Sunday, November 5, 2023

Oh Parula!

On the night of 24 September, I toyed with the idea of going for the unidentified Empid at Cilan Head on the Lleyn Peninsula in N Wales, but was too knackered to be there for dawn, so I slept on it, which turned out to be a good move. Monday 25th dawned bright and clear, and of the Empid there was no sign. I settled down to get on with some work, then had to cut a phone call from Duncan Walbridge short as mega-alert went off yet again: ‘Sorry Dunc, Parula’s just been seen again on Scilly. Got to go.’

It had been seen briefly on the Saturday just gone, then no news at all on the Sunday, when the weather on Scilly was foul, but now it was a lovely day there and up it popped again. I had a horrible history with the species, having passed up the opportunity to do my first twitch to Scilly in 1992 for a showy bird on the Garrison on St Mary’s, then missing a one-day bird on St Agnes in 1995 by leaving the islands a day early and being fogged off the day after. A dip at Brownstown Head in Waterford with James McGill was followed by not getting to a 2010 bird on Tiree in time because of work commitments. Lots of others who had been waiting less time for one saw the Tiree bird very well. Having been a seemingly regular vagrant in the late 1980s, records had fallen off a cliff and this was only the fourth record since that 1992 bird. A bogey bird indeed!

Back to 25 September. It was now nearly 11 am, so too late to make the 2.05pm flight from Land's End I had booked in a panic on Saturday, but the A30 roadworks have caused so many delays that Skybus were happy to transfer me free of charge to a later flight at 3.40 pm. Twitch on! Once again there was little or no accommodation available, but, with help from friends on WhatsApp, I managed to book a Tresco Boat Services boat on to St Martin’s at 4.45pm. The flight was 20 minutes late (Tense? Me? Oh yes!), but I arrived at the quay on St Mary’s at c.4.30pm and my boat (the Cyclone) was there waiting. Excellent! We whizzed across and landed at Higher Town quay by 4.50, I legged it across the cricket pitch, and got gen about where to look from a few casual birders by the pitch. Then I bumped into a couple and their young son who had just been watching it, but it had flown off from its favoured willows just a minute or two before I got there. Scream!

I set about searching, on my own by then, and just about half an hour later, I relocated it fairly high up in an elm about 50 yards away. Only a brief, flicky view and from underneath, but I had at last seen a Parula! I spent some more time hoping it would come back to the willows again (and trying to bring my phone back to life to put out an update), but it didn't and activity quietened down after the sun went off them. Eventually I left and caught my pre-arranged 7 pm boat back to Mary’s. Straight to the Co-op for food and fags, then on to the Scillonian Club, where I bumped into Higgo and started in on several pints of Cold River cider to celebrate. I also jammed in on a speech by the CEO of Harland & Wolff about their plans to provide new ferries on the route to/from the islands, which went down well with the locals (a fast ferry doing 3 or 4 trips a day in summer sounded good to me too, though it’s unclear whether it would be running in the main birding season).

I found a spot to sleep which was at least private and dry (I'm not saying where in case I need to use it again) and settled down to an uncomfortable night, cushioned by the alcohol and the warm feeling of having finally seen my bogey bird. I still felt a little cheated though, given the outstanding views others had had until just before I got there. Still, there was always the morning.

Dawn broke on the Tuesday overcast and occasionally wet, but the rain cleared through quickly to leave a bright, sunny day, and I jumped on the St Mary’s Association boat that currently runs to St Martin’s at 0845 every weekday. I knew Dan Pointon and Andy Holden were on the first flight on to Mary’s but it might be tight for them to make the boat. It was – I was standing over the boatman, cajoling him to hang on just a few more minutes, but he was in the middle of casting off when I saw their shuttle bus coming down the quay. They made it, just. After landing at Lower Town quay it was a bit of a hike across the island, but it wasn’t too long of a wait at the favoured willows before we were treated to sumptuous views of the Parula. These were the views I had wanted the night before, and they were stunning! What a bird! Thirty-plus years of hurt had gone away the night before, but this was something else. 

Photo: Pete Garrity
After a while the Parula flew off into the elms, so we headed to the bakery, where Dan rapidly demolished a pasty, then fruitlessly looked for a Red-eyed Vireo seen the day before near the campsite. We were all off on a 2.30 pm flight (Dan and Andy spent less than 6 hours on the islands - very efficient twitching indeed) and my journey back home was routine, apart from a cracked windscreen due to a large stone kicked up by another car on the A30.  It didn't stop me grinning, though.

