28/10/2021
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300: the magic number

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The after effects of finding a singing Blyth's Reed Warbler on my local patch in June 2020 – a bird I had been desperate to hear singing for years and had never seen in my home county of Lincolnshire and only twice in the UK – took a while to register. 

Having lived and birded in the same county for most of my 52 birding years I had amassed a substantial list of county birds, amounting to a total of 365 species, but for an avid searcher, the list that you value most is the self-found one, those species that you have personally discovered and identified. 

Totting up this particular list in past years I knew that by early 2020 I was teetering on 299 'selfies' in Lincolnshire, and with all due respect to plain white herons I didn't want Western Cattle Egret to be the 300th. It was only late on the evening of 7 June, after the excitement and panic of the Blyth's Reed had subsided, that it dawned on me that this was number 300.


This singing Blyth's Reed Warbler was self-found species number 300 for Graham and a fine Lincolnshire record (Graham Catley).

And what a fitting milestone it was: a really rare bird in the county, only three previous autumn records, on my local patch where I have spent so many thousands of hours and with a song to rival any British bird – a top find. This got me thinking back to some of those other county self-found birds and the memories that they have produced over the years.

 

For starters

For my first notable 'selfie' I have to go back to 29 May 1969, when a Hoopoe jumped out in front of two teenage birders at Far Ings, Barton. The then county recorder Keith Atkin, from whom I took over in later years, told me that he only accepted the record as it was such an unmistakable species. It was indeed. It left an indelible mark and a belief that rare birds could occur where I lived and not just at hallowed bird observatories.


Hoopoe was the species that started it all off, with a self-found bird back in 1969. This one was photographed in 2014 (Graham Catley).

Some birds you find but can't count for varying reasons. Back from a visit to the Camargue in June 1977, about as far as we managed to venture in those days by car, and fresh with a head and notebook full of Mediterranean exotics, during a routine work-related walk around Barton Pits, a male Little Bittern appeared in front of me. What were the chances of that? Being in the right place at the right time when this skulker emerged from an impenetrable reedbed; it's never happened again in 43 years. 

But a few days later I was on my old local patch at Goxhill Haven looking through an assembled group of Common Swifts feeding low over a field when I came across a Pallid Swift. Surely not, but prolonged views confirmed the features I had seen just two weeks previously in southern France. I had no camera gear in those days, but a written description duly submitted to the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) eventually received the seal of approval of the '10 rare men' and a letter from the secretary congratulating me on finding a then first for Britain. 

All that remained was official endorsement from the British Ornithologists' Union's Records Committee (BOURC), but in what was almost unprecedented in political terms the BOURC rejected the record on the grounds of identification, not provenance, claiming a new ID feature which my bird did not possess. I have subsequently seen hundreds of Pallid Swifts and searched as many images, and that feature was incorrect, but the record fell by the wayside and the honour went to Kent the following spring.

That's one that isn't in my official county self-found list and neither is one of the best birds I have ever discovered as it's regarded as a subspecies. American Black Tern had amassed just three records in Britain prior to 2011, when I stumbled across a stunning juvenile at Covenham Reservoir in mid-September. A very long stayer and the first ever on the east coast, it gave a lot of pleasure to many birders, but numerically it has only the significance of my first self-found Black Tern, seen at Goxhill Haven in May 1970. As was the fly-by pratincole seen in August 1977 that couldn't be confirmed as a specific.


American Black Tern, the Nearctic formof Black Tern, is mega in Britain. This bird was found at Covenham Reservoir in September 2011 (Graham Catley).

 

Luck be a lady

Finding a lot of species generally means putting in a lot of time and effort, but luck also plays its part. From the mid-1970s to 1990 North Killingholme Pits, only a few miles from home, was something of a mecca for waders and I went almost daily for 10 years. From my first White-rumped Sandpiper in 1976 and Baird's Sandpiper in 1979 we get to 1982, when a Red-footed Falcon in May was followed by a summer-plumaged male American Golden Plover in July and an adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in September; not a bad annual crop of selfies but all due to time spent in the field.


An adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper undoubtedly sits as one of Graham’s finest discoveries. This bird was at Lincolnshire's North Killingholme in September 1982 (Graham Catley).

Similarly, a month of evening visits to my local gull pre-roost in June 2010 eventually paid off with a Bonaparte's Gull – and the realisation after 90 minutes of watching it that a Ring-billed Gull (still a mega Lincs bird) was sitting within 6 m of it. 

Then there are the days when you expect little but go out anyway. Such were many of my coastal ventures in the '70s and '80s when we took no heed of a lack of easterly winds but slogged the Lincolnshire buckthorn thickets anyway. One such September day in 1976 with a fresh westerly after a seawatch with three Long-tailed Skuas, I walked back to the dunes and a movement in the buckthorn caught my eye. It was a warbler, but wasn't right for a Reed Warbler, not even the right genus. 

It was a Savi's Warbler, a very notable first and the first I had ever seen, only having heard them at Walberswick. It stayed in the same spot for three days and was heard briefly singing on one date. In more enlightened times I doubt very much whether I would have hit the coast on a September day of westerly winds, but how many birds do we miss by maybe thinking we know too much? Just from the sheer chance of many rare bird finds there must be many more we miss. 

