Monday 31 August 2020

Turtle Doves and a French Farce 30th August 2020

The pair of Turtle Doves at Otmoor RSPB
The RSPB's Otmoor Reserve, here in Oxfordshire where I live, is now about the only place in the county where one can hope to have a reasonable chance of seeing a Turtle Dove, a species that in former times was common throughout southern England, breeding in scrubland and mature hedgerows, serenading the summer air with its gentle purring song but is now very rare and rapidly heading for extinction as a breeding bird in England.

It is inevitable that with the downward national trend, the Turtle Doves at Otmoor have similarly declined  and now are reduced  to one pair and, as far as I know, they have been unsuccesful in raising any young this year, just as in the previous year. It will surely not be long before Otmoor will be bereft of Turtle Doves.

This year I was fortunate enough to see the male at Otmoor, purring his song from a dead branch, high in a tree by the car park. The soft soothing rhythm of its song the perfect adjunct to the benificence of the sunny summer morning in which I stood.

A few days later I was even more fortunate to see male and female together at the cattle pens where supplemental seed is put down to attract and sustain them. First the male flew in and sat for a while on a wooden post and then, after a short spell of preening and wing stretching, flew down to the ground to feed, with some Moorhens and Stock Doves for company. 

Some minutes later a second Turtle Dove landed on the pens wooden railings, prompting the one on the ground to fly up to join it. By their behaviour it was obvious they were a pair, for they sidled up close and commenced preening each other's neck feathers. This is a common behaviour in the dove and pigeon family, that serves to strengthen and re-affirm their pair bond. The sight of these two together raised hopes that maybe this year they would manage to breed here successfully. Sadly I now know it was not to be.

Turtle Doves are migratory, coming to breed in Europe from their winter home in sub saharan Africa  and are welcomed in Spring by just about everyone in England. Sadly such a benign attitude towards them does not exist around the Mediterranean and the southern European countries that they have to pass through on their migrations. Here they are still mercilessly hunted both legally and illegally,

With their population in virtual free fall in Europe you would think that all the countries in Europe would seek to protect them in an effort to reverse this dreadful situation. The European Commission asked all its member states in 2018 to cease hunting this species but this has been ignored by the French Government and their latest action, sanctionng further hunting of this dove, is in my opinion an outrage.

Step forward Barbara Pompeli, Minister of Ecological Transition in the French Government who presented a decree in July 2020, now approved by the French Government, authorising the killing by French 'hunters' of 17,460 Turtle Doves on their migration through France this autumn. I would call this stupidity but it is not. What it represents is a blatant pandering to the hunting lobby in France because votes mean more to ambitious politicians like Pompeli and her cronies than any concerns about protecting an endangered species  for which they are ultimately responsible. 

How on earth Pompeli came to the precise figure of 17,640 is beyond comprehension and even more pertinent just who is going to monitor the number of doves killed this autumn and call stop when the limit is reached? Everyone knows this will not happen and the figure quoted above will be far exceeded.

By way of example, in the year 2013 no less than 90,000 Turtle Doves were killed in the autumn which suggests any controls and checks on the number of doves to be massacred this year in France is for the fairies. Further evidence of the lack of accountability on the part of the hunters can be seen by the fact that to date. each year 30,000 Turtle Doves are illegally killed during the breeding season in the Medoc region of France, let alone those that are killed, supposedly lawfully, on their autumn migration. The French Government are aware of these facts but do nothing about it and indeed, with this latest decree have compounded an already appalling and unsustainable situation.

Formal letters from conservation NGO's (Non Governmental Organisations) in Britain and Germany, where Turtle Dove populations have fallen drastically, were sent to the French Government and  during a public consultation about the latest decree to kill Turtle Doves in France this autumn, a poll of 20,000 of the  French public resulted in 77% voting against Pompeli's proposal. The letters and the poll were, as with everyone else who raised an objection, ignored.

The Government also made sure, by approving the decree just one day before it commenced, that it was impossible for the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) in France and other conservation organisations to contest it before the hunting season opened. This was mendacious on the part of Pompeli and the French Government as they knew full well that this allowed 10-15 days before any decision to reverse the decree  by the French Council of State could come into force, so whatever happens there will be open season on the doves for at least two weeks this autumn come what may.

