Monday, 9 October 2017

Destination Unknown - EPIC TWITCHING from Shetland to Scilly

All bird photos in this blog post are shamelessly lifted from the Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or blogs of people who were friends at the beginning of this week's birding. (It saves me the effort of having to carry and look after a big camera).
Harry Murphy- you owe me for puking up in the bed next to me. Sorry for stranding you on Shetland.
Al Orton - you owe me for leading Harry astray
Josh Jones - you owe me for the 30 minute traffic jam I sat in at 1.30am in the big smoke after I chauffeured you right to your door all the way from Penzance.
Thanks also to Mark Rayment - hope you don't mind me using what you posted on Facebook

Destination Unknown - that was the song I heard as I turned the engine on in readiness for the long drive to Aberdeen airport. In fact it was those very two words I heard. Destination Unknown. It was scarily relevant. 
Just 6 days after returning from there, I was heading back up to Shetland for my now annual 8 day stay, hopefully timed to perfection to catch an eclectic collection of strays and waifs from America to the west and Siberia to the east.
Eight of us would be coming from all over the country to stay in our accommodation just south of Lerwick, Shetland's capital. We would be roving the island group in our minibus, pulling up at likely spots and bailing out to peer over walls, stomp around nettle beds and pish loudly at clumps of bushes - anything it would take to coax out the birds, ever hoping for that mega find.
Occasionally, if another team came up trumps, we might pile back into the bus and steam towards some rarity or other, though twitching other people's birds was restricted to ticks for team members or very special birds.

So here's a run down of proceedings
Day 1 - Saturday 30th September
With 6 of the team in place we set about hunting the south end of Mainland. It was a fairly uneventful morning and at midday I got dropped off at the top end of Boddam village. It was good weather for rarity finding. A strong south-easterly airflow for a couple of days should have brought birds from Scandinavia and today the wind had died down to make them findable.
But as I reached the bay at the bottom end I was summoned back in to the van. RED-THROATED PIPIT. Unst.
There was plenty of time to get there, even though two ferries were involved. This was by a country mile the biggest gap in Dan's list so the rest of us had no choice whether to go or not, even though in birding parlance it was a complete tart's tick.
To be fair, no one would turn their nose up at seeing another one.

We sped north to the ferry terminal over to Yell, where an otter was a nice distraction. Then it was the famous Yell rally, across the island in time to catch the next ferry to Unst. This was when things became complicated. MEGA: UPLAND SANDPIPER on Fetlar. A far better bird than the pipit, in terms of rarity, looks and character. And needed by three of the team.
At this point I should explain that from Gutcher, at the north end of Yell, there is a choice of ferries, one to Unst and one to Fetlar. Each had a bird at the end of it.

Fortunately we had time to do both. The complexity of the ferry timetable meant that we would have half an hour to see the pipit and we could still make the same ferry to Fetlar.

Skaw beach - not much lies North of here
As we pulled up by the farm buildings at Skaw, one of Britain's most northerly farms, I thought back to last year when we were lucky enough to jam into a White' s Thrush here. Birders were watching the pipit and it wasn't long before we had views.

Dan gets a tick

To be fair, they are not that spectacular and this individual was a particularly unremarkable one. Its main feature was its call, which it only deigned to utter once during our visit.

There were a Blackcap and a Lesser Whitethroat in amongst the farm buildings, just hopping around on the ground, clearly fresh in from a long journey, and I narrowly missed a Little Bunting, though I did hear it call.

Then it was back to the ferry terminal to connect with the crossing to Fetlar, which I visited last week for the first time in thirty years. I didn't expect to be back quite so soon. The Upland Sandpiper had been seen on the hillside just above a burn which we had been searching last week, but it had flown off and we were not at all hopeful of seeing it. Fetlar has a huge area of raised moorland, mostly well away from any roads and eminently suitable for hiding an Upland Sandpiper.
As we pulled the van up we could see a dozen or so birders heading up a distant hillside. They clearly weren't seeing anything but then they all stopped and raised their binoculars in the same direction. The bird, a dot, was flying ahead of them.
We scrambled, puffed and panted up the hillside where luckily the sandpiper had settled at the peak, walking around unconcernedly between the boulders. It kept disappearing into dips and gullies but we edged closer and managed to get stunning views in a stunning location.

