Twitching Times taster

Since this is my blog I thought I’d shamelessly promote my new birding book, Twitching Times.

It is customary to offer snippets from the book and, to give you some sort of idea what it is all about, here is the account of a bird-filled trip to the Isles of Scilly in October 1985. The accounts are necessarily brief here but you get the flavour. For my Canadian readers, you will know all of these species as being common, especially during migration, in the UK they are mega rare. The equivalent in the Montreal area would be Nun’s Island hosting a dozen European vagrants on the same weekend.

Scilly 12th to 14th-October 1985

‘Jammy bastards’ was the description given to those birders who arrived on the Isles of Scilly on the golden weekend of 12th-14th October 1985. Many had endured weeks of meagre helpings, only for those who had remained on the mainland to show up and tick the lot in one, glorious weekend. By luck rather than judgement, I was one of the jammy bastards, along with the rest of our group, Gill Webb (now Woodhead), Steve Keller and John Hopper. We didn’t feel jammy until we got there, but jammy we certainly were.

The trip started out from Nottingham and would be undertaken in my ageing Renault 5. We’d drive down overnight, sharing the pleasure. On the way, we planned to look for a Black-headed Bunting in Cornwall, and there the fun started. The bunting had been in fields at Porthcothan, north of Newquay. Porthcothan sits at the top of a steep Cornish hill and the Renault had a problem there, it didn’t particularly like hills (well, the up part at least). The only answer was for three of us to get out and walk, and one to coax it to the top, supplemented by shoving as necessary. Coming down was not an issue, what with gravity taking a firm hand.

We went up, we searched the field and we dipped and so we gave up and continued the last bit of our steady journey, to the small airfield at St Just. We later discovered that the bunting had held out until the day before we got there. It is fated that I won’t ever get one for the UK now; no matter, I’ve seen it on Cyprus and in India anyway.

At St-Just airfield, the small plane we’d booked passage on was ready for us when we arrived and we boarded with our limited carry-on set of optics and clothes, ready for an intense few days twitching. Discipline was to be the key and we had a plan, see everything!

Just so you understand the structure, the dates are the dates that the bird was present, the sentence starts with the date of my observation and the figures in brackets are the UK stats. The first figure is records since 1958, the second the number of records for the year (1985).

Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga coronata

Scilly St Mary’s, 7th to 22nd-October 1985, (10/4).


Yellow-rumped Warbler

12th-October 1985: We had a pleasant little B&B booked in Hugh Town and, once the bags had hit the floor, we were off. Our first port of call was the trees by the school. It was easy to find the Yellow-rumped Warbler as it fed with Goldcrests and a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was our first yank for the trip, a rudimentary term meaning a bird of Nearctic origin. The Yellow-rumped Warbler was new for us all and we spent a fair while enjoying it, but time was a creeping on, so we set off to target #2.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheauticus ludovicianus

Scilly St Mary’s, first-winter, 9th-28th-October 1985, (14/3).

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

12th-October 1985: Moving off along the main, circular road on St Mary’s we arrived at Longstone and the favoured patch of blackberries. There it sat, eating a bit, preening a bit and resting a bit but in virtually full view for the whole time. We were part of a crowd but it seemed strangely surreal to be seeing these so highly prized ticks, so easily. The time to move on came when the bird had a good stretch and we were able to see well the crimson underwing; next!

Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus

Scilly St Mary’s, First-winter, 4th-17th-October 1985, (21/12).

Red-eyed Vireo

12th-October 1985: The inhabitants of the Isle of Scilly had become familiar with the autumn arrival of twitchers and, thanks to the negotiations by local birders, would open trails on their land. One such spot was the Silver Trail near Holy Vale, short but through promising habitat. Another canopy denizen was our target here and, very soon after arrival, we watched as the chunky vireo gleaned bugs from the underside of leaves. It was active and showy, and, in terms of the rarities on offer, a relatively minor player. We pressed on.

Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Scilly St-Mary’s, Female or immature, 9th-21st-October 1985, (11/1).


12th-October 1985: Another bramble patch, another mega. Again there was no waiting as the bird gorged itself on the ripe fruit, oblivious to the optics trained on it. We were up to lifer #4 in less than two hours, but more awaited. Then the shout came up, there was a mega squared up the road. It had just been found and the good fortune that had placed us on Scilly for the weekend, continued to smile on us.

Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Scilly St Mary’s, First-winter, 12th-October 1985, (7/1).

