24/11/2008
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Reds come from behind to snatch victory after City have man sent home

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I'll explain the headline later.

This is the story of an unlikely spell of good fortune I enjoyed as a birder on the island of St Agnes in the month of October this year. I'll write about the birds I 'twitched' on St Mary's next time round. Picking up from where we left off last time (see here): the excellent spell of birding on St Agnes from early September onwards reached its peak late on the 17th of the month with my discovery of a lovely little Booted Warbler in a gorse patch by the Big Pool. It showed well in gorgeous evening sunlight to just three resident birders — myself, Doug Page and Fran Hicks — and as the sun went down behind the wonderfully jagged rocks of the Western Isles, a searing orange ball in a cloudless sky, I couldn't help thinking that this autumn was just going to get better and better: the last ten days of September turning into the first ten days of October, the most highly-charged period in the British birder's calendar. The appearance of St Agnes's second Buff-breasted Sandpiper of the month next evening could not help but augment that feeling.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Davidstow Airfield, Cornwall (Photo: Steve Rogers)

Then, all of a sudden, I found all inspiration and optimism completely desert me. Just as I was rubbing my hands at the thought of all the exciting historical precedents in the period from 20th September to 10th October, a massive high-pressure system rolled ominously into view on the Atlantic pressure charts, and most of southwest Britain (including St Agnes) was 'cursed' with sunshine and light, rather ineffectual north-northeasterly winds. As the Northern Isles off Scotland continued to draw Siberian cripplers to themselves — and Flamborough landed a Brown Shrike — we on Scilly turned green with envy. For my part, I did what any self-respecting birder would do in the face of such treasures elsewhere: I gave up birding altogether, turning my attention instead to various work projects that still needed finishing off if I wanted to free up my timetable for the remainder of October.

Almost a fortnight went by and still the weather lacked promise. Predictably, a few Yellow-browed Warblers turned up in the anti-cyclonic conditions of early October — though they'd been here four days before I got to see any of them myself. During my only serious morning's birding at the start of the month I picked up a Firecrest, and a nice Lapland Bunting, before bumping into the first of what would be at least half a dozen Red-breasted Flycatchers for the autumn. All nice birds, of course; yet the famous dates from the past continued to slip by on the calendar — the 1975 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Scarlet Tanager; the 1981 Magnolia Warbler; '87's Wood Thrush; the 2004 Cream-coloured Courser — with nothing startling turning up.

It was all getting a bit worrying.

Red-breasted Flycatcher
Red-breasted Flycatcher. A minimum of half a dozen individuals appeared on St Agnes this autumn though, with the mobility of this and other species, it was difficult to discern the exact number involved. (Photo: Steve Arlow)

On Saturday 4th October, I welcomed the arrival of some of my old Cape May mates to St Agnes — Laurence Pitcher, Lee Amery, and Pete Brash — and now the autumn shifted to a new phase. The island I'd nurtured as my local patch for five months was set to be invaded by fortnight's holidaymaking outsiders from the Mainland. I always knew it was coming. Despite my earlier tentative plan to shift into a higher plane of competitiveness to meet the new 'challenge' — up at first light; birding dawn to dusk; all that sort of thing — I reneged, and settled instead for a more laid-back approach, spending time with my friends, and generally being as nice as possible to all these new visitors to the island. I even found time to enjoy a hearty Turks Head lunch (solid as well as liquid) with an old friend from northeast England, Peter Hogg: the first fellow birdwatcher I ever met when I was a 13-year-old Johnny Start Up, back in February 1981. If you'd seen me out on my own in early September — literally running around the island at times; constantly checking my watch like some deranged Mad Hatter as I tried to squeeze every single non-working minute out birding in the field — you'd wonder whether this was really the same person: lounging in the sun; taking long lunches; napping in the afternoon; packing up birding well before dark.

