Thursday, 27 June 2013

NEEDLETAIL! The highs and lows of twitching.

Needletail. Thanks to Josh Jones for letting me use his photos.
There we were on the hard shoulder of the M6, a couple of hundred yards short of Gretna services. The blue lights were still flashing through the back window as Dan continued his futile attempts to start the car. We were due to fly out from Inverness in about 6 hours time.
In our minds, though no-one dared speak it, were thoughts of the air fare going down the drain and the chance of a Needletail going with it.

A Needletail.  Dream bird.

If only the rear plate light had been working, we would not have been pulled over and we would still be hurtling our way towards Inverness Airport.
As it was, we were entertaining thoughts of the most disappointing breakdown ever. If necessary, we would have dumped the car in the services and found a way, any way, to get to Inverness. But time was against us and we just had to be on that flight.
No way could we even contemplate this costing us a Needletail.

A knock on the window and it was the friendly police officer suggesting that we try bump starting it, but to keep out of the way of the lorries. So, protected by the still flashing blue lights, Dan and I put our all into pushing the car along the hard shoulder. After several miles (well, it felt like that anyway) we had to stop. A heart attack really would spoil our chances of seeing a Needletail in the UK.

But Josh thought we should give it one more go. He thought the car just might start. So we did. And it did.

Crisis averted. Fair to say we would not be stopping again before we got to Inverness.

Just in case you're wondering what all the fuss was about... Needletail, fastest bird in the world, ultra, ultra rare, enigmatic, likely to disappear at any moment, but on the lists of so many of the old birders. Needletail. The ultimate catch-up bird. Needletail. White-throated Needletail.
And so soon on the heals of the Pacific Swift. Unbelievable.

So, at seven in the morning there we were, checked in, through security and taking full advantage of the Executive Lounge. Yes, that's right. The Executive Lounge! With free newspapers, free sweets, free coffee, free cakes. One of us even had a free Bailey's!

Our plane - taken from the comfort of The Executive Lounge!

Free grub!
Not our usual style of travel, but booking the flights last minute meant we had no choice but to choose luxury.
We wasted no time in lowering the tone of the place.

The flight was short and a good job too. We were all absolutely hyped up for this bird. I couldn't keep still and my heart was racing (maybe something to do with the six shots of espresso macchiato I enjoyed in the Executive Lounge.) 

Only at the weekend I was telling relatives how the Outer Hebrides were my favourite place to see rare birds in the whole of Britain, not quite expecting that just a few days later I would be coming in to land at Stornoway Airport.

Approaching Stornoway
As we landed we received news that the bird was still there. GET IN! But a Needletail can disappear as fast as it appears and the job was not done yet. The news did nothing to calm us down and we were quickly into the hire car and I held tight as we took a leisurely drive down to Tarbert village on the Island of Harris - not actually separate from the Isle of Lewis. I don't get why it has another name.

We pulled up by the road overlooking the village at half past nine, where a small group of familiar birders stood looking strangely subdued. We baled out of the car before facing with the slow realisation that this morning's positive news had been an incompetent misinterpretation of a delayed twitter message - well, something like that, all a bit vague, Chinese whispers.

As the news sank in and we stood searching in vain for a flying bullet to appear over the village, the mood change was extreme, from tense excitement to desperate hope and despair. I dug deeply into my store of Stoicism. If they were all guaranteed, the edge would be taken off everything. Every now and then we need a dip to keep the successes special. The lows make the highs even better...
But a Needletail. Of all the birds to dip, a Needletail on the Outer Hebrides would surely test the resolve of the most optimistic of twitchers.

Just then, a phone call. STILL HERE. Over the loch just up the road. A scramble and then, THERE! THAT'S IT. Coming towards us. A brief view before we lost it. But seconds later it hurtled past.

Absolutely awesome. The low points of the last hour made it all the better. That dip could wait just a little while longer.

It had been an eventful lead up, but things were to take yet more twists and turns.
It wasn't long before we settled down to watching the Needletail as it gave great views twisting and turning over the loch.

It really was a cracker of a bird. But nothing was to prepare us for what happened next, as it began to hunt directly over our heads. At one point it flew straight at me and skimmed not six inches over my head. This went on for some time. It would head off to the other end of the loch, or soar over the hill opposite, but every time it came back to give absolutely stunning views. Sheer power. Sheer grace. A totally enigmatic bird giving literally  hair-raising views.

It's not often a mega rare shows this well.
(Thanks Dan for the photo)
The twenty or so birders present had all seen many, many special birds, but all were in agreement that this was really special. Something that none of us would ever forget.

Views don't get much better than this.
Photos courtesy of Josh Jones

Once or twice the bird flirted with danger with passing cars, but its supreme speed got it out of trouble. The weather warmed up slightly and the bird spent more time scything through the air scooping up the flies as they rose higher. Friends who had opted to come over on the boat should be arriving soon, bit this type of bird has a history of rising higher and just disappearing round a corner. But the bird still regularly returned to show off. Then, as it split the air just above our heads causing oohs and aaarghs, a jet did the same, skimming the top of the hill behind us before roaring over the loch and disappearing into the distance and over the mountains.
The bird was clearly spooked. It briefly disappeared before returning to give us a final by-pass and display of prowess. But it then headed off to the far end of the loch before disappearing round the corner. The arrivals off the boat were still inexplicably some way off (a delay in docking it turned out) and it wasn't looking good for them. Some forty minutes later they arrived. The bird had still not returned.

We said some brief "hellos" but didn't want to rub it in too much, so bade our farewells and headed off toward the airport very, very happy.

A great bird in a great place, good company, stunning views and to top it all both Josh and Chris had managed to capture stunningly good images.

Back at Stornoway terminal, the images went whirring into the ether of the internet, which was soon buzzing with admiration for the images.
News came through, too, that the Needletail had been relocated over moorland several miles to the south. So all who put in the effort had connected.

The flight back was a chance to crash out and for the body to begin recovering. The car started at the first time of asking and we began the journey South.

It wasn't long, though, before the final twist in the story. I glanced at my pager to see the message:

W. Isles    White-throated Needletail till c5.45pm Harris SSE of Tarbert then appeared to be hit by wind turbine.

Three minutes later, it was confirmed that the bird had been picked up dead.

Everybody was in shock. The memory of this beautiful, powerful and enigmatic bird was still freshly etched into our minds and the poor thing had come to a most unfortunate end. Our emotions were really being put through the wringer today.

The news slowly sunk in.

As one post put it:

"VERY VERY sad news indeed. RIP my friend though safe in the knowledge that you gave several lucky people the best day of their life today."
After stopping off near Pitlochry to admire a singing male Common Rosefinch, I caught up on some much needed sleep as we headed south. I eventually got back just before four in the morning. Three hours until the alarm would be waking me up for work.
I wonder what the next adventure will be.

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