Category Archives: 18) Warblers, Crests, Wrens

The 15 year old and the Desert Warbler and the

Long-billed Dowitcher. 1979.

Excuse the glorious nostalgia. The two recent Desert Warblers have stirred the pot. Super tame dude in the Netherlands and super rare (first national record) in Norway have stirred the pot. How did my fascination with rare birds begin? My first ‘twitch’ I suppose was a White Stork (a BBRC rarity back then) in 1978 at Chirk, near Oswestry.

Then I found one! one of the most magic moments I have ever known. Well. A family asked me what this funny bird was. I looked though a telescope and quiet unbelievably there was bird… and somehow I knew what it was. I must have absorbed myself sufficiently in the bird book pages- including the ‘vagrants section’. I knew what it was  – a dowitcher- instinctively, immediately, I had a name for it…


Here, on my patch. Looking at an American wader whose image I had learnt from a book. An exotic name. From a far-flung land. I submitted a Dowitcher sp. and the powers said Long-billed.

That was 29th September 1979.

A few days later I was watching- a DESERT  WARBLER. 

A bird I had never heard of- from an even further flung land. I can’t remember exactly who was present, but Billy Morton was my constant sparing partner, Don Weedon, my RSPB man and Dougie Percival our YOC mentor. I was well catered for and we were off!

And so began the fascinating world of rare birds that had travelled enormous distances, with some kind of amazing story behind them. The wonder has never dimmed.



Desert Warbler, Meols, October 1979. The 4th British record by Tony Murphy

huge thanks Allan Conlin, Tony Murphy, Bill Morton, Don Weedon. Allan esp helped sourcing the old pic.

Don Weedon (1 of 1)

Me with Don Weedon, who seems to have hardly aged. My RSPB field officer in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. One of the highlights of this years Spurn Migration Festival was to have Don present. Bloomin’ marvelous!



Anders Faugstad Mæ

Desert Warbler AM 3 (1 of 1)


“On the afternoon of 12 november my focus was on…

…the Pipits. I choice to go to Rakke, on the Brunlanes peninsula in Larvik, Vestfold. Having seen Water– and Richard`s Pipits in the old military area before, I had a good feeling. November has offered me quite a few surprises during the years..

Just before sunset I was approaching a small beach, when I got aware of a small bird sitting on the ground, right towards the sun. In a split second I was thinking what the Treecreeper did there…Thru the bins I saw a small, fluffy and pale warbler, with a long tail. When it turned the head and showed me it`s yellow eye…..Desert Warbler!! I got a few record shots, and my eyes was not lying, a dream was about to be real! I Sneaked towards an old rock wall that it had jumped behind. There it appeared just three meters from me, actively feeding in the roadside and on naked rocks. It was very tame and come within 2 meters range. It was surreal to study this fantastic bird, in the last light of day, at my local patch!

Desert Warbler  AM 2 (1 of 1)

After enjoying it for 20 minutes, it flew behind a svaberg (smooth rock). Now the sun was almost down and I got home to alarm the tribe (yes, I did forgot my phone back home)

The Desert Warbler has been a long-awaited bird for the Norwegian list, and on top of the wishlist for many birders. The birders in Norway is not many, but very persistant. Several cars left the West-coast and drove the whole night, others flew early Friday morning. About 50+ persons was early at Rakke and the “Nana” was soon relocated, at the same spot. After a while it disappeared before it was found again, at a small peninsula near by. During the weekend lots of people arrived and the star was stable in the same area, often showing very well. On Saturday the wind was hard and the water very high, making the peninsula into an island. Some late arriving birders were unable to cross, while others fall into the cold water on the return! Most of the birders saw it good and there were many happy familiar faces!

I was surprised how small it was and how fast it moved, almost like a Wren. It often leaned forwards with the belly close to the ground and the tail in the air. It seems to preferred open rocky areas as long as it was little wind. It preferred a little reed bed when the wind got stronger. There it was very skulky, but still tame.

