|Cape May Warbler|
The news broke on Thursday 23rd of October and sitting in the pub that evening at an Oxonbirders social I nearly succumbed to paying £550.00 for a seat on a charter plane. I even rang the person up but at the final moment gained control of myself and declined. This was certainly assisted by hearing the cost. The next day another seat on another charter plane was offered on RBA (Rare Bird Alert). I weakened and rang the number but thankfully for my peace of mind all the seats had gone. The decision was made for me.
It's hard to explain this urge. Is it the sense of adventure, the feeling of leaving normality to venture into a world known by few others, to leave convention and life's problems behind for a few hours or days? Whatever it is I love it, all constraints gone and a sense of freedom that I never knew for so much of my life
To go on the weekend was not a viable option as I had to work in London all day on Sunday. I went birding with Andy and Terry on Saturday and forgot about the warbler. Sunday night came and checking RBA I learnt it was still there. Monday morning, to cut a long story short, found me and the Audi on the M40, just after 10am, heading rapidly north from Banbury. Many phone calls made at home from 9am onwards had me booked on that night's overnight ferry to Lerwick from Aberdeen and then onwards on two more ferries to Yell and then onto Unst on Tuesday morning. Bolts car hire would meet me at Lerwick with a car on Tuesday morning just after the ferry docked. So simple and ostensibly all sorted out but fate was about to take a hand.
I allowed seven hours to get to Aberdeen which meant I would be there around 5pm with two hours to spare before sailing time at 7pm. I might even have time to visit my favourite Aberdeen pub, The Prince of Wales, for a pint of Deuchars. It was all going so well, too well and then just past Manchester ominous signs appeared "M6 closed between junctions 26-28". I turned on the radio and learnt there had been a crash on the Motorway and the police had decided to close it. I consulted the road atlas and there was an easy route round the closed Motorway leading me back to where I could rejoin the Motorway at Tebay. As I approached Junction 26 I was met by a wall of static cars tailing back at least a mile from the junction. Three lanes of Motorway traffic was trying to concertina into one lane and going nowhere. It was all happening very slowly. Too slowly. An agonizing hour later and I finally made it off the Motorway. It was no better however, as there was still traffic chaos as hundreds of diverted vehicles of all shapes and sizes completely swamped the tiny lanes of the market town of Kendal, all like me seeking an alternative route north. Another hour was frittered away with every possible obstruction from lumbering ballast lorries to school buses, all seemingly intent on impeding me, and specifically me, to the best of their ability. I was now in serious trouble. It was looking impossible to get to Aberdeen in time for the ferry this evening. Finally regaining the Motorway at Tebay I was then welcomed by roadworks with the frustration of "Average Speed Check". Yeeeeeeeeagh! Will it ever stop? Why me? I railed at the injustice of it all.
