Monday 12 April 2021

Back to Barcombe for a White throated Sparrow 11th April 2021

In my previous blog post I mentioned how Mark and I had narrowly missed seeing the very rare White throated Sparrow that has spent its winter, on the wrong side of the Atlantic, in the picturesque village of Barcombe in East Sussex.

At the end of that post I also intimated that I was not prepared to countenance failure but was unsure when or how I was going to attempt to rectify matters. Well on Saturday afternoon I received a text from Peter, inviting me to go with him to see the White throated Sparrow. Even better he offered to drive. All I had to do was get myself to his house by 5am the next morning so we could make the two hour drive to Barcombe, in order to arrive at 7am and give ourselves the best opportunity to see the bird.

Since my failure to see it, persons unknown had decided to tilt the odds in us birders favour by sprinkling seed on a picnic table by the sparrow's favourite location. I had noticed the seed on my visit two days ago but the sparrow had obviously not, but since then it had found the seed and was now putting in regular appearances at the wooden table. To see this normally reclusive, shy bird, all one had to do was stand on a grass bank that looked down to where the table was situated and wait.

Images had appeared on social media on Saturday showing just how well the sparrow could be seen and my enthusiasm was fired to go and see it as soon as possible but I did not think it would be so soon as Sunday, as I had arranged with Mark to go on the Wednesday following.

Sometimes you just have to make a snap decision in these circumstances and I decided to go with Peter rather than wait till Wednesday.I did not feel guilty though as I still planned to honour my agreement to go with Mark on Wednesday. It would be no hardship to go and see this very rare bird as many times as possible. You never know, if we failed to see it today, I still had Wednesday for another opportunity.

White throated Sparrows are normally found in North America from southeast Yukon to Newfoundland then southwards throughout Canada to the USA Midwest and across the northern states to New Jersey on the east coast.They spend their winter further south from Massachusetts  to Florida, Texas, California and northern Mexico. How one found its way to East Sussex is anyone's guess.

To date there have been fifty records of this Nearctic species in Britain and if any vagrant New World passerine can be said to be one of the 'commonest' to appear here, the White throated Sparrow certainly qualifies. Some are undoubtedly ship assisted in getting to Britain as they are regularly encountered at sea during migration times and sometimes land on ships heading for these shores. Their diet is ideal for survival on a ship as they can be fed crumbs and seed.

This individual at Barcombe was discovered on February 3rd 2021 and has remained there since but the pandemic lockdowns have prevented most  birders from going to see it until there was an easing of the latest lockdown on April 1st. Consequently it is now proving very popular and attracting many birders to Barcombe.

I have only seen this species once before in Britain and that was at Old Winchester Hill, in Hampshire, back in April 2009 - was it really that long ago! That bird was typically skulking and the views although adequate were nothing like so good as the ones of the Barcombe individual being published on the internet. 

A pleasant Sunday drive with Peter on quiet roads found us parking in Barcombe at just after seven o' clock on a cold and sunny morning.We made our way down to the grass bank below the allotments where you can stand to overlook the picnic bench. I was not sure what to expect but was surprised by the increased number of birders from our previous visit. There were already thirty plus ensconced across the bank and we just about managed to squeeze in to get a space to view the bench.

For the next forty five minutes we all stood, hushed and expectant. Waiting. At 7.40am there was a stirring and murmuring in our ranks and I could hear the immortal words 'That's it. There it is below the bench.' Where it was situateed at that moment rendered it invisible from our position, but soon it popped out further, hopping around on the wooden decking on which the bench stood, picking at the seed put out to lure it in.It was only on view for maybe four or five minutes before flying back into cover but that was enough to satisfy everyone present.

It was a pretty little bird with a humbug like pattern of black and white stripes on its head, the broad white stripe over its eye lemon yellow between bill and eye. The wings were rich rufous brown with two lines of white crescents forming distinct bars across each wing. Its mantle was duller giving an impression of alternate wavy lines of buff and brown.An extensive pure white throat contrasted with its grey breast, which in turn merged into a paler belly and brown flanks.Its tail was noticeably long and narrow. I can understand why early European settlers to the New World came to call it a sparrow, as its brown streaked and grey plumage would make it as familiar to them as our Old World House Sparrow but to me it looked much more like a bunting.

