Review of the Week: 16-22 October 2023


Storm Babet dominated in an unsettled October week which brought gale-force winds and torrential rain to eastern counties, especially in Scotland. The storm saw wind speeds reach up to 110 kph as brisk easterlies battered north-east England and Scotland. However, they did bring them some excellent vagrants from Fennoscandia and central Europe, as well as providing some rare seawatching opportunities along North Sea coasts.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that the rarest bird of the week arrived from the south, with Britain's first Western Olivaceous Warbler in Shetland at Skibberhoull, Whalsay, on 20-21st. The identity of this subtle Iduna didn't become clear until its second day, meaning that twitchers from the British mainland missed out. The species is tricky to separate from the closely related Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, with useful identification features including a bulky, 'swollen' bill, uniform sandy-brown colouration on the wings and upperparts, and lack of a wing panel. Helpfully, the bird was trapped and ringed on its second day, allowing it to be confirmed on biometrics and for a DNA sample to be obtained. This species, which is a breeding visitor to North Africa and Iberia, has occurred only twice before in northern Europe, following birds at Eggegrund, Sweden, in September 1993 and Heligoland, Germany, in November 2022.

Western Olivaceous Warbler, Whalsay, Shetland (Bethan Clyne).

Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire sparked the biggest twitch of the week and one of the largest of the autumn so far when a news of a potential Red-headed Bunting came to light on 21st. It was actually first seen and photographed on 19th; however, the discovery of a Siberian Stonechat in the very same spot just minutes later saw the bunting promptly forgotten about!

Away from adult males, the species is incredibly tricky to separate from Black-headed Bunting, meaning the identification took time to resolve completely. The most important features clinching the identification are a grey mantle with broad, arrow-shaped black streaks and prominent, triangular head streaking that continues down the nape and into the mantle streaking (neither of these is apparently shown by Black-headed Bunting). The bird also has a greenish-yellow rump showing no brownish or rufous tones, with further pointers towards Red-headed Bunting including two or three thin streaks at the top of the breast and a plain, uniform face, showing no contrast between the throat, submoustachial stripe and ear coverts.

Red-headed Bunting, Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire (Tom Hines).

Retained juvenile median coverts and a white fringe to the inner tertial (also a juvenile feature) help to age the bird. Some photos also appear to show reddish feathers beginning to appear in the face around the eye and in the crown, but others don't and it's not entirely clear whether or not this is an artefact of some images. If confirmed as present, these – plus the rump colour and lemon-yellow undertail coverts – help to identify it as a male. Despite being a juvenile, its heavy wear can be explained by the fact that both Red-headed and Black-headed Buntings complete their post-juvenile moult once they reach the wintering grounds, meaning they don't appear as fresh or well-groomed as most autumn passerines.

The species was common in captivity until the export ban in 1982 and this corresponded with a large number of escaped birds (with small flocks occasionally even appearing at sites such as Portland, Dorset). As a result, the taxon currently finds itself languishing in Category D of the British list, although a review was recently prompted by the British Ornithologists' Union Records Committee (BOURC) to determine whether the species should be added to Category A. The frequency of occurrences has rapidly decreased since the ban and there are only four additional records since the turn of the century – at Baldhoun, Isle of Man, on 16-17 June 2001, Cattawade, Essex, on 21 May 2002, Monreith, Dumfries and Galloway, on 8-9 June 2004, and Out Skerries, Shetland, from 2-8 October 2010.

Red-headed Bunting, Out Skerries, Shetland, 4 October 2010 (Chris Turner).

East-coast seawatchers were treated to an amazing spectacle during Storm Babet on 20-21st – provided they could remain upright! The coasts of Fife and Lothian bore the brunt of hurricane-force winds, which pushed high numbers of Leach's Storm Petrels close inshore. Some 23 sites around the Firth of Forth boasted sightings, including a mammoth 70 past South Queensferry, Lothian, and 34 off Musselburgh. Further south, five were off Cut End, Lincolnshire, with birds noted as far south as Essex. An impressive seawatch at South Queensferry on 20th also saw the site record 21 Grey Phalaropes, four Little Auks and three Long-tailed Skuas.