Finally I hit open and unrestricted road and we went proverbially faster than the speeding bullet. The time moved inexorably onwards and the miles seemed to decrease ever more slowly. Carlisle, Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, Dundee went by in a blur of blinding rain, spray and swishing wipers. I felt like the living embodiment of Turner's famous and disturbing painting titled 'Rain, Steam and Speed'. After an age, signs for Aberdeen appeared. It was still over ninety miles away with only just over an hour to spare. It was now dark and I had virtually resigned to stay overnight in Aberdeen and get the ferry the next day. But the competitive streak in me would not quite give up. Keep on going Ewan, there is an outside chance. Something may happen. We got to Aberdeen with fifteen minutes left before the ferry check in officially closed. My heart sank as I joined a long line of rush hour traffic waiting to clear a roundabout. A stream of red brake lights shining into the distance, mocking me. I was now thinking of hotels for the night. A warning from the Audi fuel gauge - you only have 30 miles of diesel left. Fill me up immediately! I cursed. No chance. We got over the roundabout and yet more rush hour chaos confronted me. Come on, come on! A gap appeared in a gridlock of cars. I shot through on instinct although not even sure I was going the right way. Then I could see the ferry. Huge, white and brilliantly lit in the darkness, by the docks. It seemed impossibly distant and unattainable. So near and yet so far. That it should come down to this, a matter of a few minutes after all the hurtling speed and miles that I had covered. Suddenly the road again opened up before me. I had a clear run. Two sets of lights were green. No time for a multi story car park. I found a free parking spot in an industrial side road with the ferry almost on the opposite side. Unbelievably luck was going my way at last. I dragged my dead weight of a backpack from the rear seat, boots flung round my neck and booking documents clutched like some holy grail in my teeth. F**k forgot the tripod. Too late. Get running. My chest heaved. My heartbeats, I swear, doubled as the adrenalin kicked into my veins. I ran towards the ferry until I could run no more. Reduced by the weight of the backpack to walking pace and wheezing for oxygen I lurched onwards as best I could. The backpack had wrapped itself around my neck and like some truculent kid was doing it's level best to impede my progress. I staggered like some drunk across a major road, fighting the backpack which seemed to have acquired a life of it's own as it attempted to strangle me, and careered down the approach road to the terminal which now lay tantalisingly just around the corner. Two minutes. The lights were dim in the terminal. Closed already? I staggered through the doors. Still open. Two young ladies looking at me questioningly. 'I am on the ferry. Please tell me I am in time. You have no idea .......' my words trailed away. The moment hung in the air. A smile. 'Aye you are in time, just, and you can still go on'. They gave me a boarding card. I went up the stairs and I entered the ship. The purser eyed my Ross County FC sweatshirt stained with, well, let's face it, sweat and severely rumpled just like the rest of me. 'Christ, a Staggies supporter. We dinnae get many of you on this ship.' I was beyond banter. A miracle had happened. A Scot in crisis. Whisky was required. A large Glenlivet was administered in the welcoming bar. I sat motionless with the rhythm of the Audi's drumming wheels, over all those miles, still reverberating through my body as it slowly returned to what passes for normal these days and the drive of hell receded as fast as the road had in the past few hours.
I was on my way. It felt like I had been on a twitch already but the warbler was still to come. More anxiety in store. Still there was nothing to do now but while away the twelve boring hours on the ferry crossing. I did not have a cabin but a 'sleeping pod' which is like a huge chair but lays out almost flat to facilitate sleep. A pillow and blanket are provided. Also a private shower accessed by a key for booked 'sleeping podders'. I lay on my sleeping pod in the dark and watched the moored, illuminated oil vessels slip past us as we headed out of the harbour into the darkness of the North Sea night. I fell asleep. I woke up. Great. Let's go. Looked at the time. Midnight. I had been asleep for only four hours but there was still another seven to go until Lerwick. Sleep was now elusive but I dissolved into some sort of nether world of not quite sleep not quite wakefulness and eventually was stirred by the tannoy advising of our imminent arrival in Lerwick. We were early and Bolts did not open until eight. A frustrating half hour wait in the terminal and finally the lady arrived and I got my hired car. A short drive to the terminal at Toft to get the ferry to Ulsta on Yell. Another drive across the desolate island of Yell and another shorter ferry crossing from Gutcher to Belmont and I was, at last, on Unst. Almost there. I had now been travelling for twenty four hours. It felt much longer.
The warbler was at a place called Baltasound but the precise location was difficult to ascertain. I drove there and after a wrong turn found 'The Manse', the desolate spot the warbler had chosen to frequent and instead of the hordes of birders I expected, found just two friendly local birders crouched by a dry stone wall and looking intently over the wall at a clump of wind blasted, stunted sycamore in a nearby corner of the walled field which served as the garden of 'The Manse'.
|The Sycamore patch forever immortalised by the Cape May Warbler|
I looked. I saw a movement. Not a falling leaf this time. I saw a warbler. I saw a Cape May Warbler. A tiny nondescript waif of a bird but with subtle plumage variations, flicking through the leaves and finally showing itself fully.