Four of the team. I am second from the left.
It was one of the most memorable birds I have ever seen. Everything about the bird and the location felt rare.

The boat didn't leave Fetlar till after dark so we prattled around on the island a bit more before the journey, via two ferries again, back to our digs.

Three of the six team members had already had a tick and it was still the first day.

Day 2 - Sunday 1st October
The day began with a lovely Rustic Bunting at Melby. We searched the area to no avail, only for Dan and I to pick it up flying alongside the van as we headed away. It was a tick for a couple of team members, but again not for me. It was only my fourth ever though, and half an hour later we were watching my fifth ever at Dale of Walls. This area held a Great Grey Shrike too and plenty of common migrants, but it was full of birders so we decided to move on to one of my favourite hidden corners of Shetland at Ronas Voe.

Here Al found a Common Rosefinch, which was a complete tart's tick for James. The team were amassing their lists, but nothing yet for me or Al.
It's not all about the ticks though, as the next incident would prove. We pulled up alongside a farm building at Barnafield (place names in Shetland often refer to just one or two houses). Dan headed off to plow the gardens while the older members of the team loafed around the van grabbing a quick bite to eat and drink. We sent young Harry into the small iris bed below the van, as migrant birds often take first cover in these areas and a couple of speciality rares enjoy this habitat.
Trudging through iris beds is hard work. We called after Harry that if he wanted to find a Lanceolated Warbler or a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler (aka PG Tips), this was what he needed to do. Actual chances of him finding one were actually very slim indeed. The last PG Tips on Mainland Shetland was thirteen years ago.
After failing to successfully negotiate the wire fence which ran across the small burn, Harry picked himself up again and something flew out in front of him. Song Thrush. Another few steps and a smaller bird. Grasshopper Warbler (aka Gropper). A good bird, but not ultra rare.
We all ran down and Harry carefully trod through the iris bed to secure better views. Up flew the bird again and I think we all knew it wasn't a bog standard Gropper. I had been fortunate to see my second ever PG Tips just a couple of weeks earlier and these flight views were surely the same species.
I entered the iris bed with Harry and we very slowly and gingerly inched through, hoping for views on the ground. The bird flew again, confirming the rusty rump and large dark tail. The body had the rusty yellowish tinge of a PG Tips too. Dan and James rushed up the hill to search for phone signal. The bird had flown out of the iris bed into some nearby long grass, then quickly to another spot by the fence. I could see its head poking out.
No doubt it was a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. Not happy in the grass, it flew down the iris bed to the base of a clump of sedge, again almost right out in the open. These birds do not perch in the open.

Then, to our amazement, it hopped up further. It afforded staggering views of such a rare and skulky bird.

Car loads of birders were soon on sight and during the course of the afternoon everybody got views of the bird. It even obligingly perched on a rock in the stream on several occasions.

By now the weather had drawn in and we were slowly getting very wet. We left the site and just had time to stop by for a Short-toed Lark which was feeding on a track. The weather was by now atrocious and we struggled to find the bird - we struggled to see anything through the van windows. A couple of us jumped out. Unfortunately I was one of them. I have never got so wet so quickly!!!
We did locate the bird, feeding right next to another birder's car, but we could hardly see anything though our rain soaked optics.
The bird was slightly bedraggled but feeding surprisingly well.
This is a Short-toed Lark enjoying the Shetland weather
And that was that. The end of day two. A major find by a team member and ticks everywhere - just not for me or Al.

Day 3 - Monday 2nd October
For the first time the team of eight came together. The wind had picked up and was all over the place. It made for very difficult birding.

The day was livened up by three plus Parrot Crossbills, part of Shetlands first 'invasion' by this species for quite some years. I have seen these birds before in Norfolk, but these particular ones seemed huge. They would be better named Cross-billed Parrots.

