On the 14th January:
Through the birders 'grapevine' we heard reports of a large bird of prey, possibly a Griffon Vulture being seen in Mid Wales near Builth Wells, so Laurel and I, Bob Richardson and Keith Vinicombe decided to go and look for it.
The bird had most recently been seen from the eastern end of the A481 between Builth Wells and the junction with the A44. We arrived about 9.30am on a cold, grey, misty morning at a place called Lyn Hillyn, not marked on the map, but there appears to be a lake called Llynheilyn nearby, not that I remember seeing a lake then.
We spent sometime scanning the area from the road, to the west was a long, deep intermittently wooded valley, to the east the area was moorland with high rounded hills, some still with pockets of snow and sheep grazing on the tops and slopes, and narrow valleys some with streams and sparsely wooded, others with fields. Knowing that the bird had been seen near farm buildings in the valley below, we drove down to the farm where the farmer told us that he had seen a huge bird of prey on most days for the last two weeks, and that it had been seen further up the valley before Christmas.
We returned to our original location and began walking up across the moorland, after almost an hour Bob shouted he had just seen a massive raptor fly over a hill about 800 metres from us. We pursued and eventually saw a vulture perched on a fence post about 400 metres ahead, after several minutes we decided to move closer whereupon the bird flushed giving good flight views before landing on the ground, again about 800 metres away. It was at this point that we dismissed its original identification and considered it to be a Black Vulture. We carefully stalked it down to a distance of around 300 metres and watched it for about 30 minutes, it appeared to be in immaculate condition with only one feather gap in the secondaries of the left wing and a few breaks in the vanes on the distal part of the tail, only visible on the closest flight view of about 9 metres.
With a potential first British record the remainder of the day was spent stalking, watching and taking detailed notes on the bird, but it never let us approach closer than 250-300 metres. The following day we did obtain excellent flight views when it was accidentally flushed from behind a rise and flew overhead at a distance of around 9 metres, and we saw it again in the same area on the 5th February.
When we returned home we had to consider whether or not the Black Vulture was a genuine vagrant. In our opinion there was no doubt it was a wild bird, due to its condition and lack of approachability, but thought that the Rarities Committee may consider it an escape.
Tim Inskipp provided us with a list of 32 zoos, bird gardens and private collections likely to keep this species, all were contacted and only 4 kept Black Vultures and none of them had a missing bird.
One of the private collectors told us that he had kept several species of vulture, but not black, and that they had all become tame and dependant very quickly.
We visited Bristol Zoo and compared to the bird we had seen, their bird was in pathetic condition with its remiges and retrices being especially worn and tatty.
Nevertheless the Rarities Committee rejected the record as an escape, saying that they had been unable to find any suggestion of abnormal movement by the species that winter, and that it is a non-migratory species.
As we now know this is not actually true, certainly the Western European population is mainly sedentary, but there have been birds recorded in NW Europe. And the Eastern Population migrates south in autumn, with some birds recorded as far out of range as Japan. This bird doesn't have to have come from the Spannish population, it could have come from the western part of the Eastern Population.
Since seeing this bird I have seen hundreds of vultures in many different countries, and of the ones I have seen on the ground all have been much more approachable especially if they are use to seeing people. To get closer to this bird, we had to approach carefully using hedgerows and hillocks as cover and still could only get to 250-300 metres from it before it flushed.
So, I and probably everyone else who saw the bird think the BOU wrong to have rejected this record and certainly to dismiss it so quickly, not even considering it for category D.
Nevertheless I still consider this bird to be a genuine wild vagrant and as such the 1st British Record of a Black Vulture.
Illustrations by Laurel Tucker
Also seen in the area were 2 Buzzards, 4 Ravens, a few Meadow Pipits, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 Willow Tits, several Blue and Great Tits, a Coal Tit and a Fox.
A very dull, cool day with misty rain at times. We decided to go to Steart where there was a flock of 100+ Chaffinches with
3 Bramblings, 10 Short-eared Owls, 2 Merlins, a Kestrel, male and female Hen Harrier, 40 White-fronted Geese, 6000+ Wigeon, 2 Pintail and around 150 Skylarks.
In Fiordland in South Island New Zealand, new birds today were New Zealand Falcon, Fiordland Crested Penguin and New Zealand Rock Wren.
Photo: New Zealand Rock Wren.
A trip to Chew Valley Lake with the recording equipment. The lake still had ice around its margins, so I recorded the sound of ice moving in the water in the reeds at Stratford Hide, also recorded Little Grebes giving anxiety calls and trilling, Great Tit calls and calls from a Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Also seen at the lake were Teal, Mallard, Great Creasted Grebe, Tufted, Shoveler, Pochard, 2 Goosander, a Smew, a Cetti's Warbler and I also heard 3 Water Rails.
A visit to Battery Point at high tide to film Purple Sandpipers of which I only saw 2, I also saw 3 Rock Pipits and a Grey Wagtail.
From there I went to Kingston Seymour where there were 10 Little Egrets feeding in fields by the road, they were some distance away, but I still took some video, as this species was to feature in the winter film of 'Portrait of an Estuary, also there I saw 50+ Fieldfares.
Then to Northwick Warth to film the 2 Whooper Swans, rare birds in our region. They were on the foreshore feeding and I eventually got close enough to film them before they flew off towards Aust.