Tuesday, 11 September 2012

To South Uist to see a Semipalmated Plover


The subject of our quest

There are some people who would find it an effort just to walk the 300 metres from my farmhouse to the end of my land, but a Bar-tailed Godwit has just been clocked flying 7258 miles non stop.
The Short-billed Dowitcher which I drove to Dorset to see last week had travelled here all the way from East coast America, at the tender age of a few months old and without its mum and dad!

But on Friday morning news came through of another transatlantic vagrant to make it across the ocean. This time a Semipalmated Plover had pitched up on a beach in South Uist, one of the chain of islands which run down the West coast of Scotland known as the Outer Hebrides.
This was to be the weekend for getting out the tractor and cutting the meadow, but that plan was hurriedly ditched. That job can hopefully wait whereas the bird might move on at any time.

So a crazy plan was set in motion which had me leaving my house at 9 on Friday evening and arriving, via Uttoxeter to pick up a friend, at Oban ferry terminal 465 miles and 8 hours later. We joined the sleepy line of vehicles waiting to be directed into the right lanes for the ferry boarding, only to find that this was the queue for the ferry to a different island and we could not queue for ours until 7am! The good thing about arriving at this time though was that we received some valuable advice to buy a ticket for the ferry. I had assumed that they virtually never filled up, but was informed otherwise. In fact we were unable to book the ferry back off the islands on Sunday morning, having instead to come off on Sunday evening. This was not terrible news, as it gave us longer to enjoy a beautiful set of islands and I did not have to be at work on Monday.

Being on the west coast and in a small town flanked on one side by sea and the other by mountains shrouded in a dull, drizzly mist, sunrise didn't really happen, but here's a general view out across the harbour taken when the sun should have been rising.

Saturday 8th September 2012
Not the Fens!
On the crossing we were lucky enough to see two adult White-tailed Eagles on the rocks with a young bird. As we sailed past these true giants took off and started fishing, swooping down on some poor fish just below the surface. Their quarry was pretty big as even at distance through the binoculars I could see it jumping out of the water in its effort to evade capture. It looked about the size of a small porpoise. I took a few scenery pics as we chugged along the channel between Mull and the mainland.




Once out to sea our journey was punctuated by two meals on board ship and a couple of hours catching up with sleep. There was still time for some seabirds though and we saw several groups of Storm Petrels, tiny black birds with white rumps, feeding on the surface of the sea. They look as if they would get blown into the sea by the slightest gust and swallowed up by the waves, but they are unbelievably hardy little creatures.

At 1:30 in the afternoon we disembarked at Lochboisdale and headed along the single track roads of South Uist to the south end of the island, taking the turning just before the causeway to Eriskay. After a short distance we saw a car pulled up by the side of the road. There was not much reason to be here other than for the birds and indeed we were lucky enough to be greeted by the finder of the bird, a very helpful man who had retired to the islands about six years ago. Not only did he give us a good description of where to go to find the bird, but he led us over the boggy hill and down onto the rocky beach and helped us locate it.



It was a tense 20 minutes or so before we managed to pick it out amongst the gangs of Ringed Plovers, its equivalent on this side of the Atlantic.


All the way from America, a Semipalmated Plover.
See how similar it is to the other bird in the pic, a Ringed Plover.
After 500 miles of driving and a 5 hour boat journey, we had caught up with our quarry. We didn't catch it, pursue it or harm it. We just enjoyed watching it on a wild and remote beach on a stunning island.

The rest of the day was spent trudging up and down beaches and across machair, that special Hebridean plantscape, searching for more transatlantic vagrants. Though not so rare, we did manage to locate a Buff-breasted Sandpiper and two Pectoral Sandpipers, all young birds blown across the Atlantic and dumped here in this unfamiliar setting.

Then began our final search of the day. Somewhere to stay. With phone reception patchy, to say the least, modern technology was not a lot of help, but we eventually came across a sign for the Orosay Inn and booked ourselves in for the night. The Seafood pie was amazing and the beer was good.
But nothing prepared us for the breakfast, the largest plateful of food I've ever had put in front of me. There was nothing that might go into a full breakfast that wasn't on this plate!


Crazy breakfast for a crazy birder.
And before you wonder, yes I did get up to take a sunrise photo, but it wasn't at all clear where the sun was supposed to be rising, as the sky was ominously dark. Anyway, here's where I think it was!

Sunday 9th September 2012
Still not the Fens!
As you can imagine, breakfast took quite some time to polish off, but it was needed for we did a lot of walking today in some pretty challenging conditions. We trudged along seaweed strewn beaches, crossed miles of sandy beaches and bays. We battled the wind to reach rocky headlands and scoured machair and the recently cut hay fields just inland.




It was a very good day though as we first relocated a diminutive little bird called a Semipalmated Sandpiper (only the fourth I've ever seen) feeding on the shoreline miles out on a flat, sandy beach. We drove rutted, sandy tracks to skirt along the coast and took shelter behind some of the agricultural machinery being used for haymaking. As we scanned a skittish flock of Golden Plovers we found two of their American relatives (surprisingly known as American Golden Plovers) and another three Pectoral Sandpipers. Five birds from across the Atlantic, all in one field. Absolutely amazing!

And a double treat for me, as a smallholder, to see how the Hebrideans harvest their hay, still using machinery but on a scale more akin to my own meadow. I now want a small baler or, preferably, a buncher which leaves the hay in traditional little hayricks. I also admired a whole host of trailers, gates and other agricultural devices. I can see myself being part of this scene one day.

By early afternoon the drizzle had developed into a solid sheet of fine rain which soaked everything it touched. We continued birding, but mostly from the car, before heading for our evening ferry. A shorter journey on the boat where I took advantage of a couple of hours nap time before the overnight drive back to Lincolnshire. Such a shame to miss the dramatic scenery of Skye and Glencoe on the way back.
By 9 o'clock on Monday morning I was sitting in a traffic jam on the outskirts of Nottingham. What a comedown.

And by half past ten I was pulling in to the familiar setting of my farm. And you'll never guess what!
After 1278 miles, there, perched on the gutter at the corner of my stables, was a Spotted Flycatcher, only the second I have recorded on the farm, and the first had been a major surprise.

Funny old game, birding.







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