Tuesday 20 September 2011

A Scilly Twitch on St Mary's 20-21st September 2011


The Megamometer rose to dizzying heights on the weekend of 17-18th September with a report of a Black and White Warbler being found in the woods at Lower Moors on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly. Shortly afterwards, it went completely off the scale as a Northern Waterthrush was reported nearby on the Project Pool, overlooked by the ISBG Hide. This combination was virtually irresistible and I called Badger to see if he was interested, later in the week, in a drive through the night to Penzance and a trip on the jolly old Scillonian. Badger wanted to hang on and see what happened but with a bit of prodding from yours truly accepted that this was the chance of a lifetime to see two mega American vagrants in one go. In the end we waited until Monday and when both birds were reported as still there it was agreed that we would go in the early hours of Tuesday morning and because of the potential difficulties of seeing these birds would stay a night on Scilly and return on Wednesday afternoon. The reasoning being it would give us more time to see both birds - for they were not guaranteed by a long shot as so far they had both proved elusive, especially the Northern Waterthrush and only brief views of both birds had been obtained. 

So it was that Badger spent the night at my house in Kingham and we left for the west at three am on Tuesday morning. Some three and a half hours later we arrived in Penzance to be greeted by a grey and damp Cornish dawn.

The Audi was secreted in a convenient lay by in a side street near to the harbour at Penzance, we loaded up our gear, walked down to the pier and after a little wait boarded The Scillonian. Whilst sat waiting to leave the pier Badger arranged overnight accommodation via his mobile phone with Marlene who ran a bed and breakfast at a house called Treboeth in the wonderfully named Buzzer Street in Hugh Town on St Mary's. We were now all set for a serious twitch. 

The two hour journey over to St Mary’s was uneventful but the weather was becoming increasingly unpleasant with light rain getting progressively heavier and showing no sign of abating. We got chatting to a bird artist called Richard Thewlis who had just been made redundant from the BTO(British Trust for Ornithology) and was going to spend a week on Scilly. We exchanged phone numbers, mutually promising to get in touch if we had any news whilst on the island about the two mega rarities. This was, in hindsight, the smartest move we made that morning. Fifteen Storm Petrels and a slightly queezy stomach later, The Scillonian eventually docked at eleven thirty in Hugh Town and we made our way in the rain to our accommodation.

We left our stuff with the obliging Marlene and in no time set off, still in the rain for Lower Moors to try to locate and hopefully get to see the Black and White Warbler. Admittedly it had not been reported all morning but because of the rain I could not see how it could have gone anywhere. We arrived at the wood and my heart sank. The wood was extensive with many no go areas of dense dripping vegetation and was, in places, a quagmire underfoot. How on earth would we find a tiny warbler in all of this? Thankfully we had heeded the advice to bring wellington boots so we left the path and waded through various 'grimpen' bogs and ducked under low branches, following a rough trail made by other Black and White pilgrims. We carried on to the other side of the wood until we came across some birders gathered forlornly in a slightly open area under the dripping trees. It transpired that the warbler had been seen here briefly that morning so at least we had the assurance it was still in the wood but finding it was an entirely different and far more uncertain prospect.

Not a bird was in sight on our arrival and for the next two hours we stood staring at a very boring collection of wet twigs, branches, leaves and fellow birders, occasionally becoming briefly animated as the arrival and equally hasty departure of a Wren, Great Tit or Common ChiffChaff raised and then dashed our collective hopes. We were soaked and in my case literally to the skin with the incessantly falling rain. Having been up since three in the morning, now absolutely soaked through and getting progressively colder I was losing a lot of my initial hope and optimism. In fact to be honest I was downright miserable, nothing new there then, but I reasoned it was best to stay put as from my experience vagrant warblers develop a circuit and reason dictated that if we stayed put eventually the warbler would show up on it's circuit. It had apparently been seen most times at this very spot but my faith in my theory was now being severely tested. Suddenly there was a murmur and slight kerfuffle amongst the fifteen or so birders scattered around me. Had they seen the warbler? No - a Baltimore Oriole, another mega, had been found on The Garrison. Those whose patience had run out and/or still had some common sense intact, left in a hurry, but there was no way I was going anywhere. I had put in two hours of purgatory and would stay here until dark if necessary to give myself the best chance of seeing this elusive warbler in the metaphorical wood cum haystack.

