Thursday 11 May 2023

Going for a Song 9th May 2023

Having arrived home last night from three glorious weeks on our favourite Isle of Arran I decided to ease myself back into the less exciting birding at my local Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire. I was in no real hurry and got there around 9am and set about re-familiarising myself with the concrete shores of the reservoir. Not quite up there with the atmospheric stony beaches of Arran and the adjacent waters of Kilbrannan Sound but it would have to do.

There were, at least, some new birds to add to my year list, with a few Swifts high in a cloudy sky and Garden Warblers singing in the trees near the Thames Path but frankly my heart was not in it. It was too soon to forget the Golden Eagles and displaying Hen Harriers I had been enjoying two days ago.

It always takes me this way on returning from Scotland and the exciting birds I see there.

About to commence walking back down the causeway and make my way home, my phone rang.

It was Mark. It was 10am.

'Do you need Song Sparrow?'

'Err, yes. Why?

'There's one on Bardsey Island. It has just come on Birdguides. I saw the one on Fair Isle so I am not bothered but you need to go and go now. There is a number to call to book yourself on a boat'.

Still assimilating this startling news and feeling the first intimations of excitement I rang the number.  It was answered by Steve, the warden of Bardsey Island which is in Gwynedd, North Wales and lies off the scenic Llyn Peninsula, that extends for thirty miles into the Irish Sea.

I asked about the boats and was told there were hourly sailings from a place called Porth Meudwy, up to the last boat at 3.30pm.Leaving now would get me to Port Meudwy at 3.30pm as it is a five hour drive from Oxford. The timing was too tight and involved too much risk. Anything could happen on the way, traffic holdups on the motorway for instance. 

I resigned myself to missing out on this opportunity to see a very rare transatlantic vagrant.

Song Sparrows are an abundant species of New World Sparrow found across both Canada and the USA, inhabiting brushland and marshes but also found in close contact wth human habitation in suburbs, parks and roadside verges.Northern populations migrate south in winter to the southern states of the USA.There have only been nine accepted records of a Song Sparrow in Britain. This one found by Ed Betteridge,one of the Bardsey assistant wardens, on the observatory roof, will be the tenth.

I asked Steve if there might be later sailings but he was unsure as he did not know how many birders would respond to the news but he would call me back if it looked like there would be sufficient numbers to put on extra sailings.

By the time I got to the other end of the causeway Steve had called to say there was now another sailing at 4.30pm.That was just about doable but again it would be tight as I now learned that it was a half hour walk from where you parked your car in a National Trust car park, down to the boat's departure point.

I asked if there would be any chance of one at 5.30pm but he did not know and would have to talk to Colin who was the skipper of the boat.He said he would ring me back but thought it likely as many birders were ringing him to book seats on the boat.

The later time would be ideal for me as it meant I could drive in a relatively relaxed manner and arrive with time to spare. I decided to gamble on an extra sailing at 5.30pm and set off for North Wales with Steve promising to call me as soon as he could to confirm the extra sailing or otherwise.

Already dressed for birding and with everything I needed I returned to the car, set the satnav and rang my wife.

I won't be back for lunch. I  am going to Wales for a really rare bird.

What is it this time?

A Song Sparrow from North America.

When will you be home?

I have no idea as it's a very long way to Bardsey.Don't wait up.

She wished me luck and I set off with that familiar tingling of excitement and apprehension that commences coursing through my body in circumstances such as this.

Anxiety levels had risen considerably by the time I reached Birmingham as Steve had still to call back. I was about to call him when my phone rang.It was Steve and yes there would be a boat at 5.30pm.

I was in business and set about concentrating on the long wearisome drive to North Wales. I had left Farmoor in dull grey weather and now intense heavy showers hit the motorway and traffic slowed in the torrent of water and resulting miasma of spray from fast moving cars. I then noticed I was short of fuel so had to make a stop to refill the car.Whilst in the services I got myself a sandwich and something to drink. There would be little opportunity to do it later. Despite the stop and the rain I was still on course to arrive at Porth Meudwy with an hour to spare.

