Monday 1 November 2021

The Varied Thrush on Orkney 29th October 2021

In the late afternoon of Wednesday 27th October I got back home after watching a Hoopoe that had been found in Warwick and during an idle moment I consulted my twitter feed. I could see nothing there to get me excited until I reached the following post from David Roche, a birder who lives on Papa Westray,
 known to the local islanders as Papay and one of the northernmost islands in Orkney 

'Always wanted to find an American passerine on Papay ... VARIED THRUSH feeding around the house of Links this evening. Reported by the house owner to have been present for several days. No words'.

No words indeed and I too was lost for words.

The tweet was timed at 6.31pm

A Varied Thrush has only been seen once before in Britain, at Nanquidno in Cornwall, England, remaining from the 9th to 24th November 1982. This was the first record for the Western Palearctic and happened all of thirty nine years ago. That bird was additionally memorable as it was a grey and white variant which is extremely rare, where the pigmentation is absent from the orange parts of its plumage and replaced by white.

The individual on Papay was more typical of the species in its strongly coloured and attractive plumage of grey brown upperparts and orange underparts.

Varied Thrushes breed in moist, mountainous conifer forests in western North America from north-central Alaska, central Yukon, British Columbia,Washington State and Oregon south to northwest California, northern Idaho and northwest Montana. In winter some move south to central, western and southern parts of California.

Quite how two individuals have now made a transatlantic crossing to make landfall in Britain is totally mystifying although a clue may come from the fact that there are two races of Varied Thrush, the race Ixoreus naevius naevius which breeds on the Pacific slope and Ixoreus.n meruloides which breeds mainly to the east of the nominate race and more pertinent, since 1960 has become a regular but scarce winter visitor to the eastern seaboard of the USA. This could well be the origin of the bird on Papay. 

The only other individual to have been recorded in the Western Palearctic was a male found on a farm in eastern Iceland from 3rd to at least the 5th of May 2004.

This latest discovery was huge. The mega of all megas had been found on Papa Westray in Orkney. My mind went into temporary freefall and mild panic, my heart racing as adrenalin coursed though my veins. This was a must see but how on earth could it be achieved?

I called Mark my twitching buddy. He is better at dealing with such things as he has experienced this so many times more than me. The phone rang twice before he picked up.

Before I could say anything he told me. 

I know. I am on it. I'll call you back! - and put the phone down!

Knowing Mark I was not offended. He was experiencing the same combination of euphoria and mild panic that was seizing me. He would call me back I knew. We have shared some memorable twitches together and  implicitly understand and trust each other in a situation such as this.

Mark rang back thirty minutes later. We discussed heading north immediately but it was not an option as it was too late in the day to be able to organise getting to Orkney by plane, boat or car ferry. We would have to go tomorrow, driving north through the night to the northern coast of Caithness and then take a car ferry to Orkney.This would mean we wouldn't have any chance of arriving on Papay until Friday morning. Anxiety began to grow. Would the bird really remain until then? I told myself it had already been there a few days so it might be settled for a long stay. Dream on - such birds are usually gone in a few days.

The drive north was not a probem we had that under control but what about the car ferries to Orkney?

Various ferry options were discussed over several phone calls in the evening and I volunteered to sort out the bookings on the car ferry and Mark would proceed with the more difficult task of finding how to get from Kirkwall on Mainland to Papay which would involve chartering a boat.

By now it was late in the evening and I went to bed, trying none too successfully to sleep and banish  worries about the car ferries and if they would be fully booked by other birders with their cars. I resolved to ring the ferry company first thing in the morning. Praying it would go smoothly. 

Thursday morning found me on the phone to the ferry company as early as possible and after some heart stopping complications, four of us, Mark, myself, Martin and Andrew plus the car were booked on The Pentland Ferry sailing at 0930 on Friday morning from Gill's Bay to St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay, Orkney and then back again on Saturday morning.

Mark had chartered a boat that could take eleven people (he had no problem getting volunteers!) from Kirkwall to Papay that could set off mid morning on Friday and it would  bring us back in the late afternoon.

Two more matters needed to be addressed to complete the complicated itinerary. Although Papay is small the bird was some way from the pier where we would land and to walk would take at least forty five minutes which would waste valuable time. Could we arrange a lift? 

