Saturday 24 September 2011


After the thrill of Monday's successful trip to St Mary's, the lure of the islands was too much considering the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH was still present. So last Wednesday I plucked the old flexible friend from my barren wallet and booked a flight over to the Scilly Isles. To be honest I was pretty convinced that the bird would depart. That way I could enjoy a relaxing weekend in the Midlands and claim the majority of my borrowed cash back. Then again some other special American vagrant could quite easily turn up, after all a female BALTIMORE ORIOLE had been located on The Garrison on Tuesday.

Then on Friday morning an early report filtered through that the pond-dwelling nearctic warbler was still present. The trip was well and truly on. By 6.00am on Saturday morning myself, Steve Richards, Russ Berger and Nick Smith were hanging around the helicopter terminal in Penzance, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed yet full of hope. Before departure we picked up a trio of Mediterranean Gulls (first winter, second winter and adult) loafing around the helipad amongst the Black-headed Gulls. As we thundered our way past Land's End and over the Atlantic Ocean our hope turned to shear excitement, the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH was still present.

Within ten minutes of the chopper hitting the tarmac at St Mary's airport our taxi had dropped us off at the incinerator. Just like on Monday, I was the first off the blocks and sprinted towards the Dump Clump as fast as my Wellington shod feet could carry me. Passing us in the opposite direction were a steady stream of satisfied birders who had already seen the bird. With just a few yards to go I had a choice to make. The trail to the left would take me to a slightly elevated position over-looking the Project Pool. The path to the right however would lead me to the small make-shift hide where I had watched the SOLITARY SANDPIPER from a few days before. I carried on towards the hide and almost immediately I had the target species in my scope. There it was, tail-bobbing away amongst the stagnant water, clumps of juncus and swarms of biting insects was my first ever NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH in Britain.

Lower Moors, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photos kindly provided by Will Soar

I spun around to share my delight with my travelling companions but none of them were to be found. They had taken the path to the left where Higgo was standing. I carried on enjoying the bird for no more than two minutes before it flew off low to the right. It was at this point that Steve Richards appeared, his face full of abject disappointment. From where the other guys had stood the bird had not been visible! We all knew from the history of this particular bird's behaviour that the only real window of opportunity was to nail it early in the morning or early in the evening. It had been almost impossible to connect with during the remainder of the day.

To make matters even worse the heavens opened and within minutes we were all soaked, miserable and ankle deep in rotting vegetation and stinking mud. We had little choice but to head off to Lower Moors and the relative shelter of the ISBG hide until the rain abated. Hopefully whilst we were cooped up inside the leaky wooden box the elusive little critter would pop into view for the three depressed dippers.

As the rain poured down we all sat patiently in the hide for nearly two hours. The uneasy mood and disappointed silence was only interrupted by the occasional sigh and the squeak of a lens cloth wiping away condensation from either end of someone's optical equipment. The only bird species we had for company was a single Greenshank probing away in front of us. As the showers subsided we decided to head into the quagmire near Shooter's Pool where the bird had spent some of the previous week. As we trudged around checking every possible passerine movement amongst the stunted sallows, Steve Richards looked at his pager, "NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH still 10.05am at Lower Moors from the ISBG hide!" We shot off leaving a trail rather smelly trail of swamp slime behind us.

Lower Moors, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.

As we re-entered the hide we were relayed the heart-breaking news none of the guys wanted to hear. The bird had spent a few flighty minutes a few yards outside the hide just seconds after we had left. Maybe it was us that disturbed the bird as we made our way down to Shooter's Pool? We then spent the following three hours crammed inside the hide once more. This session was slightly more entertaining however as a small, dark-rumped tringa passed high overhead and dropped down towards the Project Pool. It had to be the SOLITARY SANDPIPER and a quick call to one of our contacts on site confirmed it as such. Around Lower Moors itself a Green Sandpiper dropped in briefly but apart from the odd Chiffchaff flitting around, a single Sedge Warbler and a lone Grey Wagtail there was not a great deal of anything else to look at.

The face says it all!
Snapper Richards looks on in hope from the ISBG hide at Lower Moors.

Just after 2.00pm another message was received. The bird was present in the quagmire that we had explored earlier. The hide quickly emptied resonating with the sound of clanging tripod legs, involuntary bowel movements and wheezing birders. Amongst the panic I located a small pool away from one of the main tracks. Just as I steadied myself on a clump of relatively dry land a passerine scampered for cover over a tiny weed sodden area of water. From its behaviour it was a good chance that this was the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH but despite a thorough search we failed to locate it again. It was all beginning to get rather frustrating and to make matters worse we were running out of time. At this stage Steve took the decision to call the airport and ask them what the latest check-in time would be. There was hope. Due to a series of delays caused by weather earlier on, all of the flights were running late. We could all nail the bird as it returned to the Project Pool as it usually did during early evening. The lads remained quietly optimistic.