Day 4 - Tuesday 3rd October
We headed north-west and the inevitable happened.
The phone call from Josh.
Get back to the car. There's a Cedar Waxwing on Scilly. A mere 929 miles away according to Google Maps.

Destination Unknown!!!

We were a long way from anywhere and phone signal was not good. As we sped back towards civilisation we made urgent phone calls to bring flights forward and to book ourselves onto flights from Penzance. In between the two flights waited a 700 mile drive!
With the remnants of hurricanes Marie and Lee hitting the south west, this was a journey for which we had already made provisional plans. The logistics were quite straightforward, but it would be an epic journey.
Every single person who has been birding longer than me has seen a Cedar Waxwing, the American cousin of our winter visiting Bohemian Waxwings, which hung about with a flock of the latter in Nottingham back in the late 90s.
Furthermore I dipped a Cedar Waxwing on Scilly in June 2015. I wasn't well on the day and the sea crossing on a chartered boat was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I had a miserable day and now it was personal between Cedar Waxwing and me.
Another recent record of the species was one on Tiree, in the Hebrides, which stayed for 9 days or something like that. Why didn't we see it? Because the locals didn't get on so one suppressed the news so the other wouldn't see it. Yep. True story.

Day 5 - Wednesday 4th October
Dawn in Penzance!
The flight went smoothly and the drive from Aberdeen only took 12 hours. Kev kept me awake buy buying me a coffee at Exeter services which had so many shots in it took 20 minutes to make!
I transferred to the boat as the flight I had booked held no advantage.
I hid in the bowels of the Scillonian during the crossing and grabbed a couple of hours of very much needed sleep. We disembarked onto Hugh Town quay and transferred straight onto The Mermaid which would take us across to St Agnes.
In contrast to Shetland, the weather was stunning. Blue skies and not a breath of wind.
We were totally gripped off by messages that friends had already seen the bird. These friends had been better placed to book themselves onto early flights when news of the Cedar Waxwing broke.

Even worse, the bird had now been lost for a while. We disembarked onto the quay in St Agnes and headed off across the island to where the bird had last been seen. It didn't take long to realise that we needed to spread out and this appeared to be a needle in a haystack job.

Nice scenery, but where's the Cedar Waxwing?
I don't usually get down in the dumps at the thought of dipping a bird - it is part of the game and they'll always be another, as a friend of mine would say. But on this occasion I was taking it badly. Totally demoralised after sacking off the Shetland holiday and the long, long drive.

But then the call went up and I just ran as fast as I could towards it. There was a small traffic jam along the narrow path and by the time I got there the bird had been lost again. But at least it was still in the area and hadn't flown across to another island.

It wasn't long before the bird reappeared, perching in the tops of the pittisporum bushes. Waxwings are showy birds, perching up and calling loudly, but they can go silent and sit still for long periods. They are strong fliers too and can easily go missing.

For the next half an hour or so we enjoyed great views of the bird as it buzzed and trilled from bush to bush, occasionally perching out in the open for long periods.
The epic twitch had been worth it 😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊

For the first time in several days we now slowed the pace and started to enjoy a sedate miniholiday on The Isles Of Scilly.
A turtle dove sighting on the way back to the boat was a first of the year for me - such a sad state of affairs that in these enlightened times we still can't seem to do anything to halt the decline of such a fantastic bird. We are quick to blame Mediterranean hunters, and rightly so, but I don't think that a whole countryside dosed in pesticides and herbicides can help the situation much when they arrive here from their African wintering quarters.