I rang Jennifer who runs the hostel on Papay and had been so helpful to us when we came to twitch the Steller's Eider in November 2019. Could she give us a lift? The answer, sadly was no as she had to be elsewhere but she would arrange for someone to meet us and take us there.

The next problem was accommodation for Friday night in Kirkwall.We had originally planned to return to Gill's Bay on the Scottish mainland on Friday night and drive south but due to the ferry schedule the earliest return ferry we could book was on Saturday morning.

The hostel on Papay was out of the question as we had chartered a boat and to ask it to come back to collect us the next day would be way too expensive. In the end the charter boat owner called a friend who owned a Bed and Breakfast in Kirkwall and although she had closed for the winter she agreed to open up especially for us.

We were finally sorted out. A jigsaw of bookings was completed, any one of which could go wrong and would jeopardise the twitch and probably mean we would fail to see the bird.

I felt like it had been a marathon already, a mind bending roller coaster without us even making a move northwards. There were so many opportunities for a connection to go wrong and we would be finished. I tried to forget it and tell myself it would all work out. We had done our best and were in with a very good chance. Let's be content with that. My anxieties nevertheless multiplied.

There were eleven of us, four in one car and four in another with one joining us at Kirkwall by flying off Shetland and another two driving up together from the Midlands. We would drive through the night to get to Gill's Bay, in Caithness  and take the ferry to South Ronaldsay, Orkney.

The overnight drive from Mark's home in Bedfordshire to Gill's Bay in Caithness is 650 miles and would take 12 hours but we had the re-assurance of four drivers to cope with it.

We left Mark's house at just after 6pm and collected Martin and Andrew shortly afterwards. The adventure had begun but the drive soon fell into its usual tedium, a marathon initially relieved by conversations and fuelled by adrenalin but slowly, as the miles receded, we grew quieter and those not driving slept or in my case tried to. It commenced raining heavily and made driving hazardous and tiring. We kept in occasional contact with our four colleagues in the other car who were about half an hour behind us. Then came the familiar curse of motorway driving as signs appeared telling us there were problems with the A1 somewhere in Nottinghamshire and to expect a one hour delay. We decided on a long diversion across to the M1. We called the other car to warn them of the problem. All went well until, now on the M6, we saw signs that it was closed at Junctions 36-39 in Cumbria. Meanwhile the rain continued hammering on the windscreen, the wipers flicking at double speed back and fore. The lights of cars and lorries were distorted by a blur of mist like spray that enveloped the northbound carriageway. At Junction 36 we followed another tortuous diversion off the motorway and through a dead and dark Kendal and rejoined the northbound M6 near Shap.

The plan now was to stop near Carlisle and refuel the car at a Tesco's we knew and which lies just off the motorway. It was gone midnight and the rain had finally ceased. This provided a chance to get out and stretch our legs.The white car at the pump ahead of us  looked familiar. It was our friends. How had they caught us up? We learnt they had taken a chance and ignored our warnings about the delay on the A1 and it turned out there was hardly any delay. A car full of noisy Geordies who had obviously had a good night out, arrived at the pumps. Why aye canny lads, birdwatchers are you? Whaur youse ganging? We told them and off they went shouting and hollering out of their car's windows.

It was then back into the night and the rain that had returned with a vengeance.Martin had taken over the driving and I curled into a corner of the back seat, shut my eyes and prayed for sleep to overtake me. Glasgow came and went, Perth too and then the hundred mile slog up the A9 to Inverness. Dark and deserted the road wound inexorably on through high hills, sensed but invisible in the depths of the night.Thankfully the rain had stopped as we made the long sweeping descent from the Slochd Summit down to Inverness and another refuelling stop. We still had 120 miles to go to Gill's Bay in Caithness.

We headed north past my ancestral home of Invergordon, the land about us silent and dark with just the lights of the various villages dotted along the sequence of firths we passed over and I know so well, Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch, each extending as a long finger of sea into the land.

We passed from Ross and Cromarty into Sutherland and I took over the driving at Golspie, following a road that hugged the contours of the coast and then went inland and up into the barren wastes of Caithness. We followed a zigzag course on single track roads, passing isolated farms and houses and I wondered, as I always do when I pass by here, who on earth can live here and what do they do? Our colleagues in the other car had taken a more direct course via Wick, on better roads, and consequently got to Gill's Bay before us. By 7.30 we were all 'enjoying' the early morning, as it revealed the desolate waste of concrete, rusting machinery and huge trailers that is the sum of Gill's Bay's attractions.

