Green Heron | The RSPB

Expect the unexpected

Nature is nothing if not unpredictable and Big Garden Birdwatch is no exception. Join RSPB birder Jenny Shelton as she takes a look at the rare and unusual birds that have made their way into people’s gardens and sometimes the Birdwatch.

Surprising sightings

One of the joys – and equally one of the frustrations – of birdwatching is that you never know for certain what might be out there when you pick up your binoculars, whether you’re out there looking for birds or gazing out of a window while eating your cereal. I had a huge thrill this year when I spotted something I’d never seen before in my garden: a black redstart. It was only there for a moment, before it was gone. I love how birds can take you completely by surprise.

What might this mean for the Birdwatch?

Autumn 2020 saw a bumper crop of unusual migrants, from the rufous-tailed scrub robin to the influx of red-flanked blue tails along the East Coast. Now, as Big Garden Birdwatch approaches, who can say they aren’t hoping something interesting might blow in during that last weekend in January?

With that in mind, let’s look back over some of the rare birds which have turned up in gardens in recent years…

Thrush hour

A woman on a quiet residential estate in the Cotswolds got a bit of a surprise when the strange bird in her garden turned out to be a blue rock thrush, seen only a couple of times before in the UK, triggering a big twitch in 2016. Some of you have been lucky enough to get a black-throated thrush in your gardens during the winter months. And it’s worth keeping an eye on those redwings in case it’s actually a dusky thrush, like the one caught on film in Derbyshire in 2016.

Just recently, in October 2020, there was a White’s thrush seen in a garden in Orkney: a really striking bird, with its bold, scaly plumage. What a find!

Green heron | The RSPB

American beauties

Many of you may remember the slate-coloured junco that spent a couple of days in a garden in the Scottish Borders in spring 2017, only the eighth record for the UK. And in 2015, a family garden near Dungeness became the sight of an Acadian flycatcher twitch!

And birders the UK-over were green with envy when a man in Pembrokeshire spotted a green heron lurking in his garden while he was mowing the lawn in 2018.

Two schoolchildren hit the birding jackpot when they recorded a yellow-rumped warbler as part of their Big Garden Birdwatch in 2014. Finder Emily Power, 12 at the time, said: “We saw a small bird with a flash of yellow and couldn’t figure out what it was, even when we looked at our chart of what to expect. Our Mum took a picture and showed it to expert RSPB staff at the Saltholme reserve who identified it as a yellow-rumped warbler, we were shocked that such a rare bird would come to our normal garden in Co Durham.”

Emily and her brother nicknamed their rare guest “flora butterbum”.

In 2020, another Big Garden Birdwatcher had a Siberian lesser whitethroat in their Essex garden, nibbling at their bird feeder. And looking to the east, in 2016 an oriental turtle dove delighted one Kent birder who got some cracking views of the shy bird from his house.

Not rares, but who cares?

“A single brambling for about 30 seconds” is the reigning highlight of one birder’s Big Garden Birdwatch in the Peak District, when I put out an ask for best sightings on Twitter. We can’t all get slate-coloured juncos or dusky thrushes, but it’s always a good day when you see a brambling. The arrival of overwintering finches coincides nicely with Big Garden Birdwatch, so if you live somewhere rural or semi-rural there’s always the chance of one before they head back to Scandinavia or Russia.

Other folk have seen woodcocks, nightjars and wrynecks in their various gardens throughout the year, again not “mega” material but who doesn’t want those on their garden list? And whether or not it’s a “waxwing winter”, there’s bound to be a few of those guys on Big Garden Birdwatch lists around the country this year, as in most years.

Woodcock | The RSPB

What will you see this Big Garden Birdwatch?

UK gardens are thought to cover a total area bigger than all the UK’s nature reserves combined. They are vital habitats for all sorts of wildlife, so it’s no wonder a slightly lost and bedraggled migrant might look to your back-yard patch for shelter and a nice meal. During Big Garden Birdwatch, we get thousands more eyes looking out for birds, providing a snapshot of what’s about in the country over one weekend.

What might we get this year, with even more people potentially glued to their kitchen windows? Who knows. We might not be able to twitch it, but we’ll just have to be happy for whoever clocks a 2021 mega. Right?!

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