Half an hour later my iron resolve was turning to rust and I too was on the verge of going to try somewhere else, when one of the six birders who had remained behind with us cried out he could see the warbler. Badger had wandered off as Badgers do and came back at a fast amble but was told to stand still exactly where he was as the bird was right above his head! Panic, anxiety, frustration all the usual mix of twitcher angst passed through me and probably everyone else as I sought the transatlantic waif in amongst the twigs and wet leaves in the tree above. It did not take long to locate it and this almost hallowed bird from far across the ocean put on a command performance for twenty five minutes that will live long in the memory. It's pleasing black and white stripes, broad white supercilium and black crown with central white crown stripe were all seen to good effect. It behaved much like a Great Tit moving up and down lichen covered willow branches and even hanging underneath them, digging into lichen and loose bark, at times giving  really close and extended views. It occasionally called a hard “tzek, but for the most part remained silent. It appeared untroubled by our presence and foraged constantly for invertebrates in amongst the leaves and lichen covered branches. We followed it with varying exclamations of pleasure and in fact the person behind me regularly let out gasps and groans of almost orgasmic intensity. A bit scary and highly amusing. In fairness he too had been waiting five hours in the wet. The warbler moved slowly but constantly through the twigs and branches from tree to tree, occasionally staying still to deal with a caterpillar it had found in the lichen. The last I saw of it was when it was using the rain as a shower, bathing and preening on a twig high up in a tree and then finally moving off to become lost to view in the wet leaves of another tree.

Oh Yes! Oh Gawd! Oh Wonder!.We had done it! The gamble had paid off. Badger and I shook hands, the other birders became our instant friends and we released the tension of the wait by sharing our experiences. I think I just stood there for a few minutes savouring this magical moment and then we retreated from the wood with me gallantly pushing a guy in a wheelchair out of the wood and over the fields to the road. How he got in there in the first place was a source of wonder as even with the full use of two legs it had been no easy task.

We left him, at his insistence, on the road and resolved to go and try for the Baltimore Oriole at The Garrison. I was now sweating and in fact steaming after my exertions with the wheelchair as well as soaking wet from the rain. My feet hurt after standing in wellington boots for hours but we pressed on to the Garrison. In the wood the rain had appeared to be relatively light but out in the open it was really heavy. We arrived on the Garrison to learn from Bob Flood that we had just missed seeing the Oriole and the rain continued to fall relentlessly. To persevere in this rain was hopeless and a waste of both time and energy. We agreed to retreat back to Lower Moors and the ISBG Hide where at least we could sit in shelter and hope the Northern Waterthrush would put in an appearance when it flew into roost, still some hours away. I did not hold out much hope but it was by far the best and most appealing option in all this rain. 

We commenced the walk to the site and as we approached Badger received a call from our new friend Richard. Gasps and exclamations emanated from the Badger. What is it? It must be good? On finishing the call a bedraggled Badger announced that Richard was on his own at the hide watching the Northern Waterthrush! Great fortune seemed to be still smiling on us as we were literally only a few hundred metres away from where Richard was located. Then a unique and surreal experience occurred as the Badger broke into a run. I had never seen this before and it was not just an amble but the real thing. I chased after him still trying to believe my eyes. We ran as best we could down the path, into and through the wood and followed the obvious trail through the reeds. I could see Richard standing by the Hide with an incongruous umbrella held over his head and after a few twists and turns we reached him. I should add that I never saw anyone in the hide. Presumably it remained unoccupied as it resembled something from the trenches of the First World War complete with knee deep mud at the entrance. Maybe there were still ghosts of birders in there who had never re-emerged from its stygian depths. 

