Monday 19 October 2015

The Ultimate Twitch 15-17th October 2015

It was going so well on the 13th October as Clackers and myself returned to the car from Holkham Woods in Norfolk, having seen a Red flanked Bluetail and a Yellow Browed Warbler. As usual I checked my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app. for the latest bird news and was astounded to see that a male Wilson's Warbler had been located at a place called Port Nis on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, that very afternoon. This was only the second record for Britain, the first, also a male, having been seen in Cornwall away back in 1985. So this was a bird definitely to see if at all possible.

Wilson's Warbler breeds in Canada and south through the western USA and spends the winter in Mexico and much of Central America.

I started ringing anyone I knew who I thought would  care to dice with fate and come with me in the car on a 1300 mile round trip to the Isle of  Lewis but all were either not able to drop everything and come immediately, had already made arrangements to go or were sensibly unenthusiastic about making the long car journey north. I was in a dilemna as it now looked like it would be a solo trip this time if I really wanted to go, but I was relieved to find the warbler had not been seen for some time after it was initially found and looked like it may have  gone. My dilemna had been resolved or so I thought.

On getting home RBA notified me that the warbler had been re-found that evening and  was still where it originally had been discovered. I commenced another round of texts and phone calls but with similar results to the first time. To make matters worse the cold virus I had been suffering from for all of last week returned with a positively malicious vengeance, bringing aches, pains and a constantly running nose. I was in a bad way both physically, due to the virus, and mentally due to the warbler. A subsequent restless night, snuffling and sneezing ushered in Wednesday and my quandary about whether to go worsened as now I had to consider if I was even up to making the long drive north considering my current state of health.

I determined to wait for more news of the warbler. Initially no news was good news but then the news came through that it was still at Port Nis but only being seen occasionally and was very elusive. In the end I took the plunge by calling Caledonian Macbrayne, known to one and all as Calmac and booked myself and the Audi onto the ferry sailing from Ullapool to Stornoway on Friday 16th and back on Saturday 17th. With the decision made I now felt less anxious. I also found bed and breakfast accommodation in Lionel near to Port Nis at an establishment called The Decca and booked a night there. I rang Clackers inviting him on the trip and he said he would love to come as he had always nurtured a desire to do a twitch to the Western Isles of Scotland. This was his opportunity. 

He said 'Let's do it' but then whilst on the phone checked with his wife and in a despondent voice advised he was booked to attend a family get together on Saturday night and would have to drop out. I could almost touch the disappointment in his voice. Never mind, I was all set to go and everything was now booked.

Paul and Vicky, two other Oxfordshire birding friends drove to Glasgow on the night of Wednesday the 14th and had booked a flight  from there to Stornoway to see the warbler on Thursday the 15th. Steve, another birding colleague from Dorset had gone by car to Ullapool, the night before and then would make the same  ferry journey as me, albeit a day earlier and planned to remain on Lewis for a few days. I went back to bed that Thursday afternoon to try and get some rest before my six hundred mile journey to Ullapool that night in order to catch the Friday ferry to Stornoway. It left  at 1030 in the morning. Late on Thursday afternoon Clackers rang to say he now wanted to come! His family seeing how disappointed he was at missing the trip insisted that he come with me to fulfil a lifetime's dream. How very kind of them.

'No problem Clackers. Delighted you can come with me. I will collect you at 8.30 this evening.The ship sails at 1030 am on Friday morning and gets to Stornoway at 1300 hours.This will give us a whole afternoon to look for the warbler on Friday.' I informed him. 

The warbler, according to reports, was remaining faithful to a small, sheltered, sloping garden, densely planted with exotic shrubs at Port Nis, which is at the northern tip of Lewis. If we did not see it on the first afternoon we still had the whole of next morning to look for it before the ferry sailed from Stornoway to Ullapool at 2.30pm 

I was definitely not looking forward to the ten hour drive to Ullapool but resolved to take it steadily, dosed up with a liberal supply of tissues and Lemsip. Clackers boarded the Audi at the appointed hour and away we went into a night of trepidation on my part concerning my physical capacity to complete the drive. Unfortunately Clackers cannot drive long distances due to suffering from sleep apnoea so it was down to me to get us there but his constant chatting and encouragement was more than adequate compensation and very welcome. It did not bear thinking about that I would duck out at this late stage but it was far from certain my health would allow me the luxury of getting to Ullapool without some price to pay. It all went well as far as an anonymous Motorway Service Station where we stopped, somewhere north of Manchester, on the M6. There can be nothing so dire and depressing as a Motorway Services in the early morning wee hours. I was reminded of Edward Hopper's famous painting called Night Owls as Clackers and myself sat morosely in a desolate living hell of harsh unforgiving striplights, winking fruit machines, tinny eighties pop music, empty chairs and tables, and Lemsip fumes. The graveyard shift it most definitely was.

