'Common Yellowthroat in Co. Clare - a species new to Ireland' by Paul Archer

On the mid-afternoon of Friday 3rd October 2003 after a business meeting in Ennis, Co Clare, I found myself with some free time. With the wind forecast to be blowing a moderate north-westerly my thoughts were primarily for the possibility of some Pomarine Skuas (Stercorarius pomarinus) or a good auk movement past the Bridges of Ross. When I got to the Bridges, my heart sank, for although the wind was strong, there were no seabirds passing. The thoughts of looking for migrants around Kilbaha village in such weather did not excite me, but it was either a few hours of this or an early four-hour journey home. American passerines were only vaguely in my mind - with Booted Warbler (Hippolais caligata), Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) and Radde's Warblers (Phylloscopus schwarzi) in County Donegal in recent days, it was something from the other direction that occupied my thoughts. After nearly two hours of less-than-nothing around the gardens at Kilbaha, I decided to head to the lighthouse in the hope of seeing the American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) that had been in the area recently, but I also had it in mind to check if there had been any bird strikes at the light.

The compound inside the lighthouse perimeter wall consists of an open area with weeds and tall rough grasses - although there is not much vegetation, what exists around the tall walls provide a perfect spot for a tired migrant seeking cover. It's a spot I generally check when in the area even though the best bird I have previously seen there was a Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis).

By about 17:45hrs I had almost completed a walk through the area when I disturbed a bird from the ground just a few feet in front of me. I glimpsed it on a dock weed (Rumex sp.) for about two seconds before it went back into cover. I was astonished, completely dumbstruck, by what I saw. Although a new bird for me, I knew it was a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) but experienced that strange feeling where I simply could not believe what I'd just seen. I obtained a few more brief views before retiring to the car (there was no mobile phone coverage at the spot) to release the news. I phoned Killian Mullarney and asked him to contact John Murphy near Ennis as the bird was so volatile that I really felt I was going to need some help to get proper views of it. There was also the worry that I might not have eliminated all potential alternatives (perhaps a bit difficult to understand now that there are good photographs available....) and I was able to go over these possibilities with KM. Structurally, the bird was noticeably different to any European warbler species and adopted a stance when perched more akin to an accentor or even a small chat. The rather short-necked, bull-headed, deep-bodied appearance was generally pronounced; however, it could also appear quite sleek and lean, especially when nervous and alert. I initially found it quite difficult to assess its size. In the first views, it really appeared quite large, even close to something like Great Tit (Parus major) in size; latterly and in the photographs, it seems closer in size to a medium sized Sylvia warbler.

News was also released to the wider community of birders, though with only about 90 minutes of daylight remaining, it was too late to expect anyone else to get there that night. More brief views of the bird followed but, despite carefully noting where it went into cover each time, I continually lost sight of it. On the last occasion, I stood watch over the area it disappeared into but it failed to flush when I tried to do so about 10 minutes later. I presumed that it must have been behaving like a Locustella warbler; creeping around on the ground after going into cover.

JM arrived around 19:00hrs while I was a little way off checking a nearby area of cover. Unsure of where to go, he walked down the outside wall of the compound and - amazingly - he disturbed the bird from an area of rough grass along the cliff slope. A short while later we met up and returned to that spot. We relocated it and saw it in flight a few times before eventually ushering it back towards the original spot inside the perimeter wall in the hopes that it would roost there. It was now after 19:30hrs and dusk was upon us. Although the views we had were not great, I was relieved that we had seen the bird well enough to be certain of its identity and we retired to the pub in Kilbaha for a quick celebration!

Fortunately the bird was still present the next day and was considerably more obliging to the assembled crowd and allowed a series of good photographs to be obtained, the best of which, by JM, have already been published (Murphy 2003, 2005). A remark was made at the time by a UK birder that 'Common Yellowthroat is unique amongst the North American warblers in lacking rictal bristles..' – such is the quality of John Murphy’s photos that you can see even this obscure feature. The bird has been accepted by the Irish Rare Birds Committee as a first record for Ireland (Milne 2005). All in all a truly fantastic bird!

Common Yellowthroat Images

A selection of images taken at Loop Head Lighthouse. Click on the thumbnail for more images.

common yellowthroat

Loop Head Lighthouse, Clare. 4th October 2003 (Photo: Tom Shevlin).
Structurally, the bird was noticeably different to any European warbler species and adopted a stance when perched more akin to an accentor or even a small chat.

A selection of male and female Common Yellowthroats for comparison. Click on the thumbnail for more images.

common yellowthroat

Grand Bahama Island. 28th October 2003 (Photo: Giff Beaton).
Adult male in autumn. Adults undergo a complete moult in autumn so their appearance changes very little during the year.

Western Palearctic Records of Common Yellowthroat (to December 2009)

  1. 4th November 1954. 1st winter male. Lundy Island, Devon. Trapped; held overnight and released the following day.
  2. 7th to 11th June 1984. Male. Fetlar, Shetland.
  3. 2nd to 17th October 1984. 1st winter male. Bryher, Isles of Scilly.
  4. 6th January to 23rd April 1989. 1st winter male. Murston Gravel Pits, (near) Sittingbourne, Kent.
  5. 27th September 1996. Female. Bardsey Island, Caernarfonshire.
  6. 16th to 23rd May 1997. 1st summer female. Baltasound, Unst, Shetland. Trapped 17th May.
  7. 26th to 27th September 1997. Immature male. Garður, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland.
  8. 9th October to 2nd November 1997. 1st winter male. Porthloo Lane, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
  9. 3rd to 4th October 2003. 1st winter male. Loop Head Lighthouse, Clare.
  10. 9th to 10th October 2004. 1st winter male. Foula, Shetland. Trapped.
  11. 23rd October 2006. 1st winter male found dead. Penryn, Cornwall. Killed flying in to a window at the University of Exeter's Cornwall Campus.
  12. 16th October to 11th November 2008. 1st winter male. Corvo, Azores. *
  13. 17th October 2008. 1st winter male. Corvo, Azores. *

* Records marked with an asterisk have been accepted but not yet published by the Portuguese Rarity Committee (Comité Português de Raridades) as of December 2009.


Many thanks to Tom Shevlin, Giff Beaton, Paul and Andrea Kelly, Michael O'Keeffe and John Murphy for allowing the use of their images in this note and to the Comité Português de Raridades for information on Portuguese records of Common Yellowthroat.

References & Useful Reading

Curson, J., Quinn, D. & Beadle, D. 1994. New World Warblers. Christopher Helm, A & C Black, London.

Dunn, J. & Garrett, K. 1997. A Field Guide to Warblers of North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston & New York.

Milne, P. (ed.) 2005. 51st Irish Bird Report 2003. Irish Birds 7(4): 573.

Murphy, J. 2003. Birding World 16: 412 & 524.

Murphy, J. 2005. Irish Birds 7(4): 549, plate 130.

Pennington, M. & MacLeod, M. 1997. May 1997: a closer look at some of the rarities (The Common Yellowthroat on Shetland). Birding World 10(5): 185-186.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds: Part 1. Slate Creek Press. ISBN: 0961894024.

Whitaker, B. 1955. Yellowthroat on Lundy, a new British bird. British Birds 48(4): 145-147.

Paul Archer

Waterford, September 2009

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