Black-billed Cuckoo

12th-October 1985: We had to work for this one and it was Gill who eventually found it, sitting quietly, deep in cover. It was a case of identikit birding until it emerged into view. We were over by the golf course and the thwack of the odd ball being bullied was audible over the hushed and very reverent tones of the gathering mass. The bird was lethargic, it seemed exhausted and well it might have been, having just made land fall after a particularly long flap. The crowds gathered and those of us that had had their fill drifted off to make space at the front for new arrivals. What next?

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Scilly St Mary’s, 12th-13th-October 1985, (19/4).

12th-October 1985: The CBs were positively buzzing and we heard of another cuckoo, this time Yellow-billed and very close to where we had been watching the Red-eyed Vireo, earlier. Birds were literally dropping in as we moved around and there was a bit of shell-shock going on. We got there in the vanguard and had great views as a much livelier bird hopped about feeding and making short flights. The two vagrant Nearctic cuckoos were truly prized ticks and we felt collectively privileged to be seeing this happen. Our day was just about run and we repaired to the B&B to unpack and find food. Tomorrow, the show would continue.

And rest!

Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius

Scilly Tresco, 4th-21st-October 1985, (71/1).

Spotted Sandpiper_edited-1

13th-October 1985: We boarded the inter-island boat ready for a morning on Tresco. We knew that a European Bee-eater had been present there for some time and that was to be our target bird. The golden rule is always to go for what is showing on Scilly and we thought we might luck into something, given the prolific spell we were in. Less rare for us was the Spotted Sandpiper and we didn’t spend so long on looking at it. There were other things to keep us busy.

Bee-eater Merops apiaster

Scilly Tresco, juv, 23rd-September to 1st-November 1985, (180/26).


13th-October 1985: Although the Scilly Bee-eater had been long-staying, it was still a tick for many. Mainland birds, for a long while, had tended to be short-staying or one observer birds – nothing to twitch. Now we were walking the lanes down to its favourite wires. As if to conform to the spirit of the weekend, the Bee-eater was there when we arrived and was much appreciated as it flew repeated sallies for airborne insects, perhaps even bees. It was not a full adult, but that didn’t distract from its beauty and we spent some time watching it.  Eventually, we dragged ourselves away and started to make our way back to the quay, ready for the return to St Mary’s. As we walked along we were part of a strung-out group, all following the same circuit as us and all with similarly full notebooks. We were around 50m from the quay when a shout behind us alerted us to a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that had come in off the sea and had flown into cover. We looked but didn’t see it; still, it wasn’t a tick!

Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator

Scilly Tresco, Juv, 9th to 21st October 1985, (366/8).

13th-October 1985: We hadn’t quite finished on Tresco and took advantage of our remaining time, seeing the Woodchat that had been reduced to a bit part in the rarity extravaganza.

Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla

Scilly Tresco, 9th to 13th October 1985, (240/14).

13th-October 1985: We also had a look at a Short-toed Lark, briefly but enough, we were to see a couple more during the weekend but they were well and truly eclipsed by the rest of the Scilly show.

Back on St Mary’s, we split up and some of us revisited the previous day’s rarities. The rest just took time to wind down a bit. It had been a hectic two days, mentally both thrilling and exhausting in equal measure. We were to leave the next day but first we had one more serious target, another yank.

Northern Parula Setophaga americana

Scilly St Mary’s, 3rd-17th-October 1985, (6/3).

Northern Parula

14th-October 1985: It would be wrong to call this the big one, they were all big but the parula was up there with them and it had been missing, presumed gone, for the duration of our stay. Now the eager searchers had re-found it and we were soon under its tree, eyes wide in sheer admiration. For birders used to warblers that don’t dress up for the occasion, the parula was something else. It was very confiding and came too close for even the closest focussing bins.

The rest of our short trip was spent catching up on a few birds that we’d had to walk past briskly. A Tawny Pipit, some more Yellow-browed Warblers and quite a few commoner scarce migrants, commoner they may be but no less pleasing on the eye.

We got back to the resting Renault at St-Just and started the drive home. With the Earth being round, our drive north was naturally uphill, something that impacted on the car’s performance, but it blew its way steadily along and we all arrived home weary but well satisfied with our jammy weekend on Scilly.

Incidentally – here are the relative costs in local currency.

Euro = €3.93, UK = £3.07, USD – $4.99, CAD = $5.56

To buy, either click on the link on the side bar or go to directly and search by my name or Twitching Times. Thanks to everyone who buys my books for your support.


Out now!

Fresh out today, my new birding eBook. After a few technical problems all now seems well. I’ve looked at it on a Kobo eReader, Kobo PC eReader app and an iPad reader and all formats work well. On the Sony eReader the images are a bit on the small size but those readers are getting less common.

