The feathered daredevils that made history

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The Independent Online

What fact links Hudsonian godwit, little whimbrel, ancient murrelet, eastern phoebe, Moussier's redstart, varied thrush and Philadelphia vireo?

They are just a few of the 76 bird species - mostly from distant parts of the world - that have made historic flights to Britain during the past quarter of a century.

Unknown outside their normal haunts in the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Pacific Ocean, Australia and New Zealand, these individuals broke their traditional frontiers spectacularly, perhaps due to extreme weather or maybe a quirk in the internal direction-finding mechanism.

Their aerial odysseys could have ended in obscurity but they landed in the one countrywhere they were guaranteed to attract attention - Britain, with more birdwatchers to the square mile than any other nation.

Even those arriving in remote locations, such as the Outer Hebrides or Fair Isle, Shetland, could not elude the binocular brigade. Rarities in more populated areas attracted crowds - up to 3,000 twitchers per day watched the American golden-winged warbler at Larkfield, near Maidstone, Kent, in 1989.

These arrivals are splashed across front pages, squeezed into national television news slots and now each of the stories about their discovery is told in the book Birds New to Britain 1980-2004, to be published next month.

Its authors are Tim Cleeves, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds official who figured in three of these "firsts", and the BBC environmental journalist Adrian Pitches, who turned some of the unique finds into small-screen news.

Cleeves' "firsts" were the endangered slender-billed curlew from central Asia, the short-toed eagle, usually found no nearer than southern or eastern Europe, and Swinhoe's storm petrel, a species thought only to nest on islands off Japan.

"Our book covers 76 species that have been added to the British wild birds list since 1980, an average of three per year, so the fact there were four newcomers last year shows the flow continues to be strong," he said.

"The British Isles are a major crossroads on world migration routes - potentially a first landing for birds flying eastwards from America and a final landing for those heading west from Europe or Asia or north from Africa.

"However, what ensures they don't pass through unnoticed is the growing number of very able British birdwatchers, whose knowledge has been enhanced by the fact it's now possible to travel to most parts of the world."

Pitches said: "Birding has undergone major changes. Before 1980, birders relied on a telephone grapevine to find out about rarities - now, thanks to modern technology, pagers alert thousands within minutes of something unusual being reported."

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