Thursday 20 October 2022

The Blackburnian Warbler on Scilly - 17th October 2022

Mark and myself were at the end of ten days of birding on Shetland and were frankly exhausted, both physically and mentally, as it had been non stop birding, going from one rarity to another.

We had one more day before we boarded the Northlink Ferry in Lerwick at 6pm that evening to sail overnight to Aberdeen.

We spent our time wandering around the south of Mainland looking for birds and saw a Hawfinch, a new Shetland species for me, at Ochraquoy.

Then the mega alert went off once more.What now? Surely not another mega on Shetland? 

No, it was a mega alright but about as far away from Shetland as is possible in the British Isles.

A Blackburnian Warbler, only the fourth to reach Britain's shores had been discovered on Bryher, one of the Isles of Scilly. The previous three records were from Skomer, Pembrokeshire on 5th October 1961, Fair Isle, Shetland on 7th October 1988 and St Kilda, Outer Hebrides on 15th September 2009. 

Thirty three years had passed until this fourth individual had arrived on Bryher, so it was going to be hugely popular and attract a very large crowd.

Incidentally the warbler was named after Anna Blackburne an English naturalist who lived from 1726-1793 in Warrington, Lancashire and was a close acquaintance of Carl Linnaeus who presumably named it in her honour.

Blackburnian Warblers breed in eastern North America from south central Canada east through the Great Lakes region to southern Newfoundland and New England, south along the eastern seaboard to Massachusetts and New York and along the Appalachian Mountains as far as Georgia.They spend the winter from southern central America to Peru and central Bolivia.

Mark got very excited but there was little we could do physically until we arrived in Aberdeen on Friday. Once off the ferry, Mark rang Adrian, another member of our WhatsApp twitching group who set about booking places on the Scillonian that sailed for St Mary's on Saturday.

Sadly I was committed to attend a Conference in London on Saturday so the earliest I could get to Bryher would be Monday as there are no flights or sailings to Scilly on Sunday. I was resigned to the bird being long gone by Monday.

It was a gloomy prospect on the long drive south and for a while I felt downcast but in the end one has to be philosophical about such things and accept that this was one of those circumstances that was unavoidable and there really was no sense in beating oneself up about it. I had, after all had a  superb birding experience on Shetland and I settled for that and got on with life. By the time we reached Tebay Services I was feeling much better about the situation.

Listening to Mark communicating with various of our twitching contacts on the drive south I learnt that there was a helicopter service from Penzance to St Mary's and a small seed was planted in my brain.

Sitting in the Conference on Saturday that seed began to germinate when news came through that the warbler was still on Bryher. Mark and Adrian would be almost certain to see it. I called a local Oxfordshire birding pal, Justin, to see if he fancied a trip to Bryher. He said he would call back as he had to make some re-arrangements but an hour or so later confirmed he was up for it. I had already looked up the telephone number of the helicopter company and rang them during a break.

They told me there were no spaces on their first flight out of Penzance at 0850 on Monday but could accommodate us on the 1130 flight coming back at 1500. The flight takes fifteen minutes but it would still leave us with a very tight, almost impossible schedule if we were to try and see the warbler and get back to Penzance that afternoon. I booked the flights anyway, taking a huge and frankly ridiculous chance that something could be sorted out in Penzance that would  get us on the earlier flight and give us more time on Bryher. Twitching does this to you where reason and common sense seem to be alien to the situation.

I called Justin on Sunday and told him to be at my house at 3am on Monday for the four hour drive to Penzance, in case we could get the earlier flight.

I was desperately tired from my exploits in Shetland and a very early start on Saturday to get to the Conference in London by 8am but adrenalin was flowing thick and fast and I felt confident that I could manage the long drive to Penzance Heliport.

After about two and a half hours driving, tiredness crept up on me and I was forced to make several stops to rest and then carry on but we made it on time and went to the helicopter check in desk but were out of luck.No cancellations.No chance of an earlier flight.

We would have to wait until 1130.

Meanwhile there had been no news of the warbler.

The helicopter staff were aware of the rare bird on Bryher. It was impossible not to be as their helicopters were fully booked with birders! Seeing our plight they came up trumps with a plan to ensure we would have the best chance to see the bird and have ample time in which to do it.

They told us they could get us on their 0930 flight to Tresco and even better could get us on the flight back from St Mary's at 1730. They also arranged for us to be picked up at Tresco helipad and be taken by electric buggy to the small quay where Justin had booked a JetBoat to pick us up and take us across to Bryher, a journey which would be all of five minutes.

