We had a call on our hotline from northern Scotland saying that a Daurian starling had been spotted. It was very exciting: on Birdline you often just sit as a sort of glorified telephone receptionist, so when a rare bird comes up, the chance of getting it on our list is something I want to be part of. There had been a Daurian starling spotted before in Britain but I'd suspected it might have been an escaped caged bird, which in our terms doesn't count. They have to have flown here under their own steam, and it's a long way from Siberia - where the bird lives in summer - to Britain. But it was a young bird and it's possible it could have left the nest and flown the wrong way, ending up in Scotland instead of Malaysia.
I recorded a message on Birdline detailing the find. We then jumped on a KLM flight to Aberdeen, and drove through the evening to get to Balnakeil, a village on the north-westernmost point of Scotland, just in time for a pint of heavy, while wondering if we'd see the bird tomorrow.
We went into the village at dawn and stood there, hopeful. The press reports later said there were 2,000 twitchers waiting for the bird but in fact there were about 100 of us - most of them veterans. So we waited and, after about half an hour, all the starlings - the normal ones - flew in and started feeding on the lawns, but there was no Daurian starling. They look like purple-and-grey striped versions of our starlings. But it didn't come with the others. Gradually it became clear the bird wasn't going to show. We searched the area; all around the village it's moorlands and mountains, so if it was still there it would have to turn up in one of the gardens to feed.
But it wasn't that disappointing. When you have 100 twitchers searching an area, you're bound to make interesting discoveries, and we found lots of birds. There was a saker falcon, which is almost as rare as the starling, a yellow-breasted bunting, the first one ever in the region, and a red- flanked bluetail, which is extremely rare - most of the twitchers had only seen one in the past 10 years. It was my first ever adult male. Even though the starling never turned up it was a good day out. We then drove back to Aberdeen for the flight home.
I started writing this month's summary of all the birds that had been tracked. September is usually an excellent month and we had 50 top-class rare sightings. Doing the research caused me to reflect on the Daurian starling. On my part, the rush there had been more in hope than the certainty that it would be wild and not just an escaped caged bird. I started looking at the records of the sightings: they were in August and September, and I wondered if it was sheer coincidence that China, where a lot of caged birds come from, had lifted restrictions on its import and export of birds in July. The caged-bird trade is the bane of a twitcher's life; and though they could be wild, many have just jumped out of a box at Schiphol airport. I guess if I'd seen it, I'd have been convinced it was a wild bird.
I was investigating the records when we came across the story of the red-necked nightjar which had apparently appeared in Cornwall. Nobody had seen the bird alive; it was found dead by the side of the road. They are very rare sightings in Britain - normally they migrate from southern Spain to Africa, and never make it across the Channel. The bird had been found by someone who showed it to a taxidermist who showed it to a twitcher friend of his, who said: "that's not just a nightjar, that's a red-necked- nightjar". But it's so unusual to see one here that I have to wonder if it wasn't dead on arrival. It could have been hit by a lorry in Spain and lodged in the radiator grille all the way to Cornwall, and then fallen out. If it had been alive, it would have been a bigger event than the one in Scotland.
In the afternoon I had to finish an article on cormorants for Birdwatching magazine.
I finally got the chance to go out birdwatching, locally. I went to the beach at Blakeney Point, where there were masses of common migrants diverted across the North Sea by the easterly winds. It was a beautiful sight; there was a great carpet of robins and song thrushes from the Continent. It's been a great week, though not entirely atypical.
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