Leaving this monument to naffness and mediocrity we were soon back into the night and the comfortable familiarity of the Audi and the dark tarmac stretching before us, now almost devoid of cars but still harbouring huge lorries. We wound our way north, crossing the border, then passing around Glasgow and Stirling, but now I was beginning to feel very strange and light headed, and tiredness beset me with a vengeance. Clacker's, ever alert to pending disaster suggested we pull over and sit for a while in a layby. I brought the car to a stop in the next available layby, I closed my eyes, wished I was elsewhere, slept for ten minutes and then felt fit for another leg.  We rounded Perth and then turned onto the hateful A9 heading for Inverness. This road is a nightmare of average speed checks stretching the entire hundred mile length along both the single and dual carriageways and decorated by miles of cones but with no sign of an existent workforce  or roadworks. Little traffic was on the road at this time of night apart from the occasional lorry heading North which would, in a spirit of friendship to a fellow traveller in the night indicate to me when it was safe to overtake. The only exception was a shabby Asda lorry which declined such an opportunity and as a consequence we were  obliged to steadfastly follow it through the night for what felt like forever and with the added insult of a mind numbing forty mile an hour speed restriction. Finally we got past it but I was now feeling apprehensive about my capacity to get to Ullapool. The spirit was certainly strong but the flesh was definitely becoming increasingly weak. The car started straying alarmingly across the road and on Clackers insistence I pulled over and took yet another 'power nap'. It was becoming ever more attritional and I just wanted it to be over. We headed off again and went up and over the Kessock Bridge spanning the entrance to the Moray Firth, leaving the orange lights of Inverness below us. Another fifty six miles faced me before we got to Ullapool.

I was now in familiar territory and the names of villages and locations from my childhood holidays at my grandparents, who lived just up the coast at Invergordon, came and went in the dark; Contin, Garve, Muir of Ord, The Falls of Rogie  all bringing memories from long, long ago. But this was no time for maudlin sentimentality, a brief acknowledgment to times past was acceptable but then I needed to concentrate on my driving, otherwise I might well be joining my ancestors sooner rather than later.

Could I make it to Ullapool? It was now seven in the morning, the dawn was rising from the mist and I had been driving for eleven hours. We were almost there but it still required one more stop and yet another ten minute sleep to partially refresh me before we finally made it to the Calmac Terminal at Ullapool. A couple of birders cars were already there and we parked alongside them. I got out of the car and into a brisk, cold and bright morning with the sun just rising  above the surrounding mountains. Ullapool was  coming awake but the Terminal building would not open for another hour and a half, at nine. A man in the now ubiquitous and almost obligatory uniform of a lurid yellow high viz jacket, and with an incomprehensible accent firmly organised us into car lanes preparatory to boarding the MV Loch Seaforth. Clackers had to go and buy a ticket  for the ferry as he had not time to get one online but could do nothing until nine. I was now feeling very strange and a bit concerned about my condition. I had clearly over done things physically as my whole body was quivering internally. The sheer strain of staying alert, keeping the car on the road, fighting off sleep and the virus was now manifesting itself in no uncertain manner. I started some deep breathing exercises which  helped a little but found that standing and walking in the fresh cold air also helped. I was dog tired, totally exhausted and had spent most of my energy reserves but the stimulus of seeing the Wilson's Warbler was the spark that kept me going. I would not give in unless I dropped, which thankfully I did not and slowly I began to feel better as my body and brain realised there was now no further prospect of me having to drive. I tried to relax. 

Ullapool, Wester Ross
Slowly the Terminal area came to life as in time honoured fashion, cars, lorries and people from diverse backgrounds, all bound for the Isle of Lewis, assembled in a loosely organised congregation around the Terminal area.  Huge lorries, a giant and very luxurious horsebox, commercial vans, cars with trailers or bikes on racks and even a mobile disco were assembled and loaded first, followed by each lane of assembled cars. There is an excitement about setting off to sea. The anticipation and patient waiting is replaced with an organisational bustle and expectancy as each and every person and vehicle  is directed onto the vessel, announcements are made over the tannoy, ropes are cast aside and the huge ship shudders and comes to life. A quiet sense of purpose and the anticipation of the unusual experience of heading out on a sea voyage to an island and a destiny unknown to both of us was a heady mix.

The first announcement on the ship came in Gaelic followed by further security information in English whilst Gaelic could be heard being freely spoken amongst some of the passengers.We were definitely in another country.

Clackers had never been on a ferry like this and sat himself beside a huge picture window the better to enjoy the scenery. He was as excited as I have ever seen him. The whole situation was unique to him whilst I adopted the blase air of the world weary traveller who has seen it all before. I was fooling no one but myself as I too, was in truth just as excited. Every time I see this scenery my senses go on a Highland Fling of roller coaster emotions. And what scenery it was as we sailed for The Minch. The morning was bright with sun, the sea very calm, as blue as the cloudless sky above and you could see for miles across sea and land to great mountains, their tops  like jagged uneven teeth rising in a blue  haze in the far distance. We were in another land, manifesting in its mountainous ruggedness an awesome timeless beauty far removed from the soft benign contours of Oxfordshire.

