30/09/2021
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Eye of the storm: autumn 2005 on Corvo

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I had not slept properly in days. I was exhausted, overwhelmed and alone. I made my regular checks to ensure I was ready for the next big rarity. My camera was strapped to my waist (for a quick draw), tripod fully extended, camera adaptor taped to the scope, all camera settings ready for the conditions, hood down and binocular strap shortened. I had just completed an 84-hour week of the most intense birding I had ever experienced, and it was taking its toll. As I walked up the side of the volcano again, the exhaustion really kicked in, this time with nausea taking over – soon I was throwing up. Half an hour later I felt even worse.

I had to take a break, so I sat down. After a while, feeling a bit better, I decided to try 'pishing', and as I did so I thought I heard something and stopped.abruptly. It called again, and with that it had my undivided attention. Another call, and this time a movement. I reached for my bins and, as I got onto the spot, all I could see was a twig bouncing up and down where something had just jumped off.Then another call, this time closer, and then a flash of yellow. I went for my camera, and held my bins up to my eyes with the other hand. My breathing was getting quicker and my heart was beating faster as I saw through my shaking bins a yellow bird with black on its head. Then it
came out in full view. Now I was palpitating and hyperventilating – I had just found a male Hooded Warbler.

While I was running down the track towards the village, gesticulating and seemingly talking to nobody as I shouted into my 'hands-free', it dawned on me that I was a wreck. Maybe this was the first case of a rare syndrome, perhaps 'Parulidaemia', more commonly known as Yank Vagrant Disorder … whatever it was, I had it bad. I never thought I would find myself in such a situation. How had I been reduced to this state? Well, it all started four years earlier.


Prior to 2005, the small island of Corvo had never been birded in autumn with vagrant passerines in mind. Peter's trip that October changed the Western Palearctic birding scene forever (Peter Alfrey).

 

The beginning

My first visit to the Azores was in 2001. Inspired by several recent papers and trip reports (predominately by Tony Clarke), I visited the islands of Terceira, Flores and São Miguel, and became acquainted with the regular birds of the islands. Unlike the other Atlantic islands, the Azores are, geologically, relatively young with speciation at a rather early stage. At present the only Azorean endemic species, recognised by the majority of taxonomic authorities, is Azores Bullfinch. Only 300 or so Azores Bullfinches remain, all
on the island of São Miguel. There are also several 'island forms', which may in future be amended to full species rank, and the islands host some sizeable seabird colonies.

However, it was not really this which had brought me to the Azores – I was looking for vagrants. I made a beeline for the famous Cabo da Praia quarry on Terceira. There I found a good suite of American waders, and visits to Flores and São Miguel produced more American waterbirds.

Nearctic waders and wildfowl are guaranteed in the Azores through the autumn. With many of the islands bound by precipitous cliffs, they are concentrated into a few feeding areas, with the Cabo da Praia quarry on Terceira getting the lion's share. A single visit there in September and October can produce as many as 10 different American species. Later in the autumn, Nearctic ducks are often recorded on the island's crater lakes.

I returned to the Azores in 2002,visiting the same sites, and found more American waterbirds, along with the first Whiskered Tern for the Azores.

 

Exploration

The incidence of transatlantic waders and waterbirds on the Azores is unmatched in the Western Palearctic. However, what struck me from my early visits was the paucity of Nearctic passerine and landbird records, with only a handful prior to 2005. Also, I was wondering why there were very few gull records from the Azores in winter.Was this due to lack of observers, or were we too far south?

To get some answers, I visited São Miguel and Terceira in the winter of 2003. I found 34 Ring-billed Gulls, up to 11 American Herring Gulls, a Bonaparte's Gull, a Forster's Tern and a Mew Gull (Larus [canus] brachyrhynchus) – the last a Western Palearctic first. Clearly, nobody had been looking for gulls in the Azores before – I found similar numbers when I returned in the winters of 2004 and 2005.

My thoughts now turned to Nearctic landbirds. After all, these are the 'holy grail' of rarity hunters and I had a lifetime ambition to find one. I returned in the autumn of 2003 to scour the islands of the central group. A couple of weeksbefore I had met Steve Dodgson on Scilly, where he had found Two-barred Warbler and Yellow-breasted Bunting within days of each other. He explained that his secret was concentrating on one small area (Bryher in this case) and thrashing it for two weeks. I decided to try this on the Azores, but quickly got bored and went wandering around the other islands. The highlight of the trip? A White Wagtail.