At this stage the weather was glorious and the waterproofs were quickly packed away. After a quick rinse of my wellies in the sea on Old Town beach we made our way up to the airport to have a quick look around and clear our heads. Unfortunately there was no sign of a first-summer Woodchat Shrike but a Grey-headed Wagtail was a nice find amongst the large numbers of White Wagtail and Wheatear that were feeding around the landing strip. Soon afterwards we located a juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper around the windsock as it was disturbed by the landing aircraft.

THE Scilly birding hotspot of 2011 - Higgo's Pool!
This is not included in any literature issued by the Isles of Scilly Tourist Board.

We then returned down to the Project Pool for a second bite of the cherry. Luckily the juvenile SOLITARY SANDPIPER was still present and tremendous views of the bird were enjoyed as it fed just a few yards ahead of us. As the clock ticked away there was still no sign of the waterthrush though and at 5.55pm we had no choice but to head back up to the airport. Despite my delight at connecting with this elusive rarity I was absolutely gutted for the lads who failed to see it. A large part of the joy of birding for me is being able to share in the thrill of encountering such a special creature with your mates. That part of the experience was missing from this trip and left a void that could not be filled.

SOLITARY SANDPIPER (juvenile) - St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Mark Payne
As if this story is not tragic enough as we collected our baggage at Penzance airport, Steve received a message from a source who was staying overnight on St Mary's. The NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH had dropped into feed on the Project Pool just a few minutes after we had left the site. As I write this blog a few days later, the bird is still showing well during early morning and early evening. At one stage on Sunday evening both the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH and the SOLITARY SANDPIPER were joined on the tiny pond by a LESSER YELLOWLEGS. Birding can be so cruel at times!

Northern Waterthrush on the Isles of Scilly - Video Footage

Monday 19 September 2011


With both a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH and a BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER still showing on and off on the Scillies it was all becoming way too unbearable to cope. I could handle life without the glorified Water Pipit but that bark probing, little barcode was twisting my melon. I needed to connect with her at any cost. After receiving the green light from my understanding boss I attempted to gather a crew together for the risky journey south-west.

With the usual suspects unable to juggle prior work commitments, I finally located a travel companion who was not so career minded. Due to the threat of disciplinary action by his current employer, this individual will be referred to as 'Bill Focker' for the remainder of this blog. Unfortunately poor 'Bill' had been in poor health over the course of the weekend and upon consultation with his doctor he was prescribed a full 24 hours of refreshing sea air in order to assist his recuperation. Via the medium of a well known birding based chat group we also managed to enlist another reprobate for the trip. Now ordinarily I would much sooner spend ten hours in a car with Michael Barrymore, a blister pack of Rohypnol tablets and a bottle of poppers than in the company of a good 83% of Birdforum users. My fears were soon dispelled however when I found out a like minded chap called Martin Smyth from Coventry would be joining us.

So I left North Warwickshire at around 1.30am, picked up Martin from Solihull and connected with 'Bill Focker' on the M5 for the remainder of the long journey. After a good old natter we quickly found our way to the traditional birding watering hole of Exeter Services where we chanced upon another trio of Warwickshire birders. Like ourselves they had also failed to confirm travel arrangements over to the Isles of Scilly. We therefore decided to team up and enquire whether an extra plane could be sourced to fly us over to St Mary's as soon as the booking office opened.

After some sterling driving work by 'Bill' we found ourselves at a rather damp and misty Drift Reservoir, just east of Penzance at around 7.00am. After a long walk down into the western arm we soon picked up our first American vagrant of the day as a juvenile LESSER YELLOWLEGS popped into view accompanied by a single Dunlin. We then turned our attention to the eastern side of the reservoir where we encountered a juvenile Spotted Redshank, a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, another Dunlin and a lone Northern Wheatear. Unfortunately though there was no sign of the juvenile SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER that had been showing so well the day before.

LESSER YELLOWLEGS (juvenile) - Drift Reservoir, Cornwall.
Photo kindly provided by Brian Field
We then made our way through the murk to Land's End Airport to beg a plane seat. Just as we arrived though 'Bill' received a call from Phil Woollen. The scumbags at the Isles of Scilly Steaming Shit Company were far from interested in laying on additional flights. After a quick U-turn and a frustrating wait in a queue we found ourselves sitting on the dock of a bay like a trio of caucasian Otis Reddings. It was time for a three hour involuntary sea-watch aboard the 'Sickonian III'.

