Friday, 14 October 2016

MEGA ALERT: The SIBERIAN ACCENTOR in East Yorkshire

This is very much a long, drawn out saga folks but please bear with me. I am no literary genius but hopefully I  can convey a little of what I, and no doubt many other keen birders around the British Isles have felt and experienced over the past week or so.

Siberian Accentor - Easington by Dave Hutton.

What was probably my most stressful week in birding commenced on the afternoon of Sunday 9th October. I was faffing away in the yard, pondering whether to cut the the lawn, when I heard the pager wailing away from the kitchen. I threw the gardening gloves to one side and darted into the house to find Nadia stood there with a look of genuine concern plastered all over her lovely, little face. As she presented me with the troublesome device, the information facing me did not actually come as any great surprise. The inevitable had occurred. Following a mini influx into northwest Europe, a Siberian Accentor had finally made it across to Britain. This was the first record of this long anticipated and most sought after Siberian species into our region.

Almost instantly I came to terms with the fact that I would not be able to see this 'British Bird of the Century'. I was faced with a hectic working week and to make it even more difficult, the bird in question had made landfall on Shetland. It was all rather inconvenient. My thoughts then turned to my pals who were actually on the isles as part their annual trip, a trip that ordinarily I would also been a part of. Needless to say all those lucky lads enjoyed fantastic views of the bird that afternoon as it scuttled around a small abandoned quarry near Scousburgh, on South Mainland. I was thrilled for them all and also relieved they were not stuck up on Unst, just that little bit too far out of reach when the fateful news broke. Now that would have been one crazy drive south for Jase. To be honest, I never really suffer from 'bird envy' but this all felt a little different. This was perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this species in Britain.

'The jubilant Scousburgh quarrymen!' by Jase Oliver.

A quick glance at the weather forecast for the Northern Isles that evening showed a clear, starry night. That, combined with the fact the bird had been frequenting less than ideal habitat on the top of a hill, did not bode well for it remaining in place for a second day.  I was wrong of course. On Monday morning, news eventually filtered through that the bird was still present. I quickly made contact with a few local lads, one of which was on a scheduled early morning flight from Aberdeen and another who had buckled and snaffled a place on a charter flight. I wished them the best of luck and attempted to focus my efforts on the grueling work schedule ahead.

As the day progressed, the pain and suffering got gradually worse. It is hard to express to the 'non-twitcher' why we feel the way we do when a bird of such magnitude is out of reach. Personally I know I am pretty impossible to be around. I become terribly grouchy, irritable and snappy. As the stress levels increase, my concentration levels reduce and I find it difficult to keep still. The worst symptom though is the wild churning in the pit of your stomach. I estimate that it is perhaps 387% worse than the most gut-wrenching, chum-packed, pelagic trip you will ever embark upon. You try hard to put the whole ridiculous situation into some sort of perspective and cast your mind back to past glories of stunning bird species and memorable trips you have been lucky to be part of. The problem is, that inaccessible rarity will always be there, niggling away at the back of your dark, haggard, little mind.

Siberian Accentor - Scousburgh by Tony Barter.

When you are reduced to this worrying state, you inevitably become desperate. At around lunchtime a tempting message appeared on the pager offering the final seat on a charter flight the following morning. It was a telephone number I recognised as the 'sideburned satanist' himself, Dave Mack. Within seconds I was discussing the logistics of the potential trip with him and promptly secured my place. Whilst I have never indulged in such an outrageous act of aviform based extravagance before, I have never completely ruled out a bout of so-called 'cheque book birding', if required. I always said that if a Northern Hawk-owl turned up at some far flung corner of the British Isles, I would have no hesitation in raiding my nan's building society account and eagerly handing over the required readies to some greedy pilot. In my opinion, a Siberian Accentor was up there in the rankings with such an iconic species as Surnia ulula.

Siberian Accentor - Scousburgh by Steve Nuttall.

The next step was to secure a whole day off work. As I had recently received a promotion with a whole load of additional responsibilities I knew that I was really pushing my luck. "You are f*@%ing joking aren't you!?!" came the response from my usually relaxed and highly accommodating, twitch-friendly gaffer. After a few minutes of negotiation and promises to work my fingers to the bone over the coming weeks, he eventually granted me the permission I was hoping for. Just as I hung up the phone, the 'mega alert' sounded once more. A Black-faced Bunting had been found, and surprise, surprise, it was on Shetland, this time on the island of Bressay. As for the Siberian Accentor, well that continued to show well throughout the day, however there were concerning reports that it had become quite mobile as the day progressed.

It was now early Tuesday morning and I found myself heading north into Yorkshire. After a quick detour to Potterick Carr to pick up Dave, we were on our way to a small private airfield near York, our pockets bursting with wads of unused twenty pound notes. On site, at the dark, damp village of Full Sutton we met up with RBA bird news operative Will Soar and another couple to complete the passenger list. This village is more infamous for housing deranged serial killers such as Dennis Nilsen at its maximum security prison than it is for acting as a base to assist mentally defective twitchers to fly from one end of the country to another.

'Waiting for news on the Shetland bird!' by Adam Archer.

As we nervously awaited the gloom of an autumn dawn to lift, the lack of positive news was excruciating. I paced around our 'executive departure lounge' praying that the bird would see fit to hang on for just one more day. As the minutes ticked by though I could not help but think about those clear overnight weather conditions and how the bird had become restless during the previous day. It was not too long before we were put out of our misery, the bird had indeed departed. We were truly gutted.

Our attention then focused on the possibility of using this opportunity to twitch the Black-faced Bunting as a consolation prize. After careful consideration I decided to vote against it bearing in mind the bird had been pretty elusive as it fed within the dense cover of a crop field. Despite its undoubted rarity status I did not even consider this species to be in the same league as the Siberian Accentor.

As a birding alternative, Dave and I decided to head east and attempt to find our own eastern vagrant at Flamborough Head. Our first search concentrated around Old Fall Hedge and the Plantation. Despite numerous Chiffchaff and Goldcrest flitting around the best we could do was a single Common Redstart and a few Brambling. We then headed down to the lighthouse area where we failed to see the reported Olive-backed Pipit with Brett Richards. It was still great to see good numbers of Redwing freshly arriving and streaming inland though. Our final location for the day was South Landing where we heard an elusive Yellow-browed Warbler calling away. Whilst peering down into the ravine my imagination ran away with me as I fantasized about another Siberian Accentor picking its way methodically along the stream there. I had a funny feeling another would appear this autumn, somewhere along the east coast and once again I would have to pull out all the stops in order to see it.

Whilst Wednesday was spent in the office busily catching up with outstanding tasks, Thursday would be more relaxed but way more physically demanding. As part of my employers commitment to helping our local communities I had been granted time off to volunteer at our local RSPB reserve at Middleton Lakes. Along with a few more work colleagues we de-thatched a grassy embankment for the benefit of Common Blue butterflies and cleared a fairly large area of willow scrub to attract more breeding pairs of Grasshopper Warbler. By mid-afternoon we had completed our tasks. I was filthy, sweaty, dehydrated and pretty exhausted, however it was just the medicine I needed to smooth away the mental stresses and strains of the previous few days.

As we took a stroll around reserve pointing out Lapwing and Snipe to our accompanying city folk, the pager emitted that dreaded wail once again.  As I retrieved it from my pocket and took a glimpse of the screen I was practically knocked off my muddy feet. Unable to speak, I automatically stretched out my arm and presented the news to reserve warden and dear friend Katie Thorpe. I remember asking her "What time does it get dark nowadays?", "Errrrr it will probably be too dark for birding at around seven." she replied. It was a miracle, another Siberian Accentor had been found at Easington in East Yorkshire. Had the birding Gods rewarded me for my few hours of conservation work or was it because I was wearing my lucky Spurn Bird Obs hoodie? By the time I had ran back to the car park it was 3.30pm. I had just three hours to make the 180 mile journey to Easington in rush hour traffic. The odds were stacked well and truly against me but I just had to take a punt.

