Wednesday 30 October 2019

Moments from Shetland Part Seven September/October 2019

A Shetland Legend

Standing on the back of the Aberdeen to Lerwick ferry on Sunday evening, watching the Granite City become ever more distant as we sailed out into the North Sea to Shetland I got talking to another birder who introduced himself as Dennis Coutts.

I immediately knew who he was and was delighted to speak to him.

Dennis Coutts is a living legend in Shetland, as even now in his eighties he, above all others, is famed for his photographic skills and the images he has taken over the years of just about every major bird rarity that has been found on Shetland. The Hawk Owl at Frakkafield in September 1983 is perhaps one of his most iconic photos and Dennis is also the only person to have seen seven species of owl on Shetland, namely Long-eared, Short-eared, Little, Hawk, Scops, Snowy and Tengmalm's Owl

The photo taken by Dennis of the famous Hawk Owl  that visited Shetland in September 1983 and hangs on the wall of his home.
I can recall earlier in my life seeing his name in just about every birding magazine below mouth watering photographs of Scottish birds.

Dennis is a self taught professional photographer who had his first published photo in The Shetland Times in 1950 at the tender age of sixteen. After two years working for the Falkirk Journal he moved to Aberdeen Journals as a press photographer before returning to Lerwick in 1959 to continue working for the newspaper there. He also did work for the Daily Express and Daily Mail. He opened his own photographic studio in Lerwick which is still there to this day and all his photographs were taken before the digital age using rolls of film, dark rooms to develop his photos and old fashioned cameras. Dennis no longer takes photos as he does not care for digital cameras  but his reputation lives on as his photos, taken when few had a camera, are virtually unique as no one else was attempting anything similar

Apart from birds he also has a great interest in Shetland life in general and his photos of its inhabitants and their daily lives have been given their own exhibitions which are  always highly popular and a sell out.

Like many native Shetlanders he possesses a beguiling openness and easy charm so that after a few minutes talking to him you feel utterly relaxed and you have been friends forever. As the sun set we retired inside to the ship's cafe and over a dram continued our conversation about birds and Shetland.

We got on famously and, parting to retire for the night, exchanged phone numbers and Dennis asked me to contact him later in the week so we could go birding together for a day. I could hardly believe my good fortune. To be taken around Shetland by the legendary Dennis Coutts was indeed a great honour and privilege that I never dreamed would happen to me and speaking to others about this on Shetland they were very envious and one person, in all seriousness even enquired how much was Dennis going to charge to guide me.

I called Dennis later in the week and we agreed to go out on Thursday.

The day came and I went to Dennis' house. which is easy to recognise in Lerwick as it has an upturned boat on the shed roof and is also a stone's throw from the house that is shown as detective Jimmy Perez's  home in the TV series 'Shetland', based on the novels by Ann Cleeves.

After tea and biscuits in his conservatory which has an unrivalled panoramic view over Bressay Sound, literally feet from the window and from which he told me he had seen  countless rare seabirds including no less than four Ivory Gulls over the years, we set off in Dennis's  car to bird various areas of Mainland to the south of Lerwick. We did not initially see much but it did not matter as Dennis regaled me with tales of his many and various encounters with mega rarities and photographing them. It was a role call like no other and I will just re-tell one of his many stories.

Dennis in his conservatory watching the first Long tailed
Ducks of the winter flying down Bressay Sound
Dennis in his capacity as a photographer was attending a wedding at Hillwell Church. Waiting for the nuptials to be completed in the church he stepped outside to find a White throated Needletail zooming around the church. 'What did you do? I enquired. 'There was nothing I could do but call a colleague and ask him to come and photograph it as the cameras and lenses I had to photograph the wedding were of no use'. he told me The needletail was successfully recorded on film by his colleague and another legend of Shetland birding was born. And so it went on, story after story of encounters with legendary rare birds.

Eventually we stopped the car and walked down a road birding the gardens, finding a lot of Northern Wheatears which from their size and strong colours looked to be of the Greenland race as well as one or two Whinchats.

Northern Wheatear

We went to various places and saw quite a number of commoner migrants,such as Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart and even briefly a Red breasted Flycatcher but finally news came through about a scarcer bird, a Greenish Warbler, at a place called Southpunds and we went to see it. We agreed it would round the day off nicely. The crowd of birders, at least the older ones, greeted Dennis like the Shetland celebrity he is and after a long wait we eventually saw the Greenish Warbler which sadly from an aesthetic point of view had no tail. But it was a Greenish Warbler and we were certainly not complaining.

