A last-minute change in my New Year plans meant that I was neither far away from Shropshire or hungover on New Year's Day, so I decided for the first time in many years to have a full day's birding. However, it was pouring with rain first thing, so this just became a visit to Venus Pool NR to sit in the hides.
There was nothing unusual on the pools so, despite the rain, I went up to have a look at the regular buntings and finches in the top field. Three or four Corn Buntings were nice and gave me encouragement to walk right round the large top field.
I was coming back along the hedge running parallel to the road but had more or less given up at this stage, as I was becoming pretty soaked through. Then, about 50 m away from the car park, a couple of Reed Buntings caused me to pause, as they were accompanied by a larger, very pale-looking bunting.
In my rain-spattered binoculars it was clearly a Yellowhammer-type bird, but there was no hint of any yellow anywhere in the white ground colour of the underparts and it had white-edged primaries contrasting with the rufous rump. I took a moment and asked myself why it wasn't a Pine Bunting.
Amazingly, it hadn't flown off at this stage, although it was flicking its tail and giving little Yellowhammer-like calls in a nervous response to me standing just 5 m away. For the next few minutes, I studied the bird at very close range as it slowly worked its way deeper into the hedge. At this stage I cursed my earlier decision to leave my camera in the car due to the rain, as I would have absolutely nailed it!
Further observation allowed me to conclude that it was indeed a lovely female Pine Bunting, with white underparts streaked neatly down the flanks, a bright chestnut rump, white edges to the primaries and obvious 'rare bunting' marks behind the ear coverts. At this stage I didn't get a look at the pure white underwings which showed up on some of the subsequent photos, effectively ruling out any stray Yellowhammer genes.
It was deep in the hedge now, so I edged round and ran back to my car, grabbed my camera and ran back — but those few minutes were all it needed to disappear. I hunted around for a while but there was no sign so I told a few other people in the hides and put the news out into the world.
As I was leaving for Australia the following day, I had to hope that someone else would re-find it again in among the big bunting and finch flock which is present there every winter. Fortunately someone did, but I was away south and missed all the fun of an even rarer event: a big Shropshire twitch!
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