreciate this amazing Sylvia. I joined Scott Reid, Liam Langley and Alex Jones on the trip up to the Borders of Scotland at St. Abbs Head. A truly spectacular place and one of my favourite twitches just for this reason alone! The bird hadn't been showing for about 30 minutes when we arrived, but it was singing in the open first thing, which left us hopeful. After what seen like an age, I started thinking about checking a slightly different area which looked good. As I started moving, Alex had the same idea and happened to see a bit of movement, so we both investigated. Before too long we heard a call that I associate with dry scrub on sandy soil and 30 plus degree heat (not windy, cold Scottish habitat!). This was the bird! We hurried everyone over and about 30 seconds later, the amazing male Sardinian Warbler flew out of the gorse and hovered over another allowing amazing prolonged views before it dived deep into vegetation. This was truly amazing and so weird at the same time. Weird in that I have seen literally hundreds of these birds, but when I first clapped eyes onto the black and white gem, it was like I'd never seen one in my life. Such a thrill!
Following on from birds I associate with heat appearing in cold weather, I twitched a bird found by one of our own NGBirders! Alex Jones found a Hoopoe on his patch in Rhyl and was a very long overdue lifer for me. I twitched this with Ros Green, so with this being new to her full stop, this was even more exciting for her. A great bird, even if it proved occasionally elusive for extended periods.
Photo Alex JonesPied Wheatear
Some things, you just can't predict. I met up with Alex Jones to twitch the reported Hightown Siberian Stonechat, but before we knew it, we were on our way to Nottinghamshire to go and see a Pied Wheatear! This is a species that for some reason, I had a premonition I'd never actually see, so have always said I wouldn't twitch one because I'd probably dip. Obviously this is a load of rubbish and as it turns out, if you happen to turn up to a twitch when the bird is showing remarkably well only 15m in front of you, you can go as far away as possible from a dip!
Photo Paul RoweWestern Orphean Warbler
Now this one the joint candidate for bird of the year for me (along with the sardi). Julian Hughes, Chris Bridge and I made the long journey south through deepest darkest mid-Wales to Pembrokshire to see the WOW feeding on apples in a private garden. We joined an assembled crowd of 40 or so people and before too long got frustratingly obscured scope views of the bird as it flew in and ate apples. With persistence however, we were rewarded with fantastic views of a truly brilliant bird. Maybe the hardship endured during the first couple of hours onsite made the much improved views just that bit better?
Photo Phil WoolenBuff-bellied Pipit
December was a very frustrating month bird wise with possible lifers turing up left right and centre. Birds such as White-billed Diver, Ivory Gull, Baikal Teal, Brunnich's Gullemot and Buff-bellied Pipit were all placed around Britain laughing at my inability to twitch them. It wasn't until the 30th of the month that I was able to attempt to see one of these. I was staying with Amy in Chester and as she was at work, the Buff-bellied Pipit, 11 miles away, at Burton Marsh was just too good to refuse! I arrived onsite to see 7 or so birders scanning the Meadow Pipit flock and they'd just seen it moved further down the path, so were trying to relocate it. Whilst waiting for it to show again, I was very content in watching a stunning Siberian Chiffchaff feeding on the ground about 10 feet away (I'm not sure why I didn't take my camera...). Also present was a wintering 1stw/female Northern Wheatear which was a very very strange sight to see after Christmas! Once I got my fill on these two, I gave the pipits a good grilling and before too long picked up a darker mantled bird in flight. It landed and showed an obvious supercillium and strong streaking on the breast. I knew straight away that this was the American! Fantastic! The bird gave pleasing scope views in horrendous condition and was even heard calling on several occasions which was very obvious and sounded almost like a Grey Wagtail crossed with a pipit (a fluid surleep).
So there we have it. 12 months. 12 Lifers and a life list of 320 in the UK. While I enormously with I'd Pacific Swift, Dusky Thrush and Semipalmated Plover this year, I am happy with the birds I saw and don't have any regrets (If you believe that you'll believe anything!)
Happy New Year everyone!