Sunday 14 May 2017


Red-winged Blackbird - Orkney by Steve Nuttall.

It was the afternoon of Saturday 29th April. I had been searching for Spring migrants down at my local patch in North Warwickshire and was enjoying the mellifluous sound of my first Garden Warbler of the year. For some reason I was not in possession of the pager, but as I was logging the  sighting on the phone I noticed an unread text message from the lads at RBA. They had foolishly issued a 'mega alert' in respect of a female Red-winged Blackbird up on North Ronaldsay, Orkney. Usually such a text would have thrown me into a blind panic but on this occasion I just shook my head, chuckled to myself and carried on birding at the shear, comedic value of such a farce. I knew for a fact that all historic records of this species in Britain had been considered escaped cage birds.

As the days rolled by though and with an array of top listers, teeny tickers and paranoid insurance twitchers chartering small planes and booking scheduled flights, this little, nearctic b*stard of a bird started to stick in my craw. Could a wild example of this species make it all the way to our shores at this time of year? Yes, of course it could. Just like the Hermit Thrush that had made a remarkable appearance on Noss, Shetland just ten days before this bird had been found.

Later in the week I was offered at place with Sean Cole on a 'luxury cruise' out of Kirkwall to see the bird the following Saturday. Alas I had to decline his kind offer though due to family commitments. I had promised my darling, teenage daughter I would accompany her to a crucial promenade dance, dress fitting session. A prom and a Red-winged Blackbird. From one overpriced, American influenced sham to another. Actually, for what the gem encrusted gown cost I could have hired an helicopter and flew to Orkney. Then again she did look very beautiful indeed all dressed up like a little lady. Sometimes in life there are occasions that are way more important than any bird..... just sometimes!

With Sean's trip proving a resounding success and a fifth less costly than a charter flight, Phil Andrews and I seriously suggested having a punt the following weekend. The main issue though was the weather. It was looking far from ideal for a long journey through some treacherous seas in nothing more than a rigid inflatable. Undeterred though, I eventually managed to gather a crew of six other desperate souls to commit themselves to our Orcadian adventure. A plan was put in place and there would be no turning back, or would there?   

Supplies for the trip, including my lucky undercrackers!

As predicted, the adverse weather forecast scuppered our plans for a Saturday trip, with the skipper notifying us on Friday night that it would be way too dangerous to make the attempt. He did however confirm that a Sunday morning sailing looked to be possible. I checked with the rest of the party and everyone was still up for it, despite us not being due to arrive back in the West Midlands until 'wake up for work time' on Monday morning.

On Saturday evening our particular party of four, consisting of me, Phil Andrews, Jase Oliver and Steve Nuttall left Belvide Reservoir to embark on the long journey north. As always, there was plenty of banter along the way, in fact so much that at one stage my car actually became offended and scolded one of the passengers for using industrial language in her presence. This modern technology is pretty frightening at times but it did make us all laugh. Just before the Scottish border we met up with the other gentlemen who would be joining us, Mike Doughty, a fellow Warwickshire lad, Steve McCann from South Yorkshire, Graham Megson from County Durham and Terry Stopher from Suffolk.

We would not meet up again until we pulled into a lay-by just south of Berriedale in the Highlands at around 6.00am. Here we spotted our first birds of the day, a Red Grouse up on a small patch of coastal moorland, a calling Cuckoo and a couple of singing Willow Warbler. As we continued north we also flushed a Long-eared Owl as it perched up at the roadside in the village of Berriedale itself.

John O'Groats harbour, Highland by Adam Archer.

Less than a hour later and we finally pitched up within the pretty under whelming surroundings of the famous village of John O' Groats. I had only visited the site once before, during September 2009 to see another American vagrant, a Sandhill Crane, just over the water on South Ronaldsay. After a brief nap it was time to grab our gear, change into our waterproofs and see what birds we could find. It was soon evident that there were pretty good numbers of Great Skua heading east with at least forty birds gliding by in just over half hour. In addition we also had a trio of dark phase Arctic Skua, a winter plumage Red-throated Diver, modest numbers of Kittiwake and a single Sandwich Tern. Around the harbour we also enjoyed mainland Britain's most northerly colony of Sand Martin, a couple of Hooded Crow and a confiding pair of Twite.

It was while were watching these diminutive finches that the news we had been hoping for finally filtered through. I received a text from the Bird Observatory on North Ronaldsay to say the Red-winged Blackbird was still present. So far so good. I tried to forget the fact that this species is a diurnal migrant though and could quite easily to a bunk at any time.

