Monday 15 June 2015

The CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING on Bardsey Island - Part Two

A view from Porth Meudwy towards Aberdaron.
Photo by Adam Archer

Whilst stuck in traffic just north of Southampton yesterday, I briefly considered taking a second shot at the CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING we had dipped just twenty four hours before. Throughout the day I had received pager messages reminding me of the bird's continued presence around the lighthouse on Bardsey Island. I also received calls and texts from frantic mates asking what I was doing and what the logistics were for getting over to the Welsh island.

With work commitments the following day there was no way I would be able to make it. If I was to put my efforts into a further attempt then it would need to be later in the week.  Then, whilst visiting our birding friends Kate and Fergus in Stratford-upon-Avon, my mind began to drift. I knew Nadia could sense my twitchiness and she looked concerned. I joked that we should all head to Wales overnight. Despite the room being full of bird nuts, the house fell quiet and I was looked upon as if I should be sectioned with immediate effect.

Whilst heading back home something snapped inside me. Maybe it was the fact that crossings on the Tuesday looked risky and the crossings on the Wednesday had already been ruled out due to the weather forecast. I told Nadia that I would text my boss to see if I could book a day's holiday. If by some miracle he would agree to such a ridiculous request at 10.00pm on a Sunday evening then I would make my way over to Wales. Within a few seconds I had received a text in response to say 'OK'! I could hardly believe it. There was now just the small matter of getting a few hours sleep and seeing if anyone else from the West Midlands was crazy enough to join me.

Initially there was no interest from the usual suspects and other lads I knew who were on their way were already fully booked. Then just as I was nodding off, Jase Oliver texted me to say he had changed his mind. He agreed to be at mine place at 00.45am for an extremely early departure.  

Colin Evans - The man for all your Bardsey boating needs!
Photo by Adam Archer

The journey was a true test of our endurance but sharing the driving and downing a strong coffee or two meant we arrived safely at Porth Meudwy just after 4.00am. There were already plenty of empty vehicles parked up which meant only one thing, the queuing for the boat crossing had already started in ernest. We quickly grabbed our kit and scrambled down to the quayside where we found a crowd of bleary-eyed reprobates shuffling around in the half light. A gentleman with a scrap of paper then lurched forward to take our names. A list had been made and thankfully we were both secured on a crossing. The only problem was, we were down for the third boat which was not due to leave for Bardsey until 9.30am.

To be fair, the hours passed by pretty quickly with plenty of banter and laughter with Steve Nuttall, Dave Jackson and the rest of the West Midlands brethren. We also received news that the CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING was still present at around 7.00am which managed to stem the nervousness slightly and keep birders fairly relaxed. The only tense moment came when the boatman Colin Evans arrived and was immediately mobbed by a well known year lister who happened to share the same surname. There were accusations that names had been put onto the list who were not even on site and that the number of folks on the list did not match those of us waiting at the quayside.

In the end we managed to assure Colin that everything was organised and at 7.30am the first consignment of a dozen eager birders were off. In all, it was agreed that seven trips would be made throughout the day and that would be the limit. Unfortunately birders continued to arrive as the morning progressed. Unfortunately for the latecomers they would need to come back early the following day or find an alternative way across to the island.

The favoured feeding area in the compound.
Photo by Adam Archer

Just before 10.00am, Jase and I were on site and in prime position at the lighthouse. The word on the street was that the bird had been coming to seed within the compound about every forty minutes or so but would only stay for a short while before flying off again. It was also spotted singing from a patch of gorse nearby but would go missing for agonisingly long periods. The birders already on site were obviously happy that they had connected with the bunting but had been disappointed by the brevity of the views.

A view of beautiful Bardsey looking north from the lighthouse.
Photo by Adam Archer

As the clock ticked away the resident House Martins and the odd Northern Wheatear and Pied Wagtail were the only birds to be seen around the lighthouse. A scan of the gorse produced many Meadow Pipit and Linnet along with the occasional Stonechat. This was exactly the same roll call as Saturday. Over a hour had passed and there was still no sight or sound of the elusive mega rarity. The look on Jase's face said it all. I reminded him we still had plenty of time, as I handed him my hankie to blot away the tears welling up in his desperate eyes. If required, we would be able to stay on the island until 5.30pm.

