James Lowen 


20 Oct 2017  Go-faster stripes

Having returned from a weekend in Dorset at midnight on Sunday, I was sorely tempted to return there the following morning when we heard that a Death's Head Hawk-moth had been trapped at Portland Bird Observatory. Why o why had it not arrived on one of the two previous nights? It seemed daft to return to the county so quickly, so I busied myself with work instead. On Tuesday, news broke of a Two-barred Greenish Warbler in... Dorset (where else?). For years this taxon was lumped with Greenish Warbler, so it never really tickled my fancy. I was also abroad for the only two twitchable records of modern times (I don't count Gugh, 1987, even if several of my mates saw it when spotty, nerdy teenagers). But come 1 Jan 2018, the bodes that supervise British birds will shift their taxonomy to that of the International Ornithological Congress - and that means that Two-barred Greenish is a bona fide, full-fat species. It didn't take much to decide that returning to Dorset on Weds was a sensible thing to do - even if it did take considerable cojones to negotiate my way out of the afternoon school run. On Weds morning, even while I was having breakfast, news from St Aldhem's Head was positive, so Ian and I were soon trading cars and heading southwest.

As for the Silver-striped Hawk-moth... this was aerodynamic grace itself. That absurdly long thorax and long, slender wings - this is a true aeronaut. With go-faster stripes. What a gorgeous creature. And what a brilliant afternoon. Thank you Martin Cade!

Conveniently, the Two-barred Greenish Warbler was showing upon arrival - even if oily giving brief views as it zipped around like a hyperactive shiny thing. In behaviour, it was very Greenish Warbler-like, but overall gave the impression of a large, very bright, long-tailed Yellow-browed Warbler. In photos, interestingly, it appears a little stockier, heavier-headed and thicker-billed  than it did in the field. Plumagewise, this was a lovely green and silver bird, with a long yellow super cilium (the shape of which shifted with posture, occasionally being almost Arctic Warbler-like, which might explain the bird's original identification). A long rectangular greater covert wing bar was striking, and the second (median-covert) wing bar was more prominent on the bird's right-hand side than its left. Critically, for anyone still musing on Yellow-browed Warblers, there were no white fringes to the tertials - but instead a lovely green sheen to the primaries. An absolutely cracking bird - a six-striped sprite - and definitely worth the trip.  

As we were watching the stripy gems, Will Soar texted me with news that Portland Bird Observatory had been graced by a Silver-striped Hawk-moth - a seriously rare, sexy long-distance migrant. I tweeted Martin Cade in the hope it was viewable, and we headed an hour west. Opening the Obs fridge, Martin graciously allowed us to remove and gawp at not just the Silver-striped, but also the Death's Head Hawk-moth, which had been retained since Monday. Wow. Wowza. And more wow. I've seen Death's Heads before, but they were reared from wild-found pupae, so not really the full ticket. They are big. And they squeak. They actually squeak. 

Unsurprisingly, given the scores we had at Portland on Sunday, the sycamores favoured by the warbler were also occupied by a bevy of Firecrests - at least seven birds being on view at once. A constant delight. And more go-faster stripes.