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Siberian Blue Robin in Suffolk - an addition to the British List


Kieran Foster (the finder of the Minsmere Siberian Blue Robin - Luscinia Cyane) has kindly sent us some notes on how he found the bird at Minsmere on 23rd October 2000. Paul Varney has also sent us some notes about the finding and identification of the Siberian Blue Robin. The lucky few who experienced this ‘once-in–a-lifetime’ feeling will no doubt have recounted the story many times (certainly one to dine out on). The hundreds of birders who arrived the next day, knowing in their heart of hearts that is was unlikely to be re-located, had some good birds (Sociable Lapwing, Pallas’s Warbler, Great White Egret, Richard’s Pipit) but even these didn’t make up for the ‘big one’. Having arrived at the site at 6.00pm, by then the bird had been ‘lost’ in the dark, I feel pretty disconsolate, but may be not as disconsolate as those that left the site at 5.00pm! (Brian J Small)


Kieran Foster

I found the bird while finding a convenient place to have a pee. I flushed a small brown bird with a broad tail which gave the initial impression of a Locustella warbler. I saw the bird again perched at the base of the marram about 10yrds from where the bird had been originally flushed. This was at 4.50pm approx. The bird flew again and was lost to view dispite searching. I phoned Andrew Raine at Rare Bird Alert, the bird paging company and told him that I had just found what appeared to be an unstreaked Locustella warbler but the bird has got bright pink legs. At this point, my phone died on me.

I tried to alert other birders present to the fact but they paid little-to-no attention. At about 5.30pm Mark Cornish and his companion said that they would help me look as they were going to walk back to Sizewell and this passed the very place that I had found the bird. Mark very quickly flushed the bird again. He stated that the bird looked bit like a Dunnock. The bird flew again and this time just before it alighted the pale underparts were noted. This gave the bird a very obvious two toned appearance. I again re-found the bird at the base of some marram. This time the birds pale buff eye-ring was noted. As was the long, strong looking bill with the pale grey base to the lower mandible. It was at this point that the bird flew out over the beach over the water before returning and alighting on the shingle in an apparently exhausted state. The bird hunched it head in and pointed it skywards at about 45 degrees. (This being a feature of the species, as noted on video of the birds in China taken by Andrew Raine this year). I whistled over the birders who were still (note still) looking for the Pallas's warbler. They then came over at approximately 5.35. Note the difference in time. 4.50pm when I found the bird, 5.35pm when other birders decided to come and have a look. It is true that we were unsure of the birds identification. It was apparent to me before this stage that the bird was not a Locustella warbler.

This time Mark kindly lent me his mobile phone to contact RBA again. This time Chris Batty answered and quickly phoned us back. Through discussion with them as well as discussion with Richard Millington by Paul Varney, the bird's identification was eventually arrived at. Paul tentatively mentioned Siberian Blue Robin. It was a joint effort involving all present as well as a number of key figures not present i.e. the information services and RM. Andrew Raine had seen SB Robin in China this year and he was a great help! None of the people on site had any ID books with them obviously and it was thanks to the telecommunication network that the bird was finally ID'd for certain at about 5.50pm. News was released but the bird had flown again and was lost. It was decided that a thorough search should not be undertaken due to the late time and rapidly failing light.

Many people still on the reserve but not at the bird due to their leaving early quickly arrived but the bird was not seen again. May be they will be more eager to help someone search for a "funny" bird in future!


Paul Varney

Autumn 2000 had, for me, been relatively quiet compared to recent years so the Pallas’s Warbler at Minsmere, on the east coast of Suffolk, UK, proved too much of a lure to resist. Late in the afternoon (c.5.30pm) of October 23rd 2000, I walked from Sizewell to the sluice bushes at Minsmere and thanks to some birders already present obtained excellent views of the Pallas’s Warbler, low down in the scrub.

Immediately after the bird disappeared, Kieran Foster whistled and beckoned me over to the dunes adjacent to the beach. Upon reaching Kieran, he and Mark Cornish explained how they had flushed what appeared to be a small dark, unstreaked ‘warbler’ from the marram grass. They had managed to get a view of the bird on the ground at close range but could only see its head. They explained that they couldn’t even put a family name to it but it showed a fairly bold eye-ring. They were clearly perplexed.

