Monday, March 1, 2021

Bananabill

I finished February 1996 on 173 for the year, way ahead of my previous best by that time. It was at this point that I started to think seriously about doing 300 again, though anything more had not occurred to me at this stage. As the last day of February drew to a close my immediate focus was on a tick, though – a White-billed Diver that had, remarkably, turned up 20 miles inland along the River Witham in Lincolnshire (only the second inland record)!

A skittles match the night before ensured I couldn’t be there at dawn, but by 10 am on 1 March I was at Tattershall Bridge. I parked up and started pegging it along the riverside road to try to see the bird. There it was! A proper ‘bananabill’, it was an impressive beast indeed, and on a river which was only 20 or so yards wide it couldn’t help but to show staggeringly well. The downside was that it was slightly oiled, and preening constantly at a small patch on its flank. I was also told that there was a big fishing match along that stretch of river the next day, so I feared for its safety – and sadly was to be proved all too right.

I struck up a conversation with a bloke near me who turned out not to be a birder at all, but a roving reporter for Yorkshire TV. When he heard that I had travelled from Somerset, he interviewed me on the spot. What’s more, I found out later that the interview went out on the local news that night. Fame at last! Given how I must have looked that morning, I hope it went out after the 9pm watershed. 

There seemed to have been a pretty good arrival of seabirds in the area. Both Red-throated and Great Northern Divers were reported from nearby Tattershall Gravel Pits, and a Black-throated had also been reported the day before. Nobody at the White-billed seemed to know what birds exactly were where, and it was tricky enough just to find the right pits. The Great Northern reported that morning turned out in fact to be the Black-throated, but there was no sign of the Red-throated. There was, however, a Red-necked Grebe that nobody had mentioned, and a Slav Grebe on the river added to the list. The Red-crested Pochard by the bridge only had one intact wing, though.

Having the time, I went down the road to Peterborough to see my second Black-throated Thrush of the year, the long-staying Werrington bird. Another first-winter male, it gave excellent, close-range views.

The next day was Alastair’s wedding (the reason he hadn’t been able to come with me for the diver), so I hid from him all afternoon the horrible news of the demise of the White-billed Diver at the hands of a (distraught) fisherman. It swallowed two sets of treble hooks intended for pike, and despite being taken into care, it could not be saved. A sad end to a magnificent bird. 

A happier ending, though, for Alastair, as another twitchable bird turned up later the same month at Blyth, and also showed excellently. (Hang on – that means he’s got it up on me for Northumberland – rats!)


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Cedar Waxwing

On the evening of Tuesday 20 February 1996 the shock news of a possible Cedar Waxwing in the Midlands broke, and it was confirmed the next morning. I had been slightly disbelieving at first, so soon after the Stepaside incident, and thought I was seriously stuffed in terms of being able to go for it due to work commitments. My boss noticed something was off, and asked me if I was all right – ‘No, there’s a first for Britain in Nottingham.’(It would be years hence that the 1985 Noss bird would finally claim that accolade, so at this point that was true.) I managed to clear what work absolutely had to be done and talked her into giving me the half-day, gathered up Alastair, and screamed up to Nottingham.

On arrival at the site, only just north of the city centre, I was greeted by a beaming Tony Collinson telling me that it had been showing wonderfully well but had just flown off. I liked Tony, so I didn’t hit him. Instead, I pegged it off in the general direction of where it had gone, only to discover that I had left my fags in the car. Oh no – possibly two hours nervously looking for a first for Britain and no nicotine! (Sad wretch that I am.) Piled into the nearest shop for fags and lighter, ended up losing Alastair. 

At this point I still have no idea where the bird is, so I run across the busy A60 and down the pavement, looking for bird or birders. Then, a lucky break. A bloke in a suit with camera round his neck (local press, I suspect) sees my bins, stops me, points down a side street, and asks what ‘they down there’ are all looking at. I very quickly explain, then scuttle down the street to join the pack of birders. One hasty set of directions later, I am staring at the right bit of the (huge, perhaps 400 strong) flock of Bohemian Waxwings, and the yellowish belly of the Cedar stands out a mile. A few minutes later the whole flock took off and headed back over the A60 to where they had been before. Phew! But joy and relief quickly turned to concern – I’d scored, but Alastair was nowhere to be seen and hadn’t seen the bird!

