Friday, 20 May 2016

Chasing Crazy Birds - A Pelican, A Green Warbler and A Bearded Vulture.


10th May
4.30am Lands End car park
As the first hint of light creeps into the morning sky, it becomes obvious that the furthest south-west peninsula of Britain is shrouded in a thick mist. There are several other vehicles in the car park. I grab a short power nap after the overnight drive.

8.30am
I've been awake for a few hours now. The weather hasn't improved much but it is now properly light. I have at least seen a Serin feeding on the ground, a bird which I have only seen a handful of times in this country.
Neil and I decide to check elsewhere, for the Dalmatian Pelican has not appeared in the sky. It was last seen heading this way at 6.30pm yesterday evening.

9.56am
Neil and I have unsuccessfully checked the pools at Skewjack - they are quite simply inaccessible. If the Pelican is sitting on there, it could stay there all day. There is certainly nothing about the weather to encourage it into the air. This is frustrating.
We've now headed over to Sennen and are just about to walk a track in search of Brew Pool. Yesterday the pelican spent most of the afternoon searching for somewhere to settle, moving between tiny inadequate pools, occasionally even just flopping down into fields. Brew Pool was one of the places it had visited and, being unviewable from any road, we felt it was worth a try.
Then a phone call. The Dalmatian Pelican's at Marazion Marsh!
A quick dash back to the car and we were heading off in a whacky races convoy back towards Penzance. There was a buzz in the air, but it quickly subsided when it became apparent the bird was not actually sitting on the marsh but had been reported flying over it and heading east. General consensus was to head past Penzance towards Helston in the hope that the expanse of water known as Looe Pool might have attracted it.
It's not easy to drive fast through the narrow roads of Cornwall, though we did our best, but with each snippet of further information it was becoming apparent that the 9.56am news was old and slightly questionable. The Marazion flyover had been some 45 minutes before that message.
In a fit of desperate optimism we plonked ourselves on the low cliffs near Helston, just hoping that the bird may have rested on the sea and would possibly soar past.

11.33am
DALMATIAN PELICAN again over Lands End.
We had moved on dodgy news and the gamble had not paid off. All those who had sat still were now watching the bird. The drive all the way back through Penzance and out onto the peninsula was frustrating and just a little bit scary (and I was the one driving!). All the while we were receiving updates that the pelican was still soaring in the air.
Eventually we pulled up just outside the small village of Sennen -where we had been at 9.56am - only to be told the bird had just disappeared from view.
More hair-raising driving down narrow country lanes in pursuit. Back to the area we had been checking this morning. Nothing. 10 minutes. Still nothing. This was incredibly frustrating. Then the call. "COMING THIS WAY". I scanned the sky and it didn't take long to see the target bird. It was the size of a flying boat!
Photo nabbed from Facebook. Alan Whitehead, I hope you don't mind! Fantastic photo.
It soared right over us before disappearing a couple of times, each time only to come back over our heads. It really was a monster of a bird, eclipsing the local gulls and buzzards.
By the time we left there were maybe 20+ car loads of birders all relieved to have finally caught up with this potential first for Britain and celebrating. It was good to catch up with friends, some who I'd not seen for a good couple of years.

There was just time to drop in on a dapper Woodchat Shrike back at Marazion Marsh (cruelly ignored by us on our first fleeting visit) before embarking on the long drive back to Lincolnshire. 870 miles later I pulled back onto the farm. Nice to be home.

(ed. The tale of the pelican is not finished yet. It turns out that a park in France keeps them and that individuals from there have been tracked as far as Poland. So whether this bird is wild or not we will maybe never know. It probably won't end up as my 507th tick as the committee which decides these things is pretty conservative in its judgements. Not to worry. It was still an amazing bird to see and it certainly felt like the best kind of twitch - overnight drive, no sign, whacky races along country lanes and eventual relief and euphoria. There's not been much to excite us twitching-wise this year.)

11th May
A gentle day of recovery after yesterday's exertions. Elvis has hatched ten little ducklings. I moved them from the high-rise coop as I thought they may not make it back up the ramp, but incredibly they squeezed through the bars of the run I put them in. I looked up and they were all waddling around outside with Elvis bemused on the inside. A few quick alterations soon fixed the problem.

By contrast, the hen who was sitting on ten Ixworth eggs has only managed to have one healthy youngster. Another two chicks were dead in the nest, a couple of the eggs had just failed to hatch, though fully developed inside, a couple had been fertile but stopped growing early on and one was completely rancid inside. Don't ask me how I know - cracking open unhatched eggs is never a nice job.



Meanwhile, Rameses has gone down to one bottle feed a day in preparation for weaning. When I go down to the field I shout his name and he comes running over. He is making very good friends with the dogs. Boris is scared of him but Arthur loves to play.


12th May
On my way to feed the chickens I spotted a Short-eared Owl perched up on one of the wooden posts near the bottom of the sheep field. I only had my phone with me but it allowed me to approach incredibly close. I've had several sightings recently. Could it be that they are breeding somewhere in the area?



13th May
The polytunnel is officially full. There are baby plants everywhere. I've been itching to get the tomato plants into the ground (not the outside ones, the polytunnel ones) but you're supposed to wait for the first flowers. Well, I just about managed to spot the first developing flowers on one of my little plants and that was enough. Tomatoes, basil, sweetcorn, minipop sweetcorn and celeriac all duly moved into the polytunnel beds. In my experience, once plants have a free root run they generally flourish.

