30th May 1997 will always be one of my most memorable days birding ever, being a combination of a few good 'finds', sharing birds with others and, most importantly, it all taking place in my adopted county.
For those not too familiar with Pembrokeshire, it lies at the extreme south-west of Wales, surrounded by 290km of rugged coastline and boasting some of the most famous bird islands in the UK, including Skomer (101,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters) and Grassholm (30,600 pairs of Gannets). The County List stands at around 353 species, boasting some of the rarest birds ever seen in the UK, including Moussier's Redstart (1988), White-throated Robin (1990) and Indigo Bunting (1996).
For the rarity-hunter the potential is immense, but often unfulfilled due to the extensive coastline to cover, the acute scarcity of birders and the fact that a fair proportion of the 'good' birds end up on the islands which often prove difficult to access. Looking at a map of the county it can be very difficult even to decide where to go, as in the case of searching for coastal migrants proves, no one peninsula stands out any more than any other.
So it's fair to say that, despite logging some good birds over the years, the chance of finding several local rarities in a day, as might occur in fall conditions on the east coast for example, is fairly remote. Wrong!
I had taken the day off work on 30th May 1997 with the intention of heading out early to St. Govan's Head, Pembrokeshire's most southerly point, to search for some late spring migrants. True to my usual lazy habits I arrived in the car park there at 10.30! The habitat at St. Govan's is fairly open, well grazed and vegetated largely by gorse. On a clear day Devon's Lundy Island is very clear on the horizon, so it always feels like a site that should record the odd rarity or two.
On pure whim I decided to first head down into a small valley that runs away from the headland below the car park. As I started to descend my attention was drawn to a bird that was perched on a small gorse bush above me, against the skyline. I lifted my bins and was amazed to find that I was staring at a stunning male Red-backed Shrike - a rare bird in Pembrokeshire, and especially so in spring! Immediately it flew westwards towards the car park, and over the next half hour I tracked it steadily westwards until it was visible distantly in my 'scope, out on the Castle Martin Ranges.
I headed for the nearest phonebox (no mobile in those days) to alert other birders to its presence. One of my calls was to Jack Donovan, whose wife Jean said that he was at nearby Bosherston Pools looking for some reported Hobbies. After I had contacted everyone that I could, I headed for Bosherston and was soon standing on the impressive Eight Arch Bridge enjoying excellent views of up to three birds in the air at once, all hawking over the pool for large flying insects. Three together was fairly amazing in Pembrokeshire terms, as at that stage, in over 9 years of birding in the county, I had only seen one Hobby before!
I enjoyed the birds continuously for half an hour, and then decided to head back to St. Govan's to try and relocate the shrike. Try as I might for an hour and a half I failed to find it, so presumably it kept heading west along the coast or ventured further inland onto the firing range. After all this excitement I returned home to spend the remainder of the afternoon relaxing (I didn't want to overdo it after all). Earlier in the day, when I was spreading the shrike news amongst local birders, I was told that a Quail had been heard on St. David's Airfield the previous evening. Another Pembrokeshire tick on offer, so early evening I headed north-west to the airfield.
This was obviously going to be one of those lucky days, as within 45 minutes of arriving the Quail began calling at 7.15! Another Pembrokeshire tick in the bag! As is usual for this species it was calling in long grass, and was extremely difficult to be sure of its location, as each time it called it seemed to be in a different place. Whilst walking along one of the disused runways trying to pinpoint its location, I noticed a bird cross the runway ahead of me. I lifted my bins, and to my amazement found myself staring at a male Dotterel! I watched it for a minute or so to check that it was settled, and then turned and ran back across the airfield to alert three other local birders who were leaving after failing to hear the Quail. Luckily I caught them before they drove off, and they returned to see the Dotterel whilst I left to phone the news out – yet more 10p's down the pan!
I arrived back at the Dotterel at 8pm, and settled down to enjoy it with the other lads. It was the first record for the site, and one of only a handful of spring Dotterel records in the county (the seventh since 1888, to be precise). What a day! That wasn't quite it though, because as the four of us continued to watch this smart montane wader, a distant bird of prey caught my eye. Another glance through the bins revealed the final bird of the day – a cracking male Marsh Harrier, yet another scarce bird in Pembrokeshire with just a handful of records annually. We watched it together as it drifted north over the eastern edge of the airfield, before dropping down into a crop field to roost. Hard to believe we were stood in the far west of Wales, as it felt more like the east coast!
This really had been an amazing day – Red-backed Shrike, 3 Hobbies, Quail, Dotterel and Marsh Harrier, and nearly all self-found which is the stuff of dreams. I usually count myself lucky if I find this many good birds in a year! Just goes to show that it isn't always the early bird that catches the worm...
This article has been adapted from the original that was published in the Pembrokeshire Bird Group newsletter and latterly in Welsh Birding.
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