Friday, 17 April 2015

Dippity doo dah! 16th April 2015

Well it had to happen but it still hurts. Read on. A Great Blue Heron. the American equivalent of our Grey Heron, but larger, had been found for only the second time ever in the UK on St Mary's, the largest of the Isles of Scilly, late in the day on the 14th April.

I was driving back from Pulborough RSPB when a text arrived from Justin. 'Going to Scilly?' was all it said. Not having checked my RBA app. I had no idea what it referred to. All I inferred from Justin's message was that a very rare bird had arrived on the Scillies. I called Justin when I got home and heard the news about the heron.

We agreed to wait until tomorrow to see if there would be any further news. There was. It was still present so a twitch was on. I called Justin who was sitting in his car on the way to work. There and then I booked myself, Justin and Paul onto The Scillonian sailing the next day from Penzance to St Mary's.We would arrive on St Mary's at 1130 in the morning.

The rest of the day was ominously silent about the heron. No one had apparently seen it since it was disturbed and flew from the beach mid morning. There were a couple of possible later sightings but these were uncorroborated. Justin tried booking a plane but thankfully a combination of  unprecedented financial acumen, bad weather and incompetence on the part of Isles of Scilly Travel dissuaded us from following this course. We decided that although the news about the heron was not looking good, we had booked on The Scillonian anyway so might as well go ahead with our adventure.

Three am on the 16th April found me standing outside my home in Kingham in the still of the night waiting to make a rendezvous with Justin and Paul. They arrived promptly and we headed for Cornwall in Justin's car. I was tired, very tired. After guiding Justin across the unfamiliar, to him, northern Cotswolds, we joined the M5. Justin now knew where he was going so I shrank into a dark corner on the back seat of the car and found sleep. One intermediate stop at a forlorn Motorway Services and then it was back to sleep in the car and I awoke as we were cruising down the A30 in Cornwall, just outside Penzance. It was now daylight and the sun was coming up fast.

With plenty of time to spare before it was time to check in for the ship we stopped at the car park overlooking Marazion Beach and St Michael's Mount to get a breath of air and stretch our limbs. Other birders on the same mission as us parked nearby.

Marazion Beach and St Michael's Mount
Two Great Northern Divers were fishing in the still waters of the bay. A Sandwich Tern flew past while a Greater Black backed Gull shredded an unfortunate flatfish as its mate watched on impassively.

We relaxed here for forty five minutes before making the short drive to Penzance, to park and walk to the Isles of Scilly Travel booking office to check in. Then after a brief wait on the quayside we were allowed to board The Scillonian. We found a bench seat on the outer upper deck and awaited departure along with many other birders who had also joined the ship. Clothing of choice was mainly drab, beige and/or green with other non birding passengers providing variety by wearing brighter colours. Many serious hard core bird listers were on board signifying the 'importance' of this twitch.

Paul and Justin on board The Scillonian
It was not unpleasant in the sun as we left the harbour and commenced the almost three hour voyage to St Mary's. The Scillonian has frankly seen better days. She is old but not without a quaint other worldly charm redolent of less frenetic times. We purchased some bacon rolls from the cafe below decks and returned to our seats to find Land's End receding into the distance as we hit the open sea. Manx Shearwaters, tilting and gliding above the blue waves provided some birding stimulus whilst lines of summer plumaged Guillemots and Razorbills overhauled the ship and disappeared out to sea. Occasionally a Fulmar or Kittiwake appeared and gleaming white Gannets showed their angular profiles against the pale sky. On one occasion a single Dolphin broke the surface, never to be seen again. Then the Willow Warblers arrived on deck. At first, looking like scraps of paper  caught in the conflicting currents and eddies of wind, they just caught the eye momentarily as they flicked around the passengers and the deck fittings. Presumably tired or lost migrants, up to three of them joined the ship and remained with us all the way to St Mary's providing huge and welcome entertainment as they perched unwittingly on passengers heads, hands and any other part of the human anatomy or possessions that seemed suitable. Occasionally they would fly out to sea but always returned back to the ship. One lady passenger attempting to take a warbler's picture was confounded when the bird landed on her hand holding the camera.

Its behind you!

As we approached St Mary's and got back our phone signal Paul and Justin arranged for Toots Taxis to collect us at the quayside in Hugh Town to take us to a possible spot to find the heron. The cheery taxi lady duly delivered us to our destination, Holy Vale which was the last spot where the heron had allegedly been seen yesterday. We disembarked from the taxi only to encounter a group of disconsolate birders wandering aimlessly around. They had been on St Mary's since yesterday. The whole island shoreline and outlying islands, according to them, had been covered comprehensively and no trace of the heron had been found. We chatted for a while hearing tales of how it was here yesterday but hard to see and identify in the mist. We listened sympathetically to birders angst as they struggled with their consciences about whether they could truly claim they had seen such a rare bird based on the fleeting shape they saw as the heron flew off into the mist the day before. We heard tales of near misses. Many birders who dropped everything yesterday had stayed overnight and were now frayed and ragged from lack of sleep or accommodation. This of course was all academic to us. We had not even had the chance to see the heron until now. Assailed by the negative comments from one and all I was rapidly coming to the conclusion our huge gamble had failed but we resolved to carry on looking regardless.

