British Birds Rare birds in Britain: 50 golden years


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Pallas's Sandgrouse? Wallcreeper? Steller's Eider? Siberian Rubythroat?

It's probably a debate that takes place whenever birders gather together — but it's never been put to the vote. Until now.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the British Birds Rarities Committee in 2009, BirdGuides in collaboration with British Birds is conducting a poll to find the definitive British rarity event of the past half-century. The rarity roll-call from 1959 to the present day is long and illustrious, so any shortlist will be highly subjective. But for our Top 30 we've selected a range of species from across the period that cannot fail to excite birders, even 50 years after the event. We want you to vote for your Top 10 by March 31st. We'll hold another poll later in the year so you can vote on the resultant 10 to select the definitive Top 10 British rarities of 1959–2008, with the most votes crowning the undisputed Number One!

Some of these birds sparked a mass twitch, some of them were enjoyed by a tiny minority but all of them are — or were — on birders' Most Wanted lists. None more so than the first bird in our Top 30. In December 1959 a first-winter male Dusky Thrush took up residence on Hartlepool Headland in County Durham and stayed for an incredible 10 weeks. In 2009, rarity-starved British birders have travelled to Belgium to see Dusky Thrush as the wait for a twitchable British bird continues.

Long-billed Murrelet
Long-billed Murrelet, Dawlish, Devon (Photo: Graham Catley)

The 1960s were not even swinging before the next big bird landed on our list. And it WAS a big bird! The Suffolk 'Houbara' (MacQueen's Bustard) that strolled around the Minsmere area in November/December 1962 was famously photographed by Eric Hosking through his car window.

Houbara Bustard (Photo: Eric Hosking, courtesy of the Eric Hosking Charitable Trust)

The following year a First for Britain arrived just before Christmas —  and stayed for another five years. The Pied-billed Grebe found at Blagdon Lake in Somerset in December 1963 transferred to nearby Chew Valley Lake and was last seen in July 1968. It overlapped with one of the most improbable rarities of that, or any, era. The famous Brown Thrasher that arrived in the November of World Cup year 1966 in Dorset was to be found skulking near — or even in — the public toilets on Durlston Head until February 1967. Yes, it probably hopped off a transatlantic liner, but so what?

In 1968 there was a true rarity event, a nationwide spectacle that would be warmly welcomed if it were repeated 40 years later. The Nutcracker invasion started in August with the first birds making landfall in Norfolk and Suffolk. In the following months more than 200 birds were logged right across the country, from Shetland to Cornwall. Since then, only the occasional singleton has repeated that unprecedented arrival from the East.

The 1970s are often maligned (unfairly) on music and fashion grounds. But in birding terms this decade was Solid Gold Easy Action! In 1972, 'Albert' the lonesome Black-browed Albatross took up residence on the northernmost tip of Britain at Hermaness on Unst, Shetland. He returned every year until 1995 and was probably the bird that summered on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth from 1967 to 1969. And if he was also the bird that spent the summers of 2005/06/07 on Sula Sgeir in the Outer Hebrides, then his stay in British waters spanned 40 years! Another 'mega' that started his long stay in 1972 was the male Steller's Eider that inhabited the waters around Vorran Island off South Uist, Outer Hebrides until 1984. Amazingly, another male was summering on Papa Westray, Orkney from 1974–1982!

One of THE vintage years in the past half-century was 1975. Incredible birds arrived in Britain that autumn from both the East and the West and we've chosen two for our Top 30, one from America and one from Siberia.

Black Lark
Black Lark, South Stack RSPB, Anglesey (Photo: Mike Richardson)

It was the late, great David Hunt, the 'Scilly Birdman', who found a woodpecker drilling holes in trees on Tresco that September. It was Britain's first (and only) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and it stayed until October, by which time the 'Sibes' were arriving...among them another First, the long-awaited Siberian Rubythroat on Fair Isle. It was more than 20 years before another turned up (in Dorset in 1997) but Shetland (and Sunderland!) have recorded every other one.