Desert Warbler  AM 5 (1 of 1)

It gave a very pale impression. The dark alula was obvious and so was the starry eye.

The legs was bright yellow and the scales made a banded impression .The white eyering was broken behind and in front of the eye, on an otherwise pale buff – grey head. It sometimes looked very big headed. The bill yellow and rather long. The lower mandible was all bright yellow, while the upper was grey with yellow sides.

The outer tail feathers was strikingly white in flight, but harder to see on the ground. The tale was very worn and it often looked clearly forked, with pointed tips.

The red tale and rump contrasting with the pale grey back and the rufus toned wings, made me comfortable that it was an Asian Desert Warbler.

Desert Warbler  AM 4 (1 of 1)

Asian or African?

The Asian (Sylvia nana) – and African Desert Warbler (S. deserti) are rather similar and was previously considered as one species.

Some distinctive plumage differences can tell them apart:

1) The Asian is generally more contrasting rufus / grey while the African is more evenly colored light warm brown. The Asian has rufus GC and PC and rufus edges to dark PP and SS. The tertials are dark brown with contrasting rufus edges.

2)This gives the wings a rufus impression contrasting to the pale gray back.

3) Under not-ideal light can the Asian look very evenly colored, both live and on pictures. This is the case for the Rakke bird (still present 15.11.15). The tertials pattern might be the best to look for then. (Contrasting = Nana, evenly = Deserti)

4) The Asian has a red/rufus tale and rump wish stand in contrast to the greyish back and off-white belly. The African has an evenly colored back and a whiter belly.

5) The Asian also have dark shaft on the middle tail feathers. This character can be hard to see and are not visible on all the pictures of the Rakke bird.

6) The leg color can also give an idea. The Asian has bright yellow legs while the African has more yellowish pink legs.

The Asian Desert Warbler breeds in a large area ,from the north and east side of the Caspian sea and C Iran, east to S Mongolia and NW China. The wintering area are from the west coast of the Red sea, and Arabia, east to NW India.

It is a very rare vagrant to Europe. Most records are from Sweden (15), while Great Britain has 12 and Finland 11 records (According to The Netherlands third record occurred in the same period as the Rakke bird. Late October and November is the best time, but there are also a few spring records, mainly in May.

The African Desert warbler breeds in NW Africa. It is considered to be a short distance migrator. A record from The Netherlands in November 2014, shows that it can also be a candidate in northern Europe.

The coastline outside Larvik in SE Norway is a great birding area. Here lies Mølen Ornithological Station, one of the oldest bird observatories in Norway. The passerine migration here, can be compared to Falsterbo. During the years several “megas” and “new for Norway” has showed up here. Among them are the famous wintering Willet (prob. Eastern!) in 1992-93.

Desert Warbler  AM 6 (1 of 1)

Birdwatching Norway offers birding tours to Norway and Sweden.

Varanger in the arctic Norway, is a fantastic area and a “must see destination”for all birders. Here the arctic and high alpine species meet the eastern. You will enjoy taiga forests, tundra, spectacular fjords and birdcliffs.

Falsterbo, in southern Sweden is one of the best migration points in the World! On a good day hundreds of thousands of birds pass you on close range. Standing at the most narrow tip you feel like standing in a stream of birds!

Southern Norway has an impressive biodiversity. High mountains, deep forests and costal migration points are all within close range from the capital Oslo.

The tours can be costume made.

For more information see:

Desert Warbler  AM 3 (1 of 1)


Siberian Chiffchaffs

Just love ’em!

No maudling here especially. Just how it is. Hey- our lovely retreat house at Millfield, Norwick. Seriously virtually the LAST HOUSE in Britain 9to the north). Beat that man!

last house 2 (1 of 1)

So what would be the LAST ‘bird’ that I would be able to watch, standing unaided (and alone) and observe and take my own photos. Which one?!

