Thursday, 22 January 2015

Chris Gooddie - My 'NGB Years'

By the start of the 1980s I was already a keen birder, and was twitching UK rarities whenever I could get a lift from friends who drove and could beg, steal or borrow a car. Finding out where rarities were before they departed was difficult before the advent of mobile phones and the web, but by swapping home phone numbers with other birders at twitches one could slowly build up a network of contacts across the UK to become a member of 'the grapevine'. Those contacts had produced results in 1981 and '82, and I'd added the odd cosmic rarity to my list, such as the UK's 7th Paddyfield Warbler at Walney Island, and the long-staying Glossy Ibis at Stodmarsh in Kent.

Another surefire way to get up to date information was to hang out in Cley, North Norfolk over the August bank holiday, and that strategy paid dividends too, not least because I was having breakfast with three friends at the legendary Nancy's CafĂ© on August 31st when news of a UK first - Little Whimbrel at Sker Point, South Wales - was phoned in. We drove west and scored the bird before dark, then climbed back in the car and drove overnight to Saltholme Flats in Teeside where we watched Britain's first ever Long-toed Stint feeding on the lagoon edge at point-blank range. After missing a Sooty Shearwater at Flamborough we were back in Norfolk by the evening of the 1st September to finish our week’s birding before heading home to Manchester, a round trip of just over a thousand miles.

However, despite such exploits a few of my more serious listing friends were still seeing more rarities than I was for one simple reason; they were spending a week or more in October on the Isles of Scilly. Thrilling tales of encounters with storm-driven American birds carried across the Atlantic by fast-moving westerly depressions whetted my appetite, and the more I listened in envy the more desperate I became to find a way to get myself down to the south-west in October. In the autumn of 1983 an old school friend Colin foolishly mentioned he might be up for it and could borrow a car. I figured no-one would miss us from our respective Nottingham University courses for a few days, and I worked on him until it became a reality. The die was cast and we drove down overnight, slept in the car at Penzance and presented ourselves at Penzance Heliport in plenty of time to catch our morning chopper flight.

Arriving at St Mary's Airfield we pocketed an invaluable photocopied A4 tourist map of the islands, picked up our bags and hopped onto the bus, which dropped us in High Town. A helpful soul had mentioned it was possible to leave bags at a place called 'The Porthcressa', so we asked for directions and had almost reached our destination when we came across a small crowd of birders peering intently at a stripy, yellowish, sparrow-like bird which was hopping about on the tiny strip of mown grass adjacent to Porthcressa Bay. 'What've you got?' I whispered to a bearded gentleman next to me. He turned and whispered a single word that took my breath away: "Bobolink." I exchanged a glance with Colin before we focused our bins on the bird, unable to believe our good fortune. We hadn't even had time to drop our bags off!

Within a couple of minutes a Scillonian dog scampered innocently across the sward, flushing the Bobolink, which flew off over Hugh Town. We silently cursed the mutt, but as things transpired the errant pooch had done us a favour. No sooner had we stowed our rucksacks downstairs at the 'Cressa than a shout went up; "RED-EYED VIREO. TRESCO!" We had no clue how to get to Tresco, but since a mass stampede immediately started through town we followed, and after a short sprint down the quay we just managed to squeeze aboard the departing boat which was already packed to the gunwales. Made it!

Once on Tresco we again followed the crowd, which quickly surrounded an isolated thorn bush backing on to one of the southern beaches. Ignorant of our mounting incredulity, there in the centre of the bush lurked a skulking Red-eyed Vireo, which popped its head out every now and then to reveal a whopping great white supercilium sandwiched between a matt grey crown and a thick black eyeline. Having never visited the USA it was my first experience of the family, and I was struck by its chunky build and rather sluggish movements.

After an hour or so the bird disappeared, and we reluctantly wandered up towards the other quay where we were to board the boat back to St Mary's. En route we skirted a large body of water on our right. I checked the map and said to my friend that I thought this must be The Great Pool, a key site that we had been advised was a key site to check for rarities. A few birders were loitering near the pool so we sidled over and nervously enquired whether there was anything about. "Well the Solitary Sand is still over there…" We jerked our heads in the direction of the extended arm and noticed a small, dark wader picking its way daintily around the edge of the mud. It was indeed a Solitary Sandpiper, and I hurriedly lay down, rested my right foot in the crick of my left knee, and in time-honoured style balanced my trusty Hertel and Reuss Tele-Vari 25-60x scope on the resulting prop. I scribbled largely illegible notes as fast as I could in my notebook, and when the bird flew a few metres noted with satisfaction the dark rump and barred sides to the tail. It really WAS a Solitary Sand!