MV Pentland Venture at John O' Groats harbour.

At 8.45am we boarded our first vessel of the day, the trusty MV Pentland Venture that would transport us to Burwick on South Ronaldsay. During this forty-five minute crossing rafts of auk were encountered with good numbers of both Guillemot and Razorbill, about a dozen Puffin and a few Black Guillemot. We also enjoyed a small group of Arctic Tern, a few Gannet and Fulmar as well as a single Manx Shearwater. It was already turning out to be a pretty good day for birding. 

At 9.30am we had finally touched down on Orkney but we still had a hell of a way to go. Luckily Mike 'Dog' Doughty had managed to charm his way into the affections of the lovely old gal in the ferry booking office back at John O' Groats. As a result, she had arranged for an eight seat minibus to meet us at Burwick and transport us north to Kirkwall, all for bargain sum of £2.00 each return. Unfortunately, there was no sign of last weeks White-billed Diver as we whizzed past St Margaret's Hope but the rusty wreckage of the sunken warships off the Churchill Barriers are always a sight to behold.

This boat can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs!

In Kirwall harbour it was now time to embark on our fourth stage of the trip via the Millenium Falcon of Orcadian waters, the 'Agricola' (meaning 'farmer' in Spanish). As we all eagerly climbed aboard our charter boat, there was a sense of high excitement throughout the modest craft. After packing our scopes and bags away in the small hold it was time to don our life jackets for the bumpy crossing ahead. Unfortunately this took us longer than expected which is unsurprising really as a fair proportion of us reside in an area of Britain as far as you can get from the ocean. Our nautical experience is pretty limited and this showed as one of our party foolishly yanked at a toggle he should not have done, igniting a gas canister which in turn blew up his safety device in an instant. It was all rather embarrassing for the individual concerned.

Guess who pulled the wrong toggle?

After the laughter and the pointing had subsided, the skipper, with a shake of his head, finally decided to depart. As we sped past Shapinsay we encountered a large flock of around forty Long-tailed Duck. Between Rousay and Eday we had brief glimpses of both Black-throated Diver and Great Northern Diver as well as the usual auk species. It was then on through the North Sound with Westray to the west and Sanday to the east. As we passed through some strong currents and down a few high troughs it did start to get a little scary but with Graham at the wheel we knew we were in capable hands. After a ninety minute, white knuckle ride we had finally reached our destination, North Ronaldsay. After a tricky mooring we eventually landed safely on the southern tip of the island and made our way to the famous Bird Observatory, just a short brisk walk away.

Scanning the iris beds at Garso, North Ronaldsay.

We had prearranged a lift with the observatory staff up to Garso towards the north of the island in their battered old Land Rover and after ten minutes or so we had arrived at the bird's favorite feeding area. This consisted of a modest patch of wetland habitat with a number of iris beds bordered by a dry stone wall on one side and the road on the other.

In nervous anticipation all eight of us set up our scopes along the road as our driver stepped carefully among the vegetation to gently coax the bird into view. It was sheer agony as every step she took failed to prompt the rarity out of cover. After around ten to fifteen minutes and with all the habitat covered there was no sign of the bird. We only had two hours on the island before we needed to make our way back. We were becoming desperate.

Then suddenly, a call came out from Graham Megson, 'There it is on the far wall!'. It had probably been there all along watching us from its vantage point atop a pile of rubble along a grassy bank. There it was, potentially the first acceptable record of Red-winged Blackbird, not just for Britain but for the whole of Europe.  

Red-winged Blackbird - Orkney by Steve Nuttall.

The rarity sat peering around completely comfortable in its temporary surroundings for about ten minutes before flying across us and dropping down into the irises. About ten minutes later it appeared once more perched up on a post where it again provided us all with some great views. It then performed tremendously well on and off for the next ninety minutes or so, perched up calling from the wires overhead, on top of various walls either side of the road and occasionally on a collection of gas bottles in the backyard of one lucky islander. It was this particular area where it enjoyed drying off and having a preen before heading off to feed again.

Red-winged Blackbird - North Ronaldsay, Orkney.

Above photos kindly provided by Chris Bromley.

During the brief periods it spent out of view, we had the chance to congratulate each other on our success, grab a quick bite to eat and celebrate with a wee dram of single malt whiskey. As you would expect on such a wildlife friendly island there were also plenty of other birds to enjoy in the area. The calls of nesting Common Gull and Curlew filled the air, interspersed with 'pee-witting' Lapwing and the evocative sound of drumming Snipe.
Celebratory selfie: Oliver, Nuttall, Archer, Andrews.