Similar underhand tactics were employed by the French Government in 2019 in regard to hunting Eurasian Curlews, another dramatically declining species, although thankfully the decree to hunt them was overturned by the Council of State.

Let's hope that the Council of State decides to recind this latest disgraceful decree sanctioning autumn hunting of Turtle Doves in France and Pompeli, together with the rest of the French Government, are shamed into reversing this disgraceful decision to kill yet more Turtle Doves for no other reason than so called sport and appeasing the hunting lobby in France.

I feel such a sense of impotence and despair about the continued abuse of power and abdication of responsibility by politicians (and I include Britain) entrusted to care for and protect wildlife, who feel immune to any accountability and are more intent on personal career progression rather than show care and concern for biodiversity in their respective countries 

Never has there been a greater need for us and those who we elect to govern, to understand the wonder that is our planet and the need, now more urgent than ever to protect the rich biodiversity of flora and fauna that share this, our only world, with us.

Some Good News

The French Council of State, the highest administrative court in France, following representations from LPO have overturned the Government decree to shoot 17,500 Turtle Doves this autumn. Sadly it did not take effect until the 23rd August by which time a minimum of 6,500 doves and possibly as many as 10,000 had been shot. This ban only applies to the 2020-2021 season but it is to be hoped that common sense will over-ride political ambition and the ban will be maintained for the foreseable future.

Monday 24 August 2020

Soon to Depart 24th August 2020

Somehow we have arrived at early autumn in a turbulent year and I find myself reflecting on how the past months and days have drifted, as if I were in some transcendant state. The world of humanity in its current situation is hard to comprehend as the familiar and its daily re-assurance has been transformed into the unfamiliar and unsettling.

The ever present fear of a virus that threatens us has, I suppose, occupied my mind to an extent greater than anything else since it first arrived. Nightmares are only meant to come during sleep and not when fully awake. These days sleep, if one can calm one's anxious mind,  brings blessed relief for a few precious hours.

The anxieties that beset me, maybe most of us, are legion. Day to day concerns brought about by the virus are a constant. Concerns such as, have I washed my hands enough, where is the sanitiser and do I have enough face masks, accumulate to relentlessly trouble my equanimity.There is so much to remember, even just to leave the house, these days. Nothing can be spontaneous anymore, there is the nagging anguish about an ever present but often exaggerated sense of danger and every action has to be pre-planned and carefully considered for its consequences. 

Just about the only thing that does not involve inordinate pre-planning on my part are regular visits to Farmoor Reservoir and its surrounds, where there is space enough to avoid social contact to a large degree. Birding, as a matter of course often involves subtle forms of social distancing anyway.  

Here in the early hours after dawn I can wander the Thames Path and rarely see another living soul. Early morning is also, fortuitously, the optimum time to find and see birds and at this time of year there are countless warblers flitting through the bushes, as both young and old feed, preparing to lay down stores of fat to provide the energy they will require to take them to distant winter homes in southern climes.

The number and variety of calls emanating from the bushes in the stillness of early morning can be remarkable. The quiet, peevish tack tack of Blackcaps and the very similar but slightly sharper calls of Lesser Whitethroats, lurking in elderberry or bramble, test my auditory skills. The churring of Common Whitethroats and anxiously whistled hoooeets of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs follow me along the hedgelines, their perpetrators hidden for the most part but occasionally launching themselves skywards to snatch an insect from the air.

Today I stopped by a ragged tall hedgerow of unruly hawthorn trees, even now, at this early stage of autumn festooned with starbursts of  hard, crimson red berries. In places the hedgerow is overgrown by rampant brambles that, unchecked in this forgotten corner and left to nature, have enveloped parts of the small trees like a shroud. The blackberries are ripening now and Blackcaps are making the most of this late offering but there are other birds hidden amongst those leaves and berries. Half seen shapes that come and go amongst the lattice work of twigs. impossible to follow in the density of foliage and branches.

A rhythmic grating call, uttered with monotonous insistency came from a small bird hidden in the brambles. I knew from prior experience the source of this sound was a Reed Warbler but they are adept at never showing themselves for more than a fraction of a second. This promised to be a challenging exercise if I wished to see the bird..

Harder to glimpse than many warblers, they are in the main inveterate skulkers but this bird had not read the script and obligingly, both by calling incessantly and preferring to work its way along the outside of the hedge rather than in the impenetrable centre, allowed me to follow its progress through tree and bramble and regularly catch sight of its unremarkable brown form.  

Eventually I managed to see it in the open for a few seconds as it perched on a thin hawthorn branch. Its pristine plumage showed it was a bird born this year. Adult birds would look much more worn as they do not moult until they are in Africa. Indeed its parents may well have already departed for their winter home, as many leave towards the end of August with the young birds following slightly later.

Soon now this unusually vocal individual will be departing too, exchanging the reeds, riparian habitat and deep recesses of the waterside hedgerows here at Farmoor, for a similar habitat under tropical African skies.

I try to imagine this tiny bird waiting for nightfall and a clear sky, then ascending to the topmost twig of maybe this very hedge in which it is currently lurking and with one look at a ceiling of stars,  launch itself into a night sky that will guide it on a course to an unknown and uncertain future. It has no fear or apprehension but will obey the instincts of its kind, genetically programmed to go, when and where, without query or doubt. This fragment of life encompassed in the lightest of bone and feather is a living miracle, burdened with no memory of the past nor with a capacity for anticipating the future. Its life is entirely conducted in the present, each day and night a beginning and end. Nothing more, nothing less, it does what it is ordained to do instinctively.

Mindfulness recommends living in the day and forgetting about what has happened and what might happen. I try to live my life like this but it is not easy. In nature however it is normal but we humans have forgotten this with all our worries and concerns. 

This briefest of connections with a small being from the natural world provided me with an anchor to stabilise my inner turmoil about what has been and what may be.

For a few minutes at Farmoor watching this Reed Warbler I too lived just for the moment.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

More on Waders at Slimbridge 16th August 2020

A visit to Slimbridge WWT today really did not turn out the way it was planned but in the end I had a thoroughly enjoyable time despite not seeing the two special birds I had hoped to see.

On Friday I had booked a visit to Slimbridge this Sunday to go and see a Wood Sandpiper that has been showing really well from the Hogarth Hide and then became quite excited when fellow Oxonbirder Nick Truby discovered a juvenile Citrine Wagtail from the  same hide, on Saturday. 

The reserve laid on two specially timed visits to look for the wagtail on Sunday at 0800 and 0900 but as I had already booked a visit which allowed me in at the official opening time of 0930 I decided to take it easy and not allow myself to get caught up any of the mild hysteria concerning the rare wagtail. I had, after all is said and done, seen three Citrine Wagtails in Britain so there was no huge incentive to get up early to see this one.

These are the three Citrine Wagtails I have seen:

Juvenile @ Spurn Yorkshire October 2015
Adult female @ Lynemouth Northumberland May 2017
Juvenile @ St Mary's Isles of Scilly August 2018
As it transpired it was for once a remarkably prescient decision on my part not to go early as the wagtail had gone from the mud in front of the Hogarth Hide and all those who turned up for the early excursions were disappointed. 

In relaxed mode I made my way to the Hogarth Hide at just after 9.30 and sat in a corner and hoped that maybe the Citrine Wagtail would eventually come back here during the morning. Sadly there was no sign of it for my entire stay, apart from a brief sighting reported from amongst the Yellow Wagtails following the cattle on the Bottom New Piece area of the reserve. 

However my vigil presented a welcome opportunity to get really close to three wader species that are always difficult to approach under normal circumstances.

Up to four Green Sandpipers were feeding very near to the hide, almost too close on occasions. They are a neat, small headed and compact, medium sized wader recalling a large Common Sandpiper, with matt brown upperparts the colour of turned earth and underparts of shining white. In flight they display a striking white rump and uppertail that allows them to replicate themselves into something akin to a giant House Martin as they fly up and away. Close up and you can see a myriad of small buff spots and indentations, forming regular lines on the upper feather tracts and the white tail marked with three brown chevrons

They paraded through the shallows, picking delicately at the surface to find morsels so small they are invisible to all but them, subjecting their body to a constant gentle swaying and bobbing. Their highly strung, incessant activity is punctuated by pauses as they stall and freeze, their acutely attuned senses detecting something untoward, the anxiety infectious as I become fearful they will flee. However within seconds they resume feeding.

I find taking their photograph and reviewing the images afterwards brings me great pleasure as you tend not to notice, through just watching with binoculars, the innate balance and poise they demonstrate in their feeding but the camera faithfully records these various actions and attitudes and here is a selection below.

