Tuesday 29 September 2020

The Beardies of Avalon 28th September 2020

It was Monday.The wind had dropped to nothing and the sun was shining.So a vague plan that had been at the back of my mind for all of Sunday, about going to see some Bearded Tits, became a reality. I decided to head for Avalon or for those of you less romantically inclined and not of a fanciful nature, a place called Westhay Moor NNR (National Nature Reserve), that lies on the north side of the mystical Avalon Marshes which in turn are found deep within the Somerset Levels.The whole area still imparts a sense of how wild and strange this place was in times long past with its vast reed beds, lakes, hidden pools and raised bogs. Take any trail and soon you are in a world that seems to be from a long gone and forgotten time.

Avalon is thought to be the former island that is now Glastonbury Tor just a few miles from Westhay and is where, so legend has it, King Arthur's sword was forged and the king was taken to his final rest.I find this kind of legend irresistible, especially in these troubled times, as it gives something to take me away from the grim realities of a deeply troubled world that confronts me, us, everyone, day after day.

Heading down the busy M5 motorway, passing the sprawl of Bristol and the industrial stain of Avonmouth, King Arthur and Avalon seemed a very distant prospect and my spirit was correspondingly low. Worse, the early promise of the sun was soon hidden by light cloud and the morning sunk into a grey and still sullen-ness as I headed west.

Turning off the motorway I found myself on narrow rural roads penetrating ever deeper into the vast flatness of the levels. A silence and timelessness had settled on the land, as if it were holding its breath and Avalon seemed that much more possible and credible as I progressed deeper into a landscape forever associated with this most enduring of legends.

Eventually I found myself at Westhay Marshes NNR but the small car park was closed and being re-surfaced so it was necessary to park by the side of the road along with a number of other cars. Getting myself together I walked across the car park and down a rough track that would lead me to my ultimate destination.

My focus was a narrow short boardwalk that led to a hide called Island Hide but I was not interested in the hide but the boardwalk itself which runs through a reed bed that often harbours Bearded Tits. Normally elusive and shy, the birds can be attracted into the open by spreading tiny particles of grit. At Westhay grit is regularly sprinkled on the boardwalk in autumn and winter so the birds can come to collect the grit which they need to aid digesting the tough fibres of the vegetable matter and seeds they eat at this time of the year. One bird was found to have 600 grit particles in its stomach. In summer their diet changes to insects.

The Beardies at Westhay, as they are affectionately referred to, are now widely known to birders and photographers alike, making this as good a place as any to come to see and photograph a bird  that is usually very shy. Mind you there is no guarantee that your visit will always meet with success. My last visit with Moth a year or so ago met with failure but with patience and a measure of good fortune you  have a good chance of seeing one or two, maybe even more.

I walked through an area of reeds and ponds that were eerily quiet.Not a breath of wind stirred the reeds and the only sound was a sudden loud exclamation from a Cetti's Warbler, as ever invisible in the reeds. A quarter of a mile  down the track I came to the start of the boardwalk on my right. 

Immediately I could discern the distinctive pinging calls of Bearded Tits but they were completely hidden in the reeds. I was not the first to have arrived here. In fact I was quite late, arriving at 10am when popular opinion says you should be on the boardwalk well before 8.00am as that is when the tits show themselves most reliably.

There were already half a dozen birders  and/or photographers ensconced on the narrow board walk in two groups. I passed by the first group and joined three photographers further down the boardwalk who told me I had just missed a Bearded Tit feeding on the grit.

I stood quietly with them and we waited to see what would transpire. At first there was little to see or hear but then the tantalising pinging calls resumed and we could both hear and sense the tits very close to us but totally invisible at the base of the dense reeds which surrounded the boardwalk. Then in the myriad reed stems, where they showed above the boardwalk, there was movement and a male Bearded Tit hopped out onto the boardwalk but some way down from us and was only there briefly before thinking better of it and flying back into cover to join others of its kind.

Well at least I could say I had seen one which was a marked improvement on my last visit and I had not had to wait too long either but it would have been nice if it was closer, which I was told they often are. I got talking to my three companions and discovered one, sitting wth his back to me, was none other than Richard, who I know well from various previous encounters in and around Oxfordshire. It's always nice to meet someone familiar to share the time with. We waited and a female appeared and remained for a few minutes, then a male arrived to join her. They departed and another wait ensued and then, well nothing much happened for quite some time. 

Female Bearded Tit

Male Bearded Tit

We sat or stood on the boardwalk hoping that when and if they re-appeared the Bearded Tits would be closer. Sometimes they can be very obliging but at other times they remain frustratingly distant. I guess it also depends on how many people are standing or sitting on the narrow boardwalk and how quiet they are. Today there were not that many of us, maybe ten but larger numbers might spook the birds.Most of us kept conversation to a minimum but as is often the case nowadays others felt the need to talk rather too loudly.

