Black Lark At RSPB South Stack Anglesey June 2003 A Red Letter Day For Sure

South Stack cliffs windy 2

RSPB South Stack on Anglesey a beautiful place for some relaxed birdwatching.

Ken Croft remembers an amazing day on his local patch at RSPB South Stack –

The days leading up to 1st June 2003 had been warm and settled across North Wales, with light east to south-easterly winds and frequent sea-mist resulting in reduced visibility. Although the winds were coming from a promising direction, they had produced little of interest at my local patch, South Stack, on Holy Island, Anglesey, other than a large movement of Collared Doves a single Turtle Dove. I ventured out again on the morning of the 1st, still hopeful of finding some good migrants, but by early afternoon I had not found anything of note, so I decided to go home to watch some sport on television. I was well settled when the telephone rang. It was Dave Bateson (DB), one of the RSPB wardens at South Stack, who told me that earlier that morning a volunteer warden, Stephen Rosser, had seen an unusual bird which he could not identify. As DB had been working away from his office, he had not heard about the mystery bird until his return, and although he had had a quick look for it, he was unable to re-find it. It sounded sufficiently interesting for him to ask me if I would try to relocate and identify the bird.

I arrived at South Stack at about 16.00 hrs and walked the area where the bird had been seen but, like DB, I was unable to find it. I returned to the car park and was showing a visiting birder a pair of Red-billed Choughs, when I noticed a dumpy, short-tailed, black bird flying out of a grassy field bordering the reserve. It flew low across the heath and appeared to land near the cliff edge. I do not remember what I said to the visitor as I left him standing there, and quickly made my way across the heath. Initially, I did not see anything, but as I walked slowly on to the clifftop path, a male Black Lark suddenly ran out in front of me!

The Black Lark at RSPB South Stack photo by John Judge aka @Draycotebirding on Twitter well worth a follow.

Scarcely believing my own eyes, I gradually got my breath back as I watched yet another amazing bird on my local patch (following the Grey Catbird of October 2001; see Brit. Birds97: 630-632). It then flew back towards the grassy field and landed on the wall but, thank-fully, dropped back down onto the path instead of into the field. It was now 16.50 hrs. With nobody around and the bird apparently settled in an area sufficiently far from the main tourist paths not to be disturbed, I decided to make a run for the RSPB office. Fortunately, DB was still there. I told him the news, picked him up off the floor, and telephoned the news out. I returned with DB and we quickly relocated the bird, feeding happily on the path. Local birders began arriving shortly afterwards and soon a steady stream of visitors appeared and all enjoyed outstanding views until dusk. The following morning, with birders massed in the car park before dawn, the bird was quickly relocated and, thanks to excellent crowd control by Alan Davies and DB, was seen well by all. It continued to give excellent views to an estimated 4,000 admirers over the following week and was last seen on the evening of 8th June.

Description - A large, dumpy lark with long wings that reached almost to the tail tip. Head relatively large, rounded and black, but with scattered narrow and indistinct greyish-white fringes. Mantle and scapulars showed slightly more conspicuous, but still narrow and fairly indistinct, greyish-white fringes. Rump much paler, appearing greyish-white and mottled, although this area was usually hidden by the long wings. Under-parts black and unmarked. Tertials and primary tips showed narrow white tips. Primaries and secondaries distinctly browner than body contour plumage and appeared abraded. Bill conical in shape, pale ivory-white. Legs dark brownish.

Ageing - Both adult and juvenile Black Larks undergo a complete moult in the summer, between July and October, although juveniles can retain outer primaries as late as December (Svensson 1992). Following this moult, age classes become inseparable. Although the Anglesey bird showed obviously worn and faded primaries, which appeared browner than the body, these cannot be used to establish the age of this individual.

Ken Croft first published in British Birds Magazine June 2005.

The Black Lark At RSPB South Stack 1 June 2003 A Personal Account By Alan Davies

The first of June 2003 had been a very busy day at RSPB Conwy, where I was working as the Site Manager, we had run an event and the weather had been glorious and the reserve was packed with visitors all day. So at 5pm the team were all packing up and looking forward to collapsing with a well-earned brew and looking back on a very successful day. I had been on site since 6am and was feeling pretty tired but the end of the day was here, but oh no it wasn’t!

Just after 5pm my mobile phone was ringing, I did for a moment think about ignoring the call but decided to answer and nearly fell through the floor. Black Lark at RSPB South Stack now. It took a moment for the words to sink into a tired brain. Black Lark at RSPB South Stack now. No records of Black Lark had been accepted in Britain back then, a first for the UK, in North Wales now. The adrenalin kicked in and all thoughts of relaxing and enjoying a cuppa were gone. I shouted to Charlie Stretton, who also worked at the reserve as my sort of unofficial PA, “Black Lark at RSPB South Stack now!” I don’t know if Charlie knew what a Black Lark was, pretty certain she didn’t know the significance of those words but she knew me well enough to realise it was massive news! Her response could not have better “Go! Just go!” I literally threw the reserve keys at her and sprinted for the car park. In those days I drove an Audi and the wheels were spinning as I exited the car park ignoring my own “slow-down” signs and in under a minute I was on the A55 dual-carriageway that runs to Holyhead close to RSPB South Stack. Thankfully late afternoon on a sunny Sunday the traffic was nearly all east bound, heading home from enjoying North Wales, I was heading west fast, very fast, in hindsight way to fast but those words were repeating in my head “Black Lark at RSPB South Stack now”. The speedo showed numbers I had never seen before and my luck held with hardly any traffic and no cops!

Frustratingly slow driving through Holyhead town, “Black Lark RSPB South Stack now”, was I to miss this totally mega bird because of an elderly lady driving at twenty miles per hour in her Mercedes? Drop two gears and round her, sorry if I frightened you, “Black Lark at RSPB South Stack now” that was half an hour ago no updates of course too busy driving to answer my ringing phone! If it had gone I had missed it, if it was an update saying still there I might miss it by wasting time stopping to take the call. Out of Holyhead and again lucky clear road all the way to the reserve car park, driving like a bat out of hell it was just as well no one was on the road! Dust flew as I slide the Audi into the car park and leapt out and sprinted towards the cliff edge where Ken Croft had seen the bird. Heart bounding I could see Ken but his arms were by his side, he was not watching it, oh no! Gut wrenching feeling sick had I missed it despite my best efforts? Ken lifted his bins but towards me…. and pointed! He must have it! There is a god and I thanked him. Slowing I moved behind Ken and panting like some demented dog joined him on the heath near the cliff. It was there! Not far in front of the two of us, a Black Lark at RSPB South Stack now! Oh what a bird, what a moment and I thanked Ken through gasps of air for staying with the bird. He was understandably elated, a first for Britain on his local patch and we were both beaming from ear to ear. I will never forget the Black Lark at RSPB South Stack.

Luckily the bird stayed to dark allowing birders from as far away as the midlands to get to RSPB South Stack and enjoy this wonderful rarity. Next morning before dawn I as was back on site to assist Dave Bateson the Site Manager with crowd control and what a massive crowd it was! Hundreds and hundreds of people enjoyed the Black Lark that day and they were very well behaved staying behind the ropes we put up and all had great views of this fantastic rarity.

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