The second wader species to catch my eye was a group of eight Ruff, mainly males although one or two distinctively smaller Reeves (females) were amongst them. One male in particular caught the eye regularly, as it still retained a remnant of white breeding plumage around its head and breast. Ruff in my opinion lack the composite elegance of similar medium sized waders. Their feeding action is slower, meandering and slightly ungainly as they wander through the shallow water and over the mud. The male has a distinctive and not exactly pleasing profile with a head that seems too small for a body which due to a slightly pot belly and characteristic raising of the mantle feathers creates a curious humped profile, making the body as a whole seem larger than it really is.

Adult male Ruff still retaining remnants of its breeding plumage.It may stay like this until next Spring.Note the characteristic hump formed by the raised feathers on its upperparts

Adult male Ruff in normal winter plumage showing the upperpart hump well and the impression of having a pot belly
However when they take to flight they transform to a vision akin to perfection as they languidly caress and float on the air with long wings, in a flight of supreme grace.

For the most part they remained more distant than the Green Sandpipers but one juvenile joined the sandpipers right below the hide and here was an opportunity to enjoy its close presence. Unlike the adult male it lacked the humped posture and was sleek and trim with not a feather out of place. Its upperbody plumage is a series of perfectly aligned dark brown feathers neatly fringed chestnut and white, creating an image of turtle like scalloping while its small head, long neck and breast are coloured with an orangey buff  suffusion. 

Finally and perhaps the most appropriate to end this homage to waders, came three juvenile Greenshank which flew in as the clouds dispersed in early afternoon. Calling constantly to each other with a mellifluous teeuu teeuu teeuu, they landed in a flurry of white and grey right in front of me. This is one of, if not the most aristocratic of waders, a living image of electric wire volatility, they stand, tall and elegant, feathers compressed to their lithe muscular bodies, alert and almost vibrating with life force. I can even see the rapid pulse beating in the smooth white breast of the bird nearest to me. No soporific late summer dreaming here but a life being lived in the fastest of lanes, forever anxious, forever alert, forever restless. 

I wait, a similar but temporary tension enveloping me. Will they sense something amiss and fly or will they settle? It is in the balance. They express their anxiety with regular calling. Like actors that can hold an audience with their unspoken presence they stand, huge black eyes looking, I feel as if straight at me, pale green legs braced in the water, wings at the ready to propel them skywards. 

Then suddenly they start to run on long legs, together, as if trying to outdo each other, rushing through the water, bills lowered to the water, speed feeding. Good lord do these birds ever relax? Even when feeding they move at a pace that puts you on edge and makes you somehow uncomfortable.

They disappear  down to the end of the channel, round a corner in the reeds and into invisibility.I can still hear them calling and then they fly back to land in front of the hide once more. 

I am treated to an encore of balletic feeding in the shallow water and then they are off, calling that lovely melodic note, always it seems uttered in a triple sequence. It's as if it's too much to remain on the ground and they must take to the air to release that pent up energy. 

I last see the trio flying high into the sky and away to the south. Sat in the gloom of the hide I suddenly become aware once more of the reality of our current perilous human existence and wish I could go with them and leave all behind.

I walk from the hide into sunlight.

Friday 14 August 2020

The End of The Journey 13th August 2020

I went to the reservoir late this afternoon on a day of high humidity, continuous grey cloud and a northeasterly wind. I fancied a walk, alone up the causeway to clear my head and with always the chance of finding a migrant wader.

Due to the weather and the late hour I had, as hoped, the causeway to myself with the result that several Common Sandpipers were teetering their forever anxious presence along the shoreline. As is always their way they fled from my approach in bow winged, flickering flight, low across the reservoir to the far side

Further along was another small wader, its shape and behaviour being just that much different to the sandpipers that it raised my interest. Maybe a Dunlin or perhaps a Sanderling? As the intervening distance decreased between myself and the bird I discovered it was a Sanderling. By Farmoor's limited standards a good find. As usual it allowed me to approach without showing much alarm and to lessen its anxiety I sat on the low retaining wall, some thirty metres distant, to demonstrate I was coming no closer.

The Sanderling stood for a minute by the water's edge, facing out into the wind, uncertain and ready to fly but then relaxed and resumed its feeding, moving towards me in short steps, picking gently at the weed along the water's edge.

