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Twitching an Indigo Bunting in Whitburn and personal thoughts on its provenance

I’ve said to Carolyn a couple of times this week that I felt a Mega was in the offing. There’s been a large fall of birds overshooting on migration to continental Europe this week with more than 30 Red-backed Shrikes counted on Fair Isle alone. So I was hoping for some mega rare overshoot from the East. In fact the opposite happened – birding is nothing but totally unpredictable!


On Saturday I was out doing a lunchtime walk around my local patch when a report of a mega rare Indigo Bunting was posted on the bird alert services. With just 3 accepted records to date this bird really is as rare as rocking horse poo. A male in summer plumage is also a stonkingly attractive bird. The location, Whitburn in county Durham, was some 250 miles or a 4 hour drive from home. I calculated that by the time I walked home and packed the car it would be around 18:00 when I arrived. Should I go now or wait until tomorrow on the hope that it stays? I quickly decided that it was too risky to wait and set off with an overnight bag packed in case I didn’t get it in the evening.


The bird had been first seen on the bird feeders in someone’s garden and the owner was very kindly letting in people to see it.  When I arrived it hadn’t been seen for 20 minutes and, talking to others present, it seemed as though the best bet was to wait in the alley next to the bird feeders as it had been seen in the surrounding trees. A nervous 30 minute wait followed before it flew over our heads and landed on a TV ariel on the house adjacent to the finders. There it stayed for a good few minutes allowing everyone present to get exceptional views of this mega rarity 


The indigo bunting is a migratory North American bird ranging from southern Canada  to northern Florida  during the breeding season, and from southern Florida to northern South America during the winter. During the breeding season, the adult male really is a truly stunning bird being mostly a vibrant cerulean  blue with a indigo head. Its wings and tail are black with cerulean blue edges. The vibrant blue of the summer male has resulted in it historically being a popular bird in captive collections and herein lies the main problem. Pre 1982 it was widely kept in collections but a ban on their export came into force in 1982 resulting in the 3 records accepted as genuine vagrants since 1985.


It seems to me that the 3 most likely origins of this bird are


1)    It’s an escaped captive bird.

2)    It’s been here unnoticed since the almost unique  weather driven influx of North American passerines last September

3)    Its been blown off course on its Spring migration in North America and ended up in the UK


I’ve discussed the difficulties of distinguishing a genuine vagrant from a captive bird before, see here. The only way of definitively confirming it’s a genuine vagrant is if its either been ringed in its native territory or isotopic analysis of a sample shows that it has spent an extended period there.  For it to be  definitively identified as a captive bird it needs to be wearing an owners ring and/or show signs of wing clipping. As a free flying unringed bird the Whitburn bird displays neither of these characteristics of a captive origin. Beyond this you are into much more subjective balance of probability arguments, e.g. is it the right time of year, is it over confiding indicating an historic close proximity to humans etc.


It may also seem hard to believe, given its unusual and vibrant colouration,  that it could have been  in the UK unnoticed since last September but it would have only moulted from a rather dull brown into its vibrant breeding plumage this spring. It also should be noted that some of the presumed September drift passerines were only found comparatively recently so why not this one?


It would also be the right time of year for the third option above to be true and comparing its credentials with the other three birds that have been accepted, its hard to see why this one won’t be.  Just to add a great deal of credence to 3) being the most likely scenario, another Indigo Bunting has just been found in Iceland. Time will tell whether its accepted or not but I’m ticking it for now!


It had been a warm sunny day but just before the ariel showing a cold damp sea fret had blown in. The sea fret and the rather artificial perch didn’t make for the most natural and clear of photographs but I was just happy to get such stonkingly good views. It put in several further brief appearances including a visit to the bird feeders one along from the finders garden but it never gave me a clear view to compare to when it perched on the arial.


At 19:30 I debated whether to stay somewhere local for the night to try and get better pics in the morning but in the end I decided to drive home that night and got home just after midnight.


It wasn’t seen the next day until lunch time by which time I would have given up and gone home so, with the benefit of hindsight, going home on Saturday night was the right decision.

What an incredible bird to take my UK list to 413!

Footnote – my blogs are posted with sometimes rather imaginative spelling and grammar due to my extreme dyslexia! 


  1. Great blog and good work seeing the bird. I’ve been lucky to see a few in the US so not that tempted but I’m sure it’ll nag away at me as long as it stays put. I wonder whether a 4th option is for it to have come over on a ship eg the widely reported Catbirds jumping from cruise ship at Cadiz early May and then following its northerly migration instinct? Whatever its origin it’s a real stunner and one I’d have gone for if it was closer.

    1. Thanks Gus, I'd guess that the one found in iceland yesterday will help its credentials as genuine

  2. I'd tick it even if it was wearing shorts and sunglasses :-)


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