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3rd June 2003
A 'Mega' in the garden!

Latest Bird Counts.
May Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Newsletter Index.
White-throated Sparrow

A White-throated Sparrow in the Garden


Richard Smith (sketch by Chris Butterworth).

A 'funny looking' dunnock was my first thought as I saw a bird hop along the patio outside the window. Well, I wasn't really paying attention - the light was very bad and I was busy on the computer updating my latest sightings page. Even so it was so obviously different that I immediately went to my Collins guide, but the only 'funny looking' dunnock with black and white on the head was a Radde's Accentor - not very likely.
The next day I was up at dawn - no, not to look for the mystery bird but because I was due at the Little Tern colony at Gronant for six hours voluntary wardening. The weather was appalling with heavy continuous rain. At 10am I'd had enough and decided to come home early. It's an hour's drive from Gronant and when I got home I have to confess I had completely forgotten about the 'funny' dunnock. I went in, got changed and at exactly 11.30am opened the front door, and there it was, sitting on the porch! On seeing me it flew into the bushes on the far side of the front lawn where I managed a good close look with the 'scope. It was immediately obvious that I was looking at something very different from the normal garden bird. The main body still looked not unlike a dunnock but the head was very striking with distinctive and bright black and white stripes, and yellow patches above the eyes. I had no idea what it was so another look at the Collins guide was called for - not an accentor, perhaps a finch? Almost at the end of the book and there it was - a White-throated Sparrow listed under North American Passerines. It was a 3 star rarity - wow! But come on, you don't get 3 star rarities in your front garden - you go to the Scilly Isles for those, or perhaps even the local hot spots - Hilbre Island or Frodsham Marsh - certainly not one sitting on the porch!
One of the advantages of running a local birdwatching web site is that you get to meet some very knowledgeable birders. So straight on the phone to Chris - "err, I think I might have a White-throated sparrow in the garden, what do you think?" Luckily Chris was familiar with the species so after a series of searching questions regarding its behaviour and plumage - necessitating frequent return trips to the 'scope - we both agreed that, yes, it was a White-throated Sparrow, remarkable though it seemed. Unfortunately Chris couldn't come over so next I phone Steve who was in work 30 miles away, another very knowledgeable birder and keen twitcher. Almost before I finished the sentence - "I'm pretty certain I've got a White-throated Sparrow in the garden and Chris agrees" - he was in the car doing 90mph down the motorway!
What followed was three hectic and surreal days. Within an hour the icons of Wirral birdwatching were sheltering in my porch getting great views. Phone call after phone call was made and of course I immediately put it on my website from where the news radiated to all the rare bird news services. The weather the next day was much better and the birders were here from 7am until dark. The bird was both showing and singing well, some great photographs were taken and everyone was thrilled to see this rare and striking bird. Three hundred birdwatchers turned up over the three days and 250 was collected for the RSPB and Hilbre Bird Observatory. Thanks to everyone for their donations and for helping to make it a memorable three days, but most of all thank you to the White-throated Sparrow who chose my garden to rest and feed for a few days.

White-throated Sparrow (Steve Young)
Steve Young -
Twitchers in the garden!
"It's showing!" - some of the crowd at 'March Wall'.
See more photos of the White-throated Sparrow.

Some facts and figures:
The bird was present from late evening of May 21 to about 7pm on May 23, there was also a possible sighting early on the 24th. This was the 7th British mainland record for a White-throated Sparrow, and the 23rd record for the whole country. It was the first ever American passerine for Wirral. So what exactly was it doing in my garden? Pure chance of course, and people who know my level of bird identification skills, or rather lack of them, will realise it was just as well it was so obviously different or I would never have picked up on it!
Looking at the 22 previous records make interesting reading - many are for the Shetland Islands. This to my mind suggests strongly that these birds crossed the Atlantic under their own steam, albeit with a strong following wind. On the other hand there are quite a few records of birds arriving on ships including four on a Cunard ship in 1958 (these don't count as they were put into an aviary). So maybe it arrived on board a grain ship docking at Seaforth. These American sparrows, unlike the warblers, are hardy birds and may well survive over here for several months, if not years. So it is quite possible that this is the same bird that was seen in Yorkshire last year. There is another theory - that I bought the bird from Chester Zoo and released it into my garden just to increase the hit rate on the website. A completely ridiculous idea of course, almost as ridiculous as finding a 3 star mega rarity on the front porch!


Bird Counts


Wetland Bird Survey Count for Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society), 18th May.
3 Little Grebe 3,  5 Great Crested Grebe, 23 Cormorant, 2 Grey Heron, 8 Mute Swan, 17 Canada Goose, 2 Ruddy Duck, 196 Shelduck, 55 Mallard, 2 Moorhen, 15 Coot, 715 Oystercatcher, 2 Lapwing, 9 Knot, 550 Black-tailed Godwit, 9 Curlew.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 18th May.
2 Great Crested Grebe, 27 Cormorant, 7 Heron, 65 Shelduck, 13 Mallard, 3 Red-breasted Merganser, 141 Oystercatcher, 6 Grey Plover, 12 Dunlin, 28 Whimbrel, 60 Curlew, 88 Lesser Black-backed Gull, 117 Herring Gull, 2 Great Blacked Back Gull.
61 Carrion Crow on the mudflats.  

