Monday, 16 September 2013

My best day in autumn: 24th October 2003

Some days it all comes together. I used to take the third Friday in October off work and head to East Anglia to see what there was to be seen. On this day, 10 years ago now, it all came together beautifully. I did not stumble across a code five rarity, as they call extreme rarities in the States, but I saw a great selection of birds that breed far to the east of the UK. 

In those days if I wanted a record of the birds that I had seen I had to do it myself, so I sketched poorly shaped outlines and used watercolours to attempt to capture the colours. Award winning they were not, but I still enjoy the memories they evoke. 

The first stop on Friday 24th October 2003 was a Great Grey Shrike at Elveden. This bird was memorable because I spotted it as I drove down the A11, before pulling in to the car park for a nice 'scope view:

Then news broke of a 1st winter male Pied Wheatear on the Norfolk coast at Waxham. I continued north-east and enjoyed a confiding and rare bird, that fed actively just in front of a small crowd:

I then began to work my way down the east coast towards Suffolk. The autumn of 2003 will long be remembered for the huge numbers of phylloscopus warblers that arrived on the coast from Siberia, over 500 Yellow-browed and 200 Pallas's Warblers alone over the course of the autumn. At Hemsby, I found my own Yellow-browed Warbler while waiting for a Dusky Warbler to show:
And between the Yellow-browed Warbler and the Dusky Warbler, a Waxwing flew over calling. It was just one of those days:

By now the light was fading and a light drizzle falling. I decided to end the day in Southwold, hoping for another eastern warbler. The churchyard is magical, Brambling fall out of the sky, Goldcrests and Firecrests appear and disappear between the fading sycamore leaves. Then the Hume's Warbler appears, a much rarer and ghostly grey version of my earlier Yellow-browed Warbler. 

But the best was yet to come. Just before the light went all together, I am watching the sycamore by the church with one other birder. "There's a leaf warbler kicking around here somewhere" he mutters. Then a flash of colour and a luminous leaf warbler peers down at us. The gold wings bars, supercilium and tertials, the black eye-stripe and a fabulous median crown stripe: a Pallas's Warbler, giving us the once over before flitting back up into the canopy. It was a breathless, magical moment, a fitting end to a superlative day:

This year, like most of the last 7, I will be spending the third week of October on Lundy Island with Richard Campey, Tim Davies, Tim Jones and James Diamond. We are still waiting for The Big One (Richard's Ancient Murrelet in 1990, despite being a first for Britain and the Western Palearctic, doesn't count - we weren't there), but the craic will be good regardless. And on the 24th I will raise a glass to the fantastic array of eastern warblers I saw on that day ten years before. 


  1. Read this over breakfast in Falmouth, lovely. Let's hope for something similar in 2013.

    1. Perhaps we will... here comes the Yellow-browed Warblers: