25 Oct 2014

I'm all about the Swift, about the Swift and no Cuckoo

Hurricane Gonzalo was awaited with bated breath in anticipation of what American land birds it might bring across caught up in its wake. This time of year we all watch the weather forecasts and maps trying to predict what vagrant birds may turn up. Steve & I had been discussing this very fact on Hilbre recently and although late in the autumn there is a good smattering of records including Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift and various catharus thrushes.

The first inkling that, for once, our anticipation was founded was when records of Hermit Thrush & Grey-cheeked Thrush started appearing from the northern Isles. No pressure there as I'd seen both these species in the UK. Things started hotting up when a Yellow -billed Cuckoo was found in Cornwall. This has become a seriously rare bird with the American's announcing its now on the endangered list due to loss of habitat. And relax......................I'd stumbled (literally) across one of these on Orkney whilst going en route to Shetland for the Sandhill Crane that had arrived over in similar conditions. See here for the story. These American Cuckoo's never seem to survive long over here and its rarely one has been seen for more than one day.

The next message had me jumping though. Black-billed Cuckoo - an even rarer bird with only a handful ever being recorded. Unfortunately it was on North Ronaldsay and a check of flight and ferry times quickly showed there was no chance of getting there the next day. When news filtered out that it had been seen landing in a tree pursued by a Merlin and then flew off it seemed reasonable to assume it probably wasn't going to be re-found or survive. Relax.

Hurricane Gonzalo was certainly delivering the goods. The next message had me cursing. Chimney Swift, Lewis, Outer Hebrides. Ouch! I'd been to York a few year ago when one of these had been reported but was then found to be an aberrant strangely moulting Swift when photo's were examined. There have only been 19 UK & Irish records of this species with the last records in 2005 when there seemed to be a bit of an invasion with the majority being short- staying birds or in Ireland. One was also seen over Woolston Eyes in Cheshire the same year but didn't hang around and another contentious bird was over Holy Island, Northumbria for an afternoon. Contentious as we'd been on the island in the morning but left before the tide and the bird was subsequently found later in the afternoon. Some people viewed it from the mainland about 1.5 miles away as it flew around the buildings but we decided that, at that distance, we weren't going to get satisfactory views so left.

Hmm. Looking at the flight options and knowing these Swifts had a reputation for not sticking around I mulled it over whilst making a few phone calls. Nothing materialised until later that evening I was at home and hte news came through it had been seen around 17.30 in the same area. Surely it would be going to roost and there was a chance it would get seen the next morning? Checking flights again I got a text off Dan Pointon. He was just driving from Cornwall back to Bristol and was interested in going for the Chimney Swift but couldn't manage the driving alone. A quick decision & we were off. Arranging to meet on the M6 in Cheshire around midnight we took my car to give Dan a rest & I drove us up to Inverness through the night to get the first flight across to Stornoway, pick up a car and drive the 20 miles up to the area where the swift had been seen. Easy........

We were on a tight schedule so I drove non-stop the full 400 miles to Inverness in 6 hours  arriving an hour before our flight. Making full use of the free food in the executive lounge the plans were falling into place nicely. We hoped to get to site just after first light knowing that quite often swifts & hirundines will only hang around for a short time before departing often never to be seen again.

Dan had texted a car hire company and they'd got the text and met us at the airport with a Fiat Panda. As I'd taken the night shift Dan took the day shift and we were soon hurtling (literally) through the Lewis countryside amid rain showers and rainbows.

Photo taken from a Fiat Panda moving at 60 mph driven by Dan Pointon.

Arriving outside at the Decca B & B (A good omen I thought - the place we stay at on Shetland is called the Decca) we were met by local birder Tony Marr and the birds finder, Nick Davies! Tony organised a welcome cup of tea from the owners of the Decca before we split up to start looking. Nothing. As the hours rolled by we got seriously worried and started looking further afield including at the Butt of Lewis where the bird had first been seen. We found out the bird had been seen in the dark trying to roost on the side of the Decca so knew it hadn't gone anywhere overnight unless it had died after its long journey across the Atlantic. We decided to give ourselves until midday and then try looking at other sites nearby as we headed back to Stornoway. By now we'd not given up all hope but were feeling pretty despondent.

We decided on one more drive around the loch before heading south but no sooner had we completed two sides of the triangle then Tony rang to say Vicky, who works for the RSPB on the Island, had seen it over Port Nis just the other side of a ridge from where we were! We were there in less than a minute and spent the next hour watching this American vagrant hurtling around the skies in the autumn sunshine. Tony and a couple of other  locals soon joined us and there was a grand total of six of us watching the bird!

Fantastic! To cap it all this was my 500th UK species under British Ornithological Union classifications! Its taken me many years to get here unlike Dan who, at 24, will surely reach this milestone in the next couple of years. From my first solo 'twitch' for a Sociable Plover whilst still at school when we lived in Suffolk, through long distance car shares and hitches at university and now having a good bunch of mates who share my passion for birds and share the costs I've mostly enjoyed every minute of it!

Some people get a T shirt when they reach this milestone. Dan took a photo of me with a hand scribbled sign!

To save money we'd arranged to take the ferry back from Stornoway to Ullapool and then get a bus back to Inverness and a  second bus back to the airport to pick my car up. Giving Nick a lift to the boat we were soon tucking into some well earned food before trying (unsuccessfully) to get some desperately needed sleep before the long drive home. Four hours later we were back at Inverness and fueling up at the local Tesco's (me with diesel and Dan with more food!) before heading home to Cheshire.

I've known Dan since 2006 when, as a callow youth, I took him to twitch a Pallid Harrier in Winterton, Norfolk when he was 16! A great lad even though his trainers nearly killed me when he took them off in  the car on the way home last night. We had a good craic on this trip.

Arriving home around 02.30 am exactly 27 hours after I'd left on Thursday night I had some toast, a well needed shower and slept in until 11 am this morning.


Rhys Richards said...

Huge congrats Phil!!!

Alan Whitehead said...

Many Congrats on your achievement!

Phil Woollen. said...

Cheers guys. Its not about the numbers. seeing the bird is only part of the enjoyment. Over the years I've visited some fabulous places and made some good friends. I've visited islands and places many people haven't even heard of or only dream of visiting.

Alex H-Jones said...

What a bird! Great achievement Phil!