Saturday 10 September 2016

Scilly Swallow 8th September 2016

News broke on Tuesday morning that an American Cliff Swallow had been found at a place called Porth Hellick on St Mary's, the largest of the Scilly Islands. The first ever record of this swallow for Britain was also from The Scillies when one was found on St Agnes on 10th October 1983 but then moved to St Mary's on the same day and remained until the 27th October. This current visitor is the tenth record of this species in Britain and the first for fifteen years. Naturally, after such a long interval  many birders wanted to see this one, including me, but due to work commitments and to my utter frustration I was unable to make any effort to get to see it until Thursday at the earliest. Being a swallow there was every chance it would not hang around, so to put it mildly I was a bit despondent.

There are two main ways to get to The Scillies, both involve Cornwall and one is to fly at considerable expense from Lands End or Newquay, the other is to go on the notorious ship The Scillonian which sails from Penzance and is considerably cheaper than the flying option. However the plane takes minutes to get to The Scillies whereas The Scillonian is about three hours sailing.

I mulled over whether to even bother going to see the swallow and waited to see if it remained longer than one day. It was still there on Wednesday and many reports came in from birders who had gone straight away, seen it and were eulogising over their experience.This was getting hard to take and so on Wednesday morning I booked myself onto The Scillonian for Thursday, planning on coming back the same day as this was the most economic option and this would give me four hours on St Mary's in which to see the bird. I also booked Toots Taxis  to pick me up from the ship on Thursday at 12 noon when she docked at Hugh Town on St Mary's.

The Scillonian sails from Penzance at 9.15am so I planned to leave at 3am from my home and make the four hour drive to get there in good time to catch the ship. This was my first big twitch in my new car and the four hours would be an ideal opportunity to get to know each other and come to an understanding of sorts. We set off at the appointed hour and all went well until two hours later there was a discreet ping and a message appeared on the information dial 'Rest recommended.' along with a nice image of a cup of tea. Have Audi never heard of twitching and driving long distances through the night, or day come to that? How on earth do they think anyone would get to see anything if we adhered to this invocation? I ignored the instruction and it went away. Thirty minutes later it was back but I spurned it again and I suppose Audi's wondrous technology was finally satisfied when I had to stop at a Motorway Services to visit the toilet after which I heard no more about rest stops. The car is smooth riding and a joy to drive which is important for something so integral to both my birding and my business life but many of its updated features I have yet to try. For instance there are several drive modes you can select and I was torn between Comfort or Efficiency and in the end drove half way there in Comfort mode and the other half in Efficiency. There are at least another three options but they will have to wait. An extended period in a quiet corner with the Handbook is obviously going to be required at some juncture to unlock the mysteries of all the unfamiliar dials and buttons.

At seven thirty I arrived, in reasonably good shape if a little sleepy, in Penzance and found a free parking space on the seafront. I checked my RBA app for news on the swallow but there was nothing reported. The first uneasy doubts began to arise, as for the last two days it had been reported by this time. It was a bit of a shock to step out into quite a raw morning with a distinctly fresh wind blowing off the sea but looking west I could discern that the promised sun was well on its way. As I was only going for the day I was travelling light, just a back pack with my camera in it and my binoculars hung round my neck.

I found a cafe open, got myself a herbal tea and headed for the pier, checked in and boarded The Scillonian with an hour to go before sailing. I checked my RBA app. once more but still there was nothing about the Cliff Swallow and my unease increased. I told myself not to be silly and premature with my doubts as there was still plenty of time for it to be reported. The weather being so nice I sat on one of the antiquated wooden benches on the open upper  deck, wedged into a corner by the ship's rail and watched my fellow passengers in all their colourful and disparate variety, as they boarded up the rickety gangplank. Some Rock Pipits flew with squeaky calls along the pier, disturbed and disconcerted by the sudden rush of people come to join the ship but soon enough they would have the pier back to themselves once we sailed. A single Turnstone ran along the sea wall twittering loudly.

Most of my fellow travellers were holiday visitors or residents returning to the Scillies and I could only see a half dozen obvious birders, none of whom I knew. I was surprised at the lack of birders as I thought there would be many more, all keen to see the Cliff Swallow. Tired after my long journey and lack of sleep I closed my eyes and dozed as the ship slowly filled with passengers. For some reason there were a lot of dogs on board today, each as instructed by the crew held in check on a lead by their owner.

