29th September. Pseudo Shetland

Enough of harking back to the good old days or moping around about not going to Shetland. It was time to get stuck into the patch, this is after all the first time I've ever had an October at Orgreave. So I did just that and got stuck in:

Two laps of the lakes didn't come up with much other than the Ring-necked Duck showing quite well.
In the absence of any Shetland pastry provisions my pie of choice for the day (and my current favourite) was this rather excellent Andrew Jones prize winning pork pie. Available in all good supermarkets and quite simply the most sumptuous pork pie you will eat from a supermarket shelf.  That ought to get me a few samples from Mr Jones (I'm particularly fond of the fidget pie).

This 'crop' field has in the last week produced two Tree Pipits, Whinchat, and a boat load of Skylarks and Mipits. The crop is the failed planting of willow, birch and the usual shit that they pass off as regeneration. 
Lots of Siskin, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Pied Wagtails on the move throughout the morning and on my way across the playing fields, to get the bus, this rather grey looking Yellow Wagtail.  Eastern influence?

So to sum up 1 yank, 1 flava (possibly with some eastern influence), some visible migration and a delicious pie - almost like a day on Shetland, though not really!

27th September. I'm Just a Jealous Guy....

It was Bill Oddie that wrote; Bird-watchers are tense, competitive, selfish, shifty, dishonest, distrusting, boorish, pedantic, unsentimental, arrogant and - above all - envious.  This evening I can just about identify with every single word of it.

If anyone has been following this blog, since it's birth back in that dark October of 2007, they will have been aware of my annual pilgrimage to Shetland. Annual that is until this year.  At the end of last years visit, and for various reasons, Andy and I decided that we would take a break this year. So if you're looking for daily anecdotal updates on days spent thrashing around in ditches, snaring my ball sack on barbed wire fences, drinking dirt cheap blended whisky and of course quaffing a selection of savoury pastries you're out (or in, depending how you look at it) of luck.

So as I write this, on what would have been the eve of the eve before our trip, Shetland is seemingly awash with 'rare'. Every Twitter alert makes my heart skip, I can't stop picking my phone up and refreshing the stream - remember the time when stream was just something you played in or a rather high piss up the school toilet wall? The competitive, selfish, unsentimental and definitely envious parts of me are hoping that this year is absolutely hopeless for rare and as such will scare people off going next year. But lets face it we're not going so it's going to be huge and they'll be even more birders next year - I suppose there's always Scilly....

Not the best photo but for me finding birds of this calibre is what Shetland's all about.
We of course didn't find this , we were never that lucky

The Last Day. 15th October 1987

Okay time to wind this up and jump to our last day on Scilly.

The morning of our departure from the Fortunate Isles came and Rob and I set out early. The two of us would always set out early together simply because we were both equally scared of the other one finding something, this still happens now!  As we set out past the Porthcressa taking a quick look at the   sightings board, a cry went up "Hermit Thrush on Agnes." As the rest of the house were still sleeping we thought it only fair to go and wake them with this piece of joyous news.  I ran into the house and screamed "Hermit Thrush Aggy." The general response was "ha ha nice try." The problem was that during our stay it had become the norm to wake the house with an amusing hoax e.g. Nighthawk on the Garrison etc etc etc..  This was funny for about five minutes and was now painfully backfiring. After several attempts I finally got the house to believe us. Everybody shot out of bed and out of the house heading for the quay.  As we came out of the junction with the main street (by the newsagents) James ran into the road and into the path of a moving Mini Metro, hitting the ground with a sickening thud. Everything seemed to stop. The old woman driver looked traumatised presumably thinking she'd just been involved in Scillies first fatal RTA. A few things flashed through my mind 1. How was I going to explain to James' mum and dad about how their son had met his fate and 2. Could we still make the boat in time to get across to Agnes? At that point James jumped up and carried on running.* leaving the poor old woman shocked and bemused.

*A short time after returning home it transpired that James had broken his collar bone!

We arrived on Agnes and joined the assembled crowd. The bird was no where to be seen since disappearing into thick cover. This twitch would become famous in birding folklore when the bird appeared the following day directly behind where the line of patiently waiting birders had been the previous afternoon. Presumably this was where it had been all the time, just sat there flicking a feathery finger at the gathered mass.