It was a two and a half hour journey on the ferry so we settled down for some breakfast, joining elderly couples, young families and single travellers to eat, whilst a constant procession of grandeur and achingly beautiful scenery glided by. Clackers was enjoying all this novelty immensely but rather alarmingly was starting to affect a Scots accent and other Celtic characteristics that I put  down to the black pudding he had with his breakfast and I made a mental note to keep an eye on him. The passing scenery was so beautiful I almost cried at the sheer overwhelming sense of majesty it brought. Days like this in the Hebrides are a treasured jewel that must be held dear as they are so rare and I rejoiced that Clackers long awaited journey to the far islands of the Scottish West Coast was to be enjoyed in such perfect conditions.

We sat for a while watching Black Guillemots out of the window, floating on the blue waters, their predominantly white winter plumage now the very opposite of their name. Guillemots and Razorbills in small groups swam from the vessel or crash dived in alarm from our serene progress across the sea whilst many Kittiwakes flew around us replacing the more usual Herring Gulls.

The ship's captain, after an hour of sailing announced that a Coastguard Helicopter would be joining the ship to practice hovering above us and we were not to be alarmed. I, along with many other passengers walked to the open deck at the stern and  found a huge red and white helicopter was already there with rotor blades thundering and whirring, hovering not many metres above us. It was an impressive, spectacular and professional display of flying, as the pilot manouevered the huge noisy machine  above us for some twenty minutes.

HM Coastguard put on a show to an appreciative audience
We crossed The Minch and the Isle of Lewis became ever more evident ahead with the smaller conjoined Isle of Harris off to the left. A Great Northern Diver flew across our bows and a juvenile Arctic Skua cruised alongside the ship for a minute or so. Pods of Common Dolphins put on a show of aquabatics and a half dozen smaller Harbour Porpoises, curving arcs of shining black and looking slightly sinister, swam past and further out to sea. A Minke Whale was spotted by Clackers before we were soon slowing to dock at Stornoway and it was time to return to the car.

I had specific directions as to how to get to Port Nis which lies at the very northeastern tip of the island and is about twenty six miles from Stornoway. The Satnav told us it would take thirty minutes to get there. We drove through a busy and sunny Stornoway and at first we traversed roads passing through grey solid buildings, not particularly attractive but no doubt functional. We were seeing Stornoway at its very best but with the more usual rain and cloud it would be a lot more dispiriting I am sure.Then Stornoway came to an abrupt end, there were no more houses and we were out on the only road north passing through huge expanses of peat moor, the grasses an autumnal rust orange with the occasional black scar where peats were being dug, cut and bagged.

On we went along this narrow road at some velocity, as we soon learnt that everyone here drives at high speed and we were certainly not found lacking in that department as we wanted to get to the warbler location as soon as possible. We passed a small settlement of houses, again grey and functional and seemingly built at random with little evidence of planning. Lewis, as with many of the other Hebridean Islands is very different to mainland Scotland, still mainly Gaelic speaking and many residents strictly observe the Sabbath. Each community was dominated by a huge Presbyterian Church, stark, ugly and miles out of proportion to the surrounding houses and obviously intended to bring a benign intimidation to and dominance over the residents.

We entered the small village of Port Nis and found the house called Burnside with little problem. Following instructions we parked by the CafĂ© Sonas and headed up the drive opposite and beside Burnside, to the house next door with the sheltered garden at the back. Walking up the drive we were met by Tony Marr who lives at Burnside and, with Roy Dennis was one of the joint finders of the warbler and he directed us to the best areas to look for the warbler. I knew Tony slightly from our days in Sussex. He helped found The Sussex Ornithological Society many years ago and in those days did most of his birding at Selsey Bill in West Sussex. He was and still is the most helpful, charming and good humoured person you could hope to meet, instantly making you welcome and at ease as he offered us tea or coffee from a tray as well as bacon rolls! His neighbour whose garden and property we were invading was equally accommodating.

Tony Marr who together with Roy Dennis found the Wilson's Warbler 
As we arrived I met Matt, a young birder friend of mine, also from Sussex. He works for Easyjet and had travelled up by plane as he gets cheap tickets. Matt told us the warbler had just been seen but due to the way the garden and surrounding windbreaks of low trees and shrubs were set out, it meant that it had three main locations where it could be encountered and could turn up at any one of these. So it was a bit of a lottery where you stood and you just hoped if it was not where you were standing then someone else would locate it and let you know.