Almost ready to leave Penzance
It was pleasant sitting in the sun waiting for departure but my mood changed very much for the worse as on apprehensively checking the RBA app once more I saw there was news about the Cliff Swallow and it was not what I wanted to see. There was the dreaded message on my phone, 'no sign of the Cliff Swallow at Porth Hellick by 8.40am.'  I felt completely drained, diminished and not a little desperate at my situation, with the realisation that here I was, now embarking on a voyage for no good reason. I tried to cheer myself but it was hopeless and there was no point in not acknowledging the fact that I was now going to the Scillies for a nice day out and nothing more.

I closed my eyes and fell asleep to be awoken by a ping on my phone. It was a text from Justin saying 'Cliff Swallow still there, best of luck.' What! I checked my phone and there was the message from RBA on the screen advising the Cliff Swallow was showing really well on phone wires at Porth Hellick. The world instantly became a different place.The sea was a deeper blue, the sun was warmer, my fellow passengers were all my best friends and the tiredness miraculously left me. The world was a wonderful place to be. A cautionary voice in my head spoke, 'Steady Ewan you have yet to see it, this is only the beginning' but the long drive looked like it may not have been in vain now and a very different future to fifteen minutes ago beckoned me. This is the roller coaster of twitching, a form of gambling not with money but with one's emotions, all the time knowing how fine the line is between abject despair and supreme happiness.

There is an indefinable sense of adventure and expectation about putting to sea on a sizeable ship like The Scillonian. We look at the sea so often from land and it is a familiar presence but far less often, in most cases, do we venture out on it, when it takes on a whole different dimension. Looking down from the deck to the sea rushing past I cannot fail but be impressed by the sheer power and massive presence of so much water and acquiring a feeling of  fearful alienation from something which fills me with a troubling  combination of exhilaration and dread. Go below deck and this feeling goes as the usual re-assuring acoutrements of our domestic lives assert themselves, such as seats, tables, mirrors, toilets and a cafe and the wild, unpredictable, elemental sea is held at bay by the thickness of a couple of inches of steel and a false sense of security. 

On our way. Lands End in the far distance
The Scillonian has seen better days it has to be said. It is old now, outdated and well past its best. A flat bottomed ship that as a consequence is relatively unstable on the sea and more than is usual for a vessel of its size, at the mercy of the wind and waves. Today the check in staff had warned about a heavy swell and strong winds which would toss the ship around a bit with the inevitable stomach churning results. We set sail and were soon dropping into wave troughs and then rising up over other mountainous waves. White crests periodically showed where waves broke over each other or the wind whipped the tops off the waves. The sea was an amalgam of deepest blue and green, the patterns and colouring constantly changing as wave after wave surged past or under us. The old ship shuddered and vibrated, her bow rising alarmingly before dipping, only for the stern to then rise up as the swell ran under her flat bottomed hull. Thankfully I do not suffer from seasickness but there were quite a few today that did including some of the dogs. People lay on the floor whilst others sat up on deck, rigidly staring out to sea, the voyage an ordeal and one that could not be over soon enough for them.

I watched the Gannets accompanying the ship, flying close, almost as if,  like jet fighters they were accompanying a larger craft, which I suppose in a way they were. So close did some come that you could look into their blue eyed passionless stare as they passed, their flat backed profile distinctive, as supreme in their mastery of the air and sea currents they cruised past us, ignorant of our purpose on earth. 

Once we were beyond Lands End the Gannets died away and the sea took on an extra powerful dimension, the increasing swell sending great booming swathes of seawater into ever changing shape shifting mountains and canyons of blue.

I chatted to some of my fellow passengers and commiserated with some who were not feeling so well. Apart from Gannets  the only other birds I saw on the crossing were half a dozen Manx Shearwaters and a Turnstone which considering the conditions was a little disappointing. Towards the end of the voyage I met another birder with a camera and, with a common interest, we inevitably got talking. His name was Jaz and he was from Manchester and he told me he too had come for the swallow. I told him that I had booked a taxi to take me to Porth Hellick and he was welcome to join me and we teamed up there and then.

