Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Great Blue Heron, Bryher, Isles of Scilly - Thursday 23rd April 2015

Well now, this turned out to be quite a twitch - epic even - with lots of luck, discomfort and despair doled out along the way. But, more of that later, because the bird was the star of the show.

 Great Blue Heron, Bryher, Isles of Scilly - Thursday 23rd April 2015

The Great Blue Heron, found on 14th April by Ashley Fisher on St Mary's, had seemingly developed a reliable pattern which included at least some time feeding on the Big Pool on Bryher each afternoon. The bird did exactly that on Thursday 23rd April, flying in from the direction of Tresco around 12:40pm. It put on a good show, and I make no apologies for posting all these photos and video.

 Great Blue Heron, Bryher, Isles of Scilly - Thursday 23rd April 2015

Initially quite wary, it soon ventured out from the small inlet it was hiding in and went fishing around the margins of the Big Pool beside the Hell Bay Hotel. It was a very striking bird: very dark compared to our clearly smaller Grey Herons, the first-winter bird looking more like a large juvenile Purple Heron. The neck, breast, wings, and back were a dark grey, with a purple-ish sheen in places (cf Purple Sandpiper). As the wind lifted the feathers, lovey buff, white, and rusty orange feathers were revealed. The head was perhaps the most Grey-Heron-like feature, being white with pale grey areas and slate grey lines, but the bill was humongous!

 Great Blue Heron, Bryher, Isles of Scilly - Thursday 23rd April 2015

I've seen a couple of Great Blue Herons in the USA before (both adults), but this bird seemed very large in the context of the UK. It appeared to carry itself differently to Grey Herons. The yellow legs were very long, making huge strides around the pond. The leg length was accentuated by the bird keeping its body hunched up while walking. The head was carried slightly to the side of the coiled neck.

The bird didn't appear immediately (see below) and so me and the other eight or so birders on the island searched the nearby creeks and shoreline. There were a few Northern Wheatears passing through, and I was chuffed to stumble across a Wryneck sticking close to a male Wheatear.

 Northern Wheatear and Wryneck, Bryher, Isles of Scilly - Thursday 23rd April 2015

Our main focus was the heron, but we also picked out a Little Egret was in Popplestone Bay, a Ringed Plover in Great Bay and Common Sandpiper in Stinking Bay, along with the ubiquitous Oystercatchers. Swallows and Sand Martins were everywhere, and a Common Whitethroat and Whinchat were in the scrubby areas around the pond. Linnets and House Sparrows fed in the grass beside the hotel. On the way to the boat to get back to St Mary's we had great views of a Tree Pipit as it fed on the short grass.

  Ringed Plover, Bryher, Isles of Scilly - Thursday 23rd April 2015

Periwinkles and Topshells, Rushy Bay, Bryher, Isles of Scilly - Thursday 23rd April 2015

Fortunately, the only dip we had was in the sea to wade out to the dinghy...

The trip hadn't all been plain sailing though. Far from it. The bird's movements had been a bit random at times during the previous week, and some birders had dipped and had to make a second trip. This, and confusion over whether I and/or the two other crew members (Don and Dave) could get out of our respective work commitments, meant we all ended up on different flights. Me on the 08:30 from Newquay, and Dave and Don on the 08:30 and 10:10 from Land's End respectively.

After work on Wednesday I met up with Dave in Huddersfield, and we set off around 18:30. We met Don along the M6, and transferred to his car. I figured we'd stop at Exeter services and have a kip, before pushing on to Land's End, dropping me off at Newquay en route. Well, we sailed past Exeter before any of us noticed, and by the time we did it was too far to go back. The other two wanted to get to Penzance before having a snooze, so they dropped me off in Newquay at 02:00. Hmmm, can't say I was massively happy with them about that. The airport was closed (and on a cold, windy hill top) so staying in the town was my best bet. No hotel would let me in their foyer, so in the end I braved the odd encounter with local drunk teenagers and spent the night in the doorway of the police station and later the railway station platform. Ho hum.

This wasn't a new experience for me. In my younger days I frequently found myself in this situation when following bands (and sometimes when I was actually in the bands), when money had run out, or plans failed, or I missed a train or coach. I've hitched the all over the UK, and slept (well, generally not slept) in a few bus and rail stations, at motorway services, and on the odd park bench, or doorway or under a tree. But I'm older now, and I didn't like it!

We met up at St Mary's airport at 09:15, Don having got a cancellation on the 08:30 flight. The first boat to Bryher was at 10:15, and the timetable claimed the last boat back that connected with the Scillonian left at 14:30. So, only around three and a half hours on Bryher... But, once on the boat we were told there would be no 14:30 service because of the low tide. and another boat was being laid on instead ...at 12:15. What?!! We'd have 75 minutes on Bryher, and, given the quays were on the eastern side while the bird preferred the western side, we'd have 45 minutes to find and observe it! That's if it was even on Bryher!!

The skipper said he couldn't arrange a later boat. A few phones calls to boat operators later and we were resigned to our fate. To make matters worse, there had been no reports from anywhere. The heron just had better be on Bryher already, or our trip was doomed. I had a bad feeling about this.

Only around eight birders got off at Bryher and made the dash over to Popplestone Bay. We scanned every likely spot, and after 30 minutes or so, with the clock ticking down, despondency started to set in. Yes, it was nice to find a few migrants, but I didn't come all that way just to find a Wryneck!

The time came and we had to make our way to Anneka's Quay. I watched the skies all the way, hoping the bird would fly in from Tresco... but, nope.

The Golden Spray arrived and we prepared to board. Quite a few birders got off, and just as I was climbing aboard one shouted "Heron! Flying in!". I spun round and desperately tried to get on to it. Two distant dots - a gull and something larger - dropped down behind the hill, heading towards the Big Pool. Some guys had got on to it, many hadn't, and no one had tickable views. Arse! So close!

The newly arrived birders set off to claim their likely prize, while we trudged back to the boat, feeling absolutely crap. Dave and I had to be in work the following day, and there was simply no way we could stay on the islands. Then, just as we were boarding, the skipper shouted up the quay to the late-comers, "Don't forget, the last boat from Bryher to connect with the Scillonian will be at 15:00 from Rushy Bay." Eh, what?! Another boat?! How come?! What were we waiting for?!!

Despite the lack of sleep and being the last to set off, the three of us ran like the wind and were the first to arrive at Big Pool. And... there it was! An absolute peach. Victory from the jaws of defeat! I'd never felt so relieved when connecting with a bird. I spent the next two hours with a massive grin on my face, and could now properly appreciate the beauty of the place. The sun came out, and after getting our fill of the bird, I sat outside the Hell Bay Hotel with a pint, thinking how lucky I was. And even better, I could still see our American visitor as it hunted for fish on the Big Pool.

The view from Hell Bay Hotel with the Great Blue Heron across the pool

We had along but happy journey home. We saw a couple of Manx Shearwaters and a Basking Shark from the Scillonian, before I had my snooze. And we had time to pop to Jubilee Pool to see the Purple Sandpipers on the rocks (probably the same Purps I saw back in January) before the long drive north.

Purple Sandpiper, Penzance, Cornwall - Thursday 23rd April 2015

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