The following weekend saw me enjoy the second calendar-year Pallid Harrier and juvenile Red-breasted Goose at Warham Greens. That day I checked Brent flocks west of Warham as well, but sadly didn't come across the adult Red-breasted Goose that Mike Buckland found a couple of days later (making a good week for him, as he also found the harrier). No worries: Stuart White and I decided to make amends by searching Winterton and Horsey for a Pallid Swift instead. Five Swallows fighting against the wind were a good sign, but we didn't think to check Winterton village itself, which of course was to host a Pallid Swift a couple of days later. Do you see a pattern emerging here? I am RUBBISH at finding rare birds. The plan is right, but the execution dire. Anyhow, I caught up with the Pallid Swift a few days later. Very enjoyable it was too - and at the time of writing, it is still present, presumably finding enough insects to stick around, but not enough to power migration back south.
The day after an unsuccessful (and very wet; I fell b*lls-deep into a flood) twitch for Rich Moores' Penduline Tit (full credit to him for trying How Hill Fen for the species across several years), another friend, Howard Vaughan, found a drake Canvasback at Abberton Reservoir. Having seen the Welney bird in 1997, I didn't rush for it but waited a few days before popping down and see it. By that time, Rich Moores had found another drake Canvasback at Flixton in Suffolk, which generated widespread appreciation that up to six formerly captive birds might be roaming the East Anglian countryside. Even if it lacks bling, the Abberton bird is thus distinctly tainted with the whiff of wire, and - I suspect - won't make it past BBRC into category A. Nevertheless, it was fun playing Where's Wally? with it amid a seething mass of frantically feeding Pochard.
I confess to doing a spot or two of twitching over the past three weeks, which is rather unlike me. I've combined it with attempts at bird-finding (which is more like me), but those have been woefully unsuccessful. On returning from the family break in Cornwall (which coincided with Upland Sandpiper and Azores Gull), I nipped down to Kent to rectify a mistake I made 22 years ago, when I had phased from UK birding - and consequently dipped the Rye Meads Solitary Sandpiper by ten minutes. Although a major rarity, this is a species I know well from South America, so isn't something for which I would trek to Cornwall or Scilly. But when one turned up at Stodmarsh, and seemed to be a little bit more reliable ('try the pool on the Lampen Wall or the pools past Tower Hide', I was advised) it seemed too good an opportunity to miss, particularly as I hadn't been to the reserve for 15 years and could do with a. refresher ahead of its inclusion in a new book I'm sketching out. I saw the Tringa - but by the skin of my teeth, and only thanks to a message from Owen Leyshon, who alerted me to its arrival at the Lampen Wall pool, while I had wandered off to check the Tower Hide pools. It stayed ten minutes, then vanished high to the south-east and didn't return before work was calling my name. Remarkably, this was my 10th UK tick of 2023 - the first time I've reached double figures in a year for as long as I can recall. Shame the photo is rubbish.
To be frank, I am really not sure. I can't see it being currucua or blythi. But, despite the call, it doesn't seem quite right for classic halimodendri either (the mantle seems too pale, the bill too small). Just possibly minulamight be a better fit, but seems implausible (and the boundaries in external characteristics between it and halimodendri too diffuse). If only this 'young Turk' would do a poo in public...
On the way home, we had the choice between stopping for a fry-up or having a crack at the long-staying interesting Lesser Whitethroat at Landguard, found by Will Brame and thought to be of the Turkestan/Central Asian subspecies halimodendri. Tummies rumbling, we opted for the latter - and it was a very good mood. This lovely bird was alternately skulking and very showy; even dropping to the ground to feed with regularity, and tail dipping like a Chiffchaff. It was noticeably small for a Lesser Whitethroat, with a large head, short wings and long tail - reminding me in jizz more of a Spectacled or Subalpine Warbler than a Lesserthroat.
Identification of the Lesser Whitethroat complex is, to quote Nick Brown's very useful blog, "well, complex". Indeed, as Nick continues, it "is a nightmare". As yet, no DNA has been collected: nobody has seen the bird crap yet, and the Observatory team have not trapped it, presumably because the bird favours the Common rather than the Fort, where the ringing compound is. And without DNA, it seems there will be no definitive answer. On jizz alone (diminutive, tiny bill, short-winged, long-tailed, big-headed), it really doesn't look like any blythi or curruca I have seen. Throw in the mantle coloration, chestnut-toned iris and almost entirely white outer tail feather, and I can't see it being either of those two taxa. Disconcertingly, the large-headed jizz and ground-feeding inclination rings bells for what I once understood to be (old-school) minula; additionally, Shirihai and Svensson imply the tiny bill, extensively white outer tail feather and sandy back might be good for that taxon. But minula now is thought a very range-restricted taxon and, witering only in India/Pakistan, an unlikely vagrant to compass points west. Moreover, minula and halimodendri look very similar. And yet one birder familiar with halimodendri from the Middle East is far from convinced that this looks like one (although admits that he is currently going solely from photos). So what is this candidate young Turk?
I got a couple of blurred shots of the outstretched wing, but this hasn't helped overly with the wing formula. With thanks to Jack Morris, p2 appears to be roughly equal to p6 or p7 (but not p8 as is sometimes the case in halimodendri, per Shirihai & Svensson's Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds), but this could fit any of the subspecies, and it isn't possible to judge whether there is any emargination on p6.
It had a tiny, fine bill, a chestnut-brown iris and only the vaguest sense of darker ear coverts in a few photos. The upper parts were a pallid sandy-brown, not contrasting with the crown, with a greyish hue (perhaps not sandy or brown enough for classic halimodendri?), with a prominent dark alula being the most remarkable feature on an otherwise essentially concolorous wing. Unlike on blythi, there was no sense of a brown mantle extending up the nape onto the rear crown. The other tail feather looked almost entirely white (with just a greyish streak on the inner web, towards the base, like this halimodendri from Abu Dhabi), and there was an indistinct white tip to t5. The breast, flanks and belly were slightly sullied buff-grey, leaving a slightly more contrasting (but not isolated) white throat and vent/undertail coverts. The bird called once (not taped): a very Blue Tit like rattle that, to my ears, sounded identical to this bird from North Ronaldsay, whose DNA confirmed it as halimodendri. When I've heard blythi rattle, it has been harsher and of longer duration. Interestingly, Peter Kennerley recorded what might (and only might) be the Landguard bird giving a Common Sandpiper-like call. I can't find any reference to any Lesser Whitethroat taxon giving such a call.