It was a beautiful warm day on St Mary's as we docked at Hugh Town and we walked to where the taxis were waiting. Jaz made a quick dash to grab a pasty from the cafe but there was no need to hurry as Toots Taxis were conspicuous by their absence. I called them to be advised they would be there in five minutes, this despite the ship docking late and other taxis seemingly able to be there on time. Then not one but two Toots Taxis turned up! Fair enough. Jaz was rather sharply told to not eat his pasty in the taxi but otherwise the lady driver seemed pleasant and helpful enough and duly dropped us off after a five minute drive in Carn Friars Lane by the path leading through Higher Moors to Porth Hellick Pool

It was warm and sunny in Carn Friars Lane which is where the Cliff Swallow had first been reported from this morning, with some lucky birders who had come by plane earlier, viewing it sat on wires with some juvenile Barn Swallows. There was not another birder in sight though, so we were not quite sure what to do. Should we wait here or should we walk to the two small hides nearby, overlooking Porth Hellick Pool, a reed fringed, muddy margined, area of fresh water, the largest on St Mary's, which from previous reports was the Cliff Swallow's area of choice. 

Porth Hellick Pool as seen from the Hide
We decided to go through the gate and take the boardwalk to the hides and on getting close, finally came across another birder who told us he had been watching the swallow and getting good views from the track crossing the wide grass area that separated the pool from Porth Hellick Beach. 

Porth Hellick Pool from the grassy area adjacent to Porth Hellick Beach
We took his advice, by-passed the hides and went through the gate and onto the area of grassland to find not the expected crowd of birders but just one lone figure who I knew, John Marchant. We enquired about the swallow only to be told by John it had been showing well just five minutes ago flying over the pine trees behind the pool with some Barn Swallows and a couple of House Martins. We watched the swallows and martins trying to turn each one into the Cliff Swallow but had to admit that none we had seen so far looked like it. Frustration and tiredness began to resurface with the realisation that we had missed it by five minutes and now after some twenty minutes there was still no sign of it. Jaz thought he might have seen it distantly over the pines but it was inconclusive. A flock of Common Greenshanks were calling from the beach behind us but we were intent on only one thing, finding the Cliff Swallow. By now we had been joined by half a dozen other birders all of whom had seen it earlier and wasted no time in telling us what great views they had of it. I have been on the reverse of this situation so could understand their pleasure and excitement but it did not help my equanimity. After another fruitless ten minutes Jaz and myself decided to go back to the hides.Walking down the boardwalk we looked at a couple of fields that rose up from the other side of Carn Friars Lane and could see many swallows feeding over them but they were quite distant. Jaz was convinced he had seen the Cliff Swallow amongst them and I thought that maybe I too had caught a glimpse but could not be sure. I walked on to the end of the boardwalk where it joined the lane to get closer but Jaz remained behind.

Now that I was much nearer to the feeding swallows I looked at them again through my bins anxiously checking and re- checking the swooping, diving, twisting shapes as they zipped over and around the hedge dividing the two grass fields and there suddenly was the Cliff Swallow, stocky and martin shaped but easily distinguished by its pale orange rump and dark blue upper-parts and contrasting brown wings. I shouted to Jaz to come quickly but he could not have heard me as he did not appear. I continued watching and there it was again, flying low over the field amongst the swallows and a couple of House Martins. Relaxed now with the main objective of actually seeing the Cliff Swallow achieved I watched the feeding swallows and got further views of the Cliff Swallow. Jaz joined me and he too saw the Cliff Swallow from the side of the lane.

The sloping field over which the Cliff Swallow was flying as seen from
Carn Friars Lane
There must have been around twenty Barn Swallows many of them young birds still being fed on the wing by their parents, as well as a few House Martins but it was always easy to pick out the Cliff Swallow by its pale orange buff rump and throat and contrasting blue upper-parts and contrasting brownish wings. Jaz even managed to get some photos which he has kindly allowed me to use to illustrate my blog. For my part I felt that getting a picture was beyond my lens' capacity so just concentrated on watching the swallow as much as possible.

The Cliff Swallow
Courtesy of Jaz
We watched the swallows for around forty minutes before we lost sight of the Cliff Swallow and despite checking the remaining swallows and martins it was apparent it had gone. We returned down the side of the field and back onto the lane. A definite result and now the rest of the day was a bonus.

American Cliff Swallows breed from Alaska and Nova Scotia, Canada and throughout the USA (apart from the southeast) and further down into northern Mexico. They spend the winter in South America from Brazil to Chile and Argentina and are prone to being displaced over the Atlantic as their migration route normally follows the eastern seaboard of the USA. There have now been five records of Cliff Swallows from The Scillies and this individual is one of the longer stayers having been present for five days now as I a write this on Saturday.

