Thursday, 29 October 2015

That Old Chestnut

Just over a week ago I received a cryptic message on my phone...

Rumours of Chestnut Bunting? Not sure on reliability and waiting to hear where. Anyone heard owt?

This was a potential first for Britain. MEGA.

That was immediately followed by a picture of a bunting. What sort of bunting was anyone's guess, for it had been hurriedly taken and hid just about every part of the bird you'd need to see to confidently identify it. All credit to the finder though for realising it might be unusual and managing to get any sort of picture.

Seconds later came the news that it was somewhere on Orkney. Having already visited Shetland and The Outer Hebrides this month, a visit to Orkney would make a change. And depending which island it was on, it could be a relatively straightforward twitch. Bing Maps informed me that the drive to Gill's Bay ferry (just west of John O'Groats) was a mere 599.7mles from my house. 10 hours 17 minutes without traffic. Realistically about 9 hours. I would need to leave within the next 3 hours.

But opinion was erring towards this being just a strange Reed Bunting - a very common bird throughout Britain. I wasn't convinced. From what could be seen on the photo, that head looked a little too rusty - even chestnutty! And there seemed to be a hint of lemon on the breast, though this was hard to make out. But neither was I sure enough of myself to get in the car and start driving! We would have to wait and hope for further images, or for the bird to stay put so that its true identity could be properly established.

Time to step down.

Over the next couple of days, more details emerged. For starters, the bird had been on Papa Westray, the northernmost and possibly the most isolated of the Orkney Isles. Most definitely the most difficult to get to, particularly with the main ferry only running twice a week and the local ferry not due to run again until May 2016!
Papa Westray is famous for one thing. It has the shortest scheduled flight in the world. About 2 minutes I think, with Loganair. But flights onto Papa and ferries onto Orkney don't fit particularly well, so to get to where this bird had been was looking like at least a three day trip. Good job I was just coming up to half term.
Anyway, this is by the by, as there was no sign of the bird now. It had been seen briefly on two days early in the week, but there had been no further sign. A couple more photos became available for inspection. They certainly looked promising for Chestnut Bunting, though not 100% conclusive. And more details of the sighting came through too. The description sounded very good. One thing was for sure, whatever it was, this was no Reed Bunting and was almost definitely something that I 'needed'.

But it was gone. Forget it. Move on.
It's been a great year for me. I've moved past 500 (species seen in UK, a major landmark) and already seen 7 new birds. I would have settled for 3.

Now, a word about Chestnut Buntings. There have already been at least 9 sightings in Britain... WHEEL SKID.... WHAT... YOU SAID IT WAS A FIRST!!!
Well, it probably is. For the others were seen in the good old days when the cagebird trade was flourishing and fresh imports to the continental markets ensured a steady flow of unlikely Eastern vagrants at odd times of year. All these records had been rejected by the powers that be, but they had stated that should a First Winter bird arrive in a good location in October or November, that they would certainly give it some very serious consideration. This current bird fits the bill on all fronts and stands every chance of being accepted as a first for Britain. It would have its detractors - mostly those who would like to have the gumption to get up and go see such birds, but who make excuses for not going rather than just doing it....  jealousy and sour grapes!

Anyway, the bird had slipped the net. No-one would be seeing this one. We'd have to wait for another.

Saturday afternoon. 2.49pm. I'm picking the last of the Borlotti Beans in a rather wet garden, untangling the stems and dismantling the bamboo supports for the winter.

MEGA Orkeny CHESTNUT BUNTING again Papa Westray between Holland Farm and track to Knapp of Howar (site of Northern Europe's oldest preserved stone house) mid afternoon.

Panic stations!!!
I spent the next couple of hours trying to work out how to get onto Papa Westray... on a Sunday... with Winter Timetables in place. I worked out I could probably make it by Monday, via a 599.7 mile drive, a ferry and a flight... if I could get on the flight. The alternative was two ferries and arrive on Tuesday. But the next ferry off would be Friday!!!

