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!

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