Greenish Warbler
We returned to Dennis's home and before parting he told me to get in touch when I got back from Unst and he would show me his case of three stuffed birds from Shetland, all with a great story attached. I certainly would. There would be no hesitation on my part you could be sure of that.

On returning to Lerwick, after my stay on Unst, I first made a visit to the Harbour to renew my acquaintance with the Black Guillemots that always seem to be there. They come very close and you can even watch them swimming underwater. At this time of year they belied their name and were in winter plumage of grey and white.

Adult Black Guillemot in winter plumage
Then I made my way to Dennis's home nearby and we spent a fascinating afternoon talking birds in his conservatory overlooking Bressay Sound and Dennis casually told me he was celebrating his 61st wedding anniversay with his wife this very day! 

Before looking at the case of birds Dennis took me on a tour of the many photos and pictures hanging on his walls. It was like walking through a birding and social history of Shetland as he recounted the event that prompted each photo and picture.

Finally he took me to see the case of birds - three in all and what birds they were. Each one a major rarity found on Shetland. Dominating the display was a Snowy Owl which had flown into a window and broken its wing but such was the seriousness of the fracture it had to be put down by a vet. Second was a Brunnich's Guillemot which he found floating freshly dead in the sea. Last and probably the best of all was a male Siberian Rubythroat which he found dead on the road at Bixter, presumably killed by a car. It had no tail but no matter, the taxidermist used a Robin's tail as a substitute!

The case containing a Snowy Owl, Brunnich's Guillemot and
a Siberian Rubythroat
There they were preserved forever and providing three more stories to go with all the others. This excursion back in time to the glory days of Shetland birding seemed the perfect end to my time in this wonderful part of the world.

So thank you Dennis.

Birds seen on Shetland

Slavonian Grebe
Northern Fulmar
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
European Shag
Grey Heron
Mute Swan
Whooper Swan
Greylag Goose
Barnacle Goose
Pale bellied Brent Goose
Eurasian Wigeon
Eurasian Teal
Northern Pintail
Tufted  Duck
Greater Scaup
Common Eider
Common Goldeneye
Red breasted Merganser
Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Common Kestrel
Common Pheasant
Common Coot
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Ringed Plover
American Golden Plover (2)
European Golden Plover
Northern Lapwing
Semi-palmated Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
Jack Snipe
Common Snipe
Black tailed Godwit
Bar tailed Godwit
Eurasian Curlew
Common Redshank
Black headed Gull
Common Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Black legged Kittiwake
Common Guillemot
Black Guillemot
Rock Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
European Bee-eater
Greater Short-toed Lark
Sky Lark
Barn Swallow
Tree Pipit
Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
White/Pied Wagtail
Wren (T.t.zetlandicus)
European Robin
Red flanked Bluetail
Common Redstart
European Stonechat
Northern Wheatear
Common Blackbird
Song Thrush
Melodious Warbler
Barred Warbler
Lesser Whitethroat
Common Whitethroat
Greenish Warbler (2)
Yellow browed Warbler (29)
Dusky Warbler
Common & Siberian Chiffchaff (P.c.collybita & tristis)
Willow Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Red breasted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Turkestan Shrike
Red backed Shrike
Eurasian Jackdaw
Hooded Crow
Common Raven
Common Starling
House Sparrow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
European Goldfinch
Eurasian Siskin
Common Linnet
Mealy Redpoll
Arctic Redpoll ( A.h.exilipes Coue's Arctic Redpoll)
Lapland Bunting
Snow Bunting
Little Bunting (4)

Total 106 species

Tuesday 29 October 2019

The Kingfisher 27th October 2019

The secluded pool I came to this morning was a still life into which I felt as an intruder. With the absence of wind to trouble its surface the pool had taken on the qualities of a mirror and the reflections of the overhanging reeds were held in perfect replica by the still water. 
The air was cold and bright, lit by a sun slowly rising into a ceiling of unsullied palest blue. the early morning sunlight casting a gently advancing golden shadow across the fading reeds. Winter is approaching but for today, at least, there lingered a sense of autumn and many leaves, although turned to yellow and rusty orange, are yet to be cast from the surrounding trees.

The stage was set, an open curtain awaiting the entrance of its star performer - the Kingfisher.