I had only visited the mighty Spurn area the previous Saturday to witness the spectacle of autumn migration. That day, thousands of thrushes including Redwing, Fieldfare, Blackbird and Continental Song Thrush were very much in evidence along with the odd Ring Ouzel. Huge numbers of migrating Robin from the continent were also present along with hundreds of Goldcrest. Other crowd pleasers included Woodcock, Jack Snipe and Short-eared Owl. On the scarcity front we managed to pick up a couple of Red-breasted Flycatcher and single Yellow-browed Warbler. The undoubted highlights however were a Rustic Bunting at Church Fields, Kilnsea and a rather obliging Olive-backed Pipit at Easington Gas Works. It was near this location where England's first ever Siberian Accentor had been found by Lance Degnan.

Olive-backed Pipit - Easington by Steve Routledge.

Initially I made good progress north despite a few heavy rain showers, the infuriating middle lane hoggers and the odd speed restriction. As I approached Hull though, it all started to get pretty grim. There was heavy traffic congestion around the city and to make matters worse the light and the weather were beginning to deteriorate. After what seemed like a lifetime I eventually made my way through and continued east along the north shore of the River Humber. Just I was feeling positive though, a message came through to say the bird had flown off and had been lost to view. My heart sank, I was just twenty minutes or so away. Despite the foul weather I decided to continue onward and check out the site for myself. Upon arrival there was still enough light to see the odd Robin and Dunnock hopping around but alas the other, rarer accentor species was still nowhere to been seen.

It is at times like these that I really start to question my sanity. What the hell had I been thinking? As dozens of native Yorkshiremen bounded around congratulating one another, there was I, silently shivering away, starring at a rusty rubbish skip in some old school playground. Just half an hour previously a Siberian Accentor had been hopping around that same skip just a few yards away, delighting the euphoric locals. I decided to depart the scene and head further along the lane to see if the bird was feeding inside the gas terminal compound as the Olive-backed Pipit had done a few days previously. Again there was no sign.

As I slowly strolled back I witnessed what was probably the most sorrowful sight ever, in all my years of birding. A middle-aged fellow was leaning forward into the chain linked fence, on the phone to who I assumed to be his wife. He was trying his hardest to hold a conversation but while he was doing so he sobbed away uncontrollably like a distraught toddler. He had missed the bird by just a few seconds and was obviously taking it far worse than I was. I lingered briefly to check he was OK, patted him on his shoulder and headed for the shelter of the car.

I now had a tough decision to make. Should I make my way back home and return on Saturday? Or should I spend the night in the car and hope the bird showed early enough for me to nail it then make my way into the office afterwards? If I took the second option I would need to get the agreement from my boss whose patience with me was already wearing very thin indeed. With no signal on my phone I decided to head back west towards Hull and submit my sheepish request via e-mail.

Luckily, I have a lovely great aunt called Dorothy who lives in the village of Bilton, just east of the city. Hers is a house I have fond memories of from when I was a young lad. Many memorable weekends were enjoyed up here with my beloved nan and gramps. There were days out to Spurn, Bempton and Hornsea with her and my late uncle George. We would also head off to the Humber to see the huge ships slowly manoeuvre in and out of the docks and I can even remember the mighty suspension bridge being built. What sticks in my memory most though is the birds, hundreds of waders feeding out on the mud and calling overhead. Back then it did not matter too much whether or not I could identify them. I was just happy to soak up the whole spectacle through my terrible old pair of Boots binoculars. As a young lad brought up on a council estate in the landlocked West Midlands, these trips away to the coast meant so much to me. It was also the Christmas money I received from these fine folk that I used towards my first ever Young Ornithologist's Club subscription.

Needless to say I was convinced by my aunt to stay over that evening. She was busily changing the sheets on her bed for me even before I had received a positive reply from my boss. After a slap up meal of haddock and chips together with a nice strong brew, we chatted away until late about the good old days. I was now warm, relaxed and content, so much so I almost forgot about the Siberian Accentor I hoped was all tucked up and roosting safely just down the road. Eventually, I received the reply I was hoping for. I was allowed to come into work a few hours later than usual that Friday morning.

Just after 5.00am, following a decent night's sleep I was wide awake are raring to go. The weather throughout the evening had been extremely wet and windy so I was pretty confident the pesky eastern waif would still be in the area. The only real concern I had was whether the bird would show early enough. In order to drive back south to Birmingham and get down to a hard day's graft I needed to leave the site no later than 8.00am. I downed a strong mug of coffee, chomped on a few Hobnobs, hugged my aunt and off I went. Yet another trip to the Holderness coast beckoned. Would I be a little more lucky with my third attempt at seeing this b*stard of a bird?

At around 6.30am I cautiously made way past the gas terminal, with its heavy police presence and entered the sleepy little village of Easington once more. Despite the darkness there were already a fair number of Gore-Tex-clad birders hobbling around the place. It was reminiscent of a scene from some 1970's zombie apocalypse movie. The usual stereotypical Harold Shipman lookalikes joined up with the Benny from Crossroads types who in turn mingled with members of the Bill Oddie appreciation society. A weekday twitch for a 'mega of megas' always brings out the retired throwbacks to the heyday of British twitching. Try and imagine a pre-battle scene from Lord of the Rings where axes and swords are replaced with scopes and tripods and the pretty, little elves are yet to turn up. This is kind of what one of these occasions can look like.

'Dawn of the Easington Dead' by Bill Urwin.

Ignoring the masses pitched up along the lane, I quietly slipped into the wooded area alongside the school and staked my claim to a prime position a little way back from the fence line. The atmosphere at this time was almost serene as everyone chatted in hushed whispers and shuffled gently into position. As the darkness began to slowly lift though you could feel the edginess in the air. Suddenly a bird flew into view and a huge surge forward ensued. It reminded me of being stood up on the Stretford End at Old Trafford as a kid during the early 80's. The cause of such panic was just a Robin. At this stage the fine guys of Spurn Bird Observatory started to lose their patience and urged everyone to step back towards the lane. Understandably most folk were reluctant to do this and deliberately sauntered back as slowly as possible like an annoying Premiership footballer being substituted in injury time when his team are a goal up.

Just as the last birders had made it back to the lane, exactly the same thing happened again, another bird had flown in creating the second surge within a few short minutes. On this occasion though it was no false alarm. I lifted my bins and there, just a few yards away was a Siberian Accentor, perched on top of a skip and completely oblivious to the chaos it was causing. At this stage all hell began to break loose as around 500 eager birders tried their best to catch a glimpse of this amazing specimen. Behind me, other birders argued, shouted and jostled whilst some took it way too far resulting in a bit of a scuffle. I did my level best to filter out all of the nonsense though and enjoy the show.

Siberian Accentor - Easington by Mike Watson.

The bird performed remarkably well as it fed among the moss covered surface of the old school playground. It would occasionally fly up into cover briefly but would soon resume its feeding routine down on the deck giving everyone a chance to connect. Call me selfish but I admit to remaining in position for well over thirty minutes. I justified this by explaining to the organisers I would be leaving shortly to go to work. In any case, the bird was obviously settled and everyone would get their fill eventually. Finally, after six stressful days and three exhausting attempts I had actually witnessed a Siberian Accentor in Britain. It was another one of those days in birding that I will never forget.

Following a pretty straightforward journey back south and a quick stop off at home for a shave and a change of clothes, I was back in the office in Birmingham for 11.15am. It was now time to put birds to the back of my mind for a while and use my charm and unrivaled work ethic to avoid disciplinary action.

