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!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Thick-billed Warbler, Fair Isle

On the morning of 16 May 2003 I was just about to leave for work when Paul rang, briefly: ‘Thick-billed Warbler, Fair Isle, Jimbo and I are throwing money at it.’ I couldn’t afford to do that, nor could I get the time off at such short notice at the time, so I had to endure the day knowing that they were on the way, and eventually scored that evening. Respect to them for making Fair Isle same day – a rare feat indeed – but yes, it was gutting. So I made plans for the next day in the hope it might stick.

Having rung the usual people in Yorkshire, I naively came away with the impression that I was sorted on a private flight next morning, so drove up there overnight. Turns out I wasn’t sorted at all, but then Billy Simpson had to cry off, so there was a place after all. But also the cost was more than I had been quoted over the phone. ‘Oh well, I’m here now’, I thought.

As the morning wore on, there was no sign of the warbler at the Obs where it had been the day before, so we decided to give up and started drifting away. Then suddenly it was reported again, down the isle at the Meadow Burn. A quick round of phone calls and we were back at the airfield and the twitch was on. Trouble is, the plane available couldn’t land on Fair Isle, so could only get us to Sumburgh. No problem, apparently – Loganair had agreed to put on a charter flight for us. More extra cost, of course, but at least it was an option. So we set off.

But then the weather turned as we approached Shetland, and as we landed at a rather wet Sumburgh, we could see no Loganair plane out on the tarmac. Given the poor forecast for the rest of the day, they had pulled out of offering the charter, and could not be persuaded otherwise. We no longer had any way of getting to Fair Isle that day. Nor was there any further sign of the bird. Nightmare!

And indeed there was no sign next day and we wandered forlornly around Lerwick for a few hours on Sunday morning after being kicked out of the B&B and before flying back to Yorkshire empty-handed.  As we never got to Fair Isle, I couldn’t even count it for my dips list.

But first we (Malcom Roxby, Chris Bell, Richard Stephenson, Tony Shepherd, and myself) had to face being stuck in Lerwick on a rainy Saturday night, with no change of clothes and not much spare money. We got wet finding a cashpoint, found a cheap B&B, grabbed some fish and chips, then headed to the pub. All of the locals were in their Saturday night glad rags, so we, still in birding gear, stuck out like a sore thumb. Any hope was flagging by then anyway, but the barmaid’s T-shirt seemed to sum it all up – spelled out in diamante across her chest was ‘No Chance’.


Saturday, May 16, 2020

Eastern Kingbird, Barra

There I was on Thursday 29 September 2016, just settling down to an evening seawatch at Burnham-on-Sea, when I got a phone call from Dave Gibbs: ‘Any plans?’ Quick check of the pager – eek! Eastern Kingbird on Barra! A flurry of phone calls later and Paul Chapman, Dave and I were booked on scheduled flights from Glasgow to Benbecula in the morning. Direct flights to Barra appeared to book up very quickly (unsurprisingly) but we later found out there were empty seats on the morning Barra flight! Must have been a technical issue with the Flybe website as we weren't the only ones to try and fail to book.

Off out to my weekly skittles match (where I skittled through and left early – they’re used to it happening occasionally), then up to Paul’s for midnight, arriving at Glasgow airport around 7am. Veterans all of two dips on islands off Ireland in recent years, we were mightily relieved (and not a little surprised) when we found out this one had actually stuck into a second day, but several things could still go wrong, so it was going to be a stressful day. Little did we know then how stressful for some …

‘Hurry up and wait’ was the order of the day: a tedious couple of hours at the airport, a mercifully quick flight then taxi down to Eriskay ferry terminal, then another hour-plus wait for the 1pm ferry with about 20 other birders, with Barra seemingly within touching distance. A good selection of divers, Tysties etc. off the ferry kept us occupied for a while, but then we were left fretting while the cars were let off before the foot passengers. As arranged, an old Somerset birding friend, Bruce Taylor, now resident on Barra, met us at the ferry terminal and drove us up to Eoligarry. Happily we all got on it within a few minutes, and had plenty of good views over the next 45 minutes or so.