If you can read this but don’t have an eReader you should know that there are several free ones available for the PC. By installing one it no only allows you to read my excellent books but also to download tons of free books too.

Below is  a link that will take you straight to Smashwords where you can preview up to 15% of the book or buy. I’m always looking for comments, good or bad, although I’ll obviously hide any bad ones where nobody can find them.

I will be offering print copies and soon. Just keep checking back for details. Print copies are naturally more expensive, I will have no control over that, so I’d go for the e-version and save a tree.


Between 1982 – 2003 I twitched far and wide in the UK. Every twitch was an adventure, a learning curve as I slowly took my place on the twitching ladder. Now you can read all about it in my new eBook, Twitching Times. In 117,000 words and 100+ illustrations, I’ll guide you around the rare birds seen and the stories behind them.


Just when I was thinking that it was a quiet day along comes a surprise bird.

St-Lazare sand pits were very tranquil this morning with little evidence of migration. I did my circuit, seeing the regular stuff but no more and was contemplating not bothering walking the soccer pits woodlot trails. As they represent my best chance of Grey-cheeked Thrush there, I convinced myself that I should give it at last a cursory glance, so I did.

The trails were quiet with not a warbler to be found, a contrast to yesterday when there was a busy little flock doing the rounds. Calling Black-capped Chickadees are usually the key to finding the warbler flock so I followed their subdued mutterings to the north-east corner but just found them alone. A slight movement above caught my eye and, expecting to find a stalking a stalking Sharp-shinned Hawk, I positioned myself to see the indistinct blob behind much foliage. It was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

I manoeuvered around to get a better angle and perhaps a record shot and it just sat tight. It was a trifle high for a good shot but some sub-pishing got it looking around, and I managed a few record shots before it sloped off. This was only the second site record and a welcome ABA year tick too.

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The weather for the rest of September is looking a little too settled for many more surprises, but the first few days of October promise some cold northerlies, making it Golden Eagle time I think. We should also see the wildfowl really start to arrive, it’s time we had a Ruddy Duck at the pits this year or, better still, a scoter.


Nothing says winter is on the way like a tree full of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and there they are today, right outside my door. September still has some breath left but October is rapidly gaining ground and soon we’ll be seeing those leaves on the floor, and the pointless raking and blowing will begin too.

It’s odd at this time, just a few short weeks after the salivation in anticipation of all those autumn warblers. Back in early August it was a case of marking time, waiting for the first wave. Now it’s a case of ‘where did the days go’ and, despite all those birds in the memory bank, it still seems too early to be thinking about winter tyres!

The past few days have been largely cool and Sunday was particularly damp. I’ve been covering the pits daily but we are in a slight lull, although yesterday there were a couple of Baird’s Sandpipers so not done yet. Sunday Sandra and I went off to Milton Road, east of Ottawa. Our target bird was a Northern Wheatear, a good North American year bird and an Ontario tick, so one in the bank for retirement. It threw it down much of the time and our visit coincided with a period of binocular avoidance by the bird. Eventually we got a distant view, it was enough for a European birder but there were quite a few Canadians there for whom it was a lifer, so they waited for better views.

Going back to the previous post and the Red-tailed Hawk. Bob Barnhurst, hawk counter extraordinaire, tells me that it is a sub-adult eastern race Red-tailed Hawk. Clearly I need to get more of a handle on the wide range of variation in this species. It struck me as very pale in the field and it is, indeed at the pale end. The fact that I had the shot highlights the value of even a lousy record shot. Had I not had that shot I might have been thinking in different directions for the ID of the hawk, such as, still a red-tail but where from? Now it’s case solved, thanks Bob.

For those of you interested, I’m expecting to be publishing my second eBook, Twitching Times later this week. It has taken a while to finish as it’s around 117,000 words with 100+ accounts and illustrations. In a nutshell it is all about my twitching rarities in the UK between 1982-2003. There are all sorts of stories in there, irreverently told of course. I’ll do a blog post to announce it and it will again be published via Smashwords.

twitching times final small

Going back to the kit theme, a friend of mine in the UK is an avid patch watcher. He lives and breathes his local patch and has been instrumental in turning the old mining site into a reserve. He was doing a morning watch recently when four shorebirds came over, thankfully they were calling. He’s experienced, although I’m not sure whether he’s birded in North America, and he’s careful, critical and very exacting when it comes to making an identification. The birds were snipe-like and he was able to match the call, they were Long-billed Dowitchers. There has been one previous record of that species in the county of Nottinghamshire and there have been very few multiple bird observations of the species in the UK. It is a contentious ID call to make.