The tiny reception area was not open so we stood about chatting, relieved to be out of the cars and able to stretch our cramped limbs. Tired, ragged in mind and body we stood about waiting for the tiny reception centre to open.So far it had been too early for any news on the Varied Thrush but we knew birders would be checking its location on Papay at this very moment. There was more than a little trepidation amongst us about the outcome and that no amount of banter could disguise.

Then came news of the bird.

The thrush was still there, bringing an instant mood swing as everyone relaxed knowing we were now in with every chance of seeing the mega rare bird we had gambled on.

Gill's Bay FerryTerminal

In the meantime, before the ferry was due to sail, we passed the time looking at a few Rock Pipits as they
peeped and scuttled around the trailers. Over the sea wall on some rocks, waders and ducks stood, no more than shapes in the dull light of early morning.

A man in a yellow jacket and mask arrived to check us in, gave us a boarding slip and we lined up the cars to drive on board the ferry. Our colleagues in the other car discovered they had managed to book themselves on the Saturday ferry by mistake. A mild panic ensued but it was quickly sorted out in the reception centre and we drove on board. left the cars on the lower deck and ascended the stairs to sit bleary eyed on the somewhat spartan red seats, arranged in neat rows, that serve as the passenger accommodation on the ferry.

The sea was benign and the inhospitable surrounds of Gill's Bay were soon forgotten as we headed out into the Pentland Firth and encountered the rugged and beautiful scenery of this part of Scotland. Great buttresses of rock, guarding Orkney's southern extremities came into view.

Black Guillemots, now grey and white for the winter were dotted around on the calm sea, their close cousins, Razorbills and Guillemots dived in alarm from the ship's progress. Pristine white Gannets and demure Kittiwakes flew across the ship's bows, sweeping away across the silver water.  Some smart Long tailed Ducks were on the sea too and we saw both Great Northern and Red throated Divers. Nearer to St Margaret's Hope were rafts of Eiders and the inevitable Shags  It  felt good. We were birding at last after the privations of a long night of driving.I felt better about things, especially after a coffee and roll from the ship's tiny cafe. 

After leaving the vessel it was a half hour drive to Kirkwall where we parked for free by the harbour to await the arrival of our charter boat. While waiting we were entertained by Razorbills swimming and diving below us in the still and dark water, while a Guillemot did a passable impression of a miniature penguin on the slipway.

We boarded the charter boat as soon as it arrived. A quick check was made by the skipper that we were all present and then he gave us a short talk on safety at sea and instructions on the donning of lifejackets. We set sail for Papay, roaring out of the harbour and across a smooth sea untroubled by waves, just gently swelling up and down as the boat cut a swathe of white water and wake through the placid surface.

Some sat in the warmth of the cabin but I chose to remain outside.The day was grey and ill defined, the air slightly misty, the land and sea seeming to merge at a distance into one. A stillness, a lull between weather fronts was, for the moment, holding sway.The sea reflected a sky that was grey, dashed with lighter patches so the sea became as if it were countless flashing mirrors of two tone grey and white.The low contours of the islands either side of us rose from the sea in irregular undulations, topped with green grass, so different to the brown, more forbidding landscape of Shetland.

I faced outward, looking over the sea and out to the distant islands that form Orkney and pondered my situation, here in my homeland but in a part of it not familiar to me. Both sea and land imbued with a raw beauty, a wild uncompromising landscape of grey and green that will never be tamed or become manicured like the countryside of the Cotswolds where I live and an unexpected rush of emotion caught at me. A longing, a bitter sweet feeling of belonging and yet I am a stranger. I am tired, I am emotional and I am at home but the bitter part is that it is just for a day and then it will be back into another life, another land once more. I see where this is going, check myself and join the others in the cabin who are thankfully unaware of my brief  sentimental odyssey.

We were now very close to Papay, just minutes away from the pier. Inexorably the tension and anxiety began to re-assert itself. Destiny drew ever nearer. We drew in to the pier with other birders standing there waiting to leave for Kirkwall, having seen the bird. Even before we clambered up a rusty ladder to the top of the pier shouts came from those of us on  deck and those on the pier

'Has it been showing?'

'Yes it's been showing really well. Superb views'

'You will have no bother, it comes quite close too'

'Bird of a lifetime'

It turned out that Jennifer had arranged for the school bus to pick us up. A very nice lady ushered us to the bus in a small car park just up from the pier. She crammed all eleven of us onto the bus with all our gear.You could sense the excitement mounting. This was it, the last leg of our journey.

