Sunday 1 November 2020

My Best Birds of 2020 31st October 2020

Normally I would post this at the end of the year but it looks like birding may have to go on hold or be very restricted for a month or longer. So here goes!

In this most extraordinary and depressing time birds have been my salvation, providing a daily distraction from a world that has been turned upside down due to a virus produced by human folly and  currently threatening us all.

Here below are just a few of the birds that have distracted me from my anxieties and fears and helped me to cope with what has become personally, a very complicated and worrying existence.

As I compose this, matters are going from bad to worse and the country will once again come to a grinding halt. Hopefully the images here will provide a light and temporary diversion while we endure yet more hardship and concern.

I have blogged most of these encounters separately, with additional photos and text, so if you have a mind to read about the whole experience of each one they can be found by reverting to the list of blog posts.

Take care everyone and here's to some semblance of normality returning in the not too distant future.


Eastern Yellow Wagtail - Norfolk -10th January 
One of the three I saw of this Siberian wagtail. This individual was by far the brightest of the three, being a male and as it is very rare, only the tenth to be seen in Britain, consequently it attracted a lot of attention, especially being so colourful when compared to the other two which were in much less distinctive plumages. It was a very cold day in bleak North Norfolk but a cup of tea in a nearby cafe soon warmed me up, as did seeing this bird. A new species for me.

Bittern - Buckinghamshire - 15th January
 I made my now customary annual visit to see this most enigmatic and shy of birds.I never fail to see one at this site in the winter months although it can often involve a long wait but it is always worth the time when one eventually stalks out of the reeds.

Adult male Black throated Thrush - Bedfordshire - 17th January
This very rare vagrant from Siberia graced the unlikely surrounds of Whipsnade Zoo for the whole winter, bringing many admirers from far and wide to watch it gorging on contoneaster berries. Possibly the most photographed bird this year, with photographers and birders returning time and again to get just a few more images and that particular shot.

Male Bearded Tit - Dorset - 19th January

These are always worth a visit to the RSPB's Reserve at Radipole Lake in the heart of Weymouth, often allowing close approach and extended views. Sometimes they can fail to appear or it requires a long wait but so far I have been lucky and not failed to see them on my periodic visits, which is just as well as it's a long drive from my home in Oxfordshire.


Great Grey Owl - Norway - 6th February

I have always wanted to see this huge owl and an unexpected opportunity arose to see one in Norway so I made a two day trip to Oslo and, courtesy of Simon Rix, an ex pat British birder who now works as a bird guide in Norway (, managed to see one really well. It was easily a major highlight of my birding year.They are truly superb when seen in their snowbound forest habitat

Male Pine Grosbeak - Norway - 6th February

While in Oslo we managed to find time to see these chunky inhabitants of the northern pine forests.This year saw a major irruption of them and many arrived in Oslo's suburbs to feed on the plentiful supply of berries. Another huge favourite of mine, they were totally confiding in our presence and were one more species I was able to tick off my 'most wanted' list. I would love to see some more one day. Maybe I can if and when our lives return to normal?

Male Kingfisher - Oxfordshire - 11th February

Always a favourite, the sheer brightness of their plumage never ceases to amaze and I am indeed fortunate to have a place to go, near to my home in Oxfordshire, where with a little patience I can see them throughout the year.

Barn Owl - Oxfordshire - 17th February

Another 'regular' at my local patch in Oxfordshire with up to two hunting most afternoons in broad daylight throughout the winter months and delighting birders, photographers and the general public alike.


Black bellied Dipper - Northamptonshire - 1st March 

This is the continental cousin of our native Dipper and only one or two individuals find their way to our shores each winter.This one was very lucky as just after this photo was taken it was attacked by a Sparrowhawk but after a struggle in the water managed to escape and hid in a drainpipe for the rest of the day and emerged the next morning unscathed.

Drake Ferruginous Duck - West Midlands - 6th March 

An unlikely beautiful visitor from southern Europe that spent a few days on a suburban lake with Tufted Ducks and Black headed Gulls in the heart of Wolverhampton. I went to see it one sunny afternoon but was rather glad to leave Wolverhampton's depressing surroundings although the Victorian park the lake was situated in was very pleasant.

Drake Garganey - Buckinghamshire - 9th March

It is always nice to encounter a newly arrived Garganey in early Spring. Single drakes are often the first to arrive and can be very confiding. This drake certainly lived up to such a reputation although it took a bit of finding. It was also nice to see this individual on a lake in very different surroundings to my previous duck encounter.This time it was in the very pleasant landscaped grounds of Stowe which is owned by the National Trust.                    