Little Auk, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland (Frank Golding).

In Northumberland, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea hosted a notable Grey Phalarope gathering of its own, with up to 12 dancing in the surf over the weekend. Despite the species being widespread on the east coast, just one was found inland – to Foulridge Reservoirs, Lancashire. Small numbers of Little Auks were also widely scattered in eastern areas between Orkney and Lincolnshire. One past Thorpeness, Suffolk, was the furthest south. Two breeding-plumaged White-billed Divers were off the east coast – at Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire, on 18-19th and Port Seton, Lothian, on 22nd.

Grey Phalaropes, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland (Frank Golding).

White-billed Diver, Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire (Lee Johnson).

Three juvenile Long-tailed Skuas were blown up the River Humber as far as the Humber Bridge, though it was Little Gull that was by far the most ubiquitous species to be blown close inshore. A mega count of 1,600 was logged heading east past Sheringham, Norfolk, on 21st and numbers made their way inland across central and southern England, in scenes more akin to their appearance in spring south-easterlies.  

Little Gull, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland (Frank Golding).

Seabird action was otherwise concentrated in the South-West, peaking with an adult South Polar Skua past St Ives, Cornwall, on 13th and a Scopoli's Shearwater photographed off Scilly on 15th. A last-ditch attempt for the Red-footed Booby before the Sapphire is beached for winter maintenance saw it present and correct on Bishop Rock on 22nd, the same day a first-winter Bonaparte's Gull was on St Mary's. The Dorset Forster's Tern, Cornwall Azores Gull and Co Leitrim Double-crested Cormorant were all noted this week.

Azores Gull, Skewjack, Cornwall (Mark Ferris).

A biblical irruption of Continental Coal Tits has been underway across Fennoscandia for several weeks – including an outrageous 69,000 over Hanko, Finland, on 2nd – with the frontrunners reaching Britain in recent days. The first two harbingers reached East Halton, Lincolnshire, on 14th, while a mass arrival in the Shetland since 19th totalled an amazing 104 birds, including no fewer than 14 on Fair Isle. In Orkney, four were on North Ronaldsay, with two more on Mainland. In mainland Britain, meanwhile, birds were at South Shields, Durham, and Flamborough, East Yorkshire (three).

Continental Coal Tits, Fair Isle, Shetland (Georgia Platt).

A small run of smart Fennoscandian subspecies reached Shetland this week – a Black-bellied Dipper was high on the cliffs at Easter Lother, Fair Isle, from 20th, at least two Northern Bullfinches were on Mainland and Northern Treecreepers at Helendale, Mainland, and Valyie, Unst. Additional Northern Treecreeper candidates were in Northumberland and on Tiree, Argyll. At least four Coues's Arctic Redpolls were across the islands among a welcome influx of Mealy Redpolls, with a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll on Unst.

Northern Treecreeper, Baltasound, Unst, Shetland (Robbie Brookes).

Swifts this late in the autumn are always likely to be Pallid and three were confirmed this week: over Kingsgate, Kent, West Runton, Norfolk, and Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk. Additional Common or Pallid Swifts not identified to species level were over Norfolk, Suffolk and Hampshire; more surprising for the time of year was an Alpine Swift over Cley Marshes, Norfolk, on 21st.

Storm Babet also delivered a run of stellar passerine finds to the mainland east coast, including a couple of Pied Wheatears – birds at Montrose Basin, Angus, and Lowestoft, Suffolk. This was overshadowed in Suffolk by the county's first Great Snipe since 2010 at Gunton on 20th, though it would only be seen by the finder. Three Red-flanked Bluetails, four Red-breasted Flycatchers and four Olive-backed Pipits were also along the east coast, with Bluethroats in Lincolnshire and Shetland. A White's Thrush, meanwhile, proved a welcome treat for resident birders on Papa Westray, Orkney, on 18th.

Pied Wheatear, Montrose Basin, Angus & Dundee (Dan Pointon).