By now about seven birders were present so we walked through the marram grass eventually flushing the bird. It was a small, dark brown bird above with an obviously short "fanned" tail. It showed paler under-parts and was very quick in flight, keeping very low. It reminded me on first impression of a Cetti’s Warbler or perhaps an un-streaked, dark Locustella warbler, but still we were all unable to put an identity to it. The bird then flushed from my feet, flying out, over the beach and started heading out to sea. It then banked, turned and flew back, landing on the beach some 35-40 yards from me and slightly closer to the other observers. Eventually I located it in my telescope and it was right in the open, on the shingle.

Mark Cornish got on to it first and immediately exclaimed that it could be an American thrush and that it looked like a Swainson’s. As soon as I locked on to it, I could see exactly what he meant. It looked essentially like a small thrush with a bold, pale eye ring, very like a Swainson’s Thrush – but it wasn’t one!

Having viewed it for a few minutes, I then tentatively suggested that it might be a Siberian Blue Robin but, having never seen one, was unsure of the identification features. However, it showed a pale throat that reminded me of a Red-flanked Bluetail, although not so neatly framed. I then noted some faint but distinct crescental markings at the side of the breast. This to me confirmed we were looking at something like a Blue Robin or related species.

I then phoned Richard Millington and explained that I thought I was watching a Siberian Blue Robin. While watching it through the telescope I explained what I was seeing and as we discussed the various features I grew more and more confident about it’s identification.

After about 15 minutes of it sitting motionless on the beach it then ran across the shingle a couple of times and when it stopped it shivered it’s tail – very different from anything I had seen before. This was a feature I knew was associated with Siberian Blue Robin.

It then flew back into the marram grass where we saw it a couple more times in flight before it flew over the ridge, possibly into some phragmites, adjacent to the sluice bushes. We never saw it again and by then the light was fading quickly.

Having drawn some pictures and written some notes back at home I finally referred to the available literature. Despite very little in the way of detailed descriptions in the various field guides and few decent plates of females/1st year females it was clear that the identification was correct and it was beyond all doubt a Siberian Blue Robin.

The following description was taken:

General impression: Generally very skulking, it was very difficult to see, keeping on the ground in the marram grass and only flushing when almost walking over it. When it flushed it was a small dark brown bird above, smaller than Meadow Pipits, which were also in the dunes. It was short-tailed and the tail was distinctly "fanned". In these short direct flights, it reminded me of a Cetti’s Warbler or a dark Locustella, the latter, principally due to the tail shape. The under-parts appeared pale. When it was seen in the open it initially looked like a small American thrush being reminiscent of a Swainson’s Thrush because of the pale eye-ring. In terms of jizz it was a classic robin-type shape with a shorter tail.

Upper-parts: The forehead, crown, nape, mantle and wings were all essentially the same dark brown with no obvious contrasting fringes or centres to any of the wing feathers. It was essentially very plain looking with the exception of the obvious and quite striking pale buff eye-ring. The upper-tail appeared dark in flight, darker than the rest of the upper-parts and in flight it appeared short and fanned. When seen on the ground the tail length was difficult to judge exactly but was clearly short. The angle of viewing however, precluded any opportunity to assess the tail to wing length ratios. Nobody, to my knowledge, noted any hint of blue anywhere on the upper-tail, it just appeared dark brown. It spent most of its time sitting motionless on the beach while we were viewing it but it did run across the shingle before flying back into the dunes. When it stopped it shivered its tail, vibrating it quickly. This was very distinctive and most unlike anything else I had seen before.

Under-parts: The throat was pale creamy and was bordered by darker buff brown sides to the throat and a partial collar at the sides of the breast. This was reminiscent of a Red-flanked Bluetail, but was not the classic, neatly framed white throat characteristic of this species. Just above the "collar" at the sides of the breast, were some faint, but distinct, buff brown crescental markings. There were not many of them but they were present. The presence of these and the general collar/buff wash to the breast initially added to the ‘thrush-like’ appearance of the bird. The centre of the breast and belly were pale creamy white with distinctly dirtier browner belly sides and flanks. The under-tail coverts were not noted.

Bare parts: The bare parts were quite notable and the legs in particular were one of the most striking features of the bird, being very pale flesh pink. The paleness of the legs was highly noticeable. They appeared quite sturdy too. The bill was quite strong and was principally dark with a pale gape-line, reminiscent of a nightingale Luscinia species. The eye was large for the head and dark.

Paul Varney


Read notes on the identification of first winter birds, illustrated with many in-hand photos.


Spain recorded its first and the Western Palearctic's second Siberian Blue Robin at the Ebre Delta, Tarragona on the 18th of October 2000. Photo below © Ricard Gutiérrez

Please visit the Rare Birds in Spain website for more in-hand photos of this bird and more details of its occurence.