Wednesday 15 April 2020

From the Archives: A Scilly Twitch 20-21st September 2011

The megamometer rose to dizzying heights on the weekend of 17-18th September with a report of a Black and White Warbler being found in the woods at Lower Moors on the main island of St Mary's. Shortly afterwards, it went completely off the scale as a Northern Waterthrush, another transatlantic vagrant was reported nearby on the Project Pool that is overlooked by the ISBG (Isles of Scilly Bird Group) Hide.

This combination of two mega rarities was irresistible and I called Badger to see if he was interested in a drive through the night to Penzance and then a trip on the jolly old Scillonian to St Mary's. Badger wanted to hang on and see what transpired but with a bit of prodding from yours truly accepted that this was the chance of a lifetime to see two mega American vagrants in one go.

In the end we waited until Monday and when both birds were reported as still there it was agreed we would go in the early hours of Tuesday morning and because of the potential difficulties of seeing these two birds would stay for Tuesday night on St Mary's and return on the Wednesday afternoon sailing of the Scillonian. Our reasoning was that it would give us more time and chance to see both birds - something which was not guaranteed by a long shot as to date they had both proved very elusive, especially the Northern Waterthrush.

Badger stayed the night at my house in Kingham and we left for the west at 3am on Tuesday morning. Three and a half hours later we arrived in Penzance to be greeted by a cold damp Cornish dawn. The Black Audi was secreted in a convenient side street near to the harbour, we loaded up our gear, walked down to the pier and after a little wait boarded the venerable Scillonian. Whilst waiting at the pier Badger arranged overnight accommodation, via his phone,with Marlene who ran a bed and breakfast at a house called Treboeth in the wonderfully named Buzzer Street in Hugh Town.We were now all set for a serious twitch.

The two hour journey over to St Mary's was uneventful but the weather was increasingly unpleasant with light rain becoming progressively heavier and showing no sign of abating. We got chatting to a bird artist called Richard Thewlis who had just been made redundant by the BTO and was going to spend a week on Scilly. We exchanged phone numbers, mutually promising to get in touch if we had any up to date news about the two rarities whilst on St Mary's.This was, in hindsight, the smartest move we made that morning but more of this to come. Fifteen Storm Petrels and ever so slightly queezy stomachs later we eventually docked at 1130am at St Mary's and made our way to our accommodation.We left our stuff with the obliging Marlene and in no time set off, still in the rain for Lower Moors to try and locate the Black and White Warbler. Worryingly it had not been reported all morning but because of the rain I could not see how it could have gone anywhere.

We arrived at the wood at Lower Moors and my heart sank. The wood was extensive and now, due to all the rain, had many no go areas of dense dripping vegetation and in places it was a quagmire underfoot. How on earth were we going to find a tiny lost warbler in all of this? Thankfully we had heeded the advice to bring wellingtons so we left the path and waded though various grimpen bogs ducked under low moss covered branches and clambered over fallen tree trunks, following a rough trail made by other earlier Black and White pilgrims.We carried on following  a tortuous course right to the other side of the wood where we came upon a small huddle of sodden birders gathered forlornly in a slightly more open area but still under the constantly dripping trees. They told us the warbler had been seen here briefly this very morning so at least we knew it was definitely in the wood but finding it was an entirely different and far more uncertain prospect. Not one bird was in sight on our arrival and for the next two hours we stood staring at a very boring collection of twigs, branches, leaves and fellow birders, occasionally becoming animated as the arrival and equally hasty departure of a Wren, tit or Chiffchaff raised and then dashed our collective hopes. The rain never ceased and we were now soaked to the skin. Having been up since three in the morning and now absolutely soaked through and getting progressively chilled I was rapidly losing the will to go on and any optimisim I had held concerning our quest had long since departed. To be honest I was downright miserable but I reasoned it was best to stay put here, as in my experience vagrant warblers develop a feeding circuit wherever they find themselves and reason dictated that if we stayed put eventually the warbler might, just might, show up here.It had apparently been seen most often at this very spot but now it was well over two hours since we had been here and my theory was being sorely tested.

