Once we hit mid-October, it feels a lot ‘rarer’ here on the island. The winter migrants become more obvious after the slight slow-down at the start of the month, and anticipation levels increase. I went up to Pleinmont for a quick run round on the next available Saturday (13th Oct) and had really good views of a Yellow-browed Warbler feeding below me from my favourite seat above Pezeries Wood. There were also 4 Firecrests in the area but variety was lacking.
Back at work on Monday 15th October, I checked my phone just before lunch and there was a message that Wayne and Mark had just had a possible Pallid Swift flying round Pleinmont! Late swifts are catnip to rarity hunters and we’d had a few in Guernsey before, but we had never been able to turn any into Pallids. This was not good timing however, as I was busy with something else at lunchtime - plus, with roadworks, Pleinmont was a bit tricky to get to in such a short time - and also I had a goddam staff meeting after school! Swifts are not known for sitting for ages in fields or bushes and do a bunk at a drop of a hat. There was a long day ahead of me before having the chance of looking for it.
Keeping an eye on the messages from Wayne, the bird was still present over lunchtime and early afternoon which was encouraging. One or two of the photographers had taken a few decent photos and he was pretty sure that the bird was going to be eventually ID’d as a Pallid. I was chomping at the bit to get there but was still stuck at school. When I finally got in the car, at approaching 4:30, I checked my messages to see that the swift hadn’t been seen since 2:15. Oh bum! I considered whether to leave it and just drive home for a cup of tea after a knackering day at work, but decided not to be so part-time and drove the opposite direction to Pleinmont to try and re-find the bugger myself.
When I arrived on the headland, there were still some birders looking for the bird from its original spot near La Societe fields but there was no sign still - it had now gone missing for two and a half hours. I decided to walk back to the Scramble Track area so I could climb up onto the high mounds so I could get a wider vista in case the bird was feeding further away. Wayne came with me and we scanned and scanned but there was no joy. The conditions were really cloudy and dull with very few birds flying around. Then I noticed a small group of distant hirundines feeding low down behind the pines by the Vau de Monel, and as I was watching them, I thought I saw a larger bird briefly swoop through them. I mentioned this to Wayne and after a while we saw it again and then again and we were convinced it was a swift.
We jumped in the cars and drove down there and running through the trees we suddenly were watching the PALLID SWIFT right above us at close range. Oh yiss!! A new British* tick for me! The bird stayed for the half-hour or so I was there, feeding in the valley above Pezeries Bay with hirundines and gave lots of close views. As it was so very dull and dark so we couldn’t make out any colouration in the field, never mind any pallidity, but this bird seemed quite distinctive as it flew around. As can be seen on the photo below, the wing-tips were really rounded for a swift, incredibly so. The wings did not appear like the sharply-pointed wings of a swift usually do but a bit paddle-shaped. A common feature stated for Pallid Swift is the more rounded wing tips. The bird looked so structurally-distinct and actually quite small compared to the hirundines, and I started thinking it might be something else entirely - maybe Cape Verde Swift or some African species! - stranger things have happened. I even tried to look at other species on the internet when I got home but I struggled to find any useful ID resources.
In the photo below, you can just make out the pale head with dark eye shadow standing out against the rest of the head. There does not seem to be much clear white on the bird’s face. The throat patch and forehead patch weren’t distinct at all and we could see nothing in the field.
Even in the dark conditions the photo below shows that the plumage was pretty pale for a swift. The darkest part of the upperwing appears to be the outer primaries which is good for Pallid. The body is quite chunky and broad.
A notable feature was the pale ‘comma’ marks on the leading edge of the wing by the outer greater coverts. I read somewhere that this might be a possible feature for Pallid. (On the better photos I saw, this appears to be caused by very worn feathers in that area perhaps?). On the pics below, note that the tail fork is not very deep.
I tried to take a video of the bird and managed to catch it a few times. However, no doubt because it was so fast, the frame rate of the video couldn’t keep up with it and so on many parts of the video it looks like there are two birds flying together! Next time I am trying to video a speedy bird I’ll have to reset the camera to super-fast setting, which I think it can do.
So I was really chuffed to see this bird because I had written it off as gone and I nearly didn’t bother. Shows you that it is worth giving things a go. To top off a fabulous evening on the headland, as I drove back across Pleinmont, a superb Barn Owl flew right in front of the car and landed on a nearby stone! Superb stuff.
Conditions the next morning looked pretty good for migrants and I had a quick look at the Fort Hommet pines before work. First bird that popped up was a Sylvia warbler and it soon revealed itself to be a classy Lesser Whitethroat, which was a new bird for me on my patch. Lesser Whitethroats are increasingly scarce autumn migrants on the island, probably because they head SE rather than South at this time of year, and it is a while since I have seen one. Any mid to late October Lesser Whitethroats that turn up are thought to be from much further east rather than the UK but there aren’t many in-the-field ID features for these birds to be sure. Managed some reasonable pics in the dim early morning light.
The next opportunity to get out in the field was Friday lunchtime when I checked the fields up at Rue des Hougues, Castel. My first two Lapwings of the winter were resting in the stubble field and a few Redwings flew overhead. On the way home there was a Black Redstart on the roof of the last house at Rousse so things were definitely arriving.
With the quality mid-week I was itching to get back out on Pleinmont headland and I went up there Saturday 21st for the morning. It was really good up there and it felt like there something rare to be found but its a large area to cover for a small band of birders. The seed fields by the tower were becoming full of birds and there were now at least 15 Reed Buntings feeding in there. This is easily the largest flock of this species I have ever seen in Guernsey. Goes to show that if there is proper food resources for migrants, they will stick around. Migrant finches included a few Siskin and at least 2 Brambling passing over amongst small flocks of Chaffinch. Small numbers of Skylark liked the very bare dirt field at Mont Herault and were very briefly joined by a Water Pipit, likely the one that was seen a few days ago. As I had a little time, I called at La Prevote on the way back - probably my favourite little valley on the south coast. The first bird I saw looking down into the valley was another Lesser Whitethroat. It may have been the sunny weather but it looked very, very pale. Unfortunately I couldn’t see it again but I could hear some calls from deep in the brambles. A really enjoyable morning out in the field but still no rarities found - 2018 has been a lean year so far for finding my own stuff.
I managed one moth trapping session in this period - on Friday night, the 19th - and it was superb. A nice selection of late autumn species included 3 crackers. The classy-looking migrant, Palpita vitrealis which I’ve only had in two other previous years, a Green-brindled Crescent with its emerald frosting which I have not caught for more than 15 years and so is a new one for the garden, and a well-overdue new species for me that I have been expecting for years, a Yellow-line Quaker.