Not long now and it would be settled. 

There was an unspoken desire amongst us for the lady to drive just a little bit faster. Get us to the bird please. She stopped to chat to Jennifer on the single track road but this was her home and she was doing us a huge favour. We drove on and shortly afterwards arrived at the hallowed spot and disembarked.A muddy track led off to our right for a couple of hundred yards, leading towards the house called Links which was a small, unremarkable detached house surrounded by large areas of green grass, you could almost call them lawns which extended on three sides.There was a small drystone walled garden, a barn that had seen better days, tin sheds and what looked like a pen for sheep or cattle enclosed by concrete walls.The house and its boundaries were guarded by a dry stone wall and wire fencing and as is typical of many such places on the island, looked unloved and deserted but certainly was neither.

This unprepossessing area was where the Varied Thrush had chosen to reside on Papay. Birders already present 
 told us it had just been performing very well but had flown off round the house and been lost to view but would soon re-appear to feed on the grass.

Anxiously we asked for information about where best to see it, how close did it come, where was it last seen, what were its favourite places? It was mental torture as the replies told us how close it had come, how well it had been seen and the final thrust of the knife from those already having seen the bird -.

'Don't worry you will see it'

We lined up along the track by the wire fence while others stood by the drystone wall at the other side of the property.We waited, expectant, excited, urging the metaphorical curtain to be raised and the star turn to appear. 

Fifteen minutes passed and as further minutes ticked away with no sign of the bird the tension rose and anxious enquiries began again; the same questions, the same answers but still there was no sign of the bird. Then it was seen by the birders over by the wall.We lost no time heading off there but it flew and was gone before we could get anywhere near. To rub salt into the wound it flew to and then perched 
briefly on a metal gate opposite where we had originally been standing, quickly dropping down behind the concrete wall guarding the sheep pen to where there was no possibility of viewing it. 

'Not to worry it will pop up again in a minute or two and come and feed on the grass'. 

A comment from one who had already seen the bird.

Thank you for that!

Half an hour had now passed and there was no intimation of the bird showing itself. Doubts set in.My mind became overactive. It was almost physically painful. Maybe it was not behind the wall of the pen after all. Maybe it had given us the slip.

Comments meant to be re-assuring, such as,

'It's never been gone this long before ' were the precise opposite.

We stood helpless, a line of us trapped in a mental maelstrom, our mood and immediate future dependent on what a bird decided to do. There was nothing we could do to change our situation. We had thrown the dice. Our nerves were by now strung as taut as the telephone wire that ran from the house to the track we stood on. I was next to Martin, both of us enduring an unscripted torture of the mind. 

Surely we would see it?  

The line of birders fell silent, no one daring to break the silence as we all contemplated the unthinkable and tried to keep a lid on the turmoil going on inside our heads.

A bird appeared on the wall by the pen. A Wren, which was followed by a Blackbird. Both flew off and then came silence and emptiness once more as we stared imploringly at the wall.I could see the land in the distance disappearing under low cloud. Rain was on its way.

Surely we could not be within yards of the bird and not see it before we had to get the charter boat back to Kirkwall? The mind plays vicious tricks, taunting you with all sorts of implausible reasons why you will fail. I had to steel myself and tell myself not to be so silly. It began to rain. Predicted but nevertheless unwelcome. Martin's presence was in a way re-assuring.We could share this mental agony together rather than alone or with a stranger.

It had been over an hour of waiting now and still with no sign of the bird. I wanted to die, to fall away into nothing and wake up to find it was a nightmare dream. I began contemplating the long journey home, coping with a failure so awful it would be unbearable.I even thought if the bird did not show perhaps I could miss the charter boat, sleep in the hostel and make my own way home, at vast cost and time, in the next day or so. It was desperate stuff and totally ridiculous but a tired and fraught mind can lead you into all sorts of irrational thoughts.

Get a grip I told myself once more.The rain pattered harder now on my rain hood and rivulets of water trickled from my wrists and along my arms.

Someone suggested  one of us go and knock on the home owners door and ask if it would be possible to look over the wall into the pen to persuade the bird, if it was there, to fly out.

Finally one birder did just that. It was now just after 2.30. We watched as he spoke to the man of the house for a little while and then returned to relay the result of his conversation.