Just to improve my headless chicken mode, some stunning photos of the bird appeared. To quote an Orkney birder "Not just nailed. Crucified."

By early evening I had crumbled. I had secured a place on a charter plane from Yorkshire. It wouldn't be such an adventure, but if the bird was there in the morning then I would be on site within three hours. And I would be back home by late evening.

Fortunately the clocks went back in the early hours of Sunday morning. I struggled to get any sleep. At 3.49am I looked at the clock. I still han't had a wink of sleep. But at least it was now only 2.49!

At 5.30am the alarm went off. I jumped in the car and began the drive to Yorkshire. Just before 7.30 we had news. The bird was still there. My first instinct was to put my foot down, but the pilot couldn't leave until 10 however fast I drove. This felt strange, pootling along the road towards a lifer.

We pulled into the airfield way earlier than we needed to, fearing that we would find two teams of birders all expecting to get on the same plane! But all was quiet and there were to be no complications. Fortunately the pilot was on time and we were soon in the air and heading up the east coast, Orkney bound. I slept for the first part of the journey. When I woke up I looked down to work out how far we had got and saw the familiar bridges across The Tyne. Shortly afterwards we passed the Blyth wind turbines. I didn't stop for tea with Sue's mum.
By Aberdeen my bladder was feeling the pressure! Despite taking all precautions (no coffee, a trip to the little boys' room before we took off), it's amazing how your body manages to need the toilet when there is absolutely no option! I looked down at the bottle of squash I had brought with me. If I drank some of it, there might be enough empty space in the bottle!
I tried not to think about it and watched the distance meter on the Sat Nav creep down.

Is the toilet at the back or the front of the aircraft?
It took an awful long time to get down from 100km. I kept looking down as we headed out over the sea, across the top right corner of mainland Scotland and over the Orkney Isles. It wasn't too long before Westray came into view, then Papa Westray. We needed to approach from the north, which was a good job as otherwise we would be flying right over the bird which wasn't too far from the end of the runway.

We banked sharply and the runway came into view. It was raining for the first time in the journey. As we approached we could see the group of birders along the track just beyond the runway. It looked like they were still watching something. At least they hadn't spread out all over the place, which would indicate that they were looking for, and not at, the bird.

Runway in sight
Nearly there
We landed slightly bumpily and taxied back along the runway towards the very small airport building. There was a greeting party waiting for us. When we go to these isolated islands, it is something of a major event for the islanders and they had laid on the island minibus to take us the few hundred yards to the bird. Uncharacteristically, I insisted that we didn't leave until I had visited a certain little room. I wasn't the only one.

The Papa ranger took us along the island's one main road and pulled off at the sign to Knapp of Howar, through the farmyard and as far as he could go along the track. We debunked and ran the last 100 yards along the muddy track. At the end we could see the group of birders, scopes and cameras all pointing at the same spot. The bird was on show.

I grabbed that important first glimpse through a friend's scope which was set on the bird, then got myself set up.
The best I could do with my phone - it was rather windy.
The Chestnut Bunting was actually quite a looker. It spent most of its time poking around in the central grass verge, occasionally emerging into the muddy ruts either side. It was surprisingly good at disappearing into the grass, despite the fact that it was maybe only 15 yards in front of us.
But on the whole it was feeding totally unconcerned by us. If everybody had let it be, it would eventually have just crawled and hopped its way toward us, but a couple of the photographers had all the fieldcraft of a bull in a china shop, insisting on approaching ever closer, despite the protestations. Birders can be just a little autistic at times!!

Once the main culprits had left, the bird popped up on the wall and flew towards us. It landed again, in full view on the wall, giving amazing views, before feeding on the ground right in front of us.
And with that it was time to go again. No time to visit the Knapp of Howar. Birding friends briefly caught up with. Bird in the bag, under the belt, on the list... well, as long as the powers that be decide not to consign it to the same bin of escapehood as the previous records.

Now for some proper pictures taken by someone with a proper camera. Thanks Stuart.

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