01/06/2009
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British Birds: The final countdown - vote for your Best Rarity Ever

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Forget the European Elections, forget Britain's Got Talent, the vote that really matters is your vote for the Best Rarity Event of the past 50 years. We're marking the 50th anniversary of the British Birds Rarities Committee with a poll to find which rare birds have excited, intrigued and amazed British birders the most.

The Top 30 has now been whittled down to a Top 10 and birders can now vote for their Number One. In the first round of voting earlier this year, nearly 7,000 votes were cast against our list of rarities from the past 50 years. Every birder will have his/her own personal Top 30 rarities of the past half century depending on what they've found, what they've twitched or what they'd like to have seen! In our list (see below with their final votes) we chose birds from all five decades, stretching from the long-staying (10 weeks!) Dusky Thrush in Hartlepool in 1959 to the famous White-crowned Sparrow in Cley in 2008.

It wasn't a list of Firsts for Britain, although there were Firsts on the list. Instead, it was a list of rare birds that many birders got to see and can cherish those memories. So there was no Magnolia Warbler, White-crowned Black Wheatear or Moussier's Redstart in our Top 30. But Golden-winged Warbler, Wallcreeper and Black Lark certainly made the cut. And, perhaps understandably, it was the biggest twitches of the past two decades that polled the most votes. But one bird from nearly 50 years ago, seen by very few of today's birders, also attracted sufficient support to make it into the Top 10 shortlist.

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Cedar Waxwing (Photo: Steve Young)

Top 30 Rarity Events 1959-2008: Results from first vote
1998: Slender-billed Curlew in Northumberland (885 votes)
 12.7%
 
2005: Belted Kingfisher in Staffs/East Yorks/NE Scotland (885 votes)
 12.7%
 
1989: Golden-winged Warbler in Kent (722 votes)
 10.3%
 
1989: Red-breasted Nuthatch in Norfolk (694 votes)
 9.9%
 
2003: Black Lark on Anglesey (358 votes)
 5.1%
 
2006: Long-billed Murrelet in Devon (345 votes)
 4.9%
 
1989-94: Swinhoe's Storm-petrel on Tyneside (304 votes)
 4.4%
 
1990: Ancient Murrelet on Lundy (286 votes)
 4.1%
 
1962: 'Houbara' (MacQueen's Bustard) in Suffolk (248 votes)
 3.5%
 
1996: Cedar Waxwing in Nottingham (195 votes)
 2.8%
 
2008: White-crowned Sparrow in Norfolk (180 votes)
 2.6%
 
1976/77 and 1977/78: Wallcreeper in Somerset (165 votes)
 2.4%
 
1993: Red-flanked Bluetail in Dorset (151 votes)
 2.2%
 
1982: Varied Thrush in Cornwall (145 votes)
 2.1%
 
2007: Yellow-nosed Albatross in Somerset (138 votes)
 2%
 
1990: Pallas's Sandgrouse on Shetland (131 votes)
 1.9%
 
1999: Short-toed Eagle on Scilly (131 votes)
 1.9%
 
1982: Marmora's Warbler in South Yorks (123 votes)
 1.8%
 
1975: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on Scilly (119 votes)
 1.7%
 
1987: Philadelphia Vireo on Tresco (117 votes)
 1.7%
 
2007: Pacific Diver in North Yorkshire (109 votes)
 1.6%
 
1972-1995: Black-browed Albatross on Shetland (107 votes)
 1.5%
 
1968: Nutcracker invasion (106 votes)
 1.5%
 
1983: Tengmalm's Owl in East Yorks (74 votes)
 1.1%
 
1966: Brown Thrasher in Dorset (73 votes)
 1%
 
1972-1984: Steller's Eider on South Uist (57 votes)
 0.8%
 
1975: Siberian Rubythroat on Fair Isle, Shetland (55 votes)
 0.8%
 
1982: Common Nighthawk on Scilly (36 votes)
 0.5%
 
1959: Dusky Thrush in County Durham (31 votes)
 0.4%
 
1963: Pied-billed Grebe in Somerset (18 votes)
 0.3%
 
Total votes cast:6988

With the votes of the Luxembourg jury now in, the Top 10, in ascending order, looks like this:

