Saturday 25 April 2020

From the Archives: A Sandhill Crane on Orkney 28th September 2009

This is an image I downloaded for free from the internet and shows what a Sandhill Crane should look like. Unfortunately
the weather put paid to my achieving anything remotely like this.So my thanks go to the unknown photographer. 
On Tuesday 22nd September a very rare bird in the form of an adult Sandhill Crane, normally to be found in the USA, was discovered on South Ronaldsay, which is the southernmost island in Orkney. This was only the third record of this species in Britain and was very much what is termed a mega in twitching circles. I maintained a casual interest by following the postings about the Crane on Bird Forum but dismissed any idea of going to see it, as Orkney is a long way and as far as I knew hard to get to as it involved crossing the Pentland Firth either by plane, which was far too expensive, or by ferry.

I also contented myself with the assumption that the Crane, being a very rare bird, would, as is often the way with such rarities, fly off long before I could get to see it. However the days passed and we got to Friday with the Crane still on Orkney. Half in jest I called Ads, a birding friend  who lives in Sussex. Like me he hoped it would fly off so he would not be faced by the inevitable birding dilemna of whether to go for it or not. He agreed to wait until the weekend to see if it hung around.

By noon on Friday I was virtually committed to go for it, especially as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, another mega, had been found just a few miles away on the adjacent island of Mainland, which I discovered was connected to South Ronaldsay by road. It would be nice and pretty amazing if I could twitch two megas on the same day.

By late afternoon on Friday I had decided to go for the Crane the next day, Saturday, driving overnight to catch the Pentalina, the ferry which sailed at 9.30am on Sunday from Gill's Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay. I called Ads to see if he was of a mind to come with me but he wanted to wait until Saturday to see if the cuckoo was still around. He said he would call me depending on the news.

I could not really wait any longer and so booked myself, Ads and my car on the Pentalina for the Sunday morning sailing at 9.30am and returning that evening at 5pm. It was not nearly as expensive as I had feared and I would have six and  half hours birding time on Orkney. I also called Paul Higson who had discovered and identified the crane, asking him for help in finding it when I got to Orkney. By chance we had something in common, as in July 1988 Paul had found Britain's first ever Crag Martin in Cornwall, only two weeks before I found Britain's second Crag Martin at Beachy Head in Sussex. Paul was really pleased to hear from me and said 'The Crag Martin two must meet up!' and he promised to personally guide me to the crane when I got to Orkney and provide me with maps showing me where to go and see the other 'good birds' currently on the island.This was excellent news as it would save me a lot of time trying to find the precise location of the Crane and the positive tone of his email really buoyed my spirits.

On Saturday morning the news came through that the cuckoo was nowhere to be seen. This was a bit deflating but there was still the Sandhill Crane, which was the much rarer of the two birds and the priority as far as I was concerned. However the weather forecast for Orkney looked dire for Sunday, predicting heavy rain all day. Common sense prevailed and I remained at home and as Ads had not called back it was obvious he did not want to go. 

So I was on my own if I wanted to see the Crane. I re-booked the ferry for 9.30am on Monday morning and prepared to attempt the formidably long drive to Caithness, on my own, on Sunday. I left my home around 10am and just drove north with two stops for fuel. It went on forever but at least the roads were comparatively quiet. By the time I reached Inverness it was almost dark and still I had another 140 miles to go. I carried on driving through rain and now darkness on unfamiliar single carriageway roads. It was tedious and slow going, especially when stuck behind buses or fish lorries but having come this far, now was not the time for second thoughts. At 9pm and 623 miles from home I arrived at The Ferry Inn, located by the harbour at Scrabster, a few miles from Gill's Bay, and where I planned to spend the night and catch the ferry, relatively refreshed, the next morning. 

I administered a couple of malt whiskies and two halves of 'heavy' at the hotel's bar and after a pleasant chat with two fish lorry drivers from Plymouth, retired to bed around 10.30pm having arranged for breakfast at 7am the next morning. My room, although small was very clean and comfortable. I guess cosy would be the word and I soon fell asleep. The next morning I went in search of breakfast at 7am, as agreed, but there was no sign of anyone. The place was deserted. Eventually a cleaning lady felt sorry for me and rustled up some tea and toast.

I set off for the ferry at Gill's Bay in swirling rain and wind. So much for the BBC's weather prediction of low cloud and no rain. In fact it rained all day which was very annoying. I was one of the first to arrive at the dreary Gill's Bay ferry terminal and having checked in found myself and my trusted car at the head of a small queue of vehicles. As I waited another four or five cars arrived, all filled with birders. Apparently I was the only one to attempt this marathon journey solo.

While I waited at the depressing concrete surrounds of the terminal Paul Higson called to tell me the crane was still in its favoured stubble field at Windwick. So now I could, at least, partially relax, knowing the bird was still around, as in this rain it certainly would not be going anywhere today. I passed the news on to the other birders in the cars behind me.

We were soon on board the Pentalina and sat inside the passenger accommodation out of the rain.The vessel set sail to a cacophony of car alarms sounding from the car deck below us. I went up onto the top deck and seawatched for the hour long crossing, seeing little of note apart from a couple of Bonxies. Others watching from the other side saw more birds but the main object was to see the Sandhill Crane, so I was not too concerned. On arriving at St Margaret's Hope I called Paul and as instructed met him at the bus shelter at the top of the hill above  the harbour, then followed him at speed to the site of the Crane.We were also followed by most of the other birders from the ferry who had become aware of my arrangement with Paul. Eventually we turned off left at a sign for Windwick and after a couple of sharp turns on a winding single track road parked in a tiny car park and walked a few hundred yards downhill on the road to join a small gathering of birders already viewing the Crane.

It took but seconds to find it, stood, two fields in from the road at the back of a stubble field, a huge grey bird on long legs preening in the rain with Greylag and Pink footed Geese for company. My initial impression was that it looked relatively non descript, being overall dull grey, just like the awful weather, with some rusty brown markings on its back.The only real highlight in its appearance was a red forehead, crown and face contrasting with a dull white chin, throat and cheeks. I watched it for quite some time as, unnoticed by me, most of the other birders slipped away, probably fed up getting soaked and chilled in the continuous rain. The Crane then began to show itself really well, strutting around the field, feeding and ducking its head from time to time to avoid the occasional mobbing Lapwing. I tried some digiscoping but the rain and appalling light made any attempt nigh on hopeless as my image below clearly shows.

The Sandhill Crane - just about visible!
Apart from the Crane and geese there were properly wild Rock Doves, Curlew, Lapwing and local Hooded Crows in the wet field. Paul, before he  left me with the Crane, had very kindly given me two Ordnance Survey maps on which he had marked where the other good birds were to be found nearby on the island, such as a Surf Scoter and an American Golden Plover. In my haste and tired state I forgot to ask Paul what the Surf Scoter was, male, female or immature? A male would be  nice. No matter I could sort that out when or if I located the duck. I arranged with four other birders from the Midlands, who were also still watching the Crane to guide them to the Surf Scoter in exchange for them taking me to the American Golden Plover. We set off first for the scoter which was near Kirkwall airport. It was apparently located off a point of land to which there was no access other than to ask the farmer if we could walk across his land to get to the shore. After a lot of mistakes and mis turns reading the map we eventually found the right road to the farm which was in fact not a road at all but just a cinder track, hence our confusion.

Driving down the track we put up a late Northern Wheatear which, with a flash of white rump and black and white tail rapidly disapppeared into the murk. We parked in the farmyard and I  approached the farmhouse with some trepidation to ask permission for us to walk to the point.  I was greeted at the door by the young farmer who was both welcoming and friendly and told me I did not even have to ask him for permission but to just go ahead. What a pleasant change from similar encounters in England.

We walked down to the shoreline and finding a suitable spot scoped the bay, finding numerous ducks scattered around on the sea. The first birds we identified were not ducks but a flock of twenty eight swans coming in off the sea. As they got closer and passed us they revealed themselves to be Whooper Swans, possibly just finishing their migration from Iceland. Then we found a small group of Velvet Scoters with some Eiders and in front of them a juvenile Long tailed Duck. Excellent finds but where was the Surf Scoter? We carried on scanning and found Red necked Grebes and Slavonian Grebes and then one of my fellow birders said he could see the Surf Scoter. It was flying in from further out to sea in the company of some Velvet Scoters, coming ever closer towards us and sure enough there it was in my scope, a superb adult male clearly showing its multi coloured bill and a big and square white patch on the back of its head. The Surf Scoter, together with the slightly larger Velvets settled on the sea and promptly commenced courting a female Velvet, annoying its mate which chased it across the sea. In the muddle I realised I was looking at two drake Surf Scoters - two adult drakes. Magic! We watched them, as both energetically courted female Velvets until they and the Velvets flew off further out into the bay. We had been really lucky to find them so quickly and so near to the shore. Scanning again we found both Red throated and Black throated Divers, as well as a few winter plumaged Black Guillemots and a couple of ordinary Guillemots. Returning to the cars wet but happy we were greeted by the farmer who enquired whether we had been successful and on learning we had been wished us well. He even invited us in for a cup of tea but we politely declined as we wanted to go in search of the American Golden Plover. What a genuinely nice person. We drove back up the track and made for the American Golden Plover at a place called Deerness, stopping at various points on the way to check for birds on the sea. The best we could find were three Long tailed Ducks.

We arrived at Deerness and scoped a field by the road that was full of European Golden Plovers. Virtually the first bird in the scope was the moulting, summer plumaged American Golden Plover showing a huge white supercilium and much greyer brown upperparts than its companions. It was that easy and it really stood out, looking almost monochrome compared to the surrounding European Golden Plovers, which, all bar one, were either in golden infused winter or juvenile plumage. We watched for thirty minutes and then the entire plover flock took off leaving the American Golden Plover on its own in the field. I watched it for another fifteen minutes but then left the others, as I wanted to head back to Windwick to see more of the Crane. Time was moving on fast and I really wanted to spend my last hour watching a bird I had come so far to see.This was, for me, going to be a probably unique occurence and I wanted to make the most of it. I had after all come an awfully long way to see it! 

Back in the car I retraced my route to the unremarkable field  at Windwick, made special by its very rare transatlantic visitor.There were hardly any birders here now so I spent the remainder of my time enjoying watching the Crane as it stalked about, feeding in its favoured field, giving, at times, excellent medium distance views, so much so I could, through the scope discern its pale eyes. It was however still raining hard and continuously. Would it ever stop? After an hour I found I was getting progressively colder and wet. Enough is enough, so I drove back to St Margaret's Hope. finding a cafe where I got my first food of the day and an almost hot soup but I was too tired to complain.I left Paul's maps, as arranged, with the local Post Office for him to collect later and drove back to the ferry, waiting in the car, slowly drying myself out with the engine running and the heater on full blast.

Then it was back onto the Pentalina and setting sail to yet another chorus of car alarms. I saw just as little of note on the way back as on the way out, apart from another two Bonxies. We arrived at Gill's Bay around 6.45pm and, glad to leave this drear and dire place, I commenced the long drive south though the bleak wastes of Caithness, passing down rainswept roads that stretched for miles with not another car to be seen. I felt very, very far from home. I stopped for diesel at Evanton, just north of Inverness and over one hundred miles south of Caithness, at an awful place called Skiach Services which had the heating on so high that it was melting the chocolate bars on the shelves. The refreshment on offer was the usual northern Scottish horror story of white bread sandwiches with unsavoury fillings and sugary drinks such as  that dreaded bright orange monstrosity, Irn Bru. No thanks! Even in my desperation for sustenance I could still manage to resist this junk.

I made another quick stop at Inverness where I got something more palatable to eat and bottled water for the long haul down the A9 to Perth and then onwards south. I was desperately tired and eventually pulled off at a service station, somewhere in Scotland, and fell fast asleep for half an hour. This revived me and I then just drove relentlessly south with only one more stop for fuel, arriving home in Oxfordshire at 5am in the morning. How I did it I do not know but I saw the Sandhill Crane and that was all that mattered.

One thing is for certain, I will not be repeating anything like this for a very long time!

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