As you have all (the two of you who read this blog – hello Mum and Dad!) probably noticed, I spend a lot of time outdoors. Most of this time is spent staring at wildlife through a pair of binoculars. With this in mind, surely, it should only be a matter of time before I stumble upon something that is particularly uncommon – a rare species that isn’t often found. I would be an ornithological discoverer… A leading light in avian detection… A pioneer in birdy unearthing. Or something like that.
Obviously, this had not yet happened… Until, perhaps, last week during a trip to East Yorkshire…
I had arrived at RSPB Bempton Cliffs a little before the visitor centre opened, so as any normal person would do, I went for a nose around the overflow car park – That is normal, isn’t it? There were a few Tree Sparrows flitting about in the nearby trees, a handful of Goldcrests being typically elusive and a solitary Chiffchaff skulking around in the brambles. At least it appeared to be a Chiffchaff – small, olive-brown and with the hint of a yellow stripe above the eye (if you are a knowledgeable birdy person, this stripe above the eye is called a supercilium. If you are me – who is not – it is known as a stripe above the eye).
On closer inspection, there was something about the Chiffchaff that didn’t look quite right – It had pale wing bars (which are distinct markings on a bird’s upper wing, not a place where pilots go for a drink), which Chiffchaffs do not have. This bird was clearly something different… but what was it?
I desperately tried to take some photographs that would help me remember what I was looking at, because, no matter how hard I try, I really struggle to recall what I have been looking at as soon as I’m not looking at it anymore. My brain doesn’t work like that.
However, this was proving to be a near impossible task – The bird in question just wouldn’t stop moving for any length of time. It just kept going about its business – and its business certainly didn’t involve stopping and posing for photos. Sadly, my ageing camera is incredibly slow at responding to a press of the shutter button and, coupled with the fact that I’m pretty slow at pressing the button in the first place (sadly, I’m ageing too), this meant that all my photos were of a leafy area where the bird had been at some point in semi-recent history.
As a small amount of frustration was beginning to kick in (I refer you to a similar experience with a Goldcrest here), I changed my tactics. I decided to pick a spot in the shrubbery where I thought the bird would move to, click and hope that I might get lucky… I guess, for a while, I was attempting to be a photographic Nostradamus. [I bet no-one’s ever said that before!]
The results weren’t especially successful. However, this time, instead of photos of areas of foliage the mystery bird had recently been in, the photos were of foliage the bird was just about to appear in. If this endeavour were a maths problem, I would simply be able to add the two sets of images together, divide by two and average it out, leaving me with a photo of the warbler right in the centre of the frame. Strangely, no one has invented this technology yet. Come on Canon, what are you playing at?
Nevertheless, I pressed on and, to some degree, it eventually paid off…
I looked at the images and the bird looked like it might be a Yellow-Browed Warbler – a small warbler that breeds in Siberia, several hundred of which end up in Britain on migration each year. I only knew about this because someone had pointed one out to me at RSPB Pulborough Brooks a couple of weeks previous. It was officially a scarce bird – not one that would make me a bird-spotting legend in the slightest, but still quite exciting.
I enquired in the visitor centre if there was a ‘warbler expert’ around and, when someone appeared, I unapologetically showed him my poor photos. He mumbled some stuff about superciliums, primary projections and wing bars and confidently stated that it was, indeed, a Yellow-Browed Warbler. I thanked him, excitedly submitted my sighting via my bird-stalking app and someone at the desk wrote it up on the sightings board. Not a bad start to the day.
If you haven’t been to Bempton Cliffs before, I highly recommend it. My visit was too late in the year to see all the nesting seabirds on the rocky precipices. I had missed the Gannets, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills, which are present in large numbers throughout the breeding season, but the sun was out, the air was remarkably still and it was one of those moments when it was just wonderful to be out. There were the most Tree Sparrows I had ever seen in one place and a few Gannets still remained – flying low across the sea in the distance.
After a couple of hours of wandering backwards and forwards, along the coastal path I thought I’d check if my Yellow-Browed Warbler sighting had made the cut and had appeared on the bird-spotting app. It had, although, there had been an additional sighting added from the same car park – A Hume’s Leaf Warbler had been reported in the same area as ‘my’ warbler.
I had never previously heard of a Hume’s Leaf Warbler, so was intrigued to find out what it might look like. My novice guess was that it would, like pretty much all other warblers, be small, olive-brown and have the hint of a yellow stripe above the eye.
The overflow car park was significantly busier than first thing in the morning, with an array of people looking into the trees and bushes. I asked a few questions about warblers with the aim of finding out if it was the same one I had potentially erroneously identified earlier and showed my photo to anyone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about – In comparison to me, that was everyone.
The Hume’s Leaf Warbler breeds in Central Asia and there have been, apparently, less than 150 sightings in the UK previously. They usually winter in India, so this one had gone wrong somewhere along the way – probably turning right at the crossroads in the High Street in Outer Mongolia instead of going straight on. This was likely to be the first sighting on an RSPB reserve, so was a fairly special sighting.
Quite quickly, my photo was confirmed to be a Hume’s Leaf Warbler. I had finally found a rarity… Sort of… Although, it all depends on how you dish out the credit for that sort of thing.
As it had probably arrived overnight (warblers tend to do their migration journeys under the cover of darkness), it was likely that I had been the first person to have seen it… But then I made the crucial mistake of misidentifying it… Then, someone (who actually knew something about birds) saw it and identified it correctly.
Legally, who should get all the glory? You decide…
As it turned out, there was another Hume’s Leaf Warbler a few miles up the road at Thornwick Pool. Much like buses and all that…