So you would imagine that this is the conclusion to this sorry state of affairs but you would be wrong. In my preoccupied state of selfishness I had not realised I was not the only person in our household who was suffering from a touch of bird envy. Of course it was now the weekend and Nadia wanted to see the accentor too.

At around 4.45am we were collected by our pals Kate and Fergus and for the fourth time in a week I was off to County of the White Rose. Whilst the other three in the car were all quite apprehensive, I remained pretty cool, for obvious reasons. I guaranteed them that the bird would still be there and indeed it was.  Despite there still being hundreds of folks who needed to see the bird, that Saturday morning was far more relaxed and civilised. The fine lads and lasses of Spurn Bird Obs were again on site acting as stewards and a structured queuing system was implemented. You waited your turn in an orderly line along the gas works perimeter fence and eventually you would receive a full, hassle free ten minute slot to gawp in awe of the stripy-faced critter.

Siberian Accentor by Dave Hutton.

Once again the rarity showed exceptionally well feeding in its favourite area. Another early morning start and lack of quality sleep the night before were all but forgotten as the crippling views helped energize my soul. With everyone now pretty chuffed it was time to move on to Kilnsea and see what other birding delights awaited us.  As with the week before, those relentless easterly winds had continued to bring in the Redwings, Robins and Goldcrests in decent numbers. There had to be other special birds lurking somewhere among them all and indeed there was.

Shore Lark - Kilnsea by Dave Hutton.

Our first stop was at The Bluebell where a Shore Lark performed like a star feeding unconcerned around the car park. This is a species that is not quite as common in Britain as it used to be during our winter months, and was my first sighting for a good couple of years. We then moved up to the Crown and Anchor pub for a mooch around, however our visit was cut short when news of a trapped Pallas's Warbler was received. After a quick romp around to Church Fields we enjoyed in-the-hand views of the gorgeous sprite before it was safely released. Other species in this area included a few Brambling, Redpoll and Siskin as well as the resident Tree Sparrows.

'Pallas's Warbler showing well!' by Adam Archer.

With Woodcock flying past at regular intervals and a few late Swallow and House Martin heading south you really did not know where to point your binoculars at times. There were masses of birds absolutely everywhere you looked. We then decided to try for one of the Dusky Warblers which had been reported and so we headed down to the canal zone. It was not long before we could hear the distinctive 'teck' repeating away, deep from within a small patch of reeds. After a bit of selective 'pishing' though it suddenly appeared, providing us all with superb views.

Dusky Warbler by Dave Hutton.

As we made our way south towards 'the breach', a Black Redstart was a nice year tick around the old observatory site. At this point a few skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed over along with the odd White-fronted Goose among them. As well as the feathery highlights, it was also great to share the day with some friends who we had not seen in a while. There was also a large contingent of familiar faces from back home, everyone of them strolling around with broad smiles on their relieved faces. The 'Peaky Birders' of the West Midlands really do know how to enjoy themselves on such occasions.

Before heading off, we stopped over at Kilnsea Church where two different Pallas's Warblers showed well on and off in the early afternoon sunshine. The final bird before we left was a mobile and often elusive Yellow-browed Warbler in the Crown and Anchor car park. It had been a splendid end to a pretty manic week.

Oh, I forgot to mention. As we enjoyed this Spurn spectacular, the peace was momentarily shattered by yet another 'mega alert'. Remarkably a third Siberian Accentor had made landfall in Britain, this time near Saltburn in Cleveland. There was absolutely no way I was bothering with that one though.

The Siberian Accentor in Great Britain

This species breeds throughout the taiga zone of northern Siberia across to the western side of the Ural mountains. It spends the winter months mainly in northern China and Korea with a few birds also reaching Japan. Obviously this the first time in our rich ornithological history that the Siberian Accentor has graced our shores however the rest of Europe seems to have done quite well in the past. During October 1987 there was even an 'invasion' of three birds into Sweden.

What has occurred this October though is totally unprecedented with a host of birds turning up in northwest Europe. As it stands at the 12th December, a total of 237 birds have been recorded since the 24th September including 79 in Sweden, 75 in Finland and 12 in Denmark.  Since 15th October a further ten birds have also made it to Britain, therefore all sightings so far, are as follows:
  1. Shetland - Scousburgh, South Mainland - 9th to 10th October.
  2. East Yorkshire - Easington - 13th to 19th October.
  3. Cleveland - Huntcliff, Saltburn-by-the-Sea - 15th & 17th October.
  4. County Durham - Hendon South Dock, Sunderland - 16th to 18th October.
  5. Northumberland - Holy Island - 18th October.
  6. Shetland - Troila Geo, Fair Isle - 20th October.
  7. Shetland - Kirn O'Skroo, Fair Isle - 22nd October.
  8. Shetland - Lund, Isle of Unst - 22nd to 27th October. 
  9. Orkney - Deerness, Mainland - 24th to 28th October.
  10. Northumberland - Holy Island - 25th October.
  11. Shetland - South Dale, Fetlar - 26th October.
  12. Northumberland - Newbiggin-by-the-Sea - 29th to 30th October.
  13. Highland - Avoch, Black Isle - 6th to 13th November.
Please note that all of the above records are pending acceptance. Once the Records Committee of the British Ornithologist's Union accepts the Shetland bird as the 'First for Britain' then the rest will follow. I am already looking forward to the 'Report on Rare Birds in Great Britain' article ..... in the October 2020 edition of British Birds!

There have also been unconfirmed sightings of probable birds at Seahouses, Northumberland on the 16th October and at Thorntonloch, Lothian on the 20th October. I am pretty sure we will receive a fair few more before the autumn is out and maybe one will spend the winter in a garden somewhere. Keep checking beneath your feeders folks!

This blog has been brought to life by the following wonderful people - Tony Barter, Dave Hutton, Steve Nuttall, Jase Oliver, Steve Routledge, Bill Urwin & Mike Watson. Thank you for the photos chaps, I really appreciate it.

Special thanks Lance Degnan for finding the Easington bird and to Spurn Bird Observatory for organising the event. Their team of volunteers did a superb job in handling what was in theory, a nightmare scenario . Please donate generously folks!

Extra special thanks and love goes to my beautiful wife Nadia Archer for putting up with me and my fragile mental state during the past fortnight. Extra special thanks also go to my aunt Dorothy Champkin for the free board and lodgings on that horrible Thursday night 'dip'.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The BAIRD'S SANDPIPER in Worcestershire

Baird's Sandpiper (juvenile) by Dave Hutton.

As we disembarked the Scillonian III on Friday night I heard my usually reserved birding partner Phil Andrews utter a sudden series of unrepeatable expletives. Initially, I thought he had lost the car keys which would have been fair from ideal bearing in mind the 300 mile trip home. I had witnessed Jase Oliver suffer a similar panicked reaction when he lost our keys up on the Isle of Unst, Shetland a few years back. For Phil though this was far more serious. A possible Baird's Sandpiper, a rare, flattened looking American shorebird had been reported from his local patch, Upton Warren. Not only was this a potential new patch tick for Phil but it was also a whole new species for the County of Worcestershire.

As we dried off and scoffed our meal in a Penzance chippy that evening, we scrambled around for some clarification. Within a few minutes I received a text from Kay Donaghay to advise us the identification had been confirmed by 'The Warren' stalwart John Belsey. During the arduous journey back north, Phil was wracking his fatigued brain in order to figure out a way of delaying a few pre-planned fatherly duties and getting down to the reserve as soon as he could. In the end though he accepted that sometimes family does need to come first. He would have to pray to the birding Gods (both the old and the new) that the bird would linger for a third day.

'The Flashes' of Upton Warren NR.

