Dear Readers, the first British record of any new bird species is always a cause for much excitement, but the tale of Britain’s first Ruby-crowned Kinglet has the added frisson of a moral dilemma, taking place as it does in November 2020,during the Covid-19 pandemic. The account below is taken from the ever-excellent British Birds magazine, which I highly recommend.
Firstly though, what on earth is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet? As you might be able to tell from the photo, a kinglet is very closely related to the goldcrests that we see in the UK, and is also a tiny bird. However, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet lives in North America, spending the summers as far north as Canada, and the winters as far south as Mexico. The males have the rather fetching red crest that you can see in the photo above, but females and juveniles do not, and the crest is often hidden in the surrounding feathers.
So, the first British Ruby-crowned Kinglet turned up on Barra in the Outer Hebrides during near-gale force winds. Barra is, to put it mildly, a wind-swept island, and, as Bruce Taylor, who discovered the bird, describes a small area of alder and willow woodland near the Old Manse which serves as a haven for migrants. Taylor and his wife Kathy are keen birdwatchers, and get out at first light nearly every day to see what might have appeared. On this occasion, Taylor spotted what he thought was a goldcrest, except that it seemed ‘wrong’ – people who watch any animals regularly get a sense for how they behave, and seem to develop a sixth sense for something that isn’t quite right. Fortunately, the bird came close enough for Taylor to realise what he was seeing, and to get not only some photographs (essential for proving the species) but even some video. Taylor was so overwhelmed by his discovery that he had to sit down on the grass for a few minutes, and I can empathise – I get excited enough with the sight of a new-to-me species in the garden, let alone seeing a new-to-Britain species.
But now there was a dilemma for Taylor. Normally, news like this would be broadcast far and wide, and the site would be inundated with eager birders from all over Britain and beyond. But, as Taylor puts it,
“The Covid pandemic was getting worse and Barra’s residents, with our limited medical facilities, were particularly vulnerable. The last thing we needed was a large influx of visitors from around Britain potentially spreading the virus to what was a relatively isolated community. While we’d always released rare bird news as soon as possible in the past, this time we followed the only responsible course of action and withheld the news for the welfare of our community”.
And so poor Taylor, with the find of a lifetime under his belt, had to wait until he was sure that the bird had gone to release the news. When he did so, with some trepidation, everyone supported his very sensible decision. Then it turned out that the bird hadn’t gone at all, but was hiding in the undergrowth! Taylor had another few anxious days, and he describes how he had to remember to refer to the bird in the past tense in case anyone ‘clocked’ that it was still around and jumped on a ferry to see it. Finally, the poor bird seems to have finally ‘left’.
As with many of these stories, the kinglet was probably blown off course during its migration in North America – birds are often picked up during storms and deposited hundreds, even thousands of miles away from their destinations. The chance of them getting ‘home’ is practically non-existent, unless some helpful human pops them onto a plane. Who knows whether it succumbed to the Hebridean weather or moved on to somewhere where it wasn’t recognised as a rare species? Whatever the end of this particular bird, climate change with its more extreme weather events is likely to provide the UK with more unusual visitors.
The tale of Bruce Taylor and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet illustrates that, as British Birds magazine says, ‘some things are bigger than birding’. Taylor’s decision to protect his community from Covid, rather than enjoying the kudos of sharing the bird as he would have done in happier times, shows how important it is to be able to see the bigger picture, something which some people forget when they have a life-long passion. It also shows the value of paying attention regularly to a ‘patch’, whether it be the blustery western coast of Barra or a small suburban back garden. You never know what you might find!