My Top Five Birdwatching Moments

Recently on Twitter, I described seeing Golden Eagles as being in my top five birding moments. Someone then asked me for the other four. This was an issue, as I didn’t really have a top five, it was just a turn of phrase. But it got me thinking.

So, in reverse order, here are my personal top five.

5. My one and only Crested Tit

While on a family holiday in Scotland around 1990, we spotted a small bird flitting back-and-forth near a broken tree stump. The top of the stump was only about 3 feet off the ground. Figuring it was eating something, we walked over to take a look. Inside the stump was a nesting Crested Tit, it was the male bringing food in we’d seen. The female looked back at us very calmly, but didn’t move.

We didn’t want to disturb the nest, so we backed off. I’ve never seen a Crested Tit since, but doubt I’d get such a good view again.

4. Circled by vultures

On a University field trip, I was doing mapping work in a Spanish mountain range, not far from the Picos de Europa. We’d regularly seen Griffon Vultures (and one Lammergeyer for the rarity fanatics), they’d become a daily spot, leaving the ridge as we arrived in the morning, and heading off to find food in the heat of the day.

One afternoon, I decided I’d follow up my lunch with a little afternoon nap. I was on a peak alone, I knew I’d be undisturbed, and I was probably feeling the worse for the night before.

After about an hour, I woke, feeling the heat. As I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see two of our committee of vultures circling above me! I doubt they thought I was dead and potential prey, but when a bird with a two-and-a-half metre wingspan is within ten feet of you, panic is the first reaction. I stood, and off they went.

A brilliant moment in retrospect.

3. Male Golden Eagles fighting

Some of the best ‘spots’ are complete accidents. This was one of them.

On the same holiday as the Crested Tit sighting, we’d seen Golden Eagles quite a few times. Never less than spectacular to see a bird with a wingspan over 2 metres! But the best time came when we were just looking for somewhere quiet to have lunch.

We’d parked off the road, and walked round the back of a hill until we found an isolated dip, with a small pond in the middle.  As we got our lunches out, we realised there were two Golden Eagles in the air. As we watched them, a third appeared, a younger male, flying in from across the hill. Immediately, one of the pair peeled off to meet the younger intruder.

We watched entranced as the two males squared off over the female, taking it in turns to fly high in the air, then dive down on the rival. Eventually, the younger bird realised he was out of his depth, and left to rethink his strategy.

In terms of bird behaviour, this is the most spectacular I’ve seen.

2. Dartford Warbler

This makes the list as it was a very rare bird, seen in a very odd place.

My Dad and me have always been keen birdwatchers. Because my Dad kept racing pigeons, we often took an evening trip out to allow the birds a training flight. This usually took us out to places were we could add a bit of birdwatching in.

The best spot on one of these trips came not far from Hull, somewhere in the mid-late 1980s. After releasing the pigeons, we were looking at a heron on a nearby river. Suddenly, one of us spotted an unusual bird in a bush not far from the road.

As we stared, the conversation took on a clear pattern: “That’s not a Dartford Warbler?” “It can’t be a Dartford Warbler?” “There’s no way that’s a Dartford Warbler?” and so on. But, no matter how much we tried to talk ourselves out of it, there was nothing else it could be. There, not far outside of Hull, was a Dartford Warbler. Well out-of-place, especially at the time they were at an all-time low in numbers.

1. Flock of Peregrines

In 1998 while I was doing a geology degree at the University of Liverpool, I spent nearly 3 months doing fieldwork at Dufton, near Appleby in Cumbria.

One morning, while walking up to the fells past Dufton Pike, I noticed a flock of birds above the Pike. When I looked closer, I realised it was in fact thirteen Peregrine Falcons. All were juveniles, so there was no way it was a family group.

I moved pretty close, but couldn’t see any obvious food source drawing them together. They were circling around, but there was no sign of hostility. This carried on for about ten minutes, before a buzzard flew through the group, breaking it up and dispersing them. I never saw them again.

The buzzard landed, and I was able to creep within about 6 feet of it, which is almost a separate “top five” moment in and of itself.

This sits as one of the most unusual things I’ve seen, totally unique. I’ve spoken to many birders about it, nobody else has ever seen this, and nothing in the literature convinces me it’s a normal occurrence. But if any of you have seen anything similar, please do tell me.


So, that’s my top five. It’s notable they are all incidents from when I was younger, and before I started recording sightings photographically. Our fondest memories tend to be ones from formative times.