I sat still, waiting as it moved towards me but as I did a brown shadow caught the corner of my eye. A hunting Sparrowhawk flew at speed past and below me inches above the concrete apron that separates the low wall, on which I sat, from the water. This Sparrowhawk has learnt that there are easy pickings here in the form of Pied Wagtails and any other unwary small bird and patrols the reservoir regularly in this fashion.

It happened in seconds. With hardly time to catch a breath I was only able to watch with an exquisite combination of horror and yes, excitement as the Sanderling saw the hawk a fraction too late, crouched in the hope of being unseen, then realising the hawk had noticed it, flew for its life, low out and over the water. The Sparrowhawk never wavered, changing direction in an instant before the wader could gain speed and caught up with it, the Sanderling crashed into the water in a last desperate attempt to evade capture. I hoped this would deter the hawk but to no avail. The Sparrowhawk stalled over the Sanderling and grabbed it from the water with one long leg, clutching it in needle talons and carried its victim back to land, the Sanderling's wings that had carried it so far, now hanging down in mute powerlessness.

The Sanderling was obviously a heavy victim for the hawk and it landed clumsily with its prey on the causeway, the previous aerodynamic mastery as it caught the Sanderling now no longer in its remit.
Instinctively I ran towards the hawk and its still living victim in an attempt to save the Sanderling but the Sparrowhawk was not willing to give up its prey and clutching its victim in one talon flew unsteadily from me, further up the causeway, to land on the concrete once more

I let nature take its course and ceased any pursuit. The panting Sparrowhawk took half a minute to compose itself after its exertions and then took flight again, flying low and still unsteadily to the end of the causeway and into the trees beyond.

I was left to reflect in shock on this unexpected tragedy. A shock that arrived with such suddenness as death did to the Sanderling. To me it was a tragedy that the Sanderling had flown all the thousands of miles from its summer birthplace in the Arctic to no avail. To the Sparrowhawk it was nothing more than the opportunity to feed itself and survive for another day.

Here before me was a graphic example of the daily hazards and dangers all birds encounter but that we so seldom see and when we do, it is so unaccustomed it shocks us that the natural world is so unforgiving and pitiless.

Sentiment is a human condition and a stranger to the natural world.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

My Second Rare Shearwater this Summer 11th August 2020

The differences between Cory's and Scopoli's Shearwaters
c The Sound Approach
Mark called me on Monday to discuss where our now almost regular weekly birding trip should take us. Spurn in Yorkshire was favourite as it was currently hosting a Collared Flycatcher and other goodies such as Greenish and Icterine Warblers.

We live in separate counties, Mark in Bedfordshire and myself in Oxfordshire so we tend to arrange to meet at a mutually acceptable point between our two homes and in this case it was going to be Leicester North Services as we were going north. We alternate the driving to our chosen birding destinations and this time it was Mark's turn to drive in his car. The meeting time was to be 7am which required my getting up at 5am. I went to bed, set the alarm, silenced my phone and tried to get some sleep.

What with a combination of worries about the continued corona virus pandemic and hot humid nights, sleep does not come easily to either of us these days. It was therefore of no surprise when awaking and checking my phone at 2am it indicated I had received a text message. It was from Mark who had sent me an image at precisely 22.39 of a Scopoli's Shearwater that had been reported from South Queensferry in Lothian, Scotland and the message.

 'Ring meI think we need to go to Scotland'. 

A second subsequent message stated. 

'Ewan. This bird has been there for two days.Will not be going to Spurn. Ring me when you get up please.

Initially I thought Mark was crying off the trip to Spurn but then, defuddling my tired brain, I realised he wanted to go for the Scopoli's Shearwater instead.

To go back slightly, two Cory's Shearwaters had been identified passing north off the Yorkshire coast on 9th July and one had a distinctive white patch on its upper right wing where it had moulted some feathers. Fast forward to 9th August when two Cory's Shearwaters were seen far up the Firth of Forth opposite South Queensferry, one of which showed a distinctive white patch on its right wing. They were the same two birds as had been seen passing Yorkshire in July. The two shearwaters then hung around the firth between Hound Point and South Queensferry. On 10th August good photos were obtained off South Queensferry of the distinctive individual with the white wing patch, which showed that the underwing was extensively white, reaching almost to the tip, the bill slender and the bird itself slighter in build than its companion, these being the main criteria for identifying a Scopoli's Shearwater. 

