Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Trip Report - Mammalwatching special: Iberian Lynx

This winter’s “must-do” European nature trip seems to have been a visit to the Sierra de Andujar to look for one of the continent’s most endangered mammals, the Iberian Lynx. My Twitter feed has been filled with photos of this stunning animal and various friends had been discussing a trip. Deciding I wanted a piece of the action, I tried to organise an NGB long weekend trip but this unfortunately fell through. I thought that this meant my opportunity to search for lynx this winter had passed. However, when Ashley Howe messaged me saying he was going to try to get lynx in a single weekend and asked if I’d like to come, I jumped at the chance.

Our evening flight from Stansted arrived in Malaga without a hitch and after picking up our hire car, we arrived in the Sierra de Andujar at around 2 am. The drive did produce Wild Boar, Hedgehog, Red Deer and Little Owl, all early signs that this would be a good trip. After a sleepless, freezing night in the car, we started our search at the Mirador de la Jandula in the heart of the area where lynx can be found. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours searching here but without any success. Despite this, the birding was very good including three lifers (Spotless Starling, Spanish Imperial Eagle and Iberian Green Woodpecker), as well as Short-toed Treecreeper, Firecrest, Hawfinch, Sardinian Warbler and Griffon Vulture.

We decided to drive up the road a bit and join fellow NGB, Oli Reville, who had also made the trip with his boss, Richard Campey (One Stop Nature Shop). Oli had been there several hours and had no luck, although he did manage to “grip” me with his sighting of a couple of Thekla Larks. A fruitless nine hour vigil then ensued, only punctuated by an unsuccessful trip to La Lancha dam to look for a herd of ibex that Oli had seen there. Although we had enjoyed views of Moufflon and Fallow Deer, as well as birds like Azure-winged Magpie, Blue Rock Thrush, Iberian Grey Shrike and Dartford Warbler, there was no hiding our disappointment as we made the 1 hour 30 drive back to our accommodation, the Hostal Plaza in Marmolejo. Our mood was not helped by a report that the lynx had been seen by one individual who did not think to share his sighting with the assembled watchers.

We were not optimistic the next morning and the first few hours were unsurprisingly frustrating, especially as the lynx had been seen by another observer at the other side of the valley. Nevertheless, the birding was still good as we added Chough and Rock Bunting to the trip list.

Then came the moment we had been waiting for as a Belgian young birder, who had walked up the road to check out my Rock Bunting sighting, shouted that fated word “Lynx!

Panic then ensued and I was too busy running to notice it slip behind a rock. A nerve-wrangling 20 seconds or so but what felt like 20 minutes followed before I noticed it slip behind another rock. A further 30 seconds followed as Ash ran from the other side of the valley and Oli ran up the hill before the lynx came out again briefly but long enough for the assembled crowd to see it. Oli even managed some stunning shots! The lynx then proceeded to show intermittently as it moved through the scrub for the next five or so minutes. The lynx then moved over the hill so the crowd dashed round the other side only for one observer to see the lynx cross the road behind us and disappear in to the valley! 

Our luck did not stop there as we returned to La Lancha to enjoy distant views of 3 female Ibex before finding a Golden Eagle and a Black Vulture, the latter a most-wanted lifer for me. The rest of the day was unsurprisingly a bit of an anti-climax as we headed off to do some birding at Laguna de la Fuente Piedra. This was disappointingly quiet, although we did see flocks of both Black-winged Stilts and Cranes, as well as White Stork and several Crested Larks on the journey down. A check of Teba Gorge was fruitless on the bird front but we enjoyed excellent views of a very approachable herd of Ibex. After that, we had to head back for our flight but the trip had been an excellent way to spend the weekend!

I’d like to thank Ash for driving and making the trip possible, Oli for all his help with the information and logistics, all the assembled watchers for the effort they put in and, in particular, the Belgian young birder who spotted the prize! I did mention NGB to him so fingers crossed that he’ll join and I’ll be able to thank him properly!

-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a 21 year old Classics graduate from Durham university, living in London and patching Hampstead Heath. When he is not watching the world's rarest feline, he likes to spend his time birding and hill walking. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

The joys and value of ring reading

One thing all birders with decent optics (though often, not even they are needed!) can do to contribute to the ever growing science of bird movements, is read and report ringed birds. Dull days in the field can be brightened up by attempting to read the Darvic ring of a gull in a flock, the wing tags on a raptor or colour-ring combinations on waders or passerines such as Twite. 
Once noted, along with date, general time and location, these sequences can be submitted to the relevant ringing bodies through websites such as Euring or C-R birding, not only giving vital information to the research organisations but also allowing you a view into the bird's life history. 
Some stories of young birders reading rings/marks are below:

