24/02/2009
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Here's some that got away

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I've been waiting for a quiet time in the birding schedule to share a few of what I might call 'hard luck stories': tales of the 'ones that have got away'. I'm sure we've all got stories of 'mystery birds' we'd like to return to — or rarities overlooked that someone else came along and stole from us minutes or hours after we'd passed by. Here are some of mine after twenty-five years of birding.

My first episode occurred very early on in my birding life, in fact when I was still a schoolboy, and when I was still what I would call simply a birdwatcher, rather than the more pro-active birder or twitcher that I later came to be. I'm not going to provide what you'd call 'excuses' for every one of these 'errors' in my birding 'career', but I shall, in most cases, offer what I'd call 'mitigating circumstances'. This was October 1982. I was fifteen years old. I was very lucky to have been brought up right next to the coast and not far from one or two very good birding spots that were to fulfil their promise for me on numerous occasions in the course of the next ten or so years. But in 1982 I'd barely heard of a thing called Pallas's Warbler when I got a phone call to tell me one had occurred on what was to become my local patch not too long after this particular event. Whitburn, Tyne and Wear: Saturday morning; I learned for perhaps the first time what it was to 'dip out' on a bird; to miss seeing something that had been present the previous day, the first Pallas's Warbler for the county in this instance. Along with ten or fifteen others who hadn't managed to make it in time on the Friday afternoon, I stared at a small area of elderberry bushes in the corner of Marsden Quarry, unsuccessfully trying to will this exciting-looking bird I'd just recently seen a picture of into view. But it was gone. Remarkably, two nights later, I got a second telephone call telling me that no fewer than three of these tiny Siberian vagrants had somehow arrived on our little stretch of coast. (This was, after all, the October of the first famous Pallas's invasion to Britain with over a hundred of these former gross rarities appearing.)

Pallas's Warbler
Pallas's Warbler, Donna Nook, Lincs (Photo: Graham Catley)

The trouble on this second occasion was that tomorrow was a school day for me. I worked out I would have about twenty minutes to spare first thing in the morning if I was to go to one of the sites were these Pallas's had been seen, before I'd have to hop on to a bus back into town and arrive at school in time for the morning register. I must have awoken about five in the morning and, unable to get back to sleep in my excitement, I left the house soon after, walking the four miles to the site to be there by dawn. I found myself in a scenario that must have had a deep resonance for my young formative soul at the time. I had only twenty minutes of it, but was an occasion that was to burn deeply into my being, and one that still holds echoes to this day. For a start it was extremely foggy; the Whitburn foghorn that was attached to the Souter Point lighthouse is at little more than ground level, and I had to count the pauses between its deafening bellows in order to work out when to press my hands against my ears as I passed en route to the Pallas's. A light to fresh easterly wind brought the cold, salty tang of the North Sea fresh to my nostrils. These were your classic fall conditions; and the imprinting they had on my mind was completed by the fact that here at my feet, actually on the ground, were literally scores of Goldcrests — a fall of the like (despite all the hype such east-coast falls engender) that I only rarely ever encountered again in my ten years of birding the east coast as a local patch.

I hurriedly checked through as many Goldcrests as I could, hoping desperately for a match for the picture of the Pallas's Warbler I'd been staring at all last evening in my Hamlyn Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. But none came. Along a small, bare gully at the point where I decided my twenty minutes were up and where I would have to turn round and head for the 8:30 bus, I glanced briefly at a small brown warbler that I immediately ignored as not being at all right for a stripy Pallas's. "Chiffchaff," I thought, shaking my head in disappointment. Minutes later, as I ran for the bus, I met two other birders stepping out of their cars and heading down to have a proper look for yesterday's Pallas's.

"Nothing there," I assured them.

Fatal words.

It wasn't until I was home from school that night that the same friend who'd rung me about the Pallas's' appearance was back on the phone. "Radde's Warbler," he said, "found by the two blokes who said they'd walked past you first thing this morning. They said it was in the first gully after the Lighthouse. You must have walked right past it!"

