A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Cliff Swallow - Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk - MEGA!

Remember remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and…. Cliff Swallows? Not the traditional Bonfire Night rhyme but one highly fitting to this year’s date as late on Friday afternoon the mega alert buzzed once again with news of a possible Cliff Swallow seen flying around the Visitor Centre at Minsmere RSPB in Suffolk. The ID was confirmed by the time I’d walked home from work, and with the Cliff Swallow apparently going to roost on the reserve at just after 4pm, this would be our best opportunity to date to catch up with this mega American hirundine.
Cliff Swallow - Minsmere, Suffolk
Having not gone for the Scilly bird at the start of the autumn and with records of Cliff Swallows few and far between in Britain, I certainly wasn’t expecting another twitchable bird this soon, and we had everything crossed that it would stick around in to the weekend so we could connect.

News surfacing that evening of a stonking male Eyebrowed Thrush photographed earlier that day at a country park in Northumberland somewhat complicated matters however, and we soon had a tough choice on our hands as to which bird to go for. Luckily we made the right decision waiting for news the next morning, and with nothing further on the Eyebrowed Thrush and with reports filtering through that the Cliff Swallow had indeed left its roost to the delight of all those that had made the journey over for first light, it was all systems go for the 4 ½ hour trip down to Minsmere.

Arriving just after lunch with reports that miraculously the Cliff Swallow was still on site, having been delighting the crowds with aerial flybys and acrobatics overhead all morning, we rushed over the fence and up the hill of the Stone Curlew field to join the crowd of assembled birders, apprehensively eyeing the oncoming black rainclouds billowing ominously over the horizon.
Cliff Swallow Twitch - Minsmere, Suffolk
The assembled crowd...
Talking to those with scopes already set up we were met with the news that every twitcher dreads, we’d missed it by 10 minutes and the bird had disappeared off over the heath – nightmare! With the first few spots of rain hitting our cheeks, we could only hope that the heavens wouldn’t open and that the Cliff and accompanying Barn Swallows wouldn’t consequently disappear off under cover.

Thankfully though, after around 20 minutes of desperately scanning the treeline, the cry went up that we’d all been waiting for “Cliff Swallow – its back! Heading straight for us!” Searching desperately in the direction people were pointing in and frantically moving from swallow to swallow, a snatch of a pale rump cutting through the air and I had it, hurtling towards us at speed and banking over the fields just over the tips of the blades of grass. Success and relief! Incredibly, the swallow continued on its trajectory, ignoring the line of 50 or so birders in its path and swooping right in front of us at eye level, giving absolutely incredible views and proudly displaying its dark cherry red throat, pale rump and yellow-cream collar that distinguished it from the more familiar Barns.
Cliff Swallow - Minsmere, Suffolk
Minsmere, Suffolk
The line of trees at the end of the Stone Curlew field the Cliff Swallow had been favouring
Seconds later it had gone, zipping over the trees and away over the heath. Fantastic, and a great bird to grip back after September's Scilly bird was just a touch too far to travel.

Aged as a first winter, it’s highly possible that the Cliff Swallow had come in with the strong westerlies earlier in the season, perhaps on the west coast of Scotland before tracking down south and reaching the east coast, associating with the Barn Swallows and joining them on their migration southwards.

Sticking around in the hope the Cliff Swallow would return for some photos, our wishes were granted as it continued to perform right through the afternoon, never coming too low down like the earlier flyby but showing considerably well enough for some record shots as it banked overhead. Continually associating with the 8 Barn Swallows that were also present on the reserve, after getting our eye in we were soon easily able to pick it out from its counterparts, looking slightly bulkier than the Barn Swallows with shorter wings and the diagnostic square ended tail.
Cliff Swallow - Minsmere, Suffolk
With the cold getting the better of us and the light fading, we retreated to the café for a much needed bite to eat before our long journey home, getting one last look at our American vagrant as it darted around the car park as we were leaving.
Minsmere, Suffolk
Cliff Swallow - the gold at the end of the Minsmere rainbow
Sadly for those that couldn’t make it on the Saturday or put all their eggs in the no-show Eyebrowed Thrush basket, after leaving the roost very early on the Sunday morning the whole flock of hirundines were flushed by a Sparrowhawk, and despite the reappearance of the Barn Swallows later in the day, the Cliff was not amongst them and didn’t return.

With the Minsmere bird representing just the 11th record for Britain and with a distinctly Scilly based bias in terms of location (5 birds in total) this was a great bird to get back so quickly and one I definitely wasn’t expecting any time soon!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic history. I love the castle built right into the rock. The Roman bridge is amazing too. Just the fact that it’s still there!

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