Time passed by but there was nothing to see. Occasionally one or two Bearded Tits would appear but always distantly, well down the boardwalk and there was little indication that they would come any closer. Other birders joined us to wait and see what happened but it remained quiet.We heard regular pinging calls from the reeds around us, sometimes very close but that was as far as it got and the birds remained invisible, their location at the base of the reeds betrayed by the odd wildly swinging reed stem.

I was beginning to think I had missed my opportunity by getting here too late. My erstwhile companions had been here since before 8am and had already seen the Beardies well, before my arrival. I looked at my phone. One and a half hours had passed. It was 1130am. The cloud cover however had relented, rolling back to allow sunshine to transform the scene. Fifteen minutes later, yet more pinging calls came from nearby, and shortly after two Bearded Tits  appeared from the reeds and commenced shuffling around on bent legs on the boardwalk, feeding on the sprinkled grit. Even better they were much closer than any had been before. Everyone seized the opportunity to get their images and watch them and to our immense good fortune they remained feeding for an extended period although the male was far more nervous than his mate, regularly diving back into the reeds but on seeing the female continuing to feed unconcernedly he would return to join her. Their presence attracted another pair and so there were now four on the boardwalk

I alternated between watching and photographing them and finally counted five feeding on the boardwalk, three males and two females. As time passed they seemed to become more settled  and although undoubtedly aware of our close proximity were untroubled, provided we kept movement and noise to a minimum.

What is there not to like about a male Bearded Tit? Such a handsome little bird, his domed, dove grey head, black moustaches and golden yellow eye and bill complement his marmalade coloured body, his fore flanks suffused with pale lilac pink.They are a really beautiful bird, forever restless and mobile and I made the most of this close encounter wth them.

The birds fed contentedly for around thirty to forty five minutes. I was too enthralled to worry about the time  but it was  a prolonged spell and I considered I had been very lucky.Patience had paid off and for once I got a just reward.

It was now 1230 and time was up. The Bearded Tits, presumably full with grit, flew and landed in some distant reeds. My companions went to try their luck in the Island Hide.There has been occasional sightings of a Spotted Crake from the hide recently but it is very elusive and tales of six hour waits to see it briefly flying from one reed bed to another were not encouraging.

Instead I drove to the nearby village of Shapwick as I had overheard a conversation about a flock of Cattle Egrets associating with some cows in a field near the village. A short drive delivered the required result as, on another deserted lane, I parked on a small bridge spanning a stream and counted twenty seven Cattle Egrets wandering amongst the herd. They were wary so I remained in the car.

This was easily the largest number of Cattle Egrets I have seen together in Britain but soon they too will join the Great  White and Little Egrets as a regular sight in this country and no longer be remarkable.

A good end to my visit to Avalon.

Sunday 27 September 2020

From the Archives - The Alder Flycatcher in Cornwall 9th October 2008

With acknowledgement to the unknown artist

Empidonax Flycatchers are a genus of flycatcher that are found in North America and consequently are very, very rare in Britain. There have, to date, only been four found here, two Alder Flycatchers, one in Cornwall for two days in October 2008 and a second in Norfolk that remained for three days in September 2010, an Acadian Flycatcher in Kent for only one day in September 2015 and very recently a Yellow bellied Flycatcher on Tiree in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland that stayed for an exceptional nine days this September.

I have been fortunate to see all three species here, only not seeing the Alder Flycatcher in Norfolk which I declined to go for as I had already seen the first one in Cornwall two years earlier and did not fancy making the arduous four mile yomp in the rain across the unforgiving shingle to Blakeney Point, which is where the Norfolk bird decided to hang out for three days 

Here below is the story of my first Empidonax Flycatcher twitch to see the Alder Flycatcher that visited the Nanjizal Valley at Land's End in Cornwall  from 8th-9th October 2008

At about 1030am on Wednesday 8th October I checked Birdguides for news of any rarities and was startled to see an unconfirmed report of a possible Alder Flycatcher in the Nanjizal Valley near Land's End in Cornwall. If confirmed this would be a first for Britain and only the second to be recorded in the Western Palearctic.The first record being from Iceland.