Scopoli's Shearwater has only been claimed in Britain three times before but never officially accepted so this was a true mega and as it appeared to be remaining in the area would surely result in a major twitch to South Queensferry on 11th August.

Scopoli's Shearwaters breed across the Mediterranean, on some of the Balearic Islands and other small islands off France, Italy, Malta, Croatia and Greece.They winter in the Atlantic and can be found wintering off the west coast of Africa, the east coast of Brazil and various Greek islands. I have personally seen them off the island of Cephalonia in Greece.

I lay back in bed, my head spinning and pondered my next move. Mark's message had been sent hours ago. Was he currently awake or was he asleep?  Knowing Mark is a similar sufferer from anxiety and occasional depression I took a chance and sent him a text at just after 2am.

 'Am awake you can call me anytime'

My hunch proved correct for Mark rang me shortly afterwards and it took minutes for us to agree to head for Scotland immediately, well, after we both got up, had a shower and made some sandwiches for the trip.

In a daze I got up, gathered everything together, including myself, and was out of the house and on the road at just after 2.45am and Mark, likewise confirmed he was on his way to our rendezvous in Leicester.

An hour later I drew up in the car park at Leicester North Services which fortuitously in these unsettled times do not restrict how long you leave your car there.Ten minutes later Mark arrived and I transferred my gear to his car and as I did realised I had left my binoculars at home but we decided  it would not matter as the shearwater would require a scope to locate it rather than bins, although I admit I would feel incomplete without them hanging round my neck. Never mind it was too late to rectify the situation.

In no time we were headed north. Another six hours of driving lay in store.There was a mild debate about what route to follow to South Queensferry which lies just north of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. I suggested M6 and M74 and then across country to Edinburgh but Mark was for taking the M1 and then the A1 and as he was doing the driving I acquiesced to his chosen route.

All went well as the dawn rose and we drove steadily north. I dozed on and off, having had so little sleep. We made a stop for coffee and then continued north. Mark called Cliff, a fellow twitcher and all round nice person, who told us he was one hundred miles ahead of us. Of more interest he told us of a pleasure boat that sailed every two hours from South Queensferry which did sightseeing tours around the approximate area the shearwaters were frequenting. He was booked on the 1015 sailing but we, following on later, would miss that one but could get the next sailing at 1215. We booked ourselves on it online, paying £34.00 for the two of us including the hire of a pair of bins for me! We were all set but the weather looked grim with low lying cloud and an ever increasing threat of rain. 

All was going to plan until, approaching Newcastle at 8am, signs appeared advising the A1 was closed from Junctions 65-67 and this at the peak of the rush hour. We continued on our course but soon saw brake lights ahead and a long line of vehicles stretching into the distance, signalling a monumental jam as three lanes of traffic attempted to merge into one to leave the closed motorway.

A spur of the moment decision sent us flying off on a convenient slip road and then onto a road that would take us another way north via the Tyne Tunnel. Bloody hell it was a close run thing but we had avoided a huge delay by the skin of our teeth. Two lanes of traffic wound down into the tunnel and inevitably we found ourselves in the wrong lane behind a slow moving line of trucks as cars sped by us in the 'cars only' lane but we chugged along until we came out the other side. Then yet more anxiety arrived as the realisation dawned that we had no change to pay the automatic toll. It did not take credit cards so we drew up to the  automated machine with trepidation as to what we were to do.

Thankfully a green button on the machine signified if we pushed it we would have the option to pay online within the next twenty four hours.We pushed the button, a receipt for £1.80 appeared and the barrier arose. Our anxiety subsided to what passes for near normal these days and we were on our way.

We made a final stop at Berwick on Tweed for a coffee and comfort stop, courtesy of McDonalds. The air temperature had now dropped markedly from when we left Leicester, requiring a jumper.

Now it was my turn to do the driving and we crossed the border into Scotland, heading parallel with the coast towards the ring road around Edinburgh. Ominous road signs appeared with the message 'Yellow warning. Heavy rain predicted. Drive carefully.'  Great. Could it get any worse? I was beginning to think our escapade was doomed. I looked across the landscape as drops of rain spattered on the windscreen.The far distance was invisible, subsumed in a shroud of low lying cloud. If it was raining and visibility  was as low as this at South Queensferry it would be hard to find anything on the sea. Our anxiety levels commenced to rise once more.

