Scilly Season Epic

Swainson's Thrush (Photo: Micky Maher)

The outcome of my choice to chase the top British year list of 1986 (see A Sort of Homecoming) caused me to drop out of the University of East Anglia and forced me to get a j-o-b. Bummer! After a spell of low-paid manual labour in a Norwich supermarket just before Christmas, I moved back to my folks' home in north-east England and landed a plum position as an 'office junior' - making cups of tea, licking stamps and putting them on envelopes, and doing the odd bit of filing - for a small medical company on the outskirts of Newcastle. I still got to chase my lifers at the weekends, but with just 60 quid a week and the prospect of no more than three weeks' paid leave per year I was clearly on the lookout for something better.

It became my 'ambition' to join the British Civil Service. With talk of up to 25 days' annual leave each year, plus the prospect of building up 'flexi-hours' during bleak midwinter darkness and midsummer lulls this sounded the ideal career for someone for whom birding was still everything in life. A friend of my mum's on the 'inside' brought news of an impending Civil Service recruitment drive: the requisite forms were filled out and sent in; and with an uncharacteristic absence of bureaucratic fuss, a reply from Her Majesty's office soon came inviting me to commence employment with the Department of Health and Social Security, in Newcastle, on Monday 27th October.

Monday 27th October? Great news. As I had only subtracted a minimum of days from my annual entitlement at the medical firm this meant I could get a good fortnight's fling on Scilly before having to get my head down and batten up the hatches for the winter.

Wednesday night in the Britannia pub, Cleadon village, near Sunderland, in the first week of October 1987. A small group of birdwatching friends with a united interest in twitching meet to discuss plans for the forthcoming weekend. The day before, the Tuesday afternoon, Europe's first-ever Wood Thrush had shown to a fortunate two hundred birders on Wingletang Down, St. Agnes: bad weather thwarting the efforts of several hundred more, stranded on St. Mary's. It hadn't shown on the Wednesday, and unless it reappeared, or something equally appealing came to take its place on the Thursday or Friday, none of my car-owning friends would be making the 1,000-mile-plus round trip to Scilly 'on spec', leaving me, the 20 year-old non-driving pauper, facing the teeth-clenching prospect of a tedious, long-distance overnight hitch late on the Friday.

Nothing turned up. I had to hitch down.

Friday evening, 10th October...Checking out of the office of Immunodiagnostics (UK) Ltd at 5pm for the last time without so much as a backward glance over my shoulder, I dashed home, packed my usual basic minimum of binoculars, sleeping bag and socks, and hit the motorway - the A1(M), at junction 3, three-quarters of a mile walk from outside my mum's house. I'd hitch-hiked to north Cornwall for a Squacco Heron a couple of years before this date, and made several trips as far south as Devon and Dungeness, but this 550-mile wee jaunt to Penzance was quite the longest trip I'd ever undertaken and there was no telling just when or if I might get there. Yet it had to be done. Previous waits at this junction had lasted up to three hours. Tonight, I got lucky. Ten minutes and I was picked up by a lorry driver heading down into Yorkshire. Southward Ho! Scillies here I come...maybe not tomorrow, maybe not Sunday, but certainly by Monday?

Two straightforward lifts later, at 8.15pm, I find myself at Ferrybridge, Pontefract, West Yorkshire, intersection of the M62 and A1(M) with its access roads to points east, west, north and south - without doubt one of the landmark locations in the British hitch-hiking underworld. I stop off at the service station to buy myself a snack. As I leave the shop, out the corner of my eye, I notice a face, standing out from the crowd, staring back at me in puzzled enquiry.

"You're Graham Gordon, aren't you?" says the face.

"So I am," I reply, movements of recognition beginning to unravel within me.

"Stuart Grainger..." offers the face, thrusting one of its hands towards me. "We met on Scilly last year, you remember?"

So we did!

