LESSON TO ALL TWITCHERS: If you procrastinate, aren’t sure whether to go for a rare bird, can find every excuse not to, think it may not get accepted, etc etc. GO FOR IT.
You will always regret not going afterwards, and you will never forget that you could’ve gone, that you were offered a lift, if in the long distant future, you didn’t get a second chance.
That mentality is what finally got me off my arse to go for Europe’s first Red-winged Blackbird. I missed the first wave of plane seats, spent a week at work getting less interested in the bird, but more bothered about not having seen it, then Chris Bromley offered me a possible place on a plane on the Thursday, which didn’t come off. Subsequent conversations with Dan the Man Pointon and Ashley Howe produced the option of a day return ferry coupled with a charter boat, at relatively low cost. Add to that the promise by N Ron Bird Obs that they would check for the bird before the ferry departed, and give us a lift to it, this seemed ideal.
Matt Wilmott, Ash and I hit the road Friday evening, and after an incident involving Ash, a Tebay Services Sandwich and a Sock in the Highlands, we arrived at John ‘O Groats at 6am, the first there. We were soon joined by Andrew Kinghorn, Chris Bell, Mark Rayment, Andrew Lawson etc, all taking the ferry on, but some taking flights from thereon.
The area around John O’ Groats was alive with birds, including the ubiquitous Oystercatchers, as well as a flock of Twite and a lovely Sand Martin Colony on a small sandy cliff by the beach next to the ferry terminal.
News came that the bird was still present, so we boarded the Foot ferry for the 40-minute smooth journey to Burwick, on South Ronaldsay. From there we joined one of three coaches due to take us onwards to Kirkwall for our charter. Us and 300 American tourists that was. The 40-minute drive to Kirkwall was part of a guided tour of the islands, so we suffered a barrage of historical facts and terrible jokes, stopped at the top of a hill to give us the chance to photograph some rocks, but not at the Summer Plumaged White-billed Diver that we passed close inshore. Ah well, at least we saw some furry pigs.
The “Agricola” was waiting for us on Kirkwall Harbour, and we were soon crashing through the waves northbound, at 26 knots (about 35mph). The sea was flat calm and the mist and murk turning to sunshine, but some of the tides and currents meant a slightly bouncy ride. Feeling both feet leave the ground for about two seconds whilst ploughing through the sea at speed is quite an experience!
We arrived at North Ronaldsay at about 11.45, and were duly taxi’d to the spot by Simon, Warden and finder. It was a glorious sunny day by now and we were the only birders there. Within two minutes the bird voluntarily left the iris bed it had been in for most of the week, and flew onto a wall in a nearby garden, did a circuit of perches there, then flew back towards us and onto wires above our heads. Over the next hour it came out two or three more times, often flying right past or next to us, landing on fences, walls, houses and wires, and flycatching actively, completely unconcerned by our presence.
It was a really nice bird actually, and seemed to be behaving perfectly naturally – it called regularly as it flew around, a gentle chipping sound – surely not the behaviour of an ex cage bird, more that of a wild ship-assisted one?
After getting provisions we rejoined the charter boat and took a much easier journey back, with the wind behind us, arriving back in Kirkwall about 3.30pm. A taxi was waiting for us this time, so we could go to the White-billed Diver and actually stop to have a look. This was done – most successfully, with the bird staying very close inshore at the north end of South Ronaldsay. An absolutely stunning bird, one I had always wanted to see looking like this. Unfortunately, my camera and phone batteries were now dead, so I had to use the work mobile through the scope. This is the best I got.
The ferry back to John O’ Groats was equally eventless, and then began the seemingly eternal drive back to Worcestershire, with us all completely knackered. Fuelled purely by Ardenaline, we made it back, having shared the driving three ways, and without further need for a sock, at 4am on Sunday morning.
Now it is just the wait to see what the BOU think of its origins…..