Alpine Accentor – 1997 – first for Pembrokeshire

Prunella collaris – LLWYD Y MYNYDD – vagrant

The autumn half-term holiday of 1997 found my extended family and I staying in a holiday cottage in Porthgain.  A time to escape the city with the odd spot of birding thrown in.  A trip to Ramsey Island and seeing choughs for the first time in several years were the limits of our ornithological ambitions for the week.

With both of these achieved, on Thursday 30th October my partner and I set off for an afternoon drive to Fishguard, stopping off at Strumble Head on the way.  On arrival, at 13:45, we spent 15 minutes in the look-out watching the plentiful porpoises offshore.  Being an almost windless day, bird movements were minimal and confined to the ubiquitous gannets and the odd auk.  We then walked toawards the lighthouse and, on reaching the concrete steps leading down to the walkway over to the lighthouse, a bird appeared on the wall in front of us. On looking though my binoculars I was astounded to find that it was immediately recongnisable as an Alpine Acentor, a bird I had last seen in similar surroundings on the Isle of Wight, eight years previously.

For the next 15 minutes we watched the accentor as it remained in constant view on the wall, steps and nearby rocks at a range of around 5 metres.  It was tame and lethargic and was not seen to feed.  Sara returned to the car to fetch a notebook and camera and on her arrival back I attempted to take some photos – although with eventually disappointing results. 

We also noted the bird’s salient features: it’s portly, skylark-sized, appearance; black wing-converts tipped with white to form two wingbars; creamy stripes on the mantle; white throat flecked with black, heavy rufous streaking on the breast sides extending and darkening on the flanks, belly and undertail converts; tail tipped white and extensive yellowing base to the bill. The “naked eye” appearance of a grey-brown bird being belied by these distinctive features.

After a while I became aware that several people were queuing behind us on the steps and I decided to leave to try to find other birders in the area.  I returned a few minutes later with three “casual” birdwatchers who, although appearing interested in my find, had not heard of the bird.  Unfortunately there were now many people on the steps were the bird had been, attracted by the sight of some seals on the beach.  After seeing it again very briefly on nearby rocks before it was disturbed, we left the area to drive the four miles to the nearest phone-box to try to contact my father.  We left a message with the somewhat bewidered owner of our cottage and, not being aware of any local birder’s numbers, phoned the news through to a national birdline.

At 15:00, on arriving back at the site, I quickly refound the accentor where it had last been seen, but again only briefly before it was flushed, dropping down over the cliff-edge.  Disappointingly, the area was then subject to constant disturbance for the next hour and more, including a party of rock-throwing teenagers!  At just before 16:30 I gave up searching, rather fearing the worst for a bird which had not been seen outside the same small area or flew any distance.  It was, to my knowledge, never seen again.

The Alpine Accentor was the first for Pembrokeshire and second for Wales, athough the first this century.  It was only the eleventh UK record since 1958 being the fourth autumn recod in the time.  There had been strong southerly winds the previous day and perhaps the bird had found itself in the Irish Sea and made landfall at Strumble Head while attempting to reorientate

Sean Davies (Bristol)

Source: Pembrokeshire Bird Report 1997

Update – Record accepted by BBRC in 1998