Suddenly there was a murmur amongst the fifteen or so birders around us. Had they seen the warbler? No - a Baltimore Oriole, yet another transatlantic mega had just been found on The Garrison.Those whose patience had run its course or had come to their senses departed in a hurry but there was no way I was going anywhere. It was the Black and White Warbler or nothing. I had already seen a Baltimore Oriole in Oxford of all places but I have never seen a Black and White Warbler. Also I had put in well over two hours of sheer and utter purgatory in this dripping wet wood and would remain here until dark if necessay to give myself the best chance of seeing this elusive warbler in this metaphorical wood come haystack

Half an hour more passed and my iron resolve was turning to rust and I too was on the verge of going to try somewhere else, when one of the half dozen birders who had remained with us cried out he could see the warbler. Oh yes! Badger had wandered off as Badgers do and came back at a fast amble but was then asked to stand still, exactly where he was, as the warbler was right above his head! Panic, anxiety, frustration, all the usual mix of twitcher angst passed through me and probably everyone else as I sought a sight of the tiny warbler amongst a nightmarish mess of twigs and wet dripping leaves. I need not have worried as it only took seconds to locate the bird. It moved closer and Badger joined me whereupon this most hallowed bird, from far across the Atlantic, put on a command performance for twenty five minutes that will live long in the memory. Its pleasing combination of black and white stripes, broad white supercilium and black crown with a central white crown stripe were all seen to good effect. It behaved much like a Great Tit, moving up and down lichen covered willow branches and even hanging underneath them, digging into the lichen and loose bark, giving at times really close and extended views. It occasionally called a hard tzek but for the most part was silent. It was untroubled by our presence and foraged constantly for invertebrates in amongst the leaves and lichen festooned branches. We followed its progress with varying exclamations of pleasure and in fact the person behind me regularly let out gasps and groans of almost orgasmic intensity. A bit scary and highly amusing but in fairness he had been waiting even longer than us, five hours no less, for a  sight of the warbler.

The warbler moved slowly but constantly through the twigs and branches examining them all minutely, moving from tree to tree but stopping occasionally to deal with a caterpilar or grub it had extracted from the bark or lichen. The last I saw of it was when it was using the rain as a shower, bathing and preening on a twig, high up in a tree, and then finally it moved off to become invisible in the wet leaves of an adjacent tree. Oh yes! Oh wonder!We had actually done it. Badger and I shook hands, the other birders became our instant friends and we released the tensions of the wait by recounting our personal feelings and experiences of this very special moment. In the end I just stood for a few minutes, wet through, cold and shivering but I did not care. I just savoured this magical experience as I knew it would soon pass. Then it  was time to move and get out of this hellish swamp of a wood.

There was a man in a wheechair (who I have since got to know well and is a remarkable, indomitable and very intrepid person) just sat there. Everyone else had left. I could only assume someone else had assisted him into the wood but now there was only us left. I pushed him out of the wood and over the fields to the road.How he got in the wood in the first place was a source of wonder as even for us it had been no easy task. At his insistence we left him on the road to find his own way. You could but admire his independence of spirit.

We were now thoroughly enthused by our success with the Black and White Warbler and decided to go and try to see the Baltimore Oriole at The Garrison. From cold and shivering I was now perspiring and in fact steaming after my exertions with the wheelchair. My feet hurt from standing in wellington boots for hours but I pressed on with Badger to The Garrison. In the wood the rain had appeared to be relatively light but out in the open it was really heavy and not pleasant. We arrived on The Garrison to learn from Bob Flood that we had just missed seeing the oriole. The rain continued relentlessly.To persevere here would be fruitless in this rain so we agreed to retreat back to Lower Moors and the ISBG Hide, where at least we could sit in some shelter and hope by some miracle the elusive Northern Waterthrush would put in an appearance when it flew in to roost, which was some hours away.

I did not hold out much hope but it was by far our best option in all this rain.We commenced the walk to the Hide and as we approached, Badger received a call from our new friend Richard. Gasps and exclamations emanated from the Badger as he spoke to Richard. What is it? It must be something good? On finishing the call a bedraggled Badger announced that Richard was all on his own at the Hide and was currently watching the Northern Waterthrush. Whaaaaat!! Great fortune seemed to be still smiling on us as we were literally only a few hundred metres away from Richard. Then something unique occured as Badger broke into a run. I had never witnessed such a thing before. In fact had anybody? The run was not just an amble either but full on and I chased after him hardly believing my eyes.We ran down a muddy path, into and through the wood and followed the obvious trail through the wet, head high reeds. I could just see Richard standing by the Hide with an incongruous umbrella held over his head and after a few twists and turns through the reeds we reached him. I should add that I never saw anyone in the Hide itself. Presumably it remained unoccupied as currently it resembled something from the trenches of the First World war, complete with knee deep mud at its entrance. Maybe there were still ghosts of birders past in there who had never re-emerged from its stygian depths.

