Western Subalpine Warbler – Covean, St Agnes, Scilly

With the best weather for two days we planned a day on St Agnes with the lure of the Spotted Sandpiper in the bay at Porth Coose. There was also a Subalpine Warbler although that appeared to be a difficult bird to see. We caught the 10:15am boat and walked around the north coast of St Agnes to Porth Coose. The Spotted Sandpiper had been found yesterday and had been flighty and mobile but it was seen right up until dusk last night and then again this morning. Just before we arrived it was seen to fly around the back of Burnt Island and soon after we got there a couple or birders agreed to walk around the back of the island to see if the bird was still present, unfortunately it wasn’t.

It was about now that Rob Lambert mentioned that a Common Rosefinch had been seen in the garden of Smugglers Cottage near the Parsonage. We headed across the cricket field and up towards the cottage. We joined one other birder who was already in the garden and began watching the weedy field. Unfortunately there was no sign and after half an hour or so Aly and Dad headed back towards the Spotted Sandpiper location with the plan of later joining Mum at the Turks Head pub.

I stayed a little longer but with no sign of the rosefinch I decided I would walk across the middle of the island and that way would pass the location of the Subalpine Warbler. I caught up with another birder as we got to the steps which are just beyond Covean Tea Rooms. The Subalpine Warbler had favoured the field opposite the steps and also the field over the other side of a drystone wall which provided less easy viewing conditions. I had seen a Siberian Stonechat here in 1996. We looked for a while but with little expectation and then decided to head further down the path to the Turk’s Head. As we left another birder behind us whistled us and we walked back to join him. The warbler was in the thick grass showing its head briefly before climbing up in to full view to pick from the flower heads.

It was strikingly pale grey with a slightly browner forehead. There was a white flare behind the eye and a white eye ring. The secondaries were a rufous colour and the tertials dark centred. The most surprising feature was just how cold grey it was. The birder who called us back was trying to photograph the white in the tail feathers, a feature which can separate Eastern and Western Subalpine Warblers. The bird continued to show well flying up into the hedge and then dropping down onto bare ground. It also returned to the grass and flowers regularly. I got a message to Aly and Dad and they headed up from the Turks Head and managed to see the warbler.

The Subalpine Warbler was found on Sunday 13th but sightings had been patchy over the subsequent week and the impression from the WhatsApp messages was that this bird was really difficult to see. I subsequently heard comment that St Agnes birders tend to keep sightings to themselves until the St Mary’s boatloads have left and this had contributed to the impression that the Subalpine Warbler was a difficult bird to see.

A subsequent photo of the spread tail did show very little white to the fifth feather and this in addition to the call both suggested the western race. This was only my fourth Subalpine Warbler in Britain.

We then had lunch at the Turks Head before joining the line of birders waiting to get on the Sapphire to head back to Mary’s. At 2:13pm however, two minutes before the boat left, news came through that the Common Rosefinch was showing again and so we aborted the boat trip, deciding to get the later boat, and headed back to the weedy field.

Common Rosefinch – St Agnes, Scilly – 19th October 2019

We arrived back at Smugglers Cottage to hear that the bird had been showing less than five minutes previously. I could see movement of the tall grass stems and within a minute or so I managed a glimpse of the rosefinch before it flew up into the hedge to give excellent views for a minute or so.

The streaky appearance, plain face, beady eye and striking double wing bars were all obvious. It then dropped back into the field and although I watched for another hour or so I didn’t see it again. It wasn’t time wasted, however, as I chatted to Rob Lambert and Lucy McRobert. Stephen Moss was best man at their wedding and Stephen is Nicola’s tutor on her Masters Degree in Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa. They gave me some useful bits of information and I’ve arranged for Nicola to talk to Lucy. Lucy writes for Birdwatch and is an environmental historian, nature writer, wildlife blogger and she seeks to encourage young people into nature conservation careers.

After the Common Rosefinch we got the final boat back to St Mary’s. This is my ninth Common Rosefinch in Britain with all but two of them on Scilly. They breed in Scandinavia and North Europe before wintering in India.

Chestnut-eared Bunting – St Mary’s, Scilly – 20th October 2019

There was an obvious large arrival of winter thrushes overnight and, amazingly, Britain’s third Chestnut-eared Bunting was seen and heard in a field at Peninnis Head early in the morning. We spent much of our final day on Scilly chasing after the Chestnut-eared Bunting which had subsequently flown towards Peninnis Farm and despite virtually all of the birders on Scilly looking for it there was no further sign. We did see a ringtail Hen Harrier drifting over Penninis.

Black Redstart – Testwood Lane, Hampshire – 27th October 2019

There had been an invasion of more than 50 Black Redstarts along the east and south coast mainly between Norfolk and Land’s End. Half a dozen or more had made it to Hampshire and after awful weather on Saturday I was hoping that one of the Hampshire birds might be seen again on the Sunday morning. The nearest candidates were Redbridge, Netley and Calshot.

At around 11:30am Bird Guides repeated a slightly earlier Hampshire Going Birding report that the two Black Redstarts were still on and around the new warehouse on the corner of Test Lane and Gover Road near Redbridge. This is a brand new central distribution warehouse for John Lewis and Google Maps still shows the location as a large grassy field.

I didn’t need Black Redstart for year but I hadn’t seen one in Hampshire in 2019. I arrived and scanned the roof tops and walked the length of the warehouse in both directions. I also scanned the slightly more distant warehouse further to the east. No sign. After 30 minutes or so I decided to walk right around the warehouses although I wasn’t sure if the path went all the way. As I got to the further unit I was pleased to see a bird fly up onto the roof, it flicked its red tail and it then perched on a stretch of high fence against the warehouse. This area was hidden from where I had been scanning initially.

The Black Redstart was soon joined by another and they both showed well for another 30 minutes or more. They were both slate grey brown, the pale panel on the secondaries and tertials was obvious and the tail edges were a vibrant red. On several occasions the birds would dart out from the fence to catch insects on the wing and then quiver their tails as they landed.

This is a typical date for Black Redstart with autumn passage peaking in the last week of October. Although they occasionally breed in Hampshire they occur more frequently as a passage migrant and winter visitor with birds probably a mix of British breeders and continental immigrants.

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