There has been a very conspicuous gap on my British and Irish list for a very long time. My friends have all seen it but for some reason every time it has become twitchable events have either conspired to thwart me from going or I have dipped, this includes a bird just over the county boundary in Yorkshire, less than 30 miles from home (I was informed of that one whilst standing in 40degree heat in the desert in Israel). I must be at around 48 “in the field” hours dipping it too! This bird was the Pine Bunting. This eastern relative of our Yellowhammer is still a rare bird but last autumn saw a good few straggle across Europe and into the Northern Isles of the UK, with several pitching up on Shetland and a single dropping into Spurn for a few minutes before heading away. Inland perhaps?
This raised my hopes that during this winter a bird would be discovered, perhaps feeding with a flock of its gaily coloured relatives in a weedy field corner in some under watched hinterland of the UK. This proved to be spot on when a female turned up in Shropshire… however true to form I was ill and couldn’t go straight away. The bird showed well on its second day in the morning but then became almost impossible to see, and indeed quite hard to identify judging by the photo’s of Corn Buntings etc that popped up. Female birds of this species are uber subtle and without good views can be extraordinarily hard to pick out. Suffice to say this time we didn’t travel and the bird disappeared.
The search for these birds has been handicapped in the last decade or so by the difficulty in finding wintering flocks Yellowhammers to search through, they have gradually begun to fade from the fields and even in summer the cheerful song “Little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeeese’ is but a memory along the hedges and byways around here, and elsewhere in the UK.
We however did not need to wait long as the mega alert went off again and this time it was a male in North Yorkshire, just to the north east of York at a village called Dunnington. This time we made plans and although leaving later than we planned we headed off up the A1 on the Sunday morning. Its not a long drive to York, only about 1.5hrs and after negotiating the bottom of the city we arrived in the small village already knowing that the bird had shown earlier in the morning but had gone missing. We parked up carefully in the estate bordering Intake Lane and wrapped up warm as the weather was very wintry. We walked up the lane to discover everyone in a small paddock into which we had been invited (it also contained 2 horses who where confined to barracks in their stable for the time being). About a 100 or so birders were strung out along the fence at the top of the field overlooking the neighbouring land which proved to be a weedy stubble field.
We set up the scopes and began to scan the flock of Yellowhammers, Tree Sparrows and Reed Buntings that were flicking up and down into the hedge line about 150 yards away. The light was abysmal to be honest, but the male Yellowhammers bright yellow plumage shone out against the dark hedge, the duller females though were harder to make out against the background. Suddenly after about ten minutes the air filled with birds as the whole flock swirled up and perched in the trees. Scanning the tops of the trees I couldn’t see anything, but suddenly came the call “Its at the top of the small Ash…” Panning back I latched onto a lovely male Pine Bunting sat just where I had scanned across, it must have dropped in seconds after I had passed. The bird was sitting with a few Yellowhammers and a single Tree Sparrow. It posed here for a few minutes then flew… a few lucky souls then saw it closer as they rested for a few moments atop a closer tree, then the flock flew again.
Yes the bird was distant and the light bad but those views made up for 25+ years of hurt, seeing that bird means a lot.
The worlds worst Pine Bunting photograph, but its very precious to me.
You could see the lovely pink rufous breast and flank streaking, the rufous rump and the conspicuous white ear coverts and crown. The stripy face framed the white cheeks and there was a grey toned super’ and nape stripes. The mantle was also grey, gradually becoming more warm brown with darker, rufous brown streaks. Two white wing bars and pale feather edging on the wings gave a frosty look.
The bird never showed again that day, we were so lucky to have timed the arrival just as we did, any earlier and we might have been caught running between sites as some others had been, or could have gone off to look for it ourselves. We searched hard though the Yellowhammers that remained in the field but soon it grew colder and tiny flakes of hard snow began to fall. We decided enough was enough, we had seen the bird, lets go home.
It was a relieved trip back south, yes the views were not ideal, and yes, perhaps I’d like a better and longer go at seeing the species in good light to appreciate the subtleties to draw it better, but at least now I have laid eyes on the elusive little devil and enjoyed watching it for the time it granted me the privilege.
Abysmal video! Taken with a tiny compact held against the lens of my ‘scope, hence the strange wavering.