Not until he arrived would there be completeness and a sense of fulfilment.

There is no guarantee of a performance from such a capricious star. It is up to the Kingfisher to decide on an entrance, if at all. Some days it can be hours that pass and he does not come, on others he is already there when you enter the hide and will depart but return later for a matinee appearance.

This morning an hour passed in contemplative silence while Moorhens fussed around in the reeds and a bachelor party of Pheasants picked at fallen seed below the feeder hanging from the Alder tree.

A high pitched whistle announced the off stage entrance of the Kingfisher and then he was there before me - a sudden blaze of colour, perched on his favourite post. My desire of his making an appearance  realised, The joyous sight as always a shock of surprise and delight.

As with any star, on stage playing a regal personage, he is clothed in the richest most colourful  of dress - wondrous hues of blue, ever changing in shade and intensity, responding to his constant movement of head and body. An iridescent throw of electric blue flares down his back. Rich chestnut underparts complement his cloak of blue.

Glorious to behold in his bright feathers, supremely confident in his presence, he sits for a moment's contemplation, a king on his throne, satisfying himself that all is as it should be in his realm and that he is comfortable with the situation. Content there is no apparent danger, with a barely perceptible shrug, he settles to fish.

He turns his large head downwards to regard the water below, adjusting his position to look with increased intensity at any movement he discerns below the water's calm surface.

Then comes an unexpected interruption and the spell is broken.

Another Kingfisher arrived, flying in from beyond the reeds and circled the pool in a low fast flight and approaching the post saw it was occupied and fled, back over the reeds. 

The Kingfisher left his post, fishing forgotten in the overwhelming urge to give chase to the intruder and assert his sole occupancy of the pool. His domain.

The performance was over and there was to be no interval between performances, for he never returned in the subsequent two hours I maintained a vigil.

Perversely I prefer it this way, accepting the Kingfisher's capricious behaviour and the uncertainty of success on my part.

Any star should always convey that sense they belong to another world of mystique and glamour.

It makes an encounter, no matter how brief, all the more satisfying.

As any star will tell you, always leave your audience wanting more .........................

Monday 28 October 2019

The Scilly Season 14th-16th October 2019

Having successfully twitched one North American vagrant in the shape of the Common Nighthawk at Galgorm in Northern Ireland on Thursday 10th October, the prevailing strong westerly winds also produced a crop of desirable Nearctic vagrants on the Isles of Scilly.

Two in particular were absolute priorities as far as I was concerned. The first was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on St Martin's and the second was a Yellow billed Cuckoo on St Mary's. The latter was confounding all expectations by remaining very much alive and active feeding on stick insects, when normally this species is found moribund when it reaches our shores and usually dies within two days. Indeed this particular Yellow billed Cuckoo was so active it was proving very hard to pin down in its favoured wood, The Dump Clump, and many birders were having to endure continual frustration in their failure to find it.

Having had just three days to recover from our Northern Ireland jaunt, the following Sunday found myself and Mark plotting how to get to Scilly for Monday morning. In the end we got a cheap deal on a flight from Land's End to St Mary's which would take fifteen minutes on Monday morning as opposed to three hours sailing from Penzance to St Mary's on that venerable old ship, The Scillonian.

Mark drove from Luton to Chipping Norton and at two thirty am on Monday morning I collected him and set about the four and a half hour drive to Penzance where we could buy our discounted air tickets from The Isles of Scilly Travel Office when they opened at 8.30am.

We arrived in Penzance almost as dawn was about to break and parking the car near the bus station made our way to a local cafe for breakfast. Suitably revived we drove to the nearby travel office and after a short wait for them to open, Mark purchased our discounted air tickets, We would fly out to St Mary's later in the morning and return on the evening of Wednesday the 16th October. He had also found accommodation for us for the two nights we planned to stay on St Mary's.

We drove to the nearby Land's End airfield, parked the car and completed the simple check in procedure. It was so refreshing and civilised in not having to stand in lines of stressed people and have security staff shouting instructions at you but be able to sit quietly and watch a video about air safety. It was no hardship to wait around an hour in the pleasant, quiet surrounds of the tiny airport for our flight on a Britten Norman Islander aircraft that takes only six passengers.

The pilot taxied the propeller driven aircraft to the end of the runway and with a roar from the engines and a short burst of acceleration we were airborne and soon out over the sea. 

