Saturday, October 29, 2022

Grey-cheeked Thrush, Scilly

Having been the commonest of the Catharus thrushes in the 80s and very early 90s, Grey-cheeked Thrushes suddenly dried up. There have been plenty of records again in recent years, but Scilly went 10 years without one, and elsewhere they just didn’t turn up or weren’t twitchable. My tale of woe from Orkney the previous year I’ve already included in this recent run of Birding Tales, so when at last there was another one found on St Agnes, Scilly, on 28 October 2002, Rich Bonser, Chris Batty, Jimbo, and I were all among the hopefuls flying on the next day.

The weather wasn’t great, and neither was the news – the bird hadn’t been seen since mid afternoon the day before. We’d been there a while and there was still no sign in the bulb fields near the base of the Gugh bar, so we gathered on the coast path, pondering our next move. Suddenly, Rich pointed downwards and started shouting ‘F*ck, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck!’ The thrush had just hopped out on to the path right next to him! (Jonathan Williams has since reminded me that he was pretty sure he had seen it briefly just before that, and told us so at the time, but I’m afraid all I remember is Rich’s machine-gun swearing.)

It disappeared before anyone else saw it, but not long afterwards it showed again, bedraggled and hopping around in the tidewrack at the top of the beach. Now it settled down, or maybe was just desperate, and seemed to ignore us as it searched for food in amongst the seaweed and shingle, showing very well.

If you’d asked me 10 years previously, as I started my twitching career, in which order I was likely to see the four Catharus thrushes, Grey-cheeked would have been first on the list. Ten years on, and having clawed back Veery on North Ron early that same October, it became the last. And all the more satisfying for it.

Friday, October 28, 2022

American Robin, Scilly

News of this bird broke on 26 October 1998, while James McGill and I were looking for a White’s Thrush on Lewis (which we saw, though that twitch is worthy of a tale in itself another time). We were in despair – we hadn’t seen the White’s Thrush at that point, and could hardly have been further away if we’d tried. It had been 10 years since the last twitchable American Robin, and the easy mainland birds of recent years were then in the unknowable future. To make matters worse the previous one had been near Aberdeen while I was at Aberdeen University, but also while I was away for Christmas, so I completely missed out. We tried to find an option for the next day, but all flights had booked up while we were incommunicado on Lewis, so we had to sit it out a day and go on Wednesday 28th. I even got a day’s work in, though my mind wasn’t really on it.

The weather was dicey, and worries about flights put a lot of people off, it seems, but in the end it was fine and by late morning we were on Barnaby Lane on Aggie. The bird had been seen, but had gone missing. An anxious wait, then suddenly there was an orange-red patch in the hedge of the field we were looking in. There it is! It dropped down and began feeding in the field. I had seen lots of them in the States, but it was the first one James had ever seen, and he was blown away – it was a first-winter male, and a really nice example of the species.

The White’s Thrush had already disappeared, so we couldn’t help but sympathise with the guy who put out the message ‘Lift offered from Ullapool to Penzance’ that night. A horrendous double dip awaited him, as the robin too went overnight, but we had managed to get both birds by the skin of our teeth.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Cape Clear

Only a couple of days after the successful twitch to Unst for Cape May Warbler in late October 2013, there was another big system coming in and expectations were high. It was still a shock, though, when news broke of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet found and trapped in Cotter’s Garden on Cape Clear on 27th, on the front of the system. With the weather due to worsen as the system came through, Paul, Dave Gibbs, and I decided to fly rather than face the risk of the ferries being cancelled (or even just a very lumpy crossing). In the end it gained us nothing, as the ferries ran and we were gathered with a small group of other British twitchers in Baltimore, waiting for the only ferry of the day to Cape.

The news from Cape wasn’t good – no sign so far of the bird. As the ferry departure time approached all had a decision to make – jump on, knowing it automatically entailed an overnight stay win or lose, or bail and take the risk that the bird would be refound with no further option available to get on that day. Most decided that it was a no-go and bailed at that point, but we and a few others decided to press on.

