Wednesday, 1 January 2014

2013 in review: The forgotten birds

It does seem that 2013 is going to go down in the annals of birding history. We had one of the best summers on record; with White-throated Needletail (RIP), Pacific Swift, Ascension Frigatebird, two Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrels and a Bridled Tern recorded in June and July! We also had a spectacular autumn, with several truly mega American landbirds turning up, plus a decent scattering of siberian vagrants including a White’s Thrush and a male Siberian Rubythroat. The spring wasn't half bad either, and it appears this winter will forever be remembered as an all-time great one for Ivory Gulls.

But there were some hidden stories in 2013 as well, stuff which you might perhaps have overlooked among all the headline grabbing rarities. There will be hundreds of blog posts detailing all the fine megas seen over this year, but NGB prides itself on doing things a little differently, and on taking a different angle to others. So, with no further ado, here’s our review, of the ‘forgotten birds’ of 2013.

First-ever inlands
Siberian and eastern rarities so often capture the hearts and minds of birders, but for those of us who are land-locked there is often one crucial problem. These birds are almost exclusively to be found on the (East) Coast! However, this year saw some excellent inland records for dedicated patchers. First off, a Pied Wheatear at Collingham Pits, Nottinghamshire, was the first record of this species in an inland county, occurring in mid-November. Approximately a month later, and a reported Yellow-brow at a private site in Northamptonshire was re-identified as a Hume’s Warbler! This was the second accepted inland record, following a very brief individual in Staffordshire in 1994. There was another likely Hume’s Warbler in 2010 though, remarkably also in Northamptonshire, but a mixture of its elusiveness and the impossibility of getting a clear sound recording meant it never got through the BBRC.

2013 also saw the first ever record of a Buff-bellied Pipit from an inland British county, all the way back in January. Remarkably, there were two here, and these joined the mere handful of accepted records for the British mainland overall. 

Bonxies bouncing back? 

There were some remarkable counts of Great Skua this year from seawatching sites. On April 12th, South coast seawatching sites were alive with Bonxies; 64E past Splash Point (East Sussex) would have set a Sussex record, had it not already been smashed the previous year by a day count in the 100s. Dungeness scored 45 on this day, also an excellent count (though it is a rare and pleasant surprise for my local to score higher tallies than Dunge!).

On Return passage, NGB Jack Bucknall reliably informs me that our ‘huge’ spring day-total was utterly trounced by 345 Great SKuas past Newbiggin, Northumberland on the 11th of October! His patch of St. Mary’s Island scored a not-too-shabby 111 on the same day! With so much doom and gloom about our seabirds, it is pleasing to see that such excellent counts can still occur, though you have to wonder how many Bonxies would have been noted on a similar passage 100 years ago, without the current identification knowledge and optics.

Bonelli’s back with a bang!
I've been used to Western Bonelli’s Warbler being a real rarity in recent years, pretty much on par with its Siberian relatives. Which seems odd, given you can find them singing in pretty much any old oak woodland if you travel a hundred miles south from Sussex. There were some decent totals of 9 accepted in 2011 and 7 in 2010, but just 2 in ‘09, 3 in ‘08 and none at all in 2007, before the last double-figure year of 10 birds in 2006. They've also been difficult to catch up with, with nearly all mainland records in recent history being short-stayers, apart from one singing male in Derbyshire in 2010.

Happily for everyone, this charming and understated warbler had a bit of a revival this year. It started with one in April 2013 at Pagham Harbour, Sussex, the first record for the county for eight years and sticking around long enough for many on the South Coast to connect. The last bird in Southern England to stay longer than a day was a 3-day, hard-to-see bird in September 2005 at Beachy Head! Back to 2013 and two WBW then appeared in late August in Norfolk and Kent, with Norfolk scoring a 2nd for its county annual total in early September. During September, there were also two records on Shetland (with one on Whalsay being particularly long-staying) and singles in Pembrokeshire and County Cork, with a Bonelli’s sp. in Orkney.

Another at Hunstanton, Norfolk enjoyed giving everyone a bit of a runaround in early October and was refusing to play ball with vocalisations, meaning it was only ever reported on RBA as ‘Bonelli’s sp.’. Reports came from Polgigga and St. Levan in Cornwall, but I'm not sure if these referred to two birds or one, as both sites are near to one another. The North-east then hit back with a bird at Flamborough (Yorkshire) on the 7th, and one at Hartlepool (Durham) from the 14th onwards. At this point, singles were still lingering on Orkney and Shetland, with the final report of the year being of the Hartlepool bird on the 29th. For good measure, yet another was seen in Norfolk, at Holkham on the 24th!

During this remarkable year, there were reports from Norfolk (3 + 1 Bonelli’s sp.), Shetland (2), and singles in West Sussex, Kent, Orkney (Bonelli’s sp.), Pembrokeshire, County Cork, Cornwall, Yorkshire and Durham. Of these, birds in East Sussex, Durham, Shetland, Cornwall, County Cork and Norfolk were all fairly long-staying, allowing birders from across the country to catch up with this species, including many NGBs for the first time! With 12 Western Bonelli’s Warblers reported in 2013, and two others not identified to species, it’s fair to say this was a terrific year for one of our more underrated rarities!

