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.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

If there’s any such thing as an enjoyable dip…

On 14 May 1997 I got an early morning call from Paul C – ‘Veery on Lundy’! This was disastrous news for me – I had enough time to make that morning’s sailing on the Oldenburg, but I knew I’d already pushed my luck a little too far over recent months in terms of taking time off work at short notice. I could have taken a sickie, but that wasn’t my style. Besides, my boss of the time (who, fair play, had been more than reasonable, most of the time) had once said that if she ever caught me taking a sickie for a bird all privileges would cease immediately and all requests for leave would have to be 24 hours in advance, in writing. So I would have to eat it this time and hope the bird stuck. That Paul and a few others managed to get on and see the bird (and his story of that day is an entertaining tale in itself) didn’t help. Nor did the prospect of the first clear night in a couple of weeks.

The birders assembling at Ilfracombe the next morning did so with a sense of foreboding, and we had our answer early, before we boarded the boat – no sign, despite searching. Still, we’d bought the tickets and there was always a chance that it was there but hiding – it had been elusive the previous day, after all. So we got on the Oldenburg (once dubbed, unforgettably, by a Devon birder I know, the ‘Old and buggered’) and off we went.

But the news continued to be negative, so we were pretty sure by the time we arrived at Lundy that it had gone. That was back in the days when the quay was not big enough for the Oldenburg to dock, so you had to climb off it into a tender to get on the island, and then there was the killer walk up the hill (that, of course, hasn’t changed). After mooching around the Millcombe Valley for a while, just to formalise the dip, we decided to go for a walk around the island. And that’s when the day and the mood made a change for the better.

With both the day twitchers and the few birders staying on the island spreading out, news came in of various finds, and I had a high old time that afternoon, twitching from bird to bird, in glorious sunshine. A very smart Woodchat Shrike up near Pondsbury was followed by a possibly even smarter male Red-backed Shrike near the western end of Quarter Wall, both giving great views. Then it was a short hike down into St John’s Valley where a Golden Oriole gave itself up after a little bit of a wait (a Devon tick, and still the only one I’ve ever seen in the county), and a Turtle Dove showed well there too. Add in a bunch of commoner migrants, and a couple of Puffins among the seabirds off the return crossing, and we almost managed to forget we were dipping an American mega-vagrant.

It took me another five years to see a Veery in Britain (a saga that involves a couple of stories worth recounting on another day), and I had no way of knowing on that day whether those opportunities would ever arise. But, while missing it inevitably cast a long shadow, the quality of the birds we did see made for a great day out otherwise. If there’s any such thing as an enjoyable dip, this one has to be right up there.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A long-awaited Somerset tick

Red-footed Falcons have become more regular in Somerset in the last decade or so, but they used to be very rare birds indeed in the county. After only a handful of previous records, at least 11 turned up in the massive 1992 influx, but I was new to the county then and didn’t have my own car, so missed them all (though on an East Anglian trip with Alastair Stevenson that June I ticked Redfoot near Swanton Novers in Norfolk and found my own near Lakenheath two days later).

Spool on 16 years then, to 2008, before the next chance came to add the species to my Somerset list. On 13 May a female was found over Shapwick Heath – I dived out  of work at 4 pm with Alastair and Stuart Holdsworth and headed straight up there. It was very mobile though, and the weather was turning – overcast and cool. After dashing out on Shapwick only to find it had drifted off south, we headed back to the car park and drove along the minor road along the south side of the reserve, through Buscott, in the hope of picking it up. But no joy. A certain amount of despondency set in, and there was talk of jacking it in, but I wasn’t prepared to give up just yet. But what best to do?

In the end we drove back to Ashcott Corner and walked out on to Shapwick again, much more in hope than expectation. We got as far as Noah’s Lake and had been scanning around for a while when suddenly I picked it up sat in one of the spindly dead trees to the north of the drain – oh, yesss! Where had that reappeared from? I got the news out and birders spread out over the site quickly gathered. It was a bit of a surprise to see a car coming towards us along the track from the Ashcott Corner end (the gates either end are locked and only reserve staff and a few regular volunteers have the combination), and even more of a surprise to see that in the front passenger seat was TV’s Simon King. Not that it had anything to do with the great man himself, but the car then very nearly ran over my foot!

Some enterprising soul had gone round through the wood to the Meare Heath hide and discovered that the bird was showing better from there, so we trogged round and joined them. Still scope views only, but very welcome indeed. It was now about 7.30 pm, though, so we decided to head home, very happy.

I’ve seen at least another four Redfoots in Somerset since, including the incredibly showy immature female not far from home at Isle Brewers in 2018, but gripping it back that evening, when it seemed so likely we would dip, was a special moment.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Sprosser and the butterfly

I had ticked Thrush Nightingale at Dungeness in early May 1994, but though I saw it and heard it singing, the views were not as good as I would have liked. So, when one trapped at Landguard Obs in Suffolk in late August 1995 showed signs not only of putting in an extended stay but also of being abnormally showy, James McGill and I teamed up with Bill Urwin to make a play for it.

We arrived at Landguard before dawn on Sunday 3 September and positioned ourselves in front of the famous Icky Ridge, the bird’s favoured haunt, at first light. The usual anxious dawn wait, but thankfully not for long – Bill noticed a movement at the base of the ridge, then suddenly the Sprosser hopped out into the open. Fantastic views! We watched it for a long time, knowing we might never have a chance of such views of Thrush Nightingale again (and it hasn’t happened yet, 25 years later). But eventually we wandered away to have a look around and give thought to what else to do with the rest of the day.

News of a Greenish Warbler in Norfolk made up our minds. With Bill driving we were in Cromer in what seemed like no time, and joined a small crowd in the site of the old zoo. In what was now glorious warm sunshine, the Greenish was showing well and singing away – a new and interesting experience for me. Our next target was a Barred Warbler at Gramborough Hill near Salthouse, and again we were blessed and it did not take long after arrival to get good views. A nice bonus – not exactly brightly coloured, and no big deal for birders living on the east coast, but they’re much rarer in the southwest and I’d seen very few up to then.

What to do next? Well, another Greenish Warbler had been found in Wells Woods, so we headed to Holkham to look for it – why not? We hadn’t been there long though, and hadn’t seen the bird, when another pager message came through – Camberwell Beauty, in Norfolk! A rare and beautiful butterfly, and difficult to twitch, it was a big need for all of us, and one appeared to be hanging around in Hopton, near Great Yarmouth. We left immediately.

It’s probably best if I draw a veil over Bill’s driving on that leg, especially on the Norwich bypass – it was, erm, committed (though as it was Bill I always felt safe, strangely – well mostly, anyway). But he got us to Hopton Garden Centre in one piece and in double-quick time. On a sunny Sunday afternoon the garden centre was understandably busy anyway, and several other birders were already there too. The Camberwell Beauty had been favouring a buddleia just outside one of the large sheds full of plants and potential buyers, but had gone missing not long before we got there. Over the course of the next hour or so the bemused punters were treated to the sight of a bunch of nerds with bins scurrying around as the butterfly toured the site, being seen briefly before moving on. But at last it returned to its favoured buddleia and stayed there long enough for everyone, including us, to catch up with it. And what a wondrous, gorgeous thing it was! We attracted a crowd ourselves, watching the watchers, and were able to point it out to them and explain why it was so special. A fantastic experience, and very funny too.

After a while the Camberwell Beauty went off on a flyabout again, and as it was mid-afternoon we decided to start heading back towards the southwest. But we had one last stop to make on the way. A few days before, an adult Long-tailed Skua had turned up at Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire and, perhaps even more surprisingly, it had stuck around. So we dropped in, and were so glad we did – not only was it an astonishingly beautiful bird, but so confiding too – the views were simply mind-blowing! It was a stunning end to a brilliant day.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Southeast year listing day trip, 1996

In 1996 I did a big year list, I mean a properly big one – 354 BOU on current taxonomy – which puts me in a fairly exclusive club (though there were three or four birders who finished with bigger totals that year alone, so I probably don’t even make top 10 all-time). It’s a total I will never beat, nor am I likely to try – not sure I could cope with the endless night drives these days, and it would be so much more expensive to do now. Not to mention the ridiculous carbon footprint it would leave.

But anyway, for anyone who has not done a big year list, here is a tale of a single day that spring that gives you an idea of what it’s like. And remember, this is one of the good days, when everything went well…

I had spent the working week planning that weekend’s targets and so had my route for Saturday 11 May worked out, attempting to mop up a list of target species across the southeast of England. An early start saw me cover the 120 miles or so up to the M25 before 9 am, and then out on to Staines Moor, where a dazzling female Red-necked Phalarope was still on the little pool it had been favouring for a few days. Great views of a great bird. But little time to linger, as the next target was two Night Herons found the day before at Lade Gravel Pits near Dungeness, another couple of hours’ drive away. Risky, for a couple of reasons: firstly, it was not a site I’d been to, despite various visits to Dunge, so it took a little time to find the way in. Also, the middle of the day is hardly the best time to be looking for Night Herons, of course, but in the end it didn’t take long to get decent views as they were roosting more or less in the open in a willow. Bonus!

Two targets down, two to go, and now time to start working my way back west. The next site was on the South Downs near Rottingdean. Not that far away, comparatively – only 60 or so miles from Dunge – but it was a snaggly drive along the south coast and took quite a while. And then there was a fair walk to do once there. But it was so worth it – good scope views of a trip of five Dotterel, including a couple of very smart females. Another year tick in the bag! As a bonus, alongside them, not a year tick but putting even the best of the Dotterel in the shade, was an absolutely stunning summer plumaged Golden Plover – the best looking one I’ve ever seen.

After the slog back off the downs and another hour’s driving, it was late afternoon before I arrived at Sidlesham Ferry Pool for my final target of the day, which also duly fell quickly – if only all days were like this one – a lovely Temminck’s Stint. Nowhere near as colourful as the other target waders seen on the day, but a dapper little thing all the same. And a real bonus here, as alongside it was a  Little Stint – another year tick! OK, one I was sure to get at some point, but very nice to bump into a pretty spring adult. It was early evening by now, but as my luck was in I decided to push it and nip the short distance down to Selsey Bill for a quick seawatch, in the hope of a Pom or two. No joy with that, but I could hardly complain.

I arrived home some 14 hours after leaving it that morning, having spent about 9 of those driving, solo, and with 450 more miles on the car. Utter madness, I know, but it had been a cracking day.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Citril Finch, Norfolk

The forecast for Sunday 10 May 2015 looked good for migrants on Portland, so I headed down there early. No big fall, but there were certainly birds about, so after better views than the day before of the Tawny Pipit in the Crown Estate Field opposite the Obs, I headed up into Top Fields. Reaching the ‘Oriole Bushes’, I found a very smart hepatic morph female Cuckoo – a rare beast in itself, and showing well. I phoned it in to the Obs, and a few other birders came up to see it. Keeping an eye on it, I neglected to check my pager. Then another Portland regular asked me ‘So, are you off to Norfolk then?’ ‘Why, what’s there?’ ‘Citril Finch, just broken.’ Oh sh*t! For one reason and another I hadn’t been able to make it to the Fair Isle bird in 2008 – now I had a very unexpected chance to retrieve!

I legged it back down to the Obs and quickly prepared to leave, being waved off around 10 am by a small band of amused Obs regulars, one comment of ‘You’ll never make it’ ringing in my ears. Plenty of daylight left, just watch me try!

There’s little to tell about most of the drive up to Norfolk, apart from the usual stressed-out twitcher stuff – checking for updates, swearing at other drivers safe in the knowledge they couldn’t hear me, that kind of thing. Heading towards the coast from Fakenham I got passed by a red Skoda going like a bat out of hell – ‘birder’, I thought. Turns out it was LGRE – fair enough, he will know Norfolk roads better than I do – but I still arrived at Lady Ann’s Drive at Holkham only a minute or two behind him. The Citril Finch was showing at the west end of Holkham Pines as I arrived, but it was still a long enough walk to get out there – about 1½ miles (so too far to run, certainly for me). The positive updates from birders heading back helped, but still … like most birders I know, I have missed birds before by mere seconds.

About 40 minutes after leaving the car park, I arrived at the dell at the west end of the pines and, glory be, the Citril Finch was still present. Not on view immediately, but after only a couple of minutes or so, the stress of the drive and the walk turned to relief and then joy. I really, really, really didn’t expect to get that one back so quickly, if at all. And it was a smart little bird. It was also being obliging, showing well most of the time, and the views I had of this one were better than my only previous Citril Finches in the Pyrenees some 12 years before.

After about an hour or so of good views and chatting with various birders I knew there, and with afternoon turning to evening, I started the long slog back. Another bonus was great views of a trip of 20 Dotterels at Choseley Drying Barns, including some very smart females. Then it was the long drive home, arriving just before midnight.

My relaxation was short-lived. The Citril Finch only showed briefly very early next morning before disappearing for good, but then that afternoon a Moltoni’s Warbler was found on Blakeney Point, too late for me to drive back to Norfolk and get it. Paul and I dipped horribly the day after – the walk out and back nearly wiped us out. Still, I got Moltoni’s back, also on Blakeney Point, only three years later. It might be a much longer wait for another Citril Finch!

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Dalmatian Pelican

I suppose I wasn’t alone in not reacting too much when I saw Paul Freestone's news of a flyover ‘White Pelican’ at Gwithian in Cornwall on the evening of 7 May 2016. After all, we’ve been there many times before with White Pelican, and all have either been known escapes or the chances of them being escapees have been deemed too high by the powers that be for them to make the grade.

Things changed dramatically over the next couple of days as it was confirmed as having been a Dalmatian Pelican, and then on the morning of Monday 9th it was seen again near Land’s End. Twitch on! I couldn’t get down there till mid-afternoon, though, by which time it was proving itself to be very mobile, not staying in any one spot for long. Plenty of birders connected when it stood in a field just north of Sennen for nearly an hour, and I was getting regular updates from Cliff Smith, already on site, but it had disappeared again by the time I arrived.

A frustrating couple of hours followed, as it was seen again a couple of times briefly, including sat on Trevorian Pool for a short while. Dodgy mobile reception was not helping, as it was often difficult for those who bumped into it to pass on news quickly. Afternoon turned into evening, it was cool and misty, and I faced the prospect of dipping and having to either stop over or come back the next day.

The remaining birders looking were by now a bit spread out. I knew Alan Lewis and a few others had headed to Polgigga to look there, so I started heading that way, but decided to stop opposite the entrance to Skewjack Farm for a think. It seemed like a decent vantage point in itself, and the gulls on the farm outbuildings would surely let me know if anything the size of a pelican was flying around. So I stayed there and scanned, though without feeling much hope.

Suddenly, the gulls off to the northwest went up – I scanned through them and found a very large bird flying east. It was the pelican! Even better, it turned and starting heading towards me. Stunned, I watched as it circled over Skewjack and then came down, landing in a field very close by. It was out of sight at first, but a quick shift down the road about 50 yards and I could see it from the road, stood in the field!

Dalmatian Pelican over Skewjack Farm (Photo: © Alan Lewis)
Another advantage of my viewpoint was actually having some mobile signal, so I could spread the news. A small crowd largely made up of some of Britain’s keenest listers quickly built up, and all got fantastic views of the bird. I confess I was feeling quite pleased with myself – a world away from twenty minutes earlier.

The pelican stayed in that field for maybe 30 minutes or so, but true to form it suddenly decided to move elsewhere. In doing so, it flew almost directly overhead (which is when Alan got his stunning pic) – awesome to see such a massive bird at such close range!

I left for home, very happy. I still thought its chances of being accepted were no more than 50:50, at best, but it was in the bag, just in case. And yes, when it eventually moved up to the Taw Estuary in the autumn, I made sure I saw it there too, ready to go on my Devon list if it was accepted. Which of course duly, though still a little surprisingly, happened a couple of years later – bonus!

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Booted Eagle saga part II

Earlier in this series of birding tales, I covered the extraordinary weekend in April 1999 that included finally seeing the Booted Eagle at Lady’s Island Lake, Wexford, at the third attempt (having dipped once in Dublin in March and previously in Wexford that month).

But of course, the Booted Eagle story doesn’t end there. It was claimed a number of times that April, in various locations including in Waterford and Down, prompting the editors of Birding World to print that Ireland ‘was awash with Booted Eagle sightings’. It would be unkind to suggest that this dismissive attitude was because they hadn’t seen it yet, and scepticism about some of the sightings was rife, but as one of the sightings was ours and they certainly knew who had seen it that day, safe to say some of us were not that impressed with them at the time. Be that as it may, it headed north and later turned up on Rathlin Island (where the BW eds did catch up with it), then went missing.

After a bit of a gap, punctuated only by a brief sighting in Kent, suddenly, in late October, it was in Cornwall! OK, so we’d seen it in Ireland so it was happily pencilled in on British and Irish List (pending acceptance, of which more later), but now it was also a first for Britain. (To pre-empt any arguments, Rathlin Island is in the UK, but Northern Ireland is not part of Britain for bird recording purposes. Nor is the Isle of Man, but that’s another story.)

Paul and James dashed down to Drift Reservoir and saw it. I was only an hour or so behind them, but dipped. There was a bit of keystone cops incident later where several carloads of birders all dashed down a country lane and there were plenty of happy ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ while watching a raptor sat in a field, but it was very obviously a Buzzard, so I left them to it.

A few days later, I went down to look again, and took old friends Stuart Holdsworth and Alastair Stevenson with me this time. The Booted Eagle was still around, but it was being a sod again, drifting around the Toe, but mostly around St Buryan. Touring the area in hope, we had just passed the turning for Lamorna and were approaching the Merry Maidens stone circle when the bloody thing flew low across the road directly in front of us! I recognised it instantly and screeched to a halt in a gateway so the boys could leap out and get a good view as it flew low north down the field, mobbed by corvids. Result!

It stayed in Cornwall for most of November, then disappeared. After a few months of radio silence on it, I think we all assumed it had gone. Then, in March 2000, I was in Poole looking for a Green-winged Teal when the pager beeped once more. The first time I think I had ever seen Mega and Somerset in the same message – the Booted Eagle was over Shapwick Heath, now! Panic! I made it back to the Levels as soon as I could, abandoned the car in the car park at Ashcott Corner, and ran. The first birders I met said ‘Yes, it’s still here’ – great! A short time later I was getting great views of it circling over Meare Heath – closer views than in Ireland, and a lot longer views than in Cornwall. All that running around after it, and I get my best views on the Avalon Marshes – what are the odds? A few days later it had moved to Chew Valley Lake and I saw it there too, just for the hell of it.

But after all that – twitching it seven times, seeing it four times, in four different counties across two countries – I still can’t tick it. It has never been accepted either side of the water. A joint press release by BOURC, IRBC, and NIBARC (representing Northern Ireland) says that they weren’t prepared to accept it for a number of reasons, including feather wear, the time of year it was originally found, and concerns about their ability to make long sea crossings. (See full text here: Rumours abounded at the time that political sensitivities meant that the BOURC of the time didn’t want to be seen to disagree with IRBC about a bird which turned up in Ireland first, and so were not prepared to accept the record into Category A for that reason also. Whatever the truth of it, it is frustrating, but while I don’t always agree with records committee decisions, I abide by them, for good or ill – I’ve gained often enough out of them. The committees may change their minds over time, especially if another should turn up. Twitching is a long game anyway – I can wait.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

A bird of wild places

I had passed my driving test in the States in the summer of 1985, but it was nearly another three years before I did so in the UK, at the second attempt. (Amusingly, perhaps, I failed the first time for being too cautious pulling out at a junction – not something I could have been accused of often since, especially on twitches.) So there I was in Birmingham in early May 1988, new licence burning a hole in my pocket – I hired an Escort van for a few days, slung a mattress in the back, and headed off on a road trip.

If I’d been a bit more clued-up, given the time of year I might have headed to the coast – North Norfolk, perhaps, or Spurn – but I decided on a swing round the Peak District. It was great fun – I was young, I had the freedom to visit new places, go where I wanted, park up and sleep where I felt like… And the scenery was fantastic, picturesque villages full of old stone houses, and bleak and wild landscapes.

The best day was Saturday 7 May. I started off by walking along the old railway line at Miller’s Dale, then spent most of the rest of the day in the Goyt Valley. A walk in the woods alongside Fernilee Reservoir was much the same experience as I now get (in normal years) in the wooded combes of Exmoor or the Quantocks – a parachuting Tree Pipit, a dapper male Pied Flycatcher singing its little ditty, a Wood Warbler shivering with the effort of pouring out its melancholic heart (oh, that song!), and a couple of scorching male Redstarts. Absolutely magical for a young birder, and still so even now.

But these were all birds I had seen before, albeit only a few times each by then. There was one bird that I hoped to see for the very first time, and for that I needed to head further up the valley, above the woods and out on to open moorland. Past Errwood Reservoir I stopped again and walked down to the old packhorse bridge (a delight in itself) – there I heard an unfamiliar thrush-like song. Was it? Was it? Yes! In one of the small trees just upstream of the bridge was a fantastically smart male Ring Ouzel singing away. Wow! I found another further up the valley, and a few Red Grouse even further up too, where the bracken turns to heather.

(As an aside, it was also the last day of the football season, and late afternoon I was sat in the van in a car park, a Mistle Thrush showing fabulously in a small tree just in front of me, as I listened to the radio and celebrated my beloved Aston Villa clinching promotion back to the old First Division. But I digress.)

Ring Ouzels have been special birds for me ever since that day, birds that speak to me of wild places. On Exmoor, Blackbirds moved ever further up the open combes in the 1990s, and we lost Ring Ouzel as a breeding species in 2002, so most of my encounters in recent years have been with migrants. Still, some of those have been in their old haunts, the wild and open landscapes where they fit so perfectly. But even if they are just in a horse paddock on Portland, every single one is an experience that is eagerly anticipated, and to be savoured to the full when it happens. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Which way to go?

As is so often the case, in normal years, I spent a lot of time in spring 2000 on Portland, and so it was again on the morning of Saturday 6 May. There hadn’t been a fall, but there were a few migrants around to make an enjoyable morning’s birding – Pied Fly, Cuckoo, Whinchat, and best of all a Wryneck. Then, late morning, two rare birds broke within a few minutes of each other – an Alpine Accentor at St Margaret’s in Kent, and a Hudsonian Whimbrel at Goldcliff in Gwent.

A classic twitcher’s dilemma. I needed Alpine Acc; on the other hand, Hudsonian Whimbrel, though only a subspecies at the time, was already mooted as a potential split, and was much the rarer bird of the two. There was no way of getting to both that day, and no way of guessing which, if either, would stick to the following day. So, which one do I go for?

The Alpine Acc won, at least to begin with – if I saw it, I could tick it straight away, and as I hadn’t been able to get to the Rimac bird in 1994 it was an itch that needed to be scratched. So I headed off up to Dorchester, then east. I hedged my bets, though, as there were no updates forthcoming, and went up the A354 via Blandford Forum to Salisbury, rather than heading for the faster A31/M3 route.

By Salisbury there was a ‘no further sign’ message on the accentor, but the whimbrel was still present. So I changed tack and headed northwest towards Warminster, in the general direction of Gwent. Then, just north of the A303, there was another message saying the accentor had been seen again briefly. Meanwhile the whimbrel had been lost for the time being, so I changed tack again, did a very quick U-ey back to the A303, and started off east again. Pretty soon after that there was another update on the accentor saying ‘no further sign’ – there was even some doubt whether the most recent report was gen. Plus the whimbrel was now back again.

This was getting silly now. With only the pager messages to go on, if I kept reacting and changing plans I could spend the rest of the afternoon zig-zagging across southern England and getting nowhere in the end. So I formulated a new plan: if I kept heading east A303/M3 I reckoned I could reach the M25 by 4 pm, and at that point I would be about equidistant (at least in terms of driving time, if not actually in miles) between St Margaret’s and Goldcliff, with time still to get to either. Whichever bird was showing at that point, I would commit to going for, hard.

And so it was. At 4 pm, as the M25 junction hove into view, there had been no further sign of the accentor for a couple of hours, but the Hudsonian Whimbrel was showing well. Decision made – M4 here I come!

It was well into the evening before I made it to Goldcliff, and a bit of a walk to get round to by the seawall and join the small crowd, but I was quickly directed on to the whimbrel once there. We didn’t seem generally to know much about them back then, apart from the dark rump and tail, duly seen as it flew a short distance to a new feeding area. But the slight differences in coloration and the stronger, brighter head pattern, that we now know are features, were fairly obvious that evening. The head pattern in particular made it easy to pick out from the flock of 60+ Eurasian Whimbrel it was with.
As dusk approached, I left to head home, with the pager telling me that the accentor had still not been seen again. So the insurance had been well and truly bought, compared to a dispiriting dip – it had taken me a while, but I had made the right decision in the end.

(I was even happier when the same or another Alpine Accentor was found at Corton in Suffolk the following Saturday – it was only a one-day bird, but news broke early enough for lots of birders to get there and get good views, this time including me.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Little Swift

Monday 5 May 1997 was a Bank Holiday. My own car was in dock, so I had hired a car for the weekend – trouble was, it was a deal off a local firm that was a cheap daily rate, but not unlimited mileage. Also, I had discovered over the previous couple of days that the steering was a bit cranky. So, I was tempted by a Wood Sandpiper at Pennington Marshes in Hampshire that would have been a year tick, but I decided not to drive that far and headed for the Exe estuary instead.

By a little after midday I had been there a while, but not seen much of note. Then, bang – Little Swift on the Isle of Wight! Big, big need – a lot bigger listers than me back then still needed it too. Here I go then! Swifts are notoriously difficult to twitch, as they can disappear at any moment, but can also reappear, sometimes hours later. Some will hang around all day, but very few stay longer. So the only tactic to employ really is to commit early and hard, get to the site and see what the score is, accepting that the chance of connecting is likely to be a lot less than 50:50.

Trouble was, like I said earlier, it was a Bank Holiday Monday. Traffic was a nightmare – sheer volume plus an accident or two gumming up the works. The swift was at Bembridge, at the east end of the island, and most birders were heading for the ferry from Portsmouth. For me, however, the best bet looked to be the Lymington-Yarmouth ferry and a drive the length of the Isle of Wight. If I could get there. It took three and a half hours to get to the ferry terminal, to find I’d just missed a ferry and had to wait nearly an hour for the next one. All the while messages were saying that the bird was showing very well whizzing up and down the clifftop. If I’d chosen to go for the Wood Sand I would have been in prime position, and on site by now, and I knew it – instead I was kicking my heels and doing my pieces. All I could do was book the car on the next ferry and wait.

While I was waiting, Matt Prince and Nicky Bacchiu turned up from Devon too, and as the ferry price was per car, I invited them to join me. I had stressed out to the max, and as we at last drove off the ferry at Yarmouth, bird still showing, I lost it. I’ve pulled some strokes while driving on twitches, but that afternoon (early evening really) I did things I had not done before, and have not since. Matt once told me they realised what they were in for when I decided to beat the line of traffic off the ferry by going round a mini roundabout the wrong way, and as for when I overtook a car on a blind uphill bend – well, the pitch of Matt’s voice from the back betrayed genuine fear. It was years before either of them got in a car with me again after that day.

Happily, we got lucky and arrived in Bembridge in one piece. The bird had left the clifftop, however, and its current whereabouts were unknown. We joined the search to relocate it. Time passed, rendering the crazy driving earlier pretty pointless as it happened. It must have been nearly an hour later when suddenly there was a shout and a run on. On one of the surburban streets inland from the cliff a small band of birders swelled to a crowd, all staring upwards. There, right overhead, was the Little Swift! Fabulous views as it circled at rooftop height above us – we could even see the paleness of the undertail as it spread it. The birders around me were a sea of beaming smiles.

The swift and the flock of hirundines it was loosely associated with moved a little, and the crowd followed it, down some wooden steps to a new vantage point. The bird remained viewable from there until dusk. As the light started to fade we gave up, having had our fill, and were sat in the car when the last birders turned up, including LGRE, who hared past us and down the steps just in time to see the swift before it headed off to roost.

We headed back towards the ferry in the dark, at a rather more sedate pace, much to Matt and Nicky’s relief. Later I found out that a friend had rolled his car somewhere in Hampshire on the way down – he was OK, though he spent a night in hospital under observation, the car was a write-off, and of course he missed the bird. A salutary lesson after my earlier antics – suffice to say I’ve paid more attention to the phrase ‘Drive to Arrive’ ever since.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Down in the Park

In the mid-80s, while I was a student at Birmingham University, my local patch was Edgbaston Park – not hugely exciting, but rewarding for a poor young birdwatcher with no transport. As well as the usual woodland birds, back then it had regular Ruddy Ducks among the wildfowl on the lake, and occasional surprises such as Brambling and Crossbill. By 1986 I had graduated from the university, but was living and working nearby, still visiting the patch, and still seeing student friends regularly. One night in the Mason Hall bar, I got talking to one guy, a friend of a friend I’d not met before, and he showed a bit of interest in going birdwatching, so I invited him to join me that weekend.

So we met up on Sunday morning, 4 May, and nipped into the park through the usual gap in the fence opposite the halls of residence. A pleasant walk down through the woods on the west side later, we arrived at the small bridge over the spillway at the southwest corner of the lake. There, in a small tree right by the bridge, was a pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers! A lifer for me, on patch, and a bird I had really wanted to see. I knew they had been recorded in the park occasionally before, but not for years. And now, in front of me, not just one but a pair! Even better, they appeared to be investigating a hole in the tree, perhaps as a potential nest site. I watched, rapt, as they showed extremely well for several minutes, then suddenly flew off into the wood. I was over the moon!

We moved on and saw a nice selection of the other birds the park had to offer too, then, the morning’s visit over, my companion and I went our separate ways. I never saw him again – I can’t even remember his name –so I assume he decided that birding wasn’t for him. I guess he didn’t realise just how lucky he was – the one time he goes birding and he sees that! Given the amount of time we as birders spend looking for Lesser Spots every year, it hardly seems fair, does it?

Sadly, I never saw the Lesser Spots again either – presumably they similarly thought that tree wasn’t for them – it was very close to the path, after all. But for me that brief encounter is one of those memories, little cameo moments in my life as a birder, that will live forever.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Ton up!

One of the many things that isn’t now going to happen this month was my planned big daylist round Somerset. I’ve not done a big May one, so it would be a fun challenge – maybe next year. I’ve been doing a New Year’s Day bash, however, for years. Recording 100+ species on 1 Jan is relatively easy in some counties with the right amount of planning and effort, but I’ve found it tricky in Somerset, and have only ever managed it once…

The route varies every year, but my usual start point is Ashcott Corner on the Avalon Marshes to get off to a strong start. However, the appearance of a Cattle Egret at Wet Moor in late December 2007 (they were rare then) threw a spanner in the works, and required some last-minute rejigging of the route. So, with the weather set fair, on 1 January 2008 I arrived at its favourite fields near Long Load a little before 7.30 am, just as it was starting to get light. Nearly an hour later the Cattle Egret had not shown, I was already behind the clock, and had only 28 common species under the belt. Crucially, however, some of that total were birds that are easily missable on a daylist, but which had given themselves up: the Little Owl was in the same tree it had been in a few days before, but Green Woodpecker, Yellowhammer, and Bullfinch were all distinct bonuses.

Pausing only to note House Sparrow and Collared Dove in Long Load itself, I headed up to Ashcott Corner and the Natural England car park, arriving at 8.50 am. I could only allow myself just over an hour at Shapwick Heath, just enough to get out to Noah’s Hide and back, but I still got most of my target species, including a good selection of wildfowl and some ‘one-hitters’ I was unlikely to see elsewhere such as Greylag Goose, Lesser Redpoll, and Reed Bunting. Unusually, a Water Rail showed itself, but I had to settle for only hearing Cetti’s Warbler, Siskin, and Kingfisher. Even with limited time, I was a bit surprised not to get Marsh Harrier (though there were fewer around then than now), but as I was leaving another birder pointed out a big bonus – a ringtail Hen Harrier! It was now after 10 am, though, and I was still ‘only’ on 55 species (compared to 60 when I set my then record of 94 species in 2003). Momentum is an important factor in daylisting, and a slow start can mean you either miss species entirely or spend too much time trying to see them at secondary sites later in the day.

I normally do Westhay Moor next, but passed on it this time and headed straight to Wookey Hole, where a Dipper showed well, as did Marsh Tit. Next stop was my usual spot for Marsh Tit back then – the now-defunct feeders by the car park at Ebbor Gorge, just a few minutes’ drive away. Nuthatch, Treecreeper, and a calling Jay (all again easily missable daylist birds) were added quickly there – great! I had clawed back some time and was now only 10 minutes behind schedule.

Another bonus was a Mistle Thrush flying across the road near Cheddar – my luck appeared to be in with uncommon resident species, and my optimism had returned. Paul Bowyer had already texted me to say that the goodies of recent days were all still at Cheddar Reservoir – Great Northern Diver, Black-necked Grebe, Scaup, and Ruddy Duck all fell easily, plus the more usual wildfowl and gulls (including Goldeneye, easy then, rather trickier now). An excellent result, leaving me on 71 species as the last minutes of the morning ticked away.

On the spur of the moment I decided to squeeze in a visit to Brean Down (another regular spot, but one I had initially decided to leave out this time). It quickly felt like a mistake, as there were lots of people around, and while Raven and Stonechat fell, the other main targets – Rock Pipit and Black Redstart – didn’t. Moving on swiftly to Burnham-on-Sea, quick looks at the scrub and beach behind Andy Slade’s house and off the bottom end of the seafront came up trumps with more ‘one-hitters’ – Blackcap, Sanderling, and Ringed Plover – as well as several commoner coastal species. I was up to 85 species with still four hours of daylight to go!

At Combwich Pill the staked-out wintering Common Sandpiper played ball and was quickly added to the total, then a Grey Wagtail (a regular New Year’s Day bogey bird) landed on the road in front of me as I drove through Otterhampton. Surely I had by now used up my quota of luck for the day, but apparently not, as virtually the first bird I saw when scanning at Wall Common was a Short-eared Owl drifting along the beach! I picked up more waders too, coming in on the rising tide, and a good stomp round the saltmarsh was productive too – Meadow Pipit and Skylark were duly seen, and the hoped-for Jack Snipe flushed from under my feet, but a Rock Pipit was an unexpected retrieve after the earlier miss. This was getting ridiculous – now on 96 species, I’d broken my previous record and it was still only just gone 2 pm! On the way back out, a Stock Dove in roadside fields on the Bridgwater side of Cannington was another score from a good but not 100% reliable stakeout spot, continuing an unreal hit rate on these on the day.

Meanwhile, the Cattle Egret had been seen at Long Load, and, flushed with success, I decided to give it another go. It was a long drive and a risk in the context of the day, but yet again I got lucky and the bird showed almost immediately walking across a gap in a hedge. A good thing too, as time was now running short, and even visits to the remaining stakeout sites would have to be lightning quick, never mind having time to walk in good habitat in the hope of cadging a few more species. Catcott Lows obliged with Pintail but not Golden Plover or Black-tailed Godwit (perhaps my most glaring misses on the day). The honour of being the 100th species fell to a Sparrowhawk shooting across roadside fields near Clewer – a late score for another hit-or-miss daylist bird. Back at Cheddar Reservoir, the Goosanders were now in for the night, and scouring the gull roost produced another real bonus bird – an adult Yellow-legged Gull.

As 4 pm came and went, I dashed back down to the Avalon Marshes to finish off at Ham Wall, in the hope of Bittern or Barn Owl. No joy with either of those, but as the light finally faded, a calling Tawny Owl became the 103rd species recorded on a memorable day.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Going Dutch

In late autumn 2013 there was a bit of an influx of Hawk Owls further south into Europe than usual (though sadly none made the sea crossing to Britain). In particular, one took up temporary residence in the city of Zwolle in the Netherlands. It seemed an ideal opportunity to see a much-wanted bird on a relatively cheap day trip. So, early on Monday 2 December I flew from Gatwick to Schiphol, picked up the hire car, and drove the hour and a half or so east to Zwolle.

The site, though easy to find, seemed pretty unlikely for a forest owl, and was hardly picturesque – a line of trees along a service road sandwiched between an industrial estate and the Marsweg, one of the main routes south out of the city. But I knew l was in the right place, as there was a healthy enough crowd of Dutch birders (for a Monday morning, and a bird which had been present for a few days) looking up into the trees, big lenses trained on one spot.

And there it was! A stunning, magnificent Northern Hawk Owl, sitting there looking down at me! Wow! I would be lying if I said that the setting didn’t detract just a little bit from the moment (seeing a pair in the more traditional setting of a Finnish forest was at that point in the unforeseen future), but it was fabulous views of a dream bird. And the location also provided a comedy moment – a security guard from one of the industrial units came out to have a chat with the crowd and the owl, swooping from tree to tree, nearly took his head off.

It appears I had got lucky – the previous day it had been over the road in the nearby park, and much trickier to pin down. But today the owl was moving up and down the same line of trees, and showing well nearly all the time, so I spent another hour or so watching it and chatting to some of the Dutch birders.

At last, however, I had had my fill, and besides, I had another target in mind. There was a Two-barred Greenish Warbler at a small nature reserve (Kamperhoek) by the Ijsselmeer, only about 40 minutes away. Having missed a couple of British ones, it would also be a world tick.

I knew where the site was, sure, but little about access or where to look for the bird once there, so it was a bit of a wing and a prayer job. But, as back home, if you want to find the bird, find the birders. I saw a few cars parked in a layby alongside the reserve, and noticed a birder walking back towards them, so stopped and piled out. In the end it was a fairly short though muddy walk to where the small crowd was gathered, and I settled down to wait with them.

After an hour and more of no joy, my mind was turning to when I had to leave for my flight back, when suddenly there was a shout. My Dutch is non-existent, but the excitement was unmistakable – the Two-barred Warbler was showing! It was being a typical phyllosc, flitting rapidly among the trees on the other side of a small dyke, so getting on it was tricky. But the Dutch birders were again very friendly and helpful (and most spoke good English), so I managed to follow their directions and get a few good if brief looks at it. It sat still for a minute or two and a couple of guys got scopes on it, so we all had scope views, albeit partially obscured. Not great views, but good enough.Then, suddenly, it vanished, and that was it for the afternoon.

(There's a brief YouTube clip of it, from another day, which gives a fair idea of what it was like: 

By now time was running on, so I headed back towards Amsterdam, checking fields on the polders for geese etc. without much success. Still, I reflected as I jumped on my return flight, it had been a cracking day.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Desert Wheatear, Salthouse

It was mid-November 1996 and I was still going strong in my big year, well into the 340s, but likely year ticks were starting to run out, so there was no rest for the wicked when a Desert Wheatear was found at Salthouse in Norfolk. Bill Urwin and his son Dave were also going for a big yearlist – as we only live a few miles apart, we travelled together a lot that year, which helped me immensely – so we arranged that they would pick me up in the early hours to be at Salthouse for dawn on the 17th. Then I did something a bit daft – as I knew I wouldn’t be driving, I went to my local pub, which was a bit notorious at the time for lock-ins. And so it came to pass that I just had time to stagger back up the road and change into birding gear before Bill and Dave appeared. I jumped into the back seat, steaming drunk, and promptly fell asleep and snored all the way to Norfolk. Charming, eh?

At dawn I got my comeuppance – it was cold and wet at Salthouse, I was hungry and tired, and a stinking hangover was just about to start kicking in. There were a few other birders there, and people started fanning out to look for the bird. I tried too, but pretty quickly ran out of steam – I felt terrible, it was clear the others weren’t having any joy finding it, and then it started to rain again. I stood, sunk in my (entirely self-inflicted) misery, and looked down at the ground. There, not three feet away from me, trying to take shelter in an open and very inadequate bush, was the Desert Wheatear!

It looked just as miserable as I felt, and plainly didn’t want to move from where it was, so I backed off it and called people over. Everyone present got great views – shame the bird was soaking wet, but so were we. I honestly have little other recollection of that day, and what notes I have don’t help, but the moment when I realised I was standing right next to the bird is etched on my memory.