On the subject of out of the way vagrants - a European twitching first

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Subject: On the subject of out of the way vagrants - a European twitching first
From: knightl <>
Date: Tue, 7 Sep 2004 16:54:05 +1000

Twitchers flock to the Hebrides for first glimpse of US swallow for first time

By Brian Unwin
07 September 2004

It's twitch time again. Hundreds and possibly thousands of birdwatchers were on their way to the remotest corner of Britain yesterday after the discovery of a type of bird not previously recorded in Britain or Europe.

Twitchers flocked to the Outer Hebrides to see a purple martin, an American swallow never before seen on this side of the North Atlantic, which turned up at the Hebrides' extreme northern tip - the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis.

The bird, an immature, is believed to have been blown off course across the Atlantic - probably by the recent series of hurricanes - while migrating from eastern Canada or the USA to spend the winter in Brazil.

The martin was spotted on Sunday afternoon, and by yesterday morning the first twitchers were arriving on the island of Lewis by plane: all scheduled flights into Stornoway airport were full, and other birders arrived on chartered light aircraft. By midday, all hire cars had gone and the ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne was said to have been "inundated" with requests for tickets on its ferry services to Lewis from Uig in Skye and Ullapool on the mainland.

One of the first to reach the lighthouse was Steve Gantlett, editor of the magazine Birding World and co-author of Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland, who travelled from his home at Cley, north Norfolk.

He said: "As a long-distance migrant nesting in eastern North America, purple martin has always been a species we hoped might find its way to Europe, but it's still remarkable that one has finally made it. The hurricanes on the American side must have caused much disruption to autumn migration."

The Lewis bird is only a few months old, and it has almost certainly come from someone's back garden in America as a growing shortage of natural sites means the vast majority rely on people to provide nest boxes. As the species is a communal breeder, many of the million-plus Americans who provide accommodation erect what are known as "purple martin condos" - providing space for up to 24 pairs. There are two American organisations devoted to the species, the Purple Martin Conservation Association, and the Purple Martin Society.

Thrush-sized, and much larger than other swallow family members recorded in Europe and America, the Lewis bird puzzled the trio of naturalists - Mark Wetheril, Torcuil Grant and Shaun Coyle - who were the first to spot it. But when they phoned Martin Scott, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds official based in the Outer Hebrides, and described it, he realised it was a purple martin, which he had seen before in the US. "It took me 10 minutes to reach the lighthouse and I was delighted to see that's exactly what it was - and in a state of shock over the fact I was looking at a species totally new to Europe," Mr Scott said.

At present there are 567 species of birds officially accepted by the British Ornithologists' Union as having been seen in Britain. Several other records of "firsts" are awaiting ratification. They include a taiga flycatcher from Siberia and a black lark from central Asia.

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