Monday 27 April 2020


Today I've been reading the Sound Approach article on Ortolan Bunting, which can be found online HERE. It is absolutely fascinating. It relates to the nocturnal detection of migrant Ortolans by practitioners of nocmig, with special reference to occurences in Dorset. Perhaps you can guess why I might be interested in this...

I have a soft spot for Ortolan Bunting. Partly this is because I was fortunate enough to co-find the only two Axe patch birds, but also because it's a species with which I have history. It features in my very early days of proper birding, initially not in a good way.

It is early autumn of 1981, and Mrs NQS and I are in Norfolk. We've had a great time in the last week or two, with Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Spotted Crake and Black Guillemot in recent visits to the Cley area, all lifers for us newbies. Today we're at the Holme NNT reserve, and can see this birder peering at us through his bins. Then he gestures. Naturally we stroll over to see what he wants. He doesn't want anything; he'd been trying to direct our attention to the bushes just behind us, in which was perched an Ortolan. Now gone. We're a bit disappointed of course, but not overly concerned. Perhaps we'll see it later? We don't. Never mind though. Surely we'll connect with Ortolan Bunting any day now...

Three years later I'm enjoying my first trip to Scilly. Ortolan is by now a bogey bird. News comes through of two Ortolans together at Rocky Hill, and finally I meet my nemesis. Squinting through a hedge meant views were less than brilliant, but I didn't care. Ortolan Bunting. Tick. And I was highly impressed with their smartness. Distinctive. Understated. Very cool.

A couple of days later a Dusky Warbler was found on Tresco, at Borough Farm. Another lifer, I was straight in there with the crowds. Boy, that bird made us wait. But I didn't mind, because there were some first-class distractions, including Red-breasted Flycatcher and Melodious Warbler. At one point I was standing next to this guy when a small bird flew over our heads and called. 'Ortolan!' he exclaimed. It looped round and pitched into a very small furrowed field right in front of us. Sure enough, an Ortolan it was. I was so impressed. How on earth had this bloke been able to identify such a scarce bird by its call?! Well, happily, since that day I too have had reason to note the flight call of an Ortolan Bunting once or twice, and transcribe it into my notebook. 'Tlip' is what I wrote, once adding: 'quite soft; not as 'ticky' as Yellowhammer.' The Sound Approach guys transcibe it as 'plik'. Close enough.

The first Ortolan I found, I actually didn't find. It was spring 1989 I think, on Scilly again. On the west side of Peninnis Head was a patch of ground which for some reason was a magnet for Wheatears, and which I'd checked several times during our stay. One day I found an Ortolan in there with the Wheatears. As you can imagine, I was over the moon! And then I learned that another birder had seen it the day before...

So anyway, here we are in 2020, and nowadays birders don't actually need to see their Ortolans any more. Particularly in Dorset. Excellent. I'll have some of that please. By early autumn I will hopefully have honed my nocmigging skills a bit, and genned up on Ortolan calls. Whether it goes 'plik', 'pluk', 'tew', 'tslew', 'tsrp', 'puw', 'tup', or 'vin', I shall be ready. Ortolan on the garden list. It's got to be done. The Dorset birder is otherwise not complete...

I always like to include some sort of picture in a blog post, but my old Axe patch colleagues are no doubt rolling their eyes at this point, suspecting that I shall be unable to resist trotting out that Beer Head Ortolan photo yet aga-a-a-ain. Well, I have resisted the temptation, and instead will include a screenshot of part of the description I sent in...

'Smile emoji' right here.


  1. Ha! Immediately I saw the blog title a happy wee voice in my head said, "No bloody way!!" Damn but I thought you'd scored your noc-migged Ortolan already :D

  2. No, but at the current rate of goodies, the Ortolan will be along by tomorrow morning.

    1. Not quite, Ric. 😊
      But a minute's worth of Moorhen at 03:30 was nice. Also one or two distant sheep, a great deal of rain, and some thunderous snoring!

  3. On one of my best ever days birding I found an adult male Ortolan. On Holy Island, almost first bird of the day. The first bush checked held spotted fly and meadow pipit and another bird. I lifted my bins and there he was what a stunner! the day just got better with self found Greenish, 2 Red breasted Fly, Wryneck and a host of common migrants...

    1. Magical stuff, Stewart! Birding somewhere wild and coastal on a day when the bushes are jumping with migrants is a very special thing, and all too rare in my experience...

      Surely worthy of a 'blast from the past' type post for us all to drool over? 😊