The mid–1970s were a purple patch for Fair Isle with Tennessee Warbler, American Kestrel, Hermit Thrush and Bimaculated Lark among a crop of wonderful birds. But it was the unlikely setting of inland Somerset that attracted one of the most desirable birds of the past 50 years: a Wallcreeper overwintered in Cheddar Gorge from 1976 into 1977 — and again in 1977/78! The 1970s cheese marketing campaign had it just right: Cheddar Gorgeous!

Both 1981 and 1982 were astonishing years for rare birds, with both years logging an incredible nine Firsts for Britain. But we've been very selective and gone for rare bird events that linger long in the memory of those who were there — and those who weren't! The spring of 1982 was very warm and overshooting Mediterranean vagrants included a male Marmora's Warbler who took up residence on a moor in South Yorkshire and song-flighted over the heather from May until July. On Scilly that October there was a 10th for Britain —  and an 8th for Scilly —  but this Common Nighthawk was The One. It stayed for two weeks and performed much-appreciated flypasts around St Agnes lighthouse. Attention switched to the Cornish mainland in November when a strange grey-and-white thrush arrived in the Nanquidno valley. It didn't match any bird in the book —  but it did if you painted it chocolate-brown and orange! It was a very rare variant of Varied Thrush from western North America.

We're going to be controversial now. The Top 30 bird from 1983 was much-needed by many (and still is), stayed for three weeks at a bird observatory...and was seen by just a handful of people. Yes, it had to be the Spurn Tengmalm's Owl which arrived in March (or even earlier) while the heavily eroded peninsula was being repaired. The news was suppressed to prevent further damage to the area. (In an amazing double there was a Hawk Owl on Shetland later in 1983.)

The Scilly season in 1987 secured no fewer than three Firsts for Britain. But very few saw the Wood Thrush and Eastern Bonelli's Warbler. Many hundreds more made the boat trip to Tresco for the Philadelphia Vireo. There've been Irish birds before and since but this remains Britain's only record.

And from Tresco to Tesco (to quote the finder, Paul Doherty). Twenty years after the event, that Golden-winged Warbler in Kent from January–April 1989 is still the mass participation/mass hysteria twitch with thousands of participants. That year also secures two other nominations in the Top 30 (and they're not the Teesside Double-crested Cormorant and the East Yorkshire Blue-cheeked Bee-eater). In July 1989 two mysterious dark-rumped petrels were mist-netted at Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear. The following summer another bird was trapped — and this individual was re-trapped a total of seven times from 1991–1994! DNA analysis from blood samples confirmed these birds to be Swinhoe's Storm-petrels from the northern Pacific Ocean. And in October 1989, while Britain's finest were steaming over to Scilly, an American vagrant was blowing its own trumpet...in Norfolk. The Red-breasted Nuthatch in the Holkham pinewoods stayed until May 1990.

Pacific Diver
Pacific Diver, Farnham GPs, North Yorkshire (Photo: Craig Shaw)

The 1990s started with a bang. On four different offshore islands on the same day in late May 1990 there were four extraordinary birds. Skokholm's White-throated Robin was inaccessible and the Isle of Wight's Alpine Accentor was relegated to also-ran because the main events were a long-staying Pallas's Sandgrouse on Shetland and a newly arrived Ancient Murrelet on Lundy. There have been hundreds of Pallas's Sandgrouse in historic times but the 1990 bird was the modern era's Holy Grail. The Shetland birders who found it on their annual bird race will certainly go to Heaven. Meanwhile, the tiny auk hanging out with Puffins on Lundy liked it so much that he/she came back in 1991 and 1992.

It took the better part of a decade for another birding blitz to match May 1990 but there were plenty of good birds during the 1990s. Many would rank the Red-flanked Bluetail at Winspit, Dorset, in October 1993 as their bird of the decade. But for urban birders perhaps their favourite came in February 1996 with a Cedar Waxwing among the hundreds of Waxwings in Nottingham.