It was dull and cloudy and we passed through cloud to our cruising height of a thousand feet before, fifteen minutes later, descending to land at the small modern  airport that serves St Mary's.

During the flight we discussed which of the two mega rarities we would go for first.The grosbeak or the cuckoo? We decided if the cuckoo was being seen in its favoured location, The Dump Clump by Lower Moors, then we would go there first but if not we would take the 1130am boat to St Martin's for the grosbeak.

A taxi took us to our B&B accommodation and we left our bags there and as the cuckoo had not been seen for some time we opted to go to St Martin's.

We sat and waited on the quayside for  Sapphire, Joe Pender's boat, to take us across to St Martin's and forty minutes later we disembarked on the slipway at St Martin's. Dependent on the tide the boat docks at either end of the island. Unfortunately for us the tide meant the boat docked at the 'wrong end' at Lower Town and we had to walk across the island which takes around forty minutes. This was unavoidable as the grosbeak favoured the other end of the island near Higher Town.

Nevertheless it was a lovely and sunny, mild autumn day, so the walk was not unpleasant.

I should add that our seeing the grosbeak was far from certain as it was highly mobile, hard to locate and would regularly disappear from one place before turning up somewhere else and requiring a bit of a walk. It had been seen on the island earlier in the day but it was not going to be easy to see but with the number of birders looking for it someone would surely locate it.

We made our way across the island, following the pleasant main thoroughfare which was no more than a metalled track. A rural idyll if ever there was one and a distinct sense of stepping back in time to a gentler age which contrasted with the palpable air of anxiety emanating from around a hundred anxious twitchers.

We all made for 'The Bakery' which, along with an Art Gallery, formed the nucleus of the habitation called Higher Town and where you could sit with a coffee and hope the grosbeak would put in an appearance, as this was where it had been seen most often. We stood with many others scanning  the trees and bushes endlessly but to no avail.

Birders with two way radios were keeping in touch with each other in case the grosbeak turned up somewhere else. I cannot remember quite what time it was but suddenly a birder with such a device announced the grosbeak had been located and was showing really well at 'The Quarry'. There was no time to lose and we all hurried off to the quarry, located about a quarter of a mile back along the road we had earlier traversed across the island . 

I was going to be one of the first to get there, running alongside the birder with the radio who told me it was still showing really well. I got to the quarry, sweating and gasping for air just as a tractor drove out of the quarry, sufficiently close to the grosbeak to scare it into flight and it flew away beyond the tractor before I could set eyes on it. I had missed it by seconds. It was agony. I just could not believe what had happened. Everyone else also stood in mute frustration looking at the place where the grosbeak had been perched and the trees to which it had apparently flown but there was no sign of it now. Everybody was reluctant to leave and a phalanx of twitchers stood non plussed by the edge of the road looking forlornly at the grosbeak free quarry, which in reality was no more than a small semi circle full of vegetation. Everyone was willing the grosbeak to return. Of course it didn't.

Birders at The Quarry
I could see the game was up and returned to The Bakery, reasoning that this was where the grosbeak had been seen most, so maybe it would eventually return here. Mark spotted three Snow Buntings flying over our heads. Hope was at first high for a sighting of the grosbeak but slowly as the hours passed and there was no further news from anywhere on the island or an appearance at The Bakery, a feeling of despondency descended upon me and everyone else. The last boat back to St Mary's would leave at 4.30pm and as the time approached we had to accept that this was not to be our lucky day.

I resolved to return tomorrow, Tuesday, and try once more. For too long I have waited for a Rose breasted Grosbeak to arrive in Britain  and now it was so tantalisingly close.

On the way back to St Mary's, Joe Pender took his boat, Sapphire, close into the shore at a place called Tolls Porth where a White-rumped Sandpiper, another  Nearctic vagrant, had been residing for some days, feeding on the many flies buzzing around huge mounds of rotting seaweed. It did not take long to find the confiding sandpiper, sharing the beach with two Whimbrel but with a boat load of eighty plus birders, all keen to see the sandpiper, it was a bit of a scrum on board as people jostled to see it and in the end, having seen the sandpiper, I sat down and left it to my fellow passengers.

Back on land we went to the churchyard near Old Town and after a little while found the Red eyed Vireo  that had been reported from here earlier. It gave us brief but more than adequate views as it hunted for prey in the tops of the trees, before flying off and not re-appearing. 

