White-throated Sparrow – Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire

The Scillies had been relaxing and enjoyable with some great birds but no new ticks. We had seen Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Bluethroat, Ortolan Bunting, Rustic Bunting, Lapland Bunting, Barred Warbler, Citrine Wagtail and 200 Great Shearwaters. We were approaching the end of October and with nothing new since the Pallid Harrier in early August.

On Tuesday 22nd October at 11am I returned to my desk and noticed that I had two text messages, I immediately suspected a Mega Alert. The first message was from Dad and asked “do you need it?” Whatever it was I hoped that I didn’t, particularly with it being a Tuesday. I anxiously read the 2nd message, which would have been received earlier. ‘E Yorks. White-throated Sparrow at Flamborough Head, showing well in the Bay Brambles below the lighthouse car park from 10am to 10:45am at least’. My immediate reaction was ‘oh no, how do I get there?’ I texted Dad back to say that I did need it and asked him when he could go. In order to keep up to date with news from Flamborough I went down to my car and retrieved my pager.

I knew that Colin was out of the office at some stage later in the week and now that we had re-organised the office into 2 smaller teams I knew that I wouldn’t be able to take time off while Colin was away. He confirmed that he was out testing the IT system on Wednesday and Thursday and this made Friday my only option. I couldn’t go on Saturday because Paul & Jo were visiting and Sunday seemed too long to wait.

The next pager message reported that the Sparrow had flown towards the Old Fall plantation at 10:45am and was being looked for. Dad’s texted reply came through and he said that he couldn’t go before Saturday. I texted back to say that if I went it would have to be Friday. Dad rang back and said that he could go on Friday but that I would need to pick him up in Oxford because they were travelling up to see Alyson & James on Thursday afternoon.

Pager messages throughout the next few hours reported that the Sparrow hadn’t been relocated and there was no further sign by 3pm. I was sort of relieved as it meant I wouldn’t have to ask for time off work. Then, at 3:25pm, I checked my pager again and was surprised to read that the White-throated Sparrow had been relocated, 300 yards down the Old Fall Hedge. My heart sank and I found it very difficult to concentrate for the rest of the day. I arrived home that evening as news came through that the sparrow had gone to roost in the hedge.

Ever since the office restructure I had been worried about taking time off for twitching and the reaction I would get if I asked for a days holiday at short notice. At home on Tuesday night I decided that if the bird was still present in the morning then I would ask Rob if I could have Friday off and I would also take the opportunity to see what his view was on me taking 4 or 5 single day holidays each year and without giving notice. I decided I would ask him via e-mail. It would make things much easier however if the bird moved on overnight.

It was clear and calm overnight and by 8:30am on Wednesday morning there was no sign of the bird. At work I breathed a sigh of relief. The gathered crowd of over 200 observers would have been disappointed but at 8.40am it was relocated about 100 yards along the Old Fall Hedgerow, my heart sank again! Throughout the rest of Wednesday the sparrow was seen regularly moving up and down the hedge and only occasionally did it disappear for short periods. It was seen to go to roost again at 6pm.

I had forwarded my e-mail request to Rob on Wednesday afternoon but he hadn’t got to his messages although I felt that he would be OK with it. I spoke to Dad on Wednesday night and having spoken to Sara we agreed that if the bird was still present on Thursday afternoon then I would travel up straight after work and stay in Oxford on Thursday night. We had a fair amount of work to catch up with and so I decided to get into work early on Thursday morning.

On the way to work my pager reported the continued presence of the sparrow from 7:50am and having read my e-mail Rob said he was happy with me taking days off without notice as long as workloads allowed it and assuming that no other analyst was away. He added that because we were stuffed up with work at the moment he would make a decision later that day about whether I could take Friday off. This was the signal for me to work as hard and as fast as I could, the thought of sitting at my desk on Friday while the bird was showing at Flamborough was too awful to contemplate.

The Thursday post bag wasn’t too bad and by lunchtime we were getting on top of the outstanding workloads. Although Rob hadn’t actually confirmed that it was OK for me to be away on Friday by 4:30pm he was asking me what my plans were for the next day. The bird was still present at dusk and at 6pm I left the office and headed to Oxford.

I arrived at 7:30pm and was soon greeted with a Shepherds Pie. I sat and talked with Mum, Dad, Aly & James and after a game on Matthew’s Playstation and a shower I was ready for bed. I climbed into my sleeping bag which was on the sofa cushions in the lounge, the alarm was set for 4:30am.

