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…

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