08/05/2002
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Most Wanted

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Earlier this year we asked BirdGuides' growing army of visitors what bird they would most like to see. The answers came in thick and fast: mega-rarities, species teetering on the brink of extinction and some surprises. Even in these rarity-obsessed days, there were many of you who just want to see some of those tantalisingly awkward species that brighten up a day's birding. After totting up the scores and delving into the record books, Stuart Winter unveils BirdGuides' 2002 "Most Wanted" List.

Everyone has a dream bird, the one that nestles in the imagination, conjuring vivid pictures in the mind's eye. Sadly, for most birders these ultimate birds remain holy grails to revere among the illustrated pages of field guides or to lament over as cheerless mounted specimens in museums. Even when we see photographs of mass gatherings of birders twitching some wayward rarity, it's unlikely that anyone of them is looking at their elusive dream bird. More often, the subject at the other end of a bank of telescopes is some small brown waif from Siberia or North America with little charisma, its true value only as a new tick on the ever-growing checklists of its observers. Dream birds are different. They are priceless treasures, birds that demand immediate days off work, arguments with spouses, cup finals forgotten or inspiring Lazarus-style recoveries from sickbeds. Each and every time a birder ventures out into the field he holds deep within a hope, no matter how remote, that this will be the day when that most wanted bird finally becomes reality. It's the ever-present optimism that makes birding such an enthralling pastime.

But what are our most wanted birds?

Britain's burgeoning army of 100,000 birdwatchers were asked recently what would top their dream list, what's the bird that even the most ardent non-twitcher would abandon all reasoning and travel to the end of the land to see. The survey was conducted by BirdGuides - the country's leading website for birdwatchers - and the results read like something from a game of fantasy birding. Some chose the most colourful birds ever seen on our shores, some chose the most elusive and others, well, they dipped into the archives to an age when Britain's birdlife was very much different. Votes came in for species with established credentials on the British List as well as for others, such as Black Woodpecker, whose visits to our shores have yet to impress the record keepers. All points of the compass were covered, too. Some dreamed of finding wanderers from the Far East such as Siberian Accentor and Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Those bejewelled sprites, America's wood-warblers, were also high on the wish list, with Cape May and Magnolia Warblers, American Redstart and Northern Parula all featuring high in the voting. Seabird aficionados came up with Magnificent Frigatebird and both Black-browed and Wandering Albatrosses. Those other masters of flight - the vultures - also came into reckoning with strong voting for Griffon Vulture and Lammergeier.

Not surprisingly, it was also apparent that many birders still want to see those scarce species that can brighten up any day's birding. Unusual breeding birds such as Hawfinch and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, uncommon spring migrants such as Bluethroat and Wryneck and that elusive winter visitor, the Waxwing, generated enough votes to create a second list - the Super Scarcities.

But it was the quest to find the "Most Wanted Bird" that monopolised the poll and produced a mouth-watering array of species, ranging from the most beautiful and most striking to those that hold legendary status. Phil Palmer, author of Firsts for Britain and Ireland and one of BirdGuides' rarity experts, supervised the survey which saw a total of 111 species receiving votes.

Phil said: "Most of the birds in the top ten did not come as a great surprise, as they are all truly stunning birds that are gap-fillers on almost everyone's British List. The ambitious birders who have seen everything would dearly give up a job or marriage for most of them."

"But no, the surprises were the super scarcities such as Hoopoe, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Waxwing. They all occur annually in Britain, and with a day out to the right place at the right time can be seen with relative ease. The £400 gamble required on any trip to Shetland is not essential to enjoy these birds. They're known as 'Tart's Ticks', and mention of 'needing' a Hawfinch in certain company would ensure one's position as a social outcast".

"Clearly there is a large divide in the UK's birders, those that will go anywhere at the drop of a hat, and those that are prepared to sit and wait, even if it means never quite realising a dream."

Most Wanted

So, if it's superlative birds you want, here is the most exciting list ever compiled by British birders - birdwatching's Dream Team.

1. Wallcreeper


Photo: BirdGuides

This is twitching's ultimate bird, a fact that earned it almost ten per cent of the entire BirdGuides poll. Its place in birding folklore was carved back in the 1970s when the same bird returned to Cheddar Gorge in successive years, an event that made national headlines and was, perhaps, the dawn of today's twitching phenomenon. The only subsequent sightings have been near Hastings in 1977 and a male seen briefly on the Isle of Wight in 1985. The next one will undoubtedly create the biggest twitch in history and one can only imagine the "oohs and aahs" as it opens its wings and reveals those tantalising crimson coverts.

2. Siberian Rubythroat


Photo: BirdGuides

Birders must have a thing about iridescent red. After the crimson wings of Wallcreeper, second place in the poll went to this celebrated denizen of the Russian taiga with a gorget seemingly hewn from the Crown Jewels. For most birders, Siberian Rubythroats evoke memories of a cold October morning in 1997 when a 1,000-plus crowd gathered in a Dorset coastal valley and waited an entire day for a sparkling male to emerge from dense cover. It was in vain. The bird had been seen by a handful of lucky observers the previous evening and was never rediscovered. A dead bird on Shetland last autumn further fuelled speculation that it is only a matter of time before one is twitchable for all!