Photo Courtesy of Neil Morris http://www.tarsiger.co.uk/
We left it as late as we could possibly afford to and only had a couple of hours to get our returning chopper. Arriving at the quay we suddenly became aware that there were no available boats. Luckily a small boat belonging the the island doctor was preparing to leave. We begged the doctor and his pilot to take us back to Agnes (had we known James' bust collar bone would have come in useful at this point.) Eventually they agreed.

The previous day a  Parula had been found in Nanquidno Valley, Cornwall. That evening we were offered money for our flights from a couple of Leicester birders but we smugly refused knowing that a Parula at the end of our trip truly would have been the icing on the cake.

Making it back in time we headed back to the mainland.

After scraping enough money together (we were desperately low on funds by now) to get the car out of the Heliport car park we headed towards St Just.  We had a good couple of hours of daylight left, surely this would be enough. With only a couple of miles to go disaster struck, or to be more accurate we struck a Leyland Allegro. To be fair to Rob I rather suspect the doddery old bugger was equally in the wrong. Despite this he insisted on calling the Police asking us on more than one occasion if we had been drinking? We hadn't.  Eventually the local plod arrived. It was obvious how this was going to work out 4 youths in a 2 litre Sierra against an old couple with a dented Allegro and worst of all a broken Thermos.  Sadly the delay cost us the Parula but failed to put a dampener on the trip.  With a bust headlight and a double dip we headed home happy.

I don't remember everyone who was in that house during that classic week but those that I do remember are Fred Fearn, (Mad) Garry, Paul Derbyshire, Marcus Lawson and the late Martin Gilbert. The four of us and the aforementioned (though sadly not Martin) are all still actively birding.

After reading this Jo asked me how I remembered all the details from 25 years ago? Well when a trip is as memorable as this one you just don't forget it...

Leave at your own risk.. 12th-13th October 1987

I can't remember much about the following day, we probably spent it catching up with a few padders on St Mary's; Rose-coloured Starling and Little Bunting spring to mind the latter in a field at Telegraph that responded very well to pishing - the Bunting not the field.  I remember Rob and I walking up to the field boundary wall, Rob did a loud pish and up it popped, I found a Little Bunting on Shetland in much the same manner a couple of years back.

The main news of the day was that a Swainson's Thrush had been found in Cot Valley, Cornwall. This was indeed a rare bird and the first since the last one*, For the old school twitchers this however was a tarts tick, but for kid listers like us it was a mega.  Several from the house (that by now had started to take on the appearance of a squat) decided that they would twitch it the following day. We unfortunately were too poor to contemplate this and pretended not to be bothered (though we really were).

*Before you think thick twat, I put that sentence in for comedy value and still maintain that it was Rob who said, when referring to the occurrence of a Laughing Gull, "there's not been many since the last one" He will deny this I'm sure! 

Sure enough the Cheshire guys left for Cornwall the following morning, whilst we moped apound a bit miffed that there was nothing tickable on offer. The next bit's a bit hazy, but I distinctly remember some bloke running past screaming " ...... Thrush." Obviously something good had turned up, either that or he was suffering from an uncomfortable rash  and in a hurry to get some medicinal relief! Immediately we began running in the same direction, then we stopped! Why were we running? Then some more birders, with a CB, started running and screaming "Eye-browed Thrush Longstones." We re-commenced running. The thrush had been seen in the area between the airfield and the sunken garden and was fairly mobile.  We spent a couple of hours chasing around desperately trying to get a glimpse.  Rob raised a cheer and applause from an assembled crowd whilst taking a hurried diversion across the sunken gardens compost heap, temporarily losing footwear and denting his pride in the process. Eventually it did give itself up and sat in full view for a minute or so revealing its buff peachy loveliness. Seeing this bird gave me so much pleasure that when I visited in '93 I never bothered looking at the one present near Porthloo - for fear of sullying that memory of '87. 
Our housemates who were on their way back from Cornwall failed to see the Eye-browed that day and I don't remember if they connected the following day. *How we laughed! 