An incredible Radde's Warbler record involved one in landlocked Bedfordshire, at Ampthill Park on 21st. Perhaps equally remarkable, it isn't even the first county record! Two more were on the East Yorkshire coast, with one also on St Mary's, Scilly. Dusky Warblers were at Whitburn Coastal Park, Durham, and on Westray, Orkney, while a Melodious Warbler was in Cornwall. Worthy of an honorary mention is a Yellow-browed Warbler picked up by a Motus Tower at Dungeness NNR, Kent, between 1 am and 2 am on 18th that had previously been tagged at Vlieland, Netherlands, on 8 October.

Some 18 Richard's Pipits was a decent number, with totals along the east coast reaching double figures. A Shore Lark west over Strumpshaw Fen RSPB, Norfolk, on 17th was a notable 'vis-mig' record, with others at eight sites between Borders and Kent. Otherwise, a Red-throated Pipit was on St Mary's, Scilly, and a Greater Short-toed Lark continued on Harris, Outer Hebrides. A Little Bunting over Eashing, Surrey, on 16th was the most noteworthy of 18 logged this week.

Shore Lark, Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk (Sam O'Donnell).

Little Bunting (front) and Lapland Bunting, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Sam Goddard).

Seven Great Grey Shrikes was a welcome total, particularly if a few go on to spend the winter in Britain. Islay, Argyll, retained a Lesser Grey Shrike throughout and Red-backed Shrikes were in Scilly, Durham and Caithness. Waxwings arrived in numbers along the east coast as far south as Norfolk and 20 reached Ireland, including a single flock of 18 at Inch Island Lake, Co Donegal. Totals of five Common Rosefinches, five Rosy Starlings, nine Wrynecks and 10 Hoopoes were amassed.

Lesser Grey Shrike, Sanaigmore, Islay, Argyll (Joe Graham).

Rosy Starling, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Richard Stonier).

While it was a week that led birders to look east, New World visitors continued to grace the BirdGuides sightings page. The American Yellow Warbler remained at Hoswick, Mainland Shetland, throughout, as did the Black-and-white Warbler on Inishbofin, Co Galway. The second was briefly joined by a Grey-cheeked Thrush on 20th – the first Catharus thrush to be recorded in the county. Bryher, Scilly, hosted a Red-eyed Vireo.

American Yellow Warbler, Hoswick, Mainland, Shetland (Bethan Clyne).

Black-and-white Warbler, Inishbofin, Galway (Sam Viles).

The week's most exceptional string of Nearctic finds, however, came in the form of no fewer than three Green Darner dragonflies on Scilly, with a female on Bryher on 19th followed by two females on St Agnes on 22nd. These are the first records in Britain since the 1998 influx. One more – also a female – was on Ouessant, France, this week. An American Painted Lady butterfly was on St Mary's on 22nd.

Green Darner, Bryher, Isles of Scilly (Barry Reed).

Afton, Isle of Wight, was the unexpected locale for a fly-over Rough-legged Buzzard on 20th, with birds at Saltholme RSPB, Cleveland, and Quendale, Mainland Shetland. One near Kilnsea, East Yorkshire, early on 21st moved to an extensive area of set-aside at Stone Creek that afternoon, where it was joined by a young Pallid Harrier late on 22nd. Further Pallid Harriers were at Wyke Down, Dorset, Lundy, Devon, with the Cornish Northern Harrier again at Goonhilly Downs on 16th.

New Purple Herons were at Whelford, Gloucestershire, and St Mary's, Scilly, with one still in Cornwall. Both Cornwall and Somerset retained Squacco Herons at the start of the week.

Purple Heron, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Scott Usher).

The first Long-billed Dowitcher for Sussex since 1992 – a juvenile – was widely appreciated at Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, from 16-18th. Cornwall boasted a new bird at Walmsey Sanctuary and the long-staying adult was again in North Norfolk. A Buff-breasted Sandpiper was back at Tacumshin, Co Wexford, with three Lesser Yellowlegs continuing and the American Golden Plover total reaching 13. Semipalmated Sandpipers were again in Lincolnshire, Co Dublin and Co Cork, with White-rumped Sandpipers in Cos Cork and Londonderry. A couple of juvenile Baird's Sandpipers briefly graced Clonakilty, Co Cork, with others at Harper's Island, Co Cork, and South Slob, Co Wexford. The Spotted Sandpiper lasted at Lough Gill, Co Kerry, until 16th; two Eurasian Dotterel and five Pectoral Sandpipers were also reported.