Birders awaiting the Wilson's Warbler to show itself
We stood in one spot at the top of the drive (see pic above) but a whistle alerted us to the fact the elusive warbler was now in the garden and we all piled down there as fast as possible. Frankly it was a bit of a scrum and the viewing conditions were not ideal as there was only so much space and too many birders, twenty or so, to fit into it. We were looking at a small shrub or tree, vaguely like a stunted Sycamore, further up the garden and a tiny movement suggested the warbler was there but it was a Goldcrest.

Five minutes of frustration followed but there was no further movement. Then Matt indicated that the warbler had flown across into some stunted apple trees. Tony said this was one of its favourite places. Another barely controlled rush ensued, ending with us standing on a small area of lawn. Unfortunately I was at the back and had to look through gaps between the heads of other birders. Then followed the worst that can happen. Birders in front began eulogising about the warbler as they located it flicking rapidly through the leaves of  the apple trees. Clackers then  saw it. 'Oh wow, look at that. What a brilliant bird' he exclaimed. Due to the angle I was viewing from I could not see where he was looking. I moved slightly and caught a seconds only view of a green and yellow bird before it was gone. That was it.  The warbler disappeared and I was left with a distinct feeling of frustration and disappointment as Clackers asked whether I had seen it and somewhat cruelly proceeded to describe how beautiful it was. Technically I could say I had seen it but it was a highly unsatisfactory encounter and a distinctly underwhelming reward after the marathon journey I had undertaken. Gloom and despondency enveloped me. It was still here but I had yet to see it well enough to be satisfied.

The sheltered garden with the stunted apple trees centre of the lower picture
As we waited for the warbler to put in another appearance excited stacatto calls from the sky announced the arrival of a flock of around thirty Barnacle Geese, probably arriving after a sea crossing from Scandinavia or even further. A second group followed an hour or so later, passing noisily, high over the garden. Three Redwing flew across the fields and Ravens flew over with kronking calls to land on the machair. A Hooded Crow, my first of the day perched on a cattle trough to drink and last but by no means least a female Merlin made a low pass across the garden.

Migrating Barnacle Geese
Hooded Crow
We left the garden and walked a short way up to a sloping field looking down onto an area of small stunted trees and hedge shrubbery.The planting was a windbreak, so it was planted densely and made viewing difficult.

The windbreak hedge where I got my first proper views of the Wilson's Warbler
We stood here for quite some while but nothing moved. We went back to the top of the drive to view this same area from  the other side and were  now looking up but still nothing moved. Then a gentle whistle came from a lone birder who had remained on the upperside of the windbreak. We all ran around to him.

'It just popped up on the low hedge by the wire and has now gone back into the denser bushes', he told us. 

Nothing moved for ten minutes and then a small flicker of movement betrayed the warbler's continued presence but again it was just a seconds only view of a flitting green and yellow bird. Five more minutes and still not a trace and then there it was, dropping down out of the hedge and onto the wire, chasing an insect. Unbelievable. A bird about the size of a Chiffchaff with a bright yellow head and body that almost glowed, the head with a glossy black skullcap on its crown.The upperparts were olive green with a distinct yellowish tinge to them and its wings and tail were dark brown, the wing feathers with broad greenish fringes. I just looked and enjoyed this little bird bringing, at last, a final release of all the accrued tension. Here it was and I had seen it properly. I had seen it free of obscuring leaves, twigs, branches and every other hindrance. I had seen it well and I was more than satisfied. I was totally and utterly overjoyed.

I made no attempt to photograph it. I just wanted to look at it, enjoy its beauty and celebrate its rarity.

It worked its way down the short length of fence and was gone in two minutes but what a two minutes. Now much more relaxed I availed myself of one of Tony's bacon rolls, some tea and chatted to some of my fellow birders. I wanted more. Well everyone does don't they and through the afternoon we got further views but never as good as the one on the fence.We wandered between the three locations in search of the warbler as the afternoon passed by, whilst the sky clouded over and the wind got slightly stronger. The garden was beautifully sheltered and you could understand why the warbler liked frequenting it, as well as the dense cover of the windbreak by the field.

A pair of European Stonechats were also feeding on insects around the windbreak plantation, using some telephone wires as a perch to locate their prey. Looking at them I could see how much more saturated and darker their plumage was than the ones I encounter further south in England. Indeed at one time Richard Meinertzhagen, a now infamous, discredited ornithologist and career soldier from times past suggested that  stonechats from the Hebrides and north western Scotland should be assigned sub species rank due to their marked difference in appearance but it is now accepted that the plumage variations are just a cline with birds being darker in the northwest. Another markedly darker form of a more familiar bird was a 'Hebridian' Song Thrush perched on a fence post nearby.

Blackbirds, Robins, Goldcrests, Blue and Great Tits seemed to be about the only other birds hiding in the density of  vegetation but frankly anything could hide in there and remain unseen for ages. This was made apparent when a Yellow browed Warbler called loudly, unseen but certainly not unheard. Silver Y Moths were very prominent flying around the fuschia bushes in the garden and I wondered if they too were migrants.