Thanks to Jim Clift for letting me use his photo

*I'm sure Fred and the boys will forgive us for that spot of Schadenfreude.

That afternoon, whilst walking casually back towards Hugh Town, we became aware that there seemed to be an awful lot of birders heading in the same direction as us. As that sense of *Scillies paranoia set in a birder from a flat over looking the road raised the sash window and like a scene from a Dickens novel shouted out "where's everyone going cor blimey guvnor"  to which he got the reply "we set sail dor Tresco where Sir Richard of Filby has found a Blackpoll Warbler" of course the question was much shorter and the answer equally succinct, but I wanted to add some literary bollocks.  Once again we found ourselves running. 

*the feeling you get when you don't have a CB or are out of range. Doesn't really happen nowadays due to modern technology. Next time you visit leave your phone, pager and CB in the flat and head to Watermill - you'll soon know what Scillies Paranoia feels like. 

It was late afternoon by the time we docked and we were pushing our luck, fortunately the bird was on show as soon as we arrived,  in the pines next to the Borough Farm chalets.  
I couldn't find an image of the Blackpoll , the Google image search (for Blackpoll Warbler Scilly 1987) came up with some Blackpolls a picture of the lovely *Carmel Pentecost and a tin of Spaghetti Hoops. 
The Cheshire boys had made it back from Cornwall and to the Blackpoll, but their day was about to get worse when a nearby CB crackled "Swainson's Thrush Longstones"  How we laughed (again) though not too loud, remembering we were staying in their house!

It was nearly dark when we arrived at Longstones and not surprisingly there was no sign of the Swainson's. Fortunately the next morning it performed out in the open for all to see - even the Cheshire lads.
Photo by Dr Pete Wheeler

*Carmel is the girlfriend of Lee Evans and would deservedly have been classed as MILF in the 1980's (had that rather charming acronym existed back then).

In awe of the Vireo. 11th October 1987

So there we were, stood in a rapidly emptying Porthcressa. We followed suit and left for bed - at least that's how I remember it. 

The following morning we were up before dawn and heading our way to the quay. We didn't even spend time gelling our hair (which was where the Brat Pack name came from). Arriving at the quay, we were faced with sizeable crowd gathered in anticipation of the first boat loading - it was 5:30 in the morning and pitch black! I don't remember the journey much except that it was still dark and it was a beach landing - though some didn't actually wait for the boat to beach before disembarking. 

With dawn breaking we were dragged along with the crowd to the site of the vireo Borough Farm.  It didn't take long for the bird to be found, though it was distant, foraging along a hedgerow about 100 yards away. Despite crap views we ticked it (we had absolutely no morals back then), then stood around talking, waiting for it to reappear!  By now the crowd was huge, probably in excess of 400 though all impeccably behaved. In those days there was an unwritten rule that photographers were allowed at the front. This wasn’t a problem because in reality there was only a handful and most of them were established names in birding folklore, Cotteridge, Loseby, Tipling, Wheeler and Young – names you could trust.  They would ply their trade in the Porthcressa each evening selling prints of the latest rarities, indeed I purchased a fine pic’ that evening of the Vireo off Dr Wheeler.

Copyright Dr Pete Wheeler
Whilst waiting for the vireo to show again a Corncrake was found cowering or half dying, depending how you look at it and whether or not you needed it – we needed it so it was most definitely the former.  The only snag was that everyone wanted to see it and it only visible by crawling under a hedge with only space for two or three at a time.  Whilst waiting in the very orderly queue we were treated to stunning views of the Vireo as it picked around in the trees just a few feet above our heads. One memory that sticks in my mind is the huge mound of scopes and tripods that were piled up, whilst queueing for the Crake, it really was that crowded that you couldn’t queue with a scope. A bloke being dragged along the lane by a tractor and trailer (as it hooked itself to his rucksack) for a good few yards was an amusing distraction whilst waiting for our turn in the queue, fortunately only his pride was dented.  The Corncrake was a vision of health occasionally closing its eyes to have a little nap, during our viewing it appeared to be having a particularly long nap - I'm not sure that it actually ever woke up again!
Part of the Vireo crowd including us. Originally from an article in Birdwatching 
Having had our fill of the Vireo (if that were possible) and the Crake  we headed off for a further three ticks; Spotted Crake at the Abbey Pool, Richards Pipit on the Cricket Pitch and a cracking Rose-breasted Grosbeak feeding on blackberries . All showed well with the Grosbeak even giving us a flash of its rusty red underwing. This truly was the Scilly that we had dreamed of, 7 ticks in 3 days. 7? Err yes; didn’t I mention I also ticked Stonechat?