I called a birding friend, Ads and told him about the flycatcher and suggested we consider going for it if the report was confirmed, which it was an hour or two later and we agreed to meet at my Company's premises at midnight and drive to Cornwall. We duly met up and after a cup of tea and a chat we set off at just before 1am.There was plenty of time to make the long and tedious four hour drive to Cornwall as dawn would not be until around 6.30-7.00 am.The drive, as always, was a bit of a slog but we pressed on, driven by a combination of excitement, adventure and anticipation laced with a good measure of anxiety as the night sky was clear and cloudless, ideal for a migrant such as this flycatcher to continue its journey. Fortunately Ads stayed awake so we shared the driving on virtually deserted roads.We arrived at the general area around 5.30am and parked in a layby next to two other cars, obviously containing sleeping birders and we too tried to sleep as we awaited the dawn. I cannot say I got much sleep but I did manage to doze fitfully although in an upright position which was not really the ideal way to start the day.

When dawn arrived we found we were in fact some  way from where we really needed to be, which was a field quite a bit further along the road that had been especially set aside for birder's cars, on Arden Sawah Farm at a place called Higher Bosistow. Firing up the Audi we followed the other, by now numerous birder's cars heading that way and duly parked in the field along with everyone else. Gathering ourselves and our gear together we stood for a few minutes with many other birders and then, as if by unspoken signal, en masse we all set off towards Nanjizal Valley.

It was some way to go, across fields and over stiles then past two isolated houses, descending all the time and when we got to the valley where the bird had last been seen yesterday evening my heart sank at the sight of so many birders present.There must have been around two hundred and fifty ranged  along and down a small descending track, looking across a short distance to the opposite slope of the small and shallow valley.

The slope was covered entirely by bracken and to a lesser extent other low growing plants with a small wire fence running along the bottom of the slope and with virtually no bushes to be seen anyhere.This had been the Alder Flycatcher's temporaray home for all of yesterday.

We stood and waited, tiredness and the slow evaporation of optimism causing me to feel more and more downhearted. The sense of tension from all the assembled birders was tangible. I must have stood with Ads for around half an hour while nothing appeared apart from a Robin and a Dunnock. We were just preparing to face what now was appearing to be the increasingly likely fact that the flycatcher had departed during the night when suddenly there was a discernible movement and murmuring from further down the throng of birders and everyone commenced moving rapidly down the track. The flycatcher had been located - surely? I felt very very tired but found the energy to move rapidly down the track with everyone else, jostling for  a position where I could get an unrestricted view across to the opposite slope.

Tripods whirled in the air, birders stumbled on the uneven ground and buffeted each other in their haste to get to where the bird was apparently visible but eventually everyone settled down.

The inevitable personal panic and anxiety about seeing such a rare bird and that is part of the territory with high stakes twitching, seized me along with many others. I could see birders looking intently at the slope opposite as I set up my scope, trying to follow the direction all the other scopes were pointing in, frantically scanning with my bins for a glimpse of the bird so I could train my scope onto it.  

Some of the birders lucky enough to be already watching the bird shouted out 'There it is!' Others would respond, 'Where?' Comments such as  'It is just by the bright green patch', or 'It's just below the tiny bit of yellow gorse' or 'See that rock on the skyline, well it's down from there about halfway and just to the right' were hardly helpful and only served to raise the stress levels

Others would shout 'Thanks - got it!' which only increased my frustration at not being able to pick it out.My tiredness did not help and as I always do, I told my self to calm down and that I always do this and I always get to see the bird.

It took me what seemed an age but was only a minute or two to get my eye in and find the bird. Assisted by the generous guidance and indulgence of a neighbouring birder I finally achieved a brief view of a small pale brown bird flying and flicking around in the bracken. 

It was incredibly small and hard to locate against the slope and moved rapidly from one low perch to another, never returning to the same perch. All I can recall of this initial sighting was the two very distinctive large white bars on each wing.

This then was my initial sighting of the first Alder Flycatcher for Britain. I then promptly lost sight of it in the scope due to its rapid and erractic movements. Frustratingly, while other birders related that they were still watching it, I could  not refind it but then when everyone else seemed unable to see it, by luck I got it back in my scope and hung onto it this time whilst trying to guide others to it. Such is twitching.

Finally relaxed and free of tension I now, of course, managed good views of it as the light slowly improved.The bird was always distant and kept to the top of the slope and it was at times also very elusive as it would often remain hidden below the canopy of bracken, even moving out of sight and under cover to another perch which made it hard to follow. At other times it would obligingly perch in the open on top of a bracken frond. Eventually it disappeared over the top of the slope for around forty five minutes but then re-appeared much futher to the left, slowly coming much lower down the slope and consequently closer, perching more openly, even on the fence at the bottom of the slope, giving great views.

I chanced changing the lens on my scope to a zoom lens which gave me better views and allowed me to see much more detail of its plumage.