Still arousing controversy more than ten years after the event (mainly among those who didn't bother to go and see it) is the Slender-billed Curlew at Druridge Bay in Northumberland that stayed for four days in May 1998. It's one of the most recent, validated, records of this Critically Endangered species and faced a four-year scrutiny period before its acceptance on to the British List.

And then the 1990s ended with a flourish to match their beginning. October 1999 on Scilly was a twitchfest that saw Siberian Thrush, White's Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush eclipsed by a young Short-toed Eagle drifting over the islands.

Belted Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher, Peterculter, Aberdeenshire (Photo: Chris Jones)

How has 21st-century birding measured up? Well, our final six nominations in the Top 30 all come from the past decade and all of them are rare bird events that will live long in the memory.

'Mega alerts' don't come any better than 'Black Lark on Anglesey' and the obliging male that stayed for a week at South Stack in June 2003 became Bird of the Century for many! It emerged that another bird had been logged at Spurn in 1984 (and a third was in Norfolk in 2008). But it was even further back, in 1979/80, that the last Belted Kingfisher graced these shores, a long-staying bird in Cornwall. Surely a repeat was overdue? But on April the First?! Pull the other one! However, the 2005 bird was legit and it led birders on a merry dance from Staffordshire to East Yorkshire to North-east Scotland over the course of a week.

What other jokers could there be in the birding pack? Well, how about another Pacific alcid in Devon? The Long-billed Murrelet that bobbed around off Dawlish in November 2006 was totally unexpected. And then there was an inland Pacific Diver happily cruising around a North Yorkshire gravel pit in January 2007. At least that bird was mass-twitched. Better than that was Somerset's infamous Yellow-nosed Albatross in June 2007. Having crash-landed at Brean, it was photographed and released to continue its journey up the Severn —  and then across country via a fishing lake in Lincolnshire (photographed again) out to the North Sea. And not a single birder caught up with it!

Our final nominee was a lot more obliging. The White-crowned Sparrow that came to stay in Cley, Norfolk in January 2008 hung around until March and raised a staggering £6,400 for the village church restoration fund.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow, Cley next the Sea, Norfolk (Photo: Steve Seal)

So these are our Top 30 rarity events of the past 50 years. Vote for your Top 10 — or vote for several Top 10s!

Sorry - this poll is closed.
Top 30 Rarity Events 1959-2008
1998: Slender-billed Curlew in Northumberland (885 votes)
2005: Belted Kingfisher in Staffs/East Yorks/NE Scotland (885 votes)
1989: Golden-winged Warbler in Kent (722 votes)
1989: Red-breasted Nuthatch in Norfolk (694 votes)
2003: Black Lark on Anglesey (358 votes)
2006: Long-billed Murrelet in Devon (345 votes)
1989-94: Swinhoe's Storm-petrel on Tyneside (304 votes)
1990: Ancient Murrelet on Lundy (286 votes)
1962: 'Houbara' (MacQueen's Bustard) in Suffolk (248 votes)
1996: Cedar Waxwing in Nottingham (195 votes)
2008: White-crowned Sparrow in Norfolk (180 votes)
1976/77 and 1977/78: Wallcreeper in Somerset (165 votes)
1993: Red-flanked Bluetail in Dorset (151 votes)
1982: Varied Thrush in Cornwall (145 votes)
2007: Yellow-nosed Albatross in Somerset (138 votes)
1990: Pallas's Sandgrouse on Shetland (131 votes)
1999: Short-toed Eagle on Scilly (131 votes)
1982: Marmora's Warbler in South Yorks (123 votes)
1975: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on Scilly (119 votes)
1987: Philadelphia Vireo on Tresco (117 votes)
2007: Pacific Diver in North Yorkshire (109 votes)
1972-1995: Black-browed Albatross on Shetland (107 votes)
1968: Nutcracker invasion (106 votes)
1983: Tengmalm's Owl in East Yorks (74 votes)
1966: Brown Thrasher in Dorset (73 votes)
1972-1984: Steller's Eider on South Uist (57 votes)
1975: Siberian Rubythroat on Fair Isle, Shetland (55 votes)
1982: Common Nighthawk on Scilly (36 votes)
1959: Dusky Thrush in County Durham (31 votes)
1963: Pied-billed Grebe in Somerset (18 votes)
Total votes cast:6988
We'd like to thank the Eric Hosking Charitable Trust for their kind permission to use the Houbara image.

