Thursday, 4 May 2017

Weekend plans ambushed by Red-winged Blackbird

Hooray!
It's a long bank holiday weekend. Midweek rain means that I can finally get on with planting the Maincrop potatoes and sowing vegetable seeds.
I spent Friday evening rotavating the beds and was up for an early start on Saturday. This weekend should see me catch up with all my jobs. The vegetable beds are starting to fill up outside and the polytunnel is full of seedlings waiting to be planted out when we are safe from frost and chilly weather.

Midnight, Saturday.
I pick up four other birders in a car park just outside Carlisle. It's taken me four hours to drive here and there are only seven hours to go.

You may have spotted a slight gap in the timeline here and just maybe a little change of plans for the weekend.
For just as I was burying the seed potatoes early afternoon, news came through of a RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD on North Ronaldsay, the northernmost of the Orkney Isles.

There has never been a wild Red-winged Blackbird in this country, or even on this side of the Atlantic. To be honest, I didn't even know what it looked like, never having been to North America.

The original tweeted image from the finder
So the plan was:
Drive overnight to Gill's Bay (just left of John O'Groats).
Catch the Sunday morning ferry over to Orkney.
Fly from Orkney Mainland over to North Ronaldsay (last 5 seats secured on the scheduled flight at 5 in the evening, but efforts being made to secure a special charter flight to get us across quicker)
See the bird.
Stay overnight in North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.
Fly off North Ronaldsay 8 o'clock Monday morning.
Get the 11.30am boat back to mainland Scotland (second on the standby list. If not, the 4.30 later in the afternoon.
Drive back 600 miles, via Carlisle.
Arrive home about midnight Monday, hopefully.

So that's the Bank Holiday taken care of!

The never ending Average Speed cameras through Scotland did their best to bore me to sleep through the night and by Inverness I was starting to regret the early start on Saturday morning. I had driven for nine hours straight so was relieved to get a couple of hours sleep while Dan drove the last couple of hours into the hinterland.

This was to be my sixth visit to The Orkney Isles and the boat across the Pentland Firth is only a one hour hop from the Northern tip of Scotland. There were several car loads of birders doing the same thing as us, all the usual faces who turn up at such events.
We were the fourth car off the ferry. We had managed to secure a charter plane from Kirkwall airport but we had enough time spare to stop off and admire a stunning summer-plumaged White-billed Diver, only my fourth ever of this species and definitely the smartest. It was barely 10m offshore.

From there it was on to the airport and straight through onto the Loganair plane, a sturdy Islander aircraft which had us in the air and flying over the assorted low lying islands that comprise the Orkney archipelago.

We came in  for a smooth landing about midday and were met by the Observatory staff ready to take us to the bird in their Land Rover.

I went in the open back and was quickly reminded that some of the Orkney Isles make The Fens feel like a sheltered valley. There was most certainly a chilly easterly breeze.
A few minutes later we were dropped by a farmhouse where there was already a small gathering of birders who had taken the quicker but more expensive route flying from down south.
The bird was still present and was feeding in a distant iris bed. It was never viewable while it did this.

As each new group of birders arrived, one of the observatory staff would gently work through the iris bed and the bird would fly high into the air before heading over to a derelict outhouse, often choosing to land on or behind a squadron of orange-red gas cylinders. Initial views were brief but sufficient to establish its identity (I had by now seen images and had a chance to do some research).
The red gas bottles, so attractive to the Red-winged Blackbird

The bird quickly hopped down behind the gas cylinders where it was totally hidden from view. After about five minutes it flew up over the building and into a small iris bed behind a wall, again out of view. Another ten minutes and it then flew up onto wires before heading back to its favourite iris bed.
Somehow the bird managed to look a lot bigger in flight than it did when perched.


We then had a longish wait until the next plane load of birders came in and the whole cycle was repeated. This way the Observatory staff managed to keep disturbance to the bird to an absolute minimum but everybody who had made the long pilgrimage got to see it.

By late afternoon those who had flown from down south had headed back off in their small planes. We huddled in a garage opening taking shelter from the biting wind and were eventually rewarded with some more prolonged views.
I am no bird photographer, but did manage a record shot. Excuse the quality.



There was time for a little more birding on the island, which included inching our way along a lane past a very attentive bull and getting a shock as I accidentally flushed a greylag goose off its nest.

A typical Orkney beach, this one next to the observatory

I took advantage of a lift back to the observatory as the adventure was starting to catch up with me. I wandered around outside admiring the North Ronaldsay sheep with their incredibly cute and fluffy lambs.

North Ronaldsay sheep and their lambs feed by the observatory building
The North Ron bird observatory is an incredibly welcoming place and we enjoyed a drink of Orkney Ale in the bar before our evening meal of... you've guessed it... North Ronaldsay mutton. Sue and I are spoilt for native breed hogget and mutton, but it was still a delicious and very welcome hot meal. Today's influx of birders made for a great evening in the observatory, but by 10pm I was fast asleep in my bunk. I didn't stir until someone's alarm woke me up at 7am. We had an hour to wake up, pack, tuck into a hearty breakfast and get to the airfield.
Breakfast was delicious - proper bacon, proper sausages and lovely eggs - just like being back on the smallholding.
Check-in at North Ronaldsay airfield is not quite so stressful as other airports these days. We carried our bags out to the plane, climbed onto the plane and strapped in for the return journey.
There was time for a little exploration on Mainland Orkney, though news of a possible Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Cape Clear Island, off the south-west coast of Ireland, had us hastily considering a fairly major diversion to our route home. Unfortunately it came to nothing.

We managed to squeeze onto the late morning ferry and were soon speeding back towards England. The bank holiday traffic was nowhere near as bad as expected. Twelve hours after disembarking the ferry I pulled up back on the farm.

1300 miles. 2 planes. 2 ferries. 1 first for Britain RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD.
The twitching year is under way. Who knows where it will take me next.

While I was away, 4 turkeys were born but the pregnant ewe still refuses to give birth. Next weekend I will catch up with my planting... Or maybe not. You never know what might come up 😉

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