More mad scurrying around, then, to try and find him or the bird – I managed the latter first, relocating the flock from a distance and legging it to find about 30 birders staring up into a tree at the one pale set of undertail coverts amongst the array of chestnut ones. Alastair appeared, thankfully, and a comic episode ensued, as no matter what directions I gave him, he could not see the bird. We’ve all been there (I certainly have, plenty of times) – it was blindingly obvious to me, but I knew exactly where it was, had seen hundreds of the things before, and wasn’t in the same panicky state of need. Finally he got on it. A Devon crew including Dave Hopkins arrived just in time, as about five minutes later the whole flock took off again, not to be relocated that day. 

I don’t know what the good people of Nottingham thought about all this – a vanload of builders who stopped and asked me what was going on looked very bemused when told. I got home a few hours later to find messages from Paul and James, asking for gen – neither had been available at the critical time earlier, but thankfully both saw the bird well the next day.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Stepaside

 By mid-February 1996 I was pretty much fully committed to doing a big year list, having had a good January (more of that another time, perhaps). So as another weekend approached, I was eyeing up a list of potential targets in the southeast. Then, on the Friday evening, uproar!

Rumours started running around that evening of a Summer Tanager wintering in a village in South Wales. The news was filtering out via the internet – we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at that these days, but back then, long before the heydays of social media, it was a rare and unusual occurrence. Apparently a local resident had seen a funny bird in their garden and emailed a pic to a local RSPB representative, who had identified it as a Summer Tanager. But there were no site details at all to begin with, and only later in the evening did we find out the name of the village, a little place called Stepaside, about 20 miles past Carmarthen, just off the main road to Pembroke Dock. And that was all we had to go on.

It all had a bit of a funny smell about it, but that didn’t stop Paul, James, Stuey Read, and I joining a band of about 40 other hopefuls in the village before dawn on Saturday 17th. That there was a wildlife park in the village, just across the valley from where we stood, did not help the feeling that something was off, and it was quite bizarre watching captive White Storks in their pens as dawn broke. Still we were here, and there was quite possibly a huge megatick on offer, so time to start searching! 

We did a bit of milling around aimlessly for an hour or so, looking in gardens, then suddenly the crowd all started heading in one direction. Apparently a local resident, understandably slightly concerned to see a group of blokes looking into his garden quite early on a Saturday morning, had come out to ask politely what was going on. One of the birders there had explained, at which point the houseowner immediately caved and dobbed in one of his neighbours – the bird had been seen in a garden about 100 yards up the same road, name and address supplied!

So we follow the marching birders, and soon after we find out that not only are we in the right place, but the bird is still present. Tension sets in all round and access to the garden is hastily negotiated. Meanwhile, Ian Lewington sticks his head under the hedge, sees the bird, and announces that it isn’t a Summer Tanager. It isn’t a tanager at all, in fact, but a species of weaver (a Taveta Golden Weaver, we found out later). An obvious escape, and possibly even from the wildlife park down the valley. 

It was an interesting and attractive bird in its own right, and I managed to see the funny side of the whole situation. Some other birders were fuming and threatening to do bloodcurdling things to the local RSPB rep who had ‘confirmed’ the ID. Not that I was immune to this feeling – it had screwed up my plans for the weekend, after all. I decided the only thing to do with the rest of the day was to drive to West Sussex to see a Rough-legged Buzzard. That’s year listing for you. 

Taveta Golden Weaver
Ltshears, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons



Friday, June 26, 2020

Southern Spain, 25-27 June 2018

I had flights left over from a failed attempt to twitch the Duncansby Head Moltoni's Warbler a few weeks earlier, so decided to switch them to Bristol–Malaga for a short break in southern Spain instead. A small number of target lifers and Western Pal ticks awaited, and planning was aided mightily by John Cantelo’s excellent online guide to birding Cadiz province and nearby areas – see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/ – plus additional info from John and from Cliff Smith.

Monday 25 June

The early morning flight arrived at Malaga airport late and picking up the hire car took ages, so it was 1130 before I started the 200km-plus drive to Vejer de la Frontera. The journey was uneventful other than 2 Monk Parakeets near the airport and occasional Spotless Starlings and Crested Larks.

