Sunday 10 March 2024

A Big Twitch for a Myrtle Warbler; February 23-25th 2024

In early January this year a very lucky birder in Essex made the astounding discovery of a Northern Waterthrush in his garden. The rare North American Warbler species was then pinned down to a nearby overgrown creek area and a mega-twitch ensued. We managed to see the bird on two occasions, the second visit necessary to get better views than we did first time around. My account of that twitch is here.

Roll on to February 20th and to the other end of the UK, when another rare American Warbler was found in a garden in Ayrshire. Myrtle Warblers are not as rare as the Waterthrush, fifty have been found in Britain (& Ireland) before, but the majority of the British records have been of birds found on islands like the Shetlands and Scilly. The Myrtle Warbler (also known as Yellow-rumped Warbler which has two distinct subspecies, Myrtle and Audubon's Warblers) was frequenting a communal garden area in the back garden of some houses in Kilwinning, about five miles from Kilmarnock and Irvine. Access was granted to the garden for visiting birders to view the bird. Because the garden was quite small the bird could be seen at very close quarters and hence over the next couple of days some terrific photos were obtained, and posted online, by those lucky to live within reach.

At around three hundred and fifty miles away, I wouldn't usually entertain a twitch that far away, but the Myrtle Warbler was very alluring, partly because my mate Jim already had it on his UK list after seeing two in Shetland a couple of years ago, and we have a friendly rivalry when it comes to accumulating birds! This would be a chance to get that one back on him. Like most UK listers, North American birds are a very attractive proposition to us. We don't really have any birds that match the New World Warblers for bright and colourful plumage. So I hatched a plan to travel up to Ayrshire on the Saturday but rather than just drive for six hours each way, I built an itinerary around the star bird and intended to stay away on the Friday and Saturday nights so that we could maximise our birding and pick up a few more hard to see species whilst "up north".

Friday 25th February; Twite Right!

Our daughter had an important appointment to attend in the morning so we didn't set out from home until almost eleven o'clock. Knowing that we wouldn't have enough time to reach Kilwinning before dark, we decided to drive to Knott End-on-sea on the Fylde peninsula to look for the wintering Twite flock that are regularly seen on the slipway there. The Twite are given supplementary food so, although not guaranteed, can usually be reliably seen there. I was bit apprehensive about the Friday traffic, which can be very heavy at the end of the week, but we actually had a really good run up the motorways and arrived at Knott End just after two in the afternoon.

Parking is easy and free right next to the slipway. We had a quick look and scan for the Twite, couldn't find any so hit the cafe for a late lunch. When we visited the slipway for the first time at a similar time of year in 2023, the Twite had been a bit elusive for an hour but eventually good sized flock of over forty of the small finches had flown in and settled on the roof of the cafe. You can read the blog about that day, when as well as the Twite we also saw a Black Redstart and a Snow Bunting, here

After lunch we checked the muddy foreshore and the rocks and slipway but couldn't locate any Twite so took a look on the muddy estuary behind the local pub but there was no sign there either. It'd been almost two hours since we'd arrived and we were starting to get twitchy. The uneasiness was made worse by seeing a BirdGuides notification that thirty-five Twite had been reported on the slipway while we sat in the cafe! We made our way back to the slipway. At low tide, as it clearly was, the concrete jetty juts out into the mud and down to the river mouth for a hundred metres or so. We had already walked the full length of it earlier. Only twenty metres down the second time around we suddenly noticed the flock of Twite feeding in a pile of stranded weed and other assorted flotsam. We had ventured too closely though and I only had a few seconds to grab a quick photo before the while flock exited stage left and flew over the cafe and out of sight. Sometimes you just don't expect the expected and admittedly I'd allowed my guard to drop.