Holy Vale drew a blank.

We went to Porthellick Beach. Justin's phone rang. It was a birder friend who had promised to call us if any news of the heron came from where he was looking. The phone signal went dead bringing frustration as we scrambled around for a signal. We finally got through only to find our hopes of heron ecstacy dashed as he was calling to tell us of a Hoopoe at nearby Peninnis. A small heron then flew over us but it was only a Night Heron. Only a Night Heron! Yes I know, but this was not what we really came for although it did mildly cheer us up and it was nice to see as it flew over us and out to some rocks at the entrance to the bay. It soon returned and flew back to more suitable arboreal habitat at Porthellick Pool behind the beach.

Porthhellick Beach
The Night Heron briefly landed in these rocks
A Greenshank rested on the rocks as the tide advanced and a nesting Common Chiffchaff fussed around in the bracken on the surrounding hillside. Paul found an elusive large heron in the rocks but once it flew from cover we could see it was only a Grey Heron.We walked back uphill and down dale on the coastal path, skirting around the airport landing strip and made our way to Old Town Bay.

Time advanced and birders were now wandering aimlessly or chatting in groups recounting how things should have been, bemoaning their lack of luck or waiting and hoping that just by some slim chance someone would find the holy grail. It became apparent that many others were all for giving up and accepting the heron had disappeared. The local cafe at Old Town Bay was doing a roaring trade. Birders were sitting having tea, lunch, ice creams, all seemingly resigned to failure. I bought a pasty and a flapjack.  Diehard birders hurried past us still unwilling to give up but an air of general resignation slowly built amongst most of us as the sun gave way to an oppressive, cloudy grey sky as if mirroring the general mood.

A Wryneck was found in a nearby churchyard. A phalanx of birders with nothing else to exist for crammed into the churchyard. The Wryneck not unexpectedly fled. We wandered over just as most of the birders having either seen or given up on the Wryneck were now scrabbling around on the adjacent beach looking for Scilly Shrews, I kid you not, which apparently live in the rocks on the beach. Only one other birder was in the churchyard when we approached and he silently pointed to a nearby grave stone carved in the form of a cross. The Wryneck was sitting on top of it. No sooner did we see it than the other birders, ever alert, rushed back and it fled once again.

This was not really my kind of birding so we went up to Peninnis Head looking for the Hoopoe but had no luck and wandered back down various byways to sit on a bench by Porthcressa Beach.

Fields which should have held a Hoopoe at Peninnis
View from Peninnis. The Airfield and Old Town Bay in the far distance
Defeated and despondent I sit and ponder how life can be so wretched. Paul finds yet another Night Heron roosting under a sandbank on a distant, private area of the beach. Geoff, another birder from Oxfordshire joins us. He too has missed seeing the Great Blue Heron even though he arrived yesterday. We chat for a while and then wishing Geoff good luck as he is staying another night, it is time for us to make our way back to the ship. Birders on a similar mission are wending their way through the lanes of Hugh Town. We slowly amble towards the quayside with them but before we get there mild panic ensues as someone has found three unidentified herons resting under a bank on Porthloo Beach. A group of birders swarm into a taxi to go and check this out. We stand about, with others, uncertain how to react to this news but then decide to carry on to the ship. We check in and board the ship. Birders are already scoping the distant Porthloo Beach from the ship's upperdecks. News will come out if one of the herons is the one. News filters through. It is not. A Marsh Harrier floats high above the Lifeboat Station but that is no consolation.

The Scillonian sails at 4.30pm sharp. It is cloudy, dull and a chill sea wind permeates the decks. So different is the mood amongst us to the optimism of the outbound sailing. Phones cease to work again as we are out of range of a signal mast. A pod of Common Dolphins put on a brief but spectacular show of acrobatics off our port side as we pass them. We reach Land's End and the sun comes out once again leaving a huge cloud both physical and metaphorical over The Scillies and in our wake. Just as the boat docks and the phones start to receive signals we get the news everyone has been dreading.

A message comes through. 'Possible Great Blue Heron just discovered at The Great Pool on Bryher'. Instant pandemonium. Birders in turmoil. The majority of us in the end are defied by logistics and shrug philosophically. It will have to wait. We curse our luck, bemoan what could have been and drive home. We text Geoff. There is a charter boat going that very evening to Bryher ........ He is booked on it. He gets to The Great Pool on Bryher but there is no Great Blue Heron. Dipped. He will try tomorrow morning on the next charter to Bryher.

Geoff saw the heron next morning. The rest of us?.............. Well let's see. 

We did go again and were successful on Bryher on a beautiful and warm sunny day

The Great Blue Heron

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