Tuesday, 11 September 2001

11-12 Sept 2001 - Shetland

In 1995 I rolled the dice of life and went overseas for a holiday - a nice time was had but, in my absence, I missed a great looking male Pallid Harrier on Orkney. Damn it - I've grown up with Pallid Harrier as a Category B species and now, every Tom, Dick and Steve has seen one.

When news broke on 8 September of a juvvy Pallid Harrier at Brow Marsh, Loch of Spiggie, I was in a pub having a few celebratory bevvies. A call through from Tony Sheppard that evening offered me an option on a two-day twitch to Shetland - flying up one day and returning the next all via scheduled flights. Unfortunately, my work load prevented a day-day twitch - one day, yes, but not two days away from the office. "Sorry Tony - can't do it", was my eventual conclusion; the trip didn't go ahead.

The morning of 11 Sept started with a call at 8.50am from Tony, "How quickly can you get to York?". I considered the drive from Maidstone, via M20, M25 A1(M), to the airstrip at Full Sutton. "Fours hours", I replied with fingers firmly crossed. "OK", said Tony, "We'll take off at 1 o'clock. See you at Full Sutton".

Work knew that I wanted to get to Shetland and were OK with my one day trip. With no food in the house or fuel in my car I dressed and drove round to the Larkfield branch of Tesco's for a bag full of pasties, lucozade, chocolate and crisps, and 45 litres of unleaded 4 star....

I was off.

Numerous calls through to Tony en route gave him every confidence that I'd arrive at my expected e.t.a. and all would be well. Tony collected Mike Richardson and the forth member of the party, Eric from Hull, was on his way.

Cars parked and by 1pm the Harrier crew had assembled and we walked out on the runway to board our chartered aircraft for this Shetland trip - excitement, adrenalin, a general buzz.

We were off.

Chartering and travelling via small private planes is always exciting. This trip was no different as we shouted at each other over the noise of the engines and I ate my Tesco's bag full of supplies. Life was very satisfying.

With pagers in our pockets, we were pleased at positive news on the Pallid Harrier was welcomed - equally pleasing was the lack of any news of other rarities anywhere in the UK or Ireland. Sitting in a private, though, we probably all thought of taking the plane on to Orkney, Scillies or Ireland, should it be needed...

What happened over next hour or two changed this day, not just for me, but for the entire population of Planet Earth. The first we knew of world events unfolding in the US was a pager message that read (something like), "Plane has flown in to North Tower of World Trade Centre". Two subsequent messages informed us that a second plane had smashed in to the South Tower of the World Trade Centre whilst a third had hit the Pentagon - terrorism was being suspected.

With amazed expressions on our faces we looked at each other in disbelief. On several occasions we showed our pilot the pager messages bringing us this shocking news.

Landing at Sumburgh, our attention turned quickly back to hire cars and our chosen quarry - the juvenile Pallid Harrier. It wasn't long before we pulled up behind some other cars, some local, others visiting birders in hire cars. Car evacuated and optics out, it wasn't long before the first shout of the Pallid Harrier came out - and there, we were finally witnessing this vagrant from the east as it came to give as its first fly-past for us.

To be honest the events of this day mean that memories other than the Pallid Harrier are still crystal clear in my mind whilst memories of the actual bird itself have faded somewhat. Suffice to say that seeing this bird fly into view several times, at distances which enabled us to enjoy the beast with all its orangeness, darkness and distinctive facial patterned, was a joy to behold.
We'd done it!

Shacking of hands and pats on backs, we stayed on site for while whilst we gathered our thoughts on the bird, the trip and the unfolding world events off to the west. Eventually, and with a need to land back at Full Sutton, York before dark, it was time to get back to Sumburgh and board our craft.

On entering the terminal at Sumburgh Airport we were greeted by an anxious pilot who wanted to get going pretty damn quickly. A phone call from Tony back home and a TV monitor in the terminal both confirmed the same thing - Tony Blair was about to announce that the Civil Aviation Authority were grounding all private aircraft...

Instruction to ground craft hadn't reached Shetland and very nicely the staff at Sumburgh encouraged us to get airbourne straight away. They ushered us through security and out on to the tarmac, at which point four birders and a pilot ran at full speed to their distinctive plane sat a hundred metres or so away.

Our pilot climbed on board and had the the first engine primed while I tried to batten down the storage compartment that held all our bulky optics. Climbing on board last the plane had certainly had a bit of clear-out of all our pasty and crisp wrappers that we'd left strewn in the craft. Second engine going, head phones on, adrenalin was running high.

Time for take off and the journey home.

It was only a couple of minutes after take off that the first of many air traffic control messages came to us - a discussion that was to last some considerable time.

