Friday 9 September 2016


American Cliff Swallow by MP Goodey.

On the 24th of this very month Nadia and I will be heading over to one of our favourite birding locations on the planet to do the decent thing and tie the knot (neither Red or Great). The locality dear reader will no doubt be one of your most beloved places too..... the most splendid Isles of Scilly.

So with a few weeks to go it is usually the case for the groom to arrange some last minute alterations to his suit, to ensure his shoes are nicely polished and for him to rehearse a heart warming speech or two. Well that was the plan. For the keenest British birders though, this is the time of year where 'plans' should be avoided at all costs. For the next few months we need to make sure our schedule is as clear as possible. All social engagements should be avoided, all DIY tasks need be put on hold and most importantly of all, you should always keep a few annual leave days at work spare. If any of that fails though you could always feign injury or develop pneumonia in order to secure a sneaky bit of time for twitching that ultimate autumnal rarity.

Last Tuesday, some thrilling news filtered through from the aforementioned 'Fortunate Isles'. An American Cliff Swallow had been located on St Mary's. I soon mentioned to Nadia that I thought it prudent to head south west and ensure everything was running smoothly at the wedding venue. Maybe I should sample a few more hors d'oeuvres up at the Star Castle just to test the quality of the lobster consomme? Okay you may think this is just another one of those lame excuses we birders throw selfishly into the arena of desperation every now and then. And yes, you would probably be correct but remember folks, things can go wrong. Just a few days before, Will and Kate nearly had their trip to the islands scuppered due to foggy conditions.... ones heart really does bleed for one, does it not?!

Anyway, by some miracle the bird continued to show on and off throughout the week and by some even greater miracle, I along with Phil Andrews found ourselves sitting there in the executive lounge of Land's End airport on Friday morning sipping filter coffee and scoffing hot toasted tea cakes. We had taken the plunge and secured a couple of places on the first available flight that day. By 8.20am our small plane had spluttered its way over a rather small yet choppy looking section of the Atlantic Ocean and we were excitedly touching down at St Mary's airport.

Transport from Land's End to St Mary's.

In no time at all we were positioned on site at Higher Moors and within the first few seconds a single hirundine swooped low over our heads. That would have been way too easy though, it was just one of our native Barn Swallows feeding eagerly in preparation for its perilous migration down to South Africa for the winter. As we made our way methodically down the boardwalk towards Porth Hellick Pool we scrutinized every small movement in the sky. With no sign and with just a couple of other birders assisting with the search we decided to split up. Phil opted for the Stephen Sussex Hide overlooking the pool whilst I concentrated on the loop trail.

Porth Hellick roll of honour!

After a hour or so and with just a single House Martin providing a nanosecond of hope there was still no sign of the Cliff Swallow. The bird had been present until late the previous afternoon and with the gloomy early morning conditions it surely had to be somewhere around the island. At this stage we bid farewell to the showy juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs strutting around the pool and made our way up to Carn Friars to check there. As with Higher Moors, there were plenty of Barn Swallow but still no sign of our target species. We then made our way around to Porth Hellick Down and finally across to the bay area.

'The Loaded Camel' at Porth Hellick.

At this point a little smidgen of fear began to creep in with Phil even whimpering out the ultimate line in negativity "Perhaps it's dead!" As I made my way along the tideline to check the bay for waders and clear my head a little, Phil continued to search the seaward side of the pool. As I was about half way across the beach my pager gave off a brief 'chirp'. I looked down expecting to see a message waffling on about with some minor Scillonian scarcity but no, the Cliff Swallow was showing and even better news, it was just a few hundred yards from where I was standing. I sprinted across the sand and jumped over the bank, nearly defacing the memorial to Sir Cloudesley Shovell in the process. I yelled over to Phil who clearly had not received the same message.

Viewing the pool between the scrub from the bank we could only pick out the usual Barn Swallows and the single House Martin from earlier in the morning. Where the hell was it? Had it been just a brief fly through? With no sign we then scooted around to the nearest hide where an intimate gathering of birders were silently scanning the pool. Within a few seconds we were on to the bird, our first ever Cliff Swallow in Britain. With the pressure now off and with the adrenaline rinsing away the tiredness, we calmly made our way back to the Stephen Sussex Hide where hopefully we could secure a prime position.

American Cliff Swallow by MP Goodey.
American Cliff Swallow by P Hackett.

For over two hours just a handful of birders and I enjoyed this incredible bird to the maximum as it wheeled around the far side of the pool. For the majority of this time it was actually the only hirundine on show which made it easy to pick up again after disappearing briefly behind a willow or pine. Even when it rose high in the sky you could still identify it by the stocky structure, the short straight-ended tail and broad wing base. As it approached closer and with it viewed against the vegetation the large rosy rump patch became obvious as did the pale collar and forehead patch.

Porth Hellick Pool, St Mary's by AS Archer.

