When Richard Millington published A Twitcher’s Diary in 1981 it took ordinary birders like me completely by surprise. The possibility of seeing 300 species of bird in the UK in a single year was, until then, an ornithological ‘Boys Own’ fantasy. As Millington asserted in his introduction, to see 200 of our regular breeding or visiting birds in a year is well within the capability of most regular birdwatchers, but to see three hundred requires application, dedication.. and a modicum of luck! The additional one hundred species required being made up of the scarce and rare birds that grace these shores on an infrequent basis – sometimes they are a once in a life-time event. They can turn up at any time, anywhere and may stay for a matter of a few hours or a few days at best.
Since 1980 the limits of UK year listing have been tested and broken on many occasions and nowadays those in the premier league of year listing regularly exceed 350 – depending on which list you use of course! – see November’s ‘The Listers Dilemma’ blog. In 2011 the excitement and anguish of year listing gained a much wider public appreciation with the release of the The Big Year, the Hollywood movie, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.
Until this year my own ‘personal best’ was a rather meagre 254, achieved back in the early eighties, but even that sort of total required a steady effort throughout the year, both on my ‘home patch’ and further afield. To get to the magic 300 you have to dedicate considerably more time and resources to the task, and there’s also significant wear and tear on your emotional/ psychological well-being to contend with as well! I certainly didn’t start off 2013 with the intention of doing ‘a Big Year,’ but as winter turned into spring I’d seen a good proportion of the birds that were available and the challenge/opportunity to beat my previous best year began to take hold. However, by late August I’d already matched that total and, with time on my side, I set my sights on the big target of 300.
We began to focus on seeing any new bird that showed up within striking distance of our home in Norfolk and planned a few longer excursions to collect some of the regional rarities and catch up on those we’d missed earlier in the year. The annual GPOG trip to Cornwall and a late visit to see my brother in Scotland helped boost the list still further. By mid November, the time when arrivals of scarce and rare birds traditionally slows to a standstill, I’d reached 290 and was within spitting distance of the prize!
A pre-scheduled trip to the North West, for Jane’s mums 80th birthday, coincided with the arrival of a rare Semipalmated Sandpiper, from North America, at Knott’s End. On our way up we called in at Pennington Flash, one of the few remaining guaranteed locations for the UK’s endangered Willow Tit and during the long wait for the SemiP to show, we added Twite. The return journey, and a rather lengthy detour, brought us Serin at Flamborough. Entertaining friends over the following weekend, we were lucky enough to pass Holt Country Park whilst Parrot Crossbill were on show – 295. Next, a weekend excursion to Hampshire was planned with three new ticks in prospect – frustratingly we came back with just one, Lesser Yellowlegs. In the final week of November a text announced the presence of a very unseasonal juvenile Purple Heron at Holkham, we showed up and ‘ticked up’ – just three to go! On the last day of the month, a 1st winter Iceland Gull, in the roost at Hoveringham sailing pit made it just two more species required. The following morning, after a singularly unsuccessful ‘dry run’ two days before, we managed to find arguably Britain’s rarest resident wild bird – Golden Pheasant, at it’s Norfolk strong-hold. A slight diversion yesterday, on our way back to Peterborough for GPOG Christmas drinks, found us at Gibraltar Point – where the Hume’s Leaf Warbler, a rare vagrant from Central Asia, gave acceptable views and became my 300th species in the UK this year! And today, just for good measure, we successfully twitched the Baikal Teal at Southport.
The ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of 2013:
This year’s ‘Lifers’ – Red-flanked Bluetail, Pacific Swift, Bridled Tern, Baikal Teal, Brunnich’s Guillemot & Black-browed Albatross – sadly no photos of the latter though
Best ‘self-found/identified’ – Wilson’s Phalarope at Cley in September and Baird’s Sandpiper, at Frampton – originally identified as a White-rumped
Biggest ‘Dip’ – Pied-billed Grebe – 7 hours, over two days, failed to secure the over-wintering individual at Ham Walls.
Most surprising – Sardinian Warbler, a rare Mediterranean warbler, seen in November – in Scotland!
The most demanding: Pallid Swift – gave us the run-around for the best part of three days in October
The pretty one: Plenty to choose from but this Rosie Starling at Wells in June was a ‘stonker’!
The plain one: Booted Warbler -plain it may have been but a welcome addition to my Norfolk list and just reward for flogging up Blakeney Point and back
The one that never was: this could have been Britain’s first Italian Sparrow, but sadly no DNA evidence has been forthcoming – it certainly looked like one! ( N.B. not included in the total!)
The ones that got away: Grey Phalarope, Little Auk, Golden Oriole, Dusky Warbler, Dotterel, Red-breasted Goose, Long-billed Dowitcher, Snow Goose, Rustic Bunting, King Eider, Hoopoe, White-winged Black Tern, Black Guillemot, Siberian Stonechat, Pied Wheatear, Common Rosefinch, etc – need I go on. I suppose there’s still time to pull one or two of these back..!
The List. I shall be including a link to my complete BOU list of the 300+ birds seen in 2013, at the end of the year.
Finally, as Richard Millington acknowledged in ‘A Twitcher’s Diary’, if it weren’t for the generosity and selflessness of birders everywhere, who find and then post the reports of these scarce/rare birds, ordinary birders like me would certainly not be able to see over 300 species in the UK in a single year – my heartfelt thanks to one and all.