A number of birders left after this first showing and there was a subsequent general re-arrangement of positions.Myself and Peter moved down the bank slightly to bring us a bit closer to the bench but not enough to cause comment. Another longish wait ensued during which I could clearly hear the sparrow singing, unseen in the bushes and trees behind the bench.No one else seemed to notice this but it was very clear and persistent. 

The singing eventually ceased and shortly after the sparrow put in another appearance, this time hopping up onto the table and picking at the seed for a similar period to last time, before succumbing to the desire to be under cover and less exposed. It flew left and was lost in a tangle of adjacent bushes and trees.

Yet another, rather more extended wait ensued during which I suggested to Peter that after the next appearance we might consider leaving and to which he agreed.The crowd was growing and the number of birders must have been approaching fifty plus. The sparrow was still singing its strange distinctive song from within the bushes  but we resisted the urge to go and try to see it and waited for it to re-appear which it finally did, remaining for slightly longer this time, before diving back into the bushes to periodically sing.

We turned to go and as on all twitches there were birding friends and acquaintances to greet and with which to exchange a few words. Simon, Jake, Adrian and Gavin and then we made for the car, surprised after leaving the sheltered position on the bank, at how cold the wind was blowing but the sun continued to shine and our spirits could not be dampened after such a successful encounter with the White throated Sparrow. Only my second in Britain and a lifer for Peter.

With time on our hands the plan now was to head for Warnham Nature Reserve near Horsham to reprise my success of  two days ago and have another look at the long staying Little Bunting. What a remarkable coincidence for Sussex, with the simultaneous presence of a long staying singing male White throated Sparrow, a very rare  vagrant from the West and a singing male, not quite so rare Little Bunting from the East.

The reserve was comparatively quiet by the time we got there but the Bullfinch Hide was fully occupied.Some kindly person vacated their position and there, already on show was the Little Bunting feeding on a veritable carpet of millet laid down on the earth. I took a few more images but I had done this only two days ago so instead mainly watched the bird but Peter was happy to help himself to as many images as he wanted.

The bunting eventually flew and I knew it would be a little while until it returned.We decided to wait for one more appearance as we still had plenty of time in hand. In the intervening period we were entertained by a Bank  Vole, making high speed forays from its home under a log, to snaffle seed that had fallen from the bird feeders.What a life is that of a vole. Everything conducted at high velocity, forever fearful, a life of perpetual anxiety Come to think of it I know exactly how it feels, thanks to the Covid pandemic!

The Little Bunting returned, settling in the hazel tree behind the small pond that lay in front of the hide.It was in no hurry and commenced to sing from its perch, its throat noticeably swelling, with bill partially open. Not a full song, true, but certainly a quiet buzzing trill of subsong was evident.

It stayed in the tree for a while and then once more descended to the ground to feed.Ten minutes passed of contemplative nibbling of millet pellets in the dappled sunlight, as a cock Pheasant crowed on a mound behind, flapping its wings in a flurry to beat the air. 

The bunting flew off into the trees and we too decided it was time to leave but not before a coffee at the nice little cafe attached to the reserve. It was time to head for home which currently is Oxfordshire.We had one more destination in mind. A place well known to us called Linky Down which is just in Oxfordshire and part of Aston Rowant NNR in The Chilterns. A male Ring Ouzel had been reported from there today, a traditional stopping over site for them in the Spring.

We walked down the footpath that runs on one side of a steep slope of chalk downland to a point where we could look down into the narrow valley that is Linky Bottom, an area of rough grassland and scattered juniper bushes.The juniper bushes are a favourite hiding place for Ring Ouzels, that often perch in them for a considerable period before emerging to hunt for invertebrates on the rough grassland. It was sheltered from the wind where we stood and the sun was warm but were there any Ring Ouzels to be seen? For twenty minutes the answer was no and then another birder alerted us to the fact one had just flown out from the juniper and was hopping on the grass far below us.

We got the scope on it and found a fine male, all black apart from a huge white crescent across his breast. Unmistakeable. The birder told us an elusive male Common Redstart was also somewhere in a stand of juniper bushes below us and we caught a brief but unsatisfactory glimpse of it.He left us to it and a little while later the redstart perched out in the open on a patch of gorse, preening in the sun, unsuspecting of us, watching from high on the slope above.

It had been a very long day but totally rewarding. We bade farewell to the atmospheric Linky Down with its panoramic views of The Vale of Oxfordshire and headed for our respective homes.


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