Richard told us quietly that the waterthrush had been showing really well but had just disappeared behind a clump of juncus at the back of the pool. Apparently it was very shy and kept retreating into the subterranean gloom beneath the overhanging and very soggy vegetation around the pool. Richard whispered 

It’s in the far right hand corner, just wait and it will come out. It’s been showing really well.”

A short wait of just a few minutes, some movement and there it was. Bins to eyes and nothing! The bins had misted up against my hot and sweaty face! Panic with the tissues and then clarity through the bins. I should say that what I first saw standing out in the gloom under the bank was the most enormous, yellowish cream supercilium, on a bird with otherwise nondescript brown upperparts. It moved left and more into the open between two clumps of juncus. Now I could see the whole bird. The underparts, clearly visible, were creamy white with lines of dark spots running from it's throat all the way down the breast and along the flanks. The upperparts were mid brown and featureless. But it was that amazing supercilium and the dark eye stripe that caught my attention every time and it was always the supercilium that kept me on the bird when the rest of it was so hard to see in the gloom under the banks. It seemed to gain confidence and came more into the open and worked it's way around the pool coming ever closer. Two short flights brought it from one side of the pool to the other and ever closer. I said to Badger all it needs to do now is appear on that mud just a few metres in front of us and it duly did. This bird, dare I say it, edged the Black and White Warbler into second place. But that is my personal opinion. The views we were getting were fabulous and then it came right out in the open and oh! so close. It was always nervous and behaved more like a pipit or wagtail, running with short steps and constantly pumping it's tail downwards. Richard, Badger and myself stood and watched this ornithological gem, utterly entranced. Just the three of us communing with a mega but then Richard felt he should put the news out for other birders to share our good fortune which was only right. 

We continued to watch it for another twenty minutes before the first wet and hyper anxious birder arrived, swiftly followed by even more hyper birders. Their frenzied arrival spooked the bird and it retreated into cover. We gently tried to tell them to calm down and relax and it would show up again. A nervous wait and then they too saw it. The tension eased, we relinquished our spaces in the cramped viewing area to others, thanked and bade goodbye to Richard. We were wet, cold and tired. Did it matter? Not one bit! Any inconvenience had all but been forgotten in that magical hour while we watched the waterthrush. We now started being silly and I took photos of Badger doing acrobatics and adopting silly poses as we walked back to Treboeth on Cloud Nine. We changed clothes and tried to dry out as best we could. The euphoria we felt was almost tangible. We had done it in one day! Incredible, considering how many difficulties everyone before us had experienced with the Northern Waterthrush. Could it be that the rain and consequent absence of birders had encouraged it to be so bold? Whatever, it was our good fortune to watch it close up for almost an hour. We need not worry about tomorrow, for now we could relax next morning, have breakfast and take our time looking for the other goodies on the island.

The weather forecast for tomorrow was for sun and no rain. But for tonight  The Mermaid pub was now top priority and we got a table and hit the Rattler cider with a vengeance. Four pints and a delicious meal later we veered off back to Treboeth. I was so tired I cannot recall even lying on the bed, we may even have done handstands on the way home but next morning I awoke at seven and was ready to go birding.

The next day, Wednesday, the weather was, as promised the direct opposite of Tuesday.We had a leisurely breakfast and headed for The Garrison. Now the mission was to try and nail the Baltimore Oriole which had already been reported that morning from the vicinity of the Pig Field at the back of The Garrison. On arrival at the spot we received the usual dreaded incantation “You should have been here a few minutes ago!” No matter we took up position overlooking the field and waited. I cancelled the taxi we had booked for Newford Duckpond. We waited some more. Badger wandered off to make some calls and this doubtless inspired the oriole to fly into the bushes in front of us on the far side of the field. It treated us to a stunning display of it's features as it consumed blackberries. Badger was seen running for the second time in two days and everyone was happy as the oriole hung around for thirty minutes and then was gone as suddenly as it arrived.

