Black-headed Bunting – Portland Bill, Dorset

No ticks since May and only one tick since September 2000! A new bird was overdue and having recently purchased ‘Rare Birds Day by Day’ I had predicted that August could possibly produce Black-winged Pratincole, Black-headed Bunting or Least Sandpiper.

Lately, I had taken the decision cut back on birding, spending more time with the family and saving my free time for twitching. At midday my pager bleeped, presumably this would be a local message but instead of a Balearic Shearwater past the Bill the message reported a Black-headed Bunting in the Portland Bird Observatory garden. Within 5 minutes I was off, this would be the first twitch in my new Ford Focus.

I phoned Nick but he was in Bournemouth and would probably come later, shortly after the phone call my pager reported that the bird had flown off north at 10:45. I turned the car around and headed back and arrived home at about 12:20pm. I had decided that it was entirely possible that the bunting had kept flying north and would never be seen again, I had only travelled about 5 miles and had another 50 minutes to go, it would probably not be worth it. Sara was surprised to see me, I had some lunch and attached my pager to my belt so that I was ready for any more news. I had arranged with Nick to pick him up if the bird reappeared.

At 1:52pm news came through that the bird had reappeared in the obs garden. I was half way around to the shops and so I ran back home, shouted into Sara, jumped into the car and rang Nick. At 2:05 we were leaving Nick’s place when the pager reported that the bird had not actually been seen since midday! We decided to go any way and we arrived at Portland, without further news, at about 3pm.

Nick and I wandered around the perimeter of the observatory, there were around 40 people present and they didn’t seem to be moving around or looking too hard. All of the huts were occupied by holiday makers and it had the feeling of a hot and lazy bird-less summer day. By around 4:15 we wandered back around to the front of the Obs and saw James Phillips beside the road looking down the east side of the hedge with around 15 other birders. Apparently the bird had been heard calling and had flicked into the scrub at the front of the Obs. The area was very dense and difficult to look into.

Within a few minutes or so it reappeared and flew out of the dense area and perched briefly before flicking back into cover. I managed a brief naked eye view. Almost immediately it flew back out strongly and over our heads and out towards Culverwell before veering left and into a small weedy field. During the flight views most people managed to see most of the features but feeling a little out of practice all I noticed was the large stocky size and a paler rump.

We all marched quickly to the weedy area and for the next 20 minutes we waited for it to reappear. In the end one of the locals volunteered to go in and gently flush it out. We all waited patiently as he advanced down through the field. Eventually the Bunting flicked up and headed back to the obs garden. During this prolonged flight view I picked out the three main features, the plain chestnut back, bright yellow underparts and bold black head.

With a sense of relief we all walked back to the obs just in case it would show well in the open, it didn’t and we settled for our very good flight views. I had finally managed to see this species in Britain after at least 2 failed twitches (most notably Isle of Sheppey, Kent on my 29th birthday)

Photographs taken by Martin Cade and published on the Portland Bird Observatory web site showed the bird to be in unexpectedly fresh plumage and apparently showed the middle toe on the right foot to be damaged. Martin’s accompanying text stated that the plumage should have been more worn as they normally moult after they have reached their wintering quarters.              

Martin Cade’s comments suggest a possible captive origin, however, Martin saw it and observed it more closely than anyone else and a subsequent conversation, via e-mail, confirmed his view that the bird should be treated as wild.

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