Finally our marathon journey came to its conclusion as we dropped down into South Queensferry and after a confused search for the harbour, where our boat would sail from, we drove through the pleasant cobbled high street and out the other side to find a large and refreshingly free, open air car park with the huge and iconic Forth Rail Bridge towering above us and stretching its not inconsiderable length across the grey and misty firth to an indistinct northern shore.

The Forth Rail Bridge. Built in 1869. Designed by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker.
It is 2467 metres in length and 110 metres high 

The time was just after 11am.

It was the school holidays and families with childen were all about us along with other folk just wandering around. The weather was dull and grey, dreich is the Scots word for it, and occasional rain showers came and went, leaving a distinctly damp feel to the place and our spirits. Having parked the car we made for the pleasure boat reception and as we did Mark called Steve, another twitching buddy, to receive the startling but welcome news that the shearwater was apparently flying about out in the firth, near to Hound Point. The news sent us into a blind panic as to what to do. Any thought of checking in for the boat was abandoned and we resigned ourselves to missing the boat and losing £34.00. I raced back for the car while Mark used the local facilities. It looked like we would have to make a long walk out to a place called Longcraig Pier, near a moored oil tanker, but we discovered at the last moment we could drive a fair way out towards the pier and took the car on the potholed road for as far as we could, trying to avoid grounding the car in the process, not always successfully. Both of us were like taut strings now. The long tiring drive with its emotional rollercoaster of minor triumphs and disappointments was now over and we were confronting, unexpectedly, a situation which demanded instant decisions and actions, any one of which, if wrong could precipitate disaster. We rapidly joined half a dozen birders lined abreast across the pier, looking east out into the firth. I enquired where the shearwater was and discovered to my dismay that not one of them could see it. The shearwater had been reported as flying towards this pier from Hound Point,a mile or so further up the coast but no one had seen any sign of it.

We scoped the murky horizon and waters of the firth but nothing was there. Patrolling Sandwich Terns flew past us calling their harsh kirrriick kirrriick call. It was suggested that we walk further east to Hound Point which would take twenty minutes. It was either this or remain where we were. We joined everyone else and made for the track that led away through the trees towards Hound Point. Onwards we tramped, about eight of us, each making as best speed as we could. I was following two birders who were leading the way and after we had got about half way one of them received a phone call telling him the shearwater was now definitely heading our way and towards the very pier we had left behind. Instantaneously we turned about and sought the first possible opportuntity to get to the shoreline where we hoped to intercept the shearwater as it passed us, assuming it hadn't already. We came to a small track leading down to the sea through some trees, which enabled us to access the shore. Five minutes later we were lined up on a sandy stretch of shoreline  looking out to an oil tanker moored at its jetty and to the firth beyond. We scoped the area for a full ten minutes and then came the familiar words from a birder down the line that send you into paroxysms of tension and anxiety. 

'I can see it. It's flying out from behind the tanker, to the left'. 

I looked but saw nothing, then more words 

'Its turned and flown back behind the tanker'

Damn I had missed it. Not quick enough. Then it re-appeared but I still could not locate it before it again was lost to view behind the tanker. It was appearing and disappearing at intervals from behind the bulk of the tanker. I was advised it was far out and just about discernible in the murk but I could not for the life of me find it.

My heart sank. Tired, dishevelled and disconsolate I contemplated the unpalatable fact my ageing eyes, lack of sleep and an unforeseeen temporary incompetence with my scope were combining to frustrate me at this moment of potential triumph.

Others confirmed their joyous individual discovery of the shearwater's distant presence as it continued to periodically fly out from behind the tanker. Eventually I was the only one still not able to locate it. From previous experience I knew I needed to compose myself, not panic, try to relax and not allow tension to make matters worse. I was shaking with worry. The shearwater appeared again. 

'It's flying just above the red flag', No. 

'It's turned and is flying back towards us' Still no. 

This was getting embarrassing. 

'It's flying towards the tanker's bows' 

Then, a revelation. there it was, obvious, flying low over the grey sea, a long winged languid, gull like vision of happiness. I had at last connected.

