Monday 23 October 2023

Hanging out with the Bunting 21st October 2023

A long time friend of mine, Hugh, called during the week suggesting a day's birding on the East Coast. Hugh, now living near Peterborough with a young family and me semi retired in Oxfordshire means that we usually only manage an annual birding reunion.

Forecast winds from the East had got us birding folk very energised this past week but it all came to nought and failed to produce anything which was really exciting before our chosen day to go birding.

We arranged to meet at a mutually convenient midway point in Lincolnshire and Hugh would then drive us to Spurn in Yorkshire. If nothing else it would be nice to be out birding without the anxieties and pressures of chasing after a rarity. It would also be good to see Hugh again and catch up on a year's news.

We arrived at Spurn at first light, the road leading to Kilnsea littered with newly arrived tired migrants, mainly Blackbirds, Redwings and Song Thrushes. Parking the car we stepped out into a raw and damp early morning, the cold air amplifying the harsh calls of many Fieldfares as they flew above us making landfall from their long journey across the North Sea.

The sea was spectacular, a huge swell, the legacy of earlier storms, causing a corrugation of giant rolling waves, rising as they made landfall to then crash down in a thunder of white surf and foam on the exposed eastern side of the point whilst on the other side of the point, comparatively sheltered, the exposed tidal mudflats harboured the scattered forms of countless feeding waders - large and small.

Slowly my tiredness from an early start evaporated and my spirit entered into the wide, open, lonely sky and seascapes of the mighty Humber Estuary and the saltmarshes of Spurn Point. Hundreds of  hungry Redwings and Fieldfares, newly arrived from the North Sea, exploded from a multitude of berry laden hawthorn bushes as we approached them.The mournful calls of Grey Plovers came from the ranks of the thousands of wading birds feeding on the mud before an advancing tide. 

A Woodcock came up and over the ridge we stood on, nearly colliding with us as it passed at waist height between us, so close you could hear the air pass through its wings.Its curious neckless and portly silhouette utterly distinctive as it powered away over the saltmarsh.

We had an early minor triumph, watching at some distance a Rough legged Buzzard, by no means an annual migrant here, being mobbed by three crows. This certainly set us up for the day as we continued to check likely places for birds.

We failed to find the reported Firecrest and Richard's Pipit but a female Ring Ouzel scoffing hawthorn berries and a distant Waxwing were welcome. After a reviving coffee from the YWT(Yorkshire Wildlife Trust) centre  we made for Beacon Ponds to view a drake American Wigeon consorting with its commoner cousins and a little further, a juvenile Long tailed Duck occupied a smaller pond as two Northern Wheatears bounced across the adjacent muddy saltings.

Consulting my BirdGuides app I saw that an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler on Whalsay in Shetland had been re-identified as a much rarer Western Olivaceous Warbler. A first for Britain. no less. I called Mark and we half heartedly discussed the logistics of returning to Shetland. Having only left there less than a week ago, frankly I was just going through the motions, my heart not really in it and was glad when we discovered that there were no cabins available on the Northlink ferry to Shetland for the coming week, so it was mission abandoned.

More to the point, while consulting BirdGuides we saw that a Siberian Stonechat had been reported during the morning from Northcliff Marsh near Flamborough Head further up the Yorkshire coast.

Having just about seen all we could at Spurn and knowing a Siberian Stonechat would be a lifer for Hugh we decided to drive north to Flamborough.

Little did we suspect the thrilling events that would await us there.

The rain of yesterday had flooded many of the ploughed fields in the flat lands around Spurn and large flashes of shallow water lay on the waterlogged earth. This in turn had attracted many Black headed Gulls and more unexpectedly lured some Little Gulls inland and these were now also flying over the flashes  feeding much as terns do, dipping and swooping to pick prey from the water's surface.One such area of water we came to had a small flock of no less than six adult and sub adult Little Gulls and a juvenile Kittiwake feeding right by the road.

This was too good an opportunity to miss and asking Hugh to stop the car I made the most of it with my camera as the gulls flew back and fore in front of me.They are such exquisite creatures, ballerina's of the sky, petite and with buoyant flight they glide and flutter with supreme elegance, dipping down to seize prey from the water's surface, their every movement the epitomy of grace. 

I could easily have remained on this quiet road for longer but we had to make our way to Flamborough as hopefully a lifer for Hugh awaited us. 

Arriving at Flamborough we had lost the sun but the  predicted rain was not in evidence.We now had a kilometre walk to where the Siberian Stonechat had last been reported but that was some hours ago.We took the cliff top path that wends its muddy and slippery way around the back of  a golf course, close to the cliff edge.

Below us the sea was wild, immense waves roaring onto the rocks below, a mass of white foam and thundering breakers producing a suitably impressive soundtrack to augment the spectacular views of the chalk cliffs. 

We met a returning birder who brought instant relief by telling us 'the sibe' was still there. We walked further along the path, winding its uncertain way along the cliff top and two local birders caught up with us.They seemed in a great hurry and I fell behind as they passed me but Hugh kept up with them, chatting. I assumed he was ultra keen to get to the stonechat as soon as possible and told him to go on and I would catch up. Eventually we came to a place where it was required to turn off the path and walk alongside a field and then turn right, skirting a ditch before entering another vast field of  waterlogged stubble. Half a dozen local birders were standing near the  edge looking at some brambles and bushes by another ditch that continued around the side of the field.

