Olivaceous Warbler – Portland Bill, Dorset

Early July is traditionally a quiet time for rarities being too late for spring migrants and too early for autumn vagrants. We were visiting Mum & Dad in the Caravan at Calshot and the hot weather made it a lazy relaxing day. At around 3pm, however, the pager attached to my belt shattered the calm with a Mega Alert. An Olivaceous Warbler had been trapped and ringed at Portland Bill, it had been released into the Observatory quarry but had not been seen since. This was a little disconcerting, particularly as I was further east than normal and that I couldn’t just get in the car and leave. Even so I began to make plans for how I could go and see it, I had an appointment in Exeter the next morning and an early start should ensure that I had time to detour via Portland.

At times like this it is difficult to keep your mind on things, this was a major national rarity only about the 10th for Britain and the 1st for Dorset. With the chance of getting there today very slim I was partly hoping that the bird wouldn’t be seen again otherwise getting to sleep that night would be very difficult. I felt sure that all of my Dorset mates would already be on their way to Portland. Fairly soon the bird was seen again and I began to get anxious. We left Calshot at around 7pm and arrived home shortly before 8pm.

It was only then that it dawned on me that I could probably get to Portland before dark, the bird had been showing on and off for most of the afternoon and evening. I would be heading that way anyway the next morning but in the end decided that it was too risky to wait and I left home at 8pm. The journey to a potential new bird is always very tense but it is excruciatingly so when the light is fading and all of your mates have probably already seen it, maybe even Peter had already made the journey. Although sunset would be at around 9:20pm and that I would get to the Bill before then it did seem likely that the Olivaceous Warbler would have gone to roost already. I decided that every minute would count and I decided to try and make the 60 minute journey to the Bill in 50 minutes! I managed to top 100mph on the straight alongside Monkey World.

I passed Nick coming back along the Fleetsbridge causeway looking smug. Time was against me, the warbler would surely have gone to roost by now, the light was fading. After one of the tensest hours of my life I arrived at the Bill. It was 8:50pm, I parked by the Observatory and ran down to the quarry. I joined the group of 10 or so birders but as expected the warbler had gone to roost, in a large bush on the perimeter of the quarry. Most of the remaining group of birders had, like myself, arrived too late. The warbler had been elusive at times, remaining hidden for long periods low in the bramble bushes. It would be a tense night, I would be back at dawn but the Olivaceous Warbler might well have gone by then.

At this point the father and photographer son from Bristol went around the back of the bush and approached it from the hut fields side, they were making one last attempt to chivvy it out for a photograph. Several minutes later and with the Bristol lads out of sight I heard a tongue clicking ‘teck’ which could only have come from the Olivaceous Warbler. The anticipation and adrenalin was almost unbearable and sure enough a large very pale grey warbler appeared towards the top of the bush.

Rather Icterine like in appearance although with a larger bill and more elongated. The bird lacked any yellow tones whatsoever. The light was still good and we enjoyed 15 minutes of good views and with the warbler often characteristically pumping its tail. The in hand measurements indicated that this was an individual of the eastern race elaeica.  What a miracle. I wouldn’t be gripped off and I’d taken another step towards 400.                                       
There was confusion over whether the bird was seen at all the next day and it seems very likely that but for my photographer aided lucky sighting on Sunday evening I would still need Olivaceous Warbler. Peter didn’t get to Portland making Olivaceous Warbler one of only a handful of species that I’ve seen but he hasn’t.   

It was suggested that because of the rather poor plumage state and the very early date of arrival that this individual may have suffered a predator attack on the breeding grounds, perhaps Turkey, several weeks previously and this in turn could have explained its subsequent random vagrancy.

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