Ben Porter - Spoonbill in Portugal
In Oct/Nov 2014 I did a stint of volunteering at a conservation centre (A Rocha) on the southern coast of Portugal. Whilst birding the estuaries and coastal marshes, I was always on the look-out for colour-ringed birds, especially Spoonbills. 
Many of the overwintering Spoonbills on the coast were wearing colour-rings, and many were recognisable as being from the Dutch scheme, with a Yellow flag on the tibia characteristic of that particular programme. However, whilst birding around Ludo (Ria Formosa) with a member of A Rocha staff, we picked up on a Spoonbill with colour rings from a different country: on the right tibia were the rings Yellow/Red/Orange, and on the left tibia was a single metal ring. After returning to the centre, I used the excellent European Colour-ringing website, C-R birding, to narrow down on which scheme this individual had originated from, and soon I found out that it was a French one. 

Within an hour or two of emailing in the sighting, I had a reply, and what a reply! Not only was that particular bird as old as me (ringed in Besne, France, in 1996), but sightings had ranged from Spain to Mauritania! The details are listed below:

ringed as nestling at Besné (Loire Atlantique, France) on 13/6/1996
seen on 29/8/1996 at Veta La Palma (Huelva, Spain)
seen on 28/1 and 3/2/1999 at Ile Arel (Banc d'Arguin, Mauritania)
seen on 11/7/2000 at Cabane de Moins (near Rochefort, Charente maritime, France)
seen on 7/8/2000 at Saint Denis du Payré (Vendée, France)
seen on 10/4/2001 in the colony of Lac de Grand-Lieu (Loire Atlantique, France)
last seen on 14/3/2006 at Veta La Palma (Huelva, Spain).

Jonnie Fisk - Greylag Goose in York
On 21st Oct 2012 I was enjoying a Greggs sausage roll (other bakery chains are available) by King's Staith when I saw one of the loitering Greylags had a white Darvic ring with 1 black number and 2 black letters. Filling out a Euring Web recovery form, I waited a few days until I got an email containing this bird's less-than-exhilarating life history - ringed as a 1st-year male in York on 15/02/04 (making him a little over 8 years old) he had hardly ventured out of the city - why would you with schmucks like me feeding you sausage rolls? - and in fact had not moved more than 2km from his last report. All data though!

James O'Neill - Whooper Swan & Brents in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland can be a rewarding location to read rings, especially those of the abundant wildfowl which grace our loughs and shughs. While I haven’t gone hardcore, commiting time simply to read rings, I do come across colour ringed birds at times, especially Whooper Swans and Brent Geese. Only last weekend (17th January), while scanning a flock of whoopers on the shore of Lough Neagh, I noticed one with a yellow colour ring; though it wasn’t far away, it took a while to read as the leg was usually kept buried in the grass, not helped by the local hunter pulling up to ask had I seen any geese as he wanted a couple for dinner. I eventually got the code, and when I got the history of the bird back after reporting it, I was fascinated to learn that it:
a.) hadn’t been seen since 2008
b.) was ringed as an adult at Skagafjordur, Iceland in 1999
c.) wintered regularly in the same location as I had seen her and had been seen at Skagafjordur in subsequent summers.
Similarly, I have reported several ringed Brent Geese, seen from several places around the County Down coast. Probably the most interesting Brent was AXWW, which I spotted at Dundrum on 24th February 2014. It had been ringed, at the age of 3, in Nov 2005 in Strangford Lough, along with its siblings. It stayed with its siblings in Dundrum bay until spring 2006. In the years since then it has been seen at Snaefellsness, Iceland and at several points around the coast of Northern Ireland. My latest sighting of this bird was the 10th January during a birdrace, at Tyrella beach, along the coast from Dundrum.

James Common - Whooper Swan in Iceland
A highlight of a recent trip to Iceland in January 2015 was the inner city Whoopers! Behaving more like Mutes than the timid migrants I am used to these birds were more than happy to take food from the hand, allowing for supreme close up viewing of what has to be one of my all-time favourite birds. Anyways, things got even better when one of the lumbering white giants lifted from the water revealing a easily read ring. A little chin wag with Kane Brides and the origin of the bird were revealed with rather surprising results. Turns out the swan,was ringed at WWT Caelaverock, Scotland during March 2014. By Kane himself! Quite a surprising find, though the reasons for it forsaking its migration to the UK for the winter (as it did for the of winter 2013/14) remain unclear.