Grey on the upperparts and white below with grey streaks. Greenish yellow on the rump and around the neck with white on the tail and on the wings. I watched it in the bins. Enthralled. I had done it. Here it was. Right in front of me. I felt I really deserved this after all that had happened yesterday.
It was beautiful in it's own unique way. An American warbler so far from home and surely every UK birders dream bird. Here I was in the wet, standing in a damp ditch by a desolate rain sodden lane, under lowering skies, watching it go about it's life. Presumably it was heedless that it was thousands of miles from home on the wrong side of the Atlantic, in an alien environment and certainly not in the West Indies which is it's normal winter home. It delicately picked prey from the undersides of leaves, almost tit like in it's dexterity and attitudes. It descended to the leaf litter on the ground and ascended to the topmost branches of the sycamores in it's endless search for sustenance. Confiding and gentle in demeanour, an appealing mixture of rarity and subtle, understated plumage tones. A previously unseen Common Chiffchaff was given short shrift and seen off by the Cape May Warbler in no uncertain manner from the sycamores. Eventually it perched in the open on top of the wall for all of a minute, still, and obviously content. Then it flew down off the wall to the other side and was gone.
We could not relocate it and it started to rain again. We took the opportunity to go for some refreshment in the local shop/cafe while the rain fell steadily, and then still in the rain went back to look for it. We found it in one of the other favoured sycamore stands a few hundred metres from where I had originally seen it. It's extreme rarity made me feel I should look at it as much as possible as this may never happen again.
I had been very lucky and had enjoyed the warbler to myself with just two other companions to share the experience with but now two plane charters of around twelve birders in total had arrived. They had flown from England and one of the planes had a problem with it's wingflaps. It was not able to go back! Thankfully this was not my problem although I was on standby to assist one birder who thought he might need a lift and come back on the ferry with me from Lerwick as he needed to be home the next morning or face marital meltdown. I learnt later he got a lift back on the other plane but the other birders were stranded and the only person who could apparently fix the problem had to be flown in by yet another plane!
The rain had now well and truly set in and was not going to cease. Shetland assumed it's customary mantle of low grey cloud, steady rain and wind.
|The Cape May Warbler roosted in the ruined house on the left|
News then came through about another huge mega find on the other side of Scotland - a Mourning Dove on the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides. Only the fourth to be seen in the UK. Originally my plan was to remain on Unst overnight and do a bit of casual birding and then gently head back to Lerwick on Wednesday and take the overnight ferry to Aberdeen. I would be home on Thursday. Slowly a plan formed in my mind, growing inexorably towards fruition. I would go for the Mourning Dove.
I baulked at the logistics but if I pulled this off I would truly feel I had stepped into the land of myth and legend. I would dine out on this for many a month. To get to Rum I had to take a ferry from Mallaig on the far west coast of Scotland. The ferry to Rum did not sail every day. The next sailing was Tuesday. The ferry on Monday night from Lerwick to Aberdeen arrived in Aberdeen at 7am on Tuesday. The ferry to Rum left Mallaig at 1030. It was just not possible to cover over 250 miles, on country roads, from Aberdeen to Mallaig in the time available. I ceased any further contemplation of birding legend but a little later I rang Calmac and enquired about the next sailing to Rum after Tuesday. It was 1030 on Thursday and the ferry then returned to Mallaig three and a half hours later. I had that time on Rum to see the dove. OK. A night in a B&B at Mallaig on Wednesday and I would be bright eyed and bushy tailed to sail to Rum on Thursday. I could drive at my leisure from Aberdeen to Mallaig across some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, birding as I went. Plan complete or so I thought.
