Rare bird last seen in Britain 22 years ago reappears – only to be killed by wind turbine in front of a horrified crowd of birdwatchers
There had been only eight recorded sightings of the white-throated needletail in the UK since 1846. So when one popped up again on British shores this week, twitchers were understandably excited.
A group of 40 enthusiasts dashed to the Hebrides to catch a glimpse of the brown, black and blue bird, which breeds in Asia and winters in Australasia.
But instead of being treated to a wildlife spectacle they were left with a horror show when it flew into a wind turbine and was killed.
John Marchant, 62, who had made the trip all the way from Norfolk, said: ‘We were absolutely over the moon to see the bird. We watched it for nearly two hours.
‘But while we were watching it suddenly got a bit close to the turbine and then the blades hit it.
‘We all rushed up to the turbine, which took about five minutes, hoping the bird had just been knocked out the sky but was okay.
‘Unfortunately it had taken a blow to the head and was stone dead.
‘It was really beautiful when it was flying around, graceful and with such speed. To suddenly see it fly into a turbine and fall out the sky was terrible.’
The last sighting of a white-throated needletail was 22 years ago. A relative of the common swift, it is said to be capable of flying at an astonishing 106mph.
The bird was thousands of miles off course when it was originally spotted in Northumberland, before travelling further north. But it hadn’t reckoned on the wind turbine hazards of the Hebrides when it landed on the Isle of Harris.
Average wind speeds in the area are 50 per cent higher than the national average, making it a valuable natural resource to tap into.
Lewis and Harris, technically one island, already has a number of wind farms, with several more planned in future.
The white-throated needletail’s journey through northern Britain was enthusiastically tracked by several bird watchers. A spokesman for the website Bird Guides said: ‘Why it is ended up in Harris is a bit of a mystery – it should be well away in Siberia, Australia or Japan.
‘It obviously got lost and the weather may have played a part. It is difficult to say.
‘It was spotted by chance by two birders from Northumberland who were on holiday, and they knew what they were looking at. So there is a chance it may have been here a lot longer.
‘It could have re-orientated itself and is capable of flying vast distances. In fact it spends more time in the air than on the ground. So it could have worked out it was in the wrong place and flown to where it should be.’
Nick Moran, who runs bird tracking online for the British Trust for Ornithology, said he had been monitoring the bird’s progress since its arrival in the UK.
He said: ‘It is not the happiest ending for a bird that has flown half way around the world.
‘It was a real day of mixed emotions for everyone there, they were all so happy they got to see it, but then witnessed it die.’
Mr Moran said that birds like this would be most at risk from turbines during the day when they are flying low to feed on insects.
A spokesman for the RSPB said it did not know the exact details of the case but migrating birds can be blown off course when travelling and the needletail may have lost its bearings and ended up in the UK. She added: ‘Careful choice of location and design of wind farms and turbines prevents, as much as possible, such occurrences happening on a large scale.
‘Wind energy makes a vital contribution towards mitigating the impacts of climate change, which is the biggest threat to our native birds and wildlife.’
The Rare Bird Alert, an online service that notifies users of sightings, had passed on reports of the white-throated needletail on Tuesday. A spokesman for the service said users had told them the bird died on Wednesday.
Yesterday morning, the service tweeted: ‘The white-throated needletail on Harris flew into a wind turbine and has died.
‘Pathetic way for such an amazing bird to die.’
It is not the first time a bird-watching trip has ended in tragedy. On a previous outing, a group of twitchers in the Hebrides had seen a migratory wryneck hit by a train.
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