14th May
Dentist!!! Not too bad in the end. My phobia is getting better.
Morrisons - a rare trip to the supermarket, interrupted by news that a Greenish Warbler on Shetland may actually be a Green Warbler. More on this later, but it has me distracted from the shopping and instead tapping away on my phone looking for news and how to get there.
FOX! In the garden. Not good news. I let the dogs out and make lots of news. Much as I like foxes and think they're amazing animals, they're not welcome round here. This may well have been the one that killed Terry the Turkey. I put the geese and goslings away for the afternoon and made sure the door to the turkey stable was closed over.


Something's eaten my cauliflower seedlings too, despite the fortress defences. I suspect either a rabbit has pushed under the netting or invaders from underground (slugs).
I check under the cabbage collars to find half of them sheltering slugs. I liberally sprinkle some organic slug pellets and secure the netting with more pegs just in case.
Next year I think I'll need to grow my brassicas in an underground concrete bunker with artificial lights, razor wire and an intruder alert system. There seems to be no way of protecting them from everything that wants to eat them.

Meanwhile, news on the Green Warbler has firmed up. There are no planes available (at a reasonable price) and Shetland is a long, long way. I give up on the bird and spend the rest of the day in a resigned tetchy mood.
15th - 17th May
At 1 o'clock in the morning I crumbled and booked two flights from Edinburgh airport to Sumburgh. I had six and a half hours to get there. I would be picking up Sam from his digs in Newcastle along the way.
The Tyne Bridge at 4.50am
A word about Green Warbler. The capital G is important, for that indicates it's a species and not just a warbler that's green! Though it mostly is! It's pretty much like a Greenish Warbler, but those 3 letters missing off the end mean that instead of being a scarce migrant visiting this country's migration hotspots a handful of times every year, it is instead a MEGA which has only occurred once before in 1980something, before Sam was born and before I was twitching.These missing three letters were what had me desperately phoning around late evening. I'd pretty much given up on getting to see the bird. Charters were prohibitively expensive and impossible to get on and the Aberdeen flight was not at a good time of day. There was however an Edinburgh flight but the return fare was a Flybe special £466!!! There was a cheaper way back, the ferry to Aberdeen for just £34 (but taking over 13 hours). But we were flying from Edinburgh. One word on a Facebook group made my mind up (thanks Dan). Train.
So a plan was hatched to fly from Edinburgh, get a lift up through Shetland with two other mad souls (thanks Adrian and Paul) and to return on the ferry before catching a train back to the car in Edinburgh. It was going to be an epic twitch! 

As we sat in Edinburgh airport we received the dreaded pager message NO SIGN OF GREEN WARBLER. Too late now. We were going. Besides, Unst is the most northerly of the British Isles and there wouldn't be many people looking. This Green Warbler had been a bugger to locate on previous days, so there was still hope, slim hope.

On our way!
As we came in to land our glumness turned to optimism as news came in that the bird was still present. News also came in that the ferry over to Unst had broken down!!!! Could it be that after travelling the best part of 700 miles we would finally be scuppered just 8 miles and one short ferry crossing short?
We continued North. The hour and a half wait for the first ferry seemed interminable, but at least we had otters to watch and Sam was chasing after Arctic Terns and Zetlandicus Starlings - he'd never been to Shetland before.
It was while we were waiting for this ferry that we heard the second ferry was now fixed, at least enough to limp back and forth for the rest of the day.


As you can see, we made it to the ferry onto Unst. Not only that, but we made it to the Setters Hill Estate where we saw this green warbler, or should that be GREEN WARBLER.

Green Warbler. photo courtesy of Sam Viles.

The story is not quite finished though. For, as we waited for that first ferry, news filtered through of a Lammergeir (aka Bearded Vulture) being videoed by a non birder last Thursday. This was an outrageous record but seemed perfectly genuine. This was on a par with the Yellow-nosed Albatross which crossed the country a few years back without being seen by a single birder.

We put it to the back of our minds.

... until 12.57 on Monday afternoon. Sam and I were wasting away the day watching daytime TV in our Lerwick hostel when news of the Lammergeier came through again, this time in capitals. LAMMERGEIER! Dartmoor. 11.35am.

Shetland with no car was not a great place to be! We could be there by about 7 tomorrow evening if we hurried.

Despite the efforts of many birders that day and the next, the Lammergeier was only reliably seen once more by just one birder. Other reports came from non-birders seizing on the news. Several referred to a drone which was being used in the area. One confident report came from Derbyshire not long after the Dartmoor sighting!

And so we boarded the ferry at 4.30pm bound for Aberdeen. We passed Fair Isle (The Isle of birding dreams) late evening before crashing for the night on the seats in the restaurant.


At 7 in the morning the huge ferry was inching in to Aberdeen docks. We had been offered a lift back to our car by another birder and his wife who had twitched up the slow way for the Green Warbler.


Talk on the journey home centred mainly around the Lammergeier, which was probably born to parents which were possibly part of the reintroduction scheme in The Alps.
Even if we could somehow get to see it, would the committee let us have it as a tick? Doubtful. It's the pelican all over again.
I'll still go to see it though.

ed. Friday 20th May. The Lammergeier has been seen again this morning, about 20 miles north of Dartmoor. It's going to be impossible to twitch.

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