Ben Porter - Dunlin in Portugal
On the 31st of October, I was scanning through a roosting flock of Ringed Plovers, Kentish Plovers, Dunlins and Sanderlings, when I happened upon a Dunlin wearing some bright bling on its legs. I took a few images, and tried to get the combination by eye, but the distance meant this wasn't possible. Downloading the pictures on my laptop later that day enabled me to get the full combo, from which I could then work out which scheme the bird had originated from. After retrieving the ringing scheme contacts on C-R birding, I emailed the guys in charge, and within an hour had a reply. The details? This particular Dunlin had been ringed on the 13th of September 2014, in North-western Spain, some 600 kilometres away. Cool.

Alex Penn - Black-headed Gull in Yorksire
I read a Black-headed Gull ring within a flock at Wetherby in January 2015, and discovered the bird was ringed as a chick in a park in Moss, Norway in 2011! It had been reported a few times within 50km of its ringing site since, but this is the first time its been sighted in UK, or anywhere out of Norway in fact - a movement of about 950km!

Will Jones - African Oystercatcher in Suth Africa
On the 10th of January 2012 I noticed an African Oystercatcher pair near some coastal rock-pools at De Hoop, South Africa while on a field course with the University of Exeter, one of which was colour ringed. The jet black African Oystercatchers are a strictly coastal species restricted to the shores of Namibia and South Africa and although the species appears to be bucking trend compared to other Cape maritime species and is increasing, they are still classed as Near Threatened, as a result any ringing and retrap data is vital to help understand these increases. When I returned to the UK I submitted the data to SAFRING and promptly got a surprising reply. My bird was ringed as a pullus on the 24th of December 2001 at St. Francis Bay, Eastern Cape. This not only made the bird over 10 years old, but it had also moved over 400km. Further to this however, the bird was also resighted at Cape Recife on the 3rd of September 2009, some 80km EAST of the ringing location. While this is data from just one bird, it does suggest that this supposedly resident species can and does undergo large movements, yet another reason to ensure that there is a good and linked series of protected areas in this threatened zone of high diversity and endemism.

Liz Clipson - Chough in Wales
Below is the report I had of a male colour ringed Chough on 03/05/2014 at RSPB South Stack. He and his female partner are half siblings (same mother, but different fathers, and from different years, so they’ll be unaware that they're related) nesting in a cave called "The Mousetrap" & both ringed at the same Rhoscolyn nest-site (that’s about 10 km to the south of South Stack). He's a 2004 bird and his mate is 5 years older - 1999.
He was one of an unprecedented exodus of about 10 youngsters to the Isle of Man in 2004. Two of these (male siblings from the same brood, including 'our male') returned to Anglesey in summer 2006, with this one pairing with the recently widowed "Mrs Mousetrap" in summer 2006, nesting from the following spring - 2007. (His brood-sibling brother that returned with him, also became an Anglesey breeding bird, nesting at a different Rhoscolyn nest site, from 2009 to 2013, but not in 2014 - almost certainly dead.)
When I saw him in May, his mate would have been on eggs at the time and he would have been gathering food to take back to her. They raised and almost fledged 4 young in the 2014 nesting season – they have an unfortunately sited nest, deep in a sea cave, where their young frequently fail to leave the cave on their first flight without getting swamped by the waves. Occasionally they manage to get one of their brood out successfully, but usually it’s a complete failure – as it was last season. We wouldn’t know how close they come to fledging 4 chicks a year without the fact that there is a nest camera in the cave!

Cathal Forkhan - Little Stint in Ireland
On the 12th of September 2014, I went down to my local patch, Barna Pier in Galway in the evening after school. I was walking along the seawall when I spotted a smaller wader with the usual flock of Dunlin. It was a juvenile Little Stint, and my first ever, as they are rare enough over here. I snuck up on it and noticed it was colour ringed. The light was fading but I managed to get a few record shots,and more importantly was able to read the rings, a combination of red, metal and letter-engraved yellow rings. After this it stayed around for about a week and was seen in a few other areas on the coast of Galway Bay by different observers. I sent notice by email to the ringing project and got back the following information: it was caught in a walk-in-trap and ringed in Klepp, Rogaland, Norway on 31st Aug 2014, having hatched that year.  

Ben Porter - Ringed Plover in Portugal
A couple of weeks later, I was birding the opposite side of the marsh, when I picked out a Ringed Plover amongst a flock of mixed Kentish and Ringed Plovers, which was wearing a flag and colour-ring on the tibia. It was quite tricky to get close enough to see the rings, and it was even harder to pick out the three small letters on the flag. But, again, my camera came to the rescue, and I was able to obtain some record shots, which enabled to me to get the info I needed: Yellow flag above the tibia on the right leg, with ‘NLX’ inscribed upon it. That evening I once again trawled through various schemes on the C-R birding website, until I found the one that fitted. A short email and two hours later, I was looking at a superb control sheet, outlining this wee hiaticula’s journey over the past few months. Initially ringed as a juvenile in North-west Norway (Makkevika) on the 27th of August 2014, this particular bird had then been seen again by some birders on the Merseyside, England, two weeks later. And now, after covering almost 3000km in just over two months, it was feeding alongside Black-winged Stilts and Greater Flamingos on an Estuary in Portugal.