The prime target for today was Northern Bald Ibis (or Waldrapp) at the well-known roadside colony at Barca de Vejer, but when I arrived mid-afternoon, no sign! Presumably they had finished breeding. No sign either in fields between Barbate and Zahara de los Atunes, but plenty of swifts, including several Pallids and at least one Little Swift showing close and well. No swifts, however, near the lighthouse at Atlanterra, just good views of 3 Red-rumped Swallows, a Sardinian Warbler, and 2 or 3 Monarch butterflies. As I drove back out of Atlanterra, thinking that things were not going well, a single small, attenuated swift whizzed across – White-rumped! (I later found out from John that I had been very lucky to connect here, as they are not as regular at this site as they used to be.) I tried the famous Cuevo del Moro at Bolonia in the hope of better views, but no joy; I did, however, add Alpine Swift, 2 Blue Rock Thrushes, and several Griffon Vultures. Back to Barca de Vejer, hoping that the ibises would come in to roost, and there they were – 8 of them! A contender for ugliest bird in the world, but globally rare, and quite bizarre (and wonderful) to see them just above a busy road.


Vejer is a classic Spanish hilltop town – white buildings and a maze of narrow, often one-way streets. The Hostal La Posada (basic but comfortable, and unbeatable value at €25 per night) was easily accessible from the west, however. After checking in it was straight back out again the same way for the short drive north-east to Cantarranas, noting an occupied White Stork nest on the church there as I headed towards the olive groves. I didn’t see Black-winged Kite (normally easy there, apparently, though it was close to dusk and I probably didn't go far enough to be in the best spot), but I got good views of Iberian Green Woodpecker and then, as dusk fell, the main target – Red-necked Nightjar (three flight views, including one virtually overhead, and I heard several others). It turned out to be a good day after all.

Tuesday 26 June

A quick look back at Barca de Vejer at 0700 showed only one Waldrapp left on the cliffs, though another was circling. Next stop was Laguna de Medina, about 45 minutes’ drive north. I spent longer than planned here (c. 90 minutes), but it worked out very well, with good views of 4 Western Olivaceous Warblers, and plenty of Reed Warblers (a recent paper assigns Iberian birds to African Reed Warbler rather than European, so technically a Western Pal tick for me). Nightingales, Crested Larks, Sardinian Warblers, and Zitting Cisticolas were singing continually, and a gravelly Great Reed Warbler sang from a reed head, though the calling Stone Curlews remained invisible. From the hide I scoped the wildfowl on the lake, especially the coots, and was rewarded with one that, though distant, had a squared-off shield and red bumps on the crown – Crested Coot! (Again, a bit lucky, as they have been much scarcer at this once nailed-on site in recent years.) Several White-headed Ducks and Black-necked Grebes too, plus a drake Ferruginous Duck, and on the walk back a male Common Waxbill showed well perched on a reed.

It was another hour’s drive north to Los Palacios y Villafranca, and the morning was wearing away when I arrived at Laguna de la Mejorada. The lagoon held lots of herons (including Squacco), single Little and Whiskered Terns, and a very close Red-rumped Swallow. My main target here, though, was Rufous Bush Chat, and I found a pair nest-building in a bush close to the track – sumptuous views, though I didn’t stay long for fear of causing too much disturbance. Besides, the next stop was just west of Los Palacios at the fantastic Brazo del Este, where I ended up spending several hours. It was an extraordinary spectacle, with astonishing numbers of Black-winged Stilts, Glossy Ibises, and Whiskered Terns, various herons (including several Purples and a male Little Bittern), 2 Caspian Terns, several Collared Pratincoles hawking over nearby fields, and many Western Swamphens. Two introduced African weavers have also established populations here, and I got great views of several Black-headed Weavers and a fine male Yellow-crowned Bishop.

Leaving mid-afternoon, I headed south towards Sanlucar de Barrameda via Lebrija. It took ages to find the right way along a maze of gravel tracks and poor tarmac roads, but at last I did it. Relief! It was already 5pm, though, by the time I reached the Bonanza Pools. More brilliantly close views of White-headed Ducks here, but I failed again on Marbled Duck, the last lifer target available. One last site to try, Las Portugueses saltpans, but time was running on and the short drive north through Algaida Pines (itself an interesting site which I had no time to explore) seemed to take forever, not helped by the many speed bumps. At last I got there, only to find the first pool virtually dry! Disaster, or so I thought. Several Gull-billed Terns showed very well by the sluice, but…

A short drive further on, the second pool had much more water, lots of Greater Flamingos, and 20 exquisite Slender-billed Gulls. Almost out of time, I was still determined to enjoy scoping these beauties. Then I noticed a pale duck way over at the back - Marbled Duck! Even better, it had at least a dozen ducklings in tow. Then I noticed another, also with a large brood (14 this time), much closer. At 1900 I dragged myself away, arriving at my overnight stop at Mollina just before 2200. A fantastic day’s birding, celebrated with a cerveza grande or two.