Despite the foul weather we did make pretty good time in getting back up to the West Midlands. I finally hit the sack at around 2.00am, awoke at 6.30am and by 9.00am I was heading back down the M5 again. Despite my tiredness, the drizzle and the gloom, there was no way I was missing out on such a top notch species for this rarity starved region of ours.

As I entered the top floor of the claustrophobic Avocet Hide I immediately stumbled upon a few welcome and familiar faces. Within a few seconds I was watching the bird as it meandered around the muddy margins at the far side of The Flashes. The bird would occasionally take flight for a short distance following a spot of bullying by a moody Moorhen but on the whole it seemed relatively settled.

Baird's Sandpiper (juvenile) by Dave Hutton.

Even through the early morning murk the bird performed very well indeed showing off its range of identification features. The Baird's Sandpiper is a small, short-legged wader but with a long, slim appearance. The primaries project well beyond the tail. In a juvenile bird such as this, the overall plumage tone above is quite buff with the upperparts neatly scalloped. It has a breast band recalling a diminutive, squat looking Pectoral Sandpiper but is less well defined. The head is rather plain but well streaked with an indistinct paler supercilium and light spot above the lores. In flight, it is unlike the similarly shaped White-rumped Sandpiper by having an all dark rump in addition to having thick white tips to the greater coverts and and a pale window across the base of the primaries.

Baird's Sandpiper (juvenile) by Dave Hutton.

Other highlights on site at this fantastically managed reserve included an Avocet, a Curlew, 3 Common Sandpiper and a Kingfisher. It was then time to head back home, put my feet up and tune into watch the Manchester derby (I wish I had not bothered).

By the way, just to let you know, by methods unknown, Phil did actually manage to get on site at some stage during the afternoon. Who knows what promises he had to make to his wife or what degree of charm was used. I am just glad he managed to see it.

Snapper Richards gives the thumbs up!

The BAIRD'S SANDPIPER in the West Midlands Region

The Baird's Sandpiper was named in honour of Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823 to 1887) who was for many years the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The first record for Britain was found on St Kilda, Western Isles on 28th September 1911. Dr William Eagle Clarke suspected the bird was something rare and promptly peppered it with lead. Upon closer inspection it was found to be an adult female in winter plumage.

The species breeds in upland, high-arctic tundra ranging from the extreme eastern edge of Siberia across North America to northwestern Greenland. As the young develop and no longer require brooding by their parents, the adults abandon them and begin their migration. A month later the juveniles follow.

The adults migrate to their wintering grounds in South America via a narrow route through the Great Plains of North American while the youngsters follow over a much broader front. This is one of the reasons why juveniles are often found along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts during the autumn as well as being fairly regular vagrants to Britain and Ireland. It is suspected that they may cover up to an incredible 4,000 miles nonstop.

There have been just three previous records for the whole of the West Midlands region, incorporating the counties of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the metropolitan county of the West Midlands. All records are as follows:

2016 - Worcestershire - Upton Warren NR - juvenile - 9th to 16th September.
2005 - Staffordshire - Chasewater - adult - 12th September only (late identification from photos).
1996 - Staffordshire - Blithfield Reservoir - juvenile - 2nd to 7th November.
1996 - Warwickshire - Draycote Water - juvenile - 28th September only

Friday, 9 September 2016

MEGA ALERT: The AMERICAN CLIFF SWALLOW on the Isles of Scilly

American Cliff Swallow by MP Goodey.

On the 24th of this very month Nadia and I will be heading over to one of our favourite birding locations on the planet to do the decent thing and tie the knot (neither Red or Great). The locality dear reader will no doubt be one of your most beloved places too..... the most splendid Isles of Scilly.

So with a few weeks to go it is usually the case for the groom to arrange some last minute alterations to his suit, to ensure his shoes are nicely polished and for him to rehearse a heart warming speech or two. Well that was the plan. For the keenest British birders though, this is the time of year where 'plans' should be avoided at all costs. For the next few months we need to make sure our schedule is as clear as possible. All social engagements should be avoided, all DIY tasks need be put on hold and most importantly of all, you should always keep a few annual leave days at work spare. If any of that fails though you could always feign injury or develop pneumonia in order to secure a sneaky bit of time for twitching that ultimate autumnal rarity.

Last Tuesday, some thrilling news filtered through from the aforementioned 'Fortunate Isles'. An American Cliff Swallow had been located on St Mary's. I soon mentioned to Nadia that I thought it prudent to head south west and ensure everything was running smoothly at the wedding venue. Maybe I should sample a few more hors d'oeuvres up at the Star Castle just to test the quality of the lobster consomme? Okay you may think this is just another one of those lame excuses we birders throw selfishly into the arena of desperation every now and then. And yes, you would probably be correct but remember folks, things can go wrong. Just a few days before, Will and Kate nearly had their trip to the islands scuppered due to foggy conditions.... ones heart really does bleed for one, does it not?!

Anyway, by some miracle the bird continued to show on and off throughout the week and by some even greater miracle, I along with Phil Andrews found ourselves sitting there in the executive lounge of Land's End airport on Friday morning sipping filter coffee and scoffing hot toasted tea cakes. We had taken the plunge and secured a couple of places on the first available flight that day. By 8.20am our small plane had spluttered its way over a rather small yet choppy looking section of the Atlantic Ocean and we were excitedly touching down at St Mary's airport.

Transport from Land's End to St Mary's.

In no time at all we were positioned on site at Higher Moors and within the first few seconds a single hirundine swooped low over our heads. That would have been way too easy though, it was just one of our native Barn Swallows feeding eagerly in preparation for its perilous migration down to South Africa for the winter. As we made our way methodically down the boardwalk towards Porth Hellick Pool we scrutinized every small movement in the sky. With no sign and with just a couple of other birders assisting with the search we decided to split up. Phil opted for the Stephen Sussex Hide overlooking the pool whilst I concentrated on the loop trail.

Porth Hellick roll of honour!

After a hour or so and with just a single House Martin providing a nanosecond of hope there was still no sign of the Cliff Swallow. The bird had been present until late the previous afternoon and with the gloomy early morning conditions it surely had to be somewhere around the island. At this stage we bid farewell to the showy juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs strutting around the pool and made our way up to Carn Friars to check there. As with Higher Moors, there were plenty of Barn Swallow but still no sign of our target species. We then made our way around to Porth Hellick Down and finally across to the bay area.

'The Loaded Camel' at Porth Hellick.

At this point a little smidgen of fear began to creep in with Phil even whimpering out the ultimate line in negativity "Perhaps it's dead!" As I made my way along the tideline to check the bay for waders and clear my head a little, Phil continued to search the seaward side of the pool. As I was about half way across the beach my pager gave off a brief 'chirp'. I looked down expecting to see a message waffling on about with some minor Scillonian scarcity but no, the Cliff Swallow was showing and even better news, it was just a few hundred yards from where I was standing. I sprinted across the sand and jumped over the bank, nearly defacing the memorial to Sir Cloudesley Shovell in the process. I yelled over to Phil who clearly had not received the same message.

Viewing the pool between the scrub from the bank we could only pick out the usual Barn Swallows and the single House Martin from earlier in the morning. Where the hell was it? Had it been just a brief fly through? With no sign we then scooted around to the nearest hide where an intimate gathering of birders were silently scanning the pool. Within a few seconds we were on to the bird, our first ever Cliff Swallow in Britain. With the pressure now off and with the adrenaline rinsing away the tiredness, we calmly made our way back to the Stephen Sussex Hide where hopefully we could secure a prime position.

American Cliff Swallow by MP Goodey.
American Cliff Swallow by P Hackett.

