Saturday 21 September 2019

An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Farlington Marshes 18th September 2019

An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was found at Farlington Marshes HWT's (Hampshire Wildlife Trust) reserve on Saturday 14th September. This was a mega in twitcher terms as only twenty one have been found in Britain to date, this latest bird being the twenty second if accepted, which it surely will be. I was returning from Scotland on Saturday and really did not fancy yet another long drive to the Hampshire coast on Sunday.

Eastern Olivaceous Warblers breed in the Balkans then east to Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Turkey and the Middle East. They are also to be found in the Caucasus, Iran and Afghanistan and are strongly migratory, wintering in central and eastern Africa and southwest Arabia.

The presence of this bird on a sunny weekend, at an easily accessible large reserve on the south coast of England and right by a motorway, meant that this bird would be very popular and so it proved with very large crowds coming to see it on both Saturday and Sunday. There were the usual complaints about irresponsible behaviour by people getting too close to the bird but sadly this is par for any twitch these days. 

Although the majority opinion suggested that the warbler was untroubled by the over close proximity of some photographers it should always be best behaviour to err on the cautious side, as consideration of the bird's welfare is paramount, or should be but unfortunately there are those who are incapable of understanding this. It is also rude and inconsiderate to behave in such a selfish manner when the majority of those present are willing to abide by the unwritten rules of birding etiquette.

Mark, a birding friend, sent me some excellent images he took of the warbler on both Saturday and Sunday and I began to feel the first pangs of regret about not going to see it. The warbler had given excellent views, peeking out of the extensive bramble patches, small, red berried hawthorns, blackthorn and elder that it frequented. It helped that the area of rough grass, bramble bushes and scrub where the warbler had chosen to feed was open and spacious so there were no issues concerning overcrowding. 

However, when the warbler was not on view I heard that some let their anxiety get the better of them and when it was relocated in another bush would charge off at a run which undoubtedly unsettled the warbler and was entirely unnecessary.

Saturday and Sunday were warm and bright with sunshine so it must have been a very pleasant experience watching this rare warbler. The first day I could possibly go to Farlington was Monday and inevitably the weather changed and although still mild, it was dull and overcast.To add further to my woes the warbler was only reported by RBA (Rare Bird Alert) to have been seen briefly at seven thirty on Monday morning and then there was no other report of it until mid morning and even that was found to be erroneous. It was obvious the warbler was not going to be seen nearly so well and frequently as on the weekend.

Nevertheless I was already committed and on the road heading south and all was well with the traffic until the dreaded '50mph Average Speed Check' came into force on the M27 motorway. It went on for a very long way but finally I was free of the narrow lanes and huge trucks driving too close behind me. It was with some relief that I turned off the motorway and passing under it came to a halt in a large car park, crammed unusually full with cars, overlooking Farlington Marshes and the lagoon beside it.

Farlington Marshes is a very nice reserve and gets some good birds but the considerable downside is its over close proximity to the ever busy M27 motorway which runs right beside the reserve's  northern boundary. As the warbler was frequenting the bushes and brambles in this very area viewing it was always going to be with the inescapable accompaniment of an endless roar of vehicles hurtling east and west on eight lanes of motorway.

The warbler's location was not very far away from the car park and a short walk through rough grass, hedgerows and scattered bramble bushes brought me to the site and about fifty birders scattered around various bushes but not looking at anything in particular. I was far from optimistic about the situation.

There were a lot of glum faces on show with bored birders leaning on scopes, sitting on the grass and even one birder fast asleep. It was clear the warbler was not co operating or possibly might not be here at all. No one could say for certain as no one present had seen it and some of the birders had been here for three hours or more.

I stood quietly, deflated and feeling as glum as the rest. It looked certain, barring a birding miracle that the warbler, if it was here, was not going to put on a show like it did on the weekend. I scanned my fellow birders to see if there was anyone I recognised and saw a very familiar face from Oxford -Peter. I joined him and he told me he had been here for a couple of hours and seen nothing.We commiserated about our current predicament.

Bored after an hour looking at huge bramble clumps and scrub with hardly a bird to be seen and certainly not a sniff of the warbler we opted to cut our losses and drive a short way further east to Church Norton, in neighbouring Sussex, as a Wryneck had been present there for a couple of days and had indeed been reported from there today. Peter came in my car and after a minor detour for sustenance to Enticotts, bakers supreme of Selsey, we came to a stop in the tiny Church Norton car park, headed down the short track to Pagham Lagoon and walked west across the shingle to The Severals, where the Wryneck had been seen this morning.

