White-spotted Bluethroat – Hook-with-Warsash, Hampshire

On the Thursday I had a workshop at Portland Bill in the late afternoon. I took my scope, bins and sketchbook along and left a bit earlier than normal as there had been a Wryneck in the observatory quarry, unfortunately there was no sign during my two hour search before the workshop.

On Friday I had gone to Titchfield Haven with my Dad to pick up my membership card and to spend some time sketching in the hides. On the Saturday I had spent most of the day out with a friend, we visited Pennington and Titchfield with the highlight being an Osprey over Normandy Marshes.

On the Sunday morning, expecting a quieter day, I went to a spin class at the Gym and I got home at around 10am to read on WhatsApp that an adult male Bluethroat had been found at Hook-with-Warsash. I left more or less immediately and within 45 minutes I was joining other birders overlooking the ditch which runs parallel to the path. Just before I arrived Keith Betton had added a further WhatsApp message to say that there had been no further sign of the Bluethroat although lots of people were looking and the single observer had taken a good photo which confirmed the identification.

It had been seen briefly in a very small rose bush before flying into the vegetation along the ditch when it was lost to view. Over the next few hours birders spread out a little but most people continued to concentrate on the only area in which the Bluethroat had been seen. They can be very skulking birds spending much of their time on the ground under the cover of waterside vegetation and so it was likely to be a very difficult job finding it. After searching for three hours I gave up and headed home, the finder was the only person to have seen the bird, nearly five hours previously.

At 5:38pm, however, the Bluethroat was reported again (it had been missing for more than eight hours), this time it was seen half way along the eastern edge of the main freshwater scrape. It had moved 75 yards and so this was perhaps the reason that no-one had seen it earlier in the day. Sunset was within two hours and I knew the Sunday evening traffic would be backed up horribly on the M27 and so I decided not to go. I know quite a few people did go in the evening and not many people connected with the bird. I decided I would go if it was seen again on the Monday morning but then noticed that the forecast was for rain all day and with it getting heavier in the afternoon.

The next morning I had a doctors appointment at 8:30am and noticed just before this that the Bluethroat was still present. When I got back home I set off more or less straight away. Subsequent messages suggested that the bird was once again being very elusive. It seemed that I would have two hours before the rain started. On arriving at the scrape several birders indicated that it was proving difficult and most of the birders on site hadn’t seen it yet. Bluethroats are often associated with reed beds and it had been seen briefly in the reed tops and on the nearby brambles. There were two areas where you could get better views of the vegetation on the eastern edge of the scrape, I decided to watch from the further viewpoint as this one had better views of the brambles and the edge of the reed beds.

In between sightings it seemed likely that the bird was foraging on the ground out of view in dense cover. From where we were stood it looked like there could be a view along the length of the ditch but having wandered around further it was obvious that the large gorse and bramble bushes prevented you getting the angle that was needed.

I’m never confident about seeing things and this time I was even more pessimistic than usual. I decided that I would need to scan constantly as I expected views to be brief and it seemed likely that there wouldn’t be much time to get onto the bird if someone else found it.

At just before 10am a chat like bird flew across in front of me and in flight I noticed the red patches at the base of the tail and a flash of white on the head and so when it flicked up on to an exposed bramble branch in full view I knew I was in for a treat! The extensive electric blue chest, white supercilium and orange lower chest band were all obvious, I quickly got it in the telescope and was slightly disbelieving that I had managed such excellent views and so quickly. I called out directions. The Bluethroat stood alert, flicking its tail before dashing off to land in the tops of nearby reeds. This time with its back to me so that the red tail sides were showing nicely. I made a few sketches.

Over the next 90 minutes I managed three more brief but good views and added detail to the sketches. The throat looked white with a large area of blue on the upper chest. The blue area had a black band along the bottom edge with a narrow white band below that and then a lovely broad rusty orange band. It showed an obvious black malar stripe which was bordered either side by a white throat and a white sub-moustachial stripe. There was no red spot on the upper chest but there was also no blue above where the white spot would have been. The news services reported the bird as a White-spotted Bluethroat although it is difficult assigning to race at this time of year. The red-spotted race is from northern Europe (Scandinavia and Russia) with the white-spotted race further south. There have now been 34 records of Bluethroat in Hampshire but many of the recent records have been difficult to see and it was a county tick for many birders.

Keith Betton, Hampshire County Recorder, commented – “Most of the UK records are from the east coast. The largest influx is along the north-east coast and northern isles in May, but instead in Hampshire the spring “peak” is in March with 7 records. Autumn records are more concentrated on the east coast with most Hampshire records being in September (15)  and October (7). The species occurred in the county almost annually in the 1960s (with four in 1961 alone) but none were seen between 1981 and 1996. Thankfully sightings are on the increase again with two in 2018. Most Hampshire birds are of the white-spotted form in spring, but due to their moult regime it is unsafe to attribute autumn birds to race unless they are in the hand.”

Over the following days the Bluethroat was seen again but became even more elusive. This takes me to 234 for the year. This was only my 4th Bluethroat in the UK with two Red-spotted Bluethroats in Tyne & Wear (1987) and one on Scilly in 1990 and a White-spotted bird also on Scilly in 2002. Recent genetic evidence confirms that the two forms should continue to be treated as a single species.

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