Once back on the motorway yet more heavy showers and the inevitable average speed checks made driving miserable.Then the satnav commenced playing up. Why me! I railed at this latest frustration.Yet another unscheduled stop had to be made to sort out the satnav.It was not an immediate problem as I know the route as far as Bangor but I would certainly need the satnav for the remaining part of the journey to Porth Meudwy.

Time was still OK though with one hour to spare predicted on the satnav after my arrival.

The sun commenced to shine and the day became very pleasant as I drove into Wales.Eventually turning off the main road at Bangor I commenced traversing through narrow switchback roads, some no more than narrow lanes. I was now entering the Llyn Peninsula, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I met the school bus and had to reverse several hundred yards to allow it to get past,setting my already sorely tested nerves further on edge. I had never been to this part of rural Wales, you could almost call it isolated, with an other worldly atmosphere. Strange and very beautiful all at once. Twisting roads, took me up and down deep valleys on what felt a never ending journey westwards. Finally I caught a glimpse of the sea.I must be close to my destination.Surely?

That was the plan but I could not find the right lane, due to the again misbehaving satnav, to take me to the National Trust car park which was where I needed to be and I ended up in a farmyard.This was obviously not right and.time was now beginning to run out.In desperation I called Steve and told him I was lost.For another fifteen minutes we tried to sort out where I was so he could guide me but.every place name was in welsh and all the farms looked the same. Mild panic set in. .

All this way only to fail at the last moment. It was unbearable. Tired, fraught and anxious I somehow managed to hold it together and the ever patient Steve remained on the phone until I found the car park hidden behind a hedge and accessed through a tiny opening.There were already a number of cars on its grassy surrounds, birders cars, and there was the track leading down a narrow valley to Porth Meudwy, the boat's departure point.

I still had an hour to spare and finally could relax. With much relief I got out of the car, stood for a few moments in the sun and absorbed my rural surroundings before gathering bins and camera and setting off on the track.

It was shortly after 4.30pm and I met some very cheerful birders returning up the track. 

Success? I enquired.

You bet.It's been showing really well.

My spirits lifted at this news and I meandered down the track to the picturesque cove that is Porth Meudwy. I had forty five minutes until my boat arrived.

I felt I had got the worst over.The long drive finished, the uncertainty about finding the location resolved, the news the sparrow was still on Bardsey and showing well, combined to give me confidence all would be well.

The gamble had paid off - well almost. So close and yet so far. I had still to see the bird. A lot could happen to frustrate me.

I sat on a grey rock and looked out to sea. A deep blue sea below a pale blue sky, the cove surrounded by grass topped cliffs on each side, over and around which flew stiff winged Fulmars, with others cackling from their nest ledges.

I was joined by two other young birders, Lewi and Morgan but no one else came down the track.

The boat arrived on time and disgorged three returning birders who confirmed they had seen the sparrow. Colin ushered us onto his boat, a little surprised there were only three of us and in no time away we went, out from the cove and across the blue waters to the looming bulk of Bardsey Island.

Half an hour later we were towed up onto the island's shore by a tractor and got off the boat. Then came some bad news. Something all twitchers dread but are all too familiar with. The sparrow had not been seen for over an hour and no one could relocate it. The time was now 6pm and we had two hours to find it before having to return to the mainland. With hopes distinctly lowered the three of us walked up to the area where it had last been seen. Bardsey is not small and there is an awful lot of habitat to search.This was looking somewhat ominous.We knew the bird was still here but where?.

The Song Sparrow was reported as being very mobile and moving from one location to another but usually to be found somewhere in the vicinity of the main track across the island, near the observatory. We met another birder on the track who told us that where we were standing was the last place it had been seen before flying off to the east. There were now not that many birders left on the island, around ten, so it was going to be hard work re-finding the bird and even if one of us independently found the bird there was no phone signal to alert others. Only the wardens had two way radios.