For over two hours just a handful of birders and I enjoyed this incredible bird to the maximum as it wheeled around the far side of the pool. For the majority of this time it was actually the only hirundine on show which made it easy to pick up again after disappearing briefly behind a willow or pine. Even when it rose high in the sky you could still identify it by the stocky structure, the short straight-ended tail and broad wing base. As it approached closer and with it viewed against the vegetation the large rosy rump patch became obvious as did the pale collar and forehead patch.

Porth Hellick Pool, St Mary's by AS Archer.

Other species on site included the juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs again, 10 Greenshank, a Redshank, 3 Dunlin and a Common Sandpiper as well as a Kingfisher and a couple of very confiding Water Rail. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Temminck's Stint from the previous few days. This diminutive wader is a top notch rarity on the islands, so much so that there have been nearly twice as many Scilly sightings of Semipalmated Sandpiper since 1970.

Lesser Yellowlegs (juvenile) by AS Archer.
Lesser Yellowlegs (juvenile) by P Hackett.

At about 12.30pm the peace was shattered as about a dozen or so birders who had chanced the crossing over on the Scillonian III started to arrive. This coincided with the Cliff Swallow going missing for a short while until I managed to pick it up once more at the extreme seaward end of the pool. As we had intended to walk back along the coast via the airfield we thought it only right to see if we could view the bird from a different perspective. We were glad that we made the effort too as the bird showed remarkably well with a small group of Barn Swallow feeding low over a weedy field at very close range.

American Cliff Swallow by MP Goodey.

Unfortunately a small group over eager birders were not satisfied with such views and promptly jumped over a ditch and entered the actual field. I have been visiting this wonderful place for a fair few years now and have always tried to be a decent birding citizen. A part of this is to respect the rights and privacy of the islanders who have tolerated some questionable behaviour in the past. It could be that certain individuals had permission to enter this area but I would always encourage folk to think and not follow the crowds however tempting it may be. Good manners benefit all of us in the long term.

At this stage we decided to take the coastal footpath around to Tolman's Point, absorb the dramatic scenery and grab a bite to eat in Old Town. Before doing so we enjoyed great views of a Dotterel feeding in the grassy margins alongside the airport runway. Other species in this area included a moulting adult European Golden Plover and a trio of Northern Wheatear.

A selfie with Giant's Castle in the distance.

Following an excellent snack and a celebratory bottle of ginger ale at the Old Town Cafe we strolled the short distance across to the Standing Stones area of Lower Moors. It was here we eventually connected with a smart first-winter Red-backed Shrike in the afternoon sunshine along with a couple of juvenile Whinchat. It was then onto Porthloo where the only shorebird of note was a single Whimbrel among the forty or so Oystercatcher.

We concentrated our final search around the golf course but just like the previous day there was no sign of the two Buff-breasted Sandpiper from earlier on in the week. The only birds present were several Northern Wheatear, a few European Stonechat and Meadow Pipit as well as a large flock of Linnet.

Both pretty exhausted we headed across through Hugh Town and down to the quayside to board the Scillonian III. It was here we spotted our first Sandwich Terns and Turnstones of the day in addition to a few Shag fishing around the harbour.

Transport from St Mary's to Penzance.

With a broad front of low pressure due to follow us back east, the crossing was predictably choppy. In our minds though this was a positive and hopefully we would be able to pick up a few decent seabirds as we sailed back to Penzance. It was not too long after we had passed the eastern end of St Mary's when our first large shearwater appeared, a distant Cory's Shearwater. Luckily though, several more individuals of this species were encountered along the way including some birds outrageously close to the ship. Other highlights included 4 Sooty Shearwater, 6 Manx Shearwater, 3 Balearic Shearwater and 4 European Storm-petrel. We also encountered a large flock of Gannet and a few Fulmar following a decent sized pod of Common Dolphin as well as the odd Kittiwake.

As we approached Penzance harbour, that forecast rain storm eventually caught up with us and soaked us through as we hobbled over to the car park. There was only one thing for it. We made our way around the corner to The Pirate's Rest chippy for a dry off and a delicious meal of Britain's most famous dish. A truly superb end to another autumn adventure. Luckily for me though I would be back here in a few weeks time, to wed the girl of my dreams and to hopefully snaffle my first rarities as a married man. 

The American Cliff Swallow in Great Britain

This species breeds throughout North America from western Alaska to Nova Scotia, the United States and south as far as southern Mexico. When it is not turning up in Britain by mistake it usually spends the winter in South America from Brazil to Chile and Argentina. If accepted, this sighting will constitute only the tenth record for Britain. The full list of sightings goes something like this:

2016 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 6th to 10th September.
2001 - Isles of Scilly - St Agnes - first-winter - 26th October, St Martin's - 26th to 27th October & St Mary's - 28th to 30th October.
2000 - Hampshire - Titchfield Haven - 1st October only (presumed same as Dorset below).
2000 - Dorset - The Verne, Portland - 29th to 30th September.
2000 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 28th to 30th September.
1996 - Church Norton - juvenile - 1st October only.
1995 - East Yorkshire - Spurn - juvenile - 22nd to 23rd October & again 28th October.
1995 - Isles of Scilly - Tresco - juvenile - 4th to 5th December.
1988 - Cleveland - South Gare - juvenile - 23rd October only.
1983 - Isles of Scilly - St Agnes - juvenile - 10th October & St Mary's - 10th to 27th October.


Special thanks to Martin Goodey and to Paul Hackett for their excellent photos.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Frampton Marsh & Football - A Day Out In Lincolnshire

Whilst every other birder worth their salt was up in the north of Lincolnshire hoping for a glimpse of a distant Western Swamphen, I decided to head to the east of the county for a day of tranquil birding and a spot of raucous non-league football. Do not fret readers, I have not turned my back on the twitching scene, I just managed to see the very same bird at Minsmere RSPB the previous month.

A sunflower plantation at Frampton Marsh RSPB.

I arrived at the impressive Frampton Marsh RSPB reserve around 9.00am and was surprised to find just a couple of cars parked up. The first stop was to the largely deserted 360 Hide where a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper was feeding just a few yards away. Further out, there was a large group of around 90 Black-tailed Godwit, circa 70 Dunlin and 6 Little Stint. It was refreshing to just perch up out of the wind, relax in the comfortable surroundings and enjoy the shorebird spectacle unfold. Eventually a few more Curlew Sandpiper came into view as well as the odd Avocet too.

Curlew Sandpiper (juvenile) - Frampton Marsh.
Curlew Sandpiper (juvenile) - Photos by AS Archer.

I then made my way around to East Hide were the distinctive 'chew-it' call of a Spotted Redshank could be heard along the approach track. After a careful scan of the marsh below the sea wall I eventually picked out at least four birds consisting of two smart juveniles and two adults in their frosty winter plumage. There were also plenty of Little Egret, Lapwing, Ringed Plover and Common Redshank to scan through as well as another hundred or so Black-tailed Godwit and a reasonable flock of Eurasian Wigeon too.

Black-tailed Godwit (juvenile) - Frampton Marsh.

From the hide itself there was not a great deal of activity as most of the waders were roosting, including a single Greenshank. There was however a juvenile Little Stint performing well as it worked its way up and down, feeding on the northern side of the lagoon. A quick scan of The Wash itself from the bank produced a pair of distant Dark-bellied Brent Geese and a few more Little Egret. On the return journey a Whinchat was flushed along the access path and a number of Yellow Wagtail passed overhead.

Little Stint (juvenile) - Frampton Marsh.