In all the prior confusion I managed to lose sight of Ads but decided to enjoy this probably once in a lifetime experience and find him later.  

In the meantime a report came through of a probable Yellow throated Vireo in the nearby Nanquidno Valley and this prompted a mass exodus of birders. In the end there were no more than fifty of us left but with a steady stream of birders still arriving to see the flycatcher. After about two hours I decided I had enough and retraced my path to the car to  find Ads waiting for me. So at 9.30am ended a great early morning, successful twitch. We went to look for the vireo of which there was no sign.The general concensus of opinion amongst my fellow birders was that it was an ill timed hoax.

Friday 25 September 2020

A Visit to Wilstone Reservoir Tring 24th September

Still coming down from the excitement and exhaustion of my trip to Tiree in Scotland to see the Yellow bellied Flycatcher I arranged to meet Mark at Wilstone Reservoir this afternoon for some far less exotic and more prosaic birding. 

Our focus of interest was a Great White Egret that had been present for some days and sometimes would come close to the hide that looks out over the reservoir. Unlike my local reservoir at Farmoor, Wilstone Reservoir does not suffer from multiple water activities apart from a few fishermen who are restricted to fishing from the banks. Refreshingly the banks are grassed on their tops as opposed to the monotonous concrete surrounds of Farmoor and there is an extensive area of reeds and muddy shoreline with a spit that is almost an island, extending from the hide, where birds can land and relax. Consequently the number of wildfowl and other birds present is much more than at the now almost continuously disturbed Farmoor Reservoir.

Today there was a large flock of Lapwing on the spit together with a Green Sandpiper and various ducks such as Shoveler, Wigeon, Mallard and Teal. 

Female Shoveler

A Hobby brought excitement, periodically appearing over the reservoir hunting dragonflies at high speed and demonstrating this species superb flying skills. A Chinese Water Deer ventured to the edge of the reedbed, disappearing back into the cover after a while and a Kingfisher perched all too briefly on one of the thin branches that have been especially stuck in the water adjacent to the hide.

Sadly the Great White Egret remained, for most of the time, in distant parts of the reservoir and only flew in to approach the hide relatively closely on one occasion.

Great White Egret

Great White Egrets have the most incredibly long thin neck.It looks like a pipe cleaner with a tiny head attached that is barely wider than the neck. Further the neck has a noticeable kink in it about two thirds of the way up and it is as if the neck and head beyond have been added as an afterthought. I can recall when they were rare and one had to travel a long way to see one but now they are breeding on the Somerset Levels and gradually spreading throughout the southern counties of England although still relatively scarce away from their stronghold in Somerset

Apart from the Great White Egret, its smaller cousin, the Little Egret maintained a presence and one of about half a dozen feeding around the reservoir came close to the hide.

Little Egret

While waiting for the ever distant Great White Egret to come closer my attention inevitably wandered to the ducks in front of the hide. They were Gadwall, about forty of them and mostly drakes. This is an infrequent duck on my more familiar Farmoor Reservoir but here they were much more numerous, possibly due to the lack of disturbance

The gathering, initially quiet and swimming around in harmony began making quite a fuss and watching them I realised two things. The drakes were almost exclusively approaching full breeding plumage which seemed very early in the year, as all the other duck species here were still in eclipse plumage and secondly they were wasting no time in displaying with some vigour to a couple of females that appeared to be already paired.

Gadwall pair

It was fascinating to watch the drakes bowing and rising up in the water, making a whistling sound so very different to the peremptory burp like call they usually utter. 

One female in particular, surrounded by five or six amorous males was getting quite agitated at the attention she was receiving and together with her mate was repelling advances with open bill and aggressive lunges. At one stage she became so agitated she even turned on her partner, bill to bill, but soon quitened down.

The amorous drakes continued their courting but it was ultimately futile and after about twenty minutes of frantic activity the whole assembly settled down and life returned to whatever is normal for a Gadwall.

Sunday 20 September 2020

A Very Strange Twitch Indeed 17th September 2020

On Tuesday the 15th September I noticed some discussion on social media about a mega rare bird being found at Balephuil on the Island of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. There was little to go on apart from the fact the bird in question was hugely rare and its identity was being suppressed due to the ongoing Covid -19 pandemic and worries about the numbers of birders that would come to the island to see the bird if news got out.