At 4am Dad came into the lounge, apparently Mum had been snoring loudly and he knew that he wasn’t going to get any more sleep, this is ironic as my Mum has spent a lifetime having to tolerate my Dad’s room shaking snores! I found it almost impossible to get out of bed and lay there for an extra 10 minutes while Dad pottered around. After cereal & tea we were on the road, it was 4:40am. 3½ hours later we were 45 miles from Flamborough and news came through of the continued presence of the bird in the Old Fall Hedge, this was greeted with celebration in the car. The weather forecast wasn’t brilliant with gale force winds and rain and so we were anxious to see the bird quickly in case it became elusive in the poor weather.

We arrived at Flamborough Head at about 8:40am and drove past a group of a dozen or so birders in the stubble field to the east of the Old Fall hedge about 50 yards south of the road, they were looking intently and in the same direction. Unfortunately, the Police had put out bollards along the road and so there was nowhere to park. The urge to abandon the car and sprint to join them was almost unbearable. We carried on all of the way to the light house at the end of the headland and then turned back, drove past the bird again and parked up on the verge at the end of the bollards. By the time we had put on coats and boots we had wasted a good 10 minutes and so we jogged the 100 yards to the gap in the roadside verge before turning south into the stubble field and to the assembled birders, it was 8:55am.

As we got there it quickly became apparent that they weren’t looking in the same direction any longer, sure enough the bird hadn’t been seen for 5 minutes. I got chatting to a local birder and he assured me that it would soon reappear and that in the 90 minutes since first light it hadn’t moved from a short stretch of the hedge. I tried to get a feel for its habits and it seemed that it was dropping down into the edge of the stubble field before flitting back into the hedge. All of the other birders had seen it and they began to chat to each other and had all but stopped looking. I immediately began to worry especially because the wind was picking up significantly and the drizzle was starting. Also worrying was the fact that White-throated Sparrows are normally rather secretive spending much of their time hopping around on the ground in dense cover.

Half an hour later and with no further sightings a birder from Sussex walked purposefully over to the hedge in an attempt to flush the bird. He had seen it already but wanted another better view before he went off to year tick some nearby Red-necked Grebes. His first approach produced a Dunnock and a Blue Tit. I was a little anxious because if he flushed the bird and it flew over the back of the hedge then we would struggle to see it. This was because the field on the west side of the Old Fall hedge was newly sewn and the farmer had only given us permission to be on the east side. As I feared, his second approach produced a larger looking bird which flew over the hedge and out of sight on the other side, it gave a single ‘tchick’ call. The flusher looked back at us as if he thought it was something interesting but no one other than me had seen it. I felt fairly sure that this was the White-throated Sparrow and that it might be difficult to relocate. Within a few minutes the flusher had left with most of the other birders to go and see the Red-necked Grebes. We had missed the bird by 5 minutes, I vowed never again to be so lazy getting out of bed, that extra 10 minutes might cost us dear.

After another 15 minutes the first birder I had spoken to suggested that we all spread out a little, several other birders had arrived and we were back up to about a dozen people. The wind was now gale force at times and I was seriously worried that we would not see the bird. By 10:10am there was still no sign and I felt that our only chance was if the weather improved and the wind dropped. I was on the point of heading back to the car for my waterproof leggings when there seemed to be movement among the birders to my right. A group of birders from Wiltshire, including Matt Prior, were watching the hedge nearer to the road and Matt seemed to have found the bird. Dad, who was nearer, gave me the nod of confirmation and we grabbed our scopes and ran to join them.

After some brief directions I was onto the bird through binoculars. It seemed large and surprisingly smart with a very striking head pattern. The black and white stripes were offset by a vivid yellow spot at the front of the supercilium, the cheeks were grey and the obvious white throat was bordered by black lines.

The smart appearance probably indicated an adult bird, 1st winters would have their supercilium tinged light brown and with a less clear cut throat. I was euphoric and slapped Matt on the back.

I switched to my telescope and had some terrific views. I needed tissue paper to keep my optics clear and my jeans were sodden with rain but it was worth it as the White-throated Sparrow preened out in the open despite the heavy rain and strong wind. Fairly soon it became too wet and my jeans were heavy and cold. We walked back to the car and passed several birders coming the other way, they had been keeping out of the rain and waiting for news in their cars. After a slug of tea, a congratulatory hand shake and a bar of chocolate we were on our way home. After a stop at Burger King I dropped Dad off in Oxford and I was back in Poole by 7:20pm.

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