Adult Mediterranean Gull - Hampshire - 16th March

Probably my best photo this year. Every March I go and see a pre breeding gathering of hundreds of this most beautiful of gulls on the South Coast.They are a refreshing success story, as in my youth they were very rare but now they breed in increasingly large numbers in southern England and can be seen all year round. Long may they prosper.


Adult Curlew Sandpiper - Oxfordshire - 14th May

My local Farmoor Reservoir often hosts migrating waders for a day or so as they head north to the Arctic regions to breed. It is a particularly exciting time of year as you never know what may turn up and this year a great surprise was finding a summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper in the early morning which remained for just a few minutes before flying off, never to be seen again. It was only the fourth to be seen in Spring at Farmoor.

Hoopoe - Oxfordshire - 19th May

Hoopoes are a rarity in Oxfordshire and I had never seen one in my home county so to rectify matters made a short trip to Adderbury to see one that was found feeding on the front lawn of a house in a secluded cul de sac of upmarket houses.


Sanderling - Oxfordshire - 21st May 

This species is a regular spring passage migrant in small numbers at my local Farmoor Reservoir, when they are in varying stages of acquiring their breeding plumage. This individual stood out as it was in virtually full breeding plumage and looked particulary attractive, bringing a brief but welcome touch of glamour and colour to the prosaic concrete surroundings of the reservoir.

Male Blyth's Reed Warbler - Lincolnshire - 13th June 

This year was notable for a small influx of this species which does not breed in Britain but further  north and east in Scandinavia and Russia.For whatever reason this individual decided to remain and set up a territory in a ditch at Far Ings National Nature Reserve on the Lincolnshire side of the Humber Estuary, near Hull and sang loudly for many days but did not attract a mate.

Male Asian Desert Warbler - Northumberland - 17th June

A long night drive to almost the Scottish border was required to see this truly rare bird for Britain that was thousands of miles off course. It was only the thirteenth to be found here and as such qualified for the description in twitching parlance of being 'a mega'. It frequented scrub on Lindisfarne or Holy Island as it is often called and sang for over two weeks as it roved around the stunted bushes and trees on a part of the island called Half Moon Slack, forlornly trying to attract a mate but doomed to failure as it was so far out of its normal range.

Immature male Red footed Falcon - Somerset - 20th June

This year saw a mini invasion of this attractive falcon that breeds far to the east of Britain.There was even one in Oxfordshire this year but I did not manage to get close to one until I went to see this confiding immature male at Cothelstone Hill in The Quantocks near Taunton, which I watched hawking for dragonflies one Saturday afternoon.

Adult Rose coloured Starling - Dorset - 14th June 

This colourful species is an annual visitor to Britain in small numbers.It is normally found in central Asia and southeast Europe but this summer there has been an exceptional invasion of them into northern Europe, and Britain certainly did not miss out with birds being found in various scattered locations from Shetland to Cornwall.This one was competing with the Common Starlings feeding on berries and scraps on a bird table at Southwell in Weymouth.


Yelkouan Shearwater - Dorset - 9th July
(image courtesy of Mark)

This was a first for Britain and consequently was highly popular with us twitching folk and found me, Mark and Les braving storm force winds and rain at the end of Portland Bill trying to pick it out from the flock of Balearic Shearwaters it was associating with on the raging sea. We finally saw it well but it was truly attritional in the prevailing weather conditions, 
with nowhere to shelter from the strong wind and rain. 

Caspian Tern - Lincolnshire - 11th July

This giant tern, the size of a Common Gull and possessing an enormous blood red bill is a rare visitor to Britain. It spent a couple of weeks on the RSPB's reserve at Frampton Marsh adjacent to The Wash, preferring to associate with Black headed Gulls but showed a marked aversion to any young Black headed Gull careless enough to wander too close.


Gull billed Tern - Suffolk - 5th August

This is another large tern that is also an unusual visitor to Britain and does not breed here. It is similar in size and looks to a Sandwich Tern, which do breed in Britain, the main difference being, as its name suggests, a shorter, thicker more gull like black bill without a yellow tip.This individual spent a number of days at a large reservoir called Alton Water joining with the many Common Terns that breed there.