Wednesday 27 June

I said goodbye at 0700 to the Hotel Molino de Saydo (highly recommended – great old building, good rooms and food, and very friendly, helpful staff). A short drive later I was at Laguna de Fuente de Piedra – the sheer spectacle of hundreds of Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, and breeding Gull-billed Terns is worth it in itself, and there were plenty of passerines too (Western Olivaceous Warbler, Nightingale, ‘Iberian’ Yellow Wagtail, Corn Bunting, etc.). The prime target here, though, was Lesser Flamingo, a Western Pal tick for me – regular at this site now, and I knew up to 3 had been seen recently. Two good sets of scope views, possibly of the same bird, in the near corner of the lagoon left of the viewpoint behind the visitor centre, and thankfully no issues with heat haze that early in the morning.


By 0900 it was time to pack up the scope, use the automatic car wash in the nearby village of Humilladero to avoid any extra charges for ‘more than reasonable cleaning’, then drive the hour or so back to Malaga in time for my lunchtime flight. I arrived back at Bristol airport at c.1430, happy with a very successful short trip, including 4 lifers, 8 other Western Pal ticks, and a host of wonderful birding experiences.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

My first Scilly


A week on the Isles of Scilly in October 1993 with Alastair Stevenson was not my debut visit to the magic islands, but it was the first time in my then fledgling twitching career that I had experienced the Scilly scene at its height. It was, then, to all intents and purposes ‘my first Scilly’. We picked a good week!

9 October
We arrived on the Scillonian, full of anticipation, quickly dumped our bags at our accommodation, and headed out into the field. Our first target was the Eye-browed Thrush which had already been present for a couple of days at Rocky Hills. Pretty much instantly we had great views of it in with a flock of Redwings in a roadside field below the chalets (and how glad I have been over the years that I saw that bird – it has been a much trickier species to catch up with in the last couple of decades). Then it was on to Telegraph and the long-staying Upland Sandpiper – another tick. A little bit more of a hike down to Old Town and past Tolman CafĂ©, seeing a Melodious Warbler at Porth Minnick on the way round to the airfield and my first Richard’s Pipit. An afternoon of entirely shameless twitching by a couple of low-listing tyros, and not exactly a bad little intro.

10 October
Early morning birding round Hugh Town produced a Lapland Bunting and a Firecrest. More significantly, today was the day of my first-ever visit to St Agnes, and it did not disappoint – it has been my favourite of the islands ever since. No major rarities today, but Alastair’s and my tart’s tickfest continued with good views of a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling  and our first Yellow-browed Warbler, with a back-up cast of commoner migrants including another Firecrest. And then there were the views, of course – there can be few finer places in the world to be than the beer garden of the Turk’s Head on a sunny day with a pint and a crab roll after a good session’s birding.

11 October
We decided to stay on Mary’s today, and the day started with a Short-toed Lark on the airfield, then a bit of head-scratching over a particularly grotty-looking  juvenile Long-tailed Duck at Porth Hellick. There had been an arrival of Ring Ouzels overnight, and we saw five during the day. In the afternoon we hurried back out over to the Carn Friars side of Porth Hellick to look for a Rustic Bunting that was frequenting a small pine tree. While looking for it I turned round in time to find a Wryneck flying across the field behind.

Then news broke of a Hermit Thrush on Tresco. We made the usual beginner error of assuming one tick was as good as any other, and stuck with looking for the Rustic for a while. Thankfully it showed soon after, so we then wised up and dashed to the quay for a boat to Tresco. We dipped that evening, but so did most people. It was our first experience of a big Scilly twitch – there were something like 600–700 birders on the islands that week, and probably more than half of them were on Tresco that evening. There were a few brief sightings, with a large crowd dashing after each one, and only a very few at the front connecting each time. As the light began to fade we admitted defeat and headed to the boats.