I had just been enjoying my best views in its favoured garden opposite the cemetery, while chatting to Barra regulars Ian Ricketts (now a Barra resident – ‘Mammoth’ in his youth, though the hair is shorter and greyer now) and Angie from Norfolk, when it disappeared behind the house. Next I knew was Paul coming to tell us that it had unexpectedly flown off high and a long, long way northeast, lost to view as a speck. Then came the real tale of woe: a crew shuttled on a private plane from Oban arrived in two lifts from the airport – Steve Webb and Simon King made it in time to see the bird, but the other three were just a few minutes later and saw a disappearing speck or nothing at all. You have to feel for them – all twitchers know it can happen, and we all just hope fervently that it doesn’t happen to us (but it has or it will sometime).

Angie very kindly gave us a lift back to the ferry at Ardmore – handy timing for both the 3.45 pm ferry and a further lift off Dan Pointon and John Pegden. Back on South Uist, we stopped at the great little plantation at North Loch Eynort and found a Yellow-browed Warbler, and had a quick look round The Range, then Dan and John dropped us off at the Orasay Inn. Comfortable and great food – recommended.

Saturday after breakfast (haven’t had kippers for years – lush) was a quick check of the gardens nearest to the Orasay, then a taxi to Benbecula airport. As with the Black-billed Cuckoo twitch in the spring, the flight was delayed by nearly two hours – same delay, different excuse, a bit Reggie Perrin if you ask me. Still, the rest of the journey was uneventful (apart from the bad back I had been nursing throughout getting worse), with me arriving home at around 11pm, very happy.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Fan-tailed Warbler

I had seen Blue Rock Thrush for my British list on Scilly in October 1999, but my old mate Alastair Stevenson hadn’t, so when another turned up in Cornwall on 14 May 2000, it was an unexpectedly early opportunity for him to claw that one back. I fancied seeing another one too, so I offered to drive him down the next day.

We met up and headed down on news, so it took most of the morning to get to the old Geevor tin mine near Pendeen. We didn’t know exactly where the bird was on the site, and struggled to find any other birders – it was a Monday after all, presumably all the early crews had been and gone, and of course many big listers had also connected on Scilly the previous autumn. Happily, however, it didn’t take that long to bump into the bird, not far from where we’d parked, and we got good views. Adrian Webb and his crew turned up shortly afterwards and we pointed it out to them.

The next birders who appeared were a bit of a surprise, to say the least – Grahame Walbridge and Keith Pritchard from Portland. The Blue Rock Thrush had temporarily disappeared at that point, but we told them where to look. Then Grahame dropped a bombshell – he told us a Fan-tailed Warbler had just been found, on Portland! An absolutely huge mega – potentially the first twitchable since the 1977 bird at Lodmoor. My reaction can be judged by his words to my retreating back – ‘Are you going to run all the way to Portland?’

The drive back up through Cornwall and Devon is a bit of a blur in the memory. I do remember muttering at some point something about having driven ‘to f*cking Cornwall for a f*cking year tick when there was a f*cking mega on f*cking Portland’. Not sure quite how well that went down with Al, for starters.

In the end I did it in under 3½ hours, which I thought was good going. We dumped the car and legged it past the Pulpit pub towards the Bill. Plenty of other birders on the scene by then, of course, and it was less time than it felt like before we heard the telltale ‘zit … zit … zit’. (Hence the international name Zitting Cisticola, which I happily use now I’ve seen a bunch of other cisticolas, but back then Fan-tailed Warbler was just fine.) But maddeningly the bird was just too high up to be seen, in what was still a bit of a foggy day at the Bill.

Happily, after a couple of episodes of this, the bird dropped into the low bramble scrub between the Pulpit and the Lower Ad compound and showed well on top of one of the bramble clumps. Tick! Relief all round, and we could all settle down to enjoy it. After a while I wandered back towards the Pulpit Bushes with Tom Raven (I’d lost Al somewhere for the moment), and a real bonus moment when the bird flew across and landed in the bushes right in front of us. Stonking views!
It only stayed briefly there, but spent most of the rest of the evening in the general area. Birders were arriving all the time – I was treated to the sight of Chris Batty executing a great fast turn into the Pulpit car park. The car screeched to a halt and his whole crew piled out in seconds and legged it towards the bird, following our hasty directions.

A little while later, Al and I headed home, both very happy indeed – he’d had a two mega-tick day! As a bizarre postscript, another, different Fan-tailed Warbler turned up at Hengistbury Head less than a week later. That time I was watching a Montagu’s Harrier on Dartmoor with another old friend and work colleague, Stuart Holdsworth, when the news broke, but as he needed Fan-tailed Warbler, we charged over and saw it. Two in a week for me, both in Dorset, but it’s been 10 years now since the last British record – the next twitchable one will be popular.