In truth, I'd decided it was up to someone else to find the rare birds. I just couldn't be bothered myself. When southwesterly winds and sunshine are in the offing — as they were for most of the first fortnight of October — there are very few obvious falls of migrants on the island. If there were any Americans about — and a spate of exciting arrivals in Ireland and mainland Cornwall suggested there were — I had little confidence they'd show up first in front of me. On Wednesday 8th October, early in the morning, Lee Amery duly obliged with a Blackpoll Warbler find in the Parsonage, and followed this up next day with a Red-eyed Vireo on Gugh. In the meantime, another old pal from northeast England, Dennis Stobbart, pulled out a Red-eyed Vireo at Covean while searching for the Blackpoll Warbler. I was pleased for them — I actually ran for the Blackpoll though I didn't manage to see it the first day — but I still couldn't muster the enthusiasm to take things seriously for the time being. I fully expected that if I was going to find anything else rare this autumn I'd probably have to wait until November when everybody else had gone home.

Blackpoll Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler. So mobile was this particular individual at one point we were certain there had to be two birds on the island. It would appear briefly, exclusively in tamarisk trees, and then get up and fly hundreds of yards to another location on the island. St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Lee Amery)

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo. Definitely two birds here. Both this bird (at Covean) and the other (on Gugh Island) were seen simultaneously on several occasions. St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Lee Amery)

So what happened then? Set against this background of passive resignation, the events of the next ten days seem all the more strange. But this is what transpired...

On Sunday 12th October, I was having a late-afternoon stroll around the fields at the back of my employer's farm with thoughts very much on what I was going to have for tea. I'd finally seen the Blackpoll Warbler about thirty minutes earlier, four days into its stay, but this spot I was walking past hadn't held a bird all autumn. Suddenly a bird hopped up into view that instantly set the pulse racing. No, it was not the American passerine you might have expected in the circumstances — it was a small, pale warbler whose identity I couldn't immediately resolve on the briefest of views. I should say at this point that it was a fantastic September on St Agnes for Reed Warblers. I'd even thought to myself at times that not Buff-breasted Sandpiper, not Booted Warbler, not Wryneck, but Reed Warbler should receive my unofficial title as Bird of the Month — like one of those rare occasions when a Division Two footballing boss receives the Manager of the Month award ahead of the high-flyers in the Premiership. I'd 'had contact with' thirty to forty Reed Warblers (or thirty to forty 'bird days', if you like) throughout the month: some briefly, some for extended periods of up to half an hour at a time, and I had a very clear recent picture in my mind of exactly what a Reed Warbler should look like. This bird, even at some considerable distance of 35 yards, was palpably not a Reed Warbler.

But what was it? My first speculative thought that it might be a Paddyfield Warbler was quickly rejected on the basis of its pale sandy-brown colour and its 'back to front' supercilium (pronounced in front of the eye but fading behind), though its perky look and cocked tail reminded me at once of that species. Shaking almost uncontrollably, I immediately cut down the distance between myself and the bird. A month's lethargy disappeared in an instant and I morphed straight back into serious hunter mode: I crept up to within ten yards of where the bird had first appeared, desperately hoping it wouldn't fade away on me. My next split-second view showed a long bill on a bird with a fairly bland face and thoughts turned quickly to Syke's Warbler. Then it was gone. My usual discipline in these circumstances is to check the undertail coverts on the bird to ascertain its genus, but this proved easier said than done. The bird skulked off into cover and refused to show itself for a further ten minutes. What to do next! I was on private land (where I had permission to access); there was barely half-an-hour's light left in the day; a thin mist was curling in, reducing visibility by the minute; and I had now lost the bird after three views lasting a total of about two seconds! I was a nervous as it gets. Excited, yes; but more tense than I would care to admit. As the minutes ticked away, I was almost sure this mystery bird was going to escape me.