12 October
Along with many others, we were back over to Tresco on an early boat this morning, but there was no sign of the Hermit. Plenty left and headed back to Mary’s, but we stuck it out. And so it happened that we were standing with a group of birders up by the old tip when a CB crackled into life: ‘Birders on Tresco, what are you looking at?’ We hadn’t a clue what it was or even where at that stage, but legged it round the corner to find a group of birders down on Pool Road with scopes trained upwards on to Vane Hill off to our right, with more arriving all the time. The next CB message was a yell: ‘Grosbeak on Tresco, grosbeak on Tresco!’

We all pelted down the track, underneath the bird, to join the gathering crowd and enjoy great scope views of a first-winter male Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched up on the bracken-covered hillside, quietly munching its way through blackberries. A loud murmur of appreciation went through the crowd as it overbalanced, then steadied itself, showing off those scarlet underwing coverts. Then I was treated to my first sight of a whole boatload of birders running from the quay, desperate to see the bird – among them I recognised several who had been on the island only a couple of hours before, and who had just settled into an afternoon’s birding on Mary’s before being rudely ‘yanked’ back to Tresco.

The other tick of the day was a Red-breasted Flycatcher showing well by the Abbey Gardens – a lovely little thing. Ironically that was a world tick for me but the grosbeak wasn’t. Among another good spread of commoner migrants, other highlights today on Tresco included Whooper Swan, Yellow-browed Warbler, Firecrest, and another smart male Ring Ouzel. We finished the day off back on Mary’s with a little group of 6 Snow Buntings on the airfield.

13 October
A bit more Scilly madness today. An enjoyable morning on Aggie included a Barred Warbler in the Chapel Fields (a tick for me but not for Al), Wryneck, and Glaucous Gull. Then came the CB message: ‘Black-throated Thrush on Martin’s’. It was still a seriously rare bird back then, needed by plenty of keen listers.

We jumped on a boat straight there from Aggie, and joined the scrum of birders who’d got over from Mary’s. The bird was in among a decent Redwing flock (which also included yet another Ring Ouzel), but one of the photographers had reportedly got too close to the bird and flushed it (yes, it was occasionally an issue back then too), and he was getting dog’s abuse over the CB. Luckily for all (not least him) it soon came back and everyone got decent scope views. But it was also the afternoon of the annual Birders v Islanders football match, and the kickoff had to be delayed, amid frantic CB messages asking everyone on the Birders team who had seen the thrush to head back to Mary’s!

Late afternoon up round the Four Lanes area, we found a Hobby. Only Al and I saw it. Great – a first-timer on the Scilly scene and I had to shout a brief mid-October Hobby at the log. Some of the looks I got when I did were straight from a cartoon by H. E. Bateman, and I could hear the mutterings. Oh well, I knew what we’d seen, but it was a bit of a baptism of fire.

14 October
Again we decided to stay on Mary’s today, and were rewarded with some good birds. First was a juvenile American Golden Plover with a small group of Golden Plovers on the Giant’s Castle end of the airfield. Then a dash to Kittydown, where there was plenty of jockeying for position to finally see down the right furrow in a bulb field and get good views of our first Bluethroat. Another good day was rounded off with views of a juvenile Woodchat Shrike in fields below the airfield at Old Town.

15 October
The big news today was the Hermit Thrush being relocated on Tresco, in the area near the Monument. Birders piled over en masse. The boatmen on our boat tried their best for us, with a beach landing nearer the site rather than landing us much further away at New Grimsby. It didn’t work out so well for one unlucky birder, who tripped on the gunwale and went face first into shallow water. I think he was OK. We were too busy running to check, or to laugh. But we spent the rest of the afternoon dipping – 3 Whooper Swans and a Merlin weren’t exactly consolation.
Then, like good little birders, we, and many others, dutifully left when told that the last boat was leaving from New Grimsby. As the boat chugged past the Monument, those few that had stayed behind suddenly appeared on the ridge above us. ‘They’re waving!’, someone said. Waving, my arse: they were cheering and flicking us massive V’s, as the Hermit had just showed. Gutting!

16 October
We headed back to Tresco the next morning, desperately hoping finally to connect with the Hermit Thrush. We were off on the Scillonian that afternoon, so the pressure was on. Rows of birders, sitting, kneeling, and standing, formed at either end of the ride the bird seemed to favour. A Woodcock flying through caused several stifled cries, then suddenly a thrush shape appeared by the side of the ride. There it was! At this point the quick release on my tripod released of its own accord, dropping my scope on to the head of the guy sat in front of me. Timing! All very quickly smoothed over and we settled down to enjoy good views. Some while later Alastair and I started walking back towards New Grimsby and found four other birders quietly looking up at a bird in a tree by the path. It was the Hermit, of course, and it showed brilliantly for a couple of minutes down to less than 20 feet!

