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Finding Scarce and Rare Birds

by Paul Laurie

Bluethroat
© Paul Laurie

Sociable Plover
© Barry Wright

Red-backed Shrike
© Iurii Konoval

Waxwing
© Nick Plumb

Why do we study birds? For many people birding is a relaxing, gentle past time that is done in the garden, while walking the dog or on a holiday abroad. They don't become serious birders at any time in their life but enjoy bird watching when they can. For others birding is an extremely competitive hobby that takes over their life completely and evolves into rarity hunting or twitching as it is commonly known. Twitching has been part of the ornithological background for many years and in recent times it has become arguably the most common form of bird watching in Britain. A twitch of an extremely rare vagrant may attract 2-3,000 bird watchers over a period of a few days. The number of birders attracted to a rare bird is normally governed by certain factors, for example; a number of the same scare species may have arrived along a stretch of coast within a few days of each other. The white-spotted Bluethroats that arrived on Britains east coast in March of 2001 was a good example of several small gatherings of birders rather than one large twitch. A total of 12 birds were seen and many were seen from one afternoon to several days giving local birders an opportunity to travel a short distance.

All birders enjoy seeing a bird for the first time, the first for the garden, the first on your local 'patch'', the first in your county and the first ever in Britain! We all remember the first time we saw a particular species, even decades later and we remember the excitement and euphoria we felt at seeing the bird. This adrenaline rush peaks when you actually find the scarce or rare bird, it is one hundred times more satisfying to have found your own good bird than to be looking at someone else's though the latter does feel good, it is not even close. This state of excitement keeps many of us birding, with early morning visit to our favourite patch, evening walks close to home and hours of sea-watching for distant birds racing past as we are battered by nature's elements. We dream each autumn night that tomorrow will be the day when we find the big one - White-throated Robin or White's Thrush, we all have our favourites.

Time constraints often play a part in bird watchers habits and it is perfectly reasonable for a birder that has one Sunday a month available to bird watch, to visit a site that has one or two scarce birds that have arrived that they may not have seen before rather than trudge around the local park seeing very little and knowing that their next birding session is a month away. All birders like to see scarce & rare birds. Many of us that bird almost everyday, either as professionals or retired birders, find several scarce birds each year and the enjoyment of finding such a bird is part of what makes the hours in the field worthwhile, especially if you are able to share the experience with other like minded birders. The odds are of course in favour of the birder that spends much of his time bird watching.

Don't miss out

It is always with a feeling of frustration that you hear of a scarce bird being found on your local patch on the day you decided not to go there, or become involved in a few domestic chores that prevented you going out at all. You may well see the bird and congratulate the finder, but there will always be that feeling it should have been me!

Well it could have been you and not only can you find scarce species but you can, sometimes, even predict that they will occur. On one memorable day on the 15th October 2000 I meet my tour group at Titchwell and we discussed our route for the day and birds we were likely to see. I explained that the weather was typical of a good October day with a few light showers, sunny spells, and a variable breeze that was backing north-westerly. I explained that these were perfected conditions for the annual but relatively scarce Richard's Pipit from the Asian grasslands and that we would take a steady walk to Thornham Point, through the dunes grass, as this was the most likely spot to find them in the Titchwell area. As we reached the beach a migrant Snow Bunting flew over heading west which gave me some encouragement and we made our way through the tall dune grass and reached Thornham Point. We had seen very few birds and no Richard's Pipits so I decided we would check out the west dunes where we found a single Black Redstart and Northern Wheatear. As we headed back towards Titchwell I heard the loud sparrow like call of a Richard's Pipit and located two large pipits flying in off the sea towards us. As I put the rest of the group on to them they called twice and flew past very close at head height before dropping into the dense dune grass. They flew up after a couple of minutes circled the group giving fantastic views and flew off across the salt marsh, towards Thornham village. I of course was very pleased and very popular with my tour group. When we arrived at the main hide to have lunch and search through the waders, I meet one of the assistant volunteer wardens whom I told about the Richard's Pipit's. He informed me that Holme Dunes, a couple of miles away, had also reported Richard's Pipit's that morning. The next day I was told by the warden of Holme Dunes that they had had eight - ten Richards Pipits and that Thornham Point had a single bird later in the day.

This predicting of bird species occurrence is well known, particularly with certain species at certain times of the year and is associated with patterns of weather and wind direction.

In late March and early April the east, south-east and south coasts of England will see the arrival of Black Redstarts & Firecrests almost always on south-easterly winds. These birds are early migrants that are moving northwards and eastwards across the near continent and are pushed on to our shores by the south-easterly airflow. The better the weather on the continent the more of each species will be found. Dungeness in Kent often records up to ten Black Redstarts in late March and early April and has held as many as 25 on a single day. Peak numbers of Firecrest at Dungeness tend to be in late March and on the 23rd March 1972 25 were recorded.

The factors that can help to find scarce & rare birds:

  • Birds migrate at certain times; quite often single species have a short migration period that is readily predictable.
  • Wind direction and the weather can play an important part in the movement and occurrence of species and with the generally excellent short term weather forecasting available we are aware of the likely effect this may have on the birds.
  • Historical records show patterns of species timing and location.
  • Using knowledge of the habitats likely to be utilised by certain species is often fundamental in discovering birds.
  • Up to date news. If a invasion of a species is being reported then you can search the likely habitat that the species may be found in. Waxwing is a good example of this as they tend to invade every few years in large numbers and over a extensive period of time.