One song kept popping into my head the night before in the Scillonian Club, so here is my version (with sincere apologies to the late Leonard Cohen and indeed everyone else):

‘Now I knew that there's a bogey bird

Photo: Pete Garrity

That lots had seen but I'd not heard

And it goes by the name of Parula

I'd missed it for years

Then another appears

And shining in the sun is a Parula

A Parula, a Parula

Oh Parula, oh Paru-u-ula’

After that, things started to calm down a bit, though a well-watched one-day Blackburnian Warbler on Shetland kept the run of true megas coming (and also the thanks offered to the birding gods for the long-staying Bryher bird last year). Then Irish (and some British) birders were scrambling when Ireland’s first Cape May Warbler (a real scorcher, much better-looking than the Unst bird of 10 years ago) was found on Achill Island. There were also some high-quality American birds available in the last few days of September and first few of October for birders seeking to fill in gaps on their lists: 2 Bobolinks on Scilly, Yellow Warbler on Tiree, and a very showy Veery on Shetland. The few who needed all of them must have been bouncing around like yo-yos.

Meanwhile, another British tick had popped up for me: a classy-looking juvenile Northern Harrier on the Lizard. I’d seen two in Ireland before, so it wasn't a desperate 'need', but as there were other decent birds in Cornwall too, I made an effort once I’d got some work done. I dipped on 5 October, despite spending five hours in two watches overlooking Goonhilly Downs: I did take some time out and head over to Polgigga, where I was exceedingly lucky to get the briefest of brief views of a Black-and-white Warbler trapped in Nanjizal the day before – it only showed twice for about a minute each time that day. A return visit on Saturday 7 October got me flight views of a Purple Heron at Marazion Marsh and at last views of the harrier, now down at Kynance Cove, including a stunning slow fly-past at no more than 60 yards’ range. I got home that evening happy that I was, at last and for now, Back to Square One.

Those first few days after ex-Hurricane Lee hit were the most intense birding period I have ever known, and I was lucky that most of the serious action for me was within relatively easy reach. We may not see its like again.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

‘Never seen anything like it…’

Such was the reaction of one twitcher of nearly 50 years’ standing I spoke to during a seriously intense and unprecedented American vagrancy event in late September 2023.

British and Irish birders’ eyes lit up when they saw the track of ex-Hurricane Lee, hitting Nova Scotia on Saturday 16 September and then screaming across the Atlantic by Monday night on 18th. We’re used to such systems, of course, but not this early, so anticipation was high that it might bring across something rarer than the regular October Yank vagrants. We were not, however, anything like ready for what actually happened…

The 16th had already seen a spectacular and unprecedented twitch by my old mate Paul Chapman, travelling from Scilly to St Kilda in just under 24 hours to claw back Tennessee Warbler, but that’s his tale, to be told another day. Cliff Swallows had been seen in unprecedented numbers in Iceland, so a twitchable one in Kent on 19th was only surprising in its location. Not a tick for the big listers, but still a quality rarity. Then, the next morning, Ireland’s first Blackburnian Warbler was found on Skellig Michael, one of the most difficult islands to get to at all, never mind in a hurry. Ex-Hurricane Lee had already produced a real mega, and we thanked the stars for the Bryher bird last year.

A few Red-eyed Vireos in western Ireland and Scilly were only to be expected, but that evening though, even the biggest listers were quivering at news of an Empidonax sp. on Skokholm; it was confirmed several days later as an Alder Flycatcher (which most have seen), but there are a couple of likely Empids that haven’t turned up yet, so you have to have your wits about you. Then all of that was blown away as, just before dusk, Toby Phelps hit gold dust on the mainland at St Govan’s Head, Pembrokeshire Magnolia Warbler! A near-mythical bird this side of the Atlantic, with only two previous British records, the only twitchable one being on Scilly way back in 1981! To say this was huge is a massive, massive understatement.

Dawn on 21st saw a big crowd gathered in a surprisingly capacious car park (it needed to be!), including birders I had not seen on a national twitch for donkey’s years – everyone was out for this one. Cliff Smith picked the Magnolia up in a thermal imager nice and early, and over the next couple of hours we were treated to some sumptuous views of it flicking around in gorse, bracken, and hawthorns in the little valley east of the car park, the yellow underparts shining in the occasional sunny spells. What a magnificent bird!

Photo: Ashley Howe

After a while it flew a little way up the valley and landed close to me, giving me more gobsmacking views, before moving further up towards the car park. News of a Red-eyed Vireo at Sker, Glamorgan, had Welsh listers scurrying away, but by now it was clear that a serious vagrancy event was on the cards, as mega-alert was going off at regular intervals: a Bobolink on Skokholm (where the as-yet-unidentified Empid was also still present, unattainably as the swell was still too big for boats to go), a Tennessee Warbler on Barra, and two different Baltimore Orioles in Ireland.