Oliver Reville - Osprey in The Gambia
Between 10th-17th November 2014 I was lucky enough to visit The Gambia with my girlfriend AJ. Early afternoon on the 13th November I was walking around the Kartong wetlands areas, managed and monitored by Colin Cross of the Kartong bird observatory. On the way back, after getting fantastic views of White-Throated Bee-Eater, we noticed 8 Osprey in fairly close proximity to us. One of the birds was ringed with a black DARVIC with white letters/numbers on its left leg and I decided to get a few photos of it so Colin could have the information obtained from the ring markings. It turns out it was ringed on 30/06/14 near the town of Robel, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, North East Germany as part of a clutch of 3 chicks! It was fascinating to find information out about this young Osprey, which less than 6 months before I spotted it in the Gambia was sat in a nest in North-Eastern Germany, a distance of at least 5,176km!

Ben Porter - Starling on Bardsey Island
After returning to Bardsey in November 2014, I started ringing some Starlings on one of the island’s beaches, using a portable Heligoland trap. I was taking pictures of some Starlings one day, when I noticed one with a ring on its left leg (most birds in the UK are ringed on their right leg). This immediately got my attention- at the very least it wasn't going to be one of ‘mine’. Thankfully it came close enough to take some pictures of the ring, but unfortunately it never found its way into the Heligoland trap. I managed to obtain almost the entire ring sequence just from pictures, but written in small text on the top of the ring was the capital STAVANGER- it was a Norwegian Starling! Hopefully I have got enough details on the ring to find out exactly where it was ringed.

And finally...Jonnie Fisk - Farne Islands
Sometimes the combinations of letters on rings can make for a few snorts of laughter down the scope. A real missed opportunity was had one the Farnes in June 2014: whilst twitching the Bridled Tern, we began to scope some of the terns congregating on the rocks - including a blue darvic'd bird that at first appeared to read BLT - the species? Sandwich Tern of course! 

-Alex Penn
Alex is 19 years-old and has lived and birded in Nidderdale, N Yorkshire most of his life, but is now at university in Aberdeen studying Zoology. He is a trainee ringer and working a local patch a few times a week. His Aberdeenshire birding highlights so far are Harlequin Duck, RBF, Crane and multiple YBWs, plus ringing Beardies and Jack Snipe.
-Ben Porter
Living on a small rock off the welsh coast (Bardsey Island) throughout the year, Ben doesn’t really have much choice to be anything but a patch birder! He enjoys all aspects of Birding, and is a keen wildlife photographer, lepidopterist, and trainee bird ringer.
-Cathal Forkan
Cathal is a fifteen year old birder and photographer who spends all of his free time birding his patch of inner Galway bay (including the legendary Nimmo’s pier), on the west coast of Ireland. In winter he spends a lot of time with gulls and waders, in summer his attention turns to the breeding birds and seawatching off nearby beaches.
-James Common
James is a 20 year old birder/conservation nut and wannabe naturalist based along the North-East coast near the reserves of NWT East Chevington and Druridge Bay.  The last few years he has spent studying BHs Animal Conservation Science at the university of Cumbria from which he has now graduated.
-James O'Neill
Hailing from Norn Iron (that's Northern Ireland to you), James, 18, is interested in most branches of nature, especially fish, invertebrates and birds. A wildlife artist and, more recently, photographer, he likes nothing more than to spend a sunny day out at his patch, Lough Neagh, with his scope and camera. He enjoys travelling and aims to visit every region of the world to suss out its plethora of wildlife.
-Jonnie Fisk
Jonnie is an 19 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig, the music of Hall & Oates and being distracted by bugs. 
-Liz Clipson
Liz is 23 and lives in Stoke-on-Trent but tends to bird around Worcestershire with her boyfriend -a fellow NGB- and her dad. She has only been birding since April 2013, but being born on the North Norfolk coast, both she and her dad have have always had an interest in birds! As with many people "new" to birding they both enjoy raptors and are also big lovers of shrikes.
-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 25 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, Wheatears, Reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.

-William Jones
William originally hails from the birder's paradise that is Shropshire. However he is currently living in Uppsala, Sweden where he is studying the effects of malaria on Pied and Collared Flycatchers as part of a Master's Programme in Ecology and Conservation. When not in the lab he can usually be found trying to track down Sweden's Owls, Woodpeckers and Gamebirds with limited success.

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 Café 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 furoré- 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.