Twite (Linaria flavirostris)

We retired to our car for some respite against the chilly wind blowing in off the Irish Sea. From the carpark I could keep an eye on the slipway about fifty metres away. Our cause wasn't helped by a chap slinging a loaf of bread around which attracted hundreds of the local Gull population. Amazingly though some ten minutes later, a flock of around fifteen of the Twite did return although they soon left sharpish when met by the swirling mass of the squabbling Gulls. We were about to give up and just accept the brief views of earlier when I noticed three Twite on the edge of the slipway. I hadn't seen them fly in. I quickly grabbed my camera, half sprint-walked to halve the distance, and took a couple of quick shots. The trio of Twite were disturbed by a dog walker just a few seconds later. This encounter with the Twite wasn't going to plan at all, but at least we'd seen a few. The whole flock, probably numbering forty birds, flew over again as we walked back to the car but didn't settle and were soon lost to sight again over the adjoining golf course. We had to be happy with what we'd seen, and will return again next year for another Twite fix.

I had originally intended for us to stay overnight at Carlisle but instead ventured a bit further north to Dumfries, still about ninety minutes drive from Kilwinning. The weather forecast was mixed for the Saturday but promised to be better in the morning than later so I wanted to get to the Myrtle Warbler as early as possible.

Saturday 24th February; Now That's What I Call a Garden Bird!

We knew that the twitch for the Myrtle Warbler would be well attended although it would be unlikely to attract the heaving crowds that the Northern Waterthrush had owing to the location. Mostly, for the three days since the bird had been discovered, the Warbler had been seen by local Scottish birders. Most ardent twitchers would have seen the species before so there wasn't quite the level of interest extended to the Waterthrush just seven weeks before, or the even rarer Magnolia Warbler last September. Still I anticipated that there would be southern based birders like ourselves who had never seen a Myrtle Warbler before, and a few ardent year listers (not us) who would be travelling. The journey north from Dumfries was quiet, apart from a few crazy locals who drove like idiots including one who overtook us on a blind bend and then proceeded to turn left just half a mile further along the road, and a couple of bouts of heavy rain. The forecast was for broken sunshine and no rain in Kilwinning so we were full of optimism that it would be a good day.

We parked easily in the closest carpark to Garnock View where the bird was hopefully going to be. "Kil" means Church in Gaelic so I guess religion must have done well in the parts in times gone by (of course it did). Actually Kilwinning translates as "The church of Winnin" and named after St Winnin who established a church way back in the 700's. Much will have changed since then, and I wonder if rare North American birds were able to reach our shores in those days before transatlantic ships were invented. The Garnock is a thirty mile long river that rises in the Muirshiel Hills and  flows through the town on its way to join the River Irvine before reaching the sea opposite the Isle of Arran. The BirdGuides directions to the house where the Warbler was being seen told birders, "to go through the brown gate between numbers 22&32" to access the garden. I assumed that the gate would be set in a back garden fence so took a wide tarmac path down behind the row of flats and maisonettes. There was a heavy whiff of illegal substance hanging in the air, a common stench in our towns and cities these days. This wasn't an upmarket neighbourhood but the path was neat and tidy enough and there was a profusion of birdlife in the trees that we no longer see regularly back in Oxfordshire. Within thirty metres we had seen a pair of Bullfinches, scores of Blue & Long-tailed Tits and a Chiffchaff. I spotted a fellow birder up ahead but incredibly couldn't see anybody else. Surely there had to be more than just us here?

We sidled up to the other birder and asked him for the spiel. He had seen the bird in the trees just a minute before but it had gone from view. It was then I noticed a couple more birders stood on a lower path gazing up to the trees above. A murmur of noise from our left then revealed the main body of the twitchers, cramped up under an overhang of the buildings the other side of the fence by which we stood. I looked for a gate but could only see the continuous slatted fence. So it dawned on me that the way in must be around the front of the houses! We walked back to the street and looked for numbers 22&32. The only gates that I could see were to the side of each property and they were all locked. Momentarily I was confused, there had to be a way in somewhere. Then the penny dropped, the "brown gate" was actually a brown framed glass door which gave way to a communal lobby that served both flats and which in turn led to another door that gave access to the garden. Having worked it out we gingerly opened the garden door and prised ourselves into the crowd. Viewing was awkward to say the least but after a quick appraisal I negotiated a way through the throng so that Mrs Caley had a front row seat of the proceedings. I had to peer around, over, and in between, heads and shoulders to see anything. But I'm a patient man occasionally so I knew that a better view would present itself in time. The bird was here, as it probably had been for longer than just since Tuesday, so it wouldn't be going anywhere.