We were on our own, just the three of us. Richard told us in whispers that the waterthrush had been showing really well but had just disappeared behind a clump of juncus at the back of the pool. Apparently it was very shy and kept retreating into the subterranean gloom beneath the overhanging and very soggy vegetation around the pool. Then Richard whispered 'Its in the far right hand corner, just wait and it will come out. It's been showing really well'. A short wait ensued and then we saw some movement and there it was. Bins to eyes and - nothing! My bins had misted up against my hot and sweaty face!  Panic as I fumbled for some tissues and then clarity at last, through the bins. I should add that what I first saw, standing out in the gloom under the bank, was the most enormous disembodied yellowish cream supercilium on a bird with otherwise non descript brown upperparts that perfectly matched its surroundings. 

It moved left and more into the open between two clumps of juncus. Now I could see the whole bird. The underparts, now clearly visible, were creamy white with lines of dark spots running from its throat all the way down the breast and along the flanks.The upperparts were mid brown and featureless but it was that amazing supercilium that kept me on the bird when the rest of it was so hard to see in the gloom under the overhanging banks. It seemed to gain confidence and came even more into the open and worked its way around the pool coming ever closer. Two short flights brought it from one side of the pool to the other and closer still. I whispered to Badger that all it needed to do now is come onto  that mud just a few metres in front of us and it did! This bird, dare I say it, edged the Black and White Warbler into second place but that is my personal opinion.The views we were getting were fabulous and then it came right out in the open and so very close. We never dreamed it would be as good as this. Always nervous and behaving more like a pipit or wagtail, it ran around with short steps while constantly pumping its tail downwards. Richard, Badger and myself watched, entranced by this delight of a bird. The three of us communing with a mega rarity. I surmised it was showing so well because the  Hide and pool was devoid of birders due to all the rain and with only the three of us here it was emboldened by the comparative lack of disturbance. Richard asked if it would be alright to put the news out generally. We could hardly complain and were pleased that other birders could come and share our good fortune. It was the right thing to do.We continued to watch the waterthrush on our own for the next twenty minutes before the first wet and extremely anxious birder arrived, swiftly followed by many more,
The rather frenzied arrival of birders spooked the waterthrush and it retreated into cover. We diplomatically tried to tell everyone to calm down, remain still and quiet and the waterthrush would show up again. A nervy wait ensued and then, they too saw it. The tension eased and we relinquished our spaces in the cramped viewing area to others, thanked Richard and bade him farewell. We were wet, cold and very tired. Did it matter? Not one bit. Any inconvenience had all been forgotten in the magical hour we had just spent watching the waterthrush. We now started being silly. A release of tension and I took photos of Badger doing outlandish poses as we walked back to Treboeth on cloud nine.We could hardly believe what had happened today, seeing both the mega rarities in one very wet unpromising day. Who would have believed that when we left Penzance this morning?

We changed out of our wet clothes and tried to dry out as best we could. The euphoria I felt was almost tangible. We really had done it in one day. Incredible considering how many difficulties everyone before us had experienced with the Northern Waterthrush. As I said it must have been the rain and consequent absence of birders that had persuaded it to be so bold. Whatever, it was our good fortune to watch it closely for almost an hour. We need not worry about tomorrow now as anything else would be a bonus, we could relax, have a leisurely breakfast in the morning and take our time looking for other goodies on the island. Even better the forecast for tomorrow was for sun and no rain.

The Mermaid was now top priority and we got a table and hit the Rattler cider with a vengeance.Four pints and a delicous meal later we veered off back to Treboeth. I was so tired I cannot even recall lying on the bed, we may even have done handstands on the  way home but next morning I awoke at seven and was ready to go birding. The weather, as predicted, was the exact opposite of yesterday. We had our leisurely breakfast and headed for The Garrison. Could we actually manage to see yet another mega rare bird in the form of the Baltimore Oriole, which had already been reported this morning at the Pig Field which lies at the back of The Garrison. On arriving at the spot we received the dreaded incantation 'you should have been here a few minutes ago'

No matter we could wait and took up position to overlook the field. We waited and then Badger wandered off to make some private calls and this doubtless inspired the oriole to fly into the bushes on the far side of the field. It treated us to a stunning display of its features as it consumed blackberries at a prodigious rate, Badger was to be seen running for a second time in two days and everyone was happy as the oriole hung around for thirty minutes and then was gone as suddenly as it had arrived.