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (16)

No White-crowned Wheatear? No American Redstart? For me, the Dorset Red-flanked Bluetail is also up there, the only twitch where I saw grown men cry. How about a top ten mass dips? :-) I've attended a few. The Catbird was perhaps the most amazing.
   Bill Urwin, 14/02/09 12:47Report inappropriate post Report 
Shame that the St.Agnes Magnolia Warbler of 27th & 28th September 1981 didn't make the long-list. It was an adult male, and the rarity of a lifetime for me... mind you I was one of the finders... and I'm sure it rates highly with both those who did and those who didn't see it: It's still the only European record outside Iceland. There's precious little here for wader-lovers too... no Hudsonian Godwit, Little Whimbrel, Red-necked Stint, Oriental Pratincole; no Greater Sandplover or Caspian...more more
   Shane Enright, 14/02/09 14:13Report inappropriate post Report 
It's got to be the Slender-billed Curlew. Not just the first British record, but the second-last World record. All the others will occur again some time, Slender-billed Curlew won't, not ever. It'd take finding a Great Auk to beat it for rarity terms.
   Michael, 14/02/09 16:28Report inappropriate post Report 
I would have liked to have voted for the Balvicar Snowy Egret. A first and still is for Britain. Thousands came to Scotland, some several times for this possibly once in our lifetime and amazing bird? Maybe worth re-thinking your list Adrian or add a catagory for your favourite of all time.
   Bill Jackson, 17/02/09 09:06Report inappropriate post Report 
What a list! Doubt if anyone is still alive today who has seen ALL of the birds on this list, therefore I think it misses out a key few species in todays hi-tech birding. You've got to laugh at some of the ones that made it onto this list by Adrian, only a select few would have seen the Yellow-nosed Albatross, whereas Bill Urwin's comments are very valid likewise the mega twitch Slender-billed Curlew & Scotlands own Snowy Egret doesnt even get a mention! Treat this list as a joke & put it in your trash can where it deserves to be.
   Stuart Gibson, 18/02/09 10:07Report inappropriate post Report 
It's great that the BBRC 50th anniversary poll has already attracted so much interest. If you haven't voted yet, perhaps I should clarify what the poll is all about. BBRC is 50 years old in 2009 so here is a selection of great birds from across that period. No-one will have seen all of the Top 30 - although some venerable birders may have come close! We're not asking you to vote for birds only if you've seen them. We're asking for your opinion on what constituted the most amazing rare bird...more more
   Adrian Pitches, 19/02/09 11:33Report inappropriate post Report 
A very interesting list, bound to be controversial. I could query a few entries, for example the Red-flanked Bluetail couldn't possibly lay claim to be the definitive rarity event of the last half-century, an exciting day though it was! And what happened to the Aleutian Tern on the Farne Islands in May 1979 - surely one of the most unexpected finds of all time and, unlike Long-billed Murrelet for example, still the only European record.
   Andy Mould, 19/02/09 22:24Report inappropriate post Report 
Are the birds listed only those that have been reported to Birdguides ? Because Im shocked and stunned that the 2 sightings of Siberian Blue Robin are not included, its quite rare you know. I went to all the trouble of filming the Orkney sighting and now it seems that my chance of being a celebrity has been denied. signed Broken Hearted of Tunbridge Wells
   john kinsey, 20/02/09 12:12Report inappropriate post Report 
Are the birds listed only those that have been reported to Birdguides ? No: we've only been running our bird news services since 2000! As Adrian and others have said, the shortlist is bound to be subjective and to have included all British firsts would have resulted in an enormous and unmanageable list. Sorry if we've left out your favourites...
   Dave Dunford (admin), 20/02/09 13:58