Redwing 6c 8th oct norwick nominate (1 of 1)A Siberian Chiffchaff.

Perfect (some might say what a laugh!)! A species/ taxon that so epitomises the ‘spirit’ of the Birding Frontiers idea. Don’t it?! Enigmatic, unresolved, confounding nature, rare and some might say beautiful. Reasonable accessible for ‘ordinary birders’  – lots of fun in discovering, anyone can contribute (one of THE most important things… )

This bird was just down the road at Norwick, Unst. The most northerly location in Britain. The penultimate day of our holiday.

Blackcaps d 8th oct norwick (1 of 1)A few nominate Redwing could be seen rolling through the gardens. A few Blackcap, Meadow Pipits and Snipe moving, the odd flock of Pink-feet Geese just in. AND this little fella, with 1 -2 Goldcresst, feeding in mixed patch of conifers and rosa rugosa.

It never called – ARGGH- no not really. NO ARGGH I just enjoyed it. Curiously as ever the photos never quite capture the field appearance. It looked striking pallid in the field. Lovely whitish underparts and rather brownish-grey upperparts with a bit of emphasis on grey. It had a wing bar! Which looked more striking in the  than in these  photos.

and I loved it!

Sibe chiff 8 (1 of 1) Sibe chiff 9 (1 of 1) Sibe chiff 10 (1 of 1) Sibe chiff 3 (1 of 1)

Siberian Chiffchaff head patterns

Bumping up the reference side a bit. Do you remember this one from last year? Magnus Hellström does an awesome job. Don’t mis THIS SITE . Now here a selection of some of the Siberian Chiffchaffs photographed at Ottenby last October 2014- for your reference and mine.



ooo and a different view of the upperpart colours on my Norwick bird

Sibe chiff 6 (1 of 1)


A Calling one from last year.

Late on in the day- little gang watching a Radde’s Warbler and this fella started calling loudly and classic tristis from a hedge just south of the Lighthouse at Flamborough. Mint.

You can see it looks ok and acceptable :) Even has some ‘tobacco colour’ in those ear coverts- can you see it?



and my favourite recording.

A bird that came roaring in from the sky ( rare thing) to Halligarth on Unst. It looked great but gave a variety of calls. The same sound can be heard from the nest zones of baby tristis...



Hume’s Warbler and the ID issues

A peak inside the head of ….

John McLoughlin

Follow John’s explanation of his gut reaction of seeing and identifying the Hume’s Warbler at Flamborough this last week.

Hume's Warbler by Andrew Allport

Hume’s Warbler by Andrew Allport

Visit Andrew Allport’s website HERE

“As on the previous afternoon at the Lighthouse there was an arrival of winter thrushes and finches. However unlike the previous day, which had been, sunny and bright today was dull and overcast and the strong southeasterly blow continued.

As I was about to check a favoured little cliff top gulley I noticed a small gathering at the lighthouse wall. A mixed group of birders and walkers were looking intently into the garden. “Must have a Black Red” I thought and went over to check. Sure enough there was a Black Redstart on the tidy lawn, actually there is no cover in the garden for much else to appear. Exchanging pleasantries with a guy called Gerard he informed me that the elder bush I had been about to check moments before being distracted held a Pallas’s Warbler! We hurried back down the path whilst he expressed concerns about the birds’ true identity.

Almost immediately the warbler in question undertook a short aerial sally before returning to the said elder. It was actually a Yellow-browed Warbler! Something that Gerard had been trying to explain to me.

Something different about this one…

But there was something different about this Yellow-browed, something subtly but also very different. I had met this bird before and I exclaimed that it was actually a Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler! What was it about the bird that made me feel confident in making such a quick declaration?

From the start I must admit to previous experience as I saw at least four birds in Yorkshire back in the nineties. The last birds I saw where two birds at Flamborough Head and at Spurn in late October 2003. More of the Spurn bird later :)

What do I see?

