October 19th   1 comment

This morning I was determined to work my way steadily around Kilminning to see if anything had slipped in yesterday without us noticing, particularly among the noisy distraction of the thousands of thrushes. Most were gone this morning. There were still tens of redwings about, but now numerically balancing the blackbirds which hadn’t moved on: so today it seemed there were blackbirds everywhere instead. The top of Kilminning had more bramblings, and I had counted about 30 by the time I got to the lower part. As I walked up to Willie’s bench (where the Siberian thrush was) I heard a distinctive chacking – a bit wren like, but harder and more metallic, like a Sylvia warbler. Hours of listening to Hannu Jannes’ “Eastern vagrants” CD that I bought at a BTO conference thirty years ago has hard wired a few calls into my brain. And one of them is a dusky warbler! I have heard dusky warblers at Kilminning before but never got eyes on them. They skulk a lot. I tried to get a glimpse as it called quite loudly and persistently from a dense rose bush a few meters in front of me. I took a couple of sound recordings on my phone and then played dusky warbler call back to it. It responded by coming a bit closer and calling more intensely, but still invisibly. A small bird then flew out of the bush and into the whitebeams behind – too quick to see anything on it. I was happy it was a dusky warbler though – the call is very distinctive. When you are very close to it, you can sometimes hear a thin, thrush-like, very high pitched “zee” in between the chacks, and the rhythym of the chacks is distinctive. Other warblers that chack do it in an even, spaced out way, whereas Duskys have bits of faster and slower. And the tone is very sharp – this bird not so much – but some birds like an electric cable shorting out. Anyway, I put the warbler out on the grapevine and then tried to get a sight of it.

It took a little while to see the bird well. People began to arrive and I began to feel slightly uncomfortable in that I hadn’t actually seen the bird. The identification was all on call. But then it was heard by someone else and we tracked the bird down to a strip of rose bushes only a few meters away from where I had first heard it. It went through periods of quite loud and intense calling making it easy to locate in a particular bush, but still impossible to see. I had to crouch down and practically put my head into a rose bush before I saw it. And then it was just a few of meters away from me, moving rapidly among the bare stems that form the hollow centre of the rose bushes, and so clearly visible. My best ever views of a dusky warbler. My relationship with dusky warblers has always been partial, a bit photofit. A head seen briefly, a bit of calling, a possible flying away. Today it was finally the whole experience. A chiff-chaff like bird but quite dark, with brown tones above and paler, but still dirty brownish below, and with non-descript coloured legs. A very contrasting cream supercilium, especially in front of the eye. The bill is weaker looking than Radde’s, almost wren like, and the tail looks slightly longer than on a chiffchaff. The whole impression is of a very distinctive looking Phylloscopus warbler. That coupled with its characteristic call, as I watched it scurrying through the bush, completed the full, 100% identification. It suddenly popped up on top of the rose bush in full view before diving back down again and disappearing.

The rest of the time the warbler was hard to see well. Occasionally it would go up into the higher vegetation, but there are still lots of leaves on the trees so it was back to photofit glimpses. Again, the secret to a half decent view was to get into the vegetation. The bird wasn’t shy. It didn’t move away from people watching, it just didn’t come out of cover. Most people got glimpses of it through the day and some had good views, and it was calling often. A huge relief. I had stuck my neck out on a call only ID because it is better to give others the opportunity, just in case the bird doesn’t stick around long. And although I didn’t have any significant doubts – I would have put it on the Crail year list even if I had only heard it calling the first time – a dusky warbler is a significant rarity and it is good to have others seeing it as well. Rarity wise – this is my second definite dusky warbler in 19 years. The last was a real skulker in The Patch at Fife Ness (the one I only saw its head, and so briefly I didn’t really want to put it on the overall Crail list at all). If the bird hadn’t been caught and ringed a little earlier, and seen by others, I would not have been very confident of its ID. Others have been calling birds – but never for long enough for me to be totally sure. Last year there was a dusky warbler in the garden at Balcomie Castle, but because of Covid only the finder got to see it. So that makes, I think, at least 4 dusky warblers in 19 years. I should think we overlook them, although if they call they shouldn’t be too hard to detect. At last the autumn has delivered, and once again, in the shabby car park that is Kilminning. An existentially beautiful place though, in birding terms.

Birding is often just the joy of travelling in hope, and it always delivers something (the bramblings, lots of them and close up would have made this morning worthwhile). But birding can be disappointing, as the nine Crail patch ticks I have missed this year have demonstrated. Still, when it delivers like today, it really gives you a buzz. I cycled home on that real high you get after finding a good bird, on your local patch, and shared with your friends.

No photo of the dusky warbler today, but this is the one in the Patch on the 18th – 21st October 2013 (photo by the late Jim Cobb). Today’s bird looked warmer brown than this, on a very dreich day and in the middle of a bush, and the supercilium was much more contrasting.

Posted October 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

One response to “October 19th

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  1. Hi Will
    As they say “thanks for the memory”, I well remember retrieving the bird photographed from the net, and telling Jim (Cobb) to deal with the other few birds waiting to be processed first.
    I am fairly confidant that it was Jim who photographed it himself, he became quite adept at this procedure.

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