The unsound approach

The Peregrinations of Rick, autumn 2009 solo special....

Take your pick of classic destinations for rarity finding. Then go there and find (almost) nothing!

So, autumn 2009 then. Where to go, what to do? The rest of the team were lining up another full frontal assault on the Arans in early October. After an encouraging year in 2008, the temptation was there to tag along, but work commitments meant I could not make their dates. Thankfully, this turned out for the best....

My failure to persuade any other chumps such as Trousers and Baynes to get interested in an autumn trip (both claiming cash flow, work and love issues) meant I was on my own. Thus a long trip involving a car became prohibitively expensive, and a small island very attractive and cost-effective! I had two weeks available, with the first starting on the 26th September and the second on 10th October. After ignoring various pleas from the Mrs to stay at home and play guitar hero on the wii (actual footage here), it was time to pick an island and roll the dice…

Part 1 – 26th Sep to 3rd Oct – Fair Isle

The timing at the end of September suggested a trip north, with the obvious choices North Ron, Fair Isle and Foula. I’ve never really fancied Orkney for some reason (ed. Rick, look at this autumn!), and Foula is fully covered in the autumn so the magic isle was the choice. With no Obs available, alternative accommodation was found at the excellent South Light and the ever complicated logistics involving a train-coach-plane-bus-ferry-taxi-plane combo over 28 hours were organised. This was clearly a unique opportunity. With no Obs I figured there could not be more than a dozen birders on this island at any given time, thus presenting the best opportunity to find rare birds in the history of mankind. I was as excited as a really excited person with a special reason to be excited…I even took to carrying a notebook in order to record the vast hauls of scarce I was bound to encounter.

Aside from a slight weather delay at Tingwall and too many beers on the Lerwick ferry, the trip up was relatively uneventful and I was soon on the island. Getting off the plane I crossed paths with Andy Seth and Pete Stronach who had there for the past week, not seeing very much. Also with me on the plane were Ian and Lynne Cowgill, who were staying in the same digs and Chas Holt who was meeting up with a gang of ex-AW’s. Not many birders around! Excellent.

Digs present and future

Over the first couple of days the weather was a disgrace. Continuous strong W or SW winds with quite a bit of rain made birding very difficult and the chance of anything from the east was virtually non existent. After covering circa 400 miles across the island, all I had to show for myself was a few Lapland Buntings and the odd common migrant here and there. Indeed, my shinny new notebook managed a two day total of 1 Garden warbler, 1 Grey Wag, 1 Dunnock, 2 Whinchat, Lesser-throat, 4 Willow warbler, 7 Chiffchaffs and lots of geese*. Not exactly awe inspiring stuff. As the old adage goes, the biggies travels alone and with the winds in the west and constant reassurance from James, I was expecting to find a Canada Warbler at any minute... *(ed. sounds like Inishmore!)

Must do better than this…Lap and Field Guillemot – last seen being thrown over a cliff by one of the AW’s

The chief highlight of the next few days was the arrival of Peter Walsh and his irrepressible sister at the South Light, which provided the much needed entertainment through the evenings as no beer was available (due to bad weather and the 14 workmen building the obs).

Bird wise things were still really desperate. Numbers of common migrants declined and the only bits of any interest were a very mobile Rosefinch between Quoy and Midway, the Richards Pipit in flight near Quoy (this bird had been around for some time), a Slav Grebe in the south and a small scattering of NW style Redpoll. Four days gone, no finds, no birds, crap weather, nothing nationally, no TV, no Beer = desire to sack it and go for Sandhill Crane on the way back instead.

NW redpoll, and more Arctic (in)action

Finally on the 30th, a good bird. I was half way along field burn when Chas got on the phone, he had just found a Pechora in the crop field between Quoy and Kirkaby. This is more like it! I arrived 10 minutes later and it was apparently still in the crop but out of view in the furrows or vegetation. After around 10 minutes it flushed out of the crop and headed over towards the East Cliffs after muttering a couple of quiet Tsep calls in doing so. A few of us went after it and eventually it was refound, ultimately finding its way back into the same field and started showing a bit better. Great!