Mark rang me later that day to discuss the situation. By making contact with various birding friends I had deduced that the bird was a first of its kind for Britain and rumours suggested it was a New World Warbler and possibly a Canada Warbler. We left it at that, intrigued to see what might happen. In the evening Mark rang me again to tell me the bird was now being mooted as a Yellow bellied Flycatcher, which was not only a first for Britain but also for the Western Palearctic.This elevated the situation to an altogether much more sensational level. Stratospheric would be a good word. This was about as mega as any bird can get that finds itself on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

Yellow bellied Flycatchers are normally to be found breeding in wet and damp woods across Canada and northeastern USA and migrate to spend the winter in southern Mexico and Central America. They belong to the Empidonax genus of flycatchers, the species of which are notoriously hard to separate but the Yellow bellied Flycatcher is arguably the easiest to identify from its closely similar relatives. 

I was keen to go to see it, as was Mark, but these are dark times we are living through due to the Covid-19 pandemic and I was worried about travelling and maybe becoming part of the problem for the good folk of Tiree. I even tweeted something to this effect but some research re-assured me that travelling to Scotland and Tiree in particular was possible, provided I adhered to all the guidelines issued by the Scottish Government, and indeed Tiree was currently inundated with visitors such as general tourists and windsurfers - Tiree being a popular windsurfing destination in Britain.  

The next morning, Wednesday, Mark rang again and we discussed the logistics of getting to Tiree by Thursday. As usual it was complicated but eventually a plan was put together. We would need to meet at Mark's home on Wednesday evening and drive north for nine hours to get to Oban, board the ferry that departed at 7.30 am on Thursday and arrived in Tiree, three and a half hours later at 11am.Then we would need to get to Balephuil some eight and a half miles from the ferry terminal at Scarinish Pier.

Looking at it on paper it seemed relatively straightforward but as always happens it never is quite so. Meeting up and driving north presented no problem but our plan to book the car on the ferry was thwarted by the fact there was no space on the Thursday sailing. So we booked on as foot passengers which thankfully was achieved despite the vessel being restricted to a third of its normal capacity due to Covid-19 social distancing restrictions. Now at least we were guaranteed arrival on Tiree and a major hurdle to our ambitions was circumnavigated. However we now had to work out how to get to Balephuil but Mark managed to reserve the last rental car available on the island.We were almost there but due to the ferry sailing times we needed to book accommodation for one night on the island.This presented much more of a problem. In fact it was insurmountable as everywhere on the island was fully booked. In the end we gave up and decided we would sleep in the car overnight. Not the most enticing prospect but there was no alternative and this certainly was not going to stand in the way of us seeing this mega of megas

Incidentally if I did get to see this bird it would be the third Empidonax species I have seen in Britain, the other two being an Alder Flycatcher in Cornwall and an Acadian Flycatcher in Kent.

Later the same day the identity of the flycatcher was suggested as a Least Flycatcher, which would be another ultra rare bird but it was confirmed as a Yellow bellied Flycatcher by Julian Hough, an American bird expert, looking at some mouthwatering photos taken of it by John Bowler, the finder and RSPB Officer for Tiree. John checks his garden every day for migrants and it was him who made this sensational find in his garden but he was fearful of letting out news in case it upset the local community.He does live on Tiree after all and is the representative for the RSPB who rely on the cooperation and goodwill of local crofters to farm sympathetically in order to allow Corncrakes and various wading birds to breed successfully.

The news apparently got out via another party and once out that was it.There was now no going back.The first twitchers booked flights immediately even though the species of bird had not been fully confirmed by then and they saw it on Wednesday, their gamble paying off big time as they viewed a by now confirmed Yellow bellied Flycatcher doing its thing in the willows, small trees and bushes that surrounded John's and his neighbour's gardens. Incidentally it had been at this exact location almost ten years ago that I twitched another very rare American bird, a Northern Parula Warbler, also found by John in his remarkable garden, and which is one of only a very few gardens on the island that has any semblance of tree cover.

As arranged I met Mark at 7pm at his home, we loaded his car with our bins, cameras, clothing for all eventualities, some food and anything else needed for an overnight stay on Tiree.We shut the boot of the car and the adventure began, heading north in the busy rush of traffic on the M1 to hopefully a rendezvous the next day with a very special bird.

We made two stops for coffee and to stretch our legs which served to partially alleviate the boredom of our long overnight journey. We crossed the border at just after midnight, drove along eerily empty motorways around the City of Glasgow, its illuminated urban sprawl spread out on either side and wound our way along the western shore of Loch Lomond. Many Red Deer were feeding by the roadside, hardly visible in the unlit darkness and we had to maintain a constant vigil so as to avoid any unfortunate collisions which would do severe damage to the car and also the unfortunate deer. A brief glimpse of a Pine Marten  was a minor  bonus as we pressed onwards on deserted roads and arrived in Oban at 3am, hours too early to board the Calmac ferry to Tiree.

