Fan-tailed Warbler – Portland Bill, Dorset

At just after 1pm on Monday Peter rang the office and I knew that something good must have turned up. I usually leave my pager at home because it can become disruptive and difficult to concentrate if things turn up, especially when I can’t go and see them. Anna put the call through and I asked what was about, lots of things he replied and listed the good birds that had appeared over the weekend (Black-faced Bunting – Yorkshire, Alpine Accentor – Suffolk, Calandra Lark – Shetland) and then he hit me with it.

There was a Fan-tailed Warbler at Portland! It had been seen flying in off the sea at 10am and then flew over the Observatory at 12.05, appearing to land in the Hut fields. It was then relocated at 1pm on the admiralty slopes near the Pulpit pub and this is when the news was released. There had been no news since on Peter’s pager. We tentatively agreed that if it stayed that we would meet at Portland very early the next morning. Peter wouldn’t be going that afternoon and I thought it would be difficult for me with it being Laura’s birthday.

Having finished talking to Peter I rang Birdline which reported that the bird was still showing well although it was mobile, commuting between the Pulpit pub, the Observatory quarry and at one stage had even flown back out to sea before returning to the brambles and bracken near the pub. I rang Sara and arranged to borrow the car the next morning. I had a dentist appointment at 4.45pm that afternoon and so at 3.45 I left the office to cycle home. I suggested to Sara that maybe I should go to Portland tonight in view of the rarity of the bird but this wasn’t received particularly well (Sara had catered for two big parties over the weekend). I drove to the dentist feeling a bit low and returned home at about 5pm.

I then began to get a bit ‘twitchy’ and fairly soon Sara suggested that if I was going to be so bloody miserable then I may as well go, it was 5.20pm and I was off! I rang Dad to say that I was going and I tried to get hold of Nick but he had probably gone already. As I got 10 minutes out of Poole Dad rang on the mobile and I was amazed to hear that he was coming and that he was leaving Wellow. Our times of arrival would be 6.20pm and 6.55pm respectively. As I approached Weymouth the pager reported the continued presence of the bird in bushes near the Pulpit pub. I arrived and joined the 200 or so birders who were strung out along two sides of a square and after about 1 minute the bird flew up towards us very close and gave tremendous views.

The two-toned eye, small size, stripy plumage, orangey flanks and rump and black and white tail tips were all quickly noted.

In flight it had a very striking appearance almost bee-like and it was clearly missing a number of tail feathers. As the minutes passed I began to look for Dad’s car and by 6.50 I was expecting him any minute. Suddenly the Warbler flew up high and headed out towards the lighthouse and the sea, at this moment I noticed Dad’s car in the distance heading towards us.Having driven for nearly 2 hours Dad was going to miss it by seconds.

Thankfully, however, the warbler decided against another sea crossing and headed back towards us but seeing the large crowd it just kept going and flew higher and further away heading towards Culverwell. It disappeared from view as I saw Dad’s car pull up.

Could he have seen it overhead as he arrived? I saw him again, he was striding across the field towards the Observatory with a group of other people. Surely this meant that he hadn’t seen it! I got in my car and drove round to meet him. I felt certain the bird wouldn’t be seen again and I was therefore very disappointed when Dad confirmed that he had arrived a few seconds too late. It was particularly galling as the pager had reported that the bird was showing very well at 6.52pm, about 30 seconds before it flew off.

My Dad decided to join a group of other birders up near Culverwell and I decided that I had better head off home as it was Laura’s birthday. I left feeling very sorry for Dad and with very little optimism that he would see it. I was surprised and relived, however, when the pager reported that the bird had been relocated at Culverwell at 7.55pm and just hoped that Dad had been in that Group who saw it. I arrived home at 8.10pm there had been no other reports and I couldn’t ring Dad because the reception on Portland is very poor. At about 8.25 Dad rang to say that he had seen it, what a relief!

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