Alan Tilmouth: grey-headed heaven


Unless you've been living under a stone you will have seen or heard about the Grey-headed Lapwing in my home county of Northumberland. You may have actually twitched it, read news stories about it, flicked through a zillion images (some better than others) and endured the selfies or scenic vistas of a hundred-and-one birders taken as they strolled down the 'road with the view' to Low Newton scrapes. 

There have been many words already written about this huge rarity, the journeys undertaken, the views, the finder who, while deserving of credit, is modest enough to know that all finds are chance occurrences. As a dedicated patchbirder as much by circumstance as choice, Gary Woodburn will still be there following well-worn paths long after the lapwing has moved to flooded pastures new.

So, what could I add that might be new to one of the most hyped birds of the year? I could offer my personal story of valiantly finishing the vantage-point survey I was undertaking some 50 km away, before setting off in hot pursuit hoping the usual bank holiday A1 traffic carnage was running late. Or perhaps I could wax lyrical about the universe providing a just and well-deserving reward for once to someone involved in the creation of the wet pools that the lapwing was initially discovered on.

The arrival of the Grey-headed Lapwing in Northumberland, and the subsequent twitch, were memorable for our columnist (Gary Woodburn).

Reflecting on the bird several days later, and having been fortunate enough to make the short trek back up the A1 and spend a couple of hours gawping at the bird through the mist over the following bank holiday weekend, I have little doubt that this particular rarity will long be remembered by many birders from across the country.

It ticked a lot of boxes. It chose a splendidly iconic location in the north, with a castle in the background for good measure. The parking was easy and the walk was a short one, to be met by an outrageously good-looking 'foreign' wader marching about imperiously between dozing Greylags and grazing Brown Hares. The weather was decent and the views with no encroachment issues or negativity that can accompany some big twitches. I could go on. As one birder on Twitter commented: "Never have I been on a twitch and heard so much laughter coming from a bunch of birders." And this was true. Incredulity at the scene was rife, the pure joy of many obvious, the murmurs of appreciation rippling through the gathered crowd whenever this matt-grey and yellow-liveried, incongruous-looking shorebird deigned to stretch its wings or make a short flight to a new feeding patch.

Quick thinking from the finder created the opportunity to raise some much-needed cash for another local nature reserve at Embleton and a good chunk of money was donated by appreciative birders over several days. Despite relocating some 2 km to the north during the following days it was still proving to be a draw on Coronation Day, with many taking the opportunity to pay homage. 

With further sightings of the same bird in Fife, Moray and the Outer Hebrides as the month wore on, there's little doubt in my mind that the Grey-headed Lapwing will be one of the favourites to be crowned bird of the year when the time arrives. Big rarities and the shared experience of them don't come much better than this.


Written by: Alan Tilmouth