Pechora – the highlight of the week, unfortunately…

The rest of the day was disappointing, despite renewed enthusiasm and the news that Pechora Pipit was actually more numerous than mental pie combinations on Shetland for a few days. The evening entertainment was provided by Pete and his unfinished DVD’s. Three titles (or tasters) were viewed:

1) Scillonian Pelagic – I give it 8 out of 10. Great footage of all the species, especially the 2001 Fea’s.
2) Birds of Fair Isle – apparently needs Tips and YB Bunt adding but looks great
3) UK Rare birds

Watch this space…Although they may never get finished!

The final couple of days were just as dire as the first two. Veeries pizzed me off massively being so close and yet so far, and it’s inconceivable that I didn’t find a bloody Arctic Redpoll! Highlights were very few and far between. Some more duff stuff like Snow buntings came and went, as did at least 3 Rosefinches, which were the only birds of any real note. The daily routine involved eating loads of food, lots of trudging around being miserable, getting a good soaking, getting a phone call about something good on the rest of Shetland, going to sleep somewhere near Klingers Geo, more trudging, getting chased by Ram, eating more food… and being regailed with the confirmation, "This is really bad shit Rikky boy" from Golden Holden in the evenings.

Rosefinch at Quoy. This was one of two un-ringed birds knocking around the south of the island. Purple Sand – not actually rare at all but a different species at least

The final day was as miserable as the rest and the weather looked decidedly dodgy for getting of the island and escaping. I then realised that escaping early might be a safer bet for avoiding the winds and also may allow a foray up north…thankfully, Ian and Lynne were doing exactly the same thing an very kindly offered me a ride on the other side, thus negating the need for a hire car.

After a short flight into Sumburgh, Ian picked up a car and before long we on the ferry to Whalsay. Not realising that the Veery was within 12 feet of the ferry terminal, we opted to take the car with us, as did everyone else cueing up at Laxo. With a long line of cars now parked in the ‘booked’ line behind us and a few building up in the ‘unbooked’ line, typically, ‘there is always one jobs-worth’ with a lady dishing out the orders that “you won’t get on from the booked line unless you are booked”. This resulted is some interesting driving skills from Bagnell trying to manoeuvre into an optimal position, hedging his bets while avoiding the angry women trying to issue orders…

Obviously, we just drove onto the ferry without any issue and were soon scooting around the gardens getting good but brief views of the lovely Veery. Great Bird. Of course, at a decent size twitch and close proximity to the bird, it never showed for long, as some chumps never shut up long enough not for it to show well. On one occasion the bird perched up on a stone ledge in full view for everyone until one egit bellowed “IT'S ON THE WALL!!!”. Unsuprisingly it wasn’t for much longer. Idiot. A source of humour however was Lynne giving Stu Piner a great big kiss (ed. sloppy?) for getting her on the bird…

Eventually the Veery flew up the hill and was lost for a while until I relocated it in a nearby garden and was able to watch it feeding on the edge of the bush for a few minutes in full view. Brilliant. Unfortunately, I stayed with the Veery instead of going for a bonus Pechora at the other end of the island. In hindsight, this was a mistake as the Veery did not show again whereas the Pech was showing really well. Never mind. Ian kindly dropped me off at the ferry terminal and went off to stay with Roger Riddington at Virkie for the next few days, finding an OBP in the process and seeing some nice bits and pieces.

American cracker. Saviour of the Shetland half of the trip, and another quality find from Team Stronach/Seth.

So... seven days with Fair Isle to myself and all I could muster was a lousy Rosefinch. And that is probably only countable under Punkbirder new ignorance rules! Pretty rubbish. In the following days (as was to be expected) things picked up with both Savis and River Warblers and an Arctic Redpoll. You win some, you lose more!

