Record year for Britain's twitchers

Birds from Asia and US among highest number of species spotted in a single year

Twitchers look set to break the record for the most species sighted by British birdwatchers in a year.

Figures released today show that in 2008, 407 different species are confirmed. Up to 11 more are likely to be added to the list. The total of 418 bird species recorded in Britain in a year beats the previous high of 412 in 2004. Many of the winged visitors sighted, some for just a few minutes, included exotic visitors from across the globe.

Three had never been seen before in Britain: the Alder flycatcher from North America, the Yelkouan shearwater from the Mediterranean and the citril finch, from the Alps.

Other unexpected visitors included a black lark from central Asia which landed in Norfolk, a blackpoll warbler from North America which was seen in Pembrokeshire, an Eleonora's falcon which swept into Essex from the Mediterranean, and a black-browed albatross which arrived in Argyll despite living in the Southern Ocean.

A handful of birds seem to have stopped visiting Britain, such as the lesser white-fronted goose and little bustard, but some once-rare visitors now breed here, including the collared dove, which was first recorded in Britain in the 1950s, and the little egret.

The figures, compiled and verified by the British Rare Birds Committee, are expected to be slightly lower in 2009 than 2008, according to BirdGuides and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. But the 2009 record will show at least two more birds never before seen in Britain: the tufted puffin, which reached Swale from the north Pacific, and the Eastern crowned warbler, which landed in South Shields from Asia.

A century ago the number of bird species recorded in Britain, however fleetingly, was less than 400, but it is now 450. Grahame Madge, of the RSPB, attributed the rise to improved standards of birdwatching and technological advances such as the internet and mobile telephones, which have enabled news of unusual sightings to be broadcast rapidly to twitchers around the country.

Digital cameras, which eliminate processing costs, have provided experts with evidence of reported sightings that can quickly be confirmed or dismissed. Digiscoping, in which digital cameras can be attached to the end of telescopes, offers more detailed photographs.

Leading twitcher Lee Evans runs an exclusive club for those who have sighted at least 400 different bird species in Britain. In 2008 he saw 348 types of bird, beaten only by one other birdwatcher.

"It's a passion for me," he says, calculating that he has driven 1.9 million miles in search of rare birds. He has recorded a total of 566 different types in Britain, the latest being a brown shrike from the Adriatic which he saw in Surrey in October. "2008 was by far the best year ever," he added, citing climatic changes as an important factor in bringing in exotic birds.

Some of the newcomers last only briefly within Britain's shores. In November a black bellied storm petrel from the Southern Ocean reached the Severn. Mr Evans said: "We've never had anything like that before. But it was only there for about two hours before it got eaten by a great black-backed gull. Just seven people saw it."