Yet another call was made to Northlink Ferries about my change of plan. The cheery person who spoke to me laughed and said they had so many changes of plan under my name they were not sure which ferry I wanted but were happy to oblige with my latest request. So it was back on the MV Hrossey and twelve hours of purgatory in the sleeping pod through the long night. Next morning in Aberdeen the weather was calm and sunny and a really beautiful early morning greeted me. I made my way back to the Audi, thankfully still in one piece after my hasty departure and now the first priority was a garage for diesel. This was duly achieved and I headed up the northeast coast to Peterhead and then beyond to the Loch of Strathbeg. My ancestors are from the north east coast of Scotland. It does not have the rugged grandeur of the west coast mountains and lochs but a quieter more subdued and subtle beauty of it's own. It also has many memories for me. Some good, some sad. Maybe I just feel more at home, more familiar in this understated scenery with it's wide rolling fields and immense skies. Even Peterhead, a classic dour town of grey and brown granite looked bearable in the sunshine. No white winged gulls in the harbour though, just a collection of massive trawlers moored at the piers with queues of expectant Herring Gulls awaiting the next chance of a meal. Onwards to the Loch of Strathbeg where the usual vast assemblage of wintering ducks and Whooper Swans awaited me. Nothing unusual here apart from a nice female Scaup. The usual flocks of Pink footed Geese were nowhere to be seen. The air was completely still and time seemed to have come to a brief stop, uncertain, awaiting the next weather front. I stopped by a farmyard. Two Tree Sparrows sat on a hay bale and were joined by others. A small bird flew up from the ditch. A male Blackcap eking out an existence in the rank grass.
Now it was time to cross Scotland. I headed north for Banff and then turned west down through the whisky country of Speyside. Familiar distillery names came and went. Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour and Balvenie to name a few. The road before me was empty for miles. I was alone in the world. I was home and at peace. As I drove down the deserted glens all of Scotland seemed to have turned yellow and orange. The silver birch leaves, pale yellow, the larches orange and the moor grass a deeper orange yet. This swathe of bright colour was offset by the dark greens of the distant forestry plantations on the surrounding hills. Slowly the weather changed, the wind became strong and the sun retired behind skies the colour of gun metal.
I stopped at Loch Garten to try and see some Crested Tits but failed. The wind was now reaching gusts of gale force proportions. A Red Squirrel ran along a pine bough and was gone into the swaying top of a Caledonian Pine. I heard a Crested Tit but it was impossible to discern it in the tossing leaves and branches. The wind stripped the leaves off the birches and I was showered in a swirling mass of yellow as the leaves careered on the wind, end over end, twinkling to earth. It began to rain and so I made my way to Fort William in now torrential rain and buffeting wind but thankfully along virtually empty roads. Water showered down from the hillsides in white gashes and under the road.
I arrived in Mallaig at around five pm and in no time was ensconced in 'The Moorings' for the night. At last a proper bed and the prospect of a sensible night's sleep. It did not quite happen though. That night a huge thunder storm hit Mallaig and seemed to be present for most of the night. Thunderous claps of sound seemed to be trapped by the surrounding mountains. The rain hammered on the windows, driven by the strong wind and lightning illuminated my bedroom. I hoped the ferry would not be cancelled but there was nothing more I could do.
The next morning after breakfast I had a brief look around Mallaig harbour. It was wet, very wet underfoot although the rain had stopped, if only briefly. A footpath by some houses had become a mountain stream.
The wind blew strong and cold. The rain soon returned, horizontally and I shrank into my waterproofs.
An Iceland Gull had been reported from the harbour yesterday though I could find no sign of it this morning but scanning some loafing Herring Gulls at an outfall I saw what looked superficially like a very small Herring Gull. A closer look revealed a pink bill with a neat black band around it. An almost adult Ring billed Gull. Probably a second winter and found by yours truly. I instantly felt better.