The 'He who dares Rodders' gambit had paid off. More by luck than judgement we had found ourselves ahead of the game. I was amazed at how helpful everyone was and very grateful. All we needed now was news the bird was still on Bryher.Ten minutes later it was confirmed it was.

We took off on the helicopter (a first for me) and landed at Tresco twenty minutes later to be met by our transport to take us to where the JetBoat would come to pick us up.

As I stood on the small quay awaiting the JetBoat I looked around me at the nearby islands, basking in warm sun and surrounded by impossibly blue sea. It was all so picturesque, the lush vegetation almost tropical and so very different to the rugged harsh beauty of Shetland. Both have their positives.Both so very different.

Justin enjoying the JetBoat

The whole process of getting to Bryher went like clockwork and on landing on Bryher, Justin an old hand on Scilly, knew exactly where to go. It was a fifteen minute walk to an area of pittosporum trees and fields by Popplestone Rocks, a well known beauty spot.

Popplestone Rocks

A fast walk got us to the area where twenty or so birders were standing about in one of the five rides that ran between the trees looking for but not seeing the warbler.

We waited with them, the sun warm on our backs.I had dressed for Shetland and forgot how mild the climate is in Scilly so was soon discarding clothing. After ten minutes a low whistle alerted us to the fact the warbler had been found about three rides down.We hurried there, our main priority was to see this ultra rare visitor to Britain. Arriving in the ride the warbler was all too obvious, hyperactively hunting amongst the fleshy leaves of the pittosporum trees.

We joined the line of birders admiring it and due to  the spacious ride everything was very civilised, no jostling, no pushing, everyone just taking their time in their own space and enjoying the bird.

Bright yellow and black were the striking colours of what was a first year male Blackburnian Warbler. The Audubon Field Guide describes it as 'a fiery gem of the tree tops' and it was. An absolute jewel, glowing in the sun amongst the shiny green leaves of the pittosporum. Its head golden, crowned with black, throat and chest a deeper golden yellow, stronger in tone than the rest of its underparts, the flanks with sooty streaks.The upperparts were grey and olive, streaked darker and two broad white wing bars on each wing completed this vision of avian perfection. 

A bit of a nightmare to photograph, it was constantly active, rarely still for more than  seconds, hunting amongst the leaves and often disappearing into the densest bunches before re-emerging and moving onto the next tree in line. It was assiduously foraging for what looked  like earwigs although I am sure it found other invertebrates too and at one point even indulged in some ariel fly catching. 

A true acrobat, hanging from slender twigs to cock its head to look under leaves, it swung like a pendulum before flying up to the top of a tree or dropping like a stone to almost ground level. In and out of shadow and sunlight, in the dappled shade, it fussed and contorted, forever in motion.  

It was totally oblivious of us as we stood only metres away while it weaved its way among the branches and twigs.

We watched it for the best part of two hours.Occasonally it would give us the slip and fly to another ride but sooner rather than later a quiet whistle from a birder would indicate it had been re-located and we would make for the spot.

It was difficult to leave but when we felt we had seen it well enough we made our way to the Hell Bay Hotel, an upmarket establishment with views to die for. I am not so sure about the prices for food - £18.00 for a crab sandwich anyone?

We slowly made our way back to the quay to catch the boat to St Mary's. A Mediterranean Gull wandered in the shallows as we waited for the boat to arrive and once on board we chatted amongst ourselves as the boat slid through the calm blue sea.

We still had time to kill and news of a Wilson's Snipe, showing well from the Sussex Hide at Porth Hellick Pool got five of us excited enough to hire a taxi to drop us off there.This would be a lifer and another British tick for me, so it was with some enthusiasm I made my way to the hide and there, from the tiny cramped hide, I laid eyes on the snipe. It was  asleep with five Common Snipe on a small island of stubble and mud,

Noticeably more dusky, colder in plumage tone than the warmer browns of a Common Snipe and with more heavily barred flanks, it stood contentedly with them in the sun and then commenced to preen and feed.

So a two tick day.Who would have thought it. 

It was still not over however, as on returning to St Mary's there was just about enough daylight to go and see two Lesser Yellowlegs in Copperhouse Creek at Hayle.

Then it was the long drive home and finally blessed sleep.

What a day!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Far better views than I had of one in Panama.... x