Eastern Black-eared Wheatear – Upton Heath, Dorset

Sara had arranged to go out for a Sunday evening meal with friends from her childminding course and she left the house at about 7:15pm. France were playing Spain in the quarter finals of the European Championships and with the girls in bed I settled down to watch the game. As usual my pager was set so that any Dorset and Hampshire messages would alert me and so when my pager bleeped at 7:40pm I assumed that it would be a Balearic Shearwater past Portland Bill or something equally ordinary. My pager was on top of the fridge as I had been trying to find the best reception area in the house. As I approached the fridge I wondered what I would do if the local bird was a tick for me and within striking range.

I was staggered to see a bird in capital letters and next to it were the words Dorset and Upton Heath! Black-eared Wheatear was a tick for me and immediately I began to work out how I could get to Upton Heath. Although I had the use of the car and there was plenty of time with it still being light at after 9:30pm my problem was that I couldn’t really get the children out of bed and walk them over Upton Heath in their pyjamas! My first reaction was to try and contact Nick, Shaun or Ian to see if the news was genuine,  they were all out (possibly at the bird because the news may have been released locally already) I noticed on my pager that the bird had been seen at 5:20pm by a lone observer who had presumably gone home consulted his books and then rung in the news. It was now nearly 3 hours later and I had no way of getting there.

I then decided I had to try and find a babysitter and so I headed off over the road to speak to Tony. Fortunately they were all in and Tony agreed to pop over and baby-sit for me. Just then the phone rang and I ran back across the road, it was Peter letting me know the news. Almost straight away the mobile rang, it was Dad.

Pretty soon I was in the car and on my way. As I arrived at the bend in Longmeadow Road I saw Hugo pull up and realised that if someone from Dorchester had got here already then the news must have gone around the loops already prior to being released to the pagers. This probably meant that there would be a fair few people up on the heath already and because there had been no further reports about the bird it probably meant that it had gone. It was with a fair amount of pessimism, therefore, that I headed off across the heath following the pager directions. Hugo and I went too far up the hill and having seen the area of burnt gorse mentioned on the pager we realised we had to drop down the valley and across a slightly boggy area. As we approached the area in which it was last seen I began to wonder why there was no one else around, perhaps other people had more information than us and the record had already been discounted as an error.

It was about now that George Green appeared and just as he joined us I noticed a  movement off to my right, it was a bird and it was very pale, the first thought that flashed through my mind was Snow Bunting! I got my telescope on it and immediately realised that this was the bird. I shouted out “I’ve got it!” and with disbelief we all got onto the Wheatear.

It was 8:20pm and I rang the news in to RBA and before long my message was bleeping across the pagers and people began arriving.

I quickly began making some sketches and paintings as it was likely that I would need to send in the record to the rarities committee.

It was a very striking bird being very pale almost white apart from buff patches on the nape and upper breast. The wings were dark brown almost black and the black mask was extensive but without a black fore crown.

These features were fairly inconclusive although the overall opinion was that this was an individual of the eastern race. The following morning the bird was still present and I returned in the evening with my new camcorder to get some footage (Sara let me use it but then packed it away again afterwards for my birthday).

The combination of rarity value, closeness of occurrence, difficulty in getting there and being the person who relocated the bird made this a particularly enjoyable twitch.

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