Following a tip off by the RSPB staff member, Chris Andrews (brother of my all-star twitching companion Phil) I decided to search a lesser known area of the reserve opposite the visitor centre for Turtle Dove. There had been four birds present in the area  earlier in the week however I could only locate the odd Stock Dove and Collared Dove in their usual location. On the small reservoir nearby there were decent numbers of Little Grebe and a varied selection of common wildfowl including a couple of Pintail and a few Pochard. A trio of Northern Wheatear were feeding in the surrounding also farmland and both Green Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper were disturbed from a roadside ditch.

At this stage the heavens opened and I thought it wise to make my way back to the car. As I did so a sodden Hobby was spotted looking particularly sorry for itself as it sat hunched up in a ploughed field. After a quick change out of my soaked birding attire it was then a quick run up to Boston for the footie.

York Street, the home of Boston United.

As a lifelong Manchester United fan I became disillusioned with the whole farce that is the Premiership a while back. The lack of atmosphere at games, the ridiculously high ticket prices, the inconvenient kick off times and the continuous stream of overrated, millionaire players were all contributing factors to why I decided to get my football fix elsewhere. The Glazer takeover of United was ultimately the final straw. There was no way I was going to line the pockets of some greedy American billionaire and his family. Some United fans have said I have committed the ultimate sin and turned my back on the team I love. I always maintain however it was them that abandoned the likes of me!

I had always enjoyed watching non-league football when not following the reds and I would often support my local team Tamworth FC. In 2005 however, a bunch of frustrated Mancunians decided enough was enough and decided to form a club we could call our own. It was at this stage I became a founder member and co-owner of FC United of Manchester. Over our short history we have risen from the Second Division of the North West Counties Football League to the 'heady heights' of The Conference North, just a couple of divisions below the football league. During this time we have gone from ground sharing with the likes of Bury, Altrincham, Stalybridge Celtic and Curzon Ashton to owning a fantastic ground in Moston, North Manchester, all financed by the fans.

The FC United crowd at Boston, that's me in the top right.

A visit to the historic York Street stadium in the centre of Boston is always a treat for the non-league football enthusiast. It is like being transported back to the days of old with its steep concrete standing terraces, chips and gravy and proper floodlights in each corner. Sadly this may have been our final trip here as Boston are currently building a brand new stadium on the edge of town which should be completed in time for next season.

As for the game itself, FC United took a shock 1-0 lead in the rain only to be pegged back with penalty kick from the Pilgrims. FC United then made it 2-1 before once again Boston grabbed a well deserved equaliser to make it 2-2 before halftime.  The second half was a much tighter affair but FC United managed to hit a 69th minute winner following a mix up in the Boston defence. This was only our second win of the season with the three valuable points hopefully helping to consolidate our place in this demanding league come the end of the season.

So there you have it, a superb morning of birding followed by an entertaining 3-2 victory for my football team. What more can a chap ask for hey?

Friday, 17 June 2016

The LONG-TAILED DUCK at Alvecote Pools, Warwickshire.

Long-tailed Duck (female) by Adam Archer.

As I was driving home from work yesterday I noticed an intriguing bird related message pop up on my Twitter feed. The infamous Alvecote Pools stalwart Roy Smith had found a female Long-tailed Duck on my local patch. After brief detour home to pick up my gear, I was soon perched on the north side of Mill Pool along with Warwickshire birding veterans Steve Haynes and Bob Duckhouse who were already watching the scarce sea duck. Admittedly she was a bit of a scruff bag, rather distant and all bleached out in the strong sunlight, but she became a fantastic new addition to my patch list and only the fourth site record in 82 years. With the pollen count extremely high and a moody, teenage daughter to feed I did not hang around for too long though.

Luckily our special visitor did the decent thing and decided to hang around for another day. On my second visit this evening I decided to approach from the village side of Mill Pool for enhanced views. The bird was pretty obliging as she dived and resurfaced in the slightly deeper channel along the southeast side of this very shallow pool. It was from this position where I managed to secure a few record shots.  

Long-tailed Duck (female) by Adam Archer.

The Long-tailed Duck is a scarce visitor to the West Midlands region and mainly turns up during the cold autumn and winter months where it can often linger for an extended stay. Sightings away from the main large deep water reservoirs such as Draycote Water, Chasewater, Belvide and Blithfield are far less common. It is therefore not too surprising that the species is extremely rare at Alvecote Pools, a series of shallow subsidence pools left over from the old coal mining days.

After thumbing through my historic collection of West Midland Bird Club reports from 1934 onwards, I have managed to uncover the following records for Alvecote, in addition to the most recent sighting:

1953 - Warwickshire - female - 20th December only.
1969 - Warwickshire - male in summer plumage - 28th June to 13th July (The first summer record for the region).
1983 - Warwickshire - 4 x birds part of a large scale nationwide movement - 13th November only.
2016 - Warwickshire - female - 16th June to 17th June.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

MEGA ALERT: The BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO on the Western Isles

Black-billed Cuckoo by Dean Eades.

The drama started way back on the early evening of the 22nd May. As I was cleaning myself up after a hard day grafting in the garden, I heard my pager wailing away from the dining room. Usually, that distinctive siren sound induces a mild sense of panic. It is usual for me to make a mad dash for that flashing piece of retro electrical hardware, eager to discover what mega rarity some lucky 'agent in the field' had located.

On this occasion however I just continued scrubbing away at my finger nails, donned my Marigold rubber gloves and rinsed out the sink. The reason for the apathy was that over the previous few weeks, the rare bird information services had been suffering from some kind of nervous breakdown resulting in a worrying case of premature 'rarity alert' ejaculation. If it wasn't a message in respect of a goldfish gobbling pelican from some dodgy French circus, it was the unreliable, second hand news of some wide ranging, hand-reared vulture. In my opinion they had been crying wolf much too often recently. To be honest this wasn't even a proper wolf, with a nasty nip, a ferocious snarl and an instinct to bone your leg. Oh no, this wolf was more like the aging, stringy-haired, spray-tanned simpleton who once minced around on 'Gladiators' during the 1990's.

Eventually I picked up the pager and took a quick peek. Ha, just as I had suspected, an alleged report of a Black-billed Cuckoo on the Western Isles. Yeah right. What would one of those be doing on this side of the Atlantic Ocean at this time of the year? This is a species that very, very, very occasionally lurks in bare autumnal brambles hungrily digesting its own internal organs in some remote south western outpost of Britain. Even its bill superficially resembles the razor sharp, soul harvesting scythe of doom, wielded by the grim reaper himself. It is a species that epitomizes the terrible fate that most transatlantic vagrants will eventually suffer.

I was just about to pick up my phone and cancel my pager subscription when I received a text from my pal Dave Hutton. Attached to that text was a photograph by his fellow bird photographing mate Dean Eades. It was a zoomed in head shot of a red-eyed, black-billed, mega rare American cuckoo. Dean had arrived on North Uist just the day before and was conveniently shacked up in a caravan just down the road from the bird at Bayhead. As that Sunday evening progressed, even more gripping photographs appeared on line. I was absolutely stunned.

Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist by Dean Eades.

Unusually for me I was unable to drop everything at work during the week and head north. I had way too much to do, plus my colleagues had already booked time off with the bank holiday weekend approaching. I simply needed to 'man up' and accept that if I was ever to see a Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain, it would be probably be one of those tragic, emaciated individuals on some wet September morning or windy October afternoon over on some gale battered Scillonian island.

As the week progressed however, and as the bird continued to show well on and off, I needed to put some kind of contingency plan in place. Muted discussions were held between other interested parties regarding the logistics. In the meantime, it seemed as though everyone else who needed this mighty blocker were successfully connecting, whether traveling by the traditional ferry route from Skye, an expensive scheduled flight from mainland Scotland or an outrageously over-priced charter flight from various locations in England.