Walking back to the Bed and Breakfast, a birder I had last seen in Norfolk stopped me and said 'Had I heard about the ferry?' 'Err no.' 'It's going to Rum but coming back straight away because there is a dire weather forecast of gales arriving late morning'. This would mean there would be no chance of spending time looking for the dove. I went to the Calmac ferry terminal and the girl behind the counter confirmed the news. Yet another unpredicted circumstance was threatening to defy me and my ambitions. In this situation there is only one thing to do. Well, two really. Throw it all in and go home which is what the other birder decided to do. The other? I spoke to the girl. 'When can I get back from Rum if I go today?' 'Saturday'. 'Anywhere to stay on Rum?' 'You can ring this number'. I rang the number which was for a hostel. A very pleasant lady answered and told me there would be no problem with accommodation for two nights. 'How much?' '£18.67 per night'. 'Done'. Another crisis averted. I bought a ticket for the ferry and hopefully birding immortality. No time for any other considerations. I was on all systems go and had not come this distance to be stopped within a few miles of my objective if it could possibly be avoided.
Another birder arrived at the ferry terminal. He looked familiar.We got talking. His name was Steve and he was familiar because he had been standing near me on Unst looking at the Cape May Warbler. He had been on one of the charter planes. He had not even booked accommodation on Rum but was just going to take a chance. I recognised a fellow intrepid soul when I saw one. We would get on famously.
We boarded the Loch Nevis which was a small but comfortable ship that had seen better days. It had the slightly decrepit, frayed at the edges appearance of something which needed a good make over, but obviously someone had decided why bother if it worked and left it at that. I quite understood. These ferries lose a fortune but provide a vital link for the islanders and are heavily subsidised by the Scottish Government. We left Mallaig and the Loch Nevis went into roller coaster mode dipping down and up and rolling in the huge seas. Steve felt unwell and went to lie down. I had a Mars Bar.
|The Loch Nevis|
Vehicles are only allowed by permit, are mainly owned by the residents and are few and far between. The island is a National Nature Reserve with a total population of only 44, of which many are English and incomers. The village of Kinloch has been relinquished by Scottish Natural Heritage to the Isle of Rum Community Trust which gives the community and individuals control over their own destiny.
Kinloch village is easily walkable in about fifteen minutes from the pier and this is where the hostel is located next to the imposing Kinloch Castle, a Victorian pile left to the nation after the First World War by an industrialist from Accrington who owned the whole island. Apparently he only stayed there for five weeks each year
|Kinloch Castle now owned by Scottish Natural Heritage|
|The Hostel. Its better inside than it looks outside!|
We were greeted by Ally who lives there with her husband Sean. She pointed out where it was best to look for the dove which was under the bird feeders hanging from the conifers at the far side of her garden.
She told us the dove had not been seen all morning. We settled in for a long wait. Not a problem as we did have two and a half days after all and nowhere else to go! The wind was cold but we were sheltered from the worst of the strong wind by the house wall. We stood there for quite a long time. Many Chaffinches were feeding on and below the feeders and a single Brambling joined them.
At frequent intervals they would take alarm and flee in all directions for no apparent reason. It was only when a Sparrowhawk shot through that we knew why they were so jumpy. This rapid departure and return of Chaffinches kept us interested as we scanned for anything more unusual amongst them. I was just staring in contemplation at the grass around the discarded seed when, as if out of nowhere, a small brown dove seemed to drop from the conifers onto the ground below. It was the Mourning Dove, facing us.
