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A possible White-throated Sparrow in Lochmaddy

OHB Admin

Head Geek
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This account was received from Brian Rabbitts:-

The 1st October last year (2016) was mostly sunny and I decided to do some birding in Lochmaddy. Around midday I had reached Lorna MacLeod’s garden and was standing by some trees in a sheltered valley when I heard a sharp, metallic chink call coming from some thick undergrowth. My presence with the dog had set off several species alarming including several Wrens and I stood still for some 5 minutes hoping that the unknown caller would give some views to reveal its identity. All through the time I was stood there it continued to call but frustratingly I could not see it. Conditions were ideal to record the call on my camera as there was no wind but at the time I did not realise this function was available. After a short time the bird gave the same call again some 50 m or so from where first heard but once again in thick undergrowth. I did glimpse a sparrow-sized bird that could have been the mystery caller. I then left the garden for about an hour and when I returned heard the distinctive chink call again. On this occasion I managed rather obscured views looking up at it in a bush and against the skyline. Before it quickly disappeared from view I managed to see a bird of a general brown colouration with a median crown-stripe bordered by darker lateral crown-stripes. From what I had now seen and heard I suspected the mystery bird could have been a White-throated Sparrow. Leaving the garden again I bumped into three birders who were killing time waiting for the ferry. They had come up to see the Eastern Kingbird that had turned up on Barra. Despite an extensive search and listen over the next hour or so by us all (also Gwen Evans who I had earlier left a message for) we drew a blank. When I got home and played some recordings of North American sparrows the call of White-throated Sparrow appeared to confirm my tentative identification. Gwen was going to spend the following morning looking for it but this was put on hold when amazingly Miranda Forrest discovered the Barra Eastern Kingbird had relocated to her Bornish garden (see Scottish Birds: 36: 360-362).

Despite a number of visits by myself and others over the following weeks all drew a blank until the early afternoon of the 20th when I was stood in virtually the same spot where I had first heard the bird. A few Redwings got up from amongst the trees and then my attention was drawn to a movement in an elder bush. Although devoid of leaves there were numerous branches and most of the bird was obscured but I could make out a broad whitish supercilium. Seconds later the bird was almost in full view, head on, and apart from the crown markings previously noted and the supercilium I could see a distinct whitish throat and submoustachial stripe this being separated by a thin dark lateral throat stripe. Its throat was sharply separated from its greyish breast that was heavily marked with short, dark, streaks. The bird was only in view for seconds so it was difficult to take everything in. Some other features noted were some rufous-brown on its wings and some dark streaks on its mantle. There was no other species nearby to compare size but appeared similar to House Sparrow but much longer tailed. One noticeable feature as the bird turned and slipped out of sight was a greyer rump when compared to the mantle and this appeared unmarked. I had not realised that this was a plumage feature of White-throated Sparrow until I looked at a few reference books later.

A couple of days later Andrew Stevenson heard it call but was unable to see it and then in mid-morning of the 29th saw it briefly on the ground. Despite staying for another hour the bird did not reappear and that was the last sighting of this elusive bird.

With no photos to back up this record and with only brief sightings it was perhaps not surprising that the record was found not proven by the Rarities Committee. Purely conjecture of course but would there have been a different outcome if the call had been recorded.

There is one record of White-throated Sparrow for the Outer Hebrides; a male shot on the Flannan Isles in May 1909 that was the first record for Scotland.

Despite the White-throated Sparrow record not making the grade it was a record year for North American passerines in the Outer Hebrides. These were Black-billed Cuckoo, the first Outer Hebrides record and the first spring record in Britain (Scottish Birds 36:269-272); a spring White-crowned Sparrow, another first record for us (Scottish Birds 36: 260-263); the Eastern Kingbird already mentioned (a first British record); our third Swainson’s Thrush (Scottish Birds 37: 65-66) and finally another cuckoo, but this time Yellow-billed, our second record with the first having been found dead (Scottish Birds 36: 366-369). Looking through the records four North American passerines were recorded in 2014 (Chimney Swift, Hermit and Grey-cheeked Thrush and Scarlet Tanager), three in 2007, 2010 and 2011, single records in 1909 and 1910, and one or two in twenty years spanning the period from 1965 to 2015.