It was similar birding to the warbler twitch except there were no more than half a dozen scattered birders looking at yet more bramble clumps absolutely bulging with ripe blackberries. Currently there was little to see here either so I set about feasting on the blackberries but then the Wryneck was found by one of our fellow birders on a narrow grass track winding through the brambles.We saw the bird reasonably well as it scuttled along the track before it diverted into longer grass and out of view but eventually it flew up into a dead elder and gave better views as it perched there looking about. Wrynecks tend to do this, flying up every so often from the ground where they have been eating ants. to perch in a bush or tree for some minutes, as if to look around and check all is well before dropping down once more to feed on the ground.

The Wryneck left the elder and flew quite a way to some low growing gorse situated at the top of the shingle beach.We followed but initially could not find it although we knew it had to be somewhere close by. I walked to the seaward side of the gorse and the Wryneck flew up almost at my feet but did not go far.We found it again, feeding further along the gorse edge and it eventually disappeared deep into the gorse and we left it there.

During our absence the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler had been reported a few more times and we decided to go back to Farlington for one more try as Peter had never seen one in Britain. If anything the weather was becoming ever more oppressively grey and dull and with just a hint of rain in the northeast wind.There were far less birders present now and for an hour we stood as before, by the favoured bushes and saw absolutely nothing. A few Swallows flew high in the sky over our heads and a Greenshank's melancholy call came from the marshes beyond.

At last something happened, and a slight stirring from birders positioned around the other side of the bushes prompted us to join them and following a birder's finger pointing, I saw the warbler moving about in the top of a dead elder but very much obscured by the lichen encrusted twigs and branches. It was no more than a pale shape but then for an all too brief few seconds I saw it properly, unobstructed by twigs and leaves. Such a view, of seconds only, grants just enough time for impressions but I can recall its overall pale and featureless plumage with almost white undersides and creamy brown upperparts, its thin longish bill, flat forehead and crucially the downward pumping of its tail, a diagnostic indicator for Eastern Olivaceous Warbler.

Unfortunately Peter got a far less satisfactory view and as this would be his 350th species for Britain he was not content and determined to do better. We waited and after another spell of tedium the elusive warbler again appeared in the top of the elder and this time Peter got a full but brief view. It was enough. He was happy and we exchanged high fives.

'Come on Pete, let's go'

We headed for home as the weather became very gloomy indeed and spots of rain began to fall.

However I was not satisfied with my views of the warbler and when on Tuesday it was sunny again and reports came flooding in on RBA that the warbler was showing really well I made plans to head back to Farlington Marshes on Wednesday, which the weather forecast promised to also be sunny all day. I think the fact the warbler was so skulking and elusive on Monday may have been due to the weather and once the sunshine returned it felt more inclined to feed openly on the edge of the brambles and bushes rather than deeper inside the foliage, as was the case on Monday.

I left home at 6am and another long and uneventful drive found me standing on the grass amongst the brambles and bushes at Farlington Marshes on a very pleasant but slighty chilly, sunny morning and in less than ten minutes I saw the warbler really well. 

What a difference to Monday as it looked an absolute picture in the sun, distinctly pale, often quietly tacking away to itself and being very active, chasing flies and hunting invertebrates in a dead hawthorn tree and brambles. 

Judging by the worn state of the EOW's plumage, especially the tips of the tail feathers it is an adult
It was almost constantly in sight, although often partially obscured, half in half out of the bramble leaves and stems, as it fed energetically and acrobatically, sometimes clumsily, peering around from wherever it was perched, examining every leaf and twig, seizing minute caterpillars, insects and spiders that it found. 

Apart from a brief spell preening it never stopped feeding for the two hours I watched it.

This image shows the EOW pumping its tail downwards

There were other birds here today, mainly Blackcaps and the occasional Chiffchaff but the Eastern Olivaceous kept to itself and never once showed any interest in the abundant blackberries, leaving these to the Blackcaps.

The birders present today amounted to less than a dozen and everyone was respectful as, enthralled, we watched and photographed the warbler going through its paces, often coming right out to perch in the open on a bramble spray or twig for a brief moment but generally ensuring that it was always within a few centimetres of cover.

We gently followed as it moved through the small area of bushes and brambles it favoured, looking even paler in the increasingly bright sunlight.

This time I felt that I had done justice to this, my third Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in Britain.


  1. Nice one! Wish it had been reported as still there today!

  2. See above - annoyingly it's been reported again today...!!!