July 28th   Leave a comment

Last week I was skulking around one of only bits of freshwater on Crete looking for a rare crake when another tourist bustled up and demanded “are you a twitcher?”. I denied this – I am a birder, not a maniacally obsessed lister determined to see as many rare birds as possible, travelling anywhere at anytime to get that new bird added. Well, I fell off my puritanical birding – “enjoy the birds around you regardless” – wagon today and went twitching again. To cut a long story short, twitching is bad for a birder because it sets you up for disappointment. You might not see the bird. And there are far too many good birds out there at any time for any bird watcher to see to ever be disappointed. But today it all ended well. A proper military style twitch involving complicated logistics coming together and some team work to get views of a reluctant, skulking rarity. The bird – an aquatic warbler. Found on the May Island yesterday and one I have wanted to see nearly all my life. I have looked unsuccessfully for aquatic warblers in Africa – they are a legendary migrant. A very low world population breeding in a few Eastern European countries (like the Ukraine), perhaps heading for extinction, and known only from a couple of wintering sites in Africa. They have very specialised habitat requirements for breeding and wintering, which creates a problem for the juveniles each year as they head for Africa and have to locate the relatively few patches of this shallow flooded grassy wetland habitat. Far better not to be fussy and to be able to make do with whatever scrubby habitat you find, which is the strategy for most migrant species. Aquatic warblers solve this – I think – by having an uncharacteristically precise migration strategy. In late summer (about now in fact), they head for Africa, but they don’t go south, they head almost due west. They hit the Atlantic coast of France (and some then pass through England where they are regular in very small numbers every August). Then they change direction and head south, following the coast all the way down, bypassing the Sahara before heading due East into the right wetland habitat just inland in Senegal. You can imagine the genetics of this is not too complicated: two time dependent changes of direction, rather than simply fly south at a particular time. But what came first? The habitat specialisation that requires a precise migration strategy, or the precise migration strategy that allowed a habitat specialisation? These questions – why are aquatic warblers such an exception to the rule of migrants just flying south and hoping for the unfussy best? – and is this the reason why they are at such risk of extinction? – are part of my professional, rather than simply my local birding life. So an aquatic warbler turning up on my local patch – this mysterious migrant, possibly heading for extinction – was something I had to see. So the twitch was on.

The aquatic warbler when it showed itself best – I am grateful to Sam Langlois for the photos – he was the only one quick enough. Sam is the person in the foreground below.

Ten of us, including the May Island warden (unluckily visiting St Abbs Head for the weekend) hired the Osprey rib from Anstruther. £350 in total if you are interested in doing the same sometime. It was then only a 20 minute bumpy, wet ride across to the island. A quick walk up to the top of the island and the usual nail biting 20 minutes or so until the bird was seen well by everyone. Aquatic warblers are fairly skulking and keep to dense vegetation. The bird was only in short rank vegetation but it was quite enough to hide a small bird. It was also fairly tame and didn’t fly unless its bit of vegetation was approached within a couple of meters. Then it would fly a few meters, perch briefly in sight before disappearing again. In 90 minutes it was clearly in view for about 25 seconds. But each view gave up enough to see the bird properly: a very pale sandy brown bird with thick black stripes on its back and head. Very distinctive and unmistakable – if you had a clear view of it – and that I suspect is the trick in ever tracking down one. I don’t feel too bad now missing them in Senegal – truly a needle in a haystack, and a needle that dives down to the bottom of the haystack (a haystack with Bilharzia which is also a significant limiting factor to consider when wading through their habitat in Africa). And then a quick dash back to the boat for us all and the same rapid journey on the rib. Back in Anstruther in less than 3 hours as if it had never happened.

The aquatic warbler is nine meters in front of us – we just don’t know it yet. The specks in the air are, of course, puffins. They didn’t get much attention today…
And there it is again – briefly. You can see it braced to jump back into cover.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Well, it worked out, and I may never see an aquatic warbler again unless I seek them out on their breeding ground, when singing males at least should be obvious. Number 230 on my Crail list – the May Island is firmly within the 10km radius of my house that defines my patch. I have always known that I will need to do some twitching on the May to get my list up to the target 300 before I take up birding in the afterlife, and I would have gone after an aquatic warbler even if it hadn’t been local. I can actually see the patch of vegetation where the aquatic warbler is from my house in Crail, so perhaps I should also put it on my garden list, but that might be taking it too far.

The other exciting thing today was much more accessible. A huge invasion of painted lady butterflies. You can’t have failed to notice the tens of butterflies on every flowering plant and then later sunning themselves on every wall – if you were in Crail today. On the May Island it was really noticeable. Hundreds of butterflies outnumbering the puffins – it is usually the other way round.

Two of the tens of thousands of painted lady butterflies blown in from the continent on the easterlies this weekend

Posted July 28, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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