THE supposed sighting of an extremely rare bird had twitchers from far and wide in a flutter on Thursday.
Bird watchers were on full alert when the message went out that a Savannah sparrow had been spotted at a nature reserve in Lancing.
The sighting at Lancing Ring attracted attention from bird watchers up and down the country, and around 40 car loads descended on the village, eager to catch a glimpse of the North American native bird.
But it soon became clear that the sighting was a hoax, as the photographic ‘proof’ showed the bird perched on a piece of American barbed wire not found in the UK.
It would have been only the fourth confirmed sighting in the UK and a first for Sussex.
The last sighting on mainland Britain was in 1982, although one was spotted on Shetland in 2003.
Birder Jake Gearty, who runs a birdwatching page on Facebook, decided against making the trip down from Norfolk, but said sightings of the species were ‘incredibly rare’.
“The second the news came out people were planning trips down from as far away as Scotland to see it,” he said.
“There were about 20 people on site within an hour of the photograph being released on Facebook.
“I was understandably upset,” said Jake, who missed a lecture and wasted a morning on the hoax.
“I imagine other people were upset to say the least. One travelled more than 100 miles.”
He said such hoaxes were rather uncommon, surfacing about once a year, but had it been genuine, the sighting would have attracted the attention of the mainstream media, such as the BBC, as well as birding magazines.
The incident has since been labelled ‘sparrowgate’ by some in the birdwatching community.
The man responsible for the hoax turned up at Lancing Ring to show birders the spot where he supposedly took the picture, but was rumbled when a sceptical twitcher arrived with a copy of the image and started asking questions.
When challenged, the culprit made his excuses and left, and has not been heard from since by the birding community.
“It certainly livened up Thursday morning,” said Jake, originally form Brighton.
One man who did make the trip was 39-year-old Nick Bond from Worthing.
He said if the sighting had been verified, more than 3,000 people would have probably descended on the site.
“It’s pretty damn rare,” said Nick.
“I for one cannot get my head around why another birder would do this.
“I did not have to travel so far to get to the site, but many others did, including some Hampshire birders that turned up as I was leaving.”
The editor of the Sussex Ornithologial Society’s web forum said in response to an enquiry about the bird: “The Savannah sparrow reported on Birdguides and other media is now generally regarded as unsubstantiated.”
Savannah sparrows are one of the most common songbirds in North America.
They have a short tale, a small head, and a telltale yellow spot just in front of their eye.
The photograph did the rounds on social media websites causing quite a flap, especially on Twitter.