During the months of September, October and November, one of my favourite locations for birding is at the southern end of Whitburn, particularly Cornthwaite Park. This is mainly due to the fact hardly anyone checks it, and it has bagged a few rarities down the years, including Arctic Warbler, Greenish Warbler, four Pallas's Warbler, and many sub-rarities. On Monday the 22nd October 2001, a friend of mine, Dave Foster, had seen a Red-breasted Flycatcher in the Cornthwaite area. I had only heard it call in the evening, and I decided to go and have another look after work on the 23rd. I arrived at the site at 4.00pm, and wandered around the area in which the flycatcher had been seen. After 20 minutes of unsuccessfully searching, I decided to move out of the garden I was standing in to view from a more open area. As I was about to leave however, a call from a Pied Wagtail above made me look skywards. Incredibly, the wagtail was mobbing a swift about 15 feet above my head. Even with the naked eye I could see the swift was very brown in appearance. At this stage of the evening (4.25pm), the sun was setting in the west, and I was looking at the bird towards the east with a very dark cloud in the background. I recalled the comment by Keith Vinicombe "sometimes they're difficult, sometimes they're easy" - he could not have been more correct, as these lighting conditions were absolutely perfect for allowing me to suspect that the bird was a Pallid Swift.
That first view of the bird lasted for about a minute, and even at this early stage I was pretty sure that I had seen a Pallid Swift. The most striking feature when seen above my head was the contrast between the pale wing coverts and secondaries to the darker outer primaries. I quickly telephoned Dave Foster who had recently studied Pallid Swifts in Spain, and he began to give me a few more pointers as it had been 2 years since I had seen the well-twitched Hartlepool bird, and five years since I'd watched them in Majorca. Apart from plumage details, one of the most prominent features Dave had noticed were their slower and lazier flight compared to Common Swift. This was a feature I noticed with this bird, as it didn't seem to "screech" over the trees like Common Swifts tend to, and the bird did not seem to be too alarmed by the Pied Wagtail. My second view was again at close range five minutes later for about 30 seconds, and this time I saw the bird had blunter wing tips than Common Swift, and a very pale throat. This feature seemed to make the throat patch look very large compared to the small patch on a Common Swift, mainly because I think it simply "blended in" more with the overall coloration of the underparts.
My final view of the bird was five minutes later, and for about a minute. This time the bird was slightly further away (about 50 yards), but it banked in a favourable way in which I could clearly see its "eye". The bird then flew off in a northeasterly direction. Even though I had only seen the bird for a total of two and a half minutes, I was still confident enough of my sighting to put out the news on a national rarity line, as well as telling local birders to try for the bird at first light the next day. Despite searching by Dave and Ian Mills and myself that evening the bird was not seen again by dark. From the description I had given to the two observers (as well as pointing to a stone in the wall which was the exact light chocolate brown colour to the bird), both Dave and Ian also thought it was indeed a Pallid Swift I had seen.
At first light the following morning (Wednesday 24th), Peter Bell and myself were in the Church Lane searching the skies for the bird. After an hour of searching, Peter left for work, and I decided to go home for some breakfast before venturing out into the field again. What was to happen in the next four hours could not have been scripted! At 09:50am, I drove a couple of miles north of Whitburn to Marsden Quarry, which is traditionally the best place for birding in the local area.
On my arrival, I heard a few Blackbirds mobbing a bird in the Eastern Quarry. It didn't take long however to realise a Magpie was causing them their grief! So after a couple of minutes I headed towards the main part of the quarry, though the bushes were quiet and I had not heard any passerines. Despite thinking that I was wasting my time, I continued my search of the area. A few minutes later though, for some reason I looked up to the sky, and incredibly (like the night before), there was a swift right above my head probably 20 feet away! Panic soon set in again, and because the lighting conditions were variable on this morning, my first view of the bird was constantly from below, and in a pale grey sky, making identification difficult.
Again I telephoned Dave Foster (who by now was probably panicking more than me), and Ian Mills. Ian soon arrived at the site, by which time I had watched the bird for about five minutes from 10:10am. Unfortunately it had flown about a quarter of a mile away, but soon returned over the Quarry. By now I was pretty confident the bird was a Pallid Swift, and the cause was helped when Ian suggested we moved to the top of the Quarry to view the bird from above. It is not very often that you get the chance to look at swifts from above, but this bird was so confiding we spent about 20 minutes or so doing just that, savouring every subtle identification feature. During this time, Ian and myself obtained some crippling views of the bird as it flew close to us, and I remember saying a few times "Ian it's a Pallid Swift, it's a bloody Pallid Swift."
The changing light conditions were helping, as the clouds were heading eastwards fairly quickly. It was pretty easy to observe all the features on the bird within only a few minutes. These features had been the "largish" throat patch, the "eye" standing out, the stark contrast between the primaries to the secondaries and wing coverts, and the overall brown appearance of the bird. From both above and below, these views showed the contrast in the wings very well, and also visible were a lighter rump and head, as well as a light patch on the forehead. Again, I felt that this bird seemed to be gliding more frequently than Common Swift, with, as seen on the bird the previous night, only a few short flaps of the wings. A few more people soon arrived on the scene, including Dave Beveridge who shared the excellent views we had been fortunate enough to have. However, the bird started heading north along the coast, becoming distant, so we all decided to get into our cars and follow it northwards.
About a mile up the coast, ten or so birders were already watching the bird by the time I had got there, and again it showed exceptionally well for about 20 minutes before heading further along the coast for about half a mile. At this stage the time was 11:15, and I telephoned Dave again to see of he could have an early lunch. His reply was yes, so I quickly drove to his workplace, and we both headed back to the bird, where yet again it showed brilliantly. By now the sun was regularly catching the bird at very close range, which made it look even more lighter brown, just as the bird had done the previous night. By now there were about 40 or so people watching the bird, and incredibly, at roughly 12:50pm, whilst observers were still watching this bird, Dave Beveridge phoned to say he had another swift at Whitburn at the southern end of Jackie's beach. Dave had been watching the bird at Marsden all morning, and had returned to walk his dog before work, when he came across the second swift. Dave and myself then rushed along to find it was flying over a housing estate, and was indeed another Pallid Swift. This bird was watched for over an hour before heading north, and was later seen in Tynemouth. Amazingly, while we were watching this bird, we heard that the other one might have been taken by a Sparrowhawk!
The bird from the Wednesday morning, seen by large numbers of observers, had a broken wing feather in each of its primaries, but the one in Whitburn did not. From my views of the bird on Tuesday night, I could not say for certain that I had noticed this, but I was pretty sure if there had been any wing moult as such then I would have seen it. This led me to conclude that the bird on Tuesday night was most probably the one that was seen on the Wednesday afternoon after the Marsden bird.
The events perhaps all sound confusing, but for me they were a fantastic couple of days on my local patch. I would hazard a guess that no-one has ever written descriptions for, let alone found, 2 Pallid Swifts within 20 hours!
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