The pre-Christmas weather was exceptionally mild and damp, with temperatures into double figures in many areas. We all got a shock early in the new year with freezing temperatures and snowfall in many areas, thanks to a very cold easterly airflow coming off the continent. However, there were some exceptional rarities found over the period, with yet another influx of Waxwings noted during the first week of 2003.
Easily the best find of the period was a Blyth's Pipit at Gringley Carr (Notts) in late December and present into 2003. This is only the 11th to be identified in Britain and is the first to be found inland. This rare pipit is very similar to Richard's Pipit, with a subtle suite of identification features that differentiate it. It breeds in Siberia and winters in India as far south as Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands and is the first to be found in Britain during the winter period. Thanks to the landowners of the site, many people were able to see (and hear) the bird during the 10 days that access was granted to the set-aside field it favoured. Often the views were brief and flight-only, but it was seen well in the open on a number of occasions. Once again this goes to show that anything is possible with rarities!
Another mega-rarity was a 1st-winter female Pallid Harrier in Norfolk. Found on the 23rd December, this bird was often seen arriving at, or departing from, a roost site at Warham Greens. As with the previous species, with patience and a slice of good fortune, there were occasions when this bird was tracked down during the day and seen well. Again, this is the first to be found during the winter period. Pallid Harriers winter from southeast Europe across the Middle East to India and in Africa, where it is thought that the majority spend the winter. In the same county, news of a sub-adult Black-browed Albatross passing south at Scratby on 31st December will have produced a churn of envy for many. A small number of Sooty Shearwaters and Balearic Shearwaters were also seen over the period, plus good numbers of Little Gulls in the southeast. Winter seawatching continues to produce surprises for those hardy enough to endure the elements.
In Suffolk a Dusky Warbler was found at Kessingland Sewage Works on 30th December, and remained to the early part of 2003. This was the 6th to be found wintering in Britain during the last decade, though the others have all been between Dorset and Cornwall. As with the Blyth's Pipit, yet another Siberian surprise, given that autumn 2002 was a poor one for 'Sibes'. In Norfolk the Yellow-browed Warbler at Stiffkey proved a popular distraction for birders chasing the Pallid Harrier, but less surprising was another found in Cornwall.
Elsewhere, 3 1st-winter drake Lesser Scaups in Dumfries and Galloway proved popular, with others in Herts and Glamorgan and the drake from last winter returning to Dorset - amazing to think that the first British record was as recently as 1987. A drake Baikal Teal produced a rumble of excitement - perhaps this was the same bird that was at large last winter? Further duck interest was provided by the Black Scoter off Llanfairfechan and a Black Duck in Co. Mayo. Rare gulls were just that, the highlight being a 1st-winter Bonaparte's Gull in Co. Cork, with a scattering of Caspian Gulls, Iceland Gulls and Glaucous Gulls providing enough of a draw for gull roost watchers. A Dotterel in Cambridgeshire was an unseasonable find, and could perhaps have been the Bedfordshire bird from late 2002 -winter Golden Plover flocks are always worth checking through as Surprises do happen.
One of the more conspicuous events of the period has been a major Arrival of Waxwings during the first week of 2003. A trickle of birds in late December were the forerunners of a deluge during the last few days and nearly 400 birds have now been reported. Most have been in East Anglia and the Northeast, though as yet few have penetrated further inland, and a handful have been in the west. The largest flock so far reported has been 26 birds, but this is likely to be exceeded over the coming days as disparate groups join together.