A very British bird boom

This year more rare birds have been sighted on our shores than ever before. And, as David Randall finds, it's our very own hi-tech twitchers that we need to thank

A A A

Rare birds are arriving in Britain at a rate unprecedented in modern times, providing an almost weekly spectacle for the country's ever-growing army of twitchers.

A survey by The Independent on Sunday of data supplied by Birdwatch magazine shows that the past year has been the most remarkable one for sightings in decades. Normally, one or two bird species appear for the first time over Britain, but in the past 12 months, there have been six: a Pacific diver in Yorkshire, glaucous-winged gull in Gloucestershire and Wales, long-billed murrelet in Devon, yellow-nosed albatross in Somerset and Lincolnshire, masked booby off Portland in Dorset, and, this month, a great blue heron blown into the Scillies by a strong westerly weather system. The result is that the list of birds recorded in Britain which, at 577, is the longest in Europe is now even more impressive.

There have also been a rich crop of birds that, while not "firsts", are nevertheless what birders call "mega-rarities". BirdGuides.com, which provides information and other services to enthusiasts, monitors each year's "megas", and in 2007 has recorded 174 across Britain, by far the highest number since they started keeping a tally in 2001. These include birds that have only been seen a handful of times before in the UK, such as the American mourning dove, spotted in the Outer Hebrides, and a Madeiran storm-petrel off the Scillies.

These latest incomers join a number of striking species that were great rarities a few years ago but whose stays here are now both more frequent and lengthier. Unknown to the general public, cranes now nest in Norfolk, spoonbills have spent the summer in London, and the squacco heron, a squat, peach-coloured relative of our native bird, has been seen from Dorset to Suffolk. Great white egrets, heron-like birds with a wingspan of 5ft, now show up more often, and it is only a matter of time, says British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) population biologist Mark Grantham, before they start breeding here, as have their smaller relatives, the little egret.

The reason for the boom in sightings is the conjunction of far more and better-equipped bird-watchers and a warmer, more volatile climate. First, there are simply now vastly more people walking around the countryside with the interest and expertise to know, or suspect, a rarity. In the 1960s, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had 10,000 members. Today it has more than a million.

Crucially, they have access to superb, detailed field guides, MP3 players with the calls of every British species installed, plus powerful spotting scopes and digital cameras. The combination of these last two gives people a camera with, in effect, a 2,500mm lens. Digital photography has transformed rare bird identification, says BirdGuides.com's Fiona Barclay. Birders can use websites to instantly share pictures and get identifications confirmed by experts.

A photo of one of last year's firsts, the long-billed murrelet, was initially put on a Devon website by someone who did not realise what it was. Within hours, it was properly identified, word spread via birder-alert texting services, and thousands flocked to Dawlish in what was described as the "Twitch of the Century".

Ironically, the bird of the year came, tarried a day, and left without a single twitcher seeing it. Birdwatch magazine reported that, on 29 June, Hugh Harris of Brean, Somerset, saw a huge bird wandering around on his drive. He went shopping, and when the tired-looking bird was still there when he returned, he manhandled it into a box and drove it to an animal rescue centre nearby. They checked it over, kept it overnight, and then, the following day released it on Brean Down. A wildlife photographer took pictures, and only when these were studied was it realised that the bird was a yellow-nosed albatross. It was later seen in Lincolnshire.

Further browsing: To learn more about Britain's birds, common or rare, go to birdwatch.co.uk/website/

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own