Friday 22 February 2013

Reminisce with a list

It's been a frustrating week with continuing back problems preventing me doing pretty much anything on the birding front. With a slight improvement yesterday, and with driving easier than walking, I twitched the Pied-billed Grebe in neighbouring Somerset. The journey there was fine but, having seen the bird, something else in a hitherto OK bit of back went ping, and I literally limped home to spend the rest of the day in bed, where I remain as I write this.
So rather than dwell on the things I haven't seen this week, I thought I would cheer myself up by focusing on the things I have seen over the years. And what better way to do it than that tried and tested birding format: the list. Today's list is my top five long-distance twitches. Most of these birds were photographed pretty poorly (click the links below for proof) before I bought a decent camera, so rather than inflict grainy sepia pictures on you, the war stories are broken up with some of my favourite rarity photos from the last decade. Two lists for the price of one, you lucky things.

American Robin, Grimsby (Jan 2004). A trip from Kent with Matt Jones. Of about a million digiscoped shots, this was the only sharp one.
1. Black-Browed-Albatross, Sula Sgeir, May 2007. I started birding in the late 1990s so had never seen the long-staying Albatross at the Hermaness Gannetry. So when one was located on Sula Sgeir, and Dick Filby organised a series of three boat trips to look for it the following year, we booked on the first one available. Probably my most expensive twitch ever, I think Matt Jones and I paid £300 for a berth on the Professor Multanovsky to sail overnight toward this rocky outcrop in the Atlantic. As the boat steamed out of Ullapool on a chilly evening Matt said, 'what are we doing? We've spent a fortune to twitch a bird that hasn't been seen for nearly a year'. Fortunately it was still there. Four species of Skua plus White-tailed Eagle from the boat capped the trip off nicely.
Pied-billed Grebe, Hollingworth Lake (Nov 2010). Not as Pied-billed as the recent Somerset bird of the same species, but pretty special anyway. This bird swam just yards in front of a hide I was sitting in.
2. Harlequin Duck, Lewis, April 2004. Another trip with Matt as we made a week of it in Scotland. Apart from the occasional chopper to the Isles of Scilly, this was the only time in the last 10 years that I have broken a self-imposed flying ban, going short-haul from Glasgow to Stornoway before hiring a car and heading for Grais where the Harlequin Duck was last seen. We overshot the spot but after some high speed reversing were soon enjoying views of this mega-rarity. American Herring Gull in Stornoway Harbour and enough Iceland Gulls to fill a freezer were a bonus.
White-billed Diver, Cornwall (March 2007). If this picture looks a bit like I was stood over the bird, that's because I was. It swam under a footbridge up a creek off the Hayle Estuary. We saw this, a Franklin's Gull, a Spotted Sandpiper and a Yellow-browed Warbler all within a couple of hours of watching a Gyr Falcon leave the roost at Stepper Point.
3. Snowy Egret, Balvicar, April 2002. The first time I saw this bird was in Ardeer, on the way back from a winter trip to Islay in 2001, but it was such a long-stayer that I caught up with it the following April back at Balvicar. An epic day started at Loch Garten with Capercaillie and Osprey, continued with Black Grouse at Loch Laggan and a King Eider at Dunstaffnage before seeing the Egret mid-morning, then back east for a Red-breasted Goose near Kinross, a couple of Surf Scoter in Fife and a Waxwing flock in Dunfermline before dusk.

Red-flanked Bluetail, St Martin's (Oct 2010). Not such a major rarity these days but still a stunning bird.
4. Masked Shrike, Kilrenny, Nov 2004. Probably my longest day-trip to date, 1000 miles on the clock exactly, for the ultimate solo smash and grab. I left Kent at 0200, crossed the border just after 0700, saw the bird about 0930, headed for home about 1100 and was back in time to put my son in the bath that evening. Apart from getting out of the car to see the bird, I stopped only once, at Gretna services, to fill up and, more importantly, to twitch some Waxwings by the petrol pumps.
Desert Wheatears are often confiding. This one on Cooden Beach, East Sussex (Nov 2006) was no exception.
5. White-tailed Plover, Caerlaverock, June 2007. Matt and I finished work and drove through the night to be on site for first light with several hundred others. We were packed into the Tower Hide like Russian dissidents on the train to the Gulags, the waking dead nodding off on each others shoulders. I still have flashbacks. Then dawn broke, and we watched thick fog for the next four hours. When it eventually cleared it was obvious that the Plover had moved on. To top it all off, the car broke down. Unsuccessful, but still epic, and every list of top twitches should include a spectacular dip, I reckon.
Sandhill Crane, Suffolk (Oct 2011). Not the best photo but a great trip with Steve Smith and Jol Mitchell.
There, I feel better already. More of these trips down memory may follow, depending on how quickly the back mends...
Green Heron, Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall (Oct 2010).

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