Monday 20 April 2015

MEGA ALERT: The GREAT BLUE HERON on The Isles of Scilly

GREAT BLUE HERON (first-winter)
Big Pool, Bryher, Isles of Scilly.
Photo by Adam Archer

At 8.18pm precisely on Tuesday 14th April, I noticed an incoming call from Steve Nuttall. A phone call from 'Professor Belvide' always gives me butterflies because the majority of the time it means something sexy has occurred in the wacky world of British (or maybe Staffordshire) birding. I was not to be disappointed. He had received sizzling hot news from the Isles of Scilly that a GREAT BLUE HERON had been found on St Mary's. A short while later the pager 'wailed away' to confirm the news!

Steve and the rest of the panicking array of work shy, headless chickens started making plans to zoom off to Cornwall there and then. I just sighed, sat back on the sofa and poured myself another glass of single malt. I would not be rushing off anywhere soon. A combination of work and football viewing commitments would not allow it.

In hindsight, I am pretty smug to have played the whole situation cooler than a pair of Emperor Penguin bollocks. The following day only a small number of birders connected with the bird due to the foggy conditions. It had been feeding in Old Town Bay during early morning but had disappeared before the mass arrival of birders from the mainland. Later that afternoon it was expertly relocated by Andy Holden resting up in a damp field near Holy Vale until it was flushed by a stampede of twitchers wheezing and clanging their way towards the birds new location. Those that lacked integrity spotted a dark, 'heronesque' silhouette flap and glide its way into the murk, ticked it and promptly caught the Scillonian III back to Cornwall that very afternoon. Those however, with a birding conscience and those that were forming an orderly queue for pasties in Hugh Town at the time of the relocation decided to track down lodgings and rest their weary heads for the evening. The search would recommence in the morning,

During Thursday there was no sign of the bird all day despite a thorough search of St Mary's and all of the other inhabited islands. Presuming that the bird had continued with its migration, most birders decided to cut their losses and head back home. As the boat pulled into Penzance harbour that evening though, the birding Gods decided to deliver a sickening knee to the gonads of all those who had dipped over the previous forty-eight hours. The GREAT BLUE HERON had been relocated by a non-birding resident on the island of Bryher! 

A view of Mount's Bay as we leave Penzance.
Photo by Adam Archer

Luckily though, most of those poor souls who had missed out during the week managed to get back over to the islands on the Friday or the Saturday. The bird performed pretty well over the course of those two days much to all their combined joy and relief. On the Sunday, the bird still seemed to be settled around the Big Pool near Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher. Now that it had started to behave itself, I was becoming more and more tempted. 

Finally, whilst dipping a pair of local Black-winged Stilts I cracked. A quick call to my gaffer secured a day off work and another call to Martin Smyth confirmed that he would be up for joining me on an adventure southwest. Later that afternoon, honorary Scillonian, Higgo contacted me to let us know a boat for Bryher would be waiting for us as we docked at St Mary's quay the following day. This legend of West Midlands birding also provided a bit of advice regarding low tides and the strong possibility that our feet would be getting wet. 

After a steady, stress free, drive down to Cornwall through the night we were blessed with a glorious dawn as the sun rose quickly in the east. The conditions were perfect for a smooth, enjoyable boat journey to the beautiful Isles of Scilly. Then again, the weather was also pretty ideal for a restless vagrant to catch a glimpse of the Cornish coastline and make a beeline for it. A drake Eider was spotted from the quayside and the expected Gannets, Fulmars, Razorbills and Guillemots all put in appearances as we steamed our way towards the Atlantic Ocean. There were also small numbers of Manx Shearwaters passing the boat, a marauding Peregrine as well as the odd group of Common Dolphin.

Eager twitchers look on in frustration as the first contingent
of birders are ferried over to the golden sands of Bryher.
Photo by Adam Archer

As we reached the midpoint of our crossing, the news we were all longing to hear filtered through. The great British rarity from the New World was still present on Bryher. The tense atmosphere on deck lifted a little as this positive snippet of information rapidly spread from birder to birder. Dan Pointon began to get more excitable with his Tourette's syndrome becoming more apparent, Al Orton's ruddy face became less contorted with angst and I suddenly became far less exhausted as the adrenaline kicked in. It was huge smiles and cheesy grins all around..... with the exception of the same miserable old buggers who always seem to have face like a bulldog licking piss off a thistle.