We stood, slightly depressed at the distinct prospect of failure, the task before us daunting. Every small bird that moved was closely scrutinised, stonechat, whitethroat, robin, dunnock, all briefly held out hope before disappointment took over. We walked further along the track towards a house with an overgrown garden full of flowers and shrubs, its perimeter enclosed by a stone wall. 

Walking towards the house I looked away from the track and could see Steve and his assistant Ollie, having checked some gorse patches, walking back across a field towards the house and into its garden. I thought no more about it.

They disappeared from view but looking back to the house a minute or so later I saw Steve motioning with his arm to come and join him. This could only mean one thing! 

The Song Sparrow had been refound.

Adrenalin surged through me.

We were the only three near the house at this moment and rapidly made our way to join Steve who told us..........

'We have just seen the sparrow.It's in the garden but out of view'.

We walked around the house and stood by the back door and looked at the overgrown garden, a mass of vegetation. All very nice but providing plenty of hiding places for a species that likes nothing better than the security of cover such as this, from which it can emerge to feed unseen.

For a minute or so we saw nothing but then someone said 

'There it is!'

And so it was, perched openly on a stone wall for seconds only but enough for me to get it in my bins and see it in all its understated magnificence.

A sheer tsunami of relief swept through me. I had done it. I had seen a Song Sparrow. Only the tenth to be recorded in Britain.

Others joining us failed to see it before it flew down below the other side of the wall. Groans of frustration from them but pressure off for me.

We waited but there was no further sign, so we walked out of the garden and around to the far side to overlook the garden from there and then we saw it again but only very briefly, perched in the top of a small tree.All of us managed to see it this time.

It flew again but no one was quite sure where.The focus was now most definitely on the garden but either waiting or circumventing the garden for another forty five minutes we  failed to see anything apart from two Spotted Flycatchers.

Then a birder standing on the track by the garden wall inadvertently flushed the sparrow from almost at his feet.It flew up into a tree and preened for a minute or two and had obviously been bathing.I got some record shots but there were too many twigs for comfort or a clear view.Then, once again it dropped down into the garden which appeared to be its favoured feeding place.

We waited but there was no sign. Shortly afterwards it was re-discovered feeding in a very secluded area of the garden right by the house, exactly where it was when first re-found by Steve and Ollie. Now was our big chance to get really good views, as by using a dividing wall as cover we could sneak down to the house unseen and stand in a line on another wall and look over and down into the secluded patch of garden where.the sparrow was feeding on dandelion seeds in the grass and occasionally hopping about on a wall under an apple tree. 

The Song Sparrow fed at the far point of the grass and also perched on the
wall at the far end under the apple blossom tree

The views we were now getting were over and beyond what anyone had been waiting and wishing for.

Here is not the place to go into a detailed plumage description but I noted the following features in particular. Its tail was rufous and long, there were also areas of rufous on its wings and its head was striped grey and brown with a marked broad, grey supercilium and central crown stripe.Two distinct black patches either side of its throat and a black tip to its bill were also prominent. Overall it superficially resembled a female Reed Bunting.

For the next half an hour we watched, we photographed and just enjoyed these supreme moments.  The sparrow eventually hopped into cover and did not re-emerge. 

You always want more in such situations and we were reluctant to leave,but the light was fading and we had to go to catch the boat which required a half hour walk back to the landing point.

But there was still time enough to chat, share the enjoyment of a successful twitch, visit the shop and make a donation to the reserve and above all thank Steve and his staff for a truly memorable day.

The Song Sparrow could not be found the next day and had obviously departed that night as the skies were clear.


  1. Great write up Ewan as usual.

  2. Ace! I've seen them, but only in the garden of friends in Oregon - lovely little birds!