Then at around 11.15am a mystery bird flew low over the cropped turf right in front us, bounded over the stone wall and landed in the seeded area. I could see movement amongst the thrift but initially I could not make out any features on the bird at all. All of a sudden, the top of a steely blue head appeared along with a beady, black eye framed by a cream coloured orbital ring. It was the CRETZSCHMAR'S BUNTING. I did my best to call out instructions and ensure as many people could get onto the bird as possible. Eventually though the bird appeared out in the open and showed well as long as you were in the right position. Panic then ensued amongst the crowd and I sensed the bird was becoming agitated. After a few minutes of it nervously feeding it then flew off towards the area of gorse and promptly disappeared. 

Bardsey Island, Gwynedd.
Photo courtesy of Bardsey Bird Observatory

We had done it. All of the pain, nervousness and fatigue evaporated in an instant. The dip just forty eight hours previously was now well and truly laid to rest. We had really done it.  I turned to Jase, shook his hand and slapped him on his back. He did the same back to me but not quite as gentle. At times like this though I always spare a thought for my pals who are not there to share the moment with me, especially Steve Allcott, Tony Barter and Steve Richards who we had made the journey with on that fateful Saturday. 

 Twitch on.... that's me in the cream cap!
Bardsey Island, Gwynedd.
Photo courtesy of Bardsey Bird Observatory

At last we could now relax and enjoy the occasion but I was hungry for more prolonged views. Finally, about a hour later the bird flew in once again. This time the crowd were more settled and remained deathly quiet as the bird fed happily just a few yards away. The exemplary behaviour resulted in the bird remaining in view for a full twelve minutes. This was ample time to appreciate such a wonderful bird in amazingly beautiful surroundings. The sun had even decided to make an appearance on what had started out as a particularly dull and overcast day.

We remained on site for a further hour or so but the bird did not return for a third time. With our stomachs rumbling we made our way down to the cafe to grab a bite to each and quench our thirst. After all the excitement and with the adrenaline levels now beginning to get back to some kind of normality, tiredness began to kick in. We took a slow walk back down to the quayside in hope that we could catch an earlier boat back to the mainland.

A dozen happy birders on the return trip to Porth Meudwy.
Photo by Adam Archer

Other species encountered around the island included a flock of 73 Common Scoter offshore and two pairs of Chough. There were also a trio of Raven in flight over the mountain as well as many Gulliemot, Razorbill and Kittiwake around the rocky shoreline. The odd Puffin and Gannet was also spotted from the boat on the return crossing.

Well what a hectic three days of early starts, lack of sleep, highs, lows and awesome birding that turned out to be!

Special thanks must go to Steve Stansfield and the rest of the superb staff and volunteers at Bardsey Bird Observatory. They were all really supportive during the 'no show' on the Saturday and fantastically well organised and patient during our time there on Monday. To check for updates please see their excellent blog at Bardsey Wildlife. A special mention must also go to the boatman Colin Evans for his efforts in getting as many people over to the island as he could. 

Me (left) and Jase (the other one) with Bardsey to the rear.
Photo by Dave Jackson


The breeding range of this species is restricted to southeast Europe and the Middle East. It breeds in Greece, Albania, western and southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan and spends the winter in Sudan and Eritrea. If accepted this will be just the sixth record for Britain and the first for Wales. We await the first record for England with baited breath. All previous records are as follows:

2014 - Shetland - Burkle and Boini Mire, Fair Isle - Male - 27th April to 2nd May.
2008 - Orkney - Sangar, North Ronaldsay - First-winter male - 19th to 21st September.
1998 - Orkney - Stronsay - Male - 14th to 18th May.
1979 - Shetland - Fair Isle - Male - 9th to 10th June.
1967 - Shetland - Fair Isle - Male - 10th to 20th June (trapped and ringed on 14th June).

Proof of our attendance.
Courtesy of the Bird Journal App'