Saturday 4 October 2008 brought the improbable and unconfirmed news of a possible Little Blue Heron in Co Galway. Brilliant – the only downside was that the bird had been seen and photographed on the 22nd September and not looked for since.
Not looked for since? Doubtless there was a good explanation though I’m buggered if I know what it is. Probably relates to someone, a non-birder perhaps, taking a few holiday pictures and only showing them to a birder upon their return to civilisation. I went to bed that night, not expecting there to be any further news of the beast.
Sunday 5 October 2008 – woken to the sound of mega-alert on my pager. Co Galway, immature LITTLE BLUE HERON, 5mls NE of Clifden and 1ml West of Letterfract.
This would be easy, it’s still early in the day, book a flight to Ireland, hire a car, see the bird, fly home and be in the office on Monday morning. At least that would have been the plan if RyanAir had reasonable flights available on the same day of travel (which EasyJet does do – but don’t fly to the Republic of Ireland) and if the roads in Ireland were fast enough to allow for reasonable progress to be made on the highway. I was thwarted at every attempt to book something and owing to a meeting on Monday, there was nothing else to do but organise ‘Team To-be-sure’ for Tuesday. Well, the bird had been present 13 days already to the sense of urgency wasn’t quite the same as chasing a Pacific Swift!
Just too damn excited to sleep on Monday night resulting in just two hours kip before being picked up by The Bearded One and Zebedee at 4.55am. Stansted Airport Medium Term Car Park seemed the easiest option as we’d be returning to our vehicle later that day. At departures we met Killian Sidwell and his mate Charlie (famed for his stunning pure white locks on the top of his bonce!). On board we met several other hopefuls including John the Dentist who was to be the sixth member of the team.
Arriving at Shannon Airport a lengthy stop at Hertz to claim a pre-booked Ford Galaxy was frustrating and resulted in our late departure north for the bird. All aboard, we set out for Galway then Letterfract. It doesn’t look far on the map and as the crow flies (Hooded, of course – this is Ireland) it shouldn’t take long. Something like two and a half or three hours later and there it was – a distant white speck on the horizon. Scopes up and the white speck suddenly appeared as a white blob – hidden behind a rock. When it wandered out, it really did look different from a Little Egret (I won’t describe the thing as this blog really will take an age to write).
Eventually, we headed off in search of further rare stuff that was undoubtedly lurking in the coastal gardens. Finding nuffin, we started on our way back to Shannon, stopping only for a final view of the heron. To our great surprise the heron had decided to feed by the road and was now viewable to 80-90 yards – superb.
A proper rally drive across some very minor roads, thanks to the sat nav on my phone, was exciting – for me, as the driver, at least. For the passengers it was a stomach churning experience that they could probably have done without.
40 minutes from Shannon Airport and our flight home the day took a turn – mega-alert on the phone. SCARLET TANAGER in Co Cork, 10mls WSW of Castletown Bearhaven at Garinish.
A dream come true or a flippin nightmare? We certainly didn’t know the answer. We couldn’t get there that day. Could we change our flights? Was it easier to fly home via Cork tomorrow?
To cut a very long story short – after several calls home and discussions within the crew, John the dentist would return home and the rest of ‘Team – To-be-sure’ would change flights and extend the car hire. All was sorted. Adrenalin rush was high.
As we set out, now joined by Glennnn the Roof, we got the news that the bird had flown inland and hadn’t been seen again – bollocks!
We decided to head for Co cork and get a B&B after a couple of hours of driving. Elated at the Heron we knew we weren’t going to see the Tanager – we had a beer and went to bed.
Morning dawned; we breakfasted – or would have done if our host had done a simple breakie for simple birders, but no, we had to have the full works. Scrambled eggs with infusion of lavender oil, tomatoes oven baked in the juice of some local weed – this was all very nice but taking ages. We hadn’t been in a hurry until we got the unexpected news that the Tanager had been refound – probably by birders not stuck in their overnight B&B deciding on which one of 35 herbal teas to drink!!
The trip down to Garinish took a flippin age – we went through some of the most beautiful countryside that any of us had ever seen, but these roads were narrow and winding and I, Captain Baldie at the wheel, was in a hurry.
Eventually, and I did get bored of telling Charlie that we still had 25 minutes to go, we arrived on sight. An easy park (cos we parked where we shouldn’t have done) and in a small garden somewhere in Co Cork, we were reunited with several of yesterday’s Heron twitchers and some familiar faces from back home.
Also in that garden was a spanking immature male SCARLET TANAGER. Two ticks in days – life doesn’t get any better. We watched, we reminisced over the past 24 hours and we laughed at our good fortune.
It was James Hanlon, who quietly shattered that lovely Scarlet Tanager moment – unconfirmed news of an Empidonax flycatcher species in Cornwall, Land’s end to be precise!
We knew couldn’t get there the same day. But did it really exist or was it a hoax? What was it – a Willow or an Alder Flycatcher? Would we ever know the true ID without trapping it? Would they trap it? Would it stay?
No it wasn’t a hoax and whatever it was, it was a first for Britain. We could do nothing about it, so instead we searched for lepricorns.
A sedate drive back to Shannon enabled a few snaps to be taken of the countryside. During this journey we all plotted our next 24 hours…
Arriving back at Stansted ‘Team – To-be-sure’ split up. Everyone duly headed for home to sleep and pack then travel the next day to Cornwall. They had to do this cos they were heading for Scilly afterwards – and having started on a one day twitch, no-one had any spare clothes, etc.
My lack of toothbrush and clean trollies didn’t deter me – I had to work on Friday, so had to get back on Thursday night, so had to travel directly from Stansted to Land’s End through the night with Glenn. Now most can make the journey in 5 hours to the site from Stansted and we expected to be on site at 3am to grab a couple of hours kip. Glenn’s automobile topped 35mph climbing up some of the hills resulting, albeit with a couple of short stops to top-up our petrol and red bull, in our arrival at 6.55am – just as it was getting light!
Half an hours sleep later and we left the vehicle for Nanjizal. The night had been clear – would the bird have flown overnight? No, in the early minutes of daylight it was found – brilliant! Though you can’t tell Alder from Willow in the field (only by call or in the hand), we all knew that we were witnessing something never before seen in the British Isles.
A rumour of a Yellow-throated Vireo in a near-by valley was too good to be true – the resulting stampeed failed to locate the reported vireo. Who knows what it was?
I changed vehicles and was now with Adrian Teapot – who had kindly offered to transport me back to Kent. I say, transported back to Kent, actually we went via every possible field, valley, tea shop and car park within a ten mile radius of Land’s End and were still only 2 miles away from our starting point when, eventually, at 4pm we started the drive home.
We had seen a juvvy Rose-coloured Starling, or Pink Stink as some prefer to call them, and a second-year Azorean Yellow-legged Gull near St Something.
It was while watching the gull that the news came through that the flycatcher had been trapped and it’s ID confirmed as Britain’s first Alder Flycatcher – life had just got better!
Thanks to Adrian, I got home to the very understanding, and lovely, and heavily pregnant Good Lady Wiff, at about 10pm.
Eight hours sleep in four days; two flights; six hard drives, no clean trollies - had it all been worth it? To be sure!