The ultimate horror scenario of having to drive home knowing I had been in the shearwater's presence but unable to see it was banished forever and now, relaxing, the pressure off, I of course found I could refind it with no great effort.

Although distant we knew it was the Scopoli's from the distinctive white patch on the upper right wing. It disappeared behind the tanker yet again and then for a long period there was nothing to see except a few Eiders floating on the sea. My birding colleagues set about calling various boat companies trying to arrange a charter boat to go out and see the bird, now we knew where it was. All attempts were confounded by social distancing issues and more pertinently price. Personally I was content with the views I had and having blown £34.00 between the two of us on unrefundable boat tickets I was not in a mind to spend another larger amount of money to go to sea looking for the shearwater.

My grateful thanks to Cliff Smith for these 'record shots' of
Scopoli's Shearwater which give a flavour of the moment
Twenty long minutes passed and we were joined by another ten or so birders who had run from Hound Point to where we were but still there was no further sighting of the shearwater. 

Then it was relocated a good way to our left near to the iconic bridge and a pair of moored tugs.We made a four hundred metre yomp  to a slightly raised area of ground that would give us a good viewpoint, trying not to slip on the  seaweed and wet rocks on the way. We set up our scopes. 

I soon located the shearwater, sat on the sea, closer now and looking surprisingly black and white in the difficult light. It was preening while it floated on the water, occasionally flapping its wings and for a good few minutes we all scoped it and some tried to take a photo but the distance was too great for anything satisfactory to be achieved. We enjoyed these magic moments and then the shearwater rose from the sea and, as it banked, showed the main diagnostic characteristic that differentiates it from the closely similar Cory's Shearwater, this being the white on the underside of its wing which extended to almost the tip unlike a normal Cory's where the white stops well short.

It flew around in front of us. A Fulmar mobbed it and was ignored by the shearwater. We used the two moored tugs to mark its progress as it flew back and fore, then slowly circled low over the sea and even settled briefly once or twice more on the sea, before making its way east, and I lost it to view as it flew further and further out and away into the firth. I guess we had watched it for around ten to fifteen minutes and all of us were jubilant at our successful encounter. 

I stood, calm now, even contemplative and looked once more at the iconic, huge cantilevered bridge towering above me. Every Scot knows of it and regards it with a mixture of awe and pride. My thoughts went back to my late father in law. He was a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War and when stationed at Lossiemouth, further up the Scottish coast, for a dare he flew his Spitfire under the bridge. I looked at the bridge and imagined his iconic aircraft hurtling at virtually zero feet below the bridge before zooming up into the sky and away. He was probably disciplined,but did not really care as all of them had a devil may care attitude to life knowing they could be killed at any time.The fleet airarm were probably not so concerned at losing a pilot but more at losing a valuable aircraft. The stunt did not do him any harm as he became a Squadron Leader, commanding a group of Spitfires, leading them on D Day over the Normandy Beaches and then flying adapted Spitfires (called Seafires) from the aircraft carrier HMS Battler in the Far East, fighting the Japanese.

Like many of his fellow survivors he was in pieces mentally by the time the war ended and with no recognition or understanding of PTSD or counselling in those days, was left to get on with it the best he could. Despite all this he remained an absolute gentleman and a remarkably modest character to the end of his days. I trust you will forgive me this slight indulgence and tribute to him that was brought to mind by seeing the bridge. It's strange the things that can trick one's mind into catching you unawares with forgotten memories.

Mark and myself walked back to the car and chatted with our fellow birders, savouring this time, extracting the last moments of pleasure from the experience. We drove back to the car park and purchased a coffee and sandwich each from a cafe and I treated us to that iconic Scottish delicacy, Tunnock's Teacakes. Two each!

It was done. Success. Another huge gamble had brought the twitcher's ultimate dividend of a new species for our British Lists.Who could have predicted that in the space of a couple of months I would have seen two very rare shearwaters of all things, in the form of a Scopoli's Shearwater today and a Yelkouan Shearwater almost exactly a month earlier from the Dorset coast.

In my case I am now on 504 species seen in Britain and left wondering what the next one will be and what it will entail physically and mentally to see it.

 Postscript 13th August

The Scopoli's Shearwater was present for just under three hours on 11th August and has not been seen since.

Postscript 15th August

The same Scopoli's Shearwater was seen passing southeast off the Norfolk coast