Red eyed Vireo
I decided on going further down the road to the Dump Clump to try and find the elusive Yellow billed Cuckoo but two hours looking for it in the tall trees proved fruitless.There was not a sign of it anywhere, just a Pied Flycatcher  which was nice to see but hardly compensation for the missing cuckoo.

We ate well that evening, in The Mermaid, joining Mark's friend Gavin and then went on to the Scillonian Club where the bird log is called at 9pm but I felt a little out of place, not being a regular, and anyway was too tired to wait up for the log to be called and so walked back to our accommodation to catch up on my sleep.

Undoubtedly it was the all night drive and consequent lack of sleep, plus missing the two birds I desired to see the most, that made me feel so low. I just had to live with it but it was hard to accept.

The next morning I planned to go to the nearby Dump Clump first thing in the morning, foregoing breakfast, to again try to find the Yellow billed Cuckoo, before getting the first boat back to St Martin's at 10.30am.

Mark was going to remain on St Mary's, so after another abortive two  hours looking for the cuckoo and also failing to find a Red breasted Flycatcher I made my way to the quayside and was back on the boat to St Martin's. There were markedly less birders on the boat this morning and I did wonder with so few of us looking for the grosbeak how this would affect our chances of finding it, if it was still present. It did not help my mood when news came through that the Yellow billed Cuckoo had been seen at the Dump Clump just a few minutes ago.

I had opted to leave my camera and lens at my accommodation on St Mary's as my shoulder really hurt today, still very  painful from a heavy fall on Shetland. I had no way of knowing but I would regret not taking them with me but the combined weight of camera and lens was just too much for my shoulder to bear today.

We sailed across a sunlit sea and as before landed at the same slipway in order to make another forty minute walk that brought me to the quarry but there was no sign of the grosbeak. I walked onwards to The Bakery and the grosbeak was again conspicuous by its absence, as were any birders.

Whilst checking the trees, bushes and hedgerows here an ultimately frustrating thing happened to me. I saw a warbler sized bird, in a garden about fifty metres away, partially obscured by vegetation. It was bright yellow on its face and breast, grey on its back and showed two prominent white wing bars. It was dealing with an invertebrate which it had caught, bashing it on a twig for around twenty seconds. Watching it, only one thing occured to me, it looked very much like a Yellow throated Vireo which I have seen in North America on a number of occasions. Hoping once it had consumed its prey it would show itself more clearly I waited but it flew across the garden into a thick ivy hedge. I was sure it would emerge from there but it never did despite my going closer to look for it. With such brief views  I could not be one hundred percent certain and there was no way I was going to call it on such a short and restricted view. It was a dilemna. Do I say something or keep quiet? In the end I opted for a compromise. I quietly alerted three birders nearby to what I thought I had seen and suggested they look for it with me, which they did, but we never saw it again. I called Mark and his friend Gavin on St Mary's, out of courtesy, to tell them about my sighting and to discuss it with them but insisted on no account they say anything, otherwise a full scale twitch would be inevitable, as this would be only the second time this species has occured in Britain. Thankfully Mark managed to curb any impetuosity but even so a rumour spread and the next day an early boat at 8.30am sailed for St Martin's full of birders.

After this frustrating sighting I wandered around hoping to reconnect with the mystery bird and not certain whether to concentrate on this or the grosbeak. I strolled down a lane near The Bakery to where some chickens were kept, as the grosbeak had been seen here but again there was no sign, just a Common Chiffchaff feeding in a small vegetable patch.

A little later I was standing in the lane near the garden where the suspected vireo had been, discussing the possibilities with the three birders I had spoken to earlier,  when a man waved to us urgently from the end of the lane where it turned left to The Bakery. This could mean only one thing surely? I ran up the lane and looked around the corner to where the man pointed. In some bushes and brambles opposite The Bakery the Rose breasted Grosbeak was perched right out in the open with a flock of House Sparrows. Wonderful! At last! That familiar welcome feeling of fulfilment embraced me. I had done it.I had, at last, seen a Rose breasted Grosbeak in Britain.

It perched on its elevated twig for about five minutes, just looking about and appearing to be entirely untroubled as no more than fifteen of us watched it from the other side of the track. I noted a flush of pink on its buff breast, so that made it a male, but even more noticeable was its bulky bill and a large head reminding me of a humbug with its prominent bands of brown and buff. Its greyish brown wings showed two white wing bars and prominent white tips to the tertials and coverts.