I recognised a few faces from previous twitches and said hello to those I could without shouting, nods of the head did for the others. There were about thirty birders lined up under the overhang. I was informed by the chap next to me that the Myrtle Warbler had shown well in a privet bush the other side of the fence but hadn't yet visited the array of feeders on offer in the garden itself. As he pointed out the said privet next to one of the lampposts that lined the path, there was a quick movement, excitement rose in the assembled, and there for the briefest of seconds was the Myrtle Warbler. I was surprised at how big it was, almost Dunnock sized, and much more robust looking than the Chiffchaff proportioned bird that I was expecting. I took a few shots but didn't manage to focus the camera on it. No panic though because the Myrtle Warbler reappeared almost in the same place just seconds later. Although it was partially obscured this time, it stayed still for long enough for me to get a treasured photo. The life tick was secured.

It had taken us less than ten minutes to see the Myrtle Warbler but it was another twenty minutes before it appeared again. This time it perched on the highest branch of a taller tree after chasing a pair of Blue Tits out of the area. This was clearly a very territorial bird which didn't like the Blue Tits at all. In fairness, the Myrtle Warbler was a victim of angst from the resident pair of Robins that also thought that they owned the garden. At the top of the tree bathed in the early morning sunshine, in itself a rare occurrence in these parts, the Warbler cut a very dashing figure indeed with its yellow rump patch particularly striking.

Myrtle Warbler (Setophaga coronata coronata)

Views of the star bird were restricted for a while to seeing it chase Blue Tits away. Whenever a Blue Tit came near then the Myrtle Warbler would launch an attack and see them out of the territory. Most often the Warbler would then settle in the privet bush for a preen and some respite. Being able to pick it out amongst the leaves of the evergreen shrub depended on where you were stood. Sometimes you could see it whereas your neighbour couldn't and vice versa at other times. 

The Warbler found another open spot to pose for a few seconds. The small army of camera carrying twitchers went into overdrive and the machine gun sound of the shutters echoed underneath the balcony. I feel grateful that my own camera is a silent mirrorless model. Not that mine made any difference in lessening the cacophony of shutter noise. I had also managed to gain a position at the front of the crowd since a few folk had left after the bird had initially shown at the top of the tree. This was better for seeing the bird but with half a dozen cameras within close earshot, my tinnitus was aggravated. Loud music at gigs also makes my ear ringing worse for a while, and I still go to those as well. It can't be helped.

The Myrtle Warbler hadn't yet chosen to visit the feeders. It had first been spotted whilst it fed on a suet block and for the following three days had made repeated visits to the same square wire feeder giving birders unrivalled views. I guessed that its reticence to do the same now was down to the number of twitchers in the garden and the numbers were still rising at the morning wore on. Newly arriving borders were now having to take up positions alongside the neighbouring fence opposite to where the feeders were stationed. I seriously began to doubt that the bird would ever be bold enough to venture down from the trees and also felt a deep pang of guilt that we were preventing the bird from feeding. However, after a Blackbird had braved the twitterazzi and dined out on the remains of a suet block that had been placed on top of a bird box, the Myrtle Warbler suddenly plucked up the courage and alighted on the fence. The cameras went into overdrive once more. Out of the thirty plus birders there, I reckon only Mrs Caley and a couple of others actually watched the bird. The rest of us, myself just as guilty, blasted away with our camera fingers!

But of course, the bird could still be watched through the camera viewfinder. In fact the camera finely focusses the users attention on the subject since we're all aiming to get the more interesting of images. The Myrtle Warbler ran along the fence and posed briefly for the crowd. Unfortunately from where I stood I had to compete with several washing lines which, from my angle, managed to interrupt the scene and led to a horrid green blurry line across many of my photos. They were still photos of a Myrtle Warbler though!

