Isabelline Wheatear and the element of luck

On Saturday morning I had yet another insight into the degree of luck that is involved in finding a rare bird. I was in north Norfolk with my family, but first thing Saturday morning I had arrange to meet up with great mate Richard Campey, who lives and works in the county.  Burnham Overy dunes is the nearest thing that Richard has to a local patch, he found a nice blythii Lesser Whitethroat there on Thursday and with persistent easterly winds Richard was keen to get out there again. Until a Pallas’s Warbler was found there on Friday afternoon. One thing, of many, that Richard and I share, is dislike of crowds. North Norfolk being north Norfolk, even a Pallas’s Warbler will draw a small crowd, especially on a Saturday.  So late on Friday evening Richard rings and we agree to a last minute change of plan. We will abandon our plans to go to Burham Overy dunes but will go to Wareham Greens and work the long hedgerow that runs east towards Stiffkey.

Saturday morning dawns dry after overnight rain, with the brisk easterly wind still blowing. Despite the fact that there could not be better conditions for bird hunting in late October on the east coast, ours is the only car on the concrete pad at the end of the first track to Wareham Greens. Immediately we hear the harsh calls of Brambling in the hedgerows. Goldcrests are everywhere, calling loudly, it feels super-rare! Thrushes are everywhere, Fieldfares clacking overhead, Redwings seeping out of every tree. We work our way east, past the pit, we check the bushes around the whirlygig. Yellowhammers and Redpolls pass overhead, we flush a flock of at least 12 Brambling.

We then bump into another birder, working his way west along the hedgerow. We exchange sightings – lots of common migrants, but so far, nothing rare. After a few moments chatting we realise that we know each other – it is Geoff Wyatt from Oxfordshire! Geoff has spent the last few days on the coast, including the last few mornings at Burham Overy dunes, where he was the first to find the Fin Whale that washed up on the beach on Thursday morning. And then Geoff’s pager goes off – an Isabelline Wheatear has just been found at Burnham Overy dunes. All three of us exchange grim looks and smile at the hand that fate has dealt us.  We all could have easily been in the dunes at first light this morning. That could have been our bird, but for our last minute change of plans. Such is the element of luck in birding.

Still, my time in particular being limited, it is time to eat humble pie and join the crowds. We drive the short distance back to Burnham Overy and walk out along the track to the dunes. The Isabelline Wheatear is skittish and mobile, but this just helps show off the distinctive half black, half white tail. The other plumage features were much more subtle, though the black centered alula stood out. Below, looking typically upright and short-tailed:tombedford-161022-9163-1

Below, looking more plump and less structurally distinctive:tombedford-161022-9215-1

Below, a Northern Wheatear at the same site for comparison. The stronger supercilium behind the eye and the more orange tones on the flanks and ear coverts helped pick out the Northern bird from the paler, less contrasting Isabelline. That evening a Desert Wheatear was also to be found at this site. tombedford-161022-9170-1

On Saturday afternoon, I head out to the beach at Burnham Overy with the family to see the Fin Whale. Seeing a dead whale is a strange mixture of emotions, but is the sort of experience that stays with you, whether adult or child. It generated lots of questions from the children. The blood filled pool around the head attracted the most comment. A day to remember, for lots of different reasons.tombedford-161022-9265-1


The Siberian Accentor irruption & the joy of accentors

It is 8 years since I drove for hours to see a specific bird. The fact that on that occasion Ian and I were nearly killed by another driver ploughing headlong into the front of my car on the A148 in Norfolk, may have come into my decision, but the thrill of the chase was fading anyway. I realised that I found it much more satisfying to find my own birds, so I covered my Oxfordshire local patch around Cuddesdon and visited Lundy Island in the autumn for my migration kicks. But this autumn has seen a truly spectacular ornithological event. A rare and beautiful species that breeds in Siberia and winters in central China has reached us. In fact, a species only recorded 15 times in the whole Europe in the last 150 years has reached us in unprecedented numbers. To date 146 Siberian Accentors have been recorded across Europe between 4th and 23rd October 2016, including the first 8 British records. Surely the quickest turnaround from first record to many since the first Collared Doves arrived in Norfolk in the late 1950s? With new birds being discovered on a daily basis, online maps of Siberian Accentor sightings quickly became outdated (see full map here):Blank Ariel 12 doc


This irruption raises a number of questions. It seems unlikely to be due to reverse migration. The random chance of a genetic abnormality causing a bird’s migratory compass to propel it far from the usual migratory routes for that species is not going to occur in over 100 birds simultaneously. There was talk on the east Yorkshire coast that the harvest in Russia this summer was the best in a generation. If true, would good conditions for agriculture also benefit breeding passerines? Even if it did, why should so many migrate so far from their usual route from Siberia to central China and end up so far west? Could the mass displacement of so many Siberian Accentors be indicative of some unknown environmental issue on their breeding grounds?

Siberian Accentors are thought to have expanded their breeding range west toward such the Ural Mountains. Perhaps a good breeding season has produced an exceptional number of birds in the far west of their range? Then these young migratory birds are exposed to a prolonged period of wind propelling them towards Western Europe.  A prolonged spell of high pressure stretching from central Russian into Scandinavia, combined with winds blowing from central Asia into Western Europe during most of early October may have assisted the irruption.  This graphic from 7th October illustrates the prevailing weather conditions (see here for the full animated map). An area of high pressure (blue) stretches across all of central Russia, with winds blowing from east to west (green) picking up from the Urals, blowing straight into the Baltic Sea, southern Sweden and onto the northern east coast of the UK: Blank Ariel 12 doc

From the moment of the discovery of the second British Siberian Accentor last Thursday near Spurn Point, East Yorkshire I realised that I wanted to be part of this remarkable event. I was not alone, it is estimated between 3,000 and 4,000 people traveled to Easington to see this bird during it’s six day stay. For me, what it represented was almost as important. Not merely the epic feat of a long migration from the other side of Eurasia to East Yorkshire, but the fact that hundreds (possibly many hundreds, how many were missed?) of Siberian Accentors were simultaneously entering western Europe in a unique ornithological event. The bird itself was a cracker. An early online description of it being like a “Dunnock doing Bowie” is spot on: it is the head pattern that sets this birds apart, a feast of  tan and black stripes that the bird showed off to great effect whilst tossing leaves around during its search for insects:tombedford-161016-8895-1



The collective noun for Dunnocks is, apparently, a “Jovial of Dunnocks”. If this is the case, then a “Joy of Accentors” would seem appropriate for the pleasure and interest that this remarkable event has brought to birders all over Europe. And for me, I had a fabulous day out at Spurn Point, seeing a feast of Siberian breeding warblers including Yellow-browed, Pallas’s and Radde’s Warblers that made up the supporting cast. With the winds remaining in the east, this remarkable autumn is set to run and run.

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