All  the above Rose breasted Grosbeak photos are courtesy of Mark Hill
Eventually it flew down and a flash of bright red on its underwings confirmed the fact it was a male.We waited, feeling sure it was eating blackberries out of sight and would fly back up again but after an hour we had to accept it must have slipped away and indeed later in the day it was seen near the cricket green that lay some way from here.

However I was euphoric at having seen it so well and must now thank Mark Hill who did have a camera and who has very graciously allowed me to use his excellent photos to illustrate the event on this blog.

I got the noon boat back to St Mary's as now I planned to make an extra effort to find the Yellow billed Cuckoo. It did not promise to go well as the cuckoo had not been seen for most of the day but then word came through it had been seen in the Dump Clump, just as Mark and myself were heading  off to try and see the very confiding Spotted Crake, frequenting a tiny pool by the track through Lower Moors.

We were but ten minutes from the Dump Clump and made a rather fraught and muddy detour across wet fields back to the Dump Clump, which brought us onto the main track through the wood. A scrum of about twenty birders were amongst the trees, standing just off the track, looking up into the branches above. The cuckoo was up there somewhere and I joined the birders and we stood and waited for the cuckoo to move. Someone said they could see it but only just and there was a surge forward of expectant birders but it was too late as the cuckoo was no longer visible, if indeed it ever was.

I did not see it and advanced a few metres further into the wood to get a better angle of sight and looked up. I saw a movement in the tangle of branches, twigs and leaves  but then it was gone in the maze of branches. It began to rain.We stood for twenty or so minutes and nothing moved in the trees and then I saw the cuckoo again, when it moved, hopping from one branch to another - utterly distinctive with its  slim, flat backed body and long tail. Then it was obscured from our sight again. Another agonising wait ensued and then the cuckoo flew, crossing an open patch of sky and I saw it clearly as it passed in front and above me and flew away down the length of the wood. It was over quickly but I can recall the brown upperparts and white underparts on that very distinct profile.

We followed to where the cuckoo had supposedly flown but no one could re-locate it and the rain was now falling relentlessly. I was soaked and gave it up  and followed Mark, who had left earlier, back to our accommodation for a welcome cup of tea, to dry out and change my clothes.

We revisited The Mermaid and met up with Gavin. What a different feeling this evening to the despair of yesterday. I had two new ticks for my British list and the Yellow billed Cuckoo was also a lifer. I was now ever nearer my goal of seeing 500 species in Britain. Only five to go!

I slept very well that night.

Tomorrow I could relax as the pressure was off and I could bird the island at leisure. Well almost! My first objective was to try and see the confiding Spotted Crake in its pool at Lower Moors. Mark and Gavin had taken the early boat to St Martin's and so, alone, I stood by the pool and the crake walked literally under my feet as I stood on the tiny wooden bridge over a shallow stream feeding the pool. Unseen and unsuspected the crake came from behind me to swim under the bridge and emerge to fuss around in the pool for ten minutes before slipping further away along the sluggish stream and under the all enveloping vegetation. Brilliant!

What an amazing bird to admire as it walked unconcernedly within a few feet of me. Two local voluntary wardens arrived, often the kiss of death. They immediately got on their loud crackling two way radios and announced the crake was showing well. Cue the crake disappearing!

Shortly afterwards a line of birders appeared at speed along the track, moving with some purpose, but they were not interested in the crake and did not stop but carried on. 'What's up?' I enquired of one birder as he passed. 'The cuckoo is showing well further down the track' he answered and was gone.

I followed as it would be nice to see more of the cuckoo but when I got there it was a familiar story. 'You should have been here five minutes ago, it was sitting out on those nearby small trees being harassed by a wren but has flown off.'

It was not going to come back and having already seen it yesterday I was not too concerned so I went back to the crake but it too was playing hard to see, probably because at least two Water Rails were calling nearby.

The cuckoo was really giving everyone the run around and periodically birders would be hurtling one way or the other past me as I stood on the tiny bridge, all of them chasing after the cuckoo, hoping to get a sight of it. I saw it once or twice briefly, as it flew from one tree to another, but never really well. However I was one of the lucky ones  to have seen it well yesterday and occasionally, not so well, today. Many birders had still failed to see it, hence the panic. Some I believe never got to see it at all.