Hugh already had his scope pointed at a bird in the brambles.

Have a look through the scope.What do you see?

He was unnaturally excited but who would not be at seeing a lifer.

I looked through the scope expecting to see the Siberian Stonechat but I could not see anything.

Look again he said.

I looked and saw a non descript bunting half hidden by dead grasses, perched on a bramble spray.

What's that? I enquired.

It's either a Black or Red headed Bunting  he replied, grinning  


Now I too became excited as the implications of this momentous event became apparent. I need both these species for my British List.Whichever one it was I was guaranteed a new addition to my List. 

But how come  news of it had not been put out?

Hugh told me that whilst walking out with the two local birders they had told him that they were going to see a mystery bunting and not the Siberian Stonechat and showed the bunting to him when they got in the field.

Apparently the bunting had been found on Thursday by another local birder.He took some photos of it but then found the Siberian Stonechat and in his excitement at his discovery of the stonechat forgot all about the non descript bunting he had photo'd.

It was only on Saturday when reviewing his photos he noted the images of the bunting but unsure as to what it was notified some of his local friends who went to see it.

They too were unsure what it was and the news was only put out nationally that the mystery bunting might be a Red headed Bunting, a potential first for Britain, in the late afternoon just as we arrived at Flamborough.

Some other locals managed to come and see it in the late afternoon and early evening but there was never a large number of birders present, maybe six or seven at the most.

The bunting sat on its bramble spray for a long time, perching on one leg, relaxed and seemingly at ease as we all stood at a respectful distance and admired it.

It eventually roused itself and flew further down the hedge line to the bottom of the field and two local birders went to collect some droppings from its former perch to send for DNA analysis by Dr Martin Collinson at Aberdeen University. Hopefully this will confirm the bunting's true identity.

The stubble field and two local birders collecting a sample of droppings from where the bunting was perched to send for DNA analysis

Meanwhile Hugh still needed to see the Siberian Stonechat which we had nearly forgotten about in the excitement. A local birder kindly took us across the field to a bramble hedge on the far side. The hedge and field are normally out of bounds except to a few local birders, so it was kind of them to take pity on us. After a little wait we found it perched with a male European Stonechat for comparison on a fence line. So Hugh got to see his Siberian Stonechat and I had a potential British tick courtesy of the mystery bunting..  

Who could have predicted this?

The bunting returned to the hedge near us and perched on a wire fence and in several bushes, thick with berries, giving really good views at times.It then dropped down lower onto brambles at the top of the ditch and allowed even better views.

I made the most of it and took far too many images, aware that this bunting was controversial and by no means easy to identify, so the more images I got the better.There would inevitably be a detailed inquest in subsequent days and no doubt some controversy as to its identity and provenance so I felt it better to be prepared with my own evidence. The inquest had already commenced by the time we left with some people querying if it was really wild and maybe had escaped from an aviary but to me the claws looked sharp which they usually are not in cage birds.We will just have to wait for the debate to run its course and the DNA results to come from Aberdeen. 

Still marvelling at our good fortune to find ourselves in the forefront of possibly a major birding find we watched this bland looking bird of streaked, pale brown and buff plumage. The only slight colouring I could detect was  the faintest greenish yellow tinge to its rump and a pale yellow flush to its undertail coverts. 

A stocky bird with a stout bill and a pronounced cap of streaked crown feathers which it could raise and lower at will, it was vaguely reminiscent of a Corn Bunting in colour and somewhere between a Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting in size. It showed a definite preference for the small corner of the field we were standing in and joined a few Yellowhammers feeding in the stubble before flying back to perch in the brambles and gorse. The last we saw of it was as it perched on some gorse before flying down into the stubble field to feed.

We had been here for about an hour, reluctant to leave, knowing how rare this bird was. Hugh handed out some chocolate digestives to everyone by way of celebration and the legend that is Brett Richards made us laugh about his bizarre experience at the campsite on The Isles of Scilly when attempting to twitch the Red footed Booby.

We found other good birds here too - a  ringtail Hen Harrier upset all the corvids as it quartered the next door field and just when the crows had settled down they were aggravated once more by a Short eared Owl checking out the same field.

We turned to leave as the  light began to fail but just as we did a Little Bunting was found perched at the top of some low brambles at the bottom of the field. We rushed back to see it before it too slipped away.

What a day.

A relatively low key start to our day of birding at Spurn had risen to stratospheric levels here at Flamborough.

What an autumn it has been for rare birds.Totally unprecedented and I doubt it will ever happen again but then I said that last year.

Who can tell what may happen and that is one of the huge attractions of birding.

Nothing is impossible. Absolutely nothing. 

A subsequent detailed analysis of the plumage features of this bird by Paul French Chairman of the BBRC (British Birds Records Committee) would point to this bird being a Red headed Bunting and a first year male bird.

If this bird proves to be a Red headed Bunting it is likely to be only the second to be confirmed to have been found in Britain. The first being on Out Skerries Shetland from the 2nd-8th of October 2010. Originally identified as an adult female Black headed Bunting it is being re-assessed by the BBRC following a re-assessment by the Norwegian Rarities Committee who re-identified it as a first winter male Red headed Bunting.

Subsequent DNA analysis at Aberdeen University has confirmed the bunting at Flamborough to be a Red headed Bunting.


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