Rarity finders: White-crowned Sparrow in Cheshire


Woolston Eyes is a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Warrington, alongside the Manchester Ship Canal. The reserve is managed by the Woolston Eyes Conservation Group and is the premier British breeding location for Black-necked Grebe, as well as hosting a wide range of other bird species.

At this time of year, a usual morning at 'the Eyes' would consist of newly arrived warblers beginning to establish territories, the Black-headed Gull colony starting to nest and the odd passage wader dropping in to feed up and carry on north.

When ringing, we are usually there for first light to try and have the nets up before the sun rises above the horizon. This allows us to catch birds as they start moving to feed for the day. Saturday 30 April started off particularly nicely as we caught a male Grasshopper Warbler that had been reeling not far from the observatory. The conditions certainly felt right for a movement of birds, with a possible rarity among them.

Arriving back at the observatory, Mike Miles was sitting at the ringing table. He said casually said to me: "I have a bird here that, if I was in New Jersey, I'd call a White-crowned Sparrow". My ringing trainer Kieran Foster's face dropped and it was clear he was as shocked as we all were. The regular local birders were called and the identification rapidly confirmed. We theorised that it had been blown over in an autumn storm and — due to the huge amount of fat it was carrying — that it had been recently feeding up to move on.

White-crowned Sparrow, Woolston Eyes, Cheshire, 30 April 2016
The orange hue to the bill and lack of a black line on the lores suggests that this could be a western bird (gambelli). A similar bird was recorded on Corvo, Azores, in October 2013. (Photos: David Bowman)

So, what to do? We decided the Morgan Hide bird feeders were the best place to view it from and therefore the best release site. It was released at 9 am and flew into the bush alongside the hide.

Now to notify the world. The twitchers among us knew what to do, and were on the phone to the news services in an instant, as soon as the all-clear had been given. The twitchers began to arrive in force at about 10.30 am. Unfortunately, the last confirmed sighting of the bird was at 11.45 am, when the bird dropped into long vegetation nearby.

The finding of a sixth record for Britain put an incredibly exciting spin on the day and is certainly the best bird I've managed to see so far! I'm glad some people at least got to see it before it was lost in the thick cover nearby.

Unfortunately, tireless efforts from myself and several other birders failed to refind the bird. Personally, I thought it would still be on the reserve but, unless it is seen under the feeders again or re-caught by the ringers, it is pretty unlikely that it will be seen again.

Still, this certainly made me think: keep your eyes open and you never know what will be around the next corner.

White-crowned Sparrow is a widespread breeder in boreal North America, wintering throughout much of the US south to Texas. It is largely migratory, though there are resident populations along the Pacific coast. First recorded on Fair Isle in May 1977, there are five previous British (the most recent of which was in Fife in May 2008) and one Irish record. As with other Nearctic sparrows, spring appears to be the best time to find the species; all but two of the previous occurrences have been in May. Registered users can access full details of all records of this and other species assessed by the Rarities Committee in our exclusive and fully updated Online Rare Birds database.

Written by: George Dunbar