By Thursday morning I was getting rather twitchy. The bird was still there and we now had to take the matter seriously. There was a slender chance that the cuckoo would still be present during the weekend, gliding around the Loch Sandary area, picking off the local caterpillar population as it flew from croft to croft. I prayed to the birding Gods, both the old and the new, to help keep the bird healthy and remain safe from harm. A team was gathered from all corners of the English Midlands, me representing Warwickshire, Jules Allen representing Staffordshire, Phil Andrews representing the West Midlands (and sometimes Worcestershire) and finally David Gray representing the king-stealing county of Leicestershire.

As is usual with such long distance twitches it was Phil 'the birding cyborg' Andrews who would take the wheel, based on the fact that the rest of us would probably be fast asleep by the time we reached Sandbach Services on the M6. It was therefore the least I could do in sorting out the accommodation for an overnight stay on the Saturday. On Friday morning the news that we were all hoping for eventually filtered through, the bird was still present.

At 1.00am on Saturday morning we all gathered at Jules's house in Walsall to embarked on the long, arduous drive to the Isle of Skye. It was a journey that Jules had already undertaken the week before after spending a fortnight touring both Speyside in the Highlands as well as the Uists themselves. Unluckily for him he had left North Uist just two days before the Black-billed Cuckoo had been found. His enthusiasm for a follow up trip was not diminished however, bearing in mind the magnitude of the rarity we had in our sights.

The Commando Memorial with Ben Nevis in the distance.

As we passed the Erskine Bridge west of Glasgow it was now light enough for the bird to be relocated. We waited nervously with baited breath for positive news via Dean Eades who promised to be out looking as soon as he could bring himself out from beneath his snug duvet. We were also in contact with Dan Pointon and his posse who were also heading north for the same reason. Then came the message from Dan we were all dreading, there had been no sign of the cuckoo between 5.00am and 6.00am following a search by Paul Baker before he caught his ferry back to Skye. 

There were no such messages of optimism from Dean to eliminate the pain either. By the time we reached Fort William the mood in the car was becoming extremely tense indeed. After filling up with fuel we decided to head to an aptly named Scottish sounding, fast food restaurant to help lift our spirits. 

Whilst waiting in the queue for my McPlasticy egg muffin to be cooked, a scruffy looking fellow emerged from the gents toilets with a huge satisfied grin on his face. His distinctive swagger seemed to exude a certain degree of confidence. Never had a gentleman left a public convenience showing this level of euphoria with an accompanying 'lazy lob on' since George Michael did, shortly before his arrest in connection with a Beverly Hills based sexual indiscretion in 1998.

No, this is not what you are thinking folks. This individual was not in fact the infamous, unkempt 'Big Issue' selling lookalike of a twitcher known as LGRE but it was our very own long distance driver Phil Andrews. The reason for the glee smothered all over his face was not due to him having been lovingly brought off by in the toilet cubicle, oh no this was way better than that. He had received a message to say the Black-billed Cuckoo was still present. Needless to say we were all pretty ecstatic.

With the pressure now off slightly we all started to relax a little and enjoy the occasion. In hindsight this seemed a tad over exuberant bearing in mind we still had nearly nine hours to go until our arrival in Bayhead. We finally reached Kyle of Lochalsh and crossed the bridge over to the Isle of Skye at around 10.00am before making our way to Portree. Here we spent a while basking in the warm sunshine at the Eros Centre while a distant Golden Eagle soared, Raven wheeled over the hillsides and Siskin passed overhead. 

We then made our way across to the port of Uig to pick up our ferry tickets and enjoy a spot of lunch in the bar. More top birds were enjoyed at this location with a pair each of both White-tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle along with the odd Common Buzzard. Out in the harbour, a number of Black Guillemot were present along with a Common Eider and a few Shag.
   
Black Guillemot at Uig Harbour by Adam Archer.

Due to a technical issue in trying to squeeze a truck on board, our vessel left about fifteen minutes behind schedule. Fortunately though, good progress was made across the calm waters of The Minch and we arrived more or less on time. As a consequence of the fine weather there was not a great deal of birds to see during the crossing. Apart from several small groups of Guillemot, the only other highlights were the odd Puffin and Razorbill along with a few more Black Guillemot and the odd Fulmar and Gannet. Marine mammals made proceedings slightly more interesting with plenty of Harbour Porpoise, a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphin and the occasional Grey Seal.  

We finally docked at Lochmaddy at around 4.00pm. It was then a nervy and frustrating twenty minutes or so before we were allowed to disembark the ferry and sort out our hire car. Typically we were the last party to receive our keys and whilst we were left standing around becoming increasingly stressed out, all other birders were already racing across to the western side of the island.

Eventually we arrived on site around Loch Sandary near Piable. Judging by the various small groups of birders scattered around, the bird was obviously not on show. There was only one thing for it, we had to relocate the rarity ourselves. With around thirty keen birders and over five hours of daylight remaining our chances seemed pretty good. We met up with Dean Eades who had actually been watching the bird around ninety minutes before we arrived. He helpfully pointed out the area to which it had flown towards. This then became the area most of us concentrated our search upon. 

A further ninety minutes passed by and a touch of tiredness and despondency had begun to set in. Despite us all being pretty exhausted, we continued scanning the fence posts and various clumps of vegetation hoping the American vagrant would reappear. A couple of Common Cuckoo, our more familiar European version, were present and would momentarily cause a snatch of excitement as their distant silhouette propelled their way between the crofts surrounding the loch.

Suddenly, the purposeful gait of one lonely birder could be seen rapidly making his way across to another group of birders over in the distance. All of them were then seen to quicken their pace away from where we were searching. We instinctively began to follow in the same direction when one of the group came to an abrupt halt, turned around and started waving frantically towards us. 

The chase was on and after what seemed like a lifetime and a near case of heart failure, we eventually arrived to where a small excitable group were assembled. The bird was apparently perched among a tiny clump of willows within a small garden but it was now unfortunately out of sight. A few of us hopped over a fence in order to gain an alternative perspective and quietly and carefully made our way around to the other side of the garden. Here we found Josh Jones pointing towards a pallid looking shape among the same patch of green willow. I lifted my bins with shaking hands and bang, there it was, my first ever sighting of a Black-billed Cuckoo anywhere on the planet.
 
Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist by Adam Archer.

The bird stared back at us all, surveying the area with its beady red eye from its vantage point just a few yards away. After about five minutes it then flew out of the willow clump and into a nearby garden where it attracted the attention of a pair of disgruntled Meadow Pipit. This became the theme for the next hour or so where it would perch up for a while scanning for food before moving between gardens and crofts. It would remain on show almost continuously though as it utilised the many fence posts and lengths of barbed wire from which to search for its next meal.

Black-billed Cuckoo by Steff Leese.

We had done it. After a painful week of forced patience, a five hundred mile drive and a two hour boat ride thrown in, we had finally achieved our target. We were a select band of lucky birders to have witnessed a once in a lifetime event, a Black-billed Cuckoo on completely the wrong continent during a beautiful British spring day in May. In birding terms it really doesn't get much better than this.

Between sightings of the bird there was much in the way of smiles, celebration and handshaking. A bunch of birders from the northwest even cracked open a bottle of single malt whiskey and whipped out five shot glasses to toast the occasion.

Prime cuckoo habitat, Loch Sandary by Adam Archer.

As we walked back to the car we could now finally relax and soak up the atmosphere of these magical islands. The sights and sounds of a thousand breeding waders, Oystercatcher, Lapwing and Redshank could be savoured from every direction and the mellifluous song of the Skylark seemed to be on one continuous musical loop. If there is any such place as a British birding paradise, then this is it my friends.