'The Pride of Perthshire' among the buttercups & irises.

In addition to the gulls and waders there were also plenty of Greylag Geese and Arctic Tern along with the odd Shelduck, Great Skua and Wigeon. Over the nearby loch, a mixed feeding flock of hirundine dashed around, consisting mostly of Swallow but with also small numbers of House Martin and a single Sand Martin. The surrounding fields contained around a dozen Northern Wheater along with several pairs of Meadow Pipit and Linnet.

Red-winged Blackbird - Orkney by Adam Archer.

As the rest of the party slowly made their way up the road to meet up with our lift back, Steve Nuttall and I struggled to tear ourselves away. After such a long journey, I guess we just wanted to soak up every single moment of the occasion. As we hesitated, the Red-winged Blackbird flew across us once again and eventually made its way over to the gas bottles for one final encore. Little did we know, as she sat there conditioning her plumage, this would be the last time the bird would be seen. If we had, I reckon we would have lingered just a short while longer. There is a chance this species may never be recorded in Britain ever again.

All aboard the Land Rover. Next stop, Nouster.

After squeezing into the cab and spilling over the back of the Land Rover, we headed back down to Nouster for our return sailing back to Kirkwall. After chucking a few quid into the collection bucket and thanking our helpful chauffeur, we had a quick scan of the bay. The most numerous species feeding among the seaweed was Turnstone, with fifty or so mostly summer plumage individuals picking their way methodically along the beach. There were also good numbers of Sanderling, a small group of Dunlin and at least six Purple Sandpiper. It had been a memorable few hours on one of Britain's most remote and wonderful islands.

Our Red-winged Blackbird sighting duly plotted!

We arrived back in Kirkwall at around 4.00pm. With no sign of the White-billed Diver on South Ronaldsay since earlier in the week, we decided to spend thirty minutes checking the small body of water known as Peedie Sea just a short walk from the quay. A Red-rumped Swallow had been frequenting the area on and off for the past couple of days so it was well worth a punt. Unfortunately there was no sign of it despite a few of the more usual Swallow feeding over the pools. The highlight at this site though was undoubtedly the small groups of Long-tailed Duck, some of which loafed just a few yards from the shoreline. Other species included Mallard and Tufted Duck, the usual gulls, a pair of Common Tern and a fly over Whimbrel.

Long-tailed Ducks - Peedie Sea, Kirkwall, Orkney.

Above photos kindly provided by Steve Nuttall.
With the arrival of our minibus it was time to head down to Burwick for the ferry back to John O' Groats. At this stage the weather was glorious as we sailed back to Caithness through the bubbling waters of Pentland Firth. The tidal races of this particular strait are among the fastest in the world and are an impressive sight to witness. Viewing the waters and the bird life feeding here is worth the price of the crossing alone.

Burwick and the Pentland Firth by Adam Archer.

Now for the tough bit. To get home we were faced with a further 550 miles of road from John O' Groats back to the West Midlands. To complicate matters we were understandably exhausted, hungry and thirsty. The first leg of the journey back to Inverness was pretty easy for me to drive though, with the rugged scenery of the Highlands to the west and the deep blue of the North Sea to the east, spurring me on. After several false alarms at Wick and Brora we finally found a chippy that was open at Golspie. The mood at that point was nearly as joyous as when the Red-winged Blackbird had first appeared. We ordered our freshly cooked meals and sat along the coastal path demolishing them. It had been a pretty epic trip and yet another one to look back on in years to come with smiles on our faces. Life is all about making memories such as these.

The rest of the journey went pretty well and the birding continued right up until we approached Loch Moy when a male Ring Ouzel flew over the busy A9 and perched in the hard shoulder briefly. After a few brief stops for fuel and to stretch our legs, we finally arrived back at Belvide Reservoir at around 4.30am on Monday morning. A few hours later at this site, the American theme would continue when Steve Nuttall found a summer plumage Spotted Sandpiper, remarkably his third one on his patch. I on the other had to grab a couple of hours sleep before logging on and working from home.

All in, the trip cost us £119.00 each including fuel, the return ferry to Orkney and the charter boat to North Ronaldsay and back. I realise some of you may think that is a whole lot of cash to spend on a bird that may well be banished to Category D, or even E of the British List but to me it was money well spent.


  1. Great read Arch,sounds like it was a brilliant trip wish I'd have been there mate..

  2. Cheers Greeny! Hope you get back on your feet properly soon pal. X