The maximum number of birders present at any one time was around twenty. Timings of ferries and difficulties of travel connections and simply sheer distance ensured there was no chance of a full on twitch which was probably just as well. Even with this comparatively small number it was still cramped in the garden due to the small viewing area available but somehow we all managed to get along.

Some birders were going back to the mainland tonight whilst others were seeking accommodation in Stornoway. Tony, helpful as ever had  some cards for a hostel in Stornoway and handed them around. We were already sorted out with accommodation but Matt had yet to find a place and wanted to get back to Stornoway. It had cost him £40.00 to get a taxi from Stornoway to Port Nis but I volunteered to drive him back to Stornoway after I dropped off our gear at The Decca, our B&B for tonight. 

A lone adult Whooper Swan came in off the sea and over us and standing with Tony he told me it was the first of the winter for him

So bidding farewell to Tony we drove to The Decca just up the road at Lionel to drop off our stuff. It is called The Decca because it was formerly a radar station and Decca supplied all the equipment but it is now converted into a very nice and comfortable bed and breakfast business hosted by husband and wife Peter and Louise.

I had booked a room before we left Oxfordshire but Clackers had not, due to his late decision to join me but we soon had him sorted out with a room at The Decca also. As we unloaded our gear Golden Plovers flew with mournful cries across the road from one field to another and a flock of Twite flew up to perch on some phone wires. The sun was now slowly sliding ever downwards to the horizon.

I drove Matt back to Stornoway and left him at his hostel. Then it was back to The Decca and a home cooked meal of Chille con Carne and Apple Crumble with custard courtesy of Louise, all washed down by a bottle of red wine for the Clackmeister and a couple of cans of Magner's cider for me. A warm glow permeated mind and body and we chatted for an hour or so after the meal reliving the day and enjoying our success with the Wilson's Warbler.

Tomorrow we planned to return to Port Nis for some more warbler action but for now I  was luxuriating in the fact that I was going to sleep in a bed again with the delightful prospect of a hot shower in the morning and a cooked breakfast to follow. Simple pleasures I know but it does not get better than this when twitching.

Saturday dawned calm and still with mist rising wraith like from the ground and creating a temporary and atmospheric surreal landscape, before the sun rose in the east and flooded the land with its bright light.

Early morning at Lionel
Gangs of Hooded Crows were in the back garden feeding around a cattle pen and we saw our first black rabbit. Our host Peter told us they were relatively common here and sure enough we found another two in the  field on the other side of the road.

After breakfast we bade farewell to Peter and before going to Port Nis decided on a bit of exploration and headed down the road to the Lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis. Driving slowly down the narrow road  we found a flock of around a hundred Golden Plover feeding in the fields with a smaller number of Lapwing and incongruously a single Turnstone. 'Icelandic' Redwings were feeding on the short turf beside the road and a flock of Meadow Pipits flew up in alarm to perch on the wire fence at our approach, their thin quavering calls expressing their anxiety.

Early morning. The road to the Lighthouse
Golden Plover
We met a birder on a bike coming away from the Lighthouse who told us that he had heard that there had been no sign of the Wilson's Warbler so far this morning and that Tony thought it may have gone as last night was so clear. Oh well, if it had gone we could now take our time.

The brick built Lighthouse, constructed in 1862, stood tall and impressive, overlooking a huge expanse of sea as we parked below it. We were entirely alone apart from the sheep and an occasional rabbit as we walked across the expanse of short spongy turf to the cliff edge. A strange rudimentary cross was stuck in the ground not far from the edge and we speculated that the person it immortalised may have fallen over the edge or expressed a desire to be buried there.

Memorial to A Martin 1953

The Lighthouse built in 1862 at The Butt of Lewis

The cliffs just to the north of the Lighthouse
Rock Pipits called and flew to the offshore rocks. We were now becoming used to the ubiquitous presence of Ravens so it was no surprise as yet another two croaked  from the sky above us. We admired the cliffs and the huge numbers of Gannets passing to and fro out to sea, progressing in languid white lines of twenty or so birds, snaking out like discarded white ribbons, low over the blue water.

A Snow Bunting, calling but unseen passed high over us in the clear sky and then a Mistle Thrush came in off the sea, announcing its presence with a rattling call. That really was a surprise and later, Tony told me they are very unusual here with only about one record a year.There was not much else to see but on returning to the car Clackers found a male Northern Wheatear, possibly of the Greenland form, feeding on the rocks with the Rock Pipits.

We set off for the short drive back to  Port Nis. We had four hours before we needed to get back to Stornoway to catch our return ferry. On arriving at Port Nis we were greeted by Tony with the welcome news that the warbler had not left overnight but was showing really well in the sunny and windless conditions. We ran up the drive and round to the field and found ten or so birders looking at the warbler as it fed at the top of the stunted trees. A lady tried to direct me to it but before I could get my bins up it dived down into cover.We tried to anticipate where it went to but it was the usual lottery. 

