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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Finding the "Holy Grail": Twenty Years On!


With a fantastic super rare American vagrant in Suffolk at the moment, I am reminiscing back twenty years ago when I and a young and very promising young birder Rob Wilton (11 years old in 1991 I believe!), found another rare American. Only Suffolk's second ever record of the species at the time. Rob has gone on to be a representative on the Suffolk Record Committee & find/ jointly find Isabelline Wheatear and Pine Bunting amongst many other great finds).

Rob and I found another fantastic American vagrant, a Red- eyed Vireo right here in Lowestoft in Sparrow's Nest gardens on the hallowed day of Sunday 6th October 1991.
Prefacing this story, two years previously, I had dipped spectacularly, when I had missed out on the first Red- eyed Vireo found in Suffolk by David Bakewell found on the edge of the cliff by Warren House wood. How times have changed, I found out a day later with a note by Ricky F posted though the letterbox of my then parents home in Corton road! I was also at the time living and working in London and had returned home for the weekend.

On the morning in question, there had been an Icterine Warbler in Warren House wood and I met Rob and initially he was keen to look for the Warbler but I though it would be a good idea to check the Parks first, as it turned out it was an inspired choice!
We were walking south up the slope past the Museum towards the Bowling greens when we approached the row of mature Holm Oaks on our right and in the very last one on a large frond of Holm Oak hanging down, lit brightly by the golden glow of the early morning sun, 2 passerines were flitting about. The first, Robert pointed out as a Spotted Flycatcher, I then turned my attention to the lower bird (which we both saw at the same time) of the 2 and realised instantly, that it was a cracker, a Red- eyed Vireo!
I blurted out the words "Good grief! It's a Vireo, a Red- eyed Vireo!!" and in another sign of the times, a young Robert wanted to instantly rush off to the phone box at the top of the ravine and phone the news out to everyone (there were no mobile phones, pagers or the internet or Twitter around in those days!) I said best to get and look for everything on the bird, watch it note down all the ID features and its habits and then let everyone know. We watched the bird for several minutes before it disappeared, Rob went off to phone everyone and I tried to relocate the bird without success. The bird would "clonk" around the foliage and at one point it even caught a caterpillar; bashed it against a branch before swallowing it.
The bird was a large warbler-sized approxiamately Garden warbler- sized with a bulkier body and it sported a smart grey crown, a black sub- terminal crown stripe bordered the grey crown above and a striking white supercilia below, with a brown eye, it showed a faint dark eye- stripe. it had a thick grey hook tipped bill and bluey-grey legs. The upperparts, wings and tail were a beautiful olive- green colour with whitish underparts apart from lemon- yellow undertail coverts.
About an hour late Richard S refound the bird on the circular trail at the top of the Nest and visiting birders included the Ricky F, late Brian B, the late Jimmy R, Peter N, Derek B and Peter A, Peter C and John H from Norfolk amongst others.
I remember a great celebratory lunch with the family and going back and seeing the Red- eyed Vireo again in the afternoon when it had moved into Arnold's Walk.
Just two rare bird photographers were present that day, very much a rarity then (again how times have changed!), Rob Wilson and Robin Chittenden and both obtained great shots of the bird.
With all the excitement, we never did see the Icterine Warbler in Warren House wood!

One really sad note in looking back is the fact there are 4 really good friends who were there that day who are no longer with us; firstly Peter Gill (a really great fellow and local "patch" worker who would always let you know what he'd seen), Brian Brown- (the "father" of Lowestoft birding who taught me the value of doing your birding "apprenticeship"), Ian Smith (wonderful chap and fellow finder of a Pratincole in Lowestoft!) and Jimmy Read (another skilled Lowestoft birder who was great company and found many goodies in Suffolk including a Blue- Cheeked Bee-eater!).

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