The bird is greeny grey above and whitish below it has a prominent supercilium and two distinct wing bars. It is a fresh bird with neat white tertial fringes and white tips to the primaries.

However the crown is dull and shows a distinct grey coronal stripe.

The mantle is green but suffused grey with a hint of a grey shawl and a grey wash on the scapulars.

Through binoculars the brightest part of the bird is actually in the wing… the fresh fringes to the flight feathers contrast with the duller upperparts.

Hume's Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

Hume’s Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

Look at the Face!

So what was it about this bird that convinced me that this was a humei? Well I once attended a lecture given by Lars Jonsson and he was talking about identifying birds and amongst the advice he gave I always remember one point. He said “look at the face” this is how we remember/recognise friends and acquaintances it seemed to make sense to me.

Back at Flamborough Head on this “rare” afternoon in late October I am looking at the face of this warbler and I recognise it. The face has an open expression so therefore is immediately different from other Yellow-broweds I have seen this autumn.

Key Features

This appearance is created by the following features:

  • The supercilia are distinct and creamy white but narrow in front of the eye
  • The eyestripe is more diffuse across the lores thus making the eye more prominent
  • The throat is also creamy white and contrasts with the rest of the sullied white underparts
  • The cheeks appear plain lacking the mottled effect shown by phylloscopus warblers.
  • Finally the bill was “spiky” and “crestlike”… dark almost blackish
  • Overall the bird was greeny grey but not dull like many winter humei but the brightest green tones appear in the closed wing … not in the mantle…see the various photos, e.g.  on RBA website
  • The soft parts are darker the bill has only the faintest of pale bases to lower mandible.
  • The legs are dark to not black but dark becoming paler around the toes but lacks pale “socks”.
  • It does show two prominent wing bars but this must be a feature of fresh humei and look closely and the bases of the secondaries below the greater covert bar are dark creating a shadow but I suggest that this is probably a variable feature.

Back to the 2003 Spurn bird which was trapped and ringed as a Yellow-browed but then we heard it call in the field!

Finally this bird was heard to call confirming the diagnosis!”

(confirmed by multiple observers keen t hear the right sounds!)

Hume's Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

Hume’s Warbler, Flamborough, by Craig Thomas

and here’s me notebook from 1990:

Hume's Warbler 1990 (1 of 1)


Goldcrests from further east… coatsi and beyond?

Intro to post by Martin G.

This little Goldcrest with ‘extra grey’  began a journey of questioning. The joy of others birders and learning from one another kicked in to play. Getting the privilege of being out with octogenarian Peter Colston, famed as the skin man at the Natural History Museum for many years- TRING! He flagged up ‘Eastern Goldcrest as we birded together watching this bird:

extrs grey Goldcrest, Geosetter Burn, Shetland. October 2015. Peter Colston

extra grey Goldcrest, Geosetter Burn, Shetland. October 2015. Peter Colston

Peter spoke. I had NEVER heard of eastern taxa. Just not come onto my plate. Two subspecies are flagged up here, now.  The taxa coatsi and japonensis

Given the distance that Yellow- browed Warblers and Hume’s Warblers come from… reaching my garden at Flamborough- well :

How far do some late autumn the Goldcrests come from?

Do I know we get coatsi for sure? No idea. Can you identify them really? I don’t know. This might be hugely revealing or a flght of fancy. It doesn’t matter. It’s how we discover and I love exploring. 

Spurn and Falsterbo (and Cape May)

and meanwhile… I get to champion the wonderful new partnerships. Falsterbo Bird Observatory and Cape May Bird Observatory are forming dynamic partnerships with Spurn Bird Observatory.  So I am chuffed to have Stephen bring data from Falsterbo… and thinking of all those Goldcrest and the awesome ringing programme going on work at Spurn Bird Obs. These are wonderful heady days.


Goldcrests from further east?

