Thursday, 16 April 2015

Not So Great Blue Heron

My highlight bird of the week.
And no, it's not a Great Blue Heron.
If you're expecting photos of Britain's second ever Great Blue Heron, or even a thrilling description of the bird and its behaviour, then you'd better go find someone else's blog - someone who actually saw it!
No. This is a tale of woe, but quite possibly an unfinished tale. The story starts on 7th December 2007 with breaking news of Britain's first ever Great Blue Heron being found on the pools at Lower Moors, St Marys, Isles of Scilly. Great Blue Heron is the American version of our Grey Heron. The weather that weekend was horrendous, but we headed down overnight into the storm and crossed over to St Marys in the morning, more confident than usual that we would be adding a new bird to our lists. After all, the heron had found a perfect place to live, or at least to stay for a while. It was probably freshly in from America so would need a few days to feed up and regain its strength. And finally there was no way anything was going anywhere in this weather. The waves were literally crashing over the island and the buildings in Hugh Town were being pummelled, fresh seaweed being hurled up against their walls with every incoming wave.
Well, you've probably guessed what happened by now. No sign of the Great Blue Heron. Not ever. Never to be seen again. We trudged all over the island that day, getting pretty soaked, windswept and deflated in the process. To make it worse, the only way off the islands on Sunday morning was to get across to the heliport at Tresco, the neighbouring island. But there was no way that any of the boatmen were going to take us across, so we ended up stuck on the islands with a whole extra day to trudge around in our soul-destroying search. There was always a chance that we would get stuck, but at the time the priority was just to get across to the islands and see the bird. We could sort out minor details like getting back for work after that. Well, that was the plan and it all went rather spectacularly wrong. With the day's pay that I got docked, this entered the record books as my most expensive dip of all time.

Now, some seven years later, the pain of that miss has just about worn off. My life has changed a lot, but birds are still a big part of it. This Tuesday morning I was feeling pretty happy. For when I looked out of the window I found two Tree Sparrows, an ever rarer sight in our English countryside, dining at my feeders and even collecting nest material from the ground. These have been absent from the farm for the last two years, so I was thrilled by this sighting.

But the day was to take an unexpected turn. For that evening I came back from putting the chickens to bed to find my pager flashing and missed calls on my phone.
There was another Great Blue Heron in the country. It was on The Isles of Scilly, St Marys Island from the hide at Lower Moors. The exact same place that the first one was found. Not only that, but it was watched till dark feeding in the shallow waters of the adjacent Old Town Bay.
The timing was perfect. I was not due at work till Friday. Sue was going away this weekend, but I could be down to Scilly and back before she went. Perfect! Two hours later I was heading down to the outskirts of London to meet up with some birding mates from my old life in London and Kent. And by 6 o'clock Wednesday morning we were in Penzance ready for the almost 3 hours crossing. We would like to have flown, not only for speed and comfort but because we would get longer to see the bird. But the islands were enveloped in thick fog and for the third day running no planes were running so the only option was to wait till 9:15 and chug across on the Scillonian III.

We quickly had news from the island that the heron was still there and regular updates as we sailed towards our target through the fog had us feeling pretty confident that this time we would mend some of those old wounds and finally get to see Great Blue Heron in Britain.
But at 11am news came through that the bird had vanished from the bay where it was feeding and could not be relocated. This was worrying but not disastrous as there were about 70 people about to arrive on the island to help with the search. It wouldn't be too long before someone refound it .




Come half past two in the afternoon our mood was becoming somewhat less optimistic. We had about an hour left before we had to head back for the boat. Rich had to be back for a pre-wedding photo shoot (not something that's easily missed) and I really needed to get back to the farm. Overnight one of our ewes had slightly taken us by surprise and given birth. Sadly, the lamb had not survived the birth. The other animals needed looking after too and Sue would not be around to do it.
The thought of needing to stay on the island had not even crossed our minds till now.

Our undoing had been the tides, for the rising waters had clearly pushed the bird away from where it was happy feeding and the tide would not be going down again until after the boat had left the island! It was almost certain that the heron would return to the bay to feed in the evening, so with that in mind most of the travelling birders had decided to miss the boat and stay on the island, including half of our team. Rich and I were becoming pretty disconsolate when suddenly news came through that the bird had been refound in a weedy field further up the island. We ran back to the road and bundled into the first passing taxi. A five minute dash, out of the taxi only to be told that the bird had flown again.
We were firmly in headless chicken mode by now! We decided to head back to where we had just come in a bid to outwit the bird, but there was no sign when we got there. We met other birders with tales of poor views of two herons, one bigger than the other, one darker than the other, but it seemed no one had enjoyed great views. But right now any view would do! We had about 20 minutes left before we had to leave in the knowledge that while we were sitting on that miserable boat everybody else was sure to be enjoying protracted views of the heron as it returned to Old Town Bay to feed.

At that moment a heron flew toward us and dropped into an area at the back of the reeds, but try as we might we could not turn it into the Great Blue. There is no happy ending to this tale.

The time had come. We had to go. Ahead of us was a three hour chug across the sea, a five hour drive back to London and, for me, another two hours back to the farm. There was also the prospect of when we would be doing this whole trip again. In all likelihood we would be driving back on Thursday night if we had the energy. Not only would I be totally knackered, but the list of jobs to do on the farm would be mounting, I would have to ask favours of people and I would probably be in the dog house too!

And so to this morning. Amazingly the bird did not return to any of its favourite spots yesterday evening and, so far, it has not been found this morning. Rich's photo shoot may inadvertently have saved us from further misery.
I'm sure the story's not over yet, but as long as the bird does not reappear today it does seem like there is time for us to catch our breath and muster ourselves for the next attempt.

Meanwhile I am watching goldfinches and greenfinches on my feeders and hoping for the reappearance of the tree sparrows. I am anxiously keeping an eye on my pager too.

Edit: The 2 Tree Sparrows are still here.

... and the GBH has just reappeared on Bryher, another of the Scilly Isles.

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