There were virtually no Irish birders staying on Cape apart from the resident ones, so the much reduced British contingent were on our own, and over the course of the afternoon our spirits flagged considerably as there continued to be no sign of the bird. Given the weather the previous night it was extremely unlikely to have left, so maybe it had succumbed after the transatlantic crossing? Each Goldcrest we saw gave us momentary hope, but no more than that, prompting Paul to quote Star Wars: ‘These are not the ’crests you are looking for.’

At least we had a decent night in Cotter’s, and next morning I added a couple of species to my Irish list while searching the Waist (Yellow-browed Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat, in case you’re wondering). As we fanned out later in the morning I took the opportunity to search some habitat near the stone pier in the South Harbour, where I camped as a teenager on a summer tour of Ireland between school and university some three decades previously. So some fond memories to help assuage the dip, but, as we got the ferry back to Baltimore, four mega alerts in short order reminded us that the autumn was far from over. Thankfully there was nothing Paul or I needed, and only one tick for Dave (the Mourning Dove on Rhum, which he saw a few days later) – given how far out of the way we had put ourselves, it could have been much, much worse…  

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Little Bustard, Cornwall

A report of a brief Pied Wheatear on Portland the previous day ensured that on Saturday 26 October 1996 there were quite a few birders on the isle. Not so many birds, though (and no rare wheatears), so by late morning a decent crowd had gathered to look for a Yellow-browed Warbler in the ornamental garden opposite the front gate of the borstal at the Grove. Originally a Victorian prison, it dominates that area of the isle and seems designed to convey the clear message that the best place to be is outside its walls. An odd place to be looking for a bird, but we weren’t there for long when John Dixon announced to the crowd that there was a Little Bustard on the Lizard!

A stream of birders’ cars left the isle, including Alastair and myself in one, Bill Urwin and son David in another, and James McGill in a third on his own. Running quickly between cars while stuck in a traffic jam on the A35 (none of us had a mobile!), we managed to arrange to meet up at Axminster railway station and all jump in Bill’s car, then it was off to the Lizard together, arriving mid afternoon. The latest news when we arrived at Lizard village was that the bird had flown over to Kynance Down, so we all piled out there and started wading through knee-high heather. James and I were ahead simply because we had longer legs, and handily near a gate when we heard that the bird was now in a field nearer the village. Paul C had beaten us down there and was watching it, but sent Jude in the car round to collect us – good on ’em both. The others were still a long way off when we jumped in the car, and so our crew got split up. James and I saw the bird by creeping up quietly and peering over the wall as unobtrusively as possible. A cracking immature male, with nearly the full head and neck pattern, down to about 30 yards. Other birders arrived, also trying as hard as possible to be quiet and inconspicuous, but eventually the bird spooked and flew off.

It was refound again later in a field south of the village, and Bill and David scored by following the coast path down from Kynance, but Alastair joined James and me in a farmyard overlooking the fields, and we could not see the bird from there. So dusk fell with only four out of five of us having seen the bird. Never a good thing, and it was a subdued journey back, four of us wanting to celebrate but not daring to. Getting tangled up with Honiton Carnival didn’t help either.

So it was that next morning Alastair’s wife dropped him off in Taunton and I took him down there again. It hosed it down all the way there, but the rain stopped as we drove on to the Lizard. We arrived and parked in the middle of Lizard village at about 11.45 am. After all his tribulations of the day before, Alastair was over the moon when, as we were grabbing our kit out of the boot of the car, a shout went up and the Little Bustard flew over our heads! He went off and saw it well on the deck, I sauntered down to the point and did a bit of a seawatch (found a Leach’s and a Pom, not bad), we were both happy, and on the way back I too could finally celebrate the bustard properly. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Ovenbird, Scilly

Monday 25 October 2004: As was my habit in those days when I worked in the Civil Service, I had booked this day off provisionally, in case any major bird news broke on the Sunday. It hadn’t, so I headed into work that morning as per usual. At about 1.20pm though, mayhem! An Ovenbird had been found under the pines at Trenoweth on St Mary’s on Scilly. My reaction was instant – as I had booked the day off originally, I was leaving! James McGill managed to book three seats on the 4 pm flight from Newquay, though Paul C knew it would be tight for him to make it. I picked Jimbo up and we piled down to Newquay – we made it no problem, but had to work quite hard on the guy on the check-in desk for him not to close check-in before Paul arrived.