Back on St Mary’s, a Long-eared Owl had been found in the sunken garden over near Pelistry. Another tick for both of us, but we had limited time, so had to leg it. We also had to reassure a succession of bemused birders who saw us running and wondered what rarity they didn’t know about. We just had enough time to enjoy a few minutes’ worth of excellent views of the LEO before legging it back to Hugh Town and on to the Scillonian. A great end to a fantastic week.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Scilly ticking

I had a week booked off from work in October 2001, ready to react to any rare bird news that broke. But I also had a hankering to go back to Scilly and spend some time on the magic isles, for the first time in a few years, so, with a few birds on the islands, I jumped on for three days, from the 11th to the 13th.

First order of business on the 11th was the Shore Lark on Tresco – with few or none on the east coast and transatlantic systems having passed through, it was understandably widely being touted as being an American Horned Lark, so worth seeing in case of an admittedly unlikely split. And in any case it was a Scilly tick. The inter-island boat landed at Carn Near, handily close to the open heath at the south end of the island favoured by the bird, and good views quickly ensued. Rather more rufous-toned than ones I had seen before, so seemed a good candidate for an American race bird.

So too was the Rough-legged Buzzard that had been around the islands for a few days, and for similar reasons – none on the east coast and yet one on Scilly. Views were fairly distant over the Eastern Isles, but certainly identifiable as a Rough-leg. Again a Scilly tick if nothing else, and some insurance safely in the bank. Good views of Spotted Crake and Red-backed Shrike made for an excellent afternoon all round.

The next day started with a Med Gull, a Black-necked Grebe, and 2 Arctic Terns at Porthcressa on St Mary’s, and a major non-avian highlight in the form of a Monarch butterfly, then it was off to St Agnes on the morning boat. The north of the island was very productive, with a Ring-necked Duck on the Big Pool, a Short-toed Lark in fields at Browarth, and both Red-breasted and Pied Flycatchers in the Chapel Fields all being logged. A variety of waders on the beaches and a Peregrine over the post office added to an excellent morning’s birding.

The afternoon back on St Mary’s was understandably quieter, but a showy Wryneck at Newford Duck Pond was a highlight. A Clouded Yellow added to the butterfly tally, and then it was a traditional end to the day in the hides at Lower Moors watching Jack Snipe – always a (rare) treat to see one of these on the deck, bobbing away. 

On the 13th I queued up with plenty of other birders to get a boat to St Martin’s. We were not, I repeat not, twitching the Magpie for our Scilly lists. We all just had a sudden desire to see yet another Yellow-browed Warbler, OK? That we spent relatively little time seeing that by the Seven Stones Inn and then decided to spend rather more time searching for newly arrived migrants around Little Arthur Farm, where the Magpie happened to be, was entirely coincidental.

Then, Magpie duly Scilly ticked – sorry, search for migrants concluded – we got much bigger news. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak had been found by the cricket pitch! Leg it! It was around this time that our esteemed Somerset recorder, Brian Gibbs, prank called me about a Surf Scoter – it would have been a first for Somerset at the time, but was what we would now call ‘fake news’. (To be fair, he was calling me about some other SOS business, but, knowing I was on Scilly, he couldn’t resist the wind-up.)

It wasn’t far to get to the cricket pitch, thankfully. The bird had briefly disappeared, but then popped up right next to me in the taller veg on the seaward side. Great views, if fairly brief – enough to see the mustard-yellow underwing coverts and identify it as a female. I’ve only ever seen two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in Britain, both on ‘off-islands’ on Scilly, and both times I’ve been on the right island when they’ve been found – how lucky is that?!

At least a couple of boatloads came over from St Mary’s for it, but only the first few connected, unfortunately, before it disappeared (only to do the same trick again the next day, I was told). I headed back to Mary’s just in time to hear about a Paddyfield Warbler that had been found in a field just below the health centre. It showed well in the bracken along a wall after a short while – another excellent Scilly tick! Then it was time for me to head for the Scillonian and home after a very enjoyable few days.