On 19 October 1980, not feeling too fit but spurred on by news of Pallas's Warblers just across the Humber, I did the usual Lincolnshire coastal slog all day for a Common Chiffchaff and Blackcap. Thoroughly disheartened I set off back to my car and in the last ditch a bird flew up and perched on a horizontal willow bough, wagging its tail and giving me that quizzical stare which said: "Do I fly or stay?" Fortunately, it stayed and Olive-backed Pipit was duly added to my life list and the county list – what were the chances of that find?


Always a joy to chance on, Greenish Warbler was added to the self-found list in 1976. This bird was photographed at Donna Nook in 2003 (Graham Catley).

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At other times we do something a little different and the birding gods answer. In a mega coastal fall in October 1990 I ended up at the back of some nice-looking gardens in Saltfleet. With little on show, I tried 'pishing', which of course never works in Britain. But that Dusky Warbler must have been reading the wrong books and it immediately answered my call with some nice chaks and even appeared out in the open. 

Sometimes circumstances beyond our control can inadvertently contribute to a find or two. The 2001 Foot and Mouth restrictions forced me into more time on my very local Waters Edge. This produced a song that I failed to recognise until the culprit, a male Eurasian Penduline Tit, revealed itself in a redcurrant bush – another local patch mega.

 

The lone birder

Having a big self-found list probably stems from a lot of hours birding alone, as I maintain that it concentrates the mind and chatter doesn't detract or blur your concentration. There are benefits to joining up with other birders and joint finds are OK, but there are always those times when you are the wrong side of the dunes to a Little Bunting that your colleagues see first or 200 m from a Terek Sandpiper which very nearly became 300 in May 2020.


After 40 years of searching Common Swift flocks, this Alpine Swift was discovered at the author's local patch of Barton Pits in May 2009 (Graham Catley).

The last 10 years have been very slow on the self-found species front; birds are in decline and with more people looking there is less chance of being the first to drop onto anything that does arrive. From 2010 to 2020 I only added three species to my county self-found list and there are always those species that seem to be a real enigma. 

Visiting a patch that consists of almost 400 hectares of reedbed and swamp on some 250-300 days a year, Purple Heron would seem a likely find, but there has only ever been one and I didn't find it. Similarly Black-crowned Night and Squacco Herons and Glossy Ibis all fail to feature on my self-found list, as does my county bogey bird: European Bee-eater.

 

Memories

Some birds you never forget and I can still vividly remember several of these initial sightings of what were all self-found lifers: the sentinel Great Grey Shrike perched on top of the bank side hedge at Goxhill Haven; coming face to face with the four glaring orange eyes of a pair of Long-eared Owls as I rounded a nearby hawthorn; diminutive Little Auks pushing up the Humber in a north-easterly gale in November 1975 followed the next day by a Pomarine Skua; and the Black Kite that approached and then soared over my head for five minutes as I lay on my back watching a first for Lincolnshire.


Another mega, this Lesser Crested Tern was at Saltfleetby in June 1993 (Graham Catley).

Early May 1977 I was walking across a meadow at what is now Far Ings, when a bird with a bright yellow rump flew past me. For a couple of seconds my brain said Green Woodpecker, before it dawned that this was that glowing yellow-and-black bird from the pages of my field guides: a male Golden Oriole; a lifer and a selfie, and to top it off it fed unconcerned in a hedge for the next hour with just me to enjoy it. 

The 1976 Greenish Warbler that appeared on the outside of a coastal willow while I was eating my sarnies, with a second bird found the following year in the same hedge accompanied by a juvenile Woodchat Shrike; an Arctic Warbler, the first bird I saw at Humberstone Fitties on October 10th 1978 after the fastest engagement ring purchase in history; and the Lesser Crested Tern on the beach at Rimac that saw me running off and leaving the family to negotiate their way back to the car park across the series of tidal creeks.


Parrot Crossbill is a prize find anywhere and this bird was discovered at Humberston Fitties in October 1982 (Graham Catley).

But, summing up all of the factors that can be involved with finding a real rare county bird, were the events of 22 June 1998. Most springs and summers at that time were spent logging breeding wildfowl and birds on my local patch of the Barton to Barrow Haven clay pits, a time consuming but rewarding habit. That day saw me trying to assess how many young a nesting pair of Common Terns had produced in a gap between thundery showers. 

Staring through my scope at the distant terns, a Little Swift flew through my field of view, albeit at a range of about 1 km. The ensuing mad panic of trying to get some notes, see the bird well and get other people on it were all eventually rewarded with success, but it was a stressful couple of hours before the first birder to arrive actually saw the bird.

This was still a very rare bird in Britain at that time and almost untwitchable, but some 200 people got to see it before it drifted off west in the evening. It took me another 11 years to find an Alpine Swift after 40 years of looking at Common Swift flocks, but it was fittingly again on my local patch and that connection of self-found local birds still rates very highly in the finder satisfaction stakes which brings us back nicely to that Blyth's Reed Warbler. 


This Little Swift at Barton Pits in June 1998 represented a monster find. Some 200 birders managed to connect with the bird before it flew off west (Graham Catley).

With quality sound recordings, unimaginably good photos and video there was never any question over this bird's identification – how many more amazing birds would we have unearthed and confirmed with that sort of recording equipment in the '70s? 

 

Written by: Graham Catley

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