The crossing was a pretty smooth affair and a few good birds were logged along the way. The highlight was a single Leach's Petrel not too far off Land's End with a scattering of Storm Petrels and Manx Shearwaters thrown into the mix. As we approached the islands the weather improved a great deal. As the boat negotiated its way between St Mary's and the Eastern Isles you could be forgiven for thinking you were cruising somewhere around the Caribbean as opposed to the extreme south-west of England. As we approached the harbour I made sure I was in prime position to disembark and as the gangplank hit the quayside I was off like a greased weasel. Within minutes 'Bill Focker' and I had hailed a taxi and soon afterwards we were both knee deep in mud at Lower Moors.

Just a few birders were present amongst the tangle of lichen covered branches and amazingly a couple of them had enjoyed a tantalisingly brief glimpse of the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH just seconds before we arrived on the scene. At this stage I was frantic and to make matters worse there was no sign of either rarities. After what seemed like an eternity but in reality was probably about ten minutes, a call went out a short distance from where I was searching. After a quick, squelchy scramble and a jostle for a viewing spot I was watching my first BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER in Britain. I was completely speechless, rooted to the spot and totally oblivious to everything around me except for the amazing monochrome gem that picked its way around the gnarled trees just feet in front of me.

BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER (first winter female) - Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Ashley Powell

The American beauty continued to show exceptionally well on and off with a little patience and a touch of common sense. Unfortunately though its nearctic cousin was the complete opposite. Despite a thorough search of the Lower Moors area none of us could relocate the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH. To be honest though I had clinched the main target so I was far from disappointed. A juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper showed well from the hides along with a single Greenshank but the only other species logged were the odd Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler amongst the usual resident species.

With the clock ticking away 'Bill' and I decided to head over to 'Higgo's Pool' behind the dump clump. Whilst John Higginson was working on his latest water feature, the SOLITARY SANDPIPER that had been present on the island for a while dropped in to feed. After a trek through the scrub we were enjoying tremendous views of yet another transatlantic vagrant.

SOLITARY SANDPIPER (juvenile) - St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Ashley Powell

After admiring the bird for a while we then traipsed up to The Garrison and along the Lower Broome Platform. Almost immediately we were admiring a stunning Red-eyed Vireo methodically feeding around the sycamores. The bird continued to perform well until it was time to head back to the quay for the return crossing to Penzance.

RED-EYED VIREO (first winter) - St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Andy Hale

There were a few disappointed faces aboard the Scillonian III due to the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH failing to show. This disappointment then turned to rage with some of the guys as the bird was relocated just as we were heading past Peninnis Head. To be honest though I was still buzzing after the previous four hours of high octane birding.

Apart from a single Sooty Shearwater and a few Great Skuas the crossing back to the mainland was pretty uneventful until we reached Land's End. At this point the seabird action started to heat up a little. As we approached Tater-Dhu lighthouse a feeding group ofCommon Dolphin were spotted and trailing them were a small group of plunge-divingGannet, a trio of Balearic Shearwaters and about a dozen Storm Petrels. A superb end to another memorable day in this magical part of Britain.

After the recent taxonomic announcements by the BOU, both HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL and SIBERIAN STONECHAT became a couple of appreciated 'armchair ticks'. This meant the BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER became my 450th species for Britain. What a species and what a location to reach the milestone with. The T-shirt is at the printers, hope that it is not too tight!

Special thanks to 'Bill Focker' for his driving and patience, Martin Smyth, Jules Allen, Mike 'The Dog' Doughty for their good company, Dan Pointon for his stake-out of Lower Moors and both Ashley Powell, Andy Hale and Brian Field for use of their excellent photographs.

Scilly Rarities Video Footage - September 2011

Saturday 17 September 2011

EUROPEAN SHAG in Staffordshire

After the news of a possible NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH on the the Isles of Scilly late yesterday, it was almost impossible to enjoy a decent night's sleep. To frustrate me even more an update came through again early on to say that it was still present on St Mary's at 7.00am. To make matters worse LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH had still not been ruled out, a potential first for Britain!

There was only one cure, to get off my arse and see some birds pretty quickly. The morning started pretty well around Seckington with a male Merlin chasing migrating Meadow Pipits up at the old castle mound. A Tree Pipit also passed through and a Spotted Flycatcher was a fresh arrival. Thoughts of Scilly had all but melted away.

Down at Alvecote Pools a Hobby was spotted sparring with a male Sparrowhawk over Gilman's Pool whilst on Mill Pool there were 2 Shelduck and 57 Shoveler. As I made my way up Laundry Lane towards Pretty Pigs Pool I received another huge kick in the balls. Whilst some lucky birder was attempting to relocate the elusive Waterthrush species at Lower Moors they had stumbled upon the second American warbler in two days, a much desired BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER. This is one of my most favourite species in the whole World so to see one in Britain is a dream I have had since I was a kid. Why the hell was I grafting away at the patch when I could be sitting on the deck of the Scillonian III well on my way to birding heaven?