After what seemed like an age we finally docked at a sun-drenched St Mary's. It was reminiscent of a scene from the Grimsby branch of Tescos during 'Black Friday' as around one hundred birders scrambled their way to be first in line for the boat over to Bryher. Due to the low Spring tides the crossing was trickier than usual as we had no choice but to head along the western side of Samson, around Droppy Nose Point and into Great Porth. We had now travelled as far as we could in this boat and it was time to transfer to the smaller rib in order to get us all closer to shore (see photo above). At this stage, boots and socks were removed and trouser legs were rolled up as near to the groin as possible. As the rib neared the shoreline I jumped out, splashed around a bit and made my way up the beach towards the familiar figure of Higgo who was beckoning us towards him.

Stinking Porth, Bryher, Isles of Scilly.
Photo by Adam Archer

The majority of us did not stop to sensibly brush off our bare feet and reapply our shoes and socks. There was a MEGA rarity just a few hundred yards away and no amount of brambles, thorns, sharp rocks or broken glass were going to stop us getting to the bird as quickly as possible. There were plenty of amused faces amongst the island's holiday makers as dozens of birders trailed past, hopping and cursing as they went. As I approached Big Pool I could see a few birders scoping the other side of the water. I stopped in my tracks, took a sharp intake of breath, raised my binoculars and there it was, a first-winter GREAT BLUE HERON, a species that had only been recorded in the country once before and as recently as 2007.

GREAT BLUE HERON (first-winter)
Big Pool, Bryher, Isles of Scilly.
Photo by Adam Archer

The bird showed extremely well as it skirted the perimeter of the pool stalking mullet and making the occasional successful lunge for one. It would then fly the short distance back over to the northern edge of the pool and repeat the feeding circuit once again. On one other instance it flew the short distance into Stinking Porth where it hunted amongst the rock pools for a while. It was at this location the bird took an interest in a Ringed Plover along the beach and stalked it for a while. Luckily this wary Charadrius managed to out run the heron and keep just out of reach of its extended neck.

Other birds in the area included a first-summer male Black Redstart, a few Swallow and House Martin and small groups of Linnet. After studying the GREAT BLUE HERON some more, Martin and I decided to celebrate with a rather expensive glass of twelve year-old Glenfiddich in the salubrious surroundings of the Hell Bay Hotel. We then headed up to the island store to grab a delicious, hot pasty whilst the more refined individuals amongst us went in search of a dwarf pansy or two. 

Cheers! A celebratory glass of 'SMW'.
Photo by Martin Smyth

Due to the favourable weather conditions there were a good number of butterflies on the wing including Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral and Green-veined Whites. We even spotted a single 'Isles of Scilly' Speckled Wood of the race insula. This insect confused us for a while with its orange instead of cream coloured wing markings of those found on the mainland. 

Bryher looking northeast towards Tresco.
Photo by Adam Archer

From a bird perspective it was all very quiet as far as migrants were concerned. There was no sign of the Hoopoe on Bryher that had been present the previous day and we failed to find a Wood Warbler that had been reported. Dan Pointon managed to wade over to Tresco after seeing the heron and found a Wryneck as well as the long staying male American Black Duck.

Getting ready for the boat ride back to St Mary's.
Photo by Martin Smyth
Bryher looking northeast toward Dunstan's Rock.
Photo by Adam Archer

As we made our way back to St Mary's from Bryher at around 3.40pm we were amazed to see the GREAT BLUE HERON fly low over Tresco channel and up over the pines. It then seemed to drop down in the Great Pool area, presumably to roost. We also spotted a Spoonbill preening on rocks off the east side of Samson and a Great Northern Diver in The Roads. I also managed to secure an additional 'Scilly tick' by scoping a male Long-tailed Duck from the deck of the Scillonian III as it fed in Porthmellon Bay.

A cheerful bunch heading back from Bryher to St Mary's.
Photo by Adam Archer

Following a peaceful hour of sleep on the return to the mainland we arrived safely back into Cornwall during the early part of the evening. Before heading back to the West Midlands though, we enjoyed a tray of tasty fish and chips from one of my all time favourite chippies, 'The Pirates Rest' in Penzance. It was the icing on the cake to what had been another fantastic, yet exhausting adventure to my spiritual home of Kernow and the glorious Isles of Scilly.

Never, I repeat NEVER write off 'The Fortunate Isles' when it comes to quality rarities!

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