Then I saw it again. I was about eight yards away from it when I saw it from below inside a dark Pittosporum hedge. It had Acrocephalus undertail coverts. The composite picture in my mind now began to sway irreversibly towards Blyth's Reed Warbler — a bird I'd wanted to find for many autumns since Richard Millington and Mark Golley had shone new light on the identification of the species in a Birding World paper in 1996 — but I could barely bring myself to believe the possibility. Why here? Why now? Why me? As I lost the bird once more for ten further minutes, I began to seek out my friends by phone. One by one I found all their phones out of contact — a frequent source of frustration on St Agnes. When I finally got through to Lee Amery at the third attempt, I decided to limit my prognosis to 'interesting warbler' and let the lads themselves decide whether or not they felt this merited coming back out of the house after a long day in the field with perhaps now just twenty minutes light left to spare. Only Pete Brash showed up.

On Pete's arrival at the scene I allowed myself to speak those three thrilling words I'd been longing to get off my chest for so long...Blyth's, Reed, and Warbler, in that order! I'd had one more quick look in the interim period before Pete's appearance and though, frustratingly, I hadn't been able to see the requisite tertial/primary ratio, I had seen the relatively plain, uniform appearance to the wings that I'd been primed to expect in any potential encounter with the species. (I should briefly mention here that I did see lots of Blyth's Reed Warblers fifteen years ago on the Indian subcontinent — somewhat guiltily I recall ticking it through a dirty, steamed-up window in the transit lounge of Bangladesh International Airport — but this was my first encounter in Britain or Ireland.) Running counter to my dawning recognition that I was in the process of a Dream Find was my concern at the non-vocalization of the bird. I'd assumed, from correspondence with friends who'd had more recent contact than me with Blyth's Reed Warbler, that I could expect to hear one giving its Sylvia-like call first, and then concern myself with checking up on supporting features. I'd been wrong, it seemed.

I decided not to prompt Pete in checking over the features. Now the bird was on view for several seconds at a time: repeatedly slipping in and out of the small hawthorn bush where I'd first seen it; dropping down a couple of times into bracken and brambles, occasionally showing its head, mantle and underside well, but alas, not the primaries. Its very jizz was lively and bold: not a bit like the furtive, lethargic Reed Warblers of September (a subtle difference, I admit, but one that was consistent with my expectations of Blyth's Reed: a feature I recall Millington and Golley mentioning in their paper). A Water Rail was alarm-calling persistently from the bracken ditch five yards in front of me and our bird seemed excited and attracted by that, but still it remained silent. And then it called! Hallelujah! It called! It called! It called! If any doubts still lingered in our not being able to see the wing formula, that call removed them. If it looks like a Blyth's Reed Warbler and it sounds like a Blyth's Reed Warbler...

What a situation. A notoriously difficult-to-identify and easily stringable rare species seen twenty minutes before sunset, in degenerating light, on an area of private farmland. Would anyone believe us?! As the darkness came to settle, and the circumstances behind the sighting began to sink in, I remembered other things pertaining to the bird's jizz and appearance that increased my confidence I'd got my identification correct. I remembered one extraordinary moment I had with the bird when I clicked it out (employing my own Sylvia-like chacking with my tongue): five yards above my head, staring straight back at me, its distinctive fore-supercilium, pale throat, and beautifully crisp cold grey flanks, coupled with a vague impression of a thin dark line in the malar region (see Lars Jonsson's painting in his Birds of Europe for a suggestion of this feature) and it is as close as I believe I will ever get to watching a female Rubythroat in this country!

I'm not writing an identification paper here so I'm going to curtail any further description of the bird to move on to the events of the following 72 hours before the bird was seen again. I was already very, very happy that evening. I punched the night air in triumph and raised my arms to the sky and was buzzing so much with the aftershock of events that it took me well into the early hours to get to sleep. Obviously there was a certain amount of self-justification to my thoughts, as I knew quite well the response I'd get next day if the bird wasn't there...

And it wasn't! The first Sociable Plover for Scilly — a bird I hadn't seen for fifteen years — had turned up on St Mary's while I was watching the Blyth's Reed Warbler, and my plan for the morning had been to relocate the Warbler, arrange access to the farm (if possible), and then hop on the 10:15 boat to St Mary's to bag the Plover by lunchtime. In the end I had to settle for a fairly torturous day of regular visits to the area where my bird had been the night before, but each drew a blank. My feelings, to say the least, were mixed. I was chuffed to bits for myself; but proof, not passionate persuasion, was needed to satisfy others. In the end, I decided to go off and do the best thing I could do in the circs: I decided to go off and find a Grey-cheeked Thrush that nobody else saw either!

