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Vireo olivaceus
Warrenhouse Wood, Lowestoft 1988

by Dave Bakewell

AFTER BEING AWAY FROM THE UK FOR TWO YEARS (in China and Hong Kong); I returned in May 1988 to spend six months at home, before leaving again for Malaysia.

In those six months, I had set myself three goals:

The first two were accomplished fairly simply; the last posed more of a challenge, as my home base at the time was outside Diss, just over the border in the badlands of Norfolk. Not only that, but despite passing my test, I had no wheels apart from my bicycle.

With these limitations, I decided that my best bet was Lowestoft, since I could get there by train in an hour or so. So began my regular acquaintance with Sparrow's Nest Park, Flycatcher Alley, and the North Denes. Most of my visits during the autumn produced a smattering of migrant passerines, and a few seabirds off Ness Point, enough to keep me coming back in the hope of better things.

However, September 29th 1988 was different. The day was overcast and still. As I made my way up the coast through my usual haunts, the place was completely dead. No migrants, no movement at sea, nothing. Had I driven there, I would undoubtedly have got in the car and gone home. But I'd paid a train fare to get there, and I was determined to get my money's worth! So I slogged on across North Denes, scrutinizing every lifeless bush. At the north edge of the Denes I could see a small copse (Warrenhouse Wood) which I'd never looked at before. I decided to go as far as the copse and then call it a day.

Upon entering the wood, a Chiffchaff popped into view - the first migrant of the day - a hopeful sign. Then I noticed a small bird moving about in some sycamore trees at the back of the wood. I got my bins onto it for a fleeting moment before it moved behind a tree trunk. In that moment two things struck me - grey legs and a bright supercilium - and I knew I had something good. My mind raced through the various Phylloscopus warblers I'd encountered in China, but none seemed right. Then the bird hopped back into view, revealing the distinctive features of a Red-eyed Vireo, a species I'd seen a couple of times previously on autumn trips to Scilly.

After watching the bird for half an hour or so, taking some rather shaky notes and sketches, I realised that I needed to find a phone box (oh, those romantic days before mobiles!). Legging it up the hill to the cliff-top, I realised I only had two 10p coins. Who should I call? I decided that the person would appreciate the news most would be John Grant, but on calling the newsroom I found that he was out of the office. One more 10p! This time, success - I got through to Derek Moore - but his response was not encouraging - "You're joking aren't you?" Having persuaded him that I really wasn't, Derek promised to get the news out.

Elation turned to apprehension when the bird went missing once the first people arrived. Fortunately it reappeared after a 45-minute absence, giving good views to those who were quick enough to get there before the dusk closed in. Unfortunately, it was not seen again, despite some thorough searching the next day.

Editors note: I well remember the shock of receiving the news at work of this bird from the late Brian Brown. Fortunately my boss let me leave early that afternoon and I soon joined the small but very appreciative crowd that had already gathered to enjoy this surprise addition to the County avifauna of a bird from the far west in the most easterly wood in the UK. There was indeed a tense wait at first as it had disappeared for a while, but it was soon back on view in the garden to the rear of the wood.)

It turned out that this was one of two Red-eyed Vireos to appear along the east coast of England around that time, the second bird was on Holy Island, Northumberland on October 5th & 6th. 1988 was also a bumper autumn for this species in the UK and Ireland in general with the following additional records bringing the total to twelve.

Cape Clear Island (2), 26th September - 5th October & 28th September - 2nd October.
Devon: Lundy (2), 28th September & 1st October.
Cornwall: Porthgwarra, 29th September to 2nd October.
Western Isles: North Uist, 1st to 7th October.
Dorset: Portland, 3rd to 5th October.
Scilly: St. Mary's, (2) 10th - 15th & 10th - 19th October.
Caithness: Thurso, 8th November.

Astonishingly just three years later another was found by Peter Ransome and Robert Wilton in nearby Sparrow's Nest Park on 6th October 1991. Then in 1995 the Suffolk tally of Red-eyed Vireos rose yet again, to four, when two were discovered on 12th October at Southwold (staying to the 14th) and Aldringham-cum-Thorpe (staying to the 15th).

With four up for grabs surely all Suffolk birders active at the time should have seen at least one, but then maybe we shouldn't take that for GRANTed.

Birdguides.com Online Guide to Rarer British Birds. (Subscription required)
Piotrowski, S. (2003) The Birds of Suffolk. Christopher Helm, London.

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