The boat docked at New Grimsby quay bang on time, and we scuttled to the back and wedged ourselves into a gap between other birders. The thrum of the engine combined with our lack of sleep soon had our heads nodding, but we were awoken from our reverie when a second boat drew up alongside mid-channel. The two vessels were roped together, and our skipper announced: "Anyone who wants to go to St Agnes transfer here". What's on St. Agnes? I asked my neighbour. "Parula Warbler in The Parsonage. Oh, and a Subalpine". We checked our map, located The Parsonage and were soon stood at the back of the crowd. The gent next to us cheerfully informed us "You just missed it…it showed really well two or three minutes ago." He glanced at our crestfallen faces and added, "It's doing a circuit. It'll be round again in half an hour or so." 

We waited for a couple of hours, but the bird did not show, and despite further searching it was not seen again. We were appalled at our misfortune, but before we could get too down in the mouth another stampede broke out. We grabbed our kit and followed, trying to keep up and at the same time find out what we were running for. "Rose…" came the breathless reply from a fellow sprinter, but the end of his utterance was inaudible amidst his gasps for breath. I racked my brains but could not think of anything that would fit the bill except perhaps a Rosefinch or a Rose-coloured Starling. Both were new birds for me, but would either really have caused such mass panic? I managed to jog alongside a different runner for long enough to ask again what we were running for, and this time the whole of our mystery target's name was audible; "Rose-breasted Grosbeak!" We reached a sweating but thankfully stationary pack of birders and after a few tense minutes managed gripping views of the grosbeak gorging itself on blackberries.

After watching the bird for a while we checked our watches and realised there were only twenty minutes before the boat back to St Mary's. We were some distance from the quay, and the Subalpine Warbler had apparently not been seen for a while, so we reluctantly concluded we'd have to come back tomorrow and try again for both the Subalp. and the Parula. (Sadly, I failed on both counts and had to wait a few more years to add either to my UK list.)

Once on board we broke out the ‘Squashed Fly’ Garibaldi biscuits and celebrated in style, but our introduction to the magic of Scilly birding was not yet quite complete. As we entered the harbour a CB Radio crackled into life, and an uproar broke out at the front of the boat. We caught the word "Swallow" before being knocked aside as an entire boatload of birders attempted to clamber up the quay steps at the same time. Once back on terra firma we quickly established the cause of the furorĂ©- a Cliff Swallow, the first for Britain, was currently circling around the dump catching insects. In record time we were alongside the incinerator and checking the hirundines. Barn Swallow…Barn Swallow…there! No, Sand Martin, false alarm. Barn Swallow…Barn Swallow…and then a flash of a pinkish-buff rump and a pale collar, and the Cliff Swallow was ours. It circled above us, sailing out over the rooftops, before swinging back in our direction, taking advantage of the last of the Autumn sunshine to feed up before settling down to roost in the bushes.

As darkness fell we retrieved our bags and tramped wearily up to the campsite. After a quick wash it was down to the bar on the quay for far more lager than was wise, chicken-in-a-basket and some decidedly inept games of pool. Between games we relived the day's highlights, celebrating our FIVE new American birds, both ecstatic to have confirmed for ourselves just how amazing Scilly could be in the Autumn. Over the coming days we added Gray-cheeked and Swainson's Thrushes and an Upland Sandpiper, plus a strong supporting cast of Richard's and Tawny Pipits, Rose-coloured Starling and Common Rosefinch to our UK lists. After five action-packed days we returned to the mainland, with enough time to make a short detour to St Just. There, flitting in a gloomy corner of a tiny copse, was a bird that remains right at the top of the list of birds I have seen in Britain - an American Redstart. It seemed to float like a butterfly in front of our eyes, flashing its yellow wing and tail patches as it flitted from one perch to another. The flourish at the end of the description in my notebook at the time was succinct: 'the best bird I have ever seen'.

Scilly in the 1980's and 1990's could be spectacular. Although the islands may be enduring something of a drought in terms of rarities in recent years, it seems likely that at some point the good times will return. Until they do, I have to admit that although I have made the pilgrimage to the archipelago on many subsequent occasions, I have never again experienced a day quite like my very first on Scilly.

-Chris Gooddie
Chris Gooddie is a keen birder and rarity hunter; UK finds to date include two Blyth's Reed Warblers, 3 Lanceolated Warblers, a Great Snipe, a Western Bonelli's Warbler and a Greenish Warbler. Chris is the author of 'The Jewel Hunter', a book documenting an attempt to see all of the world's species of pitta in a year, and is a serving member of the Oriental Bird Club committee. 

1 comment:

  1. Brings back sooo many memories, did 1980-89 u had to be there..... happy daze.

    Laurie -