Radde's Warbler
Radde's Warbler, St. Mary's, Scilly (Photo: Gary Thoburn)

I didn't just walk right past it! I'm sure, even to this day, that it was the same bird I had dismissed as a Chiffchaff when still looking for stripes. I can almost still see the whopping big supercilium on the thing and the dark eye-stripe that made it sort of 'glare' back at me as it hopped on the ground. I'd never heard of Radde's Warbler until that moment, but it still cut me deep. The thought that birds that were supposed to be in central Russia or southeast Asia were turning up within short walking distance of my house was almost too mind-boggling to comprehend. I'm not sure I necessarily made a vow there and then that one day I would avenge the despair of missing that Radde's, for I was a fifteen-year-old still interested in cricket and football and girls and other things, but the more and more serious I became about my birding the more and more the memory of that bird came back to haunt me.

Still, at least seven years later I did get to find my own Radde's in the local area, but that's another story: you begin to get the idea of the current theme I'm developing. A brief mention in passing might be made here of a couple of things from my Whitburn days that may or not have been anything special: a big diver that flew past our seawatch one time that we only saw going away from us and which, to me at least, appeared to have the pale face and pale bill of a White-billed; and an intriguing bird in an old notebook that describes a 'Common Gull with a red bill!' — a bird I believe even now was exactly just that, although the recent occurrences of Audouin's Gulls in this country have made me wonder just occasionally whether I wouldn't like to go back in time and revisit that particular event. No, this next bird is one that mystifies me greatly and it makes me wonder why I didn't make more of it at the time. It was 1991, midsummer, still on the coast of Whitburn. I don't think I was seriously birding on this day, just casually enjoying the local terns. I was right down on the slippery seaweed-covered rocks beneath the Whitburn Coastal Park and when you're down there the sea sort of seems level with your line of vision or even, though this is not possible, slightly above you. Maybe this is just the strange way our mind's eye has of remembering impressions and events that are long past and why we have to write things down as a birder. What I do recall is this incongruous shape appearing on the sea right next to me. It's July in Whitburn, and all we expect to see that close in are Cormorants; even Shags are rare at this time of year. I don't have the actual notes here on Scilly with me, so I don't recall how many times or how the long the bird dived and surfaced for, but I don't think it was that many. I have a feeling I saw the bird once and thought: "What the Flip is that?"; watched it dive; then saw it a second time for about five or ten seconds before it promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. I think it was a Hooded Merganser! Like I say, I didn't make much of it at the time; I don't even think I mentioned it directly to anyone, but if there's one bird I'd definitely like to go back and revisit (well, apart from the one I'm going to tell you about at the end of this piece) then this is it. As I say I was practically eye-to-eye with the thing, and I had enough time while I was seeing it to realize what it wasn't — wasn't a Shag, wasn't a grebe, wasn't an Eider — and enough time to say "it's a Merganser", but apart from realizing it was too small for a Goosander or a Red-breasted Merganser, I don't think the thought of Hooded Merganser ever actually got round to forming in my head. And by this stage of my life I didn't have the excuse I'd had with the Radde's Warbler where I could say to myself "I've never heard of it", because I'm sure I was well aware of the existence of Hooded Merganser by this time from the back pages of my Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain & Ireland. Maybe it was just because I didn't — and still don't — take the possibility of rare ducks all that seriously (because of the high probability of their being escapes) that I just simply blanked the event from my mind. It wasn't until a few years later when I encountered my first 'real' Hooded Mergansers in British Columbia that the penny dropped, and I matched the sort of sludgy-looking grey plumage of the females/young males with the bird I had seen at Whitburn. In fact, every time I saw them in Cape May (not all that often), I made the connection again. The truth is: I'll never know; and to be honest in this instance, the same as my attitude in 1991, I don't really care. But it is interesting all the same.

These next two stories form a matching pair and they sit at either end of my mantelpiece of 'near misses', holding all the other ones together. Actually they are from America: Cape May to be precise; and they are personally heartbreaking or laughable in their own way, depending on how you look at them — but at any rate they differ slightly from the 'I wish I could go back in time and see what they were' scenario because in these two instances the mysteries were in fact solved (much to the delight of hundreds of North American twitchers, as you will see.)