We parked in a side street above the ferry terminal and tried to sleep for a couple of hours. I could only doze as I was too excited. Twitching always gets me this way, a combination of excitement and anxiety churning in my head, thoughts buzzing away that will not be denied. We were a long way from home and taking a huge gamble as it was by no means certain the flycatcher would still be there when dawn broke. We were now just a few hours away from knowing our fate.There was no going back. We were committed to see this through.

Slowly the time passed and at 5.30am, thankful to leave the car, we walked down to the ferry terminal to find there were already other birders waiting there. It was another forty five minutes before the check in opened at 6.15am but it was good to get out of the car, breath fresh air, and to stand and stretch cramped limbs after hours of confinement in the car.

We donned face masks and entered the terminal building as it opened to check us in and then waited upstairs in the departure lounge for boarding time. It was all rather surreal and strange with seats divided into sections of three, two to be kept free and one to sit in. Like something out of a second rate sci fi movie we all sat in our segregated places, tired and morose at this early hour, face masks hiding any expression.

Once on board we stowed our gear and went up on deck where it was possible to remove the face mask, feel safe and breath properly once more.The dawn had broken and slowly the vessel's propellors churned the seawater and we slipped away from the pier and left a grey Oban behind us but with the promise of a soon to improve morning as the sun commenced to rise beyond the mountains that dominate the town.

Now crunch time was approaching, as it was eight o' clock and the first birders and John would be looking to see if the flycatcher was still present but there was no news either way. We could do nothing but wait and hope.Time passed slowly and at nine o' clock came the unwelcome news that there was no sign of the flycatcher. My heart sank. I suddenly felt very tired and began to resign myself to at least having a nice day out on Tiree. I rallied a bit when I recalled that no one was allowed into John's garden until 9.30am, so there was a chance the bird might still be found there if it was present.

A definite sense of apprehension descended on both us and the twenty or so other birders as we sailed towards a now even more uncertain rendezvous with a flycatcher. Everyone was trying to hide their disappointment at the lack of positive news by being too cheerful and upbeat but we knew in our hearts it was a sham.We were nervous, edgy, constantly checking pagers and phones for any good news. This was the moment when it could all go wrong. There was nothing we could do but wait and hope. At around 9.30am the news came through that the flycatcher had just been seen in the garden. It was still there and apparently showing really well. It was as if a magician had lifted a cloth from a top hat and produced a white rabbit. The news spread through our ranks and we broke into smiles as the tension within us was dissipated by jokes and banter. We were in with a more than even chance of success.The long odds we had gambled with were going in our favour but we still had one and a half hours sailing to go so we got coffee and rolls from the cafe and watched the sea and the timeless and forever beautiful scenery pass us by. The sea was smooth and a tiny islet we passed had an adult White tailed Eagle as its centrepiece, the great bird standing proud on its grass mound with Shags and gulls eyeing it warily from a respectful distance. Further on a raft of Manx Shearwaters rose, stiff winged from the sea and planed away, a dark squadron, forming up and moving across the steely blue surface of the sea. A Great Skua, bulky and menacing flew heavily past us and another appeared much closer a little later, its white wing flashes shining bright in the morning sunlight. Porpoises and Common Dolphins put in brief appearances, easy to see in the calm sea. I felt optimistic and that it was going to be a good day.

We made a brief stop at the Island of Coll to offload cars and passengers and then it was onwards to Tiree, an hour's sailing away but already its low lying profile and white sand beaches, illuminated by sunshine, were visible from the ferry. Reports on social media had said there would be a police presence at Scarinish, waiting to check visiting birders on arrival to ensure we were all in order and complying with the current Covid-19 restrictions.We were apprehensive about what awaited us  but there was no police of any sort to check us, not that we had anything to hide. After a brief wait on the pier for the car traffic to leave the ferry we were allowed to walk up the jetty to find our hire car, waiting for us in the small car park as promised, with the key in the ignition.

I had got directions to Balephuil from the internet before leaving home.It was just eight miles away and I navigated as Mark drove our tiny hire car along the single carriageway road and within twenty minutes we found the lane that led up to John Bowler's house.There were already birders at the bottom of the lane waiting for a bus to collect and take them back to Scarinish.They had come on an earlier private boat charter from Ardnamurchan and had seen the flycatcher. They told us to drive up the lane and park in John's next door neighbours front yard.

This we did and were met by John who asked us to wait while another group of birders took their last looks at the flycatcher and got their stuff together before leaving the line of small trees and bushes beside the rough track. It was a case of managing the numbers and no more than fifteen were allowed at any one time to line up along the lane, so as to be able to maintain social distance from each other and as an extra precaution all of us were instructed to wear a face mask even though we were outside.

