The above photo was taken by my birding buddy Chris Bromley, on Barra, Western Isles, on the afternoon of Friday 30th September 2016.
I was sat in my office at work desperately hoping the bird was still present on Saturday evening, as I had finally organised the appropriate transport, and a couple of full cars, to go.
Often, when a bird such as this, fresh in from across the Atlantic, is found on a Thursday afternoon, Saturday is a good bet. But this bird followed the pattern of the two previous, Irish, Kingbirds, and flew off in front of the eyes of the birders watching it, towering high and flying away northeast, then completely disappeared. 77 birders saw it.
There was no way I could have gone on the first ferries or flights due to work commitments, waiting for my mate Al to come off Scilly to join me, and a previous arrangement on the evening of the 30th. So I can’t really regret not seeing it.
Until Sunday 2nd October when a lady on South Uist found the bird in her garden at Bornish. She knew exactly what it was, but wasn’t aware it had been seen two days previously further south. News broke this time at 9.30am, and it was a Sunday – good!
Further hours were spent getting a new crew together then finding flights or ferries. It was apparent that the only real way to get across was on a 9am ferry on Monday, so the waiting had to happen again.
But the bird repeated its Friday flight and disappeared at 13.25, not to be seen again.
Two chances, failed. Only people who keep and care about a British list can understand how that makes somebody feel. Looking at the picture above makes me imagine crashing up to the spot to find the bird still present, putting the bins up and getting that excited rush of relief as you breathe out slowly and feast on a new bird – a first for Britain no less. Then my imagination takes me to the point of the bird getting up and flying, high and then away, further, further until no longer visible. And looking round at other birders’ faces as they look shocked but relieved, knowing that is it – gone. On your list but feeling terrible – but secretly a tiny bit pleased – that nobody else will get a chance to see it. It’s like I was really there.
My whole weekend, from 5.10pm on Thursday evening right through to 7.30pm Sunday evening – when we accepted the bird must then be gone for good and was lost – was consumed by this bird. Even searches for Ghost Orchid at two very promising locations did little to affect my concentration or melancholy.
There are two reasons for writing this post; firstly so there is a report from someone who didn’t see it – so all those others can console themselves with me. Secondly, to provide information on getting the the Western Isles in case something else turns up there that requires swift action. Then we won’t waste hours considering all the options and can just get up and go.
This may not be complete, but it should be good enough to achieve quick travel to these wonderful islands.
Flybe http://www.flybe.com is the only commercial airline to fly to the Western isles. The direct flights all go from Glasgow international Airport, but of course they do connecting flights, so if you are in Southampton or Birmingham for example, you can still get there. Typically though prices are high at short notice, can be up to £400 each way. You may get lucky.
They fly to
- Stornoway – Isle of Lewis
- Benbecula – between North and South Uist
- Barra – southernmost Island. Lands on the beach so flights depend on tides
I am currently working on prices and options for charter flights, but there is one “official” company worth mentioning here, Hebridean Air Services http://www.hebrideanair.co.uk who run scheduled flights to several islands in the Inner Hebrides (for example, Oban – Islay is £65 one way), but for charters different, twin-engine aircraft are required. I haven’t got exact prices yet, but they are likely to be quite high – approximately £2,000 per hour. A flight to Benbecula though is likely to be 40 minutes each way, and the planes can take nine passengers if they don’t have much baggage, meaning a cost per person of c£300-350.
The only Ferry company is Caledonian McBrayne, http://www.calmac.co.uk
All ferries allow cars to be taken to the islands, even the Eriskay-Barra crossing. Sometimes the car capacity fills up very quickly, so if you wish to take the car, you need to book as soon as the news comes on. BUT, foot passengers can just turn up at the terminal and get on without restriction, so no booking is required – so if the bird flies off, you can just change your plan without worry. In fact, going as a foot passenger and hiring a car the other end is actually cheaper if you are just daytripping. For example, foot passenger return (October 2016) Uig-Lochmaddy was £12.20 per person. To take a car would cost an extra £125, but hiring a car and having it delivered to Lochmaddy Ferry terminal would cost £94. The biggest advantage of taking the car is if you wish to depart from a different place to your arrival, if some ferries are booked up and others aren’t.
If you aren’t sure of options or availability, for example if you do wish to take the car, it is best to call them on freephone number 0800 066 5000
Uig (Isle of Skye) to Tarbert, Harris (southern half)
Ullapool to Stornoway (northern half). Ullapool is a lot quicker to get to than Uig if coming from the south
Uig to Lochmaddy (North Uist)
Mallaig to Lochboisedale (South Uist)
Oban to Barra
Benbecula is reached by road from North or South Uist. Barra is reached from Eriskay (can be driven to from South Uist) by ferry.
Journey times are on the calmac website.
In the past, private charter boats have been used by birders, but accidents have occurred!
Weather can affect sailings – for example, the 9am that would have taken us on Monday 3rd, got cancelled due to high winds. Well worth checking up front before travelling.
Hopefully this provides a useful guide. If anyone has any amendments or additions, I’d be pleased to add them.