Unlike one of my prime raisons d'etre when out birding in England, I didn't go looking for rarities in Cape May. Why would you? There was plenty to keep a Brit birder happy there for years without having to join the locals hoping for a Ruff, or a Curlew Sandpiper, or a Little Stint each autumn. I didn't join in the rush to see a Northern Wheatear, and I waited three days too long before going and dipping on a Northern Lapwing that turned up one New Year's Day ten miles up the road. But because we were out birding all the time, every year, myself and my friends would come across one or two things that were regarded as 'initials birds' in a local context. I did end up finding a couple of west-coast vagrants in my time in Cape May, such as Lark Bunting, Western Tanager and Audubon's Warblers, but I can't say they stood out as highlights above and beyond the humdrum of everyday local patch birding, quite simply because there was nothing in the least bit humdrum about having Cape May as your everyday local patch! There were no dull days in Cape May to speak of: sure there were days when there were far fewer birds than others, and weeks on end without obvious visible migration, but there was never nothing at all to look at.

So here I am getting in my excuses early, before I tell you about a real humdinger of a clanger I dropped not long into my first full summer in America!

Actually, very soon after I arrived in Cape May, a week or so in fact, I came across what was the best rarity I was to find in all my ten years there. Even though no-one else saw it, I am still 100% satisfied that the bird I had flying around my head for half an hour on the South Cape May Meadows one evening would have been the first Black Swift for the entire east coast of America, if I'd bothered to submit it. I just didn't get round to it, but take it from me it was one! This event was, I suppose, significant in the run-up to what happened about ten days later, when I failed to follow up my suspicions that I had seen a bird never before recorded in the whole of America, not just the east-coast states. I had just bumped into my mate Pete Brash on the Meadows for the first time in twelve months, and we were sat there having a right good old chinwag when a group of birds that had been hidden to view behind an island in the middle of the marsh got up, flew around briefly, and then landed back down again.

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"Did you get on to that tern?" I said to Pete. "The summer-plumaged marsh tern with the white cheeks!"

Pete said he'd seen what he'd thought was a Black Tern — a scarce but regular enough migrant to Cape May, breeding in reasonable numbers on the Canadian Great Lakes — so we got on with our chat. All the time though I had this uncanny feeling we should be getting a better look at that bird. As twenty minutes elapsed, and another story ended, I decided it was time to make a move. "I really should go and have another look at that bird," I thought to myself, just as I stood up to investigate. But right at that moment it got up from behind the 'island' and flew off. All by itself; away from us; across the marsh back towards Cape May town. Still it looked wrong for a Black Tern: its wingbeats were too shallow; its body too grey, not black; its cheeks too white.... Whiskered Tern had never been recorded in America before. I'd had to stick up for my Black Swift that nobody else had seen but I decided to keep my mouth shut about this one. I didn't want to be deported for stringing so soon after my arrival in the United States. I wrote it down in my notebook: "Moulting adult Black Tern at the Meadows, looked a dead ringer for Whiskered!" and left it at that.

Whiskered Tern
Whiskered Tern, Kenfig NNR, Glamorgan (Photo: Steve Hinton)

Bad call. About a week later the same bird was seen again and nailed as a Whiskered Tern by Richard Johnson, my room-mate at the time. This first for the United States hung around for another two or three days and was seen by several hundred big American twitchers, flying in from as far away as Texas and southern California. If I'd been at home in England I am sure I would have been mortified. In my more grotesque moments as an overly serious birder, I'd convinced myself it was as much of a sin to overlook a real rarity as it was to try and string a common bird into something rarer. As it was, here in Cape May, I was just slightly embarrassed, and I soon got over it. It's not every day one gets the chance to add a new bird to a National List — especially a country as huge and as well-watched as the United States — and I simply had to accept I'd missed my chance and assume I'd never get the opportunity to rectify the 'mistake'.