Collared Flycatcher breaks records
There was a time when Collared Flycatcher was an absolute mega, one of the most highly prized European rarities. While it’s still far from common, it’s now almost possible to take for granted the appearance of a few each spring, something unthinkable to previous generations! This year broke all records though. It started with one in Northumberland on 8-9 May. This had barely exited when another appeared on Whalsay (Shetland) on the 10th, staying until the 16th. But again we didn't have to wait long, yet another appeared at Easington (Yorkshire) on 18th May, and in a final late spring flourish there was one trapped on Fair Isle on 9th Jun, and a singing male (is this the first ever?) at Stoer (Highland) on the 12th. Five records of this dazzling gem in one year, is it on the verge of ‘doing a bluetail’?

Buff-bellies; is Berkshire and Cheshire the tip of the Iceberg?
It wasn't that long ago that a Buff-bellied Pipit had never been recorded inland. Starting with one in Lincolnshire in 2005, and then two in 2007, in Cornwall and Oxfordshire. Following that was a four-year gap until one in East Sussex in 2011, but over the course of 2013 there have been three! True, the two at Queen Mary Reservoir, Berkshire, had been first found in late 2012, but when we thought that these birds might be another one off, another BBP was found in Cheshire just before Christmas. With records of wintering BBPs now scattered out across mainland Britain, including two a fair way inland, we should surely be looking at Rock Pipits more closely! Rarely does a winter go by without a few american passerines spending their holidays here, but most of the time it really is a very faint dream to hope to find one. If all birders made a concerted effort to check their tidelines, their marshes, any known wintering site for Rock and Water Pipits, might we stand a chance of finding quite a few more? God knows how many might eke out a winter on the remote and desolate west coast of Scotland, a place our own Rock Pipit is abundant but where few birders ever thoroughly check.

Brown Shrike briefly as common as Red-backed! 
I don’t know if that title is entirely true, but it really did feel like this was the case for a few days in September! While species like Collared Flycatcher and Fea’s petrel, despite having record-breaking years, have been on the rise for some time, Brown Shrike really did still feel like a mega before this autumn. There were none in 2012, a single in 2011, twos in 2008 and 2010 and three in 2009 (including the popular Staines bird), and it’s perhaps felt a bit of a commoner thanks to the long-staying nature of many birds, but Brown Shrike is still a real rarity. This year, however, was truly ridiculous. 2013's first bird was one in Hampshire on 20th Sept, another on North Ronaldsay followed four days later. On the 27th Sept this was still present, with another found in Shetland, and the following day one at Balcombie (Fife) and one at Collieston (Aberdeenshire) meant four were present on the same day on the 28th! This influx ended as quickly as it had began, with the last report being of the Shetland bird on Septmber the 30th. If all five of this year's birds go through, and put the total up to 17, this would mean almost ¼ of all accepted records of Brown Shrike were in the country on 28th Sept 2013! In Late September, anyone finding a Shrike in Scotland may almost have expected it to be Brown!

The Wheatear who wouldn't leave
A Desert Wheatear turning up on the NE coast of Scotland in early December 2012 didn't signify any great things to come, perhaps. In fact, Desert Wheatear is pretty well guaranteed to appear somewhere on the East Coast at this time, in any given autumn. However, most of these tired and lost migrants either move to pastures new after a few days, or succumb to the worsening weather. This hardy soul did neither, hanging around from 2nd Dec 2012 to 26th March 2013, a record-breaking 115 days! What’s more, his nearest rival was a comparative pansy, surviving through a frankly subtropical 1994/95 on the Hayle Estuary in Cornwall. To last that long (and presumably migrate home again) in an Aberdeenshire winter takes feathers of steel! Sadly, this proud-record breaker found a better place to winter in 2013/14.

The Pagham peninsula has another top attraction
Not a story about any particular bird, but an important one nonetheless. Climate change is set to wreak havoc on our coasts over the next century or so, so managed retreat (allowing the sea to claim coastal land, changing it into tidal-surge resistant marshland) from the sea seems a vastly practical, if expensive, course of action to safeguard our homes. For birders, this is doubly great, as it involved the creation of more estuaries and wetlands around our coasts! You’ve probably heard of Wallasea Island in the News, but not everyone will even know Medmerry exists yet. Sandwiched in between Pagham and Chichester Harbours, this newly created estuary will have no problem attracting birds; it’s already proving popular with Black-tailed Godwits, Brent Geese, Teal and Shovelers to name but a few! How long will it be before it gets it’s first real rarity? between them, Pagham and Chichester Harbour have a list that includes one Lesser and two Greater Sand Plovers, an Oriental Pratincole, Killdeer, Least, Stilt, Terek and Upland Sandpipers, Isabelline Shrike, two Red-breasted Geese, a Collared Flycatcher, Paddyfield, Booted and Radde’s Warbler and Trumpeter Finch, so placing a new reserve smack bang in the middle of all these areas is a recipe for great success.

On a broader scale, it also reflects a great progression in our countries policy for coastal realignment. If we want to have any control over sea level rise and it’s effects on us, allowing areas of reclaimed land like this to flood will be one of our best hopes. I've already been involved in a failed campaign to try and make the same happen on my patch at Cuckmere Haven, and up and down the coast, managed realignment is being talked about, but action isn't taken anywhere near enough, or is swallowed up and lost in the tangles of bureaucracy. Let this be a lesson for all of us, in a way to manage climate change AND take positive steps for our countries wildlife.

Thank you, and have a very happy 2014.

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.

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