Wednesday, 22 April 2015


"YOU KEEP AWAY FROM THE BIRDMAN, GRACIE," my father had warned me often enough. "Keep well clear of him, you hear me now?" And we never would have gone anywhere near him, Daniel and I, had the swans not driven us away from the pool under Gweal Hill where we always went to sail our boats.

The opening lines of Why The Whales Came, my favourite book by my favourite children's author, Michael Morpurgo. I've just started reading it with a couple of the children I teach. This, as you'll see, is a remarkable coincidence.

The first time I dipped Great Blue Heron, Britain's first record, on the Isles of Scilly back in 2007, I distinctly remember the waves breaking over Bryher - not just the beach but over the whole island!

The second time I dipped Great Blue Heron, I couldn't even see Bryher - the whole of the Scilly Isles were cloaked in thick fog. And that was just last Wednesday.

But when I disconsolately boarded the Scillonian III late afternoon last Wednesday, I didn't expect Bryher to be weighing quite so heavily on my mind all weekend. For on Thursday evening the Great Blue Heron, having given the run around to so many who had dropped everything to try to see it, was relocated on Big Pool, Bryher. This is that very same 'pool under Gweal Hill' in the book.

The pool under Gweal Hill, aka Big Pool, Bryher
And there the Great Blue Heron (henceforth known just as GBH) stayed, more or less, all weekend. In any other circumstances, I'd have been straight back down to the Scilly Isles, but circumstances colluded to keep me on the farm. There was no getting out of it. While those who take their twitching at a slightly more leisurely pace headed down to those famous birding islands to see this beast of a heron, only the second to cross the Atlantic and be found in Britain, I was at home, licking my wounds after my two previous misses and straining at the leash to get back down there.
The GBH was weighing heavily on my mind and it seemed inescapable. Everywhere I turned on the internet I came face to face with images of it.

Finally the time came. GBH had become personal. The first dip, back in 2007, had taken us by surprise. We really had expected to see that bird. Even worse was that the truly horrendous weather had us stranded on the islands and cost me a day's pay. It still stands as my most expensive dip (don't ask how much). Last Wednesday the bird was watched feeding in Old Town Bay all morning until 11 o'clock, just an hour before the Scillonian III was due to arrive with us on board. Had it not been foggy, we would have flown on and arrived in time. Had the tide not been up, the bird might not have flown off into the fog. Had we been differently placed at 2:40pm we might have caught up with the bird when it was briefly refound further up the island.

With this history, nothing was to be taken for granted. The overnight drive down to Cornwall was uneventful, if long, but we arrived with time to catch up on a couple of hour's sleep in the car. The Scillonian was leaving early today, which told me that there was something abnormal about the tides. The weather, at least, was gorgeous. No gales, no fog. Just blue skies.
A couple more hours sleep in the quiet area down in the belly of the boat and I emerged refreshed to news that the bird was still present this morning. But still I was taking nothing for granted. I had butterflies in my stomach and they had pretty much been fluttering around in there since Thursday evening.
The boat docked early and we formed an impatient queue on the quay to hop straight onto another boat. The Scilly Boatmen had a boat ready for us and we were soon chugging across to Bryher. Due to the low tide, we headed right out past Samson (a cursed island in Why The Whales Came, where none of the islanders dared to step) and round the back of Bryher.
By now, most of us had taken off our shoes and socks and rolled up our trousers, for we had been warned that this may not be a dry landing. In fact, there was another boat first, for we were shuttled across closer to the sand in a small rib. I didn't make the first shuttle, but didn't have too long to wait before I just about made it into the second rib (though by now any amount of time was too long as far as I was concerned).
No photos of this delightful scene, I'm afraid. The bird was all that I was thinking about. We jumped into the clear, shallow water, paddled to the beach and headed straight up the sand and across the island. Most of us were still barefoot, though a few thorns had some hopping along trying to pull on their shoes.

It didn't take too long until we could see the birders from the first shuttle rib lined up along the edge of Big Pool.
I ran up alongside them and there, on the other side of the pool, was the object of my quest. First views, through the bins, were enough to confirm its identity and get it on the list. But you should be able to tell from this account that it's not just about the tick on the list.

Great Blue Heron...My first view
After that I could relax and enjoy the sight. We had enjoyed a bit of an adventure to land on a beautiful island bathed in sunshine and now we were looking down the barrels of our scopes at Britain's second ever Great Blue Heron.

This was not a conventional twitch, as you can see! Look closely at the man in the light green coat.

We soon found a better vantage point and the bird even had the decency to fly much closer to us. Even just using my phone held up to the scope, I managed to get some half decent images.

This had, so far, been just about the perfect twitch. The GBH was more impressive than I had anticipated. It was most definitely beyond just a tick.
But there was the possibility of doing something else which I could not resist. For, with the tide so low, it was possible to walk from Bryher across to Tresco. So the trousers got rolled up again and we tried to avoid the quicksand and beat the incoming tide.

Soon we had crossed this:

No, I haven't yet learned to walk on water. In fact it was more like this when we crossed...

Once over on the other side, we walked the delightfully tropical paths which skirt Great Pool. Dan imagined finding an American warbler in this luxuriant growth. We emerged on the shores of Abbey Pool, where we were able to study the subtle plumage of a drake American Black Duck. (This one really is boring! But it's still amazing that it's come all the way over The Atlantic to settle here.)
We were more interested in checking out the swallows and martins, but we found nothing more unusual. We headed back to Great Pool to search for a Green-winged Teal, but to no avail. I was lucky to bump into an unexpected Wryneck, a nice bird to find and not a bird you see every day.

By now the time to depart the islands was approaching. We still had an inter island boat to catch back to board The Scillonian. We had to stop by the New Grimsby Inn for a salted caramel ice cream before waiting at the quay. The tide was coming in at quite a staggering rate and a small shoal of mullet were wheeling around in the clear waters.
Across the channel, the Bryher boat was somewhat more full than ours.

Happy birders waiting for the return boat from Bryher
 Our boat was a lot less cramped.

As we waited to depart, apparently the GBH flew from Bryher and passed right over us before dropping in somewhere near Great Pool on Tresco. We didn't notice it! Good job it didn't decide to do that earlier in the day, or we wouldn't have had quite such a relaxing time.

The Kingfisher dropped us at the quay just in time to board The Scillonian. A celebratory strong coffee and bacon roll before grabbing a bit more sleep ready for the long drag home.
There was time to drop into Marazion Marsh on the mainland, where a Great White Egret had the good grace to fly up out of the reeds, do a circuit and drop back in again. Just for us. A few miles up the road, a Ring-billed Gull was quickly located on Ryan's Field at the Hayle.

Then it was foot to the floor (minor diversion at Bodmin for Fish and Chips) and back to The Fens.
By 2:30am I was heading upstairs for a well-earned deep sleep.

In Why The Whales Came, the story develops to revolve around a group of narwhals which beach on the shores of Bryher. Now, if that happened I'd be straight back down there. It's not just birds.

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