Red-rumped swallow!

I don’t normally check the bird websites in the week as I don’t have the opportunity to go for anything that turns up, but yesterday evening was so pleasant that at 7.15pm I logged on to www.deeestuary.co.uk, the best site for notes on Wirral bird sightings. Highlighted in bold letters were the words ‘RED-RUMPED SWALLOW’. For a second I didn’t take in the rest of the sentence but scrolling down the entry ended ‘still present at6.40pm’. I then needed to know – where was it? Answer – Leasowe lighthouse, about a mile from my house.

I don’t reaally do twitching now but this was a chance I could not miss. I almost ran home, located the wife and told (not asked) her I was going out. Stopping only to pick up notebook, coat, binoculars and telescope, I left the driveway, reversing a bit quicker than usual. I cursed the traffic lights for changing to red and my foot shuddered on the accelerator. Within 10 minutes I was parking at the lighthouse.

Walking quickly down the main path towards the horse paddocks I expectantly looked at all the swallows – dark rumps and chin with white tail spots on all. As soon as I reached a viewpoint I climbed the embankment and looked for the birdwatchers. There were none! Walking along a few yards I looked again – still none. Drat!! Negative thoughts crept in, maybe the bird had gone. If I was going to see it I would have to find it myself.

Around the horse stables there were clouds of hirundines. 15 minutes spent searching through these revealed about equal numbers of barn swallow and house martin, but nothing else. I walked round to the end of the public footpath along the back of the paddocks. Here two birders were searching over tall grasses and buttercups but had not seen the bird. They did indicate that this was the area where it had been seen, which was progress of sorts.

Large numbers of swallows were still skimming the meadow and these were scrutinised repeatedly. After another 15 minutes there was still no sign, but by then some house martins had appeared. Just on the off chance I searched higher amongst these martins. After a couple more minutes another hirundine passed through the binoculars – dull plumage, pale rump and tail streamers!!! Almost before thinking I exclaimed ‘I’ve got it!!’, hurredly pointing to the bird and describing its position (it’s the closest bird!). My two companions got straight onto it.

The first impression was of a dull hirundine, in fact a dull house martin but with a swallow’s tail. The plumage was far less contrasting than that of either swallow or house martin. The underparts and rump were buff, I even quipped that it should be called ‘buff-rumped swallow’ rather than red-rumped. As it turned the pale buff chin was obvious and a thin, rusty collar was seen. The characteristic dark undertail coverts were also clear. The tail lacked white tail spots, in contrast to the barn swallows where these were obvious.

When the evening sun emerged from behind a cloud, the plumage came to life! The buff plumage changed to orange (never really red). Even the underwing coverts, which until then had appeared just a dull dusky colour, showed a hint of orange and the collar became deep amber.

After half an hour the bird flew behind a group of trees and was lost. It was now8.20pm. Walking back to the car I kept playing this bird over and over in my head. I was almost oblivious to the singing warblers and breeding lapwing I was passing. Now was not a time for considering the wider habitat issues here, it was time to savour a special moment: a bird I have never seen in Britain in over 30 years of observing. I am not going to think any deeper about this, just enjoy the experience.

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