That evening we celebrated our tick fest with an evening in the Porthcressa.  We were probably a little less honest about our bumper haul when the tick tin was passed around, admitting only to the Vireo and the Grosbeak.  The Porthcressa log call was followed on a couple of nights each week by the now legendary Porthcressa Disco.  This consisted of a basket meal, bar and a cheesy disco playing the current hits of the day (which being an isolated island community was around 1982). The thing with birding Scilly in the 1980’s was that it was predominantly a male dominated environment and this extended to the disco. Any outsiders to the birding community stumbling on this salubrious night spot would be forgiven for thinking that they had wandered into the Isles of Scilly's one and only gay bar, even more so if they had spotted the white suited gent in slip-on shoes gyrating among the more common wax jacketed revellers!

We probably slept well that night, though I don't recall whose turn it was to sleep on the bed....

Tune in next time to see why leaving Scilly for a rare on the mainland can cost you dearly.

Four Go Mad On Scilly 8th - 15th October 1987

Sad news recently that the Scillies helicopter service will cease from November.  Whilst reading of its fate I was thrown back to my first Scilly trip, 25 years ago in October 1987.

 In those days birding magazines consisted essentially of British Birds and two 'new kids on the block' namely Birdwatching and Birding World.  Pagers, mobile phones and the Internet were practically unheard of. Birding entrepreneurs, Millington and Gantlett, had a stranglehold on information with the premium rate service Birdline. Many birders Dad’s must have been disappointed when they discovered that the 0898 numbers, that ran to several pages of the phone bill, were in fact the aforementioned rare bird service and not madame X’s naughty talk – perhaps young Johnny was gay after all? With a combination of limited funds and the lack of literature I often took to reading old back numbers (usually obtained free) of British Birds. Among these was the 1985 rarities report and for a 17 year old possibly the most exciting magazines I had ever held – hardcore porn was not freely available in 1987! The whole report was dominated by the October '85 Scillies rare fest – still regarded by many as the greatest fall of American land birds ever.  Positively drooling I just had to go there.

Black and white pictures was as good as it got back then.
So it was, that after a spectacular late August Norfolk trip in 87’ (a classic in its own right) we set about booking our flights to Scilly. Even in 1987 the chopper was an exorbitant £65, a full two weeks money for a YTS at Rumbelows , my occupation at the time.  The ‘Norfolk four’ were now reduced to three with my old school pal John discovering that girls were better than birds (as if) and packing in birding. In his place we were joined by James (nowadays Jim) Clarke, with whom I’d enjoyed a great Speyside trip earlier in the year.  The Scillies 87’ team consisted of me, the Fray’s and James, or the brat pack as we were later christened!

A few days prior to the trip Rob’s car engine seized, fortunately Rob’s Dad Mic (top bloke) had a garage and loaned him a 12 month old 2.0S Sierra, Rob and I were only 17 with James 16 and Richard only 14!! We surely must have been the coolest looking kids to hit the southwest that October, though 4 scrotes in a stolen Sierra would have been more accurate!

The evening, before the trip, we stocked up on provisions from Tesco. As everyone knows there are no shops on Scilly, in fact everyone lives in upturned boats and feeds only on food salvaged from the shoreline – or so we thought.

 Being on a budget our chosen accommodation for the week was a luxurious 4 berth tent that we would pitch on the sheltered Garrison camp site.With a few good birds already on Scilly and a crippling Black and White on the way in Devon we were on our way……

Due to the youngest member of our group being blind, and subsequently dipping,  we spent too long at the Black and White and a speedy dash across Devon and Cornwall didn’t stop us missing our Scilly connection. Fortunately we managed to get on the last flight, though by the time we arrived at the camp site it was pitch black. No worries we would pitch our luxury 4 berth tent then relax after a delicious meal of corned beef and tinned tomatoes. Except the tent was actually a two berth and the meal tasted like shit! After a dreadful wet, windy and cramped night in the tent we awoke to our first birding day on Scilly….