There was still time to pop up to the airfield to see the Isabelline Wheatear, only my third ever, but the Cliff Swallow remained unseen.
Isabelline Wheatear
Day 6 - Thursday 5th October
We decided to take a couple of days on Scilly to recuperate.
My target for the day was to catch up with the Cliff Swallow, an American bird which I last saw way back in 2000, before I could even drive myself there. This task was easier said than done as news was thin and the bird was making sporadic appearances all over the island.
I kept my ear to the ground and eventually worked out that it had been seen twice in the vicinity of the airport terminal. I could see swallows buzzing around the control tower, but another birder informed me the Cliff Swallow was not up there with them. I returned to Lower Moors to look for other birds but I had a nagging feeling about those swallows. In the end I headed up to the airfield, only to bump into an old couple I had spoken to earlier who told me the bird had been flying around them for the last half hour. Shame they didn't let anybody else know!
Anyway, it wasn't there any more.
I stuck it out at the airport though and it wasn't too long before the Cliff Swallow wheeled into view, at one point flying just a few feet away from me.

I alerted my fiends who were not too far away. A coffee and a celebratory very large slice of cake in the airport café before the Cliff Swallow reappeared for a longer period. I was glad that everybody got to see it.
We were now properly in chill mode and we went down into the sallows of Lower Moors where a Spotted Crake had occasionally been showing very well. There was a small crowd assembled when we arrived, but the bird had not been playing ball. We waited quite a while until everybody started drifting away.
I had a feeling that this would be the cue for it to show again and, when numbers shrunk to about six people, out it came, feeding right in front of us. I managed to call one of my mates back to see it.

My mate's camera settings were dodgy,
giving the appearance of grey hair on my head.

He took this picture of me as I was watching the bird. I celebrated a good day by having burger and chips as a starter in the pub! Well, I am a growing young lad 😁. I have to admit I struggled with the main and had to leave a few chips. All was washed down with a few pints of the local tipple.

Day 7 - Friday 6th October
This was to be our final day on the islands. This afternoon (subject to short notice change) we planned to be off on the ferry and back home after a most eventful autumn birding break.
We dropped our bags in left luggage by the quay and took a very leisurely stroll around the island. It was tee-shirt weather.

First stop was a dragonfly twitch - a Vagrant Emperor from North Africa. I don't do dragonflies, but it would be rude not to. Besides, if I ever do start a list, I would regret not seeing this one.
Vague rant Emperor

After that we checked a few sites, coincidentally those with benches, the occasional one with a coffee shop too. The best we found was a Yellow-browed Warbler, nowhere near so numerous on Scilly as they were on Shetland.
Then it was off on the boat and back to Penzance for a gorgeous sunset.

I drove Dan back to his car at Lands End airport and then started the drive back to The Fens, via London to drop Josh off. Another 400 mile drive, but nothing compared to that of three nights previous.
It was somewhat of a shock to the system to be back in the big smoke, stuck in a traffic jam at 1.30 in the morning. I'm so glad I escaped that lifestyle. Never again. Here in The Fens, no one really goes out in the dark.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

A Yellow-breasted Bunting - before they're all eaten!

At this time of year my smallholding activities fall by the wayside and visitors to this blog are instead regaled with tales of my unpredictable dashes to see rare birds in far-flung corners of Britain.

And if the birding goes really well, big gaps appear in the blog.

And so we go back to Wednesday 20th September which tells you that things have been rather hectic between then and now (7th October). News of a Yellow-breasted Bunting on Out Skerries, a small group of islands which form part of the Shetland Isles.

News broke at lunch time  and I went into sulk mode as, unusually, it was going to be very hard to switch work around and go before the weekend.
When I started birding Yellow-breasted Buntings were fairly regular, several appearing each year. Most were on the Northern Isles but occasionally one would appear in an easier location to reach. But then the population plummeted (the Chinese decided to eat them all) and records in Britain dried up.
Younger birders (I include myself!!!) were beginning to think that we might not get another chance to catch up with this species.
So the prospect of having to wait till the weekend threw me into a decidedly confused and panicky state of mind.
This became significantly worse when, an hour later, news of a Siberian Thrush on the same group of islands came through too. I need that one too!