Anyway back to reality. A Common Sandpiper was on the north shore of Pretty Pigs Pool and an elusive Common Redstart showed in the Old Orchard briefly as did an impressive 30 Chiffchaff. Nearby a lone Green Sandpiper fed around the muddy margins of The Decoy. As I made my way back to The Cottage for lunch there were large numbers of gulls feeding around the ploughed fields between Shuttington and Seckington. Amongst the Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls a second winter Yellow-legged Gull was a nice surprise. As I arrived back home my second Hobby of the day passed through chasing the small groups of House Martins and Swallows that remain in situ.

News then filtered through of a local scarcity to keep me entertained. A juvenile Shag had been reported from a tiny pool on the outskirts of a housing estate just down the road in Stonydelph. Upon arrival at Kettlebrook Linear Park I was guided to the bird by a couple of young kids who lived nearby. It was great to see their energy and enthusiasm for a species they had never seen before...... it was a bit like I would have been if I had been on the Scillies!

It was strange to see this bird of rocky coastlines hauled out on the side of a small duck pond in the company of Mute Swans and Mallard as far away from the sea as it could possibly get in England.

European Shag (juvenile) - Wilnecote, Staffordshire - September 2011
All photos by Adam Archer

Saturday 10 September 2011

SABINE'S GULL in Staffordshire

The morning started with a visit from the East Midlands chapter of the ASBO fraternity to my new abode in the sleepy hamlet of Seckington. The purpose of their visit was to console me regarding the near miss I experienced the evening before down at Alvecote (more to follow shortly) and to hopefully connect with a local wind-assisted seagull. Whilst we explored the nearby Norman motte and bailey castle for any new migrants, we received a call from Gailey Reservoir stalwart Snapper Richards. It was the news we had been waiting for. The juvenile Sabine's Gull that had been present at Belvide earlier on in the week had dropped in at Snapper's patch once again. We were off!

Upon arrival we made our way along the causeway to where a few birders had assembled. I soon noticed though that as we got closer all the birders were looking in our direction. It was soon apparent that the bird had flown and that they were tracking it as it departed high in the distance. Soon enough Snapper came jogging towards to tell us the bad news. The bird had done a bunk just as we arrived. After dipping 2,500 Great Shearwaters down in Cornwall as well as a Kittiwake in Warwickshire within the last week, my bad luck with seabirds continued. After a quick jaunt to check out a flock of plough-following Black-headed Gulls nearby we returned back to the rez where we consoled ourselves with a nice summer-plumaged Red-necked Grebe and a couple of Arctic Terns (adult & juvenile).

We just started to enjoy ourselves in the afternoon sunshine when I spotted a couple of bored looking bird photographers creeping along the shoreline. Their target was a couple of obliging Ringed Plover that had dropped in. Much to our amazement they repeatedly took turns to flush the birds in order to grab a ridiculously close-up shot or two. Bearing in mind there was only a tiny area of suitable shoreline for these birds to feed in, the behaviour of these SLR wielding numpties was totally out of order. To make matters worse Snapper informed us that these birds were the first Ringed Plover at Gailey for an incredible 17 years. It was all too much for one of the crew and soon enough Nadia stormed over to give them a piece of her mind. Well done flower! As a Hobby passed overhead Snapper received a call from Steve Nuttall up the road at Belvide Reservoir. The Sabine's Gull had returned to its favoured feeding area there along the dam.

As we pulled into the car park we were greeted by a grinning Steve Nuttall who welcomed us and our cash with open arms. Sabine's Gull was a welcome and well deserved patch tick for him. The last bird of this species at Belvide was back in October 1982 when Musical Youth were number one in the singles chart with 'Pass The Dutchie' and Mr Nuttall still had a fine head of auburn hair.

As we arrived midway along the dam this smart juvenile bird could be found feeding unconcerned just a few feet below us. Getting a decent photo through the scope though was pretty frustrating due to the high winds and the unusual in-land surf. The Sabine's Gull seemed pretty much at home though as it picked up dead insects from the surface of the water.

Sabine's Gull (juvenile) - Belvide Reservoir, Staffordshire - September 2011
Just the ninth ever record for the County.

After enjoying the bird for a hour or so we headed back up to the car park via The Plantation where a nice selection of woodland species were encountered. Amongst the usual species we picked up a few Nuthatch and Treecreeper as well as Marsh Tit, Willow Tit and the odd Goldcrest. In the car park itself we found Steve again rattling the cash bucket. With the weather set to continue with strong south-westerly winds I predicted that he would get a long awaited Manx Shearwater on his patch pretty soon. The following day he duly nailed one, the first site record since August 1985. Congratulations Mr Nuttall!

'Archie's Theory on the Origin of Birding Man'
From left to right - 'plankton birder', 'shark birder', 'baboon birder' & 'gorilla birder'!