Here lies the problem. The guy has a solid reputation, but by making the dowitcher call he will now face some severe scrutiny by other, often PC based birders. Years of painstaking patch work building his reputation could go by the board if the national records committee don’t accept the record, so what has he got? A description of the birds, and a description of the call. Had he been in possession of an iPod with a microphone at the ready, he just might have caught something audible making his claim exponentially stronger.

The issue with the bird doesn’t end there. At a site to the south, four Spotted Redshanks were identified on the same date, by whom I’m not sure, but one national news service is lumping the records as one species and they are going for the Spotted Redshanks. It might be that the Spotted Redshanks were misidentified or, in one of those always happens coincidences, there were four of each species. Either way it was naughty for the news service to prejudge.

I’ve not done too much with the camera recently, hence the efforts below. The goose looks like one of the regular hybrids form last year, a Canada x Snow. The Scarlet Tanager was one of three that spent a couple of weeks gorging themselves on grapes in the small woodlot and the Blue-headed Vireo just would not look around.

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One of those days

The weather change worked, it was a big day at St-Lazare sand pits for me today.

I don’t very often list the species seen, they are in eBird after all, but such was the quality today it’s worth it:

Canada Goose 435; Gadwall 1; American Black Duck 6; Mallard 30; Blue-winged Teal 1; Green-winged Teal 45; Hooded Merganser 7; Common Loon 1; Pied-billed Grebe 1; Great Blue Heron 4; Great Egret 3; Green Heron 1; Turkey Vulture  14; Osprey 4; Northern Harrier 2; Sharp-shinned Hawk 3; Cooper’s Hawk 7; Northern Goshawk 1; Bald Eagle 2; Red-shouldered Hawk 4; Broad-winged Hawk 77; Red-tailed Hawk 2; Semipalmated Plover 2; Killdeer 10; Greater Yellowlegs 4; Lesser Yellowlegs 16; Least Sandpiper 1; Pectoral Sandpiper 6; Wilson’s Snipe 1; Ring-billed Gull 10; Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 1; Mourning Dove 2; Belted Kingfisher 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1; Downy Woodpecker 1; Hairy Woodpecker 2; Northern Flicker 10; American Kestrel 2; Merlin 1; Olive-sided Flycatcher 1; Red-eyed Vireo 1; Blue Jay 865; American Crow 10; Common Raven 5; Horned Lark 1; Tree Swallow 15; Barn Swallow 3; Black-capped Chickadee 10; White-breasted Nuthatch 1; Eastern Bluebird 16; Swainson’s Thrush 1; American Robin 10; European Starling 40; Black-and-white Warbler 1; American Redstart 1; Magnolia Warbler 3; Bay-breasted Warbler 1; Blackburnian Warbler 1; Blackpoll Warbler 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler 2; Yellow-rumped Warbler 6; Black-throated Green Warbler 2; Song Sparrow 10; Dark-eyed Junco 4; Scarlet Tanager 1; Red-winged Blackbird 40; Rusty Blackbird 5; Common Grackle 60; American Goldfinch 10; Evening Grosbeak 2.

Pride of place, for me at least, was the Olive-sided Flycatcher that obligingly sat on top of a pine. I was actually scoping up some Broad-winged Hawks in its general direction when I noticed it. Even then I expected it to be a young American Robin and so was pleasantly surprised when it focussed in to become a long expected site first.

As you can see, there are plenty of hawks in there plus warblers and a couple of Evening Grosbeaks, it was that sort of day. I rather wish I’d stayed a bit longer to pick up some extra species, there must have been Yellowthroats and Chipping Sparrows somewhere! As it was my initial walk, pre settling down to count hawks, didn’t quite get me far enough around the site to find some regular things. I think my day record is 78 so it might well have been in sight with more effort!

Tomorrow?  More of the same I think The temperature is supposed to hit a low of 1°C tonight so it’s going to kick start a heavier passage. I’m pretty sure that the Blue Jay count is also a site record by some margin. Three figures could be on the cards tomorrow.

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I only took a couple of photos today. One is a record shot of a high Red-tailed Hawk (above) that surprised me. It seems to have some western components in there, comments very welcome. The other bird is a Swainson’s Thrush that has found fruit corner (not the yoghurt but where grapes grow on my patch).