Paul made it by the skin of his teeth. Then, while the three of us were in the departure lounge, news broke of an Olive-backed Pipit in exactly the same area – was the ID of Ovenbird in question? We were committed by then anyway to flying and being on Scilly overnight, so we ploughed on. Confirmation that the Ovenbird was real came soon after, but it was a period of doubt we could have done without.

The flight was uneventful, and our taxi was waiting, so we got to Trenoweth before 5 pm, were directed down the right path by birders on scene, and almost immediately were rewarded with stonking views of the Ovenbird. Yeesss! Another successful first-day twitch on Scilly from Somerset!

Unbeknownst to us at the time, three twitchers from Essex had arranged a private flight, using a plane from Blackpool to fly down and pick them up. But the birder known to many as Turtle had already contacted the pilot and wangled himself onto the plane at Blackpool – he had said he and one other would be arriving there shortly. As it was, he arrived later than planned and on his own, so the pilot was late picking up the Essex contingent. They got underway and knew they would make St Mary’s before dark, but by less than they originally thought. At one point Turtle phoned Paul, gleefully saying ‘We’re over Bodmin Moor – we’re going to get there tonight!’ Paul’s response was an absolute deadpan classic: ‘OK, we’ll stay on it till you get here then.’

It was gone 6 pm when we saw the plane overhead, and a little while later again when the occupants appeared. I was out on the main track, foregoing further views of the bird (I’d already had plenty) to direct them in to the right spot under the pines. But when they reappeared not long later, as darkness fell, I found out the Ovenbird had gone to roost less than a minute before they got to the right spot. Disaster!

We saw the Essex contingent later in the Bishop and Wolf for a drink – they were taking it all rather well, I thought, but of Turtle there was no sign all evening. Luckily for him, both he and the Essex boys scored early the next morning. We, on the other hand, had talked their pilot into flying us back to Newquay early morning (before the first scheduled flight), and I was back in work before midday – result!

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Egyptian Vulture saga

June 2021 was, as many birders recall, absolutely manic. In Somerset we had three county firsts in just over a week – I saw the first two (an elusive one-day Blyth’s Reed Warbler at Langport and the long-staying and obliging River Warbler at Ham Wall), but missed the third (Rustic Bunting, also at Ham Wall), despite being on the reserve when it was found. Partly because it was untwitchably brief, partly because I had a sudden urge to be on Lundy that day for Britain’s first Sulphur-bellied Warbler (and, like a few others, I managed it).

Among all of this mayhem the last of my Welsh aunts (my Dad’s sister) had died at the ripe old age of 94 after a long illness, and the funeral was set for 14 June. I prayed that nothing would happen that day, but the birding gods were determined to have their fun. So I was somewhere in South Wales trying to negotiate my way round some particularly annoying roadworks in order to get to Aberystwyth on time when news broke that an Egyptian Vulture had been seen on Scilly. Not a first, but the few accepted records (including one from Somerset) were long enough ago that it was a Category B bird. This was huge!

Attempts to get on anything being organised failed, and I only just made it to the crematorium in time for the service. At the reception at a local hotel, I managed a few surreptitious texts and phone calls in between family business, and, with huge help from Paul C and Dan Pointon, I had a place on a charter boat from Penzance early the next morning. Hopes were high as we approached Scilly, but despite an initial report of the bird being seen, they were ultimately dashed and we all dipped horribly.

A month later, it turned up again, but this time in the NW corner of Ireland, in Donegal. Not far across the border, but travel to the Republic at that time was bewilderingly confusing, and Paul C and I hesitated – this cost us, as the bird showed up again the next day, and several British birders scored, but the day after, when we finally bit the bullet and went, there was no sign. Rats! It was a subdued evening in our hotel back over the border in Derry. A photo from Mayo emerged a couple of months later, though belatedly, and it was just too little to go on to make an attempt. The trail then went cold.

Until New Year’s Eve, that is, when it was seen again in Roscommon, near Lough Funshinagh. Plans for New Year’s Day were thrown into chaos, but it wasn’t seen again that day, so interest waned and I reverted to my normal New Year’s Day bash around Somerset, though with passport and overnight bag close to hand in case a dash was required. 