Stephen Menzie


Map of Goldcrest range from Wikipedia

Map of Goldcrest range from Wikipedia

Autumn 2014 saw exceptional number of Goldcrests ringed at Falsterbo Bird Observatory, Sweden – 11,581 to be precise, a record total and well above the 1980–2013 average of around 2,500 per autumn. The two biggest days came on 11th October (1,853) and 21st October (2,027). Most of the birds we caught were a bit greyer around the head than birds I’m used to seeing in Britain, although some – like the one below – probably wouldn’t be detected amongst British birds.



Above: regulus type ?

Most, however, looked like the bird below:
Above: ‘Continental type’?
It was difficult to know exactly where these birds were coming from. Recoveries gave us a clue as to where they had passed through: (elsewhere in) Sweden, Poland, Kaliningrad (Russia), and a few from Norway. The bird above, in fact, is a control from Kaliningrad. There was perhaps a tendency for eastern-ringed birds to arrive on average a tad later than Swedish/Norwegian ringed birds but I’m quite sure the whole movement was part of one single mass emigration. It’s my gut feeling that many of the Swedish-ringed birds were simply caught on their way through as they headed west in a broad front across northern Europe before filtering down through Falsterbo.
As the season went on, from about mid October, there was an increasing proportion of birds on which the head got greyer, the underparts got less saturated, and the mantle got greener. Some, like the bird below, were striking.
Above: coatsi type?
Side-by-side with a typical (“Continental-type”) bird, the differences are even more apparent. The grey of the head is purer and more extensive – though we didn’t catch any birds with the grey extending down as far onto the mantle as the bird in this previous post (go HERE! )
–  and the mantle is a purer green with a well-defined limit between the two. The buff tones on the underparts were greatly reduced. We also got the feeling that these birds looked consistently more “bull necked”, at least in the hand.
Above: coatsi type?
Some of the more extreme birds we were catching were almost approaching japonensis in appearance (see e.g. HERE) 
I would be surprised if we were catching japonensis but I started to wonder how extreme coatsi could get. Spp japonensis is genetically quite distinct from the western group (nominate and the Macaronesian forms), though I’m not aware of any studies that have included coatsi. Nevertheless, we managed to catch a dislodged feather from one bird (not one of the extreme grey-headed birds, but noticeably grey-headed nonetheless – phenotypically somewhere between the two birds in the above photo) and we are awaiting analysis. My worry is that coatsi and regulus are just one big cline and a genetic sample isn’t going to tell us a great deal. Still, it’s worth a try.
These grey-headed green-mantled birds are probably regular visitors, perhaps occurring under irruptions conditions rather than as true migrants.
Indeed, I have photos of one from Falsterbo from mid-October 2012 (an autumn when 4,600 Goldcrests were ringed) but I didn’t note any during autumn 2013 (when just 1,100 Goldcrests were ringed). Sadly I haven’t spent any length of time at Falsterbo this autumn so I can’t comment on the situation there, other than the fact that – contra might what be expected given the arrival of birds on the east coast of Britain – the Goldcrest total stands at a distinctly average 1,850.
There’s still plenty to discover about these autumn-ariving birds and it feels like my brief look into the species has barely scratched the surface. Certainly, if the genetics do show the Falsterbo bird to be coatsi, there’s absolutely no reason to think the taxa isn’t reaching the UK too.

Hume’s Warbler at Flamborough

but it wasn’t about that.

That being two days ago on 27th October. Johnny Mac and Craig T. had already planned a visit. We are in chaos as we land from my weeks stay in hospital (see here).

The house needing to be utterly re-ordered. Then Johnny messaged to say he’s got a Hume’s Warbler. Well we have been talking about these suckers since Johnny helped ID one (against some uncertainty from others) back in 1987. Another Flamborough Hume’s saw me planning to meet Johnny at Flamborough on a  foggy morning in November 2004 (I think). We both saw the Hume’s’ Warbler in OLd Fall. He found some Tundra Bean Geese I jammed a female Pine Bunting!