There’s honourable mentions for:

  • My first Waxwings
  • The Turnstone on Bryher
  • Red Kites in Leeds
  • Goldfinches on Teasels in the family garden
  • The Cuckoo on Spurn
  • The Slavonian Grebe in Scotland

Do you have a top five you feel like sharing here?

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3 Responses to My Top Five Birdwatching Moments

  1. Tim Wilcox says:

    Some memorable birding moments and highlights:

    1. Finding a male Red-backed Shrike with my Dad and brother while walking through bracken on Oswestry Old Racecourse in the early 1970s. A fantastic shared moment and perhaps one of the last non-vagrant Red-backed Shrikes?

    2. Shortly after taking up birding again around 2000 in the early spring at Millgate Fields Manchester I watched a courtship dance performed by a male Chaffinch. He stood on one small branch with the female facing him on another. He sang his heart out and shuffled backwards and forwards puffing up his feathers. She looked unimpressed. I have never seen this since.

    3. Leighton Moss on my birthday around 2004 I think I arrived and walked into Lilian’s Hide to eat my sandwiches on a drizzly horrid early winter day that didn’t seem to hold out much promise. And I’d gone all the way there by train. As soon as I walked in a Bittern was stood in clear view in a small tree at the edge of the reeds. Whilst everyone (well about 3 people) watched it another birder called out ‘Penduline Tit!’ It was in the reeds just below the Bittern and gave some pretty good views. An hour later various twitchers bashed breathlessly into the hide. By the afternoon it was gone. I went on to watch my second ever Hawfinch and first male at Woodwell. A pretty good birthday that one.

    4. Also at Leighton Moss on another occasion from the Tom Jackson hide watching a Grey Heron catch, stab to death and then slowly eat a two foot long and absolutely massive Pike. It could barely walk afterwards and its neck looked that of an Anaconda.

    5. The Wallcreeper flying across the Trigrad Gorge in Bulgaria on my first organised bird watching trip in May 2010. A trip which gave me over 60 lifers and turned over 200 species for the group. The Wallcrepper was the best of all and although nobody else had seen it fly – they had walked further up the road into a tunnel – everyone eventually got superb views on the cliff above the road when someone going for a pee re-found it.

    6. November 2005 WeBS count at my patch of Loonts lake on Didsbury Golf Course. Usually a thankless, unrewarding 2 hour round trip walk to count 2 Coot and a Mallard but on this occasion in the snow I was half way through counting the Tufted Duck when I was pulled up short; my eyes going out on stalks. There before me was a splendid winter plumaged Long-tailed Duck. The only one I have ever seen other than rather dull females. It was seen by a few others and went to Chorlton Water Park the following day. It was a sufficiently good county find to make the back page of that year’s county report.

    7. Finding an Osprey fishing at Dover Basin May 2010 near Wigan while the regular patch -watchers were off in Norfolk! It stayed around and was much appreciated and photographed by all the Manchester Birding community.

    8. Finland June his year gave me more superb lifers and best of all was the male Great Grey Owl sat right out in the open on a dead tree. One of the best birds in Europe. See my trip report on Manchester Birding website.

    9. Everyone’s favourite first – my first Waxwings in Macclesfield in 2004. I took my brother to see his first in a shopping precinct in Abingdon during the invasion winter of 2009. It looks like we might be having another one this winter – loads turning up in Scotland

    10.Successfully twitching a Hoopoe at Meols on the Wirral by train and bus in 2003 I think it was. In my pre-car days I also twitched a Firecrest on the Wirral by train and long walk in a large wood having absolutely no idea of its supposed location. I eventually found a chap with bins sat on a log and he’d seen nothing but had the location. A woman birder turned up and found it straight away!

    Oops that was 10! (or 11) in no particular order

    Tim Wilcox

    • David says:

      Funnily, I was just reminded this morning that I’d forgotten Hawfinches in the Alhambra in Spain. We were looking for Hoopoe, and while sat on a bench three hawfinch flew down close to us to drink from a stream. So much for the “elusive treetop dwellers” of most bird guides!

      Short-eared Owls quartering near York the winter just gone was another good one.

    • David says:

      In fact, your heron story reminds me of a similar incident at Leighton Moss, but with an eel. Took twenty minutes for the heron to put it away, the eel fighting all the time. At one point the eel was curled round the neck of the heron. It looked like both may well die.

      I’ve seen some amazing pictures of herons that died after taking on too big prey. Their automatic strike response means they can go beyond their means and choke.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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