Wearily, we then made our way south to Carinish to drop off our gear at the bed and breakfast. As we unpacked the car, the sounds of calling Twite could be heard and a Northern Wheatear popped up into view. After introducing ourselves to our friendly hosts we then sped off towards the Lochmaddy Hotel for a celebratory drink of our own and some much needed grub. The birding here though never stops as we ticked off both a handsome male Hen Harrier and several Short-eared Owl on our journey to and from the hotel.

Day Two

Despite four grown, snoring men sharing a row of just two and a half beds we all slept remarkably well throughout the night. This in spite of me being touched in an inappropriate manner at one stage. Upon peering out of the bedroom window at dawn the first bird we encountered was a quartering Short-eared Owl followed by a single Twite feeding unconcerned on weed seeds just a few yards away. What a great start to the day.... the birds I mean, not the intimate grope.

We then made our way north to Balranald RSPB reserve where hopefully we would encounter a Corncrake or two. As we slowly made our way down the lane towards the visitor centre we promptly heard our first bird calling away close to the roadside. A stroll back and forth along the same lane produced at least another three individual males 'crex crexing' away from the safety of the lush vegetation. Unfortunately we failed to see any bird but that has to be expected at this stage in the season.

Common Gull at Balranald RSPB by Adam Archer.

Other birding highlights included a single Whooper Swan and a couple of Wigeon as well as impressive numbers of 'common' breeding waders and their chicks. We were all in fits of laughter at one stage as a young Lapwing chick scarpered away from us across a furrowed field a little too fast, only to trip over and accomplish a triple somersault. I take great pleasure in watching human beings go a cropper, however this was million times better. I'm sure a couple of Rock Dove feeding nearby chortled to themselves too. A few graceful Arctic Tern were present feeding around the loch and displaying Dunlin and drumming Snipe were also a sight to savor.

Before heading back for breakfast we called in at Loch Sandary again to see if we could relocate the cuckoo. A few mates from the West Midlands were heading over on the morning ferry so we were keen to help out and put their minds at rest. Unfortunately we failed in our quest to relocate the rarity however two more calling Corncrake were heard and yet another Short-eared Owl passed through the area.

Short-eared Owl on North Uist by Adam Archer.

Between Bayhead and Criminish we encountered several more Short-eared Owls along the roadside, no doubt hunting as often as they could in order to satisfy the requirements of their hungry chicks. Following a tremendous breakfast we bade farewell to our lovely hosts and made our way south across the tidal island of Grimsay and onto the isle of Benbecula. There were still a few more hours of top quality birding to enjoy.

North Uist from the Benbecula causeway by Adam Archer.

The first port of call was a shallow loch where we hoped to locate one of the most stunning of all the world's shorebirds. Viewing from a safe and respectable distance at the roadside we were soon watching a sexy female Red-necked Phalarope. A few minutes later, this original bird was joined by two rival males who were obviously both keen to attract her eye.

Whilst admiring these beautiful birds Phil made his way further along the road where he managed to locate another three phalarope. What a result. In addition there were also two flamboyant looking male Ruff lekking away nearby as well as a winter-plumage Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit. Other species of note included a Red-breasted Merganser, a pair of Arctic Tern and a single Common Buzzard.

Red-necked Phalarope on Benbecula by Adam Archer.

We then made a quick trip across to the aptly named Stinky Bay, a fantastic place to watch waders feeding along the beach at very close range. Here we found a sizable flock of Sanderling, many of which were in their smart summer attire. Among them were smaller numbers of Dunlin and a similar number of Turnstone. There were also a few Ringed Plover among the usual Oystercatcher and Redshank. Offshore there was a fine summer plumage Great Northern Diver along with a dozen Common Eider and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser.

Stinky Bay, Benbecula by Adam Archer.

Unfortunately, with time running out we needed to make our way back northeast to Lochmaddy in time for the ferry ride back to Skye. Yet another pair of Golden Eagle were spotted distantly from the harbour along with a Common Buzzard and a few Raven. An Arctic Skua passed by heading inland and a Shelduck was belatedly added to the trip list. As the ferry pulled away from North Uist both Red-throated Diver and Black-throated Diver were spotted fishing in the bay and finally a White-tailed Eagle was perched up proudly on rocks as we sailed by. An impressive and fitting end to our short time spent on the spectacular Western Isles. The crossing itself was pretty uneventful birdwise, with the exception of a single Great Skua and a few Kittiwake and Fulmar.

Then came the difficult part, heading back south on a Sunday afternoon with the customary slow moving tourist coaches and violent rain showers hindering our progress. Not even a hour long traffic jam alongside the western shore of Loch Lomond could dampen our spirits though and why would it? Especially when a Wood Warbler or two can be heard singing as you sit in a stationary car with the windows rolled down and the sun shining.

We eventually arrived back at Jules's abode just 48 hours after we had originally set off. We had certainly packed in as many birds, as much drama and a fair few laughs during those epic two days. Here's to the next adventure. I can hardly wait.

THE END

Special thanks must go to Phil Andrews for single handedly driving us way in excess of one thousand miles without any assistance whatsoever. Thanks also go to the legend Dean Eades for his help before arriving on the island and allowing me to use a few of his photographs. Big thanks to the lovely Steff Leese for the use of her photograph too.

Also, we cannot forget the finder of the Black-billed Cuckoo, Richard Levett for making his remarkable discovery. Without this amazing find, none of the above would have been possible. Thanks a million Richard.

The BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO in Great Britain

This species breeds from Alberta eastwards across southern Canada and through the northern and central United States south to Oklahoma and eastwards to North Carolina. It is thought to spend the winter in the northern parts of South America, however the distribution is poorly known. It has been recorded primarily from Colombia east to western Venezuela and south to central Peru, though it possibly also occurs in eastern Peru and northeast Bolivia.

The first record for Britain occurred in 1932, when an 'American cuckoo' flew into a shed on Tresco, Isles of Scilly and promptly expired. Mr A F Griffith then exhibited the specimen at a meeting of the British Ornithologist's Club in December of that year as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a species that had already occurred ten times at that point in history. At the next meeting the bird was discussed by Dr P R Lowe, who proved the bird to be an immature Black-billed Cuckoo. The doctor made the new identification from the diagnostic tail pattern of the species. 

If acceptable the North Uist individual will become only the 15th record for Britain. All records are listed below:

2015 - Western Isles - Loch Sandary area, North Uist - adult - 22nd to 31st May.

2014 - Orkney - Holland House, North Ronaldsay - first-winter - 23rd October.
1990 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 10th October (found dead 11th October).
1989 - At Sea - Sea Area Forties on Oil Platform Maureen taken into care 30th September.
1985 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - first-winter - 12th October.
1982 - Cheshire - Red Rocks, Hoylake - first-winter - 30th September.
1982 - Devon - Barnstaple - first-winter - 21st to 22nd October (caught and released).
1982 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 21st to 23rd October (found dead 24th October).
1982 - Isles of Scilly - St Agnes - juvenile - 29th August (found dead 30th August).
1975 - Cleveland - Redcar - trapped and ringed - 23rd to 24th September.
1967 - Devon - Lundy - first-year female - 19th October (found dead 20th October).
1965 - Cornwall - Gweek - moribund individual - 30th October.
1953 - Shetland - Foula - exhausted individual - 11th October (found dead 12th October).
1950 - Argyll - near Southend, Kintyre - first-winter - 6th November (found dead 8th November).
1932 - Isles of Scilly - Tresco - immature - picked up dead after hitting a wall - 27th October.

If you ever wish to see a Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain and you are way too sensible to go rushing off to remote parts of the country, then you do have another option. The first British specimen from 1932 can be found in the Isles of Scilly Museum. In addition to this, the 1950 bird is on display at the Glasgow Museum & Art Gallery and the 1953 bird is at the Natural History Museum in Tring. The only other known specimen, from Devon in 1967, can apparently be found lurking in the archives of Leicester Museum.