I still wasn't trying very hard. In fact, I wasn't actually birding when I found the Thrush — although I always have my binoculars with me on the island. On the Tuesday morning I'd been up at first light and gone out and felt my way around the courgette plants that I was still harvesting as one of my regular daily tasks for the Hicks' Organic Farm, my original employer when I came to St Agnes. For six months, I'd walked the exact same track from the orchard where I camped to the Hicks' farmhouse at the southern end of the island. Every day I'd had contact with the incredibly tame Song Thrushes that are a constant feature of life on Scilly. Every day I'd seen a couple feeding at close range along the path on my way into work. This morning, still in poor light, I subconsciously registered an odd form nipping out of the hedgerow and flying a short distance along the track in front of me.

"Looks about right for an American thrush," I heard a voice say in my head.

I don't know about you, but this is something that happens to me almost all the time when I'm out birding. If I could give you a list of all the things I'd half-heard or half-seen over the years you'd never take a word I said seriously again. My rational self always demands something more concrete before making a claim. But as my old mate, Alan Lewis, used to say: "You have to speculate to accumulate." Fortunately the bird had landed in the hedge about ten yards in front of me — and it was, indeed, an American thrush: sat there, just ten feet above my head. In an instant I recognized the heavily spotted upper breast fading to a series of blotchy grey marks on the underparts as a Grey-cheeked Thrush. I had just enough time and presence of mind to note the absence of any obvious eye-ring and the heavy malar streak, to distinguish the bird from a Swainson's Thrush, before it dropped back down and into dense cover behind the hedge. Even then I knew it wasn't going to be an easy thing to relocate, and as I usually like my rarities all neatly boxed up and tied up with a nice ribbon on top, I wasn't as thrilled with the sighting as perhaps I ought to have been (Grey-cheeked Thrush is another of those birds I've fantasized most about finding for the past 25 years — a more realistic proposition, I believe, than the ultimate Black-throated Blue). All the same, this was one of the very scenarios I'd envisaged when I first came to the island. I'd always thought one of the prime attractions of living on Scilly (or Fair Isle, where I'd unsuccessfully applied for the job of assistant chef before coming to St Agnes) was to be able to find a mega when simply going through the motions of daily life.

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I knew I needed some help trying to relocate this bird. My phone wasn't with me, so it took me the best part of 45 minutes to rouse my friends from their beds and in that time the Thrush disappeared. I suspect that if this had been the 1980s, and Grey-cheeked Thrush still a big crippler, this bird would have been relocated some time this morning. But as it was, only the 20-or-so birders on St Agnes came to look for the bird and no more than two hours had elapsed when everyone seemed to give up the ghost. I have no doubt that whispers got round that it was only a single-observer sighting — the same single observer who was already sitting on a supposed claim of Blyth's Reed Warbler that had also somehow mysteriously gone to ground. To be honest, I wasn't really fazed. I was quite happy with my current form, and I had enough support from my closest friends not to pay too much heed to the inevitable backchat emanating from both St Agnes and the other islands. Though I was floating on a cloud of disbelief myself, it was a disbelief of a positive nature, not a negative one.

Two whole days passed. The questions came in: are you going to submit your Warbler then, or aren't you? A photograph of a 'real' Blyth's Reed Warbler was flung at me in the pub by some liquored-up birders upset that I hadn't put the news out straight away (they didn't know that every bone in my body is against suppression but I recognize that some circumstances require more common sense than simply broadcasting the news willy-nilly to all and sundry. I live here, for Christ's sake!) I was handed some rather uncompromising notes on the identification of Blyth's Reed Warbler by a member of the British Birds Rarities Committee. I think they were intended to put me off submission. And all the while I went round smiling contentedly to myself and forming an argument in my mind that I thought I might eventually transfer to paper one evening if I could get round to it.

