Saturday 3 October 2009

American Plovers, Vireo and a Sandhill Crane

Wow! Autumn is always eagerly anticipated by all birders; the promise of north European migrants being flipped slightly westwards by easterly winds and onto our isles, there to be savoured and enjoyed, is the stuff of dreams. But we rely on the right conditions; these have to be conducive for the birds setting off on their migratory routes south through Scandinavia, then for easterly winds to blow them squint towards us and finally for precipitation of some sort to force them to land once they are in proximity. All we have to do then is go out and find where they are! It’s a fine plan. Sometimes though, it doesn’t work out like that.

This autumn for instance, the prevailing weather systems have been continually and aggressively from the west and, although we have had a few classic drift migrants (barred warbler etc) flounder to our shores, most have managed to make their way south, unhindered.

But what Mother Nature takes with one hand, she appears to have more than compensated with the other. Following on the kite-tails of the last hurricane, the airflow has been almost incessantly from the west and with it have come visitors not seen in these parts for many-a-year. American Golden Plovers are frequent if unreliable tourists to Britain – we’ve got at least three, two adults and a juvenile, merrily swanking around out li’l ol isles and showing the local greeny-yellow guys just what the meaning of ‘smart’ is. Just this week our near-neighbours in Shetland have been playing host to dapper chappies such as buff-bellied pipit and the mega-rare Veery; two deciding Zetland was as good a place as any to spend a wee break. I found a Pectoral Sandpiper whilst taking mad-dog Donny out for his morning constitutional along the Stromness golf course and just yesterday local birdwatchers were thrilled to get the call from our own Rare Bird Alerter, Paul ‘Mega’ Higson that he had cunningly enticed a Red-eyed Vireo to reveal itself from a Tankerness Plantation by ‘pishing it out’. This is the first record for Orkney!

However the prize for the bird that really captured the imagination has to go to the Sandhill Crane. With just two records for Britain in 1981 and 1991 (Shetland and Fair Isle) and an archaic one from Cork in 1905 (shot), Orcadians were delighted to have this leggy stunner strut her stuff around the stubble fields of South Ronaldsay. Although it almost wasn’t to be.

Y’see, the bird happened to drop into a field in the middle of nowhere and the local farmer, not caring too much about which species of wildlife wanted to share his land, just let the bird alone and got on with is own work. For ten days! After nearly two weeks of nodding courteously at this strutting wonder, he elected to find out what it was. Several interconnecting phonecalls ensued resulting in Mega’ Higson chucking brother Mark in the back of his saloon and venturing to the South Parish, fully expecting a Common Crane at best, heron more likely. On his arrival, and after checking his state of awakedness, he identified the bird as a Sandhill Crane and subsequently fell in a ditch. He may still be there!

The bird has now earned its place in British Birding lore; hundreds of enthusiastic folk having made the not-inconsiderable journey north (some less-so south-bound from Zetland and a few from Denmark and further afield) and almost all having connected satisfactorily with our friend from the west.

Immediately prior to the first of the pioneering birding troops arriving, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of hours in the early morning of the 23rd of September, all alone, just enjoying the tranquil beauty of a splendid bird, lost but contentedly feeding in a stubble field on a farm in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, watched and ignored by a posse of great black-backed gulls and a couple of lapwings.

And this is a painting worked from the sketches which I have published as a limited edition print. I think it encapsulates the essence of that first encounter with a superb and enigmatic bird – one I’ll certainly never forget.