'Oh dear I do hope it  is not going to be like yesterday.' I muttered. 

I went back to the garden, leaving the others. This morning we had the huge advantage that no birders would arrive until around one o' clock so there were only about eight of us currently present.This would make manoeuvering much easier in the restricted confines of the garden.

It was incredibly warm and sunny in the sheltered garden, a veritable haven of peace and tranquillity but there was no sign of the warbler. A small movement in the top of  a small stunted tree suggested a Goldcrest as they favoured this tree above all others. I raised my bins and there was not the expected Goldcrest but a Yellow browed Warbler. I was all alone but managed to get Clackers over to see it before it just slipped away back into the dense foliage never to be seen again.

The small tree where the Wilson's and Yellow browed Warblers first appeared
I stood in the garden quietly reflecting on all that had gone before. Then, deciding to go back to join the others  I met them coming into the garden as the warbler had apparently flown my way! I retreated back to the garden and in a minute or so the Wilson's Warbler appeared at the top of the same small tree as the Yellow browed Warbler had favoured and proceeded to give grandstand views before flying across to the small apple trees. I was in pole position this time and made good use of the camera as I endeavoured to keep the Wilson's Warbler in the viewfinder. It was constantly active, never still for more than a few seconds, hopping amongst the foliage, picking off insects from under the leaves and flying from perch to perch. Many of the views were tantalisingly brief as it showed bright yellow amongst the leaves at one moment, then seemed to merge into the foliage the next. We followed its invisible progress by the movement of the leaves in the still air as it fed for almost an hour.  When it was in full view the camera shutters volleyed out and then fell silent as it moved and was hidden once again.  A female Blackbird arrived in the apple trees and the warbler, taking alarm fled to a closer apple tree to feed but again tantalised and teased us with fleeting glimpses but eventually perched in full view for a few precious seconds. It definitely preferred to remain well in cover and would avoid perching in the open if possible.

Male Wilson's Warbler
Enjoying myself immensely I relinquished my position so other birders could get their photos. 

Birders in the garden looking at and photographing the Wilson's Warbler
The time drifted by and the warbler commenced calling a sharp chek chek chek. I could see it, partially obscured by leaves, preening and using some water on a leaf for an impromptu bath. I recalled seeing another American warbler, a Black and White Warbler doing a similar thing on the Scillies some years ago. Then with a flick it flew back across the garden and retreated into the re-assuring density of the shrubbery on the other side. It was gone and this was our cue to go as time was now drawing on. We thanked Tony once again for all his kindness and also that of his understanding neighbour and chatted for a while, getting the local gossip.

The weather was just perfect, sunny and warm with not a breath of wind and everyone was remarking on it, not just us but the locals as well, as no one could recall when it had been like this in October or indeed ever. We relaxed for a bit and then pointed the Audi towards Stornoway,  heading back across  miles of barren machair on the long straight road.

The road from Port Nis to Stornoway with the faithful Black Audi showing well
Four Whooper Swans idled at the edge of a lochan as we passed, then at Borve we came to a bridge and found four of our former birding colleagues checking out a small bushy gully by the road. We stopped and asked what was up and they told us there was a Barred Warbler hiding in the bushes. We parked the car and joined them but there was no sign of the Barred Warbler. As time was running out one of the birders climbed the fence and walked through the wooded gully. A movement was discernible in the bushes and then a Redwing flew up. A few minutes later a bulky, grey looking passerine flew out of the bushes and across a stream to the next area of bushes and trees. It was the Barred Warbler. We quickly followed to where it had flown which was a garden surrounding a pottery. The lady potter bade us welcome even offering us tea which we thanked her for but politely declined. She told us to feel free to walk around the paths in the garden which we did but we never found a sign of the Barred Warbler. A Sycamore in the garden however, had attracted a late Willow Warbler and it was joined by a couple of Siskins and three or four Lesser Redpolls.

That was about it for our birding on the Island of Lewis and we returned to the ferry terminal to await boarding the MV Loch Seaforth.

The crossing was again on glass like seas with many groups of auks scattered across its surface, there must have been well in excess of five hundred. We counted up to fifty Harbour Porpoise and forty Common Dolphins on the crossing and a lone Bonxie flew high past us and towards The Isle of Lewis.

Once back on land we stopped for some fish and chips in Ullapool and then it was time to head for home, once again passing through a spectacular scenery of mountain and stream, the mountains lit golden and made enchanted by the setting sun before the closing curtain of darkness enveloped us as we took the road south.

There was no sign of the Wilson's Warbler on Sunday.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Day trip to Nelson's County 13th October 2015

Monday the 12th October found me catching up on my work, which for the previous few days had been put on hold due to a nasty flu type virus testing my immune system. Depressed by the virus and the amount of work I would have to get through on Monday I called Clackers on Monday morning and suggested a trip to Norfolk on Tuesday to see an Isabelline Shrike at Beeston, which is near Cromer on the Norfolk coast.