A bit of fun but the result is likely to be skewed by timing & number of observers. Surely choosing 50 would have been less controversial & not miss out more worthy candidates. Cape May, Aleutian Tern, White-crowned Black, Rufous-tailed Robin & Chestnut-eared Bunting are Premiership. Pied-billed Grebe & Bluetail (despite the convenience of the first mainland one) are non-league. Some would add Nighthawk & Nutcracker (even the influx) to that. Indeed, I checked how many Pied-billed Grebes I'd seen - & I'd forgotten one. It is six (I think). My criteria would be - number of occurrences, whether twitchable more than once, likelihood of recurrence & whether a stunning species - for me 50% arguably failed to meet these but I had over 15 to replace them!
   Paul Chapman, 22/02/09 19:44Report inappropriate post Report 
Can't see the cliff swallow , the glaucous-winged gull and double-crested cormorant around the Tees,nor the Sora on the Scillies 1991.And what about the Caerlaverock White-tailed Plover,which are the only "less than ten sightings" I've got.And going beyond tose,the beautiful Squacco heron,Roller,Desert Wheatear In fact the only one I've seen on your list is Pied-billed Grebe,so on a personal level the rest are utterly meaningless.Though I may have liked to see them, I haven't.How can I vote for ten birds in that small group? The list is far too restrictive.
   Bruce Kerr, 23/02/09 11:07Report inappropriate post Report 
My vote goes to several birds in the year 89, when I was 19 and twitching, not caring about things like money, the future and jobs! The golden winged warbler was (and still is) the most amazing thing I ever witnessed, and i've never seen anything like it since, both the bird and the atmosphere there were truely spectacular, and not forgetting that at the same time in the country we had overwintering common yellowthroat AND baltimore oriole to enjoy too. . and what happened at the end of 89 into 90 - that elusive little red breasted nuthatch in norfolk that took me three attempts (and a lot of hitching to and from coventry) to finally catch up with!!! Oh and there was also 'elsie' the lesser crested tern of farne island fame as well! - fantastic year - fantastic birds!
   Dave T, 24/02/09 10:57Report inappropriate post Report 
many rare birds missing let us choose from the british list not your 50
   Peter Walsh, 04/03/09 16:08Report inappropriate post Report 
For me I think it's the birds that "haunt" me that I'd include - those that really go down in birding folklore - the things that seem never to be repeated (or at least haven't been), or those seen by the very lucky few - Moussier's Redstart in Wales, Blackburnian Warbler on Fair Isle, the quadruple whammy of Murrelet/Sandgrouse/Accentor/Robin, a monochrome Varied Thrush, the Norfolk Nuthatch, Aleutian Tern, Golden-winged Warbler at Tescos, a singing Cape May Warbler in June, a Nutcracker invasion, a controversial Curlew that was the first record of the species in that particular plumage, a Yellow-nosed Albatross tracked across the UK mainland...these and others like them are quite possibly once in a lifetime events. They are the quintessential rarities of the past half century.
   Dave Gandy, 05/03/09 08:52Report inappropriate post Report 
White crowned Sparrow over ALDER FLYCATCHER? Somethings gone wrong here. There will be another WC Sparrow, maybe there will never be another Alder Flycatcher, and im pretty positive it will go down in birding folklore. I also agree with Bill Jackson where's the Snowy Egret ! A great bird !
   Rob Laughton, 30/03/09 16:36Report inappropriate post Report 
I think it just about hits the spot, quite happy with my 6 of the top 10. Not sure about Alder Flycatcher though lol, though I do believe the Winspit R f Bluetail does deserve its place as it was such an unblocker for so many people. On the day at that time it was as good as anything regardless of the numbers seen since. The Wc Spadge only made it because it topical at the time and seen by so many people. The most obvious omissions are Blue-cheecked Bee-eater, Hawk Owl and one (Berryhead) or both the Devon white Gyrs
   Dave Barnes, 09/02/12 19:11Report inappropriate post Report 

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