But that all changed as my fairy godmother came to the rescue and it transpired I would not need to be at work on the Thursday. By now others had made their plans and I thought my options for getting to Out Skerries would be closed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that flights to Shetland have considerably reduced in price over the past year (due to renewed competition between Loganair and Flybe). In fact quoted prices were ridiculously cheap and it would be rude not to book at least one way. If prices stay so low it will be a game changer in terms of twitching Shetland.
Meanwhile friends were doing their best to track down a boat to get us across the final stretch of water to Out Skerries.

By late evening I was on the road along with a very old friend who had seen Yellow-breasted Buntings back in the day but who still needed Siberian Thrush. My priority, by virtue of plummeting records, was the bunting.
The drive was long but one with which I am familiar and by 6am we were negotiating security in Aberdeen airport. Others had come from different points and so five of us all crammed into the smallest hire car you could possibly imagine. Sardines would have felt cramped!

We did a little token birding in South Mainland before parking up at Laxo ferry terminal. Dan had managed to charter the whole vehicle ferry for us as there were no scheduled crossings today.
The crossing was not too bad and we all trooped off the ferry and were led in a yomp across the island by one of the locals.

We all stopped on one of the narrow lanes where we parked our gear against a wall. The bird, we were told, would soon show on the stone walls or on the road verge about 50 yards ahead of us.The weather had now turned drizzly and everything was gradually getting wetter and wetter. The wait was tense. However safe a bird feels, things can always go disastrously wrong at the last stage.
After about 20 minutes I saw the bird hop up onto a wall - not the best view through damp optics, but enough for the tick. Relief.
I gave directions to the other birders but had to stop when a few of them inconsiderately moved right in front of me. I muttered my frustration and shifted my position.

Over the next half hour or so everybody got views but they were always quite distant and typically brief. It was decided to venture forward towards the bird's favoured area, a couple of weedy compounds surrounded by semi-derelict stone walls.
Eventually we secured fantastic views, even if the bird was rather bedraggled.

Thnks to Graham Jepson for this wonderful image of the Yellow-breasted Bunting
(taken the next day, when it was a bit drier!
Thanks must go to the small team of birders who had put themselves in such a remote location in hope of such a find. Well done lads!

After a couple of hours it was time to be heading off the island and back to Lerwick to seek accommodation. A clash with Wool Week (I was more interested in this than my mates) meant that we were lucky to get a dorm for the six of us.

I nearly forgot. The Siberian Thrush had been a no-show (aren't they always) so Neil (the old one) was enjoying a dip. For the rest of us we had scored the more important bird so a celebration curry in Lerwick was the order of the evening. Neil got his revenge by raising the roof of the youth hostel that evening with his snoring!
Our plans were open, with no return flight yet booked, so we decided to spend Thursday on Fetlar, an island I last visited over thirty years ago when I was just discovering the joys of birding and the delights of the Northern Isles.
Not one but two Common Rosefinches
It was a nostalgic visit for me. Birding wise, the island was full of promise. We failed to turn up any major rarities but did unearth a couple of Common Rosefinches, a Barred Warbler and we amassed a haul of over 30 Yellow-browed Warblers during the day (absolutely astonishing how this species has pioneered a new migration route in recent years).

Another night in the youth hostel to recuperate properly before the journey back south to Fenland. A little birding in the morning was more difficult going than yesterday but we still managed to unearth a new Barred Warbler and a handful of Yellow-broweds.

Getting ready for the return journey
in Sumburgh Airport
The return journey was long but eased by the warm glow of knowing that, had we waited till the weekend, we would not have seen the Yellow-breasted Bunting, for it disappeared overnight on Friday to the chagrin of all those on the Saturday morning flights.

And so in the middle of the night I arrived back on the farm with Yellow-breasted Bunting in the bag (not literally - we are competitive but not to that extent). In less than a week I would be driving back up to Aberdeen for our annual week on Shetland. This was just the prelude.
I have a busy week ahead of me before then, for I am working every day in order to accrue time should I need to shoot off again.

I was back in time for the Fenland Smallholders Annual Produce Show (having missed it for the last three years - all birding related).
I loaded the car with my prized vegetables. I scooped five prizes in total and was very pleased to take Wonkiest Veg.
It was nice to check everything on the smallholding too.