The track where we stood to await the arrival of the flycatcher in the bushes
and trees on the right hand side.It would also frequent the willows and the
fence at the far end of the track

John explained to us that the flycatcher had been showing very well this morning and we would definitely see it although there might be a little wait until it appeared. We duly spread out and stood quietly on one side of the narrow track, opposite the bushes and trees that stood just feet in front of us, waiting for any sign of movement in the dense mass of branches and leaves. For some time there was little to excite us. A flicker in the trees suggested a small bird moving and then, suddenly there it was, the Yellow bellied Flycatcher, that had been a constant presence in our thoughts during the long drive north and  the ferry crossing from Oban. Our dreams became reality as it appeared  low down, right in front of us and apparently fearless, perching boldly on branches and stems of plants beside the track. It was not especially hyperactive but perched and then looked about for some seconds, searching for flying insects which it followed by moving its head, before sometimes flying out to seize them. I was reminded more of a small robin than flycatcher by its diminutive size, shape and behaviour. Its head was large and rounded with a distinct peak at the rear of its crown, while its body was sparrow sized, small, compact, and short tailed. 

Its plumage was olive green on the upperparts and a dull yellowish white below, the yellow most prominent on its throat and down its central belly. Its eyes were large and bright, again reminiscent of a robin but each eye was surrounded by a distinctive white orbital ring. Its bill was broad and flattened with the lower mandible entirely orange.The most striking feature about the bird was its black wings each of which were crossed by two prominent wingbars formed by the large buff white tips of both the greater and median coverts. Its inner flight feathers, the  secondaries, were fringed with buff white on the leading edges, for two thirds of their exposed length  which created a distinct pale area on the closed wing and the tertials were each prominently fringed and tipped white, the sum of all this creating an overall striped appearance to its wings .When it turned on its perch to face us we could see the prominent lemon yellow streak down its lower breast and belly from whence it gets its name All in all it was a very attractive little bird with its stripey white and black wings and moss green plumage which, judging by its fresh appearance, made this individual a first year bird

The last two images courtesy of my birding
pal Mark

My initial view of the flycatcher when it first arrived was of it perched and facing towards me on a low branch of a tree but it soon flew off and was gone from view. 

John told us not to worry as it would be back and give us really close views. We kept quiet, gave it space and it duly re-appeared and flew low down to perch on an umbellifer, almost at ground level. Camera shutters volleyed out and the flycatcher did its stuff for five minutes as we were transported to birding heaven, watching this vagrant bird going about its now extraordinary existence on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

For the next hour the flycatcher put on a performance the like of which I could not have expected even in the wildest of  my dreams and believe me I have some wild ones these days, what with Covid-19 and all the anxiety it brings. At one point the flycatcher was perched no more than five feet from me.

You could hardy fail to get a decent image as it conveniently sat for a minute or so on twig or branch before flying to seize another insect. I would hesitate to call its movements sluggish but they were methodical and it would sit  for  periods, always low down, looking about for likely flying prey, moving its head up and down and from side to side as it followed the course of flying insects. It moved around the various trees and bushes, perching on slender twigs  and fence wires and it was obvious it was maintaining some kind of feeding circuit.Most of its prey, very small gnat like flies from what I could see, were swallowed immediately in flight but on at least one occasion a larger insect was held in its bill until it could perch and then manage to swallow it.

After a couple of hours John requested that we move away to make space for others who would be arriving on various plane charters, which we were more than happy to do.We had done so well and seen the bird so very close and for such long periods we could hardly believe our good fortune.I had heard that yesterday it had been elusive but the exact opposite applied during our visit.We each put £10.00 in the donation bucket by way of thanks.

We got in our car and on John's advice headed for the Farmhouse Cafe, just down the road, for a coffee and something to eat.We sat outside in the sun, surrounded by inquisitive hens and reflected on the past few hours. This is the time I love, when everything has been successfully achieved, all anxieties are dispelled and the rest of the time is there to be enjoyed and spent in reflection.

Suitably revived we went to do some general birding around the island. Golden Plover and Lapwings were feeding in mowed fields whilst Meadow Pipits were ubiquitous, flying from the car and onto fence wires as we slowly drove along. A Common Buzzard perched on a fence post, about the highest perch available on this tree impoverished island as droves of Starlings swept from field to field. Ravens and Hooded Crows wandered amongst the sheep and flocks of Rock Doves flew overhead.

We came to rest by the corner of a lovely white shell sand beach, the shallow sea breaking in gentle waves onto the shore under a blue sky from which shone never ending sunshine. It was truly idyllic and with not another soul to be seen. Far away the hulking Treshnish Isles were indistinct grey shapes in the heat haze.