Species: Ram (Ovis monsterii gigantor)
Mass: 1.6 – 1.9 tonnes
Habitat: Fields with ditches that looks great for Locustellas and Luscinias.
Identification: Size and shape of White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum)
Status and Distribution: Scarce around Fair Isle but found chiefly in fields with nice looking ditches.
Behaviour: As White Rhino. Usually seen chasing birders foolish enough to attempt fields within its domain. Consequences of physical interaction with creature: "rammed up the arse" do not bare thinking about!
Voice: Similar to Stegosaurus but louder and more roaring

Some useful advice at Sumburgh Airport. If I remember my science correctly, hot water can also be very cold if you freeze it

Part 2 – October 10th to 17th – Scilly

The plan was to flog my guts out on Fair Isle finding stuff and then having a more relaxing week on Scilly arseing around twitching stuff and eating pasties. We all know birder numbers are a fraction of the heyday counts, maybe just 2-300 observers were present this autumn.Whatever the figure, it's easy to lose the 'masses' and have some space to yourself. Tip 1) is to avoid anything on the pager. This includes utter rubbish like Whinchats and Black Reds which will inevitably draw the eager punters. And 2) implement my strategy of going to the quay and getting on the boat with the least number of birders, paying attention that you are not boarding a trawler bound for Biscay with the potential to be savaged by a Turbot (or worse end up on an October Pelagic!). Using these two tips, I successfully avoided most birders, certainly on Martins or Bryher and even on Agnes. In any case, Scilly is a much nicer place than Shetland; with lovely beaches, pubs, Andy n. Vic, scenery and usually some sunshine to enjoy.

There are few things which can be guaranteed on Scilly during an October mission, but these include:

1) The 'Wolf Burger' mainstay (but also the certainty that the guy with the chip van will have shut up shop for some inconceivable reason [e.g. tsunami risk])
2) You will have to answer the question "Where's the Yellow-brow" asked by someone standing next to you whilst an Inornate Warbler is piercing your ear drum directly in front of you.
3) Holden will have to leave for a tick elsewhere
4) Spoonbills will be gettable with a scope at 3 miles range from the Garrison
5) Something of interest WILL turn up (usually)

Many bird-finders have shunned Scillies over the past two decades. But that old excuse, 'birder density', obviously does not hold water anymore. Scilly's recent underperformance is totally related to a lack of observer coverage by competent rare-hunters. Sure, there are plenty of really good birders out there who will inevitable turn stuff up, but there are also plenty who are just in it for twitching anything that appears on the pager, be that Raddes or Whinchat. I’ll never forget the time I jogged up to a crowd of 40 people only to discover they were watching a Turtle Dove! Anyway, Scilly is a BIG place so you have to fancy your chances if you work hard enough.

Anyway, ranting over. Arriving on the islands at 9.30 I had a straight choice of Tresco for the long staying Dowitcher, or Agnes for the Richards/Tawny/Blyth’s/Tree/Paddyfield/large pipit. Had it been a Blyth’s then I probably would have traipsed over there, instead I opted for the Abbey pool where the Long-billed Dowitcher was showing pretty well. By this time there was a potential Eastern Bonelli’s on the go, so an early boat back to Mary’s was in order. Mr Holden managed to charter a jet boat from Agnes to get back (footage here taken from the Garrison) but unfortunately the bird was never seen again. The standard Lower Broome Yellow-brow put in an appearance late afternoon, as did a prerequitsite Wolf Burger* in the Bishop with a few beers. (*ed. is Rick getting sponsorship?)

Dowitcher on the Abbey pool, first one on Scilly since ’85 apparently! (ed.: 19th -24th December 1985)

Determined to find myself some space on the islands (cf. this resembled the scene for a Mary’s Jack Snipe twitch) I headed for Martin’s where very little had been seen the day before, save for a Red-backed Shrike on the eastern side. A quick look around the cricket pitch produced a Yellow-brow and a few Chiffs & Blackcaps, then a wander through Little Arthur Farm was generally disappointing. A quick loop around the eastern end failed to unearth the shrike. Walking back past the top end of the farm, I caught an interesting call off to the left seemingly from the field with all the geese in. Bowling over, I flushed a group of about 30 pipits out the field, one of which immediately made a loud, obvious “Speeeehh” noise. RED-THROATED PIPIT! Of course, as all rare pipits are apt to do, it refused to settle and bombed off to the west with the pipit flock, still calling loudly. To cut a long story short, the next few hours were spent chasing it around, eventually getting some good views on the deck, and explaining to 85% of the birders who turned up how to identify it. At least it was calling all the time in flight, so didn't go missing for long.