Adult male Red backed Shrike - West Midlands - 31st August

An adult of this species is always worth going to see.This individual spent over a month in a large country park at Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham and despite the huge number of people visiting the park for recreational purposes managed to find a quiet corner in which to feed and while away the late summer days before moving on to Africa for the winter


Yellow bellied Flycatcher - Inner Hebrides - 17th September

An absolute and total mega! This flycatcher from North America was the first ever to be found in Britain and also the Western Palearctic, which only made it the more desirable. However only the most intrepid of birders made the long trip to the island of Tiree to see it. Like all twitches it was a huge gamble but it paid off and the bird itself was wonderfully confiding, approaching to within a few feet. It has to be the bird of the year for me due to its extreme rarity and the effort required to see it.

First winter Tennessee Warbler - Shetland - 30th September

Another mega and huge rarity from North America, this time on the island of Yell and again involving a long and arduous car journey and overnight ferry trip.It was by no means certain it was still there as we travelled north, as it had not been seen that day, but we refound it when we arrived and in the end it showed itself beautifully in its favourite sycamore tree along with a number of Yellow browed Warblers for company. Superficially it looks very like a phylloscopus warbler. Oh! and we twitched another mega on the way back south, diverting to see a Siberian Thrush at Kilminning in Fife. Sadly no images as it was so elusive and showed twice for seconds only.


First winter Eye browed Thrush - Orkney - 7th October

I was beginning to wonder when, if ever, the run of major rarities would cease arriving in Britain but there was to be no let up and here came another monster in the form of a very rare thrush from Siberia. This was our third trip to the northern isles of Scotland in a matter of as many weeks. Yet again, with Mark my twitching buddy, we took up the  challenge and embarked on a marathon journey to North Ronaldsay, taking yet another huge gamble but again our luck held as we saw the thrush perched on a drystone wall in its favourite field. It was such a great feeling when we saw it and our dreams were realised.There is nothing sweeter than moments like this.Well in birding anyway!

Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture - Lincolnshire - 10th October

This young female vulture, only a year old, created a minor sensation when in July it wandered from its normal home in the French Alps and crossed the English Channel to take up residence in the Peak District of Derbyshire for three months. Many people, not just birders went to see it which required a long trek for miles across the desolate Derbyshire moors. If only I had known that in September it would make a leisurely return south and give me the opportunity to go and see it again but much closer this time as it stood in a field one morning by a lonely road in the Lincolnshire Fens. It finally left England on 15th October.

Juvenile Wilson's Phalarope - Hampshire - 14th October

A rare but annual visitor to Britain, this North American phalarope is always a welcome sight, especially when it is as confiding as this individual at Keyhaven Marshes. It obviously had never seen a human being in its life and therefore was completely fearless. I have seen them before but never quite as trusting as this individual.

Juvenile Grey Phalarope  - Hampshire - 14th October

An additional treat at Keyhaven Marshes was the presence of this Grey Phalarope on the same day and often feeding within metres of its North American cousin, the Wilson's Phalarope. It gave me an opportunity to compare their differing appearance and feeding behaviour and was a unique occasion for me, never having seen both together before and surely such an occurence will not be repeated for a long time.

Taiga Flycatcher - Northumberland - 15th October
(image courtesy of Mark)

Another mega, only the fourth for Britain and requiring yet another drive with Mark and Les through the night to South Shields this time, in order to be there at dawn. Fortunately after a little wait it was located feeding under a disused quarry cliff and we watched it on and off for four hours. A tiny flycatcher that zipped around at high speed under and on the cliff face hunting insects

Rufous tailed Scrub Robin - Norfolk - 17th October

Just when I thought there could surely be no more ultra rare birds arriving in Britain this mega turned up near Stiffkey on a rainy Saturday.The last one seen in Britain was forty years ago and consequently it drew a huge crowd. In pouring rain I went to Stiffkey with Mark and we saw it just after noon.The weather improved in the afternoon and in sunshine we watched it almost constantly for ninety minutes, sunning itself in a sheltered patch of suaeda on Stiffkey Marshes.

Pallas's Leaf Warbler - Norfolk - 17th October

Having had our fill of the scrub robin we went to the adjacent Stiffkey Campsite Woods in the late afternoon to see this avian sprite flitting around at high speed in the sycamore trees with some Goldcrests for company. It showed very well but it was the devil's own job to try and get a photograph of it. Constantly on the move, zapping about in all directions, I did my best to capture its image amongst the twigs and leaves.


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