Minsmere: A first for me & a 1st for Britain

Where already 8 months into 2016 and so far this year MEGAS have been pouring into Britain & Ireland at an unprecedented level: Greater Sandplover (1st for Ireland), Little Shearwater, Black-billed Cuckoo, Short-toed Eagle, 2 Fea’s Petrel, American White-winged Scoter (2nd for Britain), Black-eared Wheatear, Rufous Turtle Dove, 2 White-crowned Sparrow (5th & 6th for Britain), Great Spotted Cuckoo, Western Sandpiper, Dalmatian Pelican (1st for Britain), Black-browed Albatross, Lammergeier (1st for Britain), Green Warbler (2nd for Britain), Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Tufted Puffin (2nd for Britain), Great Knot and 2 Semipalmated Sandpiper (7th & 8th for Ireland) to name but a few of the show stopping birds. Lammergeier and Dalmatian Pelican are both first for Britain (if accepted) and well surly there should be a third first for Britain to round it off? Well on the 31st of July at the world renowned RSPB Minsmere (@RSPBMinsmere) in Suffolk, such a bird was discovered, Purple Swamphen!

When news of the bird first came out there was an instant heated debate in the Young Birders Chat on Twitter – Plastic Fantastic or Real Deal? I took the side of real deal as for starters it was at Minsmere, a classic site for MEGA’s (Lesser Kestrel, Siberian Blue Robin, Alpine Accentor, Sociable Lapwing ,and Audouin’s Gull to name a few), unringed, fully capable of flying with a full set of wing feathers, there population is expanding northwards and there had been previous and recent records of birds appearing much further north than there typical Mediterranean range, including a bird at Brittany in Northern France just a few days before, one day after it was found a Cattle Egret also turned up at Minsmere, the UK recently has seen an influx of Painted Lady’s from the continent (summer migrant), late summer is when Mediterranean water birds start to disperse from their breeding grounds as they dry up, along with that the Minsmere bird is of the Western race of Purple Swamphen, which is found in and around the Mediterranean. All of the evidence is pointing towards a genuine bird! What caught my attention was that the bird had been photographed using its feet to pull up vegetation to eat the nurturance rich bottom parts; as I’m aware it’s only a feature which only wild birds have!

With a very strong candidate for a 1st for Britain and wanting to add a few goodies to life list and reach 250 (my new year target), it was time to find a lift down to RSPB Minsmere. After some asking about (mots local twitches had already seen it), I eventually got a lift down with friend and fellow North West birder Austin Morley (@austinmorley402). Together after 4hrs of driving across the stretch of England from Cheshire to Suffolk and after getting a little lost, we finally found our way to RSPB Minsmere.

Minsmere - The Golf Ball_edited-1
The iconic “golf-ball” which can be seen from anywhere at Minsmere
Minsmere - Little Egret_edited-1
Whilst waiting for the Swamphen these Little Egrets gave

After we’d eventually found the car par and got directions to the location of the “Western” Purple Swamphen, we off set through the surprisingly rather humid climate down to the South Hide. As it so happens the Swamphen was on the same pool that last year a Black-browed Albatross made a brief appearance on! As Austin and I made our way round to the hide sweating like mad it wasn’t long till the crowd of twitches came into view. Sadly we just missed good friend Ellis Lucas (@ellisethanfox) who came all the way from York to get his 296 Lifer, this would be just my 247 lifer and for Austin his 324.

Minsmere - Austin Morley_edited-1
Mr Morley eyeing up the UK’s 1st Purple Swamphen if it gets accepted

When we got to pool we saw the bird instantly without using camera or scope! Easiest twitch for a MEGA I’d ever been on! But it then sank back into the reeds and couldn’t be located. We’d seen the bird (primary target), but we weren’t going to leave until we’d managed to get at least one record shot of it; a potential UK first, why wouldn’t you want a shot of it! Then it began, the waiting game…After a good half hour the moorhen on steroids slowly began to appear on and off, teasing us every minute or so with either its arse or leg. But then the wait finally came to an end and it showed; without a care in the world it strolled right out into the open and the crowd all let out a rather soothing “oooooo”.

Minsmere - Western Purple Swamphen (1st for Britain)_edited-1
A day, a bird and an image I’ll never forget
Minsmere - Western Purple Swamphen_edited-1
Not something you say everyday, “I’ve seen Purple Swamphen in the UK”

Austin and I whipped out our cameras as well as everyone else around and just went trigger happy; firing away just praying for something decent to use on our blogs. The lighting was horrific so our ISO had to be wacked right up as well having a small aperture to allow as much light in as possible. That was all well and good for photographing the Swamphen, but when a Bittern decided to make a flyby the setting were to complete opposite end of the scale to what you would have wanted for it. As you can I was less than pleased with the result.

Minsmere - Bittern_edited-1
Bittern making a flyby over the massive Reed Bed that Minsmere has

 As it was now coming up to an hour that we’d spent at Minsmere it was time to start making our way back to car ready for the 4hr drive back to Cheshire. But, before we did Austin had been informed that over on the North Wall (other side of reserve), a family of Stone Curlew were showing well along with some Wolf-Bees. Don’t know about you but Wolf-Bee sounds a hell of a lot more gripping than Stone Curlew! After a brisk walk round to the viewing site with the heavens now opening above us, we had rather mixed understanding on what was meant by “showing well”; showing well as in rather close and could get decent shots or showing well as in there only viewable via a scope but were in the open?  With the pair of us being fairy optimistic after the success of the Swamphen we were thinking yes, they’ll be rather close as in the past we’d both had the classic view of Stone Curlew…a dot. This occasion was no different apart from that this time we were able to catch a glimpse of a rather rare sight, a Stone Curlew chick. With roughly 5mins spent watching the Stonies chasing off Curlews and feeding the chick, it was then time to say fair well to RSPB Minsmere and head off back to Cheshire.

Minsmere - Western Purple Swamphen & Mallard_edited-1
Western Purple Swamphen compared to Mallard, what a beast!!!
Minsmere - Stone Curlew_edited-1
Spot the Stone Curlew

With Chinese Pond Heron being accepted by the BOURC onto the British List, I think it’s safe to say that Minsmere’s “Western” Purple Swamphen will get accepted putting my UK List onto 247. In addition it’ll be my 30th lifer this year, yes feel free to call me a twitcher I admit it. The Purple Chicken also places me just 3 off my end of year target of 250. With trips to Flamborough, Bardsey, Spurn and Cornwall this year as well twitching whatever turns up it’s now not a matter of if, but when will I hit the 250 barrier.

Many thanks to Ben Moyes – Moysie’s Birding Blog – for allowing me to feature his image of the Western Purple Swamphen as my header.

Thanks for reading,

Elliot

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