I was pouring some poor chap a pint of lager when the call came in last Friday, 22nd February. Apparently Ruth, who is one of our hostesses, had seen a big white raptor on Wednesday morning while driving to work in Bowmore. She told her partner Gus about it when she got home that night. Gus is the warden/farm manager at the Smaull part of the RSPB reserve here.
Next morning, she saw it again, hunting over the Gruinart Flats. Again she told Gus. Friday afternoon she was driving along with Gus "Oo look Gus, there's that white raptor again".
"Bloody 'ell, it's a Gyr" says our hero, while crashing the Landrover. So Ruth had seen it three times before anyone else took any notice... but we were all chasing about after that. I know it's not supposed to be cool to twitch - but it is a WHITE PHASE GYR FALCON after all. Surely the ultimate birder's bird. That must be allowed surely?
I abandoned my customer with a measly half pint in his jug, and headed north into the blizzard conditions. There were half a dozen assorted Landrovers and cars up beyond Gruinart Farm when I got there. It had gone of course. I walked about for the last hour of gloaming, sheltering behind the Landrover as the hailstorms flung themselves across the Loch - but no sign.
Next day, Saturday, the weather was worse. The hotel was jumping and I didn't get out. A couple of reports of brief sightings came in, but everyone was struggling against the elements.
Sunday 24th was lovely. Nothing reported all morning. Most of the local enthusiasts were out vainly quartering the Rhinns and I escaped in the afternoon with the family. The power was out in the village again so we left the hotel in candlelight, the e-lighting having given out after 4 hours. Gus called in. He had decided, having been one of the very few to have seen it well, to do some gardening that afternoon and so was preparing himself by taking a bath. So there he was having a soak and staring idly out of the window, when it flew past. He ran to the phone and stood drippingly starkers while calling around. Once again it had vanished though.
We drove up to the east side of Loch Gorm - the water shimmeringly still. A couple of Roe Deer were grazing near the shore. A Kestrel hung onto a wire, and the geese moved uneasily in the fields. George stopped. He had seem it very briefly and at very long distance on Saturday evening, but nothing since. Moving on we slowly circled the loch. Hares loped everywhere. I have never seen the place so wet. Flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover scattered loosely over the mush. A Stonechat pretended to be a thrush in the middle of a field, whilst all around there were drifts of Redwings and Fieldfares. Geese were everywhere, but there was no sign of our quarry though.
It had been seen chasing Jackdaws up beyond Bushmills on Saturday. Round and round the ruined blackhouse where the Barn Owls peer from the old chimney. So close said Gordon, he couldn't use binoculars. Swine. What I would have given to see that.
We Landrovered down the short cut to the lochside. The track was flooded to a couple of feet in places. A bridge had been all but washed away. I love Landrovers! We passed the peat banks. A Short-eared Owl was quartering the rank heather, eventually dropping onto a hillock. We got the scope out and watched him swivelling those malevolent orange eyes. A good bird on Islay in February. Good bird anywhere - anytime, but not good enough today - not yesterday.
Back we went to Gruinart after motoring up to Sanaig past the Highland cattle and a couple of distant Whooper Swans. Two huge stags were grazing in the marsh just above the hide. The tide was dropping now - dozens of Shelduck and Wigeon feeding on the margins, waders spreading out across the mud. Five o'clock and suggestions of darkness. Yvonne stopped. It was at the Machir. They were watching it now!!
I don't run much these days. Landrovers are cool for most things, but hopeless at three point turns. Six points later we were off. Amazing how long it takes to drive from Gearra Eallabus to the Machir. Landrovers are so slow. Terrible things. We got there as quick as the cumbersome vehicle would allow. Fiona had found it. She was just out walking the dog, when it had flown across the beach and landed on top of a dune. Great views until just before we arrived when it had flown off. Disappeared. I carried Jan and Alasdair across the stream (no wellies - pathetic...). We all moved nervously to the top of the dune line, my heart rampant with excitement and dread.
Tristan found it then. It was sat on a fence post. FANTASTIC. It just sat there. So white - so huge, bobbing its head like a giant Kestrel. The features were softer than a Peregrine - there were no face markings. There were delicious chocolate ends to the feathers, and a slight buff tint to the tail, all clearly evident as the bird sat back-on to us. A powerful creature, with a decidly small head, it simply sat there oblivious to its admiring audience, as we were allowed 20 drooling minutes to savour every feature. Another Landrover appeared in the distance. Gus. He parked up, out came the scope and he started to cross the stream to the dunes.
The bird stood up and shook itself down, stretching, before it was off. So white, incredibly white. Long graceful wings, less brutish than a Peregrine with a longer tail and deep powerful wingbeats. Away the bird careered towards the Kilchoman cliffs. Whooosh, it had a crack at that Buzzard which was just sitting minding its own business, round and whoosh, it had another go. It didn't phase the Buzzard though, he's seen it all before. The Choughs then decided that this was their cliff anyway and a whole gang of them chased it round the corner and the it was gone.
Gus panted up to us. "Is it still here?".
You just missed it...
Gyr Falcons have a Holarctic distribution. The Gyr is a resident and dispersive species. The highly desired Greenlandic birds (white-morph birds) from Greenland to Arctic Canada winter in southern Greenland and Iceland and are more prone to vagrancy than their Scandinavian counterparts. Small numbers overshoot to Western Europe, mostly Britain and Ireland, where an average of 3 birds per annum are noted. An exceptional influx of 27 birds were noted in Ireland and Western Scotland between November 1909 and March 1910. Late February through to April is the prime time for the highly sought-after white-morph birds to reach our shores. Most of the 137 records since 1958 have occurred along the western coastlines from Ireland to northwest and northern Scotland. The last to occur on Islay was a juvenile female white-phase taken into care injured at Port Charlotte on 3rd November 1991. It was released, but was found dead at Macarthur's Head on the 10th.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the uk.rec.birdwatching newsgroup, and is used by permission of the author.