Yellow-rumped Warbler – 1994 first for Pembrokeshire

Dendroica coronataTelor TinfelenVagrant

Over the course of October 30th 1994, a deep depression passed off the west coast bringing westerly winds Force 6 to Ramsey Island.

Darren Woodhead:

On Monday 31st, Karen Dobbs and I were walking up the east side of the island looking for migrants.  It was still blowing well from the west, and just as we reached the sheltered cover of Ogof Capel, a small bird flew up 10 feet from us and landed again with 15 feet.  Presuming it to be a Great Tit from the white on its tail, I raised my binoculars for a better look.  “Flipping heck” (or something unprintable!) were the first words to escape my lips as  realised that this was no Great Tit.  Mind racing, I realised I was looking at something way out of the ordinary.

First impressions were of a brown streaky bird about the size of a Great Tit,with black tertials and tail, black legs and a short, sharp black bill.  The head was a warm brown, the back a warm sepia brown with regular streaking and with a paler greyish neck “scarf”.  His clean white belly with thick black streaks was itself unusual, but as Karen and I watched, more unuausl features became slear.  Clean white “spectables”, a blue-grey smudge on the shoulder, double white wing-bars and vivid lemon yellow patches on the sides of the breast.

A North American warbler – it must be!  Then it leapt briefly into the air, showing again the prominent white outer ovals in a black tail and a bright lemon-yellow rump.  A name came into my head: Yellow-rumped Warbler.

At this point I must have leapt briefly into the air myself, then trying to compose myself, I realised I must let others know.  Leaving Karen to guard the bird, I ran off to find someone else.  In the field above I saw Ian Bullock, the RSPB Warden, fixing a sheep fince, and ran the length of the field to tell him the news.

Ian Bullock:

I looked up to see a figure pounding over the field towards me, eyes wide, hair streaming; it was Darren, who arrived almost incoherent with excitement: “We think we’ve found a reet good bird!” were his historic words.  I started the ATV and we raced back down to Capel, parked, leapt off and vaulted the wall that led to the small stream valley were Karen still sat.  Within minutes we were watching the bird, which had not moved from where it was first found. 

Keeping to the same few square metres, it moved like a Hedge Sparrow among clumps of rush, picking small insects off stems and plants in the stream bed.  Every now and again it would make a small leap a foot or so into the air to catch a passing midge, revealing then a sudden unforgettable flash of black, white and yellow on tail and rump.  Seen head on we noticed a pale buff throat and buff wash on the upper breast with fainter brown streaks.  In good light the bird appeared quite bluish above with a faint yellow patch in the middle of his crown.  All this and more were noted as the three of us watched in delight and frantically made notes and field sketches over the next hour or two. 

As conditions began to worsen, we all retired to the farmhouse and wrote and coloured in field sketches, forcing ourselves to complete our notes before we would allow ourselves to even lift a field guide.  The time came and we turned to Jonssons “Birds of Europe“.  There it was: page 543, Yellow-rumped Warbler, but what a drab version of what we had seen!  None of the vivid chrome yellow of our bird.

Discussing it amongst ourselves that evening, we could see no reason why we should not put it onto Birdline.  RSPB agreed.  The reserve had closed that day and with the bad weather over the weekend, the local ferry boats had been taken out of the water.  We contacted Shaun White of Thousand Island Expeditions, a keen bird watcher himself, with a fleet of fast rigid hull inflatables.  “Leave it to me” said Shaun.  As the phone buzzed that evening, he organised a mainland team of stewards and prepared to launch his boats.  He arrived with the first boatload of twitchers at 0900 the following morning and after an anxious hour Darren had relocated the bird in the same tiny valley. 

Our luck and the bad weather held.  Each day the bird appeared to gain in vigour and by the Friday it was holding court in Capel Bay itself, darting out from the cliff bushes like a flycatcher, snatching moths and spiders amongst the foliage and doing back flips off the cliff to snaffle passing bluebottles.  What a change from the feeble, tired individual which crept and skulked on the Monday, here was a lively, alert bird cavorting like a Grey Wagtail after insects, to delight of all who came to see it.

Folk came from all over; the record was a gentleman who left his work in Dusseldorf, flew at dawn to Heathrow and drove non-stop to Pembrokeshire.  When he arrived on the island it had just started to rain heavily and, wearing only plimsolls, he slipped and nearly went of the cliff edge.  At this point we ushered everyone back to the boats and closed the island.  The bird showed to best advantage on the Friday and left that night with a light wind from the north.  Mr Dusseldorf arrived a second time on Saturday, and was among 200 disappointed folk on the day who failed to see it.  Twice unlucky!  Ironic that that honest birders who had kept at work till the weekend all missed out on this magic bird.

Thanks to all those who helped organise the boat trips, landings and refreshments, the whole thing went like clockwork.  It is a great credit to all involved that, despite great anxiety, long queues and a high level of excitement, everyone behaved impeccably.  With two walkie-talkies, two fast boats and an island base we set up “Myrtle Control” and the airwaves were busy while “Myrtle One” radioed “Myrtle Two” for a constant update on location and ferry trips.

We took the name from the old name for the bird: the eastern race of the Yellow-rump was originally known by the lovely name of Myrtle Warbler.  It is fascinating to speculate that our bird must have been trying to fly from breeding grounds in eastern Canada to winter in either Florida or Mexico.  Even more amazing is that in the first hour while we watched it, another tiny bird dropped out of the sky and landed in the bracken not 50 metres away.  Wen it reappeared, we realised that we were looking at a Red-breasted Flycatcher, a bird that should have been en route from Russia to its wintering quarters in India.  Both are first records for Ramsey Island; each amazing, both together is incredible.  Say whatever you like about the weather in the country, it makes for great birdwatching.

Darren Woodhead and Ian Bullock.

Pembrokeshire Bird Report 1994.

More about the Yellow-rumped Warbler in Pembrokeshire