As any birder will tell you, there are always species which, no matter how many photos we have seen and how much literature we have read, we wonder whether we would be able to correctly identify in the field. On the 16th August, Will Miles and I were faced with one such bird, perhaps one of the more difficult ‘in the field’ identifications in British birding: Sykes’s Warbler.
My house in Burrafirth, Unst, overlooks one of my favourite birding sites in Shetland, the Burrafirth Burn, previously a temporary home to rare species such as Pechora Pipit, Little Crake and Paddyfield Warbler. After lunch on the 16th, I had a spare 10 minutes before a ferry to Yell, so we decided to give the burn a quick check en route. Will stayed on the road while I walked through the bracken and meadowsweet surrounding the burn. I soon flushed a bird onto the fence several metres in front of me. “Get on this hippo“, I shouted to Will (birders have a habit of shortening every bird-related word and this one refers to the Hippolais family of warblers). Incredibly, with Will around 20 metres away and neither of us having ever seen the species before, we turned to each other and simultaneously shouted, “It looks like a Sykes’s Warbler” (plus a few expletives were thrown in for good measure of course!).
Realising this could be a slightly hasty identification call (having seen the bird for only a few seconds!), we set about trying to convince ourselves we were right, by attempting to assess and quantify the features on show, as well as ruling out all other possible options. Neither of us carry anything more technical than a compact digital camera so, other than perseverance in the field, a few lucky digiscoped shots were all we had to go on. Despite our initial identification on first impressions, I’m not ashamed to say that it was over two hours later that both of us were confident enough to put the news out; and then handshakes, high fives and (manly) hugs could be enjoyed! This was not just a very difficult bird to call but this record also represented only the 12th sighting of the species in Britain (3 of those 12 birds having been found by Shetland Nature guides!).
Appearance of the bird and summary of identification points
The initial impression was a sandy-coloured warbler with very uniform, warm-toned upperparts and plain white underparts, an obvious dark, beady eye, a very long bill, and an elongated and long-tailed body shape – unlike the rather spiky-billed and compact structure of Booted Warbler.
On closer examination, the outer tail feathers were white, the bill was indeed extremely long, the tertial centres did not show much contrast with the fringes (all relatively uniform, warm-toned and sandy), and the head structure was rather elongated and did not look dome-shaped. Up close, we could clearly see that the legs were pale grey, the upper mandible was dark blackish and the lower orange, and the iris was dark brown. The supercilium was relatively pale cream, and extended behind the eye, bordered above by a dark smudge which increased slightly in width and intensity towards the bill. The coverts, alula, scapulars and mantle were a uniform, warm, sandy brown, in keeping with the colour of the flight feathers, tail, crown and neck. Overall, the features all looked very good for identification of the bird as Sykes’s Warbler and we were happy to call the ID… eventually!
Rory Tallack and Will Miles