There was good news and bad news

No, the owner was not keen on him trying to flush the bird from where it was hiding but he would be happy to do it himself.

Well at least we would soon know if the bird was there. The tension was cranked up to yet another level as we waited. The owner walked out of his back door, through his barn and approached the concrete pen. Nothing happened for what seemed an eternity but was seconds only. A bird flew up onto the wall.

An involuntary gasp swept through the line.

'Bloody hell there it is!' someone cried.

'It's a Redwing' we chorused, everyone wishing it wasn't

But a second bird then flew up so two birds were perched on the wall.

'That's it!'

'It's the bigger one on the right'.

Both the birds briefly remained perched on the wall having been disturbed by the home owner.Then the Redwing flew off but no one cared as the thrush flew the other way and perched nearer, on a drystone wall running out from the house towards us.

The house owner unaware of where the thrush had flown returned and was walking straight towards it.

No! we cried, 


He got the message but the thrush flew further around the house and settled on the stone wall of the garden. Still thankfully in view.

Pandemonium as we all endeavoured to get onto it with bins and scopes.

Martin got it in his scope and having seen it well, to his eternal credit and with my eternal thanks, told me to kneel down and look through his scope and there, on the wall, at long last was our holy grail.

A Varied Thrush in all its brown and orange magnificence. 

It was facing away from us and I was struck by the two broad, creamy white lines, one each, running from above an eye and down each side of its neck and the profusion of pale edgings to its wings. A veritable  bonanza of pale stripes and bars.It turned partially and there was the distinctive orange breast with a grey band across it and below, paler orange mottled flanks and belly. It was a strikingly beautiful bird.

I was outwardly calm but adrenalin was pulsing through me as I am sure it was with everyone else at this moment. I directed my camera towards the bird on the wall and got a number of distant images as it perched there for a minute or so.

It is hard to encapsulate just how strong the surge of emotion and excitement is at this moment of connection. It is why we do these madcap twitches, of that I am sure. A temporary mind altering experience that is totally legal and so addictive and even after the initial hit passes the pleasurable after effects can last for hours, days, months and in this case probably years.

Later that evening I was reflecting with the others on this feeling of euphoria and how it is made all the more potent by the fact that the more difficult it is to get to a place, the longer it takes to get there and then, in this instance, the longer the wait until the bird shows, all accumulate to make the moment of success the more sublime and intense. The fact this bird was very rare and probably a once in a lifetime occurrence made it even more so.

The rain was falling steadily now but no one cared. About forty of us scoped, watched, photographed and followed the thrush as it fed on the grass.It moved around all areas of the grass and latterly, at times would come reasonably close, showing little concern about us birders ranged around the perimeter of the property. This in itself was remarkable as Varied Thrushes are meant to be shy retiring birds preferring the forest floor rather than open areas.I guess it had little choice on Papay but to resort to the grassland to feed as trees are virtually non existent.

It behaved very much as a Blackbird would and looked similar in size, moving with bouncing hops, cocking its head to one side and stretching its neck to look closer before seizing whatever had caught its eye. 

The rain and low light were far from ideal for photography but that was a minor concern when contemplating just how rare this bird is.

I make no claims to be able to sex or age this bird definitively but the strong colouring would to my mind suggest it is a male and the inner greater coverts looked to be newer than the outer ones which would suggest it is a first year bird.

c Mark

I, along with the others watched it for almost two hours, until around 4.30pm, when it finally disappeared from view behind the buildings. From the low of despair during the hour long wait to the high of being able to watch it constantly for two hours as it fed on the grass was an amazing experience.

All of us were utterly wet, soaked to the skin but no one cared.

We had done it. We really had.

I had Varied Thrush on my British List. Who would have ever thought that possible?

It would be a good night in Kirkwall with my birding pals. A meal and a couple of Dark Island beers to celebrate and then, for me at least, an early bed to drift off further into dreamland.


  1. Compelling as ever, poignant as you often are. Thanks as usual, Ewan, for taking the time to pen your gripping yarn.

  2. Brilliant! Such excitement! Congratulations!

  3. Truly epic - amazingly almost like being there - and the build up/waiting was almost as painful to read as to experience! Well done & congratulations to you all! x

  4. Marvellous mate, my adrenaline was flowing just reading the story

  5. Great write up Ewan. Even though I didn't manage to get there, I could feel every emotion.