A Yellow browed Warbler called loudly from behind me and I glimpsed its tiny form flitting through the surrounding trees but having recently seen so many on Shetland I did not feel inclined to give chase.

Instead I resolved to go and get better views of the White rumped Sandpiper at Tolls Porth and took a Toots taxi to Telegraph which was as near to the beach as possible by vehicle. I then had to descend a steep hillside along a zigzagging path through the bracken to get to the rocky beach and its mounds of rotting seaweed. I found the sandpiper resting near a dead Porpoise on the beach. 

Eventually it began to feed on the swarms of flies rising from the mounds of seaweed. It was a juvenile, moulting out of its juvenile chestnut feathers into the grey feathers of first winter plumage. An attractive little bird with long wing tips extending, diagnostically, beyond its tail and showing its distinctive white rump to good effect.

Note the flies!

I spent about an hour with the sandpiper, both of us enjoying the pleasant sunshine. While there I watched a Wren that came close, noting how it lacked any strong barring on its underparts  and was pale and rufous, markedly different in appearance when compared to the last Wren I had seen, just days ago, on Shetland.

A Scilly Wren
It also occured to me that here on Scilly I was just about as far west as possible in Britain whereas days before on Shetland I had been as far north as possible. Reflecting on this I made my way back up the hill and took another short taxi ride to Porth Hellick Pool, my target this time being another North American vagrant,  a young male Blue winged Teal.

The track at Porth Hellick Pool
Walking along the track to the  hide I met a local birder and enquired about the teal and was told that it had not been seen for a while but was probably, as usual, fast asleep in the reeds. I arrived at the first hide which is called the Stephen Sussex Hide and is very small and cramped with just room for four or possibly five people at a squeeze. 

The Stephen Sussex Hide at Porth Hellick Pool
I entered and stood behind four seated birders and looked out of a viewing slat and there was the teal. It was swimming directly toward the hide and eventually could hardly get any closer. Not  the most riveting of ducks to set eyes upon in its drab grey brown immature plumage. but the one thing I did notice was its slightly shoveler like bill, a compromise between the bill of a teal and shoveler. Its straw yellow legs and pale eye rings were also noted as it paddled in the water directly in front of the hide.

Well that took no time at all and buoyed by this success I walked back to the road and crossing it joined three birders looking at a Yellow browed Warbler with a couple of Goldcrests, feeding in the trees of Holy Vale and giving exceptional views. I then walked a couple of miles back to Lower Moors and determined to try to see more of the Spotted Crake. On the way I met yet more stressed birders on yet another chase after the cuckoo no doubt following up the latest reported sighting in the hope of getting to see it.

I got to the crake pool and Mark joined me as did a number of other birders.You can never really be alone on St Mary's, especially at a popular and well known location like Lower Moors 

Birders on the 'crake bridge' at Lower Moors.It was nice to see
so many lady birders
After half an hour the Spotted Crake emerged from concealment and repeated its performance of this morning and for fifteen minutes it entertained us royally as it fed below us, meandering about in the duckweed that carpeted the still and shallow waters of the pool.

So came to an end a fabulous two days in the Isles of Scilly, with two really rare birds, a Rose breasted Grosbeak and a Yellow billed Cuckoo, both from North America, to add to my British List and a supporting cast of three scarce Nearctic birds, in the form of a Red eyed Vireo, a White rumped Sandpiper and a Blue winged Teal. The Spotted Crake was rather special too and I suppose two Yellow browed Warblers cannot be discounted either.

It's been quite an autumn

Birds seen

Northern Gannet

Great Cormorant
European Shag
Grey Heron
Eurasian Wigeon
Eurasian Teal
Blue winged Teal
Common Buzzard
Common Pheasant
Water Rail
Spotted Crake
White rumped Sandpiper
Common Snipe
Black headed Gull
Common Gull
Lesser Black backed Gull
Herring Gull
Greater Black backed Gull
Wood Pigeon
Eurasian Collared Dove
Yellow billed Cuckoo
Sky Lark
Barn Swallow
House Martin
Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
Pied Wagtail
Hedge Accentor
European Robin
Common Blackbird
Song Thrush
Yellow browed Warbler
Common Chiffchaff
Willow Warbler
Pied Flycatcher
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Carrion Crow
Common Raven
Common Starling
House Sparrow
Red eyed Vireo
Common Linnet
Snow Bunting
Rose breasted Grosbeak