The order in which things happened is a little muddled, but I'll do my best.

A Red-eyed Vireo had been present on the campsite for a few days and after a while finally showed in the large Garrison pines. The highlight of the day though was Rob bumping into a couple of birders that he'd met at Spurn in the spring. Turned out they were renting a house in Hugh Town and as Rob had shown them mercy and given them a lift from Spurn to Hull back in the spring, they returned the favour by offering the four of us a room in there cosy rented house. Cosy in the sense that there were now fourteen of us sleeping in it.  Compared to the tent it was indeed a palace and after pleading with the campsite owner for our money back we moved in.

That night we attended the obligatory Porthcressa log call.  The log consisted mostly of smelly men (and some smelly women) in waxed jackets, some still wandering around curiously with their birding equipment around their necks. Mike Rodgers systematically went through a list of the days sightings pausing to add observers counts and occasionally inject some humour into the proceedings. At the end Mike made an announcement, which went something like this;"This evening I've had a call from Dick Filby on Tresco. He has found a Philadelphia Vireo" The room fell silent then emptied quickly, as though someone had removed the lid off a biscuit tin of dog shit.......

To be continued...

10th September. Expect the Unexpected

With unsuitable winds, high water levels and a general feeling of apathy, birding of late has been tough going. The latter being a major contributor to the recent lack of posts. The will to write has been there, in fact during these slow spells of birding I've come up with many post ideas complete with cheesy titles and humorous* content. The problem is that once I sit at the computer it all vanishes and the moment passes.
*my dad always says only crap comedians laugh at their own jokes

This mornings pre-work patch visit was one of these virtual blog post ramblings - kind of like talking to yourself but without saying the words aloud.  I'd decided that as the sun wasn't shining I'd take the anti-clockwise route and take in the new spillway. I thought to myself "that's where they'll be a Pec or a Buff-breast, but more likely a Pec."  My mind then started to wander, making up post titles such as Pec's Appeal and show us your Pec's - both of which are making me cringe as I write this.  I didn't find a Pec or any other wader for that matter, a familiar story for over a week now.

One thing that has been noteworthy is the continuing increase in ducks.  On Saturday I counted 175 Tufted Ducks, a site record and a notable count anywhere in the Sheffield area.  Having a scope gave me a good opportunity to have a good look through them. There's been a few 'scaup-faced' tufties of late but that's all they were. I didn't visit Sunday due to other arrangements i.e. doing a car boot sale (is there any sane reason why they start at 5:30am?) and some urgent pointing around the upstairs windows.

So three paragraphs later and I'll get to the point of this post.

After scanning the western edge of the lake then the edges of the small lake and noting no waders I started to scan through the ducks. A few more Pochard had arrived, since the Saturday visit, and as I scanned through them a tufted type, but with an obvious clear white band on it's bill after the nail, hit me between the eyes. Shit, Ring-necked Duck? Only having binoculars it was difficult to appreciate it and I erred on the cautious side not convinced that the bill or the head shape were 100%. For Gods sake it was only a Ring-necked Duck not something tricky like a female Lesser Scaup. To be frank I've  never seen an eclipse Ring-necked Duck nor a female for that matter (not that that's relevant). Luckily I did have the camera and rattled off a few record shots. Having to leave for the bus didn't help matters nor did the duck going to sleep. On the bus I had the chance to review the photos and by the time I was halfway to Sheffield I was happy that my initial gut feeling was right. It would have been a different story if I'd had the scope and photos never give you that 'in the flesh' feel, but I usually find that if you stick with your gut feeling you'll seldom go wrong..

Easy now, zoomed up and sat at home in front of the PC

But in reality this is what it looked like through just bin's

I needed one more species to equal last year self found patch list, I have a list of things I expect to find but this wasn't on it. A birding friend said last week that I should expect the unexpected. Perhaps I should disregard the list, from now anything goes!