The title is rather self-explanatory, I have already mentioned that the Hawfinch is worthy of this category but I was interested to see how many more I could come up with. To elucidate the criteria required for a birds entry into this category: ‘it must be a British breeding or wintering bird that either due to its habits, habitat, similarity to other species or its rarity, is so seldom encountered – even when searched for – that one may conclude that it is a fabrication or joke set up by ornithologists.’
Quail: This diminutive golden-brown bird is a summer visitor to our shores, it skulks in fields and rarely flies or calls – it is also not common; due to the intensification of farming and the fact that it is shot in vast numbers in the Mediterranean for sport and food. Most likely the closest you will come to encountering this bird is if you manage to hear its song that sounds something like the phrase ‘wet-my-lips’.
Honey Buzzard: A rare breeder in Britain, with any known nests kept a close-guarded secret – seen in thousands on migration on the continent, but hardly ever seen in our country.
Goshawk: A resident raptor that was once extinct in this country, now found in dense forests where it eats squirrels and pigeons, your only chance of seeing one of these beauties is when they display high in the air in spring.
Spotted Crake: You know the Water Rail? That red-billed bird seen once-in-a-blue-moon in reed beds? This is its rarer cousin – even more camouflaged, smaller, quieter, more secretive and very rare indeed; you will need patience, skill, blind luck and the rest of your life to see this one.
Stone Curlew: This is not a curlew, and not a stone, but can look a lot like one when it is crouched in a ploughed field. It does have a loud call and huge yellow eyes – which you would think might make it stand out – it doesn’t, this is a rare breeding wader and very special to conservationists. If it did go extinct though – how would we know?
Temminck’s Stint: ‘What on Earth is that?’ I hear you say, well if you know what a Little Stint is (a miniscule wader that is tricky to identify) then imagine exactly the same thing but rarer and even more difficult to identify. It remarkably has a very small breeding population in Scotland, which is a secret so don’t tell, but if you want to see one in autumn on an estuary near you – don’t bother.
Jack Snipe: I honestly do not know 100% if this bird exists; it is smaller and less common than our regular Snipe, best found in winter when the water freezes. I have stared through a telescope for ages at a pool where someone had seen this bird on the same day – without seeing anything, they probably lied.
Long-eared Owl: A stunning bird-of-prey with big tufts on its head and big orange eyes, completely nocturnal and secretive when breeding, some migrate here from Europe in winter and roost in groups; not that it makes them easier to see.
Lesser-spotted Woodpecker: Tiny, the smallest woodpecker in Europe, the only sound it makes is when it drums in early spring, but so does the Great-spotted woodpecker. This is a rare bird, having declined significantly in the 20th Century due to habitat loss (dead wood), when the trees are in leaf you have very little chance of seeing this species but in winter you just might – I envy you if you do.
Water Pipit: A rare but distinctive bird in its summer plumage with a pink blush on its breast and a blue-grey head, unfortunately for us Britons 98% (made up statistic) of Water Pipits that visit us are in winter plumage or juveniles; meaning that they look exactly like Rock Pipits – good luck!
Savi’s Warbler: I previously mentioned my encounter with one of these cryptic birds; I did not actually see it and as it is one of our rarest breeding birds and looks exactly like a Reed Warbler, you would have to go to great effort to.
Marsh Warbler: This bird has a remarkable and fascinating song, yet it easily gets onto this list as it is very difficult to identify when not singing, skulks in thick bushes and is ridiculously scarce.
Willow Tit: For birders this is a minefield of a species; ornithologists have argued for decades as to what plumage differences it has from the nearly identical Marsh Tit, so far they have found no truly reliable feature that can be seen in the field. If you hear it call or sing then Bob’s your uncle because the Willow sounds quite different from the Marsh, but outside of the breeding season they seldom do – so you’re stuffed.
Golden Oriole: Although it is one of the most beautiful and unmistakable species on this list; as well as having a unique song and call, it is still on here because of its rarity and habits. Some years none breed here, some years they do, but when they do they hide in the tree canopy so you cannot see them. This bird is on many birders ‘To-see’ lists but it is pure chance if you do encounter one seeing as they can turn up anywhere and seem to have abandoned their only reliable breeding site.
Common Redpoll: (The name is a trick – it is not common AT ALL) If you see a flock of little finches in winter with a spot of red on their fore-head, then they are Lesser Redpolls; delightful birds that cheer up a grey January day. But if you spot a redpoll amongst them that seems paler and a tad larger – might it be a Common (or mealy) Redpoll? No, they do not exist.
Scottish Crossbill: Oh boy, this is a can of worms; easily number one on this list seeing as it actually might not exist at all! To any normal person looking at a Crossbill in Scotland it would seem literally identical to any other Crossbill; but you would be wrong because ornithologists have looked at its DNA and analysed its calls and decided that it is a separate species from the Common Crossbill. Or is it? Some ornithologist aren’t sure, the DNA difference may not be enough of a difference – perhaps it is just a boring old ‘sub-species’ after all? Whatever it is, one thing is clear – any birder would have their work cut out trying to see a difference in a Scottish Crossbill, perhaps Scottish birders made it up so they could have their own unique species, it wouldn’t surprise me!