Every now and then a bird shows up that doesn’t breed or even winter in the area. Some of these are passage visitors. They fly through, on their way elsewhere. Other birds just turn up out of the blue. They just accidentally end up here, blown by winds, bad weather or sometimes they just like to head out here to look for new food or breeding sites from the continent.
The first type, the passage visitors, is fairly predictable. You can guess roughly what time of year they’ll show up and sometimes they establish quite regular patterns. Autumn is a great time for spotting these as many head from their breeding grounds in the north (for instance Scandinavia) to their summering grounds in the south (southern Europe and Africa). But many stop off and eat or rest along the way. Just as we look for a tempting motorway service station when we feel peckish, these passage visitors will look for suitable stops.
A good example of this is the osprey or ospreys that show up at Shapwick Heath for the last few early Septembers. I caught up with one a few weeks ago and was rewarded with seeing it hunt. At about 5 o’clock as brown hawkers fed over the water, the evening sunlight turning their gossamer wings to gold, the osprey took off from its hunting perch and circled before diving down and sending up a huge splash, then emerging with a fish. This is why the ospreys stop here, to feed up on fish before heading to Africa. Maybe one year they will breed here (fingers crossed).
Large number of surprises
Sometimes birds move through at a certain time, in fair numbers. Ring ouzels have a spring and autumn passage. This spring I saw eight of them within a week, four in Yorkshire and four at Black Rock, in Cheddar. During that time, large numbers had also been seen at Draycott Sleights and Crook Peak amongst other places. A band of extremely cold snowy weather, had prevented them migrating further north, and these usually very shy birds seemed as tame as blackbirds whom they closely resemble but with white bibs for the males and they were being spotted all over the Mendips. But it was a huge surprise to spot them in my local area.
Another example of a passage visitor was a wryneck that appeared last autumn at Brean Down. I heard about it at an SOS (Somerset Ornithological Society) walk at Steart and went down to take a look. I remember digiscoping (taking photos through a telescope) lots of shots of this strange, almost snake-like woodpecker. Again it seemed unperturbed by the amount of interest it was generating as it pecked around in ants nests. Also about that time people had seen ouzels at Brean Down, and, a few weeks later, I spotted a black redstart there. It was perched at the top of a telegraph pole, and I watched as the handsome bird flew between the rocky crags of the down.
The ones that really bring in the twitchers however, are the vagrants: essentially birds that have no reason to be here. Some of these seem to occur frequently: glossy ibis and spoonbills often turn up on the Somerset levels. Early on in my birding experience I saw four spoonbills at Catcott Lows. I had been sped there after school and watched a single bird stand and preen regally in the evening light, its crest gently blown by the wind. As the dusk fell the four ghostly, majestic birds came closer and closer to the hide, searching for food with their long, yellow-tipped bills that combed through the water. Eventually they were within ten metres of the hide. It was a magical experience especially as I was the only observer. Someday I expect them to breed here like the great white egrets that now are a fairly common sight on the levels.
Huge flocks of twitchers
Some of you may have seen the huge flocks of twitchers that arrived to see the pied billed grebe on the levels earlier this year. The bird itself was slightly underwhelming (although that may be because it was an overcast day when I saw it) but as a rarity, I haven’t seen much better.
Another such event was when a hoopoe turned up at Sand in Weston last October. This was a rare sighting and, as it was nearby, I decided to go and look for it. The exotic bird looked so out of place in the drab, dirty flats next to Sand Point and was also remarkably tolerant of the passers-by and photographers. I must admit I prefer to ‘discover’ a rarity myself but I suppose wouldn’t everyone.
So keep your eyes open. Who knows what could turn up this autumn.
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All photos © Hallam Greene