Monday, May 18, 2020

A mad weekend in Dorset

No idea why it happened that way, but while over most of the country it was relatively quiet in mid-May 2008, for some reason the weekend of the 17th and 18th in Dorset, and Weymouth and Portland especially, was absolutely bonkers, and a hell of a lot of fun to be involved in.

For once, I hadn’t gone down to Portland on the Saturday, so I got a bit of a shock when I got the news of an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler trapped at the Obs. Ok, I’d seen two at the Bill already – I’d twitched the weird one in early July 1999 and then timed my arrival on spec perfectly to see the one at the end of August 2003 in the hand – but a spring one? Would like to see that! On down there I went, then. The Eastern Olly was a bit of a sod, though, and I spent ages looking for it before I suddenly disturbed it from a bush behind the Obs quarry. It was only a brief view, and mostly in flight, but very close – enough to get some good head and bill detail, though its pallor was the most striking thing. There were loads of common migrants around, so there was a good back-up cast to see too. A highly enjoyable afternoon, though everyone bar the finders missed a Glossy Ibis that dropped into Ferrybridge briefly. I pottered home happy, then found out that a Little Bittern had been seen that evening at Lodmoor. A Dorset tick – bugger!

Back down the next morning, though not quite early enough to be there at dawn. The Little Bittern had been seen, but do I spend the morning there looking for it, or go to the Bill and look for it later? I pulled over in Weymouth and rang Martin at the Obs. ‘Anything about?’ ‘Yes, there’s a Thrush Nightingale singing in the Obs Quarry.’ Gumph! The Bill it was, then.

Approaching the Obs, I passed a couple of birders standing looking into Culverwell. I nearly stopped to ask them if they’d got anything, but decided against. Just as I pulled into the Obs car park I got a pager message – Bee-eater at Culverwell! Yikes! My biggest Dorset bogey bird – I’d missed loads, sometimes agonisingly closely – and I’d just driven past one! Luckily, I hadn’t even got out of the car, so reversed sharpish back up the drive and got back to Culverwell in a minute or two, just in time to see the Bee-eater fly off over towards Top Fields. If I’d stopped originally I’d have seen it perched. Still, I’d got it, by the skin of my teeth - Dorset tick!

Shortly afterwards I parked up back at the Obs and legged it down to the quarry. By now it was mid-morning, and the Thrush Nightingale, which had been belting it out (mostly invisibly) had gone quiet. So I stood with Jan and Dave Kingman (among others) staring down into the ‘rare warbler corner’ and hoping. Suddenly, a bird flew up out of there and perched on the tall veg on the edge of the Hut Fields – it was a bit backlit, but it was it! Less than a minute later it flew back down into the quarry, landed on a bit of bare ground, and scuttled back into cover. The colours, however, especially the sharp demarcation between earth-brown back and rufous tail, were obvious. It was the best view it gave all day, and the few of us who saw it felt truly privileged. Only the third-ever county record and, naturally, another Dorset tick for me.

Meanwhile, back over at Lodmoor, a Golden Oriole had been seen briefly, and then we got news of a Red-rumped Swallow there. Some headed over there straight away, some decided to wait and find out if it was sticking. Again there were plenty of common migrants around, and much anticipation about what might be found next. I stuck around, and found out shortly afterwards that the Red-rumper had lingered for about 20 minutes or so but then moved on, so I would have dipped anyway. Around the Bill area, a flyover Serin eluded all but its finder, but Turtle Dove and Tree Sparrow were ample compensation – in any case, I was on a massive high.

But at last I felt it was time to head back into Weymouth and stake out Lodmoor for the Little Bittern. At the end of Southdown Avenue I bumped into Dan Pointon (one of the first times I met him, though not for the first time that day). We waited, and waited, and then, as 5 pm came and went, the driver of Dan’s crew wanted to leave to start the drive north. Sadly for Dan, as no more than 15 minutes after he left, the male Little Bittern got up and did a short straight and level over the top of the reeds just in front of us, then perched up in view for several minutes. Dorset tick number three on an incredible day!

But there was time yet for more. A Woodchat Shrike had been found at East Holme, near Wareham, so I headed over and saw that too – Woodchats are always good, but this was a very smart bird indeed. And then I pushed it just one step too far (always finish on a dip, as the saying goes), as I found no sign late on of the Montagu’s Harrier that was there for its second day at Arne Moors. But no matter – I had just had one of the best weekends’ birding of my life, and all not that much more than an hour from home. Over the moon!