May Bird News


"May is often an excellent month for rarities" was my prediction in last month's newsletter. Little did I realise that one of the best rarities of the year for the whole country would turn up literally on my front doorstep - see the story of the White-throated Sparrow above.
Of course any other rarity inevitably paled in comparison, but even so we had a very good month. The lovely Red-backed Shrike (right) at West Kirby being one of the highlights. Other good birds included a Temminck's Stint and Spotted Crake at Inner Marsh Farm, and a male Montagu's Harrier and summer plumage Black-throated Diver both at Hilbre. The Spotted Crake is a very rare visitor in May although one or two are now regular later on in the year.
Inner Marsh Farm have had really excellent numbers of Black-tailed Godwits with a maximum of 1,000 on May 19th. These are over summering non-breeding birds from the Icelandic race.

Red-backed Shrike
Steve Williams  

The residue of the spring migration continued with the first Cuckoo heard on May 4th on Thurstaston Hill and the first Manx Shearwaters off the mouth of the estuary on the 18th.

Two drake Garganey made a splendid sight at  Inner Marsh Farm, 2 Avocets were also seen at IMF but only briefly. The estuary is well known for its large flock of gulls in late summer but it was a surprise to see a huge flock of about 4,000 (mainly Herring Gulls) on West Hoyle Bank off Hilbre. These were immature birds, the adults, of course, busy with their breeding activities around the coast.

What to expect in June.
The two big colonies around the estuary should be very busy this month with the first young hatching. The Common Tern colony at Shotton should have over 600 pairs and the much smaller Little Tern colony at Gronant about 80 pairs. Also at Gronant the post breeding flock of Sandwich Terns will steadily increase during the month as they finish their breeding season much earlier than the other two species.

June is often a good month for seawatching especially if we have some fresh west winds - expect to see Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Common Scoters and Skuas. A couple or more Spoonbills often turn up in June, wanderers from the continent.

Many thanks go to Clive Ashton, Lilian O'Neill, Steve Wrigley, Jane Turner, Ken Mullins, Tom Lowman, Barry Barnacal, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Phil Woolen, Mark Feltham, Chris Tynan, David Small, Matt Thomas, Jean Morgan, Colin Schofield, Brian Grey,  Mike Hart,  Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson, David Esther, John Harrison, Wendy Hassal and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during May. All sightings are gratefully received.

Forthcoming Events


June Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
14th June, 11:48 hrs 9.5m. (all times BST)
15th June, 12.38 hrs 9.5m. 

Forthcoming Events (organised by the Wirral Ranger Service, Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the RSPB):
All these events and walks have bird interest, even those not advertised specifically for birdwatching. No need to book for these events unless specified - please check below.

Friday 6th June 8:30pm - 12:30am.
All Creatures Great and Small.
Join the Rangers on an evening nature excursion around Wirral Country Park! We will search for moths, bats, owls, small and larger mammals. Warm clothing and a torch are essential items to bring. Places are limited so booking is essential. Phone 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 7th June 1:30pm.
Orchid Spectacular at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB Nature Reserve 
The reserve's wetland fields become carpeted in Marsh Orchids in the Spring. Join the warden on a walk around this special part of the reserve not normally open to visitors. Learn about how we manage the reserve, over afternoon tea. Booking essential. Tickets: 3.00 members and 4.00 non-members. To book and further details call RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Thursday 12th June 8:30pm - 11:00pm. Night Owl Watch.
An evening walk around Royden Park to see and hear these birds of the night. This is a joint walk with the Rangers and the Wirral and Ellesmere Port Barn Owl Trust, who will describe their work to save this charismatic bird. Suitable clothing and footwear are essential. Booking Essential. Tel: 0151 648 4371/3884.

Thursday 19th June 8:00pm - 11:00pm. An Owl Walk and Talk.
An illustrated talk from the Wirral and Ellesmere Port Barn Owl Trust followed by a walk to the Dungeon Woodland to search for Barn, Tawny and Little Owls. Booking essential. Tel 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 22nd June 10:00am. Gander at Gronant Little Tern Colony. 
Visit the last remaining Little Tern colony in Wales as it reaches a peak of activity with adults busily feeding their hungry youngsters. The RSPB Little Tern wardens will be on hand for you to get the most from your visit. No need to book. Meet at Presthaven Sands Caravan Park at the end of Shore Rd, Gronant (near Prestatyn). Further information tel. RSPB on 0151 336 7681. 

Thursday 3rd July 8:00pm - 11:00pm. Night Owl Watch.
An evening walk around Royden Park to see and hear these birds of the night. This is a joint walk with the Rangers and the Wirral and Ellesmere Port Barn Owl Trust, who will describe their work to save this charismatic bird. Suitable clothing and footwear are essential. Booking Essential. Tel: 0151 648 4371/3884.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2003', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Hard copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371.

All material in this newsletter, and indeed the whole web site, has been written by myself, Richard Smith, unless specified.