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Pits power

Just past the half-way mark in September and a month of pits watching is going well. This week has seen a second warbler flock pass through and now the shorebirds are starting to be more like I expected. Sunday I added American Golden Plover to the pits year list, yesterday it was the first American Pipits of the year. Today was a bit quieter but I finally bagged a Blue-headed Vireo for the pits years, that’s bumped my pits year list up to a rounded 160, the September list is 108 species so far, it may well get even better.

Yesterday I spent a bit longer than I intended. It was very grey to start with, just 5°C temps and still. There were at least eight Pectoral Sandpipers around, five up from the previous day. A late Purple Martin went over but warblers were very few and I was about to leave when a Broad-winged Hawk pootled past. I lingered and enjoyed a nice passage of hawks: Broad-winged Hawk 32; Sharp-shinned Hawk 3; Copper’s Hawk 6; Osprey 6; Bald Eagle 6; Red-shouldered Hawk 3; Turkey Vulture 3; Red-tailed Hawk 1; Peregrine 1;  Merlin 2; American Kestrel 2. In with that mix were at least 30 Monarchs ambling south-west.

Below a couple of shots of Pectoral Sandpipers.

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The autumn black peril is upon us with masses of Common Grackles – up to 2000 straight from roost – roaming and pooping at will as they pass overhead. This group was part of a 900 bird string (estimated).

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On Monday Claude was up from Toronto and we visited a couple of sites including the pits! Beauharnois still had three Sabine’s Gulls, distant and all three were sat together on the water at one point – oh for a boat. We moved on to Ste-Martine where a handful of shorebirds lingered briefly before pushing off. The photos below are of four shorebird species, I’ll let you name them. A pretty Ring-billed Gull and one of some obliging Semipalmated Plovers, the head-on shot shows the semipalmations nicely.

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Tomorrow the wind goes northerly, if you can get out, there should be plenty of bird about from geese moving to more warblers and hopefully more shorebirds.

This weekend it’s the Tadoussac bird migration festival. Not sure we can get there as I’d love to see the owl banding and get on a birding trip out on to the St-Lawrence. I’m also not too sure how it all works, but suspect that you have to register for the thing – looks a bit like a load of messy red tape to m,e but then I am translating a word at a time so I might have it wrong.


Trundled down to the pits this morning; bumping into Wayne Grubert there who was on a Buff-breasted Sandpiper mission. No Buff-breast today, but an American Golden Plover came over and there were three Pectoral Sandpipers around. It was pretty cool for September, clouding over gradually and the conditions might make for a good and visible flight of Broad-winged Hawks that were surely grounded yesterday by the rain.

Ospreys are moving too, I saw two today and no doubt many more are wandering past out there as I type. Smaller birds were harder to find though, just Tennessee and Yellow-rumped Warblers in with a flock of Chipping Sparrows. We were entertained by a young Merlin that attacked everything from shorebird to Caspian Tern and was probably responsible for smaller birds keeping low. At one point it chased a calling bird, as yet unidentified but I happened to have the iPod on record and have a faint call, another one to work on.

The bit below was on the eBird rare bird alert from Quebec. I’m not sure how it works but presume that the reviewers get to see the alerts before they go out, if so quite how this slipped through I’m not sure but I’m quite sure that Karen isn’t seeing Little Blue Herons often, not in Quebec at any rate.

Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) (1) – Reported Sep 09, 2014 18:00 by Karen Pick – Rivière Beauport et Fleuve St.-Laurent, Québec, Quebec – Map:,-71.1988735&ll=46.8490315,-71.1988735 – Checklist: – Comments: “Feeding where the river empties into the St. Lawrence. I often see Little Blue Herons in and about Quebec City.”

There was also an intriguing claim of a Yellow-nosed Albatross, seen by some kayakers out on the Richelieu River. It was looked for subsequently but not seen. These things have a habit of avoiding people and the claim recalls one in the UK a few years ago. The albatross was caught in the south-west of England, when it landed on a piece of rough ground. It made the local press and was released, but virtually no birders saw it. Later the same day an angler (who I actually knew personally) was on a permit-only water on the east coast of England and photographed a funny bird with his camera, normally reserved for photos of the Carp he caught. It was presumably the same albatross. It stayed there, squabbling for scraps with local Mallards long enough for thousands to see it and for the site owner to make a fortune in gate money. Nobody else ever did and the photos only came to light after the bird had left.

Wouldn’t it be great if it the Richelieu report is one and sits where we can all see it.

Going back to eBird. We went to see a Buff-breasted Sandpiper near Casselman a couple of weeks ago but the record is not on the eBird map for the species, even though it is in my records under the Ontario tab, peculiar.

Below are a couple of dodgy shots from this morning.

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