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.

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