Red-throated Pipit, back of the net! The only decent bird I managed to find unfortunately!

I left myself about 2 hours to cover the rest of the island which was uneventful, producing only some common migrants and a couple of smart Firecrests. Back on Mary’s at 5pm I undertook the surprisingly long (and regular) trudge up the island for a Little Bunting at the end of Porthloo Lane. This was instantly recognisable as a Scilly twitch with the bird at the back of a field you can’t access and the only decent viewing from a single 5-bar gate (ed. having played fotball against Rick we know he's got a good legal shoulder-barge). After a bit of a wait, the bird did show distantly but views were lame.

Arriving at the Quay the next morning just in time to watch a packed boat leave for Martin’s I kept up my strategy and went in the opposite direction to Agnes. Quite a few migrants were around with Chiffs, Blackcaps and a single Common Redstart. 5 Whooper Swans occupied the Big Pool, 1st records for Agnes for 10 years so I’m told. Three YBWs put in an appearance including one that paraded in front of an oblivious crowd. I managed to dip the Wryneck which had been around for a few days, but was lucky enough to bump into the 'mobile and elusive Rosy Starling' near the Coast Guards Cottages along with a couple of Ring Ouzels. So a few bits and pieces but nothing to write home about. The weather was still gorgeous, t-shirt temperatures and not a breath of wind, that’s the big plus point of Scilly. Sitting on your arse in the sun with a pint and easily available tasty pub lunch.

Yellow browed Warbler on Agnes, somewhere, can’t remember which one this was. And pale Rosy Starling

The next couple of days were disappointing. The only birds of note were a stonking Richards Pipit on Bryher, which showed really well on the campsite for most of the day; by far the best one I have ever seen. Back on Mary’s a second Rosy Starling put in a performance around Tollmans and the traditional ‘Windsock’ Wryneck was eventually bagged. The Starling was interesting as it was much darker than the Agnes bird (ed. Daurian Rosy Starling, paradoxus morph?).

overlooked elsewhere as Song Thrush?


Dark Rosy Starling on Marys and the Windsock coast path Wryneck, so predictable in autumn that I'm pretty sure they breed in that rocky outcrop at the end.....

Yesterday's Radde’s Warbler on Martins was bound to be popular, and so it proved, with two boat loads and 150 people heading across in the morning. Of course I went in the opposite direction to Agnes and remember talking to a few other birders on the boat that there was little chance of seeing that bird with that many people around, and the next day would be far better! First on the menu was a kick around Gugh which resulted in little more than some Redwings, so I had soon worked my way through Covean and up to the Parsonage. After about 6 seconds of trying to see a Yellow-brow which was calling somewhere further in, I turned around and headed down the path towards the Chapel Fields, only to glimpse a passerine with white in the tail as it dashed across in front of me. Thankfully, it immediately flew back across into the Parsonage. RBF! Cool. This bird was to show on and off for the rest of the day, apparently undertaking a wide feeding circuit and only spending short periods of time within viewable areas.

Pied and Spotted Flys were also present in the Parsonage, but the rest of the day did not deliver. I managed to see the Starling again, but failed to locate yesterdays Melody around the chapel fields. Back on Mary’s, a quick loop around the Garrison before dinner was in order, but cut short by Spider driving past informing me of a Radde’s Warbler in Carreg Dhu gardens (a good 20 minutes before it found its way onto the pager). After a good slog over the island I joined a few others tarting around not looking at anything. Apparently it was glimpsed earlier in the pine belt at the back of the gardens. Anyway, after 30 minutes or so, someone got a brief view and I managed to see the bird (claimed to be it!) fly across the back of a fuchsia hedge and disappear again. It did call a couple of times though which made me a bit more comfortable but certainly not countable on those views. Arse. Thanks to Ian, Steve, Dave and Midlands crew for the beer and chat that evening!