3. Gyr Falcon

Sheer magnificence earns the Gyr third place. As an annual visitor to the remotest parts of the British Isles and Ireland, most top twitchers will have seen several, but who would not travel miles to see the world's largest falcon? To date, there have been 130-plus records but pure white Greenland birds - hailed by medieval kings as the most precious of all hunting falcons - remain tantalisingly rare.

4. Northern Hawk Owl

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Photo: BirdGuides

The sight of one of these diurnal owls perched high on an exposed pine snag evokes thoughts of taiga forests and the Midnight Sun. The last irruption of this species in 1983 produced massive numbers in Scandinavia but only one British individual - near Lerwick, Shetland - which was savoured by just thirty or so lucky observers. The next, even on Shetland, can be expected to create far greater interest.

5. Great Bustard

Superlatives in the Guinness Book of Records simply cannot do this bird justice. The heaviest bird in Europe radiates excitement, its powerful, lumbering flight only surpassed by the breath-taking splendour of its courtship display. Sadly, it is a spectacle that was last witnessed in Britain as long ago as 1832 when the bustard vanished as a breeding species. Since then, sightings have become all too infrequent, with only 22 records in the last 40 years. The last during the harsh, cold, winter of early 1987 seem an awfully long way away now.

6. Eskimo Curlew

With the twitching world still palpitating over the acceptance of the 1998 Slender-billed Curlew record - honoured in an RSPB press release as "the rarest British bird for two centuries" - what would happen if another Eskimo Curlew arrived in the UK? In world number terms, the SBC is almost common compared to legendary subject of Fred Bodsworth's best-selling novel, The Last of the Curlews. Most American authorities grudgingly accept that this once abundant bird of the open plains has been persecuted into oblivion. During Victorian times up to seven birds made it across the Atlantic, the last in 1887. In keeping with its terrible treatment in North America, all British records were of birds that had been shot.

7. Black-browed Albatross

Albert the Albatross most probably found himself in more newspaper headlines and TV news items than any other bird in history. For 23 years Albert - later discovered to have been a she, so perhaps Albertina is more fitting - returned without fail to the gannetry on at Hermaness looking for a mate. She was last seen in 1995, although may well have been the same bird that spent the mid-Sixties on Bass Rock, meaning that she achieved the proud age of at least 32 before disappearing. Despite being a virtual fixture on Shetland for so many years, Black-browed Albatrosses remain one of the most sought "megas" in twitching.

8. Ivory Gull


Photo: Kelvin H Jones

A surprise inclusion on the list, mainly because of the visit by one of these high Arctic icepack wanderers to the quaint setting of coastal Suffolk in December 1999. Over that month, hundreds, if not thousands, of birders watched it strut about the gravel beach, often feeding on fish and chips discarded by visiting twitchers. It's believed that a Millennium fireworks party scared the gull off at the stroke of midnight, frustrating year listers the following morning and ensuring that this species was once again a highly sought rarity (until the events of this winter when many a gap on a birder's list was carefully pencilled in).

9. Great Auk

This large flightless alcid, more than twice the size of a Razorbill, was last seen in Britain at Stac an Armin on St Kilda in 1840 - and was promptly battered to death! Within four years its few existing relatives were wiped out in Iceland. Despite the ignominy of being the only British bird to become extinct in modern times, it still holds category "B" status on the British List, a fact that earned it a sizeable share of the Most Wanted ballot. You can get an idea of what an impressive bird this must have been by paying a visit to Glasgow Museum, where a stuffed one is on display.

10. Pallas's Sandgrouse

Imagine how Victorian naturalists reacted to the mass arrival of these strange visitors from the Russian steppes with their honey-toned plumage and needle-like tails. In the summer of 1888, when Jack the Ripper was running amok among the alleys of Whitechapel, 5,000 Pallas's Sandgrouse arrived on our shores, gracing almost every county. The invasion was even the talk of the Parliament, with MPs of the day introducing emergency legislation to protect the sandgrouse from persecution. Sadly, many were shot, eaten or stuffed before the laws could be enforced. Twenty years later saw the last large-scale invasion and, since then, there have been a mere six records, the most recent in May 1990 when an adult male was found on Shetland during a bird race. The sandgrouse remained for two weeks, sparking another invasion - the visit by more than a thousand twitchers keen to fill one of the British List's most enduring gaps. Hundreds, if not thousands, of birders still dream about it appearing on their checklists and saving them a trip to Central Asia.

Super Scarcities

Votes also flooded in for some of Britain's best known breeding and migrant birds, but species which can be tantalisingly difficult to see on even an annual basis.

These are the top ten Super Scarcities:

  1. Waxwing
  2. Hoopoe
  3. Snowy Owl
  4. Bee-eater
  5. Golden Oriole
  6. Wryneck
  7. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
  8. Bluethroat
  9. Hawfinch
  10. Pallas's Warbler
Adapted from an article that first appeared in Birdwatching magazine.
Written by: Stuart Winter