We were tired, more tired than we cared to acknowledge and it was a joy to collapse on the warm grass and sit listening to the rhythm of the waves on the sand and watch the wading birds that had congregated here. There were the tiny, white, shining forms of Sanderlings, well over a hundred stood right by the sea while hidden amongst the stones further up the beach were a similar number of Ringed Plovers and a few Turnstones.

Amongst the strands of brown, very dead seaweed strewn at the top of the beach Pied and White Wagtails were making a good living, chasing and catching the inummerable flies and Mark found a Northern Wheatear running across the sand, also chasing flies. I lay back on the grass and stretched out a body that had been cramped and tense for so long and fell into a light sleep lulled by a gentle sursurrus of lapping waves on a seashore of pure shell sand

With nowhere to sleep tonight I chanced upon the idea of sleeping rough on the grass under the stars. It was warm and comfortable here on the grass and out of the wind. I decided there and then to do so and put it to the back of my mind until nightfall. Hopeless romantic that I am it seemed such a good idea and pleasant prospect at the time.

We arranged for a socially distanced meal at the Tiree Lodge Hotel that evening and before the meal made a return visit to Balephuil for some more flycatcher action.We were the only ones there but the flycatcher had now become much more elusive and preferred to spend most of its time on the other side of the trees and bushes which were inaccessible from the track where we stood. The few movements we saw in the trees resolved themselves into a male Blackcap and a Lesser Whitethroat. We reckoned the cause of the flycatcher's change of behaviour was due to the sun setting on the far side of the trees and bushes and consequently attracting more insects.Never mind, we did see the flycatcher briefly every so often and had the not inconsiderable bonus of watching a ringtail Hen Harrier flying over the iris filled fields behind us. They breed on nearby Coll but not on Tiree.

After our meal we returned to the beach and I had second thoughts about sleeping rough as I had no sleeping bag but Mark decided he would stay out as he did have a sleeping bag. I would sleep in the car and Mark would sleep in the grass down by the beach.We had learned in the hotel that other birders would also be sleeping rough in fields around and about tonight.

I slept fitfully but managed to get a few hours and at one point got out of the confines of the car to look at the night sky.There is no light pollution here, just total darkness and looking up I could see countless  stars above me and the bright shining orb of Mars.The darkness of the sky seemed to meld with the darkness of the land and sea, creating an optical illusion that the stars were almost within touch and it was a small but welcome comfort to view the endless and timeless firmament in a time of so much unrest and uncertainty.

At four am Mark banged on the car window having had enough of the Tiree al fresco sleeping experience.There was now a heavy dew on the grass and it was cold. Worse, there appeared to be a plague of slugs, many of which had gravitated to Mark's sleeping bag. I dozed until the dawn came and we both got out to enjoy a magical sunrise over the sea to the east, watching the golden orange disc of the sun burning  through a low lying mist that was rising from the cold ground.

Our ferry departed from Scarinish at 11am and John had said we could return at 8.30am to try and see the flycatcher if it had not disappeared overnight. We amused ourselves in the meantime by going to look at Loch a Phuill and found a pair of Whooper Swans with four well grown cygnets. Back at John's we were again the only ones present and waited for the flycatcher to appear which it soon did but proved on the most part to be elusive apart from one brief, five minute spell when it perched on the side of a small tree and preened in the sunshine. After this it became much harder to find, appearing to have transferred its preference to the trees and bushes we could not access.

And so, at 1030am, we bade a final farewell to this splendid addition to  the British List of bird species and made our way to the ferry terminal.Tired, more than a little dishevelled and feeling distinctly frayed at the edges from lack of sleep, every action had to be accomplished slowly. I sat and revived myself with a coffee and a huge  hunk of Dundee cake from the Yellow Hare Cafe, on another even more glorious day of sunshine as Tiree did its best to make me feel welcome and tug at my heart.

My grateful thanks go to John Bowler the RSPB Officer for Tiree and to Hayley Douglas who is the Tiree Trust Ranger, as well as to the many islanders who showed such interest in the Yellow bellied Flycatcher and without fail made us feel so welcome.


I am pleased to advise that over £1700.00 has been raised so far from birder's donations to the Tiree Community Trust to assist in dealing with Covid-19 on the island.

The trip back on the ferry to Oban was quite eventful for wildlife. We saw the following:

White tailed Eagle,

Golden Eagle

Minke Whale

Common Dolphin

Bottlenose Dolphin

Harbour Porpoise


The Yellow bellied Flycatcher departed with the first frost that came overnight on 23rd September as there was no sign of it on 24th September. It had stayed for nine days.