Thursday 4 April 2024

A Second Date with Myrtle 3rd April 2024

Mark R, my twitching pal, has finally made his move from Bedfordshire to North Yorkshire. No more would I be making the hour and a half journey across Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire to meet up at his home and head off to whatever birding adventure was in the offing. No bad thing as the journey was tedious in the extreme.

Once settled in his new house Mark suggested I come up to stay for a week and we could explore various birding hotspots in the north of England that were now temptingly near to his new home.I was hardly going to turn such an offer down.

Both of us had been keeping an eye on the Myrtle Warbler that has spent the latter part of the winter in some tiny gardens at Kilwinning in North Ayrshire. I had already been to see this rare transatlantic waif last month with Justin, another birding friend, but the real interest now was the fact the warbler was rapidly moulting into breeding plumage and in the process transforming itself from a drab little bird into something much more attractive, even spectacular. Why can't British warblers be as colourful?

The Myrtle Warbler on 5th March 2024

The Myrtle Warbler on 3rd April 2024

An American warbler in full summer plumage and singing in Britain, as this one commenced doing today, is almost unique.The only other similar occurrence known to me was a Cape May Warbler found singing in Paisley near Glasgow on the 17th of June 1977 that remained for only one day and remarkably was found only about thirty miles from the Myrtle Warbler currently at Kilwinning.

The last time I saw a Myrtle Warbler in full summer plumage was many years ago during May in the USA  when I was staying  at a work colleague's large house in a rural suburb of Atlanta,  Georgia.  The house and garden backed onto wooded countryside and after a violent overnight storm I awoke to find there had been a fall of migrant warblers and other American passerines. The woods and garden were alive with warblers of many species but most prolific of all were Myrtle Warblers, their insistent tek tek calls came from what seemed every bush and tree.

It is a three and a half hour drive from Mark's home to Kilwinning which lies some twenty miles southwest of Glasgow on the River Garnock. Due to our planned very early 4am departure  from Mark's home and a subsequent long day  we decided it would be sensible to  stay overnight near Kilwinning, so I made a booking at a hotel at nearby Irvine.The plan was to arrive at the now famous garden at around 7.30 am to photograph and admire the warbler and after a good night's rest return to the garden early next day.

We arrived at Kilwinning  on time, the weather was grey and dull. Kilwinning, to my eyes appeared an unexceptional town although with some notable historic buildings such as Eglinton Castle and the twelth century Kilwinning Abbey which dominates the older part of the town but is now surrounded by less attractive functional modern housing. The early hour and the weather maybe did the town no favours as apparently it is considered a pleasant place to live and the main street, now pedestrianised is described as 'refurbished' but my initial impressions suggested anything but, the shops and businesses appearing drab and uninspiring and the river bank below Garnock View a disgrace, covered in litter that looks as though it has been there for years.

We parked in one of the welcome free car parks and had to walk but a few hundred metres to Garnock View and the communal  garden, accessed through a lobby that separates two small houses and flats above.

Walking into the garden we met one other birder from London who had already seen the warbler. Jimmy Crawford, who found the bird and lived next door to the communal garden came to join us. I am Scots but even I struggled with Jimmy's broad guttural North Ayrshire accent when he commenced chatting to us about the bird and how he had found it. After Jimmy left to walk his two French bulldogs the birder from London turned to me with a blank look

What did he say? I could not understand a word he said.

I told him that Jimmy had said he  had raised almost £2000.00 from visiting birders donations that was going to a local cancer charity close to Jimmy's heart as his mother in law was suffering from cancer.He had also informed us over six hundred birders had visited the tiny garden so far since the warbler had first been found by him forty four days ago.

We subsequently spent seven hours in the garden watching the warbler. It divided its time either feeding  in the trees at the bottom of the garden or sampling the generous amounts of food scattered on the top of the fence that separated the bottom of the gardens from the footpath and river beyond. 

The rest of its time was spent harassing and chasing off with some vigour both Blue and Great Tits and rather satisfyingly the local Robin.No small bird was safe from its aggressive attentions. It was obvious it had established a small territory that ran the length of the gardens and trees beyond.When not in view it could be traced by its insistent calling which usually preceded an appearance either in the trees or on the fence.

The change in plumage from when I saw it in mid March was frankly amazing, the bird apparently having achieved this transformation in less than three weeks. It still had a little bit to go but to all extents it was virtually in full breeding plumage, which consists of a  slate blue back, yellow crown, rump and flank patches with white underparts and a breast streaked with black.The tail when spread showed white windows in the feathers  The yellow rump, especially evident in flight has given rise to the colloquial name 'butterbum' in its native USA.

Myrtle Warblers and the virtually identical Audubon's Warbler are often lumped as one species, called Yellow rumped Warbler but can be distinguished by the fact the Myrtle Warbler has a white throat whereas the Audubon's has a yellow throat. As the latter breeds on the west side of the USA it is unlikely to stray to Britain.
After twelve noon the weather deteriorated and the warbler became more elusive with only irregular appearances but in the morning it was on view virtually constantly and, unlike my last visit, showed a marked preference for feeding in the trees on the other side of the footpath at the back of the gardens rather than taking advantage of the prolific food provided by Jimmy and his neighbours.

We decided to return  the next morning in the hope we could achieve better  photographic results. As with yesterday the weather was rainy, dull and grey, the Scots word for such conditions is dreich which perfectly sums up both the weather  and the downbeat feelings it engenders. 

At 8am we joined Jimmy to be informed  there had been no sign of the bird. Had it finally left its adopted home for somewhere new? I thought it unlikely as the weather was not conducive to migration

Five minutes later the sharp and familiar tek tek call alerted us to the fact the bird was still here and soon enough it flew down to a twig covered in food that Jimmy had secured to the back fence.

The warbler continued to make periodic visits to the garden or fed high in the trees, picking invertebrates from the emerging leaves and bare twigs. 

The warbler showed a marked preference for one particular small tree in which it fed and sang most frequently, threading its way through the bursting buds and looking  an absolute picture.About an hour into our vigil we heard it sing for the first time, a gentle whimsical refrain vaguely reminiscent of a Willow Warbler.

This surely was an indication that the bird had almost completed its moult and was now seriously looking for a mate although to my ears the song was hardly at full volume but still clear enough.Sadly it was almost certainly doomed to go unanswered

No one else joined us in the garden for the initial hour and a half and then latterly only a total of five other birders came to pay their respects. 

c Mark

We discussed what would happen in the near future. Mark was convinced the warbler would migrate as soon as the weather improved which looks unlikely until next week. I am not so certain it will move on as it has established an obvious territory and is now singing. We can but wait and see. The odds are most likely it will depart, stimulated by the urge to follow its genetic programming to move north.

We spent a pleasant morning watching and photographing the warbler but, as with yesterday, from lunchtime onwards it became less obvious and we accepted that we could have no complaints and left for the south. We went via the RSPB's Vane Farm Reserve at a rainy and cold Loch Leven to successfully twitch a distant Bufflehead that ironically was a rarer bird in Britain than the one we had spent a day and half admiring.

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