|View from Ally's kitchen window to the feeders under the conifers|
The most noticeable thing about the dove for me, was it's long pointed tail. When it flew the graduated tail feathers showed white at the tips. It's overall plumage was a relatively featureless pale brown with a black line on the side of the neck and prominent black squares on the tertials and rear scapulars. There was a patch of blue skin around the front of it's eye and some neat coral pink legs and feet. It was roughly the size of a Collared Dove but more slender
Ally really was a dream host and the kindness and generosity shown by both her and Sean and indeed many of the other islanders was really exceptional and much appreciated. We just could not thank them enough. Now relaxed, the tension gone having seen the dove, we chatted for a while before bidding farewell and saying we would return tomorrow for some more dove action. In the early afternoon we wandered around the island shore looking for Otters and anything that took our fancy. We found a Dipper and some Greylag Geese where a river joined the sea loch. Siskins and Coal Tits flew in and out of the conifers above us and the local Wrens, so much darker than those on the mainland, fed in the seaweed tangle on the seashore, watched by Grey Seals. Hooded Crows and Curlews scavenged on the bleak windswept seashore
We went our separate ways and later joined up at the hostel which was welcomingly warm, the rooms spacious and comfortable and all was well. We made an evening meal. Well Steve did. I helped him eat it but in my defence I did the washing up. That night we had been invited to the Halloween Party in the Village Hall. We bought some drinks from the village shop which is attached to the hall and chatted to some of the locals. It was all a bit surreal but thoroughly enjoyable, however both of us were really tired so we retired relatively early and before it started getting silly
|The Village Hall with the Shop and Post Office to the left|
We carried on with the wind setting our eyes streaming. I turned my back to the wind and scanned the far side of the glen and the hilltops. Two huge shapes were riding the wind. This was more like it. White tailed Eagles. They glided at height towards us before turning away and rising even further up into the grey, cloud turbulent skies. Absolutely magnificent. A short while further along the track another or the same pair floated past us at eye level not more than fifty metres away. Their huge yellow bills and white tails unmissable, contrasting with the tawny plumage of their wings and bodies. It does not get better than this believe me. We walked on but little else was visible. Red Deer were still rutting and a stag was roaring and bellowing to no one in particular but was mightily impressive. In complete contrast a Pygmy Shrew ran across the waterlogged track in front of us.
We never quite made it to Kilmory as I wanted to make sure we got back to Rock Cottage in time to see the Mourning Dove. It was a two and a half hour walk back and my bones ached from traversing the uneven surface of the track. I came, eventually, to the Snow Bunting location and not one but now two arose from the side of the track.
The wind continued to blow and the mountains stood sentinel as they have done for ever over the glen. The rocks here are three billion years old
| The remains of the extinct volcano on Rum which exploded 35 million years ago|
and is also home to a huge colony of Manx Shearwaters in the breeding season
We saw the first of the visiting birders arriving next day. I kept away. It did not go well, apparently, and most were disappointed as the dove was scared off by the Sparrowhawk and not seen again until late afternoon when all the visiting birders had gone. Steve and myself had a brief tour of Kinloch Castle, marvelling at Victorian excess, before walking to the pier and boarding the Loch Nevis. We arrived in Mallaig three hours later due to unscheduled visits to the islands of Muck and Eigg to collect passengers who had been stranded by the severe weather and consequent absence of the ferry. Then at Mallaig I was reunited with the Black Audi and in the growing dusk with the dash lights glowing red we left Mallaig and headed south on the long and winding road for home. Quite a journey.
White tailed Eagle/ Common Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Eurasian Sparrowhawk/ Common Raven/ Hooded Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Ring billed Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Kittiwake/ Fulmar Petrel/ Guillemot/ Great Cormorant/ European Shag/ Northern Gannet/ Grey Heron/ Whooper Swan/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Pink footed Goose/ Red breasted Merganser/ Eider/ Mallard/ Gadwall/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Northern Shoveler/ Common Goldeneye/ Eurasian Teal/ Northern Pintail/ Greater Scaup/ Tufted Duck/ Common Pochard/ Eurasian Curlew/ Bar tailed Godwit/ Oystercatcher/ European Golden Plover/ Northern Lapwing/ Common Redshank/ Ruddy Turnstone/ Woodpigeon/ Stock Dove/ Rock Dove/ Mourning Dove/ Common Pheasant/ Common Starling/ Eurasian Skylark/ Fieldfare/ Redwing/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Robin/ Dipper/ Dunnock/ Pied Wagtail/ Rock Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ House Sparrow/ Tree Sparrow/ Blackcap/ Cape May Warbler/ Common Chiffchaff/ Common Chaffinch/ Brambling/ Greenfinch/ European Goldfinch / Redpoll sp./ Eurasian Siskin/ Snow Bunting/ Reed Bunting/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Crested Tit (h)/ Long tailed Tit/ Wren/ Goldcrest