Other species on site included the juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs again, 10 Greenshank, a Redshank, 3 Dunlin and a Common Sandpiper as well as a Kingfisher and a couple of very confiding Water Rail. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Temminck's Stint from the previous few days. This diminutive wader is a top notch rarity on the islands, so much so that there have been nearly twice as many Scilly sightings of Semipalmated Sandpiper since 1970.

Lesser Yellowlegs (juvenile) by AS Archer.
Lesser Yellowlegs (juvenile) by P Hackett.

At about 12.30pm the peace was shattered as about a dozen or so birders who had chanced the crossing over on the Scillonian III started to arrive. This coincided with the Cliff Swallow going missing for a short while until I managed to pick it up once more at the extreme seaward end of the pool. As we had intended to walk back along the coast via the airfield we thought it only right to see if we could view the bird from a different perspective. We were glad that we made the effort too as the bird showed remarkably well with a small group of Barn Swallow feeding low over a weedy field at very close range.

American Cliff Swallow by MP Goodey.

Unfortunately a small group over eager birders were not satisfied with such views and promptly jumped over a ditch and entered the actual field. I have been visiting this wonderful place for a fair few years now and have always tried to be a decent birding citizen. A part of this is to respect the rights and privacy of the islanders who have tolerated some questionable behaviour in the past. It could be that certain individuals had permission to enter this area but I would always encourage folk to think and not follow the crowds however tempting it may be. Good manners benefit all of us in the long term.

At this stage we decided to take the coastal footpath around to Tolman's Point, absorb the dramatic scenery and grab a bite to eat in Old Town. Before doing so we enjoyed great views of a Dotterel feeding in the grassy margins alongside the airport runway. Other species in this area included a moulting adult European Golden Plover and a trio of Northern Wheatear.

A selfie with Giant's Castle in the distance.

Following an excellent snack and a celebratory bottle of ginger ale at the Old Town Cafe we strolled the short distance across to the Standing Stones area of Lower Moors. It was here we eventually connected with a smart first-winter Red-backed Shrike in the afternoon sunshine along with a couple of juvenile Whinchat. It was then onto Porthloo where the only shorebird of note was a single Whimbrel among the forty or so Oystercatcher.

We concentrated our final search around the golf course but just like the previous day there was no sign of the two Buff-breasted Sandpiper from earlier on in the week. The only birds present were several Northern Wheatear, a few European Stonechat and Meadow Pipit as well as a large flock of Linnet.

Both pretty exhausted we headed across through Hugh Town and down to the quayside to board the Scillonian III. It was here we spotted our first Sandwich Terns and Turnstones of the day in addition to a few Shag fishing around the harbour.

Transport from St Mary's to Penzance.

With a broad front of low pressure due to follow us back east, the crossing was predictably choppy. In our minds though this was a positive and hopefully we would be able to pick up a few decent seabirds as we sailed back to Penzance. It was not too long after we had passed the eastern end of St Mary's when our first large shearwater appeared, a distant Cory's Shearwater. Luckily though, several more individuals of this species were encountered along the way including some birds outrageously close to the ship. Other highlights included 4 Sooty Shearwater, 6 Manx Shearwater, 3 Balearic Shearwater and 4 European Storm-petrel. We also encountered a large flock of Gannet and a few Fulmar following a decent sized pod of Common Dolphin as well as the odd Kittiwake.

As we approached Penzance harbour, that forecast rain storm eventually caught up with us and soaked us through as we hobbled over to the car park. There was only one thing for it. We made our way around the corner to The Pirate's Rest chippy for a dry off and a delicious meal of Britain's most famous dish. A truly superb end to another autumn adventure. Luckily for me though I would be back here in a few weeks time, to wed the girl of my dreams and to hopefully snaffle my first rarities as a married man. 

The American Cliff Swallow in Great Britain

This species breeds throughout North America from western Alaska to Nova Scotia, the United States and south as far as southern Mexico. When it is not turning up in Britain by mistake it usually spends the winter in South America from Brazil to Chile and Argentina. If accepted, this sighting will constitute only the tenth record for Britain. The full list of sightings goes something like this:

2016 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 6th to 10th September.
2001 - Isles of Scilly - St Agnes - first-winter - 26th October, St Martin's - 26th to 27th October & St Mary's - 28th to 30th October.
2000 - Hampshire - Titchfield Haven - 1st October only (presumed same as Dorset below).
2000 - Dorset - The Verne, Portland - 29th to 30th September.
2000 - Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 28th to 30th September.
1996 - Church Norton - juvenile - 1st October only.
1995 - East Yorkshire - Spurn - juvenile - 22nd to 23rd October & again 28th October.
1995 - Isles of Scilly - Tresco - juvenile - 4th to 5th December.
1988 - Cleveland - South Gare - juvenile - 23rd October only.
1983 - Isles of Scilly - St Agnes - juvenile - 10th October & St Mary's - 10th to 27th October.

Special thanks to Martin Goodey and to Paul Hackett for their excellent photos.

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