Monday, 23 December 2013

Two top ticks

Western Orphean Warbler, St Brides, Pembrokeshire and Two-barred Crossbill, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire - 17th November 2013

2014 has been an astonishing year for rare birds in the UK, and the month of November was no exception. The best bird of the month (for me) was a surprise Western Orphean Warbler (aka WOW), masquerading as a Lesser Whitethroat in the back garden of Orlandon Kilns in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The bird was re-identified from photos originally labelled as Lesser Whitethroat by an eagle-eyed reader of the Pembrokeshire Bird Blog.

I'd missed the Cleveland Western Orphean Warbler in May 2012 for reason I won't go into (suffice to say my wife's allotment is in great shape…), so this was a species I was desperate to see. The "Lesser Whitethroat" had been around a few days before being publicly announced, so there was a good chance the bird was settled… And the bird did indeed stay, and owners Peter and Rosemary Royle generously opened their back garden to twitchers, with locals on hand to help with parking. Twitch on!

So, on the 17th November I was up at stupid o'clock and making a twisted and tortuous satnav-led journey across Wales to arrive before sunrise. Actually, I was quite happy the TomTom took me along unnamed country roads and farm tracks, as it allowed me to year-tick Tawny Owl as one flew out above the car. And not only that, I also saw my first live Badger as one snuffled across the road in the beam of my head lights before disappearing under a hedge. So I was already on a high when I arrived at the remote rural junction by a dairy far 30 minutes before dawn, to be ushered into a field which was doubling as a car park for the duration.

Local volunteers corralled us, then quick-marched us to the house along a twisty country road like Team Sky leading a bike-free peloton. We were shown to a slate-covered driveway, unfortunately a little noisy underfoot, and all gazed into the orchard in the Royle's garden.

 Western Orphean twitch - 17th November 2013

A few Blackbird, Goldcrest, and Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tit were around at first, with Pied Wagtail swooping around too. Black-headed and Herring Gulls sifted overhead, along with the odd cranking Raven. Then the guy stood to my left pointed and said in a strong whisper, "There, on the horizontal branch!", and I was on to it - a male Western Orphean Warbler.

The bird was a typical sylvia-type warbler, though not as striking as the Sardinian Warbler I'd seen recently - the colour contrasts weren't as great.. This bird looked like a garden warbler dressed as a Lesser Whitethroat. Chunky, big-billed and with a pale eye-ring. The head was mid-grey, rather than pencil-black I'd expected, and the breast, belly and flanks were an almost warm grey turning to  a tea-stained sandy brown nearer the tail. It posed for a while at the back of the garden (of course, I hadn't got my camera out of my bag at this point) before moving closer into the apple trees. Views for more difficult here, and we had to wait for it to fly up to the larger tree before we could get clear views again.

After getting plenty of tickable views, including a look at the plain undertail coverts, I attempted to get a photograph…

Western Orphean Warbler - St Brides, Pembrokeshire, 17th November 2013

Perhaps the less said about that effort the better. Definitely one for "Crap Record Shots of the Year 2013".

The volunteers managing the flow of people through the garden asked if those who'd had got good views already could move on to allow more people in. So I moved on and decided to head home via the Forest of Dean in Gloucester, in the hope of seeing Two-barred Crossbill.

Regular readers will be aware of my fruitless attempts to see this species this year. Dips at Broomhead Reservoir in South Yorkshire (three times), Hemsted Forest in Kent (where my camera was drowned in the rain, never to work again), and Thetford Forest in Norfolk (which at least was redeemed by a Brown Shrike tick), had left me wondering if these birds actually existed and if Britain was awash with serial Crossbill stringers…

I struggled to navigate through the Forest of Dean, both in the car and on foot, but finally came upon two dozen or so birders looking across a clearing. There had been a reported sighting earlier in the day, so I was feeling confident, especially with these extra eyes and ears about. "Any luck?", I asked, cheerily. "Nothing all day," said one, "Not a peep in five hours," said another. Um, great. I moved further up the track, as something about the taller trees (with big fat cones on) looked better for crossbills than the birch-filled clearing.

Within a minute of moving onto the track I heard the familiar "chip, chip" of Common Crossbills, but with an odd additional toy-trumpet parp. That must be them I thought, and we all looked at each other as if to say, "Did you hear that too?". Crossbills landed in the tree-tops around us, but we couldn't pick out any Two-barreds. There were loads of Siskin around too, flashing their wing bars. Crossbill flocks continued to bounce and call around over our heads, occasionally with Two-barred parps being clearly audible. Eventually a large flock landed in view, and stayed a while to feed. Before long we'd picked out two male and one female Two-barred Crossbill. Success at last!

These were easy to ID, with no doubts about them being wing-barred Commons. The white wing-bars were big, bright and clear, as were the tips to the tertial feathers. Plus there were the calls. Unfortunately, the trees were tall and space to move back limited, so viewing and photography wasn't easy, but here's my best effort (and possible my second entry into "Crap Record Shots of the Year 2013").

Two-barred Crossbill - Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, 17th November 2013

 Getting good views involved some comedic chasing around

A great day of twitching, with two lifers (three, if you include the Badger), and a fair bit learnt about sylvia warblers and crossbills.


  1. Brilliant photos nick......! Sounds like a good day out, still waiting for my first badger, there must be some around where I live!

  2. Haha! My camera skills seem to be getting worse! I bet there are loads of badgers round your way. I guess look for a sett and stake it out at dusk (downwind, as Chris "Badger" Packham always says).