Now I was noticing the bins and the green jacket - and looking around for signs of the inevitable 'team' that would be accompanying Stuey wherever it was he happened to be travelling on this darkening October evening.

"You're not...you're not heading there now, are you?" I blurt out, still expecting three or four others to appear and pop the sudden bubble of incredulity that was arising within me.

"As a matter of fact I am," said Stuart.

I can't remember exactly whether Stuart offered or I asked but it turned out there he was, heading solo the 440-odd remaining miles I still had to hitch-hike to make my destination and 'Yes' I'd be most welcome to join him if I didn't mind making a short detour to Prawle Point, Devon, for a Black-and-white Warbler he was hoping to tick early next morning before flying to Scilly later in the afternoon. (I'd seen the 1985 Black-and-White Warbler at How Hill in Norfolk).

"No, I had no problem with that...no problem with that at all!" I mused to myself as I sat in Stuart's nice warm passenger seat, quietly astounded at the overwhelming stroke of good fortune in which I had just landed. What was the last population count for the UK? Fifty-five million? How many of them birders travelling to Scilly? What were the odds?

The 'scene' at Exeter Service Station in the early hours of the following morning was its usual mix of the dishevelled and the wide-eyed excited - some a bit of both. Famous meeting point for birders from scattered locations across the British Isles, it was the young Norfolk contingent, my former University birding mates (see Spoon-billed Sandpiper Surprise), towards whom I homed in to share my pot of tea. Alan Lewis, joint holder of the top UK year list for 1986 (along with myself), my best friend and competitive rival, was in typically boisterous form.

"What are you talking about, going for this Black-and-white, Graham? You don't need it. You'd be much better off going for the Scillonian this morning. There's no boat and no planes on to Scilly on Sunday this year, remember? The aviation authorities have stopped them. I'll bet you there's a one-day wonder you're going to regret not seeing..."

Alan was responding to my idea I'd go see the Warbler, ask Stu to drop me off somewhere in Cornwall, do a bit of birding on my own over the weekend, and then drift on to Scilly on the Monday. He persisted, but my mind was made up. Stuart and I ticked off his Black-and-white Warbler after a fairly short wait, we pottered around a few sites, then he dropped me off at St. Ives where I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening staring blankly out to sea along with a dozen other birders. Franko Marievic, with his lively non-stop banter, was the only thing of any entertainment value to stave off a dose of the cold autumn afternoon blues.

The irreverent late-80s satirical magazine 'Not BB' once offered its readers a review of a fictitious publication called 'A Guide to the Dossing Spots of South-Western England' which, for pocket-empty diehards like myself, had a certain pitiful ring of truth about it. I thought I'd found a cracking little spot for myself tonight - a run-down, disused attic above a public shower block on the St. Ives beachfront. At ten 'o' clock at night, long after the sun had gone down, it looked dark, secret and safe. I had just settled into my sleeping-bag when I suddenly stiffened at the sounds of footsteps and muffled voices outside the front door - followed swiftly by the creaking of hinges and a commotion of four or five bodies piling into my 'room'. I'd been rumbled.

Or not. Instead of the drunken revellers or the local constabulary that informed my first fears, these were birders (with hindsight one might almost have expected there'd be plenty of dosshead birders floating around Cornwall in October and it seemed my self-found resort location was actually rather well-known on the vagabond circuit) and birders with a message at that, carrying Big News. Upholding Alan Lewis's earlier prophetic pronouncement, a Philadelphia Vireo - a first for Britain; following one at Galley Head, Ireland in October 1985 - had been found late evening on Tresco, Scilly; and though a fleet of boats would leave St. Mary's at first light Sunday morning, there'd be no planes from the mainland onto the islands. My new room-mates had no bright ideas themselves as to how we might get there; and thus, a very gloomy night was passed by all.

It so happened next morning, a rumour was circulating the seawatching hide at St. Ives that Franko M., aforementioned tall-tale spinner of the Saturday afternoon, had scheduled a dinner date the same evening with one of his local friