After the trip to Spain, birding during the rest of April was pretty tame stuff. Out with the family on 19th we had a very loud Cuckoo calling from the gardens round Fort Saumarez. It was very close but totally invisible. On 22nd April I went up for a quick visit to Pleinmont. An excellent date for migrants one would have thought but it was empty of anything interesting, just my first local Whitethroats of the year. However, the Royal Tern had been reported from Grandes Rocques earlier in the day and I called off on the way home on the off chance it was still there a few hours later. As it usually flies off and never stays anywhere for very long, I was surprised to see it perched on the rocky promontory jutting out from by the slipway. The third year running that I had recorded it on my patch list!
The first day back at work after the Easter holidays on 24th was brightened up by a nice Pied Flycatcher in the pines at Fort Hommet, and there was also a splendid group of 11 Bar-tailed Godwits on Vazon beach the same day. Also on Vazon at this time was a very nice concentration of White Wagtails with an estimated 40 birds present on 25th. There was quite a north-westerly blow on 27th and I went for a late morning seawatch at Chouet. A bit of an unusual choice for the spring but I thought there may be the outside chance of a Pom or something surprising. In the end, I totalled just a Razorbill and 3 Manx Shearwaters. On the last day of April I had my first local Reed Warblers of the year singing at the otherwise-quiet Rue des Bergers, and also the second Sedge Warbler I’d found singing at Fort Hommet this spring. Not until 1st May did I have the first Willow Warbler this year which was a very poor show on my part.
On 2nd May I called in briefly into Pulias on the way to work for a quick check but there wasn’t much showing. Just as I was about to leave, a small group of Yellow Wagtails appeared from nowhere and were happily trotting around the stones at the top edge of the vraic pile. The first bird I put my bins on had a very dark cap and I immediately knew it was a GREY-HEADED WAGTAIL, the northern subspecies of Yellow Wagtail or a “thunbergi”. It really was a bolt out of the blue as I was not expecting anything of the sort! Unfortunately, I literally had no time at all to grill the bird as I had to dash off in the car. Another quick check through the bins and I could see that the cap was definitely not black, ruling out a feldegg and the throat was definitely yellow, ruling out an Ashy-headed, and there was no obvious supercilium present. I managed a couple of quick snaps for the record and put out the grapevine message before heading off to work. Although not a full species (therefore not a tick for anyone), this was a rare bird and only the second documented for Guernsey. The date was exactly 9 years after the first - one that me & the Sultans found on the bird race in 2010.
I didn’t even get a chance to have another look at this bird in the evening as there was a silly little parents evening to attend! However many other people had seen the bird during the day and put some better pics online. In the closer photos you can see a thin and broken supercilium present mainly on the right side of the bird and maybe a few specks on the left. I hadn’t even noticed this in the field. This may mean that the bird is a thunbergi from the southern edge of the range in Scandinavia where the northern subspecies meets the central European subspecies flava and some genetic mixing may be happening. Or it may be because the bird is showing remnants of immature or winter plumage. Or it may just be variation within the subspecies - it is not hard to find photos on the net showing thunbergi in its home breeding range with varying amounts of supercilium. Or it may be a mixture of all of these - the variation I suppose is one of the main reasons that these very differing subspecies are unlikely to be split.
The next morning I called at Pulias and tried to see the bird again. I think I remember seeing it briefly fly past but I didn’t get a good look this time either. There were still Yellow Wagtails on the beach and a different bird caught my eye. This bird was a Blue-headed Wagtail type bird with a strong white supercilium and cheek smudge. The blue colour was not very intense and had a greenish wash to it and I thought that this might be a “Channel” Wagtail which is an integrade between the flavissima and flava subspecies. The Yellow Wags certainly are a complex creed.
Finally after work on 3rd May I managed to get back to the beach and see the bird again. In the sun from some angles the head could definitely have a bluish tint to it. Another feature which is typical of thunbergi was the ‘necklace’ of green spots across the yellow breast which is rarely shown by the western European subspecies. It never managed to come close enough for detailed photos, but it probably would have done if I’d have been able to wait longer.
There was even variation amongst the normal Yellow Wagtails, the bird shown below was very pale indeed without the bright intensity of the other males, and very faint greenish head markings. It also had a bit more grey-toned back. It certainly stood out.
One thing we did for the first time during the Easter holidays was take a walk up to the top of Victoria Tower which overlooks town. You can collect a key from Candie and take a look across St. Peter Port. Aidan certainly enjoyed it.