Friday 9 July 2021

The ups and downs of twitching

Well June flew past.

I was somewhat distracted by rare birds. June is not usually a very busy month for twitchers, but it is right at the end of spring migration and just occasionally there is some poor waif from the east heading in the wrong direction which comes from so far away that it takes quite some time to get here. A hot spell in early summer can bring more southerly overshoots to our shores too.

This June held so many surprises though that the twitching merits a whole blog post to itself.

The first weekend in June a lucky local birder discovered a Red-necked Stint poking around in the mud on his patch, the Blyth Estuary just North of Newcastle. I had only seen one of these in this country, many years ago and not very well in a misty and dusky gloom. So at 2am the next morning I headed up with a friend. The bird was still there, but distant on the other side of the estuary. As the tide turned it eventually flew closer and showed reasonably well to the crowd. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces. My friend and I decided to try the other side of the estuary as that's where the bird had been feeding previously at high tide. We drove round and walked out before setting ourselves up on the edge of the marsh. 

Lying in wait
Red-necked Stint on the left, Dunlin on the right

As the tide rose the waders came over to our side and over the next couple of hours we watched them get closer.. and closer... and CLOSER. The tide tiptoed across the mud pushing the waders ever nearer.

Quite a few other birders saw what we had done and came round and all the waders just paraded unconcerned right in front of us. At times the Red-necked Stint was within 20 feet of us. We just stayed put and admired. This was right up there with the best bird encounters I have ever had. The Red-necked Stint blew me away. 

This had been my first twitch for a while, so little did I expect what the rest of June was to bring.

Two days later there was news of s Dusky Warbler on Lundy, an island which lies in the Bristol Channel, accessed from the north Devon coast. Dusky Warbler is not a particularly notable scarce autumn vagrant, but at this time of year it sounded a bit odd. As the morning progressed, questions were being asked and photos and sound recordings sought. 

Then suddenly we had a SULPHUR-BELLIED WARBLER on our hands, a first for Britain and second for the whole of Europe!!!!!

The infrequent passenger service over to Lundy was fully booked, (for the next month!!) so there was a flurry of activity in a scramble to find charter boats to get us over.  I managed to secure a place on a boat on Thursday. Two days to wait. Then I upgraded to a boat first thing on Wednesday morning. I was much more comfortable with this. Then a phone call. "Can you get to Ilfracombe by 5.30pm today?" Well, that should be possible.

At 5.15 I pulled up at Ilfracombe quay after a fraught 5 hour drive. (I later discovered I had incurred a speeding penalty, my first in 7 years. It was nothing ridiculous.)

I had to watch as two earlier boats departed full of birders from further south. Finally at 6pm our contingency had arrived and we were off on a thankfully fast rib which sped us over a flat calm sea at 40+ knots. There were great views of dolphins on the way but we didn't have time to slow down. The earlier birders had by now seen the bird well but we had no idea what it would do as the sun disappeared from the valley it had found to its favour. 

An hour later we were hurriedly disembarking. Arrival at Lundy is quickly followed by the grim reality of a lung-bursting climb up from the jetty. We arrived at the top breathless, unable to hold binoculars steady or to run if the bird was relocated. It quickly became obvious that the bird had become very elusive and the trail may have gone cold. This was tense. There was not an option to stay on the island, even roughing it, as this is strictly not allowed. We had less than two hours before the rib had to depart.

The Sulphur-bellied Warbler had stopped singing and the trees it had been favouring were now becoming swathed in shade. Then the bird was called and a few brief views through binoculars were a big relief but, if I'm honest, a little underwhelming. The bird was quite distant and its salient features were very hard to pick out. We had definitely seen the right bird, but not very well. Then no further sign as the clock ticked. Along with a couple of others I headed back down the valley anticipating that the bird might follow the sun. Two friends were focussing in on a perched warbler sunbathing in the canopy but it wasn't the right one. Then, as I looked around trying to second guess what the bird might be up to, another warbler was flitting about in a closer sapling. The light wasn't great and it was hard to be sure, but this was a good candidate. As I got several nearby birders onto it, we gradually saw enough to confirm it was the bird. It quite quickly flitted into a deeper area of wood but by now most birders were onto it and between us we managed to keep track of it as it moved quickly through the trees. 

Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Lundy. (not my picture, I hope the photographer doesn't mind me using it)

I won't lie and say it was the most stunning of birds I've ever seen, and I only had one really good view as the sun caught it right and highlighted is sulphurity. But in terms of rarity and the excitement of an on the day island twitch it was right up there.

And that was it. Time to go. The boatman had fun racing another rib on the way back and, faced with a more adventurous group of punters than his usual tourist crowd, took the opportunity to weave the boat about a bit, even throwing in a couple of aquatic doughnuts!

It's not every day you drive to Devon at no notice, bounce across the water to an island, meet up with about 50 of your friends and then get involved in a high adrenaline race back to shore. But that's twitching for you.

I didn't travel all the way home that night. Instead I stopped off at Ham Wall in Somerset where I slept in the car until dawn. A River Warbler had taken up residence and, as I'd only ever seen three of this very rare warbler in Britain, it seemed rude not to pop in and see it. The mist hung thickly over the marsh but the River Warbler showed really well. River warblers are not much to look at for the non birder. The main attraction is their song which they blast out incessantly, a reeling trill delivered with head raised and mouth wide open. This nature reserve is an amazing place with some very rare birds but I didn't really have time to wait for the mist to lift as the previous day I had dropped everything and deserted the farm. I did hvae time to stop off closer to home for a singing Great Reed Warbler. Another reed-dwelling species, these have an incredibly loud song which they deliver from the top of a reed if it's not windy. Unfortunately a fresh breeze kept the bird out of sight more than I would have liked but it did show very well a few times.

River Warbler, Ham Wall

Great Reed Warbler, Besthorpe, Notts

I returned home after a truly unique warbler hat-trick.

There was no sign of the Sulphur-bellied Warbler that day so the haring about of the previous day had been worth it.

Little did I expect to be doing something very similar the next Tuesday, but that's what happened. This time it was an EGYPTIAN VULTURE on The Scilly Isles, the first in this country in over 150 years.

It was found on Monday, but there was no chance of a same day twitch this time. Again, all scheduled services were full. So another long drive down to the tip of Cornwall. 

Newlyn Harbour at sunrise before we caught our boat

This time there had been time to arrange teaming up with birders coming down the M5 from further North. There were three boats chartered across for the day. Ours was leaving first, at 7am, but was the slowest with a 2 1/2 hour crossing ahead of us. Positive news of the bird on the way had as hyped up. It was being watched perched in a tree, albeit from another island at a distance of 4km. The journey seemed interminable. As we approached the archipelago the bird was still there, but then bad news. The chopper arriving onto Tresco had flushed the bird. no-one had seen it go but it was no longer on the branch. But it was a fine morning and surely on such a day the vulture would be flying around and soaring. As long as it didn't thermal too high before we got there, we were still in with a very good chance.

By now the two later boats were passing us and it wasn't long before we again had positive news. They were watching the bird distantly sat in a tree. We were less than 10 minutes away. Nothing could go wrong. Birders on the other boats were celebrating and we would soon be too.

OH HOW WRONG! Another message. It's not it.

It took a while for that to sink in. The other birders had now been dropped off on Tresco and their boat met ours midchannel so we could transfer onto it to land. My knee had been in pain since the Lundy twitch so I left other birders to traipse across the island in search of the vulture. I climbed to a very handy viewpoint and spent the next few hours in the sun with a beautiful view across most of the Isles of Scilly. The only thing missing was a vulture.

We had a view over most of the archipelago
Constant scanning revealed nothing

Mid afternoon and it seemed the trail had gone cold. Surely a vulture would have shown itself by now. A band of dejected birders boarded the inter island boat back to St Mary's, the main island on Scilly. But just as we climbed up the slippery stone steps of Hugh Town quay, news came through that the vulture had literally flown over our heads during the boat journey. This seemed unlikely given the number of very alert birders on the boat.

Then another message. A second sighting. Then nothing. We met up with birders who had been looking out over the channel from Hugh Town. No one knew anything about these sightings. Another couple of hours of forlorn scanning drew a blank. It was lovely to be on Scilly again, but this was the fourth trip in a row I had failed to see a bird which was apparently still on show with the quay in sight.

And that was it. A slightly less optimistic chug back to Penzance and a 6 hour drive home. 

Thems the highs and lows of twitching. What to make of the vulture sightings that day, well no-one can be sure but some  people were convinced they were watching the bird. 

Hopefully it won't be another 153 years till the next opportunity.

I leave the twitching tales there for now, but June had even more surprises up its sleeve including a very rare Least Tern near Dublin and the return of the Bempton Albatross.

The Bempton Albatross
Stuck in the wrong hemisphere
Read more in a future blog post

Looking Back - Featured post


Ten years and a thousand blog posts! Enjoy. Pictures in no particular order.  

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