From the fence the Myrtle Warbler jumped onto the same spot as the Blackbird had and tucked voraciously into the suet block. It spent a minute and a half gorging on the food, a time that seemed like far longer, judging by the fact that I stopped photographing and just watched the beauty instead. The consensus is that this bird is a first year male, with a hint of blue-grey just emerging in the feathering at the top of the wings. Adult males of the species are stunning birds, decked out in a lovely deep blue-grey feathers to the head, with a bright yellow crown patch to match the rump from which its alternative name of "Yellow-rumped Warbler" is derived, a similarly plumaged back which is streaked with black, and two bright yellow shoulder patches. Our bird in largely juvenile plumage, resembled a female but the signs of its future glory was evident already with the rump and shoulder patches already vivid yellow. The white throat is the marker that sets the Myrtle Warbler apart from its species partner, the Audubon's Warbler which has a yellow throat.

Having filled its belly the Myrtle Warbler retreated to the safety of the privet and sat there semi-hidden for a while before flying off into deeper cover. With ever more folk bustling to get in to see the bird, we left to free up a couple of spaces. We were delighted that our long trip had been worthwhile.

We went looking for some breakfast which proved to be far more difficult to get than it should. At our first stop we were greeted by a rather harassed looking young lady who said that there'd be a long wait for service because she was the only one who had turned in for work that morning. When she couldn't actually say how long that wait would be, we drove on to Stevenston Point at Saltcoats where we intended to look for more birds. A conveniently placed restaurant looked ideal for food until we entered and were told that the kitchen was closed between eleven and twelve o'clock. It was ten past eleven. Why a kitchen would stop serving food for an hour in the middle of the day was beyond my comprehension. So it was to a local supermarket, far from my preferred choice, for a cheap but cheerful plate of Scottish breakfast fare. With my belly satisfied we headed back to Stevenston Point for more birding.

Our friend Kyle hails from these parts, his mother still lives there, and on his trips home he often gets out birding and takes excellent photos of many different species (see some at Birdwatch Britannia). He had given me the gen about Stevenston Point where a flock of wintering Purple Sandpipers feed and roost on the rocky shore. The rocks are next to a lido, a man-made natural (Ha!) swimming pool fed by the tides. On our visit the lido was only visible because of the sea boiling over the perimeter rock walls since it was very much high tide. Frustratingly the Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone flock were huddled on a solitary rock about fifty metres offshore. I counted around a dozen of the former and maybe twice that number of the latter. A single Dunlin also occupied a spot on the rock.

A little uncomfortably for optics wielding birders, the viewpoint for the rocks was from a children's playground, much of which was in use by families enjoying some positively balmy weather. However, we weren't bothered by anybody apart from the usual curious looks. I guess birders are seen often enough here to be taken as part of the scenery. A Rock Pipit caught my eye as it dashed amongst the rocks next to the swings. Another first of the year for our not-counting this time, year list. The Rock Pipit then posed dutifully for us to admire.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)

The tide was ebbing but still pretty full so the wading birds remained on their sanctuary rock, until, that is, a Herring Gull began pestering them. The unrest in the dozing flock was the cue for many of the birds to fly to the shore and land just in front of us on the stinky seaweed which was slowly being exposed as the tide ran out. The pavement above the rocks was also covered in the seaweed, even smellier stuff, testament to less favourable weather recently. I wondered if the local council ever cleared it away from the playground or if it was just left there to fester because of cuts to budgets. We now had our wish of some close-up birds to admire. Purple Sandpipers are probably my second most favourite of all the wading birds that we see in the UK.

Purple Sandpiper & Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

The entire Turnstone flock followed the vanguard of Purple Sandpipers to feed, but kept more to the rocks themselves. Turnstones are largely very bold little birds and will often approach very closely. They are very adept at taking handouts and will happily dash in and out at frenzied feeding sites where folk chuck bread and stuff at Gulls and Wildfowl.

