Spooktacular – Halloween to remember

I’ve said lots of times that I “Don’t twitch off mainland Great Britain”. I have broken that principle twice before, for Siberian Rubythroat on Shetland 10 years ago and Sandhill Crane on Orkney in September 2009. The Crane twitch had the added bonus of connecting with Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

The distance, time involved and of course the expense of getting off mainland is often too much for me to consider. Not to be forgotten is the ability to put a 3-4-man team together, which is something I’m finding hard to do, especially since the retirement of my twitching partner for the last 20 years or so. But there are just some birds, that are so rare, or steeped in mystery and intrigue that just scream at me for attention, especially if it is a world tick. 

Last week news broke that a Varied Thrush was on Papa Westray, Orkney. I Googled the flights and they were ridiculously priced with large layover times and involving three flights. Nah, just not feasible! Word then started to filter out that there were boats to be chartered at reasonable cost from Kirkwall. I decided I was going to crack, and go north. I got a seat on a charter then forwarded the details to Garry Taylor who said yes. He then got Paul French added to the charter. A team of 3, yes!

We set off not too early so that we could meet at Penrith and take a drive to Thurso at a reasonable pace, arriving a couple of hours before the evening Northlink ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. On the ferry we met fellow birder, Paul Varney who joined us for the trip to town. After checking in at the guest house we had a couple of looseners in the Ola before getting an early night.

Next morning, we packed the car under the Orcadian crisp, clear skies filled with distant shining stars. We exchanged nervous glances whispering the unspeakable and pressed on to the quay to meet the other birders who had a seat on the Causeway Explorer.

We set sail at 6:30 on a becalmed sea heading north, plotting a path between the islands of Shapinsay, Eday, Egilsay & Westray. The sun rose in a riot of colour recorded on iPhones for later deletion. The sea may have been calmed but the cabin and deck was awash with nervous waves of anxiety awaiting news from Papa that the bird was still present. There was a visible change in the atmosphere when Birdguides broadcast news the bird was still present. Smiles and fist pumps all round.

Paul French shoots the dawn on his smart phone
Garry Taylor making sure he is missing nothing on this trip

We arrived at the low-lying island of Papa Westray at the quay in the Bay of Moclett at 8:00am and marched the 40 minutes or so to Links. Thankfully the bird was on show immediately and viewed in someone’s scope. Tick, relax, breathe and set up. Shortly after we arrived the bird flew into the walled compound, which held a compost heap and stayed there for about 40 minutes. A little after the bird flew back onto the back lawn of the house feeding on worms. Then briefly perched up on a wall before moving to the front lawn of the house where it performed beautifully for the 14 appreciative birders on site. Oohs and aahs aplenty as we all discussed our favourite features of the bird. whether it was the stonking great eye stripe, wing spots, Scaly flanks or the Zootherastyle under wing pattern, everyone had a different favourite but all agreed it had a bit of everything.

The owners of the house at links were very accommodating and would even go and flush the bird out of the walled compost heap. The usual charity bucket was at the gate and definitely worth ten of my best English pounds.

What a bird, what an event and what a great morning. The boat collected us for the return to Kirkwall at 12:30 and was a lot choppier journey. Long-tailed Duck flocks, Great Northern Divers, Tysties, Male & Ring-tailed Hen Harriers finished off the day nicely before the journey home for eight hours in non-stop rain.

The post script to this is that we twice drove past Kincraig where there has been an Eyebrowed Thrush. That’s for another day. Maybe.

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