The Azores already had a reputation for being a great place to find Nearctic waders and wildfowl, but landbird records were few and far between prior to 2005 (Peter Alfrey).

Emotionally bruised and financially broke from the autumn 2003 experience, I was dissuaded from returning to the Azores in the autumn of 2004 and instead decided to visit Scilly again, this time in the last week of October.

Within an hour of my arrival on St Mary's, an Ovenbird was discovered. While I was waiting for this bird to show again, I contemplated the fact that vagrant landbirds can remain undetected even on these well-watched islands. Even if I had followed Steve Dodgson's advice more closely and stayed in one place on the Azores, the sheer size of the islands and their dense subtropical vegetation must make it almost impossible for a solitary observer to actually find any vagrants which may be present. I didn't stand a chance on my own on the Azores – or so I thought.

 

A plan materialises

In June 2005 I was on Out Skerries, Shetland, and had bumped into Ken Shaw and Pete Ellis on the boat over. They kindly showed my wife and I around all the best birding spots, including 'The Irises' – a patch of leaves which had hosted the 2001 Thick-billed Warbler. After scouring the island we concluded, after an hour or two, that there was nothing around except a Black Redstart, a Spotted Flycatcher and two Willow Warblers. As these islands are largely unvegetated, any migrants present tend to stay in one of the couple of spots that offer shelter. If there was something here, it should have been relatively easy to find.

I was slow on the uptake but my ideas about passerine vagrants now started to change. Northern rarity hunters had known the secrets for years but a southern softie like myself was uninformed, to say the least. Recent high-reward scouting missions to Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Foula in Shetland, Heimaey in Iceland and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides had shown that small groups of birders working small and sparsely vegetated remote islands could produce more birds than were being turned out by the hundreds of birders on Scilly.

There appeared to be a working formula for lone or small-group vagrant hunters. It involved the methodical and prolonged scouring of small, underwatched, remote islands – ideally those that were juxtaposed to major migration boundaries, sparsely vegetated with sheltered areas and near shipping lanes. Deluxe models came with a lighthouse and dry stonewalls. Once in position, the idea then was to pray hard for the 'right' weather.

Looking back to maps of the Azores, I mused on the often forgotten small island of Corvo. It seemed to fit the bill, being of perfect size and location, but I assumed it was covered in Azorean subtropical vegetation. I decided to look elsewhere.

 

The plan comes together

In the autumn of 2005 there was a lot happening on the Azores, and for the first time there was up-to-date news thanks to Bosse Carlsson and Staffan Rodebrand, two Swedish birders who set up the Birding Azores website. It was also because of this website that my views on Corvo changed, for its description read: "Large parts of the island are open farmland, with only a few bushes and trees." Confirming this by looking at aerial and satellite photographs, my mind was made up – this was the place I was looking for. Hurricanes were rife in the US and Atlantic depressions had been actively crossing the pond for much of the autumn. I needed to make a move.

I tried to get a birding companion to join me, as Corvo had nearly nothing in terms of vagrant history, but it was in vain. So, alone and worried, I arrived on the island on 19 October, while 2,000 km away, Hurricane Wilma arrived in Florida. Wilma and I were soon to be acquainted, but in the meantime I was asking the host of my guesthouse, Manuel Rita, why there was a Laughing Gull in the workshop. He told me it was his pet, which he had rescued. Things had started to become strange.

That afternoon there was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo sitting on the drystone walls of Corvo village. An instant success! I could now relax, I thought.

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On the evening of 22nd, I was in the fireman's café in Corvo village and I had had too much to drink. My first couple of days had been good – Hudsonian Whimbrel, Arctic Redpoll, White-rumped Sandpipers, Blue-winged Teal and five Snow Buntings, but 22nd had been unbelievable – I had found a first for the Western Palearctic, in fact a first for the whole of the Palearctic, a White-eyed Vireo. I had discovered this while trying to photograph an Indigo Bunting!


One of the only shots of the Western Palearctic's first White-eyed Vireo, burying itself in a laurel hedge (Peter Alfrey).

I spent 23rd trying to refind the vireo, which only showed first thing. The lack of sleep and overexcitement were catching up with me and I was doing almost 12 hours a day in the field. I found another American bird that day – this time a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

I set off early again on 24th and by the afternoon was having a stand-off with a female Black-throated Blue Warbler which had taken offence to me. I was beginning to lose it – what was going on? I walked back to the village and there was a Bobolink sitting on the wall. I spent most of that evening on the phone, trying to get other birders out there. Simon Buckell was on his way and Frederic Jiguet and Maxime Zucca were heading towards me from one of the other Azorean islands.


