Days to Remember: Devon, 28th May 1990


Best day's British birding, hmmm? I am sure that most people have hundreds of 'best day's birding' for various reasons and to pick one is impossible. Many of my favourites involve the finding of a rarity or getting amazingly good views. The latter usually means being 'photographically close' — no more than 4 metres from a bird. This of course is not 'digiscopally close', as one would have to move back, or 'showing well distance'. The latter is regularly reported to bird information services when someone excitedly gets a tick and wants to tell the world — usually at 100 metres at least, but described to friends as 10 metres!

Several Ivory Gulls immediately spring to mind; or the night in a hide when I watched a Nightjar chick scare a wood mouse away that had approached too close; or the day I followed a Capercaillie through a Scottish forest for several hours observing the habits of its daily life, only to find it had doubled back to attack me. These events were not surprising, as I had gone to observe these birds expecting some kind of action, camera at the ready. Complete surprises are always the best days, and I have been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time on many occasions, to accept gratefully whatever the birding God has sent my way. So I guess my most memorable day was when I forgot to take my camera, as I did not expect to see the bird.

It was at 3:30am on Bank Holiday Monday, May 28th 1990. I had left home early, with my girlfriend and two birding mates, to travel to see an Alpine Accentor on the Isle of Wight. After a long drive, we took the ferry and duly ticked the bird as it fed on short-cropped cliff-top grass. Returning to the ferry, as we had a long drive home, we made a phone call to Birdline (no pagers then) to see what interesting deviations could be made on the journey. The headline news was that an Ancient Murrelet was on Lundy Island, Devon. "What's one of those?" we all said, "must be a cock-up with Birdline's answer-machine". No, we were informed that it was a small alcid, an absolute mega!

Being younger, dafter, and slightly more inclined to go for anything in those days, I pressured the 'crew' into heading to Ilfracombe on the north Devon coast (no boats from Bideford that day). Arriving late afternoon, after a horrendously long drive through holiday traffic, we found the small harbour deserted. We searched in vain for fishermen and discussed the possibilities of reaching the island with other frustrated birders — no chance. Anyway, the bird had flown out to sea from Jenny's Cove on Lundy at 13.00.

As we stood dejected on the quay, a small boat entered the harbour. It was a tiny shrimp boat, with a little steering shelter that could squeeze two people in. Its tiny deck was covered in netting, rubbish and diesel. Clearly a major liability for any insurance company, we pounced on the captain who agreed to take us to Lundy for £120 (£10 each). We would probably not get there before dark that evening, so he would have to leave us at the quayside overnight sleeping rough where we could lay our heads.

My girlfriend loved the sound of this: not only had she never spent a night away from her parents' home, there were no lifejackets and she could not swim! She decided to stay in the car for the night, but I found her in tears as we were about leave. Being afraid of the dark, hooligans and whatever nasties a Saturday in Ilfracombe had in store, I dragged her to the boat where she was pushed hurriedly and trembling down the ladder onto the deck. Huddled in a corner, we set off.

Storm Petrels and Fulmar soon hung off the stern, no doubt attracted by the stink of fish that had penetrated the wooden deck over the years to become one of the less endearing features of this most unseaworthy of vessels. Still, the weather was good, the sea calm, and we were on our way making good time.

By showing Sarah some massive (dustbin lid-sized) jellyfish, she had ceased trembling and the tears had been reduced to just a quiver of the lower lip. I diplomatically pointed out that we had been underway for two hours and we had not sunk. Her confidence grew (I think).

The other ten birders on board relieved the boredom by looking at passing auks, and Ian Smith called out a Razorbill and chick sat on the sea. "Bit early for them", I said. "I'm telling you", he said. "No chance", I repeated. He was adamant that it was a small auk, half the size of the accompanying Razorbill but we had long since passed it. Intrigued, we asked the skipper to go back, to which he replied "You'll have no chance of reaching Lundy if we mess about out here". I persuaded him to reluctantly swing the boat around and we soon found the two birds. The smaller one certainly looked like a Little Auk against the sun, until I caught a glimpse of white ear plumes that met at the back of the head — Dotterel-like. "That's it," I cried. The boat approached closer.

I asked the captain to go as slowly as possible, then cut the engine to drift towards them. Giving instructions was like talking down a stewardess who had taken control of a jumbo jet that had lost its pilot; however it worked! Both birds drifted closer until we were just 1.5m away from the Ancient Murrelet, looking down on it without bins!

It paddled slowly away under the bow as we all held our breath not daring to talk. Letting it swim a safe distance, I gestured the skipper to start the boat and drift up to it again. This we did, several times, each time getting amazing views until I commanded a mesmerised Dave Atkinson (Ako) to get his camera working — mine was in the car having assumed that all we would see was a distant dot from the cliff tops on Lundy!

I looked at his camera; his lens was similar to mine and he had clearly not mounted it correctly. Grabbing it, I re-set it and (reluctantly) gave it back to him. All his previous photos would be useless so we had to get close again. Reaching about 12m, Ako clicked a few times and the Razorbill took off. Clearly uncomfortable without its partner, the Murrelet uttered a metallic chink as it fluttered rapidly across the water like a Dabchick, rising to twist and bank sharply like a Teal, then follow the Razorbill towards Lundy six miles away. Jenny's Cove (later to be its summer home for three years) was on the opposite side of the island, so it was an incredible chance find for us.

The chances of relocating such a small bird at sea must rank as one of the jammiest twitches of all time, certainly one to remember for the rest of our lives. All of us, even Sarah, enjoyed the experience, but she has not been on a twitch since!

Written by: Phil Palmer, BirdGuides