Rarity finders: Red-breasted Swallow in Denmark


Local birding is full of ups and downs – including extreme highs! Last year, a local birder challenged myself and someone else to watch patches in our city, Helsingør. Normally I only focus on prime birding hot-spots, so I found the idea boring and almost foolish. But working full-time, I soon realised the joy of a little bit of birding before or after work on weekdays, particularly when finding the first migrants of the year and so on. Our patch is situated 2 km from the coast and we are quite happy to manage 120-130 species per year, this amassed by checking only on weekdays when I'm at work.

Thursday 9 May turned out to be quite different. Actually, it began much like the three previous days, at Rørtangvej. Following my usual route, I found my myself halfway through before something odd happened. Checking out the local Swallows at the farm and horse paddocks, something caught my attention. It was a bird that, for half a second, resembled a Common Swift, but then appeared more like a rather robust and powerful swallow, joining the local hirundines, which it looked different to. It had a slow but powerful flight and was silent.

Initially, Mikkel thought he had found a Red-rumped Swallow, a rare Danish bird with fewer than 10 records annually (Mikkel Høegh Post).


Mystery swallow

As the sky was dark, I could only see a pale red rump and a light throat. Yes! Red-rumped Swallow, I assumed, my first find of this species in Denmark (fewer than 10 are seen annually in the country). I called a local birding friend but he was a two-hour drive away, in the field with his son. I thought my other local birding mate was in Extremadura – it later turned out he was home and he was very helpful in keeping track of the swallow. 

This was a species that I could put on Bird Alarm, so I did. I ran down to pick up my camera and lens, which were at the car some 10 minutes away. At this point I was still excited and happy. As I returned with the camera, the sun appeared, offering much better light. I took loads of photos and now realised that there were no black 'pants' and the tail was akin to a Swallow, with white internal markings. The underside was strangely orange and the head pattern was, well, very strange. Disaster! I had to send out a disclaimer message on Bird Alarm: "Crap. The bird is back and in good light and I unfortunately seen very well: Swallow with light orange rump and light throat." 

I felt disappointed at having to send this correction and slowly, feeling down, I walked back to the car. I just sat there, Googling variations and hybrids, texting my old friend Joakim Engel (the man who inspired me to start birding some 20 years earlier) about the catastrophic outcome of the bird and my grief over having sent the wrong news out. He offered me much comfort, as good friends do.

Once images circulated online, Danish twitchers descended on Rørtangvej (Thomas W Johansen).


The first twitchers arrive

Suddenly, I was called by two birders with decades of experience. They were looking at the swallow at some distance, puzzled about why I sent the alert! I explained the detail I could see from my photos and, as they realised the situation, we briefly discussed alternative options, including hybrids. Such a bird had been seen before in Denmark, they said. 

Now I was happier – extremely experienced birders had also been fooled by the bird. I sent the pictures of the bird to a few people and headed home to my daughter, explaining to her that I might have seen a very rare hybrid. I looked at the pictures on my computer and uploaded a bunch to Facebook on a Danish birding group. My message said 'annoying swallow' and some detail on the observation, plumage, jizz, and so on. I asked if it could be a hybrid.

At around 12 pm I headed off to take my daughter horse riding, but first we briefly stoped to see the swallow. Meanwhile, my pictures were being scrutinised by Danish birders and I received an increasing number of calls and text while I was trying to focus on my daughter not falling from her horse. I was getting a feeling that it would be very unfortunate to spend the afternoon at the hospital with this interesting bird around! 


A mega realisation

More calls and more text messages came through. At around 3 pm the situation was getting very exciting as people were sending links to Red-breasted Swallow! I have never birded in Africa and did not know any of the continent's swallow species. But damn, the links of this species looked spot on for my bird – the tail pattern, face pattern/mask and all! To his later frustration, a good birding pal situated in the other part of the country urged me to contact the few local birders to get them to see if the swallow was still there. It seemed like people were now very interested in seeing it.

My friend Lars connected with it at 3.30 pm and could assure the first load of eager twitchers that the bird was still present. I think it was at this point that people started driving from different parts of the country. Soon after I convinced my very understanding and lovely daughter that I had to leave the horse riding, but she could stay and later be picked up by her friend's parents.

The migratory Red-breasted Swallow is found over most of Africa south of the Sahara but has never been recorded before in the Western Palearctic (Thomas W Johansen).

I was now rather confident that this was a very interesting bird, judging by the number of calls and messages from birders. I headed back and reconnected at the time as the first twitchers arrived. It was a very strange situation seeing the excited faces of happy twitchers: just then I realised that this was generally accepted to be a Red-breasted Swallow, a species never before seen in Europe. How had it made its way up to little Denmark and to our unknown local patch? It was absolutely surreal.

Some 50 twitchers got to see it before I was invited to wine and celebration at a local birding friend's house. While struggling to write this very story on a phone with rather unfocused and wine-affected tired eyes, we celebrated, and champagne was opened – remember to always keep at least one bottle in the cellar for situations like this! 

I had many exciting messages and calls that day. The best was a congratulations from my lovely fiancée, plus a call from the one person in Denmark who had previously found a new species for the Western Palearctic (a Sulphur-bellied Warbler on Christiansø in May 2016). If this bird is accepted on to Category A, there will now be two of us …

Red-breasted Swallow, Espergærde, Capital Region (Ib Jensen).


Written by: Mikkel Høegh Post

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