Saturday, 1 October 2011

So, should I go to Scilly?: 19/20 Sept 2011

Well what do you do when the weather conditions are looking amazing for yankee passerines to make landfall on the Western Approaches?  My long time birding friend Mark Telfer took the bold decision to go to Ireland to find his own birds - after all, if there are American passerines on the Isles of Scilly, how many more yanks are being overlooked in Ireland?  You can read his tales here. Although I am tempted by the allure of finding my own birds, I also felt a huge draw to Scilly: the newly arrived Northern Waterthrush just held too much appeal for me.  It's a bird I have longed to see since 1996; I'd always bitterly regretted not having left Scilly in October 1996 in order to see the one that turned up at Portland Bill that October.  I always remember seeing the legendary Martin Elliott's fieldsketches of that individual - what stunning drawings!!  That October I notched up the two Black-and-White Warblers, Buff-bellied Pipit and a Bobolink amongst others on Scilly, but I resisted going to Portland, I think mainly because it would have been a lot of stress and expense to have returned to Scilly afterwards - so I stayed put on the islands for a fortnight.  By the time I left, the Portland waterthrush had already departed; just gutting.  However I did have the reward of a Pechora Pipit at St Leven in Cornwall, a truly wonderful bird, and still the only Pechora I've ever seen in Britain. 
So in headless-chicken mode I set off as soon as I was able too, driving through the night to reach Penzance in the small hours of Tuesday 20th September. 
It's always an exciting feeling arriving in the West Country, and there are always birds in the harbour area.  It was good to get straight into drawing mode once at the quay and on board the Scillonian - there were several Turnstone foraging on scraps on the harbour walls.  The seascape was painted from the ship.

The crossing was fairly uneventful, three Storm Petrels being the highlight.  I gave up looking for birds though, as I was feeling so nauseous with the ocean swell.  Quite a strong westerly breeze, so I'm wondering what else could turn up.  Once we arrived on St Marys I went straight to the Garrison campsite and pitched my tent.  Already the slight drizzle had turned to a light but continual rain: the forecasted weather front had already arrived.  I made my way down to Higgo's pool on Lower Moors where the Solitary Sandpiper was still present giving great views.

Meanwhile the rain got heavier, and even though I had a full set of waterproofs on, and and umbrella up, it wasn't long before I could feel the rain seeping into my clothes.  I dared not leave in case the waterthrush showed, but soon other birders were drifting away as it hadn't been seen since mid-morning at least.  So I decided to sit in Higgo's Hide, and paint the above Solitary Sandpiper picture.  While I was painting, at 16.26 hrs I heard a high pitched, distinctive 'pik' call, and looked up to see a, the, Northern Waterthrush in the corner of the pool!!!  Unbelievable - it was still here and I was watching it!  I was stunned!  Earthy grey brown above with distinct lemon wash to the supercilium and the flanks.  The excitement was quite overwhelming and I was thinking, 'I'm the only person here watching in the rain, but there are other people who also really want to see this bird too'.  No mobile reception in the hide so I had to venture into the deluge and try and call people - no reply from anyone.  I rang RBA, and no-one answered so I just left a shaky phone message on their answerphone. I left my number so they could contact me.  I then went back to watching the bird - what if it disappeared never to be seen again?  I'd have been left with a few fleeting images which would be so frustrating.  Anyhow, thankfully the bird was still there, and with my brolly up to protect my scope, I was able to keep tracks on the waterthrush's movements.  I made a few very shaky outline sketches that didn't do justice to the bird (the painting below was completed much later), but the rest of it was done at the time. After what seemed like an eternity (it was only 20 minutes), the first of six birders arrived to see it before darkness fell, thrilled to bits!  Clearly the message had gone out on the pagers.

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