"Echo, Tango, Bravo, 2, 3, come in - over"
"This is Echo, Tango, Bravo, 2, 3 - over"
"Echo, Tango, Bravo, 2, 3, this is Sumburgh Air Traffic control. You are requested to return for a landing at Sumburgh - over"
"Sumburgh, this is Echo, Tango, Bravo, 2, 3. We are heading south, we are heading for York - please confirm instruction"

What followed was a detailed discussion during which time we initially tried to make life easier for ourselves by stating we were international waters - no joy, we were to be grounded. A request to have a mainland landing rather than return to Sumburgh was referred to the Civil Aviation Authority in London before coming back to us.

"Echo, Tango, Bravo, 2, 3, this is Sumburgh Air Traffic control. Request for mainland landing has been approved. You can land at either Wick or Aberdeen. Please confirm. Over."

Given the choice of Wick or Aberdeen, despite one of the crew on-board suggesting that we should ignore the demand for us to land in Scotland, we did what most people would do under the circumstances...

"Sumburgh Air Traffic control, this is Echo, Tango, Bravo, 2, 3 - we'll land at Aberdeen."

Our premature landing was met with police cars on the Aberdeen runway. Escorted to a 'safe location' at Aberdeen Airport, the plane and then us were then thoroughly searched, as were Easyjet flights and others - this airport, probably like many, had become the centre of a major security operation. Search over, we thought we'd be underway like the Easyjet planes that we could see, but no, we were not only grounded, we were officially impounded.

With belongings we then boarded a taxi to find a B&B or hotel that could put us up for the night before we collected our plane the following morning. Unfortunately Aberdeen had other ideas for us - there was an oil conference in town, the hotels were brimming. It took £75 of taxi journey before we found enough rooms to accomodate the five of us.

That evening we met in a hotel lobby before going out to eat. It was only then that we were able to see the footage of events that had unfolded in the US earlier - footage that would stay with us for ever.
The world had changed.

The following morning we regrouped at Aberdeen Airport to fly home. Tony Blair had other ideas though and it became evident that our plane was impounded until further notice - this situation could carry on and on and on...

As the pilot considered the current situation was a 'plane-related problem', he considered the only option, a one way car hire from Aberdeen to York, should be provided by his company. Thirty minutes later, all aboard, we set out and hit the road.

Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow - the M74 directed us back in to England via the Lake District. Before reaching civilisation, an accident some way ahead of us brough brake lights, hazard lights and finally, stationary traffic. Five hours, a fatality, air ambulance and now exhausted mobile phones - we weren't going anywhere. Communication with colleagues about my one day trip was impossible - and this could easily turn out to be a three day twitch.

Eventually, with a cleared road we were moving again and heading towards York and our vehicles - we couldn't wait to get home. We pulled in to the small airstrip at Full Sutton as darkness began to fall and started to go our separate ways.

It was only then, however, that I was able to confirm that while we were watching the Pallid Harrier the pilot had thrown away my Tesco's carrier bag of wrappers, empty bottles and my car keys.... That moment, on top of everything else that had happened on this trip, was heart sinking.

With my spare car keys back in Kent, I had to get home - I also had to get to work. A plan was quickly hatched and I was driven rather rapidly by Tony to Doncaster railway station to catch the last Intercity train down to London where I'd then take a tube across town before boarding a Kent-bound train. Arriving at West Malling, my final transport that day was a two mile taxi home to a rather surprised tenant who had to let me in to my own home. Where had I been, she'd expected me back last night. Hmmm, so had I.

The following day was a Thurday and a day's work was duly undertaken in a bid to catch up with an increased workload. Rather than stop late to clear the inbox, I left work early to retrace my recent route back up to Doncaster with my spare car key. Mike Richardson kindly collected me and deposited me back at Full Sutton where my car stood ready for the drive home.

At 2am, I pulled up outside my house in Kent - the nightmare was finally over.

At the end of the trip the world had changed and would probably never be the same again, I had seen a Pallid Harrier and was nearly £750 lighter of pocket; a previously Category B species was now no longer a much-wanted grip-back - job done.

There is, of course, a further epilogue to this nightmare twitch. In August 2002, less than 11 months after twitching the juvenile Pallid Harrier on Shetland, I was travelling down the A303 heading for some Cornish seawatching, when the pager 'went mega' - a third-calendar-year male Pallid Harrier had been found at the RSPB's Elmley Marshes reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. With the seawatching trip cancelled owing to mechanical problems with the boat, the trip to see my second UK Pallid Harrier took less than 30 minutes.

Wouldn't life be easier if we could go forward in time and get a copy of, "Rare Birds in Britain 2000-2050"? No, where would the fun be in that?