May 21, 2024

A record-breaking number of “uber-rare” North American songbirds have arrived in the UK this week, blown over the Atlantic in the aftermath of Hurricane Lee.

More than a dozen species of small songbirds – one of which has never been seen in the UK before – were sent veering off their usual migration routes by the high winds.

It was “the largest such arrival ever recorded in the British Isles”, said Dr Alexander Lees, a reader at Manchester Metropolitan University and the chair of the British Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee. “One species hasn’t been seen before, and several have only been recorded once or twice.”

Their presence has delighted British birdwatchers, who gathered in their hundreds to spot the avian arrivals. “It is like having your football team winning the Premier League,” said Sophie Barrell, an ecologist with a particular interest in birding, who managed to see all three of the rarest species. She said: “Such a long journey is just an incredible feat because they have come miles and miles. To have multiple birds come over, and survive in this way, has just never happened for in my lifetime.”

Birdwatchers gather at Ramsey Island nature reserve, in Pembrokeshire, to see the rare birds.
Birdwatchers gather at Ramsey Island nature reserve, in Pembrokeshire, to see the rare birds. Photograph: Courtesy of RSPB Ramsey Island

The British birding website Rare Bird Alert described the “spew of uber-rare land birds” as “one of the most memorable couple of days in British and Irish birding history”.

So far, 15 species have been spotted, with 49 individual birds. Included is the Canada warbler, which has never been seen before in the UK. Meanwhile, the bay-breasted warbler had only its second-ever UK sighting, and the magnolia warbler its third. All were spotted in Pembrokeshire, which got the lion’s share of activity.

The Chester-based birder Toby Phelps, who was the first to spot the Canada warbler and magnolia warber, posted on X: “I am still in total shock from last week, these are by far the most incredible experiences I have ever had birding.”

The birds’ arrival was “a bittersweet phenomenon”, Lees said. “Incredibly exciting for birders … but sad knowing that these are the fortunate few as most of the migrants displaced by the storms will have drowned at sea.”

A small yellow bird with black/grey tail sits on a thorny branch
A bay-breasted warbler seen at Ramsey Island.

Strong, early, autumn storms make birds more likely to come over, research has suggested. “Climate models indicate that the frequency of severe storms in the Atlantic will increase as temperatures rise and this may have significant negative impacts on North American bird populations,” Lees said.

It is unlikely these songbirds will be able to fly back across the Atlantic. If they find sufficient food in the UK, it is possible they will continue their migration south, and try to find somewhere warmer to overwinter. Most of them, however, are unlikely to survive.

The last time such a glut of American songbirds were blown over was more than 30 years ago, when bird populations were far larger – but this past week has seen a greater number of birds arrive.

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