My crew of Paul C, Paul Gregory, and Matt Slaymaker were already on our way back through South Wales when another huge blow struck – Bay-breasted Warbler on Ramsey Island! Eeeek! Even rarer than Magnolia; literally everyone bar the one birder who found the first one needed it; and we were very close to it! However, it very quickly became clear that there would be no boats to Ramsey that day due to sea conditions, though some headed to St Justinians and looked over Ramsey Sound in agony, as they could see the few birders on the island watching it! Paul C booked himself and me on to the first available boat on Saturday morning, and we headed back, as Paul G and Matt had other places they had to be. We were all seriously bummed out, and had to remind ourselves that we had just that morning seen a Magnolia Warbler!

The 22nd was, by comparison, fairly quiet, though a new Tennessee Warbler and Baltimore Oriole in Ireland reminded us that the fallout from Lee was far from over. Paul C and I travelled separately back to Pembrokeshire for the Saturday, as he had family commitments later that day; a good thing it turned out to be too, as another day of utter madness was just beginning. While we were waiting for our 10 am boat to Ramsey (incidentally getting great views of a Wryneck on the coast path at St Justinians), the next mega-alert went off – Toby Phelps had done it again! One better in fact, by finding Britain’s first Canada Warbler, only a few miles from the Magnolia Warbler (which was also still present for the Saturday crowd)!  For those of us who had seen the Irish bird at Kilbaha in 2006, which showed very well, no problem, but for those who hadn’t, or who don’t ‘do’ Ireland, an absolute must-see bird. 

First things first though for those already queuing – on to Ramsey, where we were corralled on arrival and given a list of do’s and don’ts, under the watchful eye of a couple of policemen (yes, really), then the short distance up to overlook the warden’s house and the willows in the back garden. The Bay-breasted Warbler was still present and giving great views, but then it flew up the slope and landed on some brambles about 30 feet from Paul and myself. Absolutely stunning!

Photo: Paul Chapman

Paul headed back to the quay, to get off asap to resume family duties. Then all hell broke loose. Bear in mind that the 80 birders on Ramsey (plus another 80 still queueing at St Justinians) included most of the biggest listers in Britain, but as mega-alert kept going off, plenty needed something somewhere. Bruce Taylor came up trumps again on Barra with Britain’s second Philadelphia Vireo (a tick for Paul, though I had seen an Irish one, again at Kilbaha, on a day when he was unavoidably tied up), but there was only a short time before the blow fell on me too – Parula on Scilly! My bogey bird. About half an hour later, news of an Ovenbird on Rum had other birders wondering how to get there, while another Empid, this time on the mainland in N Wales, had us all a bit worried about what it might turn out to be. Some dashed off the midday boat, legged it up, saw the Bay-breasted almost immediately, and legged it straight back down again to get in the (very orderly) queue to get off. Some were planning to hit the Canada Warbler, which was at least easily accessible, while others who’d already seen that on the way were planning to head for a hastily arranged boat to Bardsey for a Black-and-white Warbler found on there.  It really was that mad a day. There were younger but very keen listers who left Ramsey having seen a huge mega-tick, but with at least three possible ticks for them already on the board, spread widely up and down the country, and with no way of knowing which, if any, would stick.

Off by about 12.45pm, I paused long enough to book a flight to Scilly on Monday afternoon, but only in hope, as there was no further sign of the Parula that day. Mid-afternoon I arrived near Stack Rocks to look for the Canada Warbler, and it was a real mess of a twitch. Given the habitat the bird had chosen it was always going to be, and I saw nothing I would class as bad behaviour (apart from some of the parking, quickly sorted out), just lots of birders trying desperately to see a first for Britain in a willow clump, where views were inevitably brief and not very good unless you were lucky. In 90 minutes I saw the bird briefly twice – enough for the British tick, just. Thankfully I was less in need of great views than many others there. At 5pm, with the wind increasing and the weather deteriorating, I left and headed for home. Later I found out that Harry Murphy had managed to get on to both Skokholm and Ramsey and had had a four-tick day: a first for Britain, a second, and two thirds. Surely an unbeatable all-time record?

Sunday 24th was mercifully quieter, as we were all a bit knackered, though some of the keen youngsters were still travelling. Some of the keen older ’uns too, as Paul spent the next two days searching on Barra for the Philly Vireo, with no joy. Meanwhile, Bruce managed to find yet another Tennessee Warbler and added at least another three to the Red-eyed Vireo count on the island. (Now there’s a question for another day – who did better: Toby Phelps, with two absolute mega mainland finds (Magnolia and Canada), or Bruce Taylor, who found Philly Vireo, 2 Tennessee Warblers, and at least 5 Red-eyed Vireos over the same few days?) 

Meanwhile, there was still the (very elusive) N Wales Empid to worry about, and an elusive American warbler found near Briton Ferry in S Wales that turned out to be another Magnolia – the relief when it was finally worked out and was ‘only’ a bird we’d have given our eye teeth for just a few days earlier! I spent the day unsuccessfully looking for a Red-eyed Vireo trapped twice on Portland the previous day and again right at dawn, but it melted away, largely unseen in the field.

Utter madness, but it wasn’t remotely over yet…