Four years later I did it again! Or didn't do it again, if you like. It was November 1997; at the same South Cape May Meadows; and on a cold, grey late autumn morning a large flock of Tree Swallows was circling about in the gloom. I thought for a second I might have picked up a Purple Martin with them, but I lost it; and, reassured it was too late for that species, I passed it off. Minutes later, I spotted the same bird again. This time I was more convinced. High in the air, I watched it for several minutes, noting its larger size and broad-based wings. The Tree Swallows were paying constant attention to it — harassing it, and generally letting it know it wasn't welcome — and this fact alone continued to sow seeds of doubt in my mind. I couldn't imagine the robust, dashing, falcon-like Purple Martins of summer being bullied around like this. Perhaps it just looked as out-of-place to the Swallows at this time of year as it did to me? I got back to the house and looked in Dave Sibley's Birds of Cape May, contenting myself that Cape May's latest-ever Purple Martin by three weeks had set the seal on what had been an interesting morning. I hadn't been home long when I got a knock on the door to tell me that a Gray-breasted Martin — a first for the United States! — had just been discovered at Cape May Point, no more than half a mile from the Meadows. The fact that the bird turned out to be a Brown-chested Martin (a dead example of which had been picked up in Massachusetts several years earlier) and was therefore only the first live record for North America; and that several seasoned local birders had also called the bird a Purple Martin originally, hardly assuaged that initial gloom that I had messed up a second time. Of course, we all make mistakes from time to time, but how often do our clangers turn out to be National Firsts. Again, I offer the mitigating circumstances that I hadn't even known of the existence of Brown-chested Martin when this one showed up (it is an austral migrant from the southern hemisphere), so if I have an excuse for a sloppy piece of birding then that was it. I saw the bird several times over the following week, and really enjoyed it — along with several other east-coast rarities during a golden period for Cape May's birders.

Brown-chested Martin
Brown-chested Martin, Argentina (Photo: David Ferguson)

It strikes me as a bit odd considering I've put in so much time birding for rarities in Britain and Ireland that I've never come close to finding a bird as rare here as Whiskered Tern and Brown-chested Martin are in the USA. Specifically, I've never come across anything with fewer than ten previous occurrences (Olivaceous Warbler is my best at 13 records). I have said to myself in the past that I would prefer to find a bird with a specific pattern of occurrences (White-rumped Sandpiper, Red-footed Falcon, Radde's Warbler and so on) rather than a complete one-off. But I'm definitely beginning to change my mind now. Is it because I'm not putting 'out there' the mental desire to find a less-than-ten that I'm not 'receiving back'? Is it because, like my beloved Liverpool football team, deep down I don't actually believe I can win the Premiership? Or is it something more basic and down to earth — such as the fact that I overlook the opportunities that are presented my way? The Hooded Merganser may have been one such example; the next one's a killer — the one bird more than any other I can remember that I wish I could go back and revisit...and it's all the worse for me because it's fairly fresh in my memory.

I started writing these BirdGuides articles five years ago at the invitation of Russell Slack, after I found a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Ballycotton. I went on to discover a couple more cracking waders at that site, some of which I described for BirdGuides, but I'm not sure I've made too much mention of the passerines I came across there. In former years, Ballycotton picked up the odd passerine scarcity, such as Icterine and Melodious Warbler, even Lesser Grey Shrike and Greenish Warbler, but by the time I got to birding there in 2001, its potential as a small-migrant site had been forgotten in favour of some more consistently likely-looking spots such as Cape Clear, Galley Head and the Old Head of Kinsale. In my six years there I managed to find a couple of Citrine Wagtails, a Dusky Warbler and a Booted Warbler that I hope might have put it back on the passerine (as well as the shorebird) map. But I might have overlooked the one bird that would have got its potential noticed much more widely than any of the above 'regular vagrants'.