We opted to head for the ISBG Hide at Lower Moors, not so much for the Northern Waterthrush but for a Solitary Sandpiper which was usually to be found on Newford Duckpond but today had decided to visit the pool at Lower Moors. We reached the hide to find a lot more birders than yesterday, all waiting in vain for the Northern Waterthrush, which was not co-operating and had not been seen at all. Smugly we watched the Solitary Sandpiper whilst everyone else was willing the waterthrush to emerge from wherever it was hiding, assuming it was here at all. Richard was there again making a painting of the waterthrush as seen by us yesterday. I commissioned him on the spot to do one for me and was delighted when he agreed. We watched the confiding Solitary Sandpiper, living up to its name and then headed for the airport to view some Buff breasted Sandpipers but half way there changed our mind and turned instead for Newford Duckpond as a Blue winged Teal had apparently returned there after a day's absence. It was a long and tiring walk in the dreaded wellingtons. We trudged onwards and found a couple of Spotted Flycatchers. More amazing to me was the number of exotic looking plants thriving in the gardens we passed. It was just like southern Europe in some of the more sheltered parts of the island. We finally reached the Watermill area and started down the road to Newford Duckpond. I was remarking to Badger about the large number of Song Thrushes we were seeing and, following one in my bins, when I suddenly found myself looking at a European Bee-eater perched on a twiggy hawthorn, swinging about in the wind on its thin perch.It was quietly chirruping to itself and every so often would make a sortie after an insect. Bee eaters being one of Badger's favourites meant we now spent some time here watching it and we did our bit for birder public relations by showing passing non birders this colourful exotic looking bird and without fail elicited the required Ooohs! and Aaahs! when they saw it through the scope. The duckpond was now close by and on arrival we found to our distress that the teal had flown off leaving a motley collection of Mallards and a lone eclipse plumaged Gadwall swimmng around on a ridiculouly small area of water. Our luck had finally run out! I jest of course.

We backtracked and had another helping of the bee-eater and then retraced our steps further. My feet were getting progressively more sore in the accursed wellingtons but they would come into their own later. A diversion up a lane to look for a Red eyed Vireo proved fruitless so we cut our losses and decided for more Black and White Warbler action. Wellingtons were now definitely the footwear of choice as we squelched through the mire and water to refind the spot where we had seen it yesterday. We reached the hallowed ground but there was no sign of it despite regular reports of it being seen during the day. An hour passed and then a low whistle from a birder some fifty metres away alerted us to its presence. A controlled rush to the spot and six very happy birders enjoyed the feathered humbug doing its stuff in the trees. This time there was no rain to obscure our lenses and a relaxed atmosphere permeated the wood as we watched the warbler examining in leisurely and systematic fashion every little nook and cranny in the branches. We watched it for over an hour this time and got even better views than yesterday. I noted as many plumage features as I could - the pale lower mandible, the striking white covert bars and the broad white line along the outer edge of the tertials, its dark eye in a plain white face and the white spots on the underside of its tail, all come to mind.
What a star.

Time was now rolling on and soon we would have to head for the Scillonian which like the tide waits for no man. However there was still time to visit the airport where we found the four juvenile Buff breasted Sandpipers plus an unexpected Ruff. Three Whimbrel and a Curlew flew over and White Wagtails and Northern Wheatears chased around on the short grass by the runway.

We could not locate the Woodchat Shrike which was meant to be hereabouts but for us it was mission accomplished as in the space of twenty eight hours we had seen three megas plus other good but not so rare birds. A fast walk back to Treboeth to change our footwear and then an even faster walk down to the harbour  got us onto the Scillonian in good time.

Unlike yesterday the ship was packed with birders many of whom had come just for the day and were now returning. They had opted for the very strategy we were, in hindsight so wise to be wary of, and rightly so as all of these day trippers had failed to see the Northern Waterthrush. Needless to say it was seen the next morning! We chatted to fellow birders about our Scilly experiences and about the controversial Long toed Stint at Weir Wood reservoir in Sussex, which had been identified as three different species in seven days!

I seawatched from the sunny deck of the ship as a pod of Common Dolphins sped around us. Two Black Terns and a couple of Grey Phalaropes on the sea rounded off the day nicely. All we had now was the long slog home but nothing could dampen our spirits after such an amazing experience. 

Have a look at the awesome video Badger took of the star birds below!

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