And then, on the Thursday morning, I got a text message at 9 o'clock in the morning proclaiming: "Some birders have got a 'funny Warbler' in the Chapel Fields. They think it's either a Booted, an Olivaceous, or a Reed Warbler!" I was just around the corner. This sounded like it was going to be fun! To paraphrase the words of 70s pop supergroup Abba: I was "finally about to face my Waterloo"...except here, luckily for me, the role I was about to play was that of the victorious Duke of Wellington, rather than the vanquished Napoleon.

I came out into the lane to find a group of fifteen birders staring into tamarisk bushes adjacent to the Island Hall Community Centre where our between-innings cricketing tea had been taken in the summertime. I was confronted by one or two of them brandishing cameras with full-frame photographs for my examination. Suppressing a slightly nervous gulp, I took stock of the first photo. I immediately recognized the face of the bird as one I'd seen before...and recently. Not wanting to commit myself too soon I said "Hmm. Interesting..." I knew I still had the two-bird theory as an escape clause if this went pear-shaped, but even then, a distinctly Sylvia-like tacking call issued from the direction of the bird. It all happened very quickly. Out came the bird and there was no going back. No worries. No second thoughts. This was the same Blyth's Reed Warbler in all its glory (!) in a much more favourable viewing location. I was happy to stick my neck out again and begin spreading the news immediately.

Blyth's Reed Warbler
Blyth's Reed Warbler. Finally in full view in the sunshine. What a bird! St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Steve Arlow)

And what a bird it turned out to be! What a performance that morning. With a low sun shining directly behind us, illuminating with great precision and beauty a low Escallonia hedge and adjacent tamarisks, the Blyth's Reed Warbler emerged to put on a show that drew gasps of admiration (I kid you not!) from the assembled audience that had rapidly grown to 25 or 30 birders — the total population, in fact, of St Agnes birders. I made the point to several people after my original sighting of the bird that, in retrospect, its identification had actually been rather easy, and in this situation not one person disagreed. Every single feature — colour, shape, behaviour, primary projection, call — was easily discerned by all present, and an episode that had earlier caused unwelcome tensions had now concluded with an immensely Happy Ending; and that was far more important than any vindication that I may or may not have felt for myself.

"Where's your dodgy Thrush, then?" asked one of my friends.

See: I told you they cared!

My 'dodgy Thrush' was not, as it happened, all that far away, though it took another 36 hours or so for it to reappear. A crowd of 100 birders came across from St Mary's to see the Blyth's Reed on its 'first' day (I use the quotes to suggest that its first day was actually its fifth day, if you see what I mean) and 150 came over on Day Two. Both times the Warbler showed exceptionally well in the morning, but on the second afternoon it disappeared, and a group of birders looking for it came across the Grey-cheeked Thrush about three fields away from where I'd originally seen it. I worked out that there were 72 hours (!) between my original sighting of the Blyth's Reed and its reappearance in fields about half a mile away from where I first saw it. It was 84 hours (!!) before I was able to confirm its identity on the particular morning described above (the twelve-hour discrepancy relates to the fact that a pale Acro sp. had been seen in the area the night before). It was 80 hours (!!!) before the Grey-cheeked Thrush reappeared. I'd had worries in the spring that due to the amount of cover on St Agnes, 'nailing' birds glimpsed briefly wasn't going to be as easy as on the relatively sparsely vegetated headlands of southern Ireland where I'd birded for the past five autumns. I hadn't envisaged being put through the rack quite to this extent though!

