Lucy McRobert: bird of a lifetime


"Don't worry, I won't be twitching today," I said as I slid into my office chair at 9.05 am. I meant it. My twitching buzz had been killed the previous day by a futile dash to Tresco to dip a now-dubious Two-barred Warbler in horizontal rain. Consequently, it didn't register when I saw the fateful WhatsApp message: 'Blackburnian Warbler Bryher'

And that was it. No capitals, no emojis, not even an exclamation mark to show for this mind-bendingly cataclysmic moment. Birders across Scilly experienced 30 seconds of bewildered calm, before chaos erupted.

Think fast. I'd played my twitching card at work too soon. So I would have to take the office with me. Three colleagues plus a volunteer were immediately cajoled into action (although it didn’t take much effort with the CEO). This was team building.

Next, Bryher. Seriously low tides meant that we couldn't land on the quay until 3.30 pm. Five minutes of enforced concentration, before: "Argh! The child!" An apologetic call to nursery followed by another to the husband: "Get the child, NOW. I'll meet you on the quay."

Meanwhile, across the islands, every birder was experiencing a micro-drama of their own. A tour group was unpacking sandwiches on St Agnes when news broke. One couple were 10 minutes into an online mortgage meeting they had waited weeks for; they simply slid down the screen and disappeared. Pasties were abandoned mid-bite. My favourite moment came from Liam (usually very down-to-earth) who messaged the entire Scilly Bird News WhatsApp group: 'What do I do?'. He claims he meant to send it to a friend, but it was very relatable.

 The excitement of day one of the Scilly Blackburnian Warbler proved a thrilling affair (Simon King).

When I checked in with husband, I was bemused-then-horrified to discover he was aboard a boat already. But how was he getting to Bryher? "Beach landing."

To clarify, a beach landing involves jumping from a tripper boat into an inflatable dinghy a few feet below, which then runs you ashore. Think Normandy, with less explosions. This is not something you want to do under pressure with a small child. I didn't see what followed but have since been told that she behaved impeccably up until the point where she had tojump into the dinghy. "Daddy, I'm scared," was heard by at least three witnesses as daddy tossed her to a birder below. She then clung to his neck the whole way to the beach and had to be peeled off. Daddy was in trouble later, and she still reminds him of it at least once a day.

Meanwhile, boats galore were converging on Bryher. There were several mid-channel swaps; birders from St Martin's jumped aboard the boat from Tresco, whilst St Agnes had commandeered their own charter (it's unclear whether Liam had just started swimming at this point). This was a triumph 
of logistics for St Mary’s Boatmen's Association. Some went on an agonising hour-long circumnavigation of Bryher to approach from the north (rather than the closer but shallower south). One birder convinced a fisherman to run him across Tresco channel in his tiny punt.

Back on St Mary's quay, 70 of us were piling aboard the next tripper. If you can imagine it, politely putthese were the birders who had been physically unable to get to the quay more quickly. As such, when you factor in optics and cameras, we were riding a bit low and temporarily ran aground on a sandbar.

We landed and I set off at a run. A couple of us reached the site in four minutes, staggering into the crowd. The atmosphere was electric. The bird had been seen, but not by all. It was poetry in motion as ripples ran through the line that it was showing; we'd all sway one way, then another, by some great ornithological magnet. The clattering of cameras would alert you to a sighting in the next field, whilst a collective sigh told that it had just hopped over the hedge.

I finally got in position. A hush fell as everyone held their breath. Then suddenly out it popped: this glorious sunflower of a bird, bright and bold, strikingly beautiful. Swearing, hushing, gasps of admiration. A contingency of Dutch birders stood behind us (they celebrated with champagne that night) and shared a few native expletives.

Serenely surveying the scene was the finder. John Judgehad stayed two weeks on Bryher with only a handfulof flycatchers to show for it. When he clapped eyes on the bird for the first time he simply blithered. Bird of the year? Forget that; he had found the bird of the century. Resident birders from St Agnes shook hands with birders from St Martin's (they hadn't met in years). Everyone looked ecstatically happy. Even daughter seemed politely interested.

Calling the Bird Log that night was something else. I got to write 'Blackburnian Warbler, Bryher' in the book, complete with the exclamation marks, smiley faces, stars and hearts it deserved. What a moment to be part of. 

Written by: Lucy McRobert

Lucy McRobert is a wildlife author and communications professional, as well as a Birdwatch columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @LucyMcRobert1