We decided to head for the ISBG Hide at Lower Moors, not for the Northern Waterthrush but for the Solitary Sandpiper which had decided to also make the pool it's home today rather than Newford Duckpond. We reached the hide to find a lot more birders than yesterday, waiting in vain for the Northern Waterthrush which was not co-operating. Smugly we watched the Solitary Sandpiper whilst everyone else was willing the waterthrush to emerge from wherever it was hiding. Richard was here again, making a painting of the waterthrush, as seen by us yesterday. I commissioned him on the spot to do one for me and was delighted when he agreed. We watched the confiding Solitary Sandpiper living up to it's name and then headed for the airport to view some Buff-breasted Sandpipers but half way there changed our mind and turned instead for Newford Duckpond as the Blue-winged Teal had apparently returned there after a day’s absence. It was a long and tiring walk, especially as I was in the dreaded wellingtons. We trudged on and found a couple of Spotted Flycatchers. More amazing to me was the host of seemingly exotic plants thriving in the gardens. It was just like southern Europe in some sheltered parts. We finally reached the Watermill area and started down the road to Newford Duckpond. I remarked to Badger about the number of Song Thrushes that were about here and following one in my bins suddenly found myself looking at a European Bee-eater swinging in the wind, perched on a twiggy hawthorn. It was quietly chirruping to itself and every so often would make a sortie after a bee. Bee-eaters being one of Badger’s favourites meant we spent some time here and I did my bit for birder /public relations by showing passing non birders this colourful bird and without fail elicited the required Ooohs! and Aaahs! when they saw it through the scope. 

The duckpond was close by and on arrival we found to our distress that the teal had flown leaving a motley collection of Mallards and a lone male Gadwall in eclipse plumage, swimming around on a ridiculously small area of water. We stared at the mud, water and reeds as if the teal should appear by magic but it was not there. Now what do we do? We backtracked and had another helping of the Bee-eater and then re-traced our steps. My feet were getting progressively more tired. Curse these wellington boots but they would come into their own later. A diversion up a lane to try and see a Red-eyed Vireo proved fruitless. We cut our losses and decided for more Black and White Warbler action.

Wellingtons were now definitely the footwear of choice as we squelched through the mire and water to re-find the spot where we had seen it yesterday. We reached the hallowed ground but there was no sign of the warbler despite regular reports of it being seen throughout the day. An hour passed and then a low whistle from a birder some hundred metres away alerted us to it's presence. A controlled rush to the spot and six very happy birders enjoyed watching the feathered humbug do it's stuff in the trees. This time there was no rain to obscure lenses and a relaxed atmosphere permeated the woods as we watched the warbler examining in almost leisurely and systematic fashion every little nook and cranny in the branches. We watched it for over an hour this time and got even better views than yesterday. I noted as many plumage features as I could – its pale lower mandible, the striking white covert bars and the broad white line along the outer edge of the tertials, its dark eye in a plain white face and the white spots on the underside of the tail come to mind. What a star. 

Time was now rolling on and soon we would have to head for the Scillonian which like the tide waits for no man. However there was still time to visit the airport where we found the four juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpipers plus an unexpected Ruff. Three Whimbrel and a Curlew flew over and White Wagtails and Northern Wheatears chased around on the short grass by the runway. We could not locate the Woodchat Shrike but for us it was mission accomplished as in the space of twenty eight magical hours we had seen three megas plus some other very good birds. A fast walk back to Treboeth to change footwear and then an even faster walk down to the harbour and onto the Scillonian. Unlike yesterday it was packed with birders many of whom had come just for the day and were now returning. They had opted for the very strategy we were, in hindsight so wary of, and rightly so, as all of these day birders had failed to see the Northern Waterthrush. Needless to say it was seen the next morning! We chatted to our fellow birders about our Scilly experiences and about the controversial Long-toed Stint at Weir Wood Reservoir in Sussex which so far had been three different species in seven days. I sea-watched on the sunny deck of the Scillonian, as a pod of Common Dolphins sped around us and two Black Terns and a couple of Grey Phalaropes on the sea rounded off the day. All we had now was the long slog home but nothing could dampen our spirits after such an amazing experience.

Northern Waterthrush - Painting by Richard Thewlis

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