Monday 31 October 2011

A new low is established. Or a new high.

Do you know where I was this weekend? Where I, the ardent patch-worker and anti-twitcher was? Scilly. I am disgusted with myself, I am so so weak. If I look back at this blog, I am certain to find post after post decrying twitching, promoting common sense, enobling patch-working, and generally sounding holier-than-thou. And then what do I go and do? I twitch Scilly. No, no, no, I'm not interested in twitching any more, stupid hobby, not for me.

Never, ever, believe anything I say.

Perhaps you didn't anyway? I do, it is true, have a love hate relationship with twitching. I think it comes and goes in phases. Earlier this year, certainly at the beginning of the year, my interest in twitching was at an all-time low. Ditto with year-listing. Gradually as the year has progressed I've been getting these urges that I have been finding increasingly difficult to suppress. This has culminated in hiring a car at Aberdeen airport and snaffling the Sandhill Crane, day-tripping Scilly for a Solitary Sandpiper that eluded me but coming away with a Black-and-White Warbler, and now this latest fraud, twitching Scilly again, this time for the Northern Waterthrush, a bird I saw about ten of in New York in April. What, exactly, is wrong with me? Why do I do it?

Because it was fun! Yes I spent a ton of money, yes I drove a stack of miles, yes I played no part in family life this weekend, but boy oh boy, what a great trip! And that's what it's all about. I spent a very pleasant two days strolling around St Mary's looking at mostly common birds, but with a bit of mad running around for the Waterthrush. I spent two evenings in two extremely nice pubs, drinking excellent beer and eating enormous quantities of delicious food. I had a great time taking photographs of highly obliging birds, some of which are the best I have ever taken, and I got loads of yearticks. Er I mean, I saw loads of birds I haven't seen for a long time*.

It's all the bird's fault. Why on earth has a Northern Waterthrush taken up permanent residence on Scilly? Back in September when I was last on, it had just arrived. I didn't see it, in fact made no effort to see it, putting what limited time I had into the Black-and-White Warbler, a brilliant Bee-eater, and the no-show Solitary Sand. I left the islands a very happy man, the Northern Waterthrush of no consequence. The next weekend it was still there, but I was on Shetland. Pah! The following weekend it was there again, but I was in Norfolk. As you can see, I hardly ever go birding... The next weekend it was still there. Pah! Not twitching Scilly again, lunacy! The next weekend it was there again. For God's sake just LEAVE!!!! It didn't, and was still there the following weekend. Fine, stay then, it doesn't bother me as I am DEFINITELY NOT GOING. Not now. Not ever.

By Tuesday of last week I was surreptitiously checking Scillonian sailing times and Skybus prices. By Wednesday, all pretence had gone and I was pricing it up and convincing Bradders that it was a really really good idea. Thursday, and I was packed and ready to go. Friday morning and I was actually on the boat. Berating myself, obviously. It was a glorious day. Hardly a breath of wind, blue skies and bright sunshine. There is something magical about birding in short sleeves on the cusp of November. The pace was relaxed for most of the day, and in truth we saw very little. The other target birds, Upland Sandpiper and Wilson's Snipe, had both contrived to disappear the day before, and Thursday's Red-eyed Vireo remained precisely that; Thursday's. At about 4.30, knowing the Waterthrush's likely movements, we strolled the ten minutes from Lower Moors to Higgo's Pool. Sidetracked by two Firecrests going bonkers at each other, we arrived about half an hour later to learn that the Waterthrush had been showing for the previous fifteen minutes but had disappeared five minutes ago.


A tense twenty minutes followed with no sign. Then a message came through to say it was at Lower Moors, about twenty seconds away as the Waterthrush flies, but about five minutes as the fat person runs. What to do? We ran. Bradders is much, much younger than I am, and so arrived much, much more quickly. He is also less fat. I kind of ran, but mostly panted, struggled for breath, and walked a bit. Finally in sight of the Shooter's Pool screen, I could just about see Bradders frantically waving me on. Arriving at the screen, someone made way, but in those last fifteen seconds.... "Just gone round the corner mate, far left" said one of the birders there. Gah!
And then suddenly there it was. I had ten seconds of it, perhaps not even that many, and then it disappeared and didn't come back. Magic, pure magic.

When I came to and could stand again, we decided that we would wander back to Higgo's Pool in case it came back. Ignoring the plaintive calls of the evil Firecrests, we arrived back there to learn that the bird had come in for two minutes and then zoomed off again. Higgo, pool-digging supremo, opined that that was that. We waited. We waited some more. Nothing. And then it was back! Calling at ASBO-inducing volumes, it came back in pursued by a Robin, and spent the next twenty minutes feeding in front of perhaps eight silent observers. Towards the end of the evening, there were only three of us watching it. What a bloody brilliant bird. The trip, the expense, justified in an instant. Forgive the photos, ISO 6400, though in one sense utterly miraculous, is relatively unforgiving.

That evening, thrift went out the window. Despite being sucked dry by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company and Esso, we were on the kind of high that couldn't be dampened. Ridiculous as this sounds, particularly coming from me, sometimes twitching is really really good. This was one of those times. The previous evening I had been in an office in Canary Wharf. Less than twenty-four hours later I was in the Mermaid Pub in Hughtown on St Mary's, indulging in a vast and waist-expanding meal, and drinking Doom Bar, Scuppered, Betty Stoggs..... Twitching might be stupid, but sometimes, just sometimes, and if you can get past the meaningless tick aspect, it is superb.

* About a year...


  1. What a delightful post - a positive celebration of all things Twitch. From the moment the war-cry rings out over Wanstead - "Stuff the patch! I'm off!" - we are transported to the jubilant world of Having the Bird...

    Seriously, I am deeply envious. I so wanted to be on Scilly this year, but had to make do with an afternoon in Cornwall. Pants.

    PS. ISO6400 is a miracle I can only imagine

  2. Great place the Scillies, Harold Wilson(s Snipe) loved it. The Sub-Alpine (Warbler) climate, the interesting Upland (Sandpiper) granite terrain, and last but not Least (Sandpiper)the birds!

    A Melodious (Warbler) harmony.

    There are very few places that can (Red-throated) Pipit!

  3. Blog owner, comment deleter....1 November 2011 at 00:25

    (What) ever

  4. Would you believe it - I love the Firecrest photo!

    I love the Waterthrush photos as well- especially
    the second one where it appears to be looking at its mirror image - probably is- such a good looking bird!
    I managed to leave my compact in London in the mad rush to the Scillies on my return from Shetland - but Nick Bond has let me use his photos on my blog - I am lacking a WaterThrush (as he dipped the bird - which I managed but he doesn't seem to be very gripped with me- just as well!)I wonder if I could steal your photo (it will be duely acknowledged) - yes I know its got your name all over it anyway but I am really good at giving credit (I am a lousy pic taker!) Even Hugh Harrop lets me use his photos!

  5. Filthy twitcher or no, I can't deny a person such happiness, especially in comparison to the "habitat." It's much better to have "OMG" in the header than drudgery.

  6. Hiya Jono

    Awaiting response re use of your Firecrest (just cos I like it!) and the Waterthrush photos as I am missing a photo of the Scilly bird for my blog on my madcap visit to Scilly straight from Shetland via London!