Sue does a fantastic job looking after everything when I dash off.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Everyone's a Fruit and Nut Case

My one piece of advice to anyone setting up to be self-sufficient would be to plant fruit straight away, orchard trees, soft fruit bushes, nut trees and hedgerow fruit. It is an investment which takes a little while to start paying off, but it has rich rewards for the patient.

Our orchard is just starting to produce properly and can only go from strength to strength in the next few years. As summer gives way to autumn variety upon variety of apple comes ready, each with its own unique taste. There are pears and plums aplenty too, as well as more unusual fruits such as medlars. We have gradually added to the trees we first planted and will hopefully soon have an annual crop of apricots too.

All these, of course, can be bought in the shops (except maybe medlars), but some of the hedgerow plants I have planted are even more of a treat. Crab apples make a wonderful jelly, as well as being an excellent source of pectin when added into preserves.
And what about the elderberry - its flowers make an excellent cordial and an even better champagne, or let the berries ripen for one of the best wines. This year we harvested the berries (leaving plenty enough for the birds) to make pontack sauce. This old English recipe has enjoyed a recent revival, probably due to its inclusion in Hugh F-W's repertoire. It is a heady infusion of elderberries, vinegar and spices. The closest equivalent I can think of is Worcestershire Sauce. Pontack sauce stores indefinitely in the larder and develops its taste over the years, so Sue makes a big batch every few years. It adds an incredible richness and depth of flavour to meat dishes, particularly stews and casseroles.
Elders poke out from the edible hedgerows I have planted as well as being dotted all around the smallholding now. They are easy to propagate, grow well here and feed the wildlife as well as us.
Alongside them are blackthorn bushes with their yield of sloes. When you say sloes, most people instantly think of gin, but Sue prefers to add them to vodka. Once they have imparted their unique flavour to this beverage, the same berries are then used to make sloe port. Definitely a hedgerow fruit for the drinkers! We almost had a sloe disaster this year. After a blank year countrywide in 2016, our edible hedgerow has again failed to produce any sloes (or Mirabelles for that matter). I think I have been cutting it back too much in the winter and taking off the fruiting wood.
Sue's disappointment was tangible, but then I remembered that I had planted a few blackthorns in the woodland area which I have created. A closer inspection yielded several bushes laden with sloes ready to pick - a thorny job and it takes a while to fill a basket, but yesterday (edit - now a while ago as this post was superseded by other events) we collected 2kg of sloes, plenty enough for a lot of alcohol. They have gone into the freezer to simulate the frosts, as left on the trees the autumn thrushes would take them all before winter bites.

There are hawthorns and rowan berries too, though we don't have much use for them and leave them for the birds. Rosehips explode colourfully from the hedgerows too and every few years Sue makes a batch of rosehip syrup, a rich and sweet source of vitamin C. I actually grow plenty of rosa rugosa as its flowers brighten up the borders of the soft fruit area and it produces the plumpest, most vivid hips.

Back to the orchard fruits and damsons take centre stage. Our tree produced abundantly this year. They are a handsome looking fruit and handsome tasting too. All varieties of plum produce, in a good year, bountiful crops too much for simply eating the fruit straight. Pies, crumbles and jams go without saying, but Sue has had the dehydrator and the ice-cream maker busy too. Her plum yogurt ice-cream is delicious and dried fruits or fruit leathers make excellent healthy snacks for a hungry worker.

Finally there is the rather poshly named nuttery. The nut trees were an expensive investment when I planted them, as I opted for named varieties bred to produce fruits early in their lives. The almond tree has produced virtually since day one and the nuts taste delicious with that lovely marzipan kick of arsenic to them. The cobnuts are basically hazelnuts cultivated to produce larger kernels and these are producing more and more year on year. In contrast, the wild hazelnuts in the hedgerow and woodland will be keeping us waiting a good few more years before they even think about producing a nut.

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