One of the Bobolinks Peter saw showed particularly well (Peter Alfrey).

 

The first storm

The weather had deteriorated and on 25th the first of a trio of fast-moving Atlantic depressions headed south-east from around Nova Scotia. It was set to sweep past the Azores, grounding any inter-island flights. I had a Bobolink coming in off the sea ahead of this storm and there was a White-crowned Sparrow in the fields near the guesthouse. By now I was pathologically excited. It had rained all day and I was knackered.

I had seen the storm on the weather charts and was full of anticipation of what it might bring. I had a quick sleep and woke on 26th to howling winds thrashing the village. Manuel, as usual, drove me to the furthest point on the island, from where I would walk back. As soon as he dropped me off, there was a heavy shower and I was soaked for the day.


A first-winter White-crowned Sparrow in fields by the guesthouse on 25 October 2005 (Peter Alfrey).

With the storm thrashing the island, I felt drowned in adrenaline. Within a few minutes I had located a Red-eyed Vireo, busily feeding in the top of laurels with the vigour of a newly arrived migrant. An hour later, it was joined by a Philadelphia Vireo.

As if this wasn't enough there were three or four Indigo Buntings buzzing around, increasing to seven by the end of the day. The wind was getting worse so I decided to continue up the valley and started the ascent up the slopes. Then I found the Hooded Warbler.

 

'Wilma!!!'

The next day, the first in the trio of storms had passed and it was calm and sunny. I made a sweep of the island, checking in on the Hooded Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, two Indigo Buntings and the White-crowned Sparrow. However, the calm would not last long. Wilma was on her way.

She arrived that evening, in the form of an extra-tropical depression which had absorbed 'Hurricane Wilma' and tracked north-east up the east coastline of the US. As Wilma tore through migration routes, havoc was wreaked and there were enormous falls of migrants in north-east USA and eastern Canada. Many thousands of birds were pushed back north to areas they'd left several weeks before.

Presumably, as these migrants reorientated behind the storm, they must have got caught up in strong crosswinds near the front and then been driven out into the Atlantic. The storm then carried them towards the Azores.

That morning, by the time I got to the eastern, sheltered side of the valley, there were 27 Chimney Swifts flying around. Simon Buckell, still trying to get out to join me, had got as far as Terceira but was grounded by Wilma. Frederic Jiguet and Maxime Zucca had reached the neighbouring island of Flores, but were also grounded. However, Wilma had more than enough to go round and brought good numbers of vagrants to all the islands. On Terceira, Simon had a flock of Chimney Swifts, a Cattle Egret and a first for the Azores – a Caspian Tern. Frederic and Maxime were watching Tree Swallow, Chimney Swift, Indigo Bunting, Greater Yellowlegs, Upland Sandpiper and American Barn Swallow – the last another Western Palearctic first.


Late October 2005 produced an astonishing influx of Chimney Swifts to the Azores, with several tens seen across the islands (Peter Alfrey).

Over the next few days, I scoured Corvo to pick out what had been brought in. Between 28th and 31st I discovered Lapland Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, Buff-bellied Pipit, another Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Laughing Gull and Forster's Tern. Elsewhere in the Azorean islands, in addition to a host of other American vagrants, there were an estimated 112 Chimney Swifts.

When another storm arrived on 1 November, it brought Grey-cheeked Thrush, Ovenbird, American Golden Plover and Mourning Dove.


One of Peter's final finds of his epic 2005 trip to Corvo was this Mourning Dove (Peter Alfrey).

 

Azores high

I had always wanted to find a good American landbird in the Western Palearctic. I had tried for the best part of a decade and now within three weeks I had found a lifetime's worth. What I particularly loved about the whole experience was the coalescing of all the most exciting dimensions of rarity hunting – Yank passerines, remote islands, hurricanes, fast-moving depressions, migration, extreme weather, bird falls, risk-taking, adrenaline rushes, rapid identification and bursts of intense excitement and panic. Vagrant hunting is surely not merely the idea of a primitive hunting instinct, but more of an advanced and perhaps very modern pursuit of challenge.

Still relatively unexplored, the Azores offers genuine opportunities for making significant ornithological discoveries in a Western Palearctic context. Nowhere in the region is as remote as these islands and as far as I'm concerned, nowhere matches that 'high', when taking in the sheer staggering visual beauty of the islands and contemplating the excitement of the unknown.

Written by: Peter Alfrey