It was a windy Saturday in late October; I went down to Ballycotton from Cork City in the car of my old mate Andre Robinson, accompanied by Harry Hussey, one of the more rabid of a growing breed of very keen young Irish birders. Andre and Harry wanted to check the vast Ballycotton marshes, but as long as it was October I was more interested in persevering with the village gardens as my one last chance of a passerine rarity before the month ended. I got dropped off, and we went our separate ways. I'd used up two of the three hours available to me without seeing anything of interest, when suddenly, somewhat to my surprise, a Pied Flycatcher swooped out of a stand of sycamores and landed on a rock about ten yards in front of me. I say 'Pied' Flycatcher, but I was immediately struck by the rather late date, and what I at first took to be a slightly greyish cast to the otherwise typical brown and white plumage of a female/first-winter of that species. Intrigued, and a little excited, I settled down for a better look.

While the wind was blowing a gale through the sycamores, I was concerned lest the bird chose to go back in there and I would lose it for ever. Fortunately, it chose to give me a couple of decent views for a few seconds, perching each time on the rocks of the seafront, while I crouched down and tried to brace my binoculars against the wind. Even more interesting than the initial hint of grey to the brown plumage was what I could clearly see to be two definite white wing-bars on both sides of the bird. Both the greater coverts and the median coverts were clearly tipped white, where on a typical Pied Flycatcher usually only the former feature shows. Now I was really intrigued, though strangely enough, I didn't have that typically shaky feeling you usually get when you just know you're on to something good. Perhaps that's because I was aware, with a hint of resignation, that the separation of female Pied and Collared Flycatcher is one of the hardest identification problems of all for the European field ornithologist. I knew some small feature had come out years ago after a female Collared Fly had been trapped on Fair Isle, but I couldn't for the life of me recall what it was; and I remembered a bird I'd watched closely for an hour in Israel years ago that had ultimately proved beyond me to be certain was a Collared, and not a Pied.

On closer examination, I couldn't be sure with this Ballycotton female whether or not it was really any greyer than a typical female Pied Flycatcher. Neither could I be sure that the primaries were any longer than usual, this being another small pointer for Collared as far as I could remember. Rather too quickly, perhaps, I told myself it was 'just' a Pied Flycatcher — an unusually late bird perhaps, but still just a Pied Flycatcher. I certainly wasn't imagining the double wing-bar, but maybe I'd imagined that greyish cast to the plumage I thought I saw when the bird first flew by? Maybe I should have called for a second opinion? Anyhow the bird had moved back into the sycamores now and rather than looking for it again it was time for me to head to the pre-arranged meeting place to join up with Harry and Andre. I decided I'd simply tell them I'd seen a Pied Flycatcher and hope I could persuade them to come down and have a look at it for themselves. It turned out Andre had a specific need to get back to the City and couldn't even spare five minutes to go back for a quick look. I didn't do anything to try to change his mind and so, still feeling a little unsatisfied, I let the thing go.

Semi-collared Flycatcher
Possible Semi-collared Flycatcher, Waxham, Norfolk (Photo: Peter Simpson)

What was I thinking? Why did the outside possibility of Semi-collared Flycatcher never once cross my mind? It was about a fortnight later when I was flicking casually through a Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa that the thought first came to my mind that I might have let go an even rarer bird than the Collared Flycatcher that I had at least at first suspected. The plates in the African guide showed me that it is the Semi-collared Flycatcher that almost always shows double white wing-bars in all female and immature plumages, the other two only rarely. This I later confirmed in BWP. I know Harry Hussey did tell me later that he'd read that some notes had been made on the incidence of female Pied Flycatchers with double wing-bars but he couldn't remember where and I haven't been able to find any myself. I'm not for one minute claiming that my bird was a Semi-collared Flycatcher (though I'd be interested if anybody has details of the claim(s) made in Norfolk earlier this year) — only that I shudder when I think I let it go so easily without even giving the matter any real serious thought. The thought of what I might make of a similar bird turning up on St Agnes in late October, a month after the main passage of Pied Flycatchers had ended, crossed my mind several times during that period. But it's too late to think about it now.

Please, if this year on St Agnes I get the chance to find something really rare for Britain, let it be something I can easily identify!

Written by: Graham Gordon