A Sardinian Warbler during lock-down
Updated: Feb 19
Ilya Maclean - 18th April 2020
April 2020 was a bit of a strange month birding wise. The whole of the UK had just gone into lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and everyone was effectively house-bound except for the odd jaunt out locally while taking daily exercise. The rules were a little ambiguous, but I’d made the decision not to drive anywhere to take my exercise. However, I figured that taking a daily walk along the coast near my house, conveniently armed with binoculars, was well within the spirit of the law, even if not strictly within the letter. I was actually quite enjoying putting in a bit of birding time around the house as I’d never really done it before. Usually, a spell of easterlies in spring would have seen me thrashing Caerthillian or other coastal migration hotspots on the Lizard rather than trying to dig out rare birds locally. It had turned out to be quite rewarding. I had recently seen a smart male Cirl Bunting in the fields not far from my house and was getting quite into garden listing. Often this involved seawatching and although I can’t see much of the sea as there are houses in the way, if I sit in the right place I can just see enough it to make it worthwhile. A fly-by Garganey had proved that.
The morning of Saturday 18th April felt really quite promising as far as local birding goes. The winds were south-easterly and had been for some time, but had dropped nicely and the sky was overcast –ideal for migrants. Spring can be all or nothing in the Lizard area and this definitely felt like a good day. I’d started the day by taking part in the “Big Garden Sit” – spending an hour in the garden trying to see has many species as possible, along with a dozen or so other local birders each doing the same from their own garden. A flyover Tree Pipit was a new garden bird for me and the first proper movement of Whimbrel was in evidence. I find their call as they pass over the house at night or early in the morning quite evocative of living on the coast in Cornwall. A few reports of redstart and the likes were coming in on the Lizard birders WhatsApp group and there was also a decent fall of phylloscs in evidence.
After taking part in the “Big Garden Sit” I decided to head out for an hour to get some ‘exercise’ (conveniently armed with bins needless to say). I was about 500m from my house by Highburrow carpark, in a spot that can be moderately good for migrants – I’ve seen yellow-browed warbler there in past. Just as a walked past the allotments I caught a very brief glimpse of a Sylvia warbler with a jet black head and clean white throat, as it flitted up a hedgerow and out of site alongside a private field. Though the views were extremely brief, Sardinian Warbler did jump to mind almost instantly. It is a bird I am quite familiar with from the Mediterranean and nothing else, or at least nothing else that wasn’t even more improbable, sprung to mind. However, my initial confidence gave way to doubt as time passed and I couldn’t relocate it. Had I just imagined the contrasting throat and head and wasn’t it nearly infinitely more likely I’d just glimpsed a Blackcap? I was mulling over what to do. Normally a I might have but a cautious message on the local WhatsApp group to enlist some help but that wasn’t really an option given COVID-19 restrictions. Nothing for it, but to keep looking I guess. Fortunately, about 30 minutes later, I heard it sing from a bush behind me and I knew I was in. There was simply nothing else it could have been based on that song! At that point, my excitement uncontainable, I decided to put it out on the local WhatsApp group. I realised it would involve a bit rule bending for anyone to twitch it, but certainly there were a few birders that could justifiably divert their daily exercise route without transgressing government advice. At that point, as I still hadn’t seen it however, I did wonder if I’d been a bit hasty putting news out. Fortunately, over the next 30 minutes I was able to get some good albeit brief views as the bird remained fairly faithful to the same bush, bar one fly-around, and called & sang frequently, showing quite well on occasion.
Later in the day I headed back to see it, this time armed with my camera. By that time the wind had picked up and it was a lot more elusive. Nevertheless, I did manage a few blurry record shots and a scratchy recording or two on my phone, and Toby who had successfully diverted is exercise managed to get some better photos. It was still nearby the next morning and eventually about half a dozen or so local birders managed to see it. Though wish I'd got some better photos, the find was certainly one of my birding highlights, particularly owing to the circumstance of the find. It would have been so easy to give up on the prospect of finding anything rare without being able to go out anywhere except locally.
A sketchy record shot of an adult male Sardinian Warbler near Porthleven on 18th Apr 2020
A sketchy phone-grabbed recording of the adult male Sardinian Warbler near Porthleven on 18th Apr 2020