Though neither Grey-cheeked Thrush nor Blyth's Reed Warbler are the rarest of birds any more, as a bird-finder, for me personally, there was no less of a thrill than if they had been firsts for Britain. Like most people, I guess, in my twitching fortnights on Scilly back in the 80s I used to dream about finding a rarity for the crowds in the Scilly Season, but all I ever came across then was a Little Bunting that nobody paid much heed to. I could never have imagined the unusual circumstances in which I would finally accomplish that ambition. As it happens, however, this is not the first time that a single observer has had the strange good fortune to come across two very rare birds and have nobody else see them for the best part of a week. If my memory of the story is correct, in 1982, Andy Goodwin of Cheshire found both Scarlet Tanager and Black-throated Thrush on St Mary's that promptly disappeared for several days, only to return and satisfy the crowds and any doubters that might have been muttering disingenuously on the outside. And in a not entirely dissimilar vein, former warden of Cape Clear, Dave Bird, once had the distinction of finding both Swainson's Thrush and Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler at the exact same time. In his case though, both birds were readily twitched by others later the same day.

On a minor technical point, I suppose, it wouldn't be entirely correct of me to say 'I found the Grey-cheeked Thrush.' As I said, that implies I came across it in the type of arena where everybody could, with a degree of patience, obtain excellent views. If I'm really honest, the best I can say is that "I was the first to see it". In a case such as this it is the second observer(s) — sorry, I didn't find out who you were — who deserve as much credit, for setting the bird up for everybody else to see (though as an obsessive bird-finder myself I wouldn't want to be in their position of having to decide whether they could 'count' Grey-cheeked Thrush on their list of finds!) The arena where the bird took up semi-residence was a small closed-off field of turnips, surrounded by a few blackberry bushes amongst the ubiquitous Pittosporum, but it appeared most regularly along a narrow earth channel recently cut at the bottom of one of the islanders' gardens, adjacent to the field. Unlike several earlier Grey-cheeked Thrushes on Scilly that have been notoriously hard to see, this individual was one of the crowd-pleasing variety that had a regular routine, and was rarely out of view for more than 20 minutes. As I say, I shall never forget that first morning when I picked it up in a hedge right above my head, but I do regret just a little that it wasn't as easily accessible to others on that occasion as it was to become later on.

Grey-cheeked Thrush
Grey-cheeked Thrush. A showy and popular bird...eventually! St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Steve Arlow)

I did say earlier I'd explain my choice of header for this article, didn't I? Prepare yourself for another of my spurious sporting analogies. You see the thing is: my mate Lee Amery is a Manchester City supporter, while I myself am a dyed-in-the-wool Liverpool Red. On the Saturday Lee arrived, Liverpool just happened to come from two goals to nil down to beat City 3–2. Whether they would have done it if the Blues hadn't had a man sent off, I don't know. Maybe not? In an uncanny parallel with the fortunes of our respective football teams, Lee found the Blackpoll Warbler and the Red-eyed Vireo first, of course, to take the two-nil lead; but then didn't I go on to discover Blyth's Reed Warbler and Grey-cheeked Thrush to equalize! The two hours in the morning before Lee went home were my most frantic of the autumn, I can tell you; I was almost sure Fate had decreed I was going to find another rarity to make the score 3–2 in my favour. But, like the Liverpool football team, I guess I needed the City man to be sent home before I could notch up the winner.

Three days later...

Monday 20th October was a rotten stinking day of lashing rain when somebody on St Agnes managed to find a smashing Olive-backed Pipit in fields not too far from my house (a separate piece on the birds I've twitched on Scilly this month is in prep for next time). During the course of the morning I managed to mislay my precious poncho that has seen me through many a sudden torrential Neotropical downpour — a thing I treasure as much for its nostalgic value as for its practical purpose. I was sure I'd lost it somewhere between Troytown and Wingletang Down but, despite retracing my footsteps on a hideously wet afternoon, it was nowhere to be seen. I happened to ask Paul Dukes — finder of at least two, if not four, firsts for Britain on St Agnes, in case any of you don't know — if he had come across it in his strolling across the Downs. He hadn't.

By and by, I came to relocate the poncho myself, some time next morning. It was very, very wet — as you'd be too, if you'd been lying in a puddle for 24 hours. On the gorgeously sunny day it was now, I lovingly spread my waterproof across one of the magnificent, ancient granite cairns that decorate the south-western tip of these islands, and left it there to dry. I went back to reclaim it later that afternoon. But it was gone. I couldn't imagine the wind had caught it, for there was nothing but a slight breeze now, but I was mystified as to the why and whereabouts of this second disappearance in 24 hours; more upset than the first time, so I was.