Clackers needed little persuading as he had never seen an Isabelline Shrike and we arranged a 4.30am departure from his home at Witney so we could arrive in Norfolk just as it was getting light.That night I could sleep little, tossing and turning, disturbed by strange surreal dreams, probably caused by the remnants of the virus I had contracted from the week before or the medication I was currently taking for it.  It was a struggle to get body and soul together as I ventured down to the kitchen for a herbal tea and some marmite toast to set me up for the long journey to Norfolk. I have never felt less like going anywhere as I did at this ungodly hour but slowly it came together and I set off for Witney. Clackers was ready and waiting and divulged that he too had endured a restless night. Undaunted we headed round the M25 and then up the M11 before turning east for Norfolk. At first the traffic was light but by six thirty the motorway lanes were full of cars and lorries heading for a myriad destinations, the opposite carriageway a moving sea of onrushing white headlights whilst ours was a mirror image but with receding red tail lights.

It was, frankly, a blessed relief to turn off the hurtling chaos of the motorway and join the roads heading east, with less traffic and consequently less driving stress. Dawn rose under grey skies in Norfolk and a fresh northeasterly wind  shook the autumnal trees lining the road to Cromer, the trees showing bright yellow with dying leaves against the lead grey skies.  We were still fifty miles from our destination but soon we were pulling into the layby that ran beside Beeston Regis Common,  just outside Cromer and temporary home to the Isabelline Shrike.

A stretch of the limbs was quickly followed by donning some warm clothing and then we took the small footpath that led immediately onto a tiny common consisting of just a few acres of rough grassland and scrub.

Beeston Regis Common Norfolk

A couple of birders were lined up by a hedge scanning the Common but it was obvious from their demeanour that the shrike was not on view although it had been seen and reported earlier that morning.

Chatting to the birders we learned that the shrike could be very confiding and would quite happily perch close to us on exposed branches if and when it deigned to turn up. Personally I was circumspect  as the wind was now quite strong and I figured the shrike would be keen to perch in the lee of the buffeting wind and not on exposed perches.

However  such thoughts at this juncture were academic as there was no sign of the shrike. We stood around getting increasingly cold. Some people tired of waiting departed whilst others arrived but still there was no sign of the shrike.Nearly an hour passed with little on show apart from two Goldcrests in the bushes and a Siskin flying over. Jays rent the air with their harsh calls from the higher trees surrounding the Common. Clackers then noticed a pale bird flying into a bramble bush on the far side of the Common and then it flipped up to the top and there was the Isabelline Shrike. It remained there for less than a minute before confirming my theory about the wind effect, slipping  down into cover and out of our sight. We waited for it to re-appear but it failed to do so.

Some minutes later we noticed that on the other side of the Common birders were obviously looking at something that was invisible to our eyes and could potentially be the shrike. Someone in their ranks then pointed a camera at a bush and started taking pictures which confirmed the shrike could be seen from the other side of the Common and so in the space of two minutes we made our way to the spot.

The shrike was secreted in a tangle of bramble and hawthorn, sheltering on the leeward side of the wind. Showing an almost white breast and underparts and pallid brown upperparts it just sat there composed and quite at ease, feathers fluffed out in repose and never moved for around fifteen minutes.

It showed no alarm at the scattered ranks of birders and photographers now standing in the rough grass admiring it but eventually it perked up, the roundness of its outline morphing into an elongated slim profile as it disappeared into the depths of the hawthorn tangle chasing an insect. Fifteen minutes later it re-appeared and again perched on the leeward edge of the bush before settling into another period of inactivity.

It is called Isabelline due to its pallid, sandy brown upperparts plumage. Its head and face mask is similarly diffused of strong colour into almost what one would say is plainness. Almost featureless in all plumage areas apart from a strikingly rufous tail, this individual was from the pale end of the plumage spectrum. Its body was typical of its genus, sturdy and compact with a longish tail and formidably heavy bill. It imparted an almost benign appearance as its large, dark, liquid eye surveyed its unlikely temporary home. It's a long diversion from Mongolia to Norfolk!

We watched it until another bout of activity sent it deep into the brambles and out of view. Fifteen minutes later and it still had not re-appeared. It was time to go as we now planned to drive to the other end of the north Norfolk coastline to Holkham Woods, where a Red flanked Bluetail, Dusky Warbler and Radde's Warbler had all been seen the day before, along with lesser rarities such as Yellow browed Warblers, Firecrests and Ring Ouzels.

Twenty minutes later we arrived in Lady Anne's Drive, Holkham, parting with the not inconsiderable sum of £6.50 (bless her Ladyship - times must be tough) for the privilege of parking. A short grumble about the cost cheered us up as we ambled our way to the two mile track that winds through the woods. A flock of garrulous Greylag Geese flew off the fields to be followed by a much larger flock of Pink footed Geese, wheeling and with bickering calls flighting back down into the fields accompanied by five Egyptian Geese. A herd of Belted Galloway cows stoically pulled at the grass, ignoring the commotion as a flock of Curlews ran around and between their sturdy legs.

In the woods we were sheltered from the  troublesome wind coming in off the North Sea and it soon became apparent the woods were alive with birds. They were Goldcrests mainly, many hundreds arriving on a strong northeasterly tailwind off the sea, having crossed from Scandinavia. Each individual, just a few grammes of bone and feather completing an annual miracle of migration and endurance. At East Hills just a few miles down the coast near Wells, earlier that morning, it was estimated there were at least fifteen hundred of these waifs making landfall. With the plethora of birds and  the potential to find something rare, there came, inevitably, birders in all shapes, form and competence but that is birding in Norfolk at this time of year. You are never alone. A birder stopped us by one tree which contained at least twenty Goldcrests and told us a Firecrest was amongst them but we could not locate it amongst the flitting shapes. We walked on as tit flocks passed through the trees above us on both sides. Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, at least one of the latter being of the continental race, Long tailed Tits, Common Chiffchaffs and always accompanied by many Goldcrests. Redwings, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds flew over and numerous Jays flew in off the sea, shouting raucously at making landfall.

Our primary aim was to walk virtually to the end of the track as this was where the rarities were to be found but it was pleasant enough just walking along, birding and unencumbered by the weight of tripods and scopes. We came to 'the crossroads' which is no more than a crossing of two woodland paths and just beyond was the location where the Red flanked Bluetail was to be found. We were surprised to find no sign of any birders at all but on looking left and further into the trees we saw about thirty birders crammed into a very confined area some thirty metres from the track, insinuated amongst the thin trunks of the trees and looking intently into a  small dell with a hollow containing a jumble of fallen branches. It looked just the right habitat but the bluetail was very elusive and comments from birders we had passed along the track intimated it would be a long wait to see it.

They were true to their word and we stood amongst the crowd and waited and waited and waited. Occasionally small dark forms, almost shadows, would flit through the stygian gloom of the hollow but before you could get your bins focused they were gone. Other shapes were silhouetted against the sky as they passed through the leafy twigs  Robin shapes set the heart racing as they look so similar in contour and behaviour to the bluetail but they always turned out to be just that,  Robins. The inevitable Goldcrests  caused murmurs of anticipation and a dignified scramble amongst us but they too were always Goldcrests. A Yellow browed Warbler called above us. More neck craning but to no avail. A Blue Tit fiddled about distantly at the back of the hollow. I looked dismissively at it and then looked again. The Blue Tit had gone and there instead was a lovely Yellow browed Warbler working its restless passage through the upper storey of fading leaves.  It called as if to confirm its identity and was gone. Two Bullfinches came and went but there was no sign of the Red flanked Bluetail.

Almost an hour passed and still nothing. Eventually tiring of this we walked out of the trees and around the back of the dell to view it from the outside, joining some other birders who were already there. They told us the bluetail had been showing itself occasionally and if we waited it would surely re-appear in the hawthorn and brambles on the outer edge of the dell and in a short time so it did. A high speed flick and there it was for a few brief seconds plucking at a blackberry before diving back into the bush. It was all performed at an incredible speed, almost too fast to follow but it briefly perched and I caught a glimpse of a royal blue tail and orange flank  and then it was gone. Clackers was positioned too far to my right and his view was obscured so he missed it. He joined me and we waited. A few more Redwings flew over, a Brambling called from the trees and then there it was again. Orange of flank and a grey underbody, so robin like in its actions. This trait surely explained why the Robins were so hostile to it, chasing it away and through the copse relentlessly and no doubt accounting for its nervousness. I wanted a picture so we waited one more time and the bluetail duly obliged before fleeing with an irate Robin hot on its lovely blue tail.

We had done well. Whilst waiting I renewed acquaintance with a couple of old friends from Sussex and we exchanged our various news whilst we lingered, hoping  the bluetail would show itself just one more time, which it eventually did. 

Waiting for the Red flanked Bluetail to appear
This achieved, Clackers and myself walked back through the wood and sauntered to the end of the track in search of the very elusive Dusky Warbler which had been last seen at 11am, some four hours ago. We knew we had little chance and frankly were not surprised to fail. An arch skulker it could be anywhere in the reeds and dense undergrowth by the path. A Blackcap and another Common Chiffchaff was all we had to show for thirty minutes of fruitless looking. We could have gone further into the dunes of Gun Hill where there were two Ring Ouzels and maybe a Richard's Pipit but instead took a long and slow walk back along the track to the car, finding a Firecrest, all on its own in a hawthorn bush, that promptly disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Four hours later we were back in God's own county.