Bird report is another feather in the cap for Suffolk

Western (Purple) Swamphen at Minsmere - a 'first' for Britain - by Bill Baston

Western (Purple) Swamphen at Minsmere - a 'first' for Britain - by Bill Baston - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s latest annual bird report - Suffolk Birds 2016 - illustrates the huge importance of the county for birds, and for birders.

Forster's Tern by Jeff Higgott - a 'first' for Suffolk

Forster's Tern by Jeff Higgott - a 'first' for Suffolk - Credit: Archant

What an unforgettable year 2016 was for Suffolk’s birding community - and for the hundreds of observers lured from all over Britain by a succession of rarities that triggered many a mass twitch in the star-studded 12 months.

Memories of the astonishing avian action are stirred in the newly published Suffolk Birds 2016, which tells the stories behind the discoveries of no less than five birds that had never before been recorded in the county - notwithstanding some tricky taxonomical tussles over the species status of two of them - and one of 2016’s “famous five” was even a “first” for Britain.

The report recounts some ornithological detective work to ascertain difficult identifications - and the subsequent breathless dashes by birders desperate to see the rare wandering waifs that winged their way to the county from distant, far-flung lands and from all points of the compass.

Such a procession of extreme rarities grabbed the ornithological headlines in 2016 - but the report also reveals the vast amount of less eyecatching but arguably even more important research carried out by the more scientifically minded members of Suffolk’s huge birding community into the lives of more familiar species.

Cliff Swallow - a 'first' for Suffolk - at Minsmere by Peter Ransome and Steve Abbott

Cliff Swallow - a 'first' for Suffolk - at Minsmere by Peter Ransome and Steve Abbott - Credit: Archant

To tweak a well-worn media phrase, all birding life is here in the 218 pages of an impressively produced report which is published by the Suffolk Naturalists’ Society and compiled by the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group.

Heading the headline-grabbers is the adult western (purple) swamphen - the first of its kind to be recorded in the UK - which attracted hundreds of birders to RSPB Minsmere between July 31 and August 5, before it moved to Lincolnshire. Found by a visitor to Suffolk, Frank Clark, any early suspicions of the bird being an escapee from captivity quickly evaporated when it became clear the bizarre-looking individual was indeed a “western”, and therefore, a feasible migrant. It showed no signs of having been captive - and, on the Continent, there was an unprecedented northward movement of the species under way from their usual range in southern France, Portugal and Spain.

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From much further afield came a gull that presented a monumental identification challenge. Experienced ornithologist and gull enthusiast Brian Small, of Reydon, near Southwold, found an adult Thayer’s gull on RSPB Minsmere’s Scrape on March 27, but it took forensic, feather-by-feather observation to clinch it as one. Also seen the next day, the gull, from the high Canadian Arctic, drew hundreds of admirers - but they cannot count it as a full species as world authorities have subsequently declared Thayer’s gull to be a subspecies of the much commoner, but in Suffolk still scarce, Iceland gull.

Taxonomic issues have also surrounded the status of another species represented in 2016 as a Suffolk “first” - a Stejneger’s stonechat was ringed and released at Landguard Bird Observatory, near Felixstowe, after being found by local birders Paul Holmes and Ernie Lucking. Now considered a full species, whose range stretches from Lake Baikal across eastern Siberia and northern China to the Pacific and Japan, the Landguard bird delighted hundreds of twitchers on October 6 and 7, and was only Britain’s second record.

Thayer's Gull montage from Minsmere, by Jeff Higgott

Thayer's Gull montage from Minsmere, by Jeff Higgott - Credit: Archant

The shock Suffolk birders Steve Piotrowski and Eric Patrick felt when they found the county’s first American cliff swallow at RSPB Minsmere on November 4 is evident from Mr Piotrowski’s account in the report. An entirely unexpected Suffolk “first”, and only the 11th for the UK, the transatlantic traveller was watched by hundreds of twitchers and was last seen on November 6.

The final member of Suffolk’s “famous five” of 2016 was a transatlantic tern - a Forster’s tern was suspected on November 19 off Mistley Quay, just over the county border in Essex. It was subsequently confirmed by Essex birder Adrian Kettle and Suffolk observers were grateful that the bird often crossed the border to frequent their county the next day. It then flew deeper into Suffolk, being seen at Felixstowe Ferry on November 21.

Suffolk ornithology is about far more than rarities, however, and Suffolk Birds 2016 certainly confirms that.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Lackford Lakes site, near Bury St Edmunds, has gained a justifiable reputation as one of East Anglia’s key nature reserves for its range of species, the educational work the trust carries out there, and its visitor facilities. Local naturalists Mike Andrews and Colin Jakes know the reserve intimately and write informatively about its 30-year history. A British Trust for Ornithology bird-ringing study has been running at the reserve for 25 years and Mr Jakes, with Alex Lack, Malcolm Wright and Peter Lack, outline its intense research in a major paper in the report.

Stejneger's Stonechat at Landguard Bird Observatory, by Paul Oldfield

Stejneger's Stonechat at Landguard Bird Observatory, by Paul Oldfield - Credit: Archant

The “firsts” for Suffolk take centre stage in the report, but the document contains an immense amount of information about all the species recorded during 2016 and emphasises yet again how important the county is in ornithological terms. Most other counties would envy Suffolk’s wide range of resident and migratory species and the rich array of habitats in which they can be found.

There is a sad poignancy about the report in one respect, however. Alongside all the “firsts” there may well be a “last”. The report records a willow tit being present at Lakenheath Fen from March 23 to April 3. It was ringed and photographed during its stay and the report includes a picture of it - it may well be the last ever taken in Suffolk of a species teetering on the very brink of local extinction.

Suffolk Birds 2016 is edited by Nick Mason and is priced at £10. It can be obtained from outlets that include RSPB Minsmere and The Museum, High Street, Ipswich IP1 3QH.

Willow Tit being ringed at Lakenheath Fen - will this be the last to be seen in Suffolk? Picture: LE

Willow Tit being ringed at Lakenheath Fen - will this be the last to be seen in Suffolk? Picture: LEE GREGORY - Credit: Archant

The cover of Suffolk Birds 2016, featuring a painting by Suffolk ornithologist Brian Small of the Am

The cover of Suffolk Birds 2016, featuring a painting by Suffolk ornithologist Brian Small of the American cliff swallow at RSPB Minsmere in November of the year under review. - Credit: Contributed

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