On Porth Hellick Pool there were reports of a Temminck's Stint and a Lesser Yellowlegs, both juveniles, so we decided to go to the hide and try for some photos. The hide is incredibly small and can accommodate about five or six people but somehow we crammed in with the occupants already there

There was a very convenient muddy area right in front of the hide and no more than a few feet below us was the Temminck's Stint happily feeding on the mud, wending its way through random scattered spikes of green reed, crouching on straw yellow legs. Its tiny size and grey upper-part plumage camouflaged it amazingly well on the mud. It was very, very close to us, slowly creeping about and at times it was difficult to get the lens at sufficient a downward angle through the viewing slat to allow me to take a picture. I was certainly not complaining as these were some of the best views I have ever had of a Temminck's Stint.

Juvenile Temminck's Stint
A juvenile Water Rail then made an impromptu appearance, emerging out of a clump of dead reeds and wading edgily through the muddy shallow water, its progress making ripples in the water and creating an impressionistic image of reflected shimmering colours. It was nervous out in the open, flicking its tail in anxiety and occasionally breaking into a hesitant run as if frightened of its own shadow. 

Head on I could see how laterally compressed its body was, enabling it to move through the dense packed reed stems that are its favoured habitat, with ease. It made its tentative way towards us and then completely lost its nerve and in ungainly haste raced across the open area of muddy water in front of us and into another re-assuringly dense clump of reeds.

Juvenile Water Rail
I enquired about the Lesser Yellowlegs and was told it was on the mud but over on the far side of the pool. I carried on looking at the Temminck's Stint and then the Lesser Yellowlegs conveniently flew across the pool to land on the mud to our right before steadily making its way towards us. It came nearer and nearer. What an elegant wader it is with its long, spindle thin, yellow legs supporting its lean and angular body.To me it looks slimmer, longer legged and more elegant than our Common Redshank, the corresponding species we have here in the Old World. We watched it hauling long flat worms out of the wet mud and dousing them in the water to remove the mud before swallowing them.

Lesser Yellowlegs

One last wader flew in to the pool. A Common Sandpiper and as per usual was the most wary of all the waders. Its flighty. nervy demeanour was in direct contrast to the complete lack of concern demonstrated by the Temminck's Stint.

Time had inevitably moved on and our four hours on the island were almost up. It seemed to go so fast. We went back to the grass bank for one last try at the Cliff Swallow but it was not there, just a small flock of House Martins were flying around, one of which had a lot of white on its wings. We walked back to Old Town and bought a pasty each and then Jaz,by way of recompense for the taxi share, bought us a celebratory pint in The Atlantic Inn in Hugh Town before we walked the short way to The Scillonian.

The weather although mild and humid was now cloudy, grey and windy as we settled on the wooden benches on the upper deck. Some of the birders we had met on the island were also coming back. The Scillonian set off and was soon rolling alarmingly on the swell. So strong was the rolling that at times it was difficult to remain secure on the bench and I found myself sliding helplessly as the ship tilted to one side or the other. Standing was even more hazardous but we each managed to wedge ourselves against something solid to hold us in position while we sea-watched from the stern of the ship.

The return journey was a complete contrast to the outward one this morning. Sun and blue sea had now been replaced by cloud and wild grey sea. The real contrast was the number of good birds we saw. The first Cory's was called by John only a short way into the voyage and they just kept coming at regular intervals, some distant and others close, their long winged, languid flight distinctive and masterly in the tossing seas.

Cory's Shearwater off The Scillonian
Courtesy of Jaz
I was looking the wrong way when Jaz spotted a Great Shearwater but thankfully found my own a little later. Storm Petrels came and went and near to Land's End I saw an all too brief Leach's Petrel skimming the wave tops. A Dunlin circled the ship and then was gone on the wind.

Manx Shearwaters, a Sooty Shearwater, a Sabine's Gull and a Bonxie were the best of the other sightings as were several pods of Common Dolphins, each sighting of the latter causing a rush by non birders to the ship's rails to catch a glimpse of them.

Totals for the voyage were as follows:

Cory's Shearwater 17, Great Shearwater 2, Sooty Shearwater 1, Manx Shearwater 20+, Sabine's Gull 1, Leach's Petrel 1, Storm Petrel 10+, Great Skua 1. Razorbill 1, Auk sp. 1, Fulmar 2, Kittiwake 3. Gannet 100+, Dunlin 1; Common Dolphin 8+

Then it was over, we bade goodbye to our birder colleagues on The Scillonian and Jaz and myself walked back to our cars on the seafront. It began to rain but  nothing could dampen my spirits. Another great day of emotional roller coaster birding had reached its end but frankly I would have it no other way.

Many thanks to Jaz for his excellent company and providing images of the Cliff Swallow and Cory's Shearwater

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