It’s been four years since I adopted Longhaven, Aberdeenshire, as my patch. A coastal site lying halfway between Cruden Bay and Peterhead in north-east Scotland, it’s a passable birding site which gets regular migrants when conditions are suitable and has even had the occasional rarity, though nothing mega. What makes it special is that it’s my patch.
Every year I take part in a totally frivolous ‘patch list challenge’ with a motley bunch of about 10 other birders scattered around various patches across Britain and Ireland. Nobody takes it too seriously but, having said that, I’ve never won and at the start of this year I made plans to change that.
The beginning of July is the best time of year for swifts on the patch and I still needed Common Swift for the year. So it was that on a fine sunny Sunday morning in a fresh south-westerly breeze at the start of the month, I headed off to my patch. It was a perfect day for finding absolutely nothing.
Even in this record shot, the long slender wings and broad white rump of Pacific Swift are visible (Phil Crockett).
Walking my usual circuit, I made my way towards the disused quarry when I clocked a distant swift. Chuffed that my patch-birding skills had proven the theory that the best time of year to see a swift is in summer, I sauntered on. A few minutes later I saw the now closer, rather skinny-looking swift hawking over the fields beside the quarry. I thought I’d have a better look.
Now, although I’ve found a few good birds over the years, I’ve never found a real ‘mega’ and often wondered how I’d react if I ever did. I always felt that I’d remain calm and collected, and casually put the news out; I'd be chilled and relaxed while waiting patiently for others to arrive, maintaining a veneer of Bond-like coolness throughout.
Actually, at the first glimpse of its white rump, I turned the air blue with a series of unprintable expletives and went into a sort of uncontrollable mental meltdown – Pacific Swift! Fumbling with my phone and randomly pressing the screen, I managed to open iTunes, Safari and Candy Crush before – by blind luck – I got hold of Phil Crockett, who was in a more fit state than I to put out the news. By now, though, the swift had vanished. I let out a more desolate curse with a sigh.
If further proof of the Longhaven bird's typical semi-rectangular white rump were needed,
this shot of the Pacific Swift heading away supplies it (Phil Crockett).
Finding an instantly identifiable mega-rarity when you least expect it is, to say the least, a shock. Finding a mega-rare swift at a site that doesn’t hold swifts is also extremely worrying. I knew there was no reason why a swift would want to hang around at Longhaven. The nearest birders were a good 15-20 minutes away, and this bird could easily disappear forever at any moment, and was already vanishing regularly. Every time it was out of view I broke into a cold sweat, fearing it would be gone before anyone else could see it. I was concerned I’d end up with the dreaded ‘single observer record, no photos’. The feeling of relief I felt every time it glided back into view was palpable, as it hawked low over the fields or above my head, sometimes not much more than several metres away.
The light was perfect, the bird something else: a skinny, long-winged swift with a broad white rump, deeply forked tail and mottled underparts – stunning! It took an excruciatingly long 15 minutes before Phil (crucially, with a camera) eventually appeared along the track and he most certainly wasn’t sauntering. I’ve never been so pleased to see him.
The swift stayed in the area for about 45 minutes, during which time, unfortunately, only two other people (Phil and Dave Gill) managed to see it before it eventually drifted south.
The sheer randomness of birding is what makes this hobby so special. We’ve all trudged for miles across fields and bashed acres of bushes during the most perfect of autumnal conditions and seen nothing. Yet when you least expect it: wham! It’s there, right in front of you.