Rarity finders: American Cliff Swallow in Kent


On Tuesday 19 September, our daily two-hour seawatch at the North Foreland waste water pumping station, colloquially known as 'The Stink', had been relatively quiet. Apart from two Black Terns, the other notable birds had been some 2,500 House Martins – similar to a movement on the same day last year with the same amount of birds!

I joked to my fellow watchers – Pete Carr, Phil Beraet and Dave Ellingworth – that I'd checked every bird for a 'rumper'. Obviously it wasn't possible to check every single bird, but I had been keeping my eyes peeled and managed to pick out two Common Swifts and a few Sand Martins in the mass movement.

With the winds picking up from the west, Dave, Pete and I agreed to come back for an afternoon session and packed up. At about midday, Ian Searle, one of our other regular watchers, put out news of a Cory's Shearwater further down the coast, heading our way. I rushed down to find Dave had beaten me to it and was already scoping out towards the wind farm. 

Half an hour in and, despite clocking a nice Pomarine Skua heading north, there was no sign of the Cory's and the sea was very quiet. I decided to investigate the three hirundines flying over the cauliflower field behind us as one of them looked unusual to my naked eye. It was a bit brown, and with a not-so-white rump.

I walked 20 m to the end of the clifftop and picked up the bird flying towards me at distance. My heart rate rose slightly as I saw a compact, stumpy-looking bird which then dived down over the cliff showing its buffy-pink rump. As it swerved up sharply and bank at speed back over the cliff and away, I thought I'd seen a dark throat and a flash of white on the forehead.

American Cliff Swallow, North Foreland, Kent (Alex Perry).

"Bloomin' heck!" I exclaimed (well, it was actually one of the more commonly uttered Anglo-Saxon expressions, more suitable to a light industrial situation than the genteel pastime of birding). "Dave! It's a flipping American Cliff Swallow!"

Dave leapt from his chair with the lightening grace of a hobbled Cheetah. The bird did another circuit and he picked it up too. A quick check of his online field guide confirmed it.

I got on the phone to Pete Carr who arrived at the speed of a joyrider pursued by blue lights. Richard Collins, who had also seen the report of the earlier Cory's, appeared at the same time. The three of us watched the bird at distance as it hoovered up flies over the cauliflowers.

Not getting very clear views, Pete asked if I'd definitely ruled out juvenile Red-rumped Swallow. At that precise moment, I got a call from my wife who was waiting in bed for her lunch (she's not related to royalty, just post-operative and in pain!).

Guilt-ridden, I sped off home immediately (well, as immediately as it took to grab a couple of shots with my camera). The four-minute drive home was excruciating, filled with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Had I invented the throat, square tail, blunt stubby wings and white forehead and really been looking at a young Red-rumped Swallow? The horror!

Anyway, in between fixing my very understanding wife her hospital-inspired lunch (cheese and beetroot sandwich), I uploaded my rubbish pictures and there were two that proved I was not losing the plot. I calmly told my darling dearest that I needed to pop out again and sped off to 'The Stink', pulling over to safely call Pete. I said: "It's a ******* cliff swallow!". "We agree," he replied, calmly. The update went out and the rest is now Kent birding history.

As people started to turn up, I went and sat and stared out at the sea on my own. It was quiet. Like it often is. That's seawatching at North Foreland for you – just a Kent first to go with your daily skua!

American Cliff Swallow, North Foreland, Kent (Robin Elliott).

Written by: John Carnell

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