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

There was quite a bit of coming and going by the birds from the offshore rock to the foreshore, which allowed me to try to capture some flight shots. Most of my efforts failed miserably but I managed a couple of decent shots.

It was the Purple Sandpipers that I had come to this place for so I was delighted when a couple posed nicely on a rock for me. Kyle had recently taken a superb set of photos of the birds here, gaining some merit from BirdGuides with a particularly nice shot of one stood in the sea. I didn't quite get anything as nice as that but I was happy just to spend time with such photogenic subjects.

We walked to the small tower-cum-lighthouse at the point itself and gazed out into the almost flat calm waters of the bay towards the Isle of Arran in the distance. We'd never really spent much time in this area before but have now learned that the scenery is beautiful. At least looking offshore it is. From the lookout we spotted other new birds, but all at some distance out. Our first Shag of the year (fnarr, fnarr) was closely followed by a couple more. I just about managed to record a record shot or two. Further out and out of range for my lens were Great & Red-throated Divers, and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers.

Shag (Phalocrocorax aristotelis)

The real star of the show of the harbour wall wildlife was at the opposite end from the lookout tower. There, loafing completely clear of the water on another exposed rock was a young Common Seal. We walked along to view the creature from a point barely twenty metres away. A local engaged us and remarked that it was very unusual to see a Seal there. I took a fair few photos of the Seal, which looked quite happy and content even if it appeared less than comfortable on its craggy bed. You could almost believe that it was laughing at my cruddy jokes but in truth it was actually yawning. Suitably the sequence ends with a grimace. Listening to my jokes must be tiring but it did look as if I was being given a seal of approval. 

Common Seal (Phoco vitulina)

The rest of the day, mainly because of poor judgement from myself was literally a washout. I thought that, in view of the fine and sunny weather, a drive over the Galloway Hills would give us a chance of seeing some raptors, especially Golden Eagles, and Grouse. But in complete contrast to the coastal conditions, once we'd driven up to the higher ground, we encountered driving rain and fog which curtailed our birding for the day. We couldn't even find a coffee shop.

We cut our losses and made our way back towards the south stopping briefly at a well known coffee franchise for a caffeine shot. Whilst there we booked a hotel for the night. Our choice was naturally made with our plans for the Sunday in mind, since I'd already identified some target birds to see on the way home. 

Sunday 25th February; Homeward Bound but Birding all the Way

The choice of hotel proved to be disappointing. The evening meal was passable but the room was dreadful and the breakfast poor so we weren't sad to leave and certainly won't be going there again. The best bit about it was the view from the window at the snowy hills of the Lake District. 

Our first destination was to a grassy field on the outskirts of Ulverston not far from Barrow.  This is an area that we've never spent much time in before. We did twitch a Hudsonian Godwit at South Walney once but dipped. This was our first visit to the area since. The weather was fine again and we parked up next to the field easily. A footpath led directly to where a Richard's Pipit had been found a few days before. I've always found Richard's Pipits tricky birds to connect with and had only seen four previously. I'd dipped more over the years. Another birder was already on site so we made our way to join him and rather than faff around looking for the bird myself, I asked him if he had it. Ten seconds later and we watching our fifth Dick's Pipit.

Richard's Pipit (Anthus richardi)

Typically for the species, the Pipit kept to the long grass and was often hidden but generally it showed well and often although never very close. It did however, have a handy habit of flying up onto overhead wires which allowed us better views especially when viewed through my scope.

The Pipit was surprisingly popular, They are much rarer birds in the north compared to southern counties so when the number of birders exceeded single figures we decided we'd head off to the next of our target birds for the day. I took a shot of lighthouse which curiously sits atop a hill some miles away from the sea. Apparently it's a commemorative structure, the Hoad Monument, built to honour a local dignitary, Sir John Barrow, who was big in the Admiralty and into Geography.

