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Wildlife column: By heck, had I found a real rarity?

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Down in Cornwall on holiday at Easter I had a most unusual bird-watching experience, and for a fleeting second thought I had found a real rarity!

Walking along a cliff-top near Marazion I spotted a remarkable small bird in the dense scrubby vegetation. Being just after stormy weather and westerly winds this all added up to the right spot for a rare bird blown over perhaps from North America, or else simply a bird moved out of its usual habitat. The first impression was actually the black facial marks and bright plumage perhaps of a bearded tit or reedling, from the nearby Marazion Marsh maybe.

These thoughts flashed through my mind as I grappled with my camera to get evidence of ‘my’ rare bird; an exciting moment indeed. However, reality began to dawn as I took some pictures and then managed to get a better view. Maybe this wasn’t a rare native or vagrant from overseas, but perhaps an escapee from the local pet-shop or aviary!

Indeed, a bit of searching on-line later in the day came up with the answer - the long-tailed finch, also known as the blackheart finch, shaft-tail finch, Heck’s grass-finch, Heck’s finch, or Heck’s shaft-tail. This is a common species of ‘estrildid finch’ found in Australia and as a gorgeous bird is frequently kept in aviaries in the UK. The scientific name is Poephila acuticauda and this little bird is indeed a finch and as such a seed-eater and therefore easy to keep in captivity. The males and females are both brightly marked and also indistinguishable except that the male’s black bib or chin is a bit wider. My bird soon left the cover of the shrubbery and began foraging on the ground in the nearby field – just like a native finch such as the chaffinches or linnets already in the field.

Anyway, I left the little bird in peace silently wishing it well I with its new-found freedom.

Sadly for a bird that lives in flocks, the Shaft-tail will have a long wait to meet any ‘friends’! It was nice to see – if a little disappointing.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.