Then, on 26 February, mayhem again as the vulture was refound only a few miles from where it had been on New Year’s Eve (the midlands of Ireland are not well watched at all, which may explain why it eluded rediscovery for quite so long). Clearly it was wintering in that area. Paul C and I quickly made plans for a two-day trip – there were several other good birds in western Ireland if time allowed, but of course that all depended on seeing the vulture first.

An early flight from Birmingham to Dublin and we were on site near Ardmullen, Roscommon by late morning. The bird had roosted overnight but had flown off less than an hour before we arrived. A bit of driving around then followed, trying to refind it and cursing our luck, before we got news that it was back in the field it had been in, on the sheep carcass it seemed to favour. Paul got us back to the site asap, and there it was! We (and about 20 others, including Eric Dempsey and top Irish lister Victor Caschera) had over an hour of excellent views of it on and around the sheep carcass, being occasionally harassed by the local corvids (including a cheeky Magpie pulling its tail – see Paul’s pic) before it decided to fly off.


I was in the middle of chatting to Vic through the window of our hire car when it reappeared in flight. Paul piled back into the car with the words ‘we’re going to try to get underneath it’ – and we did, half a mile down the road. Paul’s pics from that encounter are stunning (see below), and the views were every bit as good too. After a while we watched it drop into a field behind a tall gorse hedge and it did not reappear while we were there (though it did later). Very happy, we left it and headed over to Galway City in search of the Ross’s Gull there – in rapidly worsening weather we dipped and headed off to find a hotel, food, beers, and bed.

Next day we dipped the Ross’s Gull again early morning, then headed up to Doon Lough in Leitrim to see the Double-crested Cormorant, by which time the Ross’s had reappeared. Back down to Galway and this time we scored, seeing it fly past close inshore at Mutton Island, before heading over to Lough Boora Parklands in Offaly, where the Northern Harrier put on a brief show, as did a leucistic Chaffinch, though I dipped Grey Partridge again at its best site in Ireland (a reintroduction project is ongoing). A fantastic couple of days, though! Pics below again by Paul.


(As an aside, I enjoyed it so much I did another solo trip the following weekend, seeing, among others, the Double-crested Cormorant again, Cackling Goose, Glossy Ibis, and 2 Iceland Gulls in Sligo, and great views of the long-staying Forster’s Tern at Kinvarra in Galway, though I missed better views of the Ross’s Gull off the Mutton Island causeway by less than five minutes. Another excellent trip, nonetheless.)

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Grey-cheeked Thrush, Orkney

On 16 October 2001 I was (surprise, surprise!) at the Obs on Portland when news broke of a Grey-cheeked Thrush near Stromness on Orkney Mainland. For its third day! Most of the birders at the Obs that day had already seen at least one, if not several, Grey-cheekeds on Scilly in the 80s and early 90s, so thought I was utterly mad when I said I was going for it. But it had been nine years since the last twitchable one on Scilly and they had not been any more obliging elsewhere either. I had the scars of a couple of dips in the late 90s to show for it (I remember a particularly fruitless afternoon searching on my own for one on the coast path near Zennor, for instance). 

A few others of the keenest of the keen at the time were in the same boat, so that evening we gathered – Chris Batty, Rich Bonser, James McGill, and myself in the gold Audi that served me so well for several years (a brilliant car that ate up the motorway miles with ease). A mere 12 hours later we were at the ferry terminal at Scrabster, then on the ferry to Stromness. We were apprehensive, though, as we had had news while still in England on the way up that the bird had been trapped and ringed near dusk, going into the iris bed in which it had been roosting. Presumably with permission and to rule out it being a Bicknell’s Thrush, but it did not really help us – how would the bird react?

We had our answer fairly soon after arriving on site. No sign of a bird which had apparently been showing regularly feeding on the lawn of the house for the previous three days. And it stayed that way. We checked out the area as well as we could, but in reality we knew it had gone. A few hours later we headed back to the ferry, deflated, with the little matter of another 12-hour drive home in front of us.

Chris was an absolute star on that drive, keeping up our flagging spirits with stories and wicked impressions of birders on the scene. We had done all we could, but that was a small crumb of comfort. In the end, we only had to wait another year before a bird on Scilly heralded another run of twitchable Grey-cheekeds (including one in Hertfordshire!), but that was all in the future.