The drive to the RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss took just under an hour. The sun was out and it was a warm day so it then took us almost as long to park the car because the place was heaving with folk out to enjoy the tranquility and splendour of one of the best RSPB sites. Unfortunately the local shooting club were doing their best to shatter the peace and the volleys of gunfire rattled around the area. We took lunch first before heading off towards the causeway because that was where the Ring-necked Duck we wanted to see had been showing over the past couple of days. As we walked through the edge of one of the vast reedbeds we could hear several Bitterns booming their bottle top-blowing song. They seem to display earlier each year. We just caught sight of one skimming the reeds in the distance as it moved between its own display posts. A Bearded Tit also pinged quickly past us but we could hear more hidden in the reeds. We were doing well.

The causeway hide was rammed, mainly with people eating sandwiches and making as much noise as a class full of five year old children could, and would. Actually these lot in the hide were probably noisier. This type of birding is not my favourite, in fact I hate it, but sometimes you have to put up with stuff you don't like to get what you want. In fact sometimes you have to put up with it even when you don't get what you want as well, like on this occasion because the Ring-necked Duck was nowhere to be seen. Oh well, we'd see one somewhere through the year. I was sure of that. The main entertainment bird-wise was provided by a gang-banging gang of male Gadwall and the female that they all wanted to mate with. I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't want to be a Jemima Gadwall Duck. Pretty sure I wouldn't to be a Gadwall Drake either. Far too much hassle and competition for me to cope with.

Gadwall (Anas strepera)

Marsh Harriers were patrolling the reedbeds, which was causing great consternation amongst the waterfowl feeding close to the reed edges. I don't really know why I tried taking photos of them. Marsh Harriers wear a cloak of fuzzibility which thwarts any attempts at getting sharp images of them. They also never come within a mile of an Old Caley. So I include a "habitat shot" here, mainly because it's all I ever get.

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Coots were trying to look imposing to other Coots but it must be hard for a Coot to take another Coot seriously since they are such daft looking birds. Daft as a brush could be applied to a Coot. Take it from someone who's almost as bald as a Coot and definitely silly.

Coot (Fulica atra)

Back at the visitor centre, I took time to look through the recent sightings book and saw that the Ring-necked Duck had been reported from Lillians Hide. Slightly annoying that because if I'd bothered to look at the book earlier then I could have saved some shoe leather. But then we'd have missed out on all of the other stuff. Luckily the hide was the closest one to the centre so we didn't have far to go. It took me a few minutes to find the Ring-necked Duck, a female that wasn't being harassed by males of her species, mainly because she was on her lonesome, although she was keeping loose company with a band of Tufted Ducks. That duck should be careful who she hangs out with in these parts.

Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)

On the way back to the car we stopped to admire a first for us. At least something we'd never knowingly seen before. Not a bird, or an animal but a small fungus that was growing under some trees. The tiny little Scarlet Elf Cups looked like brightly coloured half egg shells as they festooned some broken tree twigs.

Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea)

A few miles south of Leighton Moss, on the edge of Morecambe, we made our last bird stop of the weekend when we pulled up next to a horse paddock. At the far end of a small flood strutted a Glossy Ibis. Viewing was awkward, straight into the bright sunshine, so we drove around to a nearby housing estate and parked up at the back of the village hall. From there we had the sun at our backs so the full glory of the Ibis's stunning "petroleum" plumage could be admired far more readily, and the bird was closer to boot. We got an even better look at the bird from a small carpark serving some of the houses nearby.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

Unfortunately a chap arriving in his own car advised us that the carpark was a private one for the residents only, and that we were blocking his access. No problem, I was happy to move. As I jumped back into the car, I noticed the Ibis take flight and disappear over the fields. Lucky then that we'd not arrived five minutes later than we had, if we had we'd have missed the bird. But somehow I felt miffed that I hadn't waited for five seconds longer before getting in the car because I missed grabbing the flight shots. Hmph!

The Ibis brought the curtain down on a largely fantastic birding weekend. The Myrtle Warbler was a bird that I'd never had on my radar to see so making, what for us was a supreme effort to go and see. I'm very glad we made that effort. My thanks go to the finder and householder who allowed us all in to enjoy the bird at such quarters.

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