Red-flanked bluetail near Marshfield – but why?!

Red-flanked bluetail near Marshfield

Red-flanked bluetail near Marshfield

There are some birds for which even the mention of their name generates a frisson of excitement. The red-flanked bluetail, which breeds in the Russian taiga but winters in SE Asia, is one such bird. The arrival of one near Marshfield (just off the A46 to Bath), announced yesterday, prompts a bunch of questions – such as “why Marshfield?!” and “why now?!”

Rare vagrants, such as the red-flanked bluetail, tend to be seen near the coast, and indeed of the 100 or so times this bird has been seen in the UK, 90% have been in the Shetlands or along the east coast – and most of the rest have been along the south coast. Moreover, 95% have been seen in the autumn, and the five others were seen between March and May – none in early February. [ref]

So – did it arrive last autumn, perhaps having been blown off course – and then, having found Marshfield a perfectly acceptable wintering area, stayed put, only now being spotted by a keen birder? Or did it decide to get an early start to breeding in the taiga, but was thwarted by the weird weather of the last couple of weeks? If only we could understand bluetail-speak… Nevertheless, these same questions have baffled other birders (eg here and here) but the consensus is that it’s the first bluetail to have over-wintered in the UK.

It was hardly surprising that news of its arrival attracted a horde of birdwatchers to the Shire Valley. Allegedly a shy species, this one was very showy, flitting up and down the Broadmead Brook, just a few feet away from eager birdwatchers on the opposite side of the stream.

There’s a lovely article by its discoverer, John Barnett, here.

Red-flanked bluetail near Marshfield

Red-flanked bluetail near Marshfield

Red-flanked bluetail near Marshfield

Red-flanked bluetail near Marshfield

Red flanked bluetail near Marshfield, Friday

Red flanked bluetail near Marshfield, Friday

As it happened, I had curate training in Salisbury at the weekend, which meant that I was able to pass by there again on the way there and back. What was conspicuously apparent was that the bluetail’s behaviour had changed.

On the Tuesday, it had been hopping along the side of the stream, often on either the fenceposts or the ground, and sometimes on brambles or branches. It ranged about 100 metres along the stream.

Red-flanked bluetail - fanning its tail. It tended to wag its tail in a way reminiscent of a redstart.

Red-flanked bluetail – fanning its tail. It tended to wag its tail in a way reminiscent of a redstart.

On both Friday and Sunday, it spent most of the time fairly deeply inside a shrub, occasionally briefly flitting down to a small mound on the ground below, and sometimes flying to the next shrub along. That was it – and it never frequented the streamside. Whereas earlier it had seemed confident and almost oblivious to the assembled birdwatchers, spending significant amounts of time in fairly exposed areas, now it seemed anxious and unwilling to spend more than a minimal amount of time away from the two shrubs.

Owing to the geography of the area – the footpath runs alongside the bank of the stream, and there is an adjacent steep slope – the birdwatchers (including myself) tended to be much closer to the bird than would be normal. To my eyes at least it appears that the bird has been adversely affected by the hordes of birdwatchers.

Red flanked bluetail near Marshfield, Friday

Red flanked bluetail near Marshfield, Friday

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