  • Squeaking in at number 10 is the Cedar Waxwing skilfully identified amongst thousands of Bohemian Waxwings in Nottingham city centre in February 1996. Among its many admirers was the local Tory MP — and then Chancellor of the Exchequer — Ken Clarke.
  • At number 9 is that charismatic MacQueen's Bustard (back then still unsplit from Houbara) that stalked the fields around Minsmere in Suffolk way back in November 1962. The black-and-white images snapped by Eric Hosking through his car window remain some of the most memorable rarity photographs of all time. And how much would modern birders love to connect with another MacQueen's on British soil?! (One made it to Belgium in January 2003...)
  • At number 8 is the first of two Pacific alcids to make it on to the shortlist. The Ancient Murrelet spotted on a Puffin cruise to Lundy in May 1990 was totally unexpected but joined a growing list of Pacific seabirds (Aleutian Tern, Elegant Tern) that had reached the British Isles. It kindly lingered long enough for boatloads of birders to make the trip across from the Devon coast. And it must have enjoyed the attention because it returned in 1991 and 1992!
  • Another Pacific seabird is number 7 on our shortlist. And if the murrelet was mind-blowing, the Swinhoe's Storm-petrel tape-lured at the mouth of the River Tyne in July 1989 was beyond comprehension. It took a blood sample and DNA analysis to confirm this extraordinary record — and by then another bird had been trapped at Tynemouth. And this individual returned to the ringers' mistnet a further seven times before she was last trapped in July 1994.
  • Long-billed Murrelet
    Long-billed Murrelet, Dawlish, Devon (Photo: Graham Catley)

  • And at number 6 yet another bird from the northern Pacific but this one was borderline predictable after one was netted in a lake in landlocked Switzerland in 1997. Nevertheless, the Long-billed Murrelet found off Dawlish in Devon was very much appreciated by twitchers in November 2006. (But not by those of us who were in The Gambia at the time...) So a double whammy of murrelets for Devon — and both voted into the Top 10 of our rarities poll.
  • At number 5 perhaps THE most wanted Palearctic passerine. It landed on a Welsh clifftop — and so many birders' lists — in June 2003. The Anglesey Black Lark was deservedly popular and its discovery coincided with detective work on an old logbook from Spurn in East Yorkshire that revealed Britain's First Black Lark had actually landed almost 20 years earlier, in April 1984. But it was only another five years after the second that the third arrived, in Norfolk (of course) in April 2008.
  • But two more passerines attracted more votes than the Black Lark in our first round of voting. At number 4 was the long-staying, often infuriatingly elusive, Red-breasted Nuthatch that was found in the extensive pine woods of Holkham, Norfolk in October 1989 and hung around until May 1990. The only decent American passerine of that autumn and on the East coast!
  • The bird that took bronze in our initial vote was golden in every other respect. Another East coast American, the Golden-winged Warbler discovered in Kent in January 1989 was another long-stayer (three months) and remains, by common consent, the winner of the 'biggest twitch' award. Twenty years after the event, no other rarity has yet to elicit the hysteria experienced on that Maidstone housing estate on the first Saturday after its discovery. But despite its iconic status, the Golden-winged Warbler did not attract the most votes in the first round of our poll.

  • Slender-billed Curlew, Morocco (Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com))

  • In a dead heat for the top spot with 885 votes apiece were arguably the most important bird sighted in Britain in recent times and a 'gripback' that had been 25 years in the waiting. The first-summer Slender-billed Curlew at Druridge Bay in Northumberland in May 1998 stayed for four days but took four years to gain acceptance, after rigorous scrutiny by BBRC. More than a decade after the sighting, it remains a controversial addition to the British List. But as a first-summer bird it proved that, somewhere in the vastness of Siberia, a pair of Slender-billed Curlew bred in 1997. There have now been no accepted sightings since 1999 (in Oman) and this Critically Endangered species is now the subject of an intensive international search for the last surviving individuals.
  • The other bird sharing the number 1 spot in our first round of voting was an April Fool's Day 'mega' in 2005 that travelled from Staffordshire to East Yorkshire to North East Scotland. But when it finally settled near Aberdeen the Belted Kingfisher made a lot of birders very happy. It had been a long wait since the Cornish bird in 1979-80. And many of those who saw it must have voted for it in our poll!

Now we come to the final round of voting. There are 10 species and you have one vote. The poll closes at the end of June and the results will be announced in August on the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the British Birds Rarities Committee.

With thanks to the RSPB for use of the Slender-billed Curlew image, and Steve Young for the Cedar Waxwing picture. Steve has a wonderful website.
Written by: Adrian Pitches, British Birds