It was during a second, increasingly desperate, trawl through the gorse bushes of Castella Down that I flushed a bird, about ten yards from my feet, that was to prove itself a major distraction from my attempts to relocate the poncho. It was a Bobolink! I knew it was a Bobolink almost immediately because it called three times with a note I recognized from the thousands I heard in the course of nine successive autumns in Cape May through the 1990s. We used to regularly hear fifty to a hundred Bobolinks an hour flying over on September nights, and I once saw (and heard) over a thousand passing in a morning (on a day when a record 10,000 were seen over Cape May in total). The call is a sound that once heard is difficult to forget. In fact my friend Chris Ridgard who was with me when I stumbled across the Bobolink described it as a 'non-note' — and as a seriously first-class musician, he should know. The call is most often transcribed as pink or wink but that to me infers a musical quality — such as the Chaffinch's call — that is completely lacking in the slightly nasal tone of the Bobolink.

Like I described, the bird called three times on this occasion as it performed a brief loop flight back down into an area of dense gorse. I just about saw the unusual spiky tail on the thing as it pitched back in, but everything else was just a complete mad blur! This time I was in a real panic. It was mid-afternoon, and the island was buzzing with about seventy or eighty birders, many of them over from St Mary's for the Olive-backed Pipit, or the Blyth's Reed Warbler, or just because St Agnes was turning out to be The Place To Be at the current moment. Unlike the other two finds this bird was in an area where everybody would be able to see it. I'd better be sure I'd got it right. A second sighting with a bit more than just a spiky tail was required before I put the news out. After waiting 80-odd hours for both my Blyth's Reed Warbler and Grey-cheeked Thrush to reappear, I guess half an hour to my next sighting of the Bobolink wasn't all that long, but it seemed an eternity at the time. Fortunately Chris flushed it a second time from high up on the Downs, and it flew over our heads, calling, and shining a lovely buttery yellow in the afternoon sunlight. It had the distinctive pointy-winged shape of a Bobolink, as well as the spiky tail. Bonza! I did my absolute nut in celebration, writhing around in the grass like a mad thing, oblivious to the cow juice surrounding me on every side. A young pup let off the lead across a farmer's field for the first time couldn't have been any happier in the circumstances.

Bobolink
Bobolink, United States (Photo: Steve Copsey)

Castella Down lent a fine vantage point to watch the birders converging from various parts of the island. Inevitably with a bunch of fifty expectant birders let loose in a wide-open space there was some pretty poor, unco-ordinated fieldcraft on display, and the Bobolink somehow eluded half the crowd, while others had to settle for brief flight views. Maybe I'm being unfair. It was clearly a flighty bird; and on its descents to terra firma it had a frustrating habit of dropping straight back into some really dense, prickly areas. I was lucky that for a very brief moment I had a five-second view of the stripy head, the eye and the bill (pinkish) as the bird poked up from long grass about ten yards from where I was standing. If the six people stood next to me had managed to somehow get their bins to their eyes without moving a muscle we might have all had better views. But it was too late. It was up again, and gone.

I later found out that Paul Dukes, bless his toes, had spotted my poncho on the rock in the early afternoon sunshine, carefully folded it up, tucked it under his arm, and carried it back to his cottage for my later retrieval. If he hadn't, there'd be one less Bobolink on the British and Irish total.

So three rarity finds in ten days, and the Liverpool fan beats the Manchester City fan 3–2. You couldn't get away with making it up, it sounds too unlikely to be true, but that's what happened. Never mind Art imitating Life and all that Andy Warhol stuff; what I want to know is 'does Birding imitate Football, or does Football imitate Birding?' As the Liverpool fans' motto proudly declares: "What you achieve in the course of Time has echoes in the Halls of Eternity."

Now there's a philosophy to live by.

Written by: Graham Gordon