A rare Irish Ferruginous Duck record saw one at Inch Island Lake, Co Donegal, on 19th, while the perplexing run of Midlands records continued with a female at Clifton Pits, Worcestershire, on 17th. Both Blue-winged Teal remained at Tophill Low NR, East Yorkshire, with additional totals including five American Wigeon, three Green-winged Teal and 16 Ring-necked Duck. New Surf Scoter were off Suffolk, Devon, Scilly and Caithness, with a lingering bird in the Outer Hebrides.

Red-breasted Geese persisted at Budle Bay, Northumberland, and on Islay, Argyll. Five Snow Geese were reported and Taiga Bean Geese numbers at Fannyside Lochs, Clyde, peaked at 116. Another was with Pink-feet at Thorne Moors NNR, South Yorkshire, with a Black Brant at Langton Herring, Dorset.

Surf Scoter, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Sam Goddard).


Western Palearctic

Undoubtedly the most extraordinary record of the week hailed from Eastern Europe, where an Ovenbird was stunningly trapped and ringed at Chituc, Romania, on 17th. Unsurprisingly, this is only the third record for mainland Europe after birds in Norway in 2003 and France in 2019. Other eastern European 'firsts' would include a Western Black-eared Wheatear in Poland and a Baird's Sandpiper in Belarus, while a Ross's Goose over Cape Põõsaspea was the second record for Estonia. A Pied Bush Chat at Batumi was a first for Georgia, with an Oriental Skylark present the same day.

Baikal Teal, Lørenskog, Viken (Simon Rix).

Also mounting a challenge for the most unexpected record of the week was news of Norway's first Middle Spotted Woodpecker. Found on Senja in the Arctic Circle, it was more than 1,000 km from the species' typical range. Surely a British record is on the cards in the near future? An eclipse drake Baikal Teal visited Lørenskog on 16th. In Iceland, an American Redstart was at Hellnar and an elusive Swainson's Thrush visited Selvogur, though it was the Great Spotted Woodpecker at Grindavík that attracted the most interest from twitchers.

Tree Swallow, Corvo, Azores (Zbigniew Kajzer).

Action in the Azores was characterised by an unprecedented fall of Catharus thrushes, with a minimum count of at least 12 Swainson's on Corvo on 19th, as well as three Grey-cheeked Thrushes. Another action-packed week on the famous island included a role call of Tree Swallow, American Cliff Swallow, two White-eyed Vireos, two Ovenbirds, Tennessee Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, three Indigo Buntings, two Scarlet Tanagers, three Bobolinks, four Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Common Nighthawk, four Red-eyed Vireos and a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

At least three Swainson's Thrushes were on Flores, with further sightings comprising a Grey-cheeked Thrush, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, Bobolink, Rose-breasted GrosbeakRed-eyed Vireo, two Hudsonian Whimbrels, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron and a lingering Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Additional Swainson's Thrushes were on both Pico and Terceira.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Corvo, Azores (Zbigniew Kajzer).

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo on Île-d'Yeu, France, on 20th was unfortunately found dead the following morning, with an immature Red-footed Booby also found dead on Groix. Île d'Ouessant hosted a Brown Shrike and Blyth's Pipit. Germany's fourth Swainson's Thrush was on Sylt on 15th, with a Stejneger's Scoter, Ross's Goose and Brown Shrike in Denmark. Two Ross's Geese continued in Belgium.

In Spain, a South Polar Skua and Brown Booby flew past Luanco, Asturias, on 14th and the Belted Kingfisher remained at Lekeito. Surprisingly, a Corncrake found dead on 3rd is the first confirmed record for Gibraltar. Linosa, Italy, held a Moussier's Redstart and the White-faced Whistling Duck was again on Sal, Cape Verde.


Written by: Sam Viles