Unsurprisingly, most people going for the Radde’s on Martins yesterday had dipped, and more importantly were not willing to give it a second try given the one on Mary’s. Thus Martins would be clear! The boat trip across took bloody ages due to very low tides (walking between Samson and Tresco looked possible) and landed at Higher Town meant a long walk to Little Arthur Farm on the other side of the island. I was only beaten there by one other chap, who was clearly more determined than me to get there before anyone else!

After spending some time looking around I booted a warbler out of one of the northern fields, which promptly disappeared before I could even get my bins on it. Thankfully, my new friend (who spent 6 1/2 hours yesterday dipping the Radde’s) was nearby and called me over to the Little Bunting which showed brilliantly in full view! After a bit longer, the other chap made his move away now having spent around 8 hours dipping and, of course, within 2 minutes, I refound the Radde’s Warbler in the crop field just north of the farm buildings. With just me there, the bird showed brilliantly well taking caterpillars out the crop then flicking up to the bushes to eat them. Absolutely brilliant thing! I got the news out immediately and thankfully the other chap found his way back, got good views, and then shook my hand! The Little Bunting showed on and off as well but was generally elusive. There were stacks of other migrants around, with plenty of Chiffs, Blackcaps, thrushes, Firecrests and a couple of Ouzels.

Radde’s Warbler, Yellow Brow and Little Bunting combo on Martin’s (the Red-throated Pipit was only 100 yards away) – got to love Little Arthur Farm which is becoming my favourite site on the islands!!! (ed. Patagonia Picnic Table Effect to be renamed, field with domestic stock at Little Arthur Farm, St Martin's Isles of Scilly Effect [?)]

The final day was spent around Mary’s with nothing new of note. The Wryneck appeared again but migrant numbers seemed lower. A disappointing end.

Final Thoughts

So that was it. Two weeks of birding at the best sites, not much good weather, no luck, and relatively little to show for it. But, I probably wasn't spannering it completely. Fair Isle was the worst, I really was expecting that to be the best birding week of my life. Even in an average week, I’m sure I would have found/seen some good stuff. The whole autumn the island has been below-par*, save from a Blackpoll which suggests you need a big team, even for Fair Isle, to find the birds. Can’t believe Eastern Crowed Warbler wasn't in a geo there… * ed. don't write it off yet...

Scilly is slightly different. On paper, it’s far too big and hard work to ever expect to find something. Yet our team in 2003 came away with two yank landbirds: Baynes' Bobolink and Lees' vireo. In the end, I found a Red-throated Pipit, RBF and 3x Yellow-brows. That doesn’t sound great, but depending on how many YBWs and RTPs there were, only 30 scarce or rarer birds were found during that week. This means I was responsible for around 17% of the ‘decent’ birds.

Yellow Brow 9, Bonellis 1, Red Backed Shrike 1, Paddyfield 1, RT Pipit 3, Wryneck 2, Rosy Starling 2, Ring Billed Gull 1, Rosefinch 1, Dicks Pipit 2, Melody 1, Little Bunting 2, RBF 2
Radde's 2+, TOTAL 30

There can only be two conclusions.

1) I’m mega / really lucky – I’m certainly not mega and Fair Isle proved I have no luck!
2) As mentioned earlier, many birders on Scilly struggle to find the Bishop and Wolf let alone something decent. Fair play if  following the pager is all they're interested in (each to their own n'all) but if no-one is looking....

Conclusion 2 harks back to another point, that despite 300+ birders, Scilly is now under-watched and available for all who wish to find good birds. Anyway, RT Pipit, Dowitcher, Radde’s, hardly '87 or '99! I’ll be back next year…hopefully with some better weather... (ed. not if we kid-nap you Rick..)

All pics and prose Copyright R. Addison.