Anyway two days ago they showed up and proceeded to man haul me out of the house in a wheelchair and down to see the Hume’s’. I tell you what. My body is busted. I feel like a look really weird. I often feel unsurprisingly very vulnerable. Dependant. I even wonder, as you do, why these dudes would be bothering with me.

I did get a brief view off the Hume’s Warbler, and a Chiffchaff and a Firecrest. Way way more importantly I am in a state that leaves me very humble and weak.  In a topsy turvy world the product  of my weakness was and is a  sense of community here I wouldn’t swop for the world.

While we are out… Phil and Sue Cunningham are trying to make  our house work.  Gaynor C. comes over is keen to visit and help. Brett R. wants to get me on the bird.  I am a blessed man.

friends 1friends 2

Hume’s  watching with CT.  Johnny dodged being on the pic! I love my friends.


15-10-28 Humes Warbler Flamboro15-10-28 Humes Warbler image 2 Flamboro

Early shots of the bird by Craig. Great ID by Johnny who knows this one soooo… well.


Superb image by local doyen Andrew Allport. Make sure you see more on the Flamborough Bird Observatory blog where I poached this from! Andrew trumps the pics most of the time at Flamborough.

Meanwhile back at home this wee team tirelessly adding to our flipping brilliant sense of community. Fixing the house up. That was a day to remember!

a team



Marsh Warbler at Spurn this Autumn

and the Caspian Reed/Blyth’s Reed/Reed Warbler ID process

On 9th October 2015 (earlier this month) Jeff Clarke leading a small and keen group of birders came across this warbler at Spurn. An acrocephalus (pointy head) warbler. Autumn ‘acros’ are notoriously tricky. The few I have seen at Flamborough this autumn, were all identifiable as Reed Warblers very quickly. Usually the plumage tones combined with ESPECIALLY the face pattern pointed the way.

‘acrocephalus’  roughly translates peak or pointy-headed. Some people think you need a pointy head to identify these little brown jobs. We covered 4 acrocephaplus warbler in Challenge Series: AUTUMN. They were Reed, Marsh, Blyth’s Reed and Caspian Reed Warbler. One of the questions once October comes around is that of vagrant Caspian Reed Warblers. Birds like this one flag up the challenge! They have reached Britain before!


Nearly/all/all the birds we see in Britain are young birds in fresh plumage. The adult shave long since migrated. If we were to see an adult acrocepaphalus warbler it would look worn, moulting and weird/scary/ like a rare thing.

That Head Pattern

That head pattern with such a large open area in front off the eye is scary! It is very similar to some Caspian Reeds I have seen. It’s also very reminiscent of some Blyth’s Reeds. Its is also good for Marsh Warbler. Sheesh! Not really like a Reed Warbler at least so should draw the observer eye! I would be very exited to find a face like this.

Colours and Contrasts

Jeff Clarke describes the bird:

“The underparts were noticeably pale on this bird and in fact that is how we first picked it up in the hedge (at first glance I did wonder if it was a Hippo). Pale creamy buff is probably the best description of the underparts, slightly paler on the throat and no obvious darker wash on the flanks. Never got to see the leg colour properly, other than quite pale and couldn’t see the talon colour. The rump was definitely not rusty rump, but rather the colours were a  light olive-brown rump”

The tones and rump colour rule out western Reed (again). the long primary primary projection with striking pale tips, do point towards Marsh. On the upperparts the  Reeds I encountered were pretty plain- indeed with uppeparts/ primary zone that look like more like Blyth’s Reed. So this is a long-winded way of exploring best fit for Marsh Warbler, on head pattern, plumage tones above and below and the primary zone. Have a wee study of the pics :)

Well done Jeff and team for excellent find and ID process for us to learn from. Great experience for group birding… and of course it was at SPURN. Special thanks to Ben Miles for getting such informative photos. Great job! All photos below by Ben Miles

Spurn Warbler 1 Spurn Warbler 3Spurn Warbler 2