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. 

Saturday, October 22, 2022


There are many species on the British List that are beautiful birds in their own right. But some rarities attain near-mythical status because they have occurred before, several times, but have never been twitchable. Some are both. Up until earlier this year, Eleonora’s Falcon was one of these, and another was Blackburnian Warbler. These two also, oddly, share the distinction of being among a small number of eponymous species named after a woman – in the case of Blackburnian Warbler it is Anna Blackburne (1726–1793), a pioneering English naturalist who corresponded with Linnaeus and Pallas (among others) about describing and classifying new specimens from the New World.

Just three previous records of this most stunning of American warblers had been seen by maybe 30 observers in total: one on Skomer in 1961, identified after the fact from a painting done by one of only three observers; one on Fair Isle in 1988 that was available only to those on the island for a small part of one day; and a three-day bird on St Kilda in 2009 that no-one off that remote island knew about before its departure. The Fair Isle bird was found by Bristol birder Jack Wilmott, who has rejoiced in the nickname ‘Blackburnian Jack’ in local birding circles for over three decades. So, a near-mythical, extraordinarily beautiful bird, speculated about by British (and no doubt Irish) birders heading into every autumn for years, wondering whether ‘this year’ will be the year it finally falls.

And so to 13 October 2022. Paul C was booked on a boat to try to twitch a Tennessee Warbler seen the day before on Skokholm (he sat out the Covid-ridden year of 2020, and so missed the unblocking of that also near-mythical, but less striking, species on Shetland that autumn). No sign, so the boat was cancelled and he headed back to Clevedon. Meanwhile, a 1st-for-Britain moth, Southern Brindled Green, had been trapped overnight at Portland Obs, so we made plans to go down to see that. Paul was just 10 minutes from picking me up at my house when all hell broke loose – the pager screamed ‘Blackburnian Warbler on Bryher’. The first real ‘drop everything’ bird on Scilly for some years. I rapidly booked us flights on the best (indeed only) option available that day, the last flight out to St Mary’s from Land’s End, grabbed my overnight bag already packed and ready, and legged it out the door to jump in Paul’s car.

We made good time and arrived at St Just airfield at 4.15pm and checked in. Good news – the flight would be taking off earlier than scheduled, by about 20 minutes. I had been trying to organise a taxi to the quay, a boat to Bryher, and overnight accommodation on the way down – well, two out of three ain’t bad, as the song says. Our taxi was waiting for us, and when we arrived on the quay looking for a St Mary’s Association boat (Joe Pender had been very helpful on the way down, but the earliest boat was likely to be 6pm, heading out to pick up birders already there), we found a Tresco Boat Services jet boat already there and just about to leave, with two spaces on it! The logistics had worked out better than we could have possibly hoped – all it needed now was for the bird to play ball.

It didn’t. We arrived on site in the Popplestone Fields before 6pm, but the bird was last seen that evening at 5.40pm, despite the two of us staying till dark – we’d missed it by about 10 minutes! And no way off Bryher, even if we’d wanted to leave the island, and no accommodation available either. So, after a wander through the fields in the dark and a pint at the Fraggle Rock, we found the entrance hall to the island church and settled down for a less than comfortable night. Good thing we were under cover – it pissed it down for over 3 hours during the night.

We were out again early morning, on site at 7am and waiting for birding light. At about 7.50 am I was in the right-hand of the two fields it had favoured the previous day when I saw a small bird fly across from one hedge to another, and called Paul over – it certainly had looked ‘interesting’. About a minute later, Paul said ‘I’ve got it’. A quick view at first, but conclusive – the Blackburnian had stuck overnight! Paul let out a huge roar of delight and relief, then hurried to put the no doubt very welcome early news out for the hundreds of birders on their way, while I got further views of the bird. 

Another set of views about 20 minutes later as it worked along the hedge in the left-hand field were simply breathtaking, and only the two of us there to enjoy them. John Judge, the finder, turned up, then the early boatload from St Mary’s – we passed on all our gen and waited until they had all seen it, then headed off to Olivia’s Café for breakfast, passing the keenest of the day’s mainland twitchers as we left. After breakfast Paul headed back to the bird to get some more photos in better light (he succeeded very well, as you can see from his pics reproduced here), while I stayed at the café charging my phone and enjoying another pot of tea, then pottered around near the quay looking for birds without finding anything of note.

Three boatloads of birders arrived after the Scillonian docked, with many anxious faces I recognised disembarking and starting the yomp across to the bird. The Blackburnian continued to show well, and on the journey back that evening the Scillonian was packed with very happy birders indeed. We got a lift from Neil Alford back to St Just and a helpful cleaner let us into the locked car park to start the journey home. We’d only got to Penzance when Paul discovered he’d left his phone at St Just. Back we went - it was all locked up again by then, but we managed to get it back. Then home for just after midnight for me.

What a stunning, stunning bird!

Friday, October 21, 2022

Varied Thrush

Early evening on 27 October 2021 I was sat at my computer pottering on with work when, at about 6.30pm, I received a terse message: ‘Varied Thrush, Orkney’. Whaaatt? I nearly fell off my chair.

There’s something about seconds for Britain. Firsts, even if regularly touted as ‘the next biggie’, are still by their very nature a complete shock when they do turn up, and some are so left-field that they defy any but the most optimistic level of expectation. And everybody needs them. Seconds, on the other hand – well, they’ve turned up before, so if you didn’t see the first one they sit there as a gaping hole on your list, gnawing away at your consciousness. Sometimes the first one was even twitchable, which means that some birders have seen one and you haven’t, adding to the pressure. Add to that the fact that the previous Varied Thrush was nearly 40 years ago and was an unlikely vagrant then – a second one was ‘cosmic mindf*cker’ time indeed!

(I’ll leave aside for the moment that the original Nanquidno bird was a very rare and unusual monochrome colour form, and all the discussion on that over the years. The simple facts were that it was accepted and there was another one, on Orkney, now. Eeekkk!)

Further details quickly emerged, while I was franticly trying to make travel arrangements. The bird was on Papa Westray, and had probably been present several days already. Paul C was near Land’s End, visiting friends, and was hastily extricating himself and packing a bag before heading back up, so needed me to sort out flights etc. I worked out there was an early flight from Edinburgh to Kirkwall, but flights to Papa Westray were booked up, so we still had to find a way to get to the bird. I ended up with one-way flights booked for both of us early next morning (a Thursday) and day return flights on and off Papa Westray on the Saturday as a back-up in case we couldn’t get anything else organised. Then Dan Pointon got in touch about a charter boat from Kirkwall leaving c.0830 next morning – could we make it? Yes, please!

I met Paul at his after a frantic drive back from Cornwall. In the end the logistics went very smoothly – a long but uneventful drive, a routine flight, news the bird was still present (yesss!), taxi to the quay where we met John Coutts (son of Dennis, and the last of the boat party, all others having been on the Edinburgh flight), and a much shorter boat trip than we thought – only just over an hour. Then the trouble started, for me at least.

We hadn’t managed to arrange any transport on Papay, so a long route march across the island beckoned. A quick loo break already meant I was behind most starting out, and it quickly became clear that I was dropping further and further behind. In years gone by I might have shared this fate with Paul C, but the new slimline, fit version was off and away with the rest of them. The final ignominy was being passed in the last few hundred yards by a sprinting Dan P, whose plane had landed a long time after our boat had. I arrived on site at least 10 minutes after the rest of our crew, who had all seen the bird by then. Thankfully it was only a very few more sweaty minutes before I could say the same and drink in the views of the bird. And what a bird! I’d never seen Varied Thrush anywhere before, so it was a world tick, and watching it bounce around its favoured garden in such a stunning location was very special indeed!

After barely an hour of watching it (and getting a single decent digiscoped pic, below), it was time to head back to the quay, as we knew the charter boat was already on its way back with another load of twitchers, headed by Fred Fearn. The walk back was a repeat of the way out, and I was absolutely shattered when I trailed in last back to the quay, legs complaining badly and blisters already formed (I discovered later). That Fred had managed to arrange a lift for all of his boatload on the island, and that several of them passed me waving happily from the back of a pickup, simply rubbed it in. Still, back on dry land in Kirkwall, after a rest and some food, return flights organised (and Saturday’s flights on and off Papay cancelled to free them up for others), and with a few hours to kill, Paul and I could reflect on a very, very happy experience indeed. Bird of the year without a doubt, and already a strong contender for bird of the decade.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Indigo Bunting, Ramsey Island

 After a hectic week, Saturday 19 October 1996 was shaping up to be quiet, except for the continuing presence of the Great Knot on Teesside. Having gone all the way to Marazion to year tick Spotted Crake in August, I found it ironic that one should turn up at Firepool in the middle of Taunton, about a mile from the office, and showing well. Afterwards I headed into Devon, aimless but for being within twitching distance of Cornwall. I’d finally decided what to do (go see a Ring-necked Duck at Beesands Ley) and was committed when the blow fell – immature male Indigo Bunting on Ramsey Island off west Wales, for its second day! It was always the fear when going towards Cornwall, and it came true. At least I saw the duck, which was only saved from being a serious contender for dullest rarity of year by it not being an official rarity any more. James and Paul, who were both at home, charged and got the bunting that evening (two of the eight ‘bumpstart birders’, as Birding World memorably put it, who did so). Alastair and I arrived at St Justinians lifeboat station at 2am in the pissing rain, hoping.

We managed not to be first in the queue because we didn’t get out into the pouring rain while it was still dark, but we were still fairly high up. We heard news that the bird was still present. Great! (But not unexpected given the overnight conditions.) Then disaster struck – the boatmen decided it was too rough to make the crossing! They would hang on in case conditions eased with the turn of the tide, but the earliest was going to be early afternoon, and there was absolutely no guarantee about that either. The next several hours were tedious – Alastair spent most of it in the car, eating my biscuits, while I stood out in the now intermittent rain (the weather had killed radio reception completely, so we couldn’t even listen to that). A self-dubbed lesson in ‘weather bollocks’ by Pete Fraser lightened a few hearts as we came to accept the increasing likelihood that we would not get on that day.

Suddenly, at about 1.30pm, David Jefferies from Bournemouth appeared, out of breath, at the top of the long set of steps up from the lifeboat station itself to tell us that they were thinking seriously of giving it a go at 2pm, as the wind and tide conditions had eased enough to get us on to the boats (the crossing itself was no problem apparently). We all queued on the steps, clearing out of the way rapidly when members of the lifeboat crew appeared, running down to answer a shout. Huge respect to them, and a fair bit too to the island boatman who dived into the sea and swam out to one of the boats to bring it in to the bottom of the steps. With some people having already given up and left, we got on to the second boat – the wooden one – and avoided being on the RIB, which we knew from the Myrtle Warbler twitch in 1994 was fun but wet. Landing on Ramsey is also fun, if a bit scary – standing on the slim gunwale of the boat (or the side of a soaking wet RIB), you had to grab the rope attached to the metal steps and wait for just the right moment near the crest of a swell to swing yourself across. Krypton Factor twitching!

After all the palaver of the day, it was a blessed relief to clap eyes on the bird in the little valley behind the warden’s cottage. Just a brief flight view first, but it soon settled and gave great views, perched on the gorse munching on craneflies. It was a little cracker – a soft brown body colour, but blue wings and tail, with blue also on breast and throat, hidden under the outer feathers unless the wind caught them.

A while later, having had our fill, Alastair and I had the luxury of deciding to leave while others were still running up from the quay – we could have stayed longer but thought it best to get off. Back at the lifeboat station we were met by a line of anxious faces, many of whom I knew, eager for news. Not sure whether knowing that it was showing virtually continuously at fairly close range raised or lowered their tension levels. Thankfully the weather held, the boatmen were brilliant, and everyone there that afternoon got over, saw the bird well, and got back. The journey home was horrible (heavy rain most of the way), but I didn’t mind. The only really worrying moment was the report of two white-rumped swift species (and a Red-rumped Swallow) flying round a church in Fife  – relief and laughter when they turned out to be two House Martins and a Swallow!

The recent Scilly bird didn’t hang around (or survive?) long enough to be twitchable by more than the swiftest movers, so another, easier opportunity would no doubt be widely welcomed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Siberian Rubythroat, Osmington Mills, Dorset

I’d gone down to Portland on Sunday 19 October 1997 to look for a Pallas’s Warbler seen the day before, but no joy there. Still, I’d seen a Yellow-browed and just after 2pm I was looking for another in the grounds of Southwell School (now closed, but back in the day there was access to the grounds at weekends). Then came a Birdnet pager message which I had to read twice before even the first four words began to sink in – Dorset male Siberian Rubythroat…!! It’s still a very rare and desirable bird now, though most big listers have caught up with one on Shetland at some point in the intervening 25 years, but this was only the second-ever British record, and I was about 10 miles away from it! I left instantly in a screaming panic. The drive through Weymouth was painfully slow, and at one point I lost it and beat a line of traffic at a set of lights by going down the empty right filter lane, then nipping back in. The first car in that line contained old friends Dave Paull and the late Alan Bundy. Their conversation apparently went something like this: ‘Look at that crazy bastard!’ ‘It’s Julian, follow him!’

So it was that we were among the first on the scene at Osmington Mills. Most of the gathering crowd took up position in front of the clump of bushes across the field behind the pub, but I went round the side and found a spot where a skulking sibe might appear. Unknown to me, Paul Harris had already crept in under the bushes and come face to face with the bird feeding in a rivulet. It promptly flew up, breast feathers still wet, and came out in full view of the main crowd (now about 70 strong) to preen in the afternoon sun. Running down the slope to get round to join them, I planted my foot in a hole and went face first, cracking cartilage in my ankle and landing full on my tripod, smashing it to bits. Winded, I was up and running again in a few seconds, trying to get a view. The first birder I asked for a look through their scope was unhelpful, but the guy next to him just said ‘In here mate’. Still don’t know who he was, but I was very grateful, as I got my first view of that ruby-red throat and then gradually took in the rest of the bird.

It was now just before 4pm: the Rubythroat showed well for the next 45 minutes or so as a stream of panicking birders arrived, to be directed to one of several scopes set up on the bird. Then it went missing, and anxiety set in amongst those who’d just arrived and hadn’t seen it yet. I went back to the road briefly, in time to see an ambulance arrive. They were busy – one birder (Roger Broadbent’s wife, if I remember correctly) had tripped on the pavement and hurt her knee badly, another guy had slipped and broken his collarbone (the path round the side of the pub was muddy and slippy and claimed more than one victim in their haste), and there was my ankle, which was by now very sore. Then, with the light just starting to fade, the bird showed again, and most got reasonably good views as it moved through the bushes.

Reports from Scilly were of shell-shocked birders wandering around aimlessly that afternoon, unable to do anything about it on a Sunday (they would have struggled to make it anyway).  A Hampshire birder I knew who was on an early flight off next morning anyway was offered £200 cash for his ticket that evening. Sadly, the Rubythroat departed overnight, leaving a very large number of birders gathered from dawn on Monday morning empty-handed. Friend and near-neighbour Bill Urwin was among them (he’d been in Norfolk), though he found some amusement in finding a pager dropped by somebody the evening before, that had presumably been beeping away merrily with all the lift offered/wanted messages on the Sunday evening.

As darkness fell on the Sunday, a reporter from Radio Dorset appeared and interviewed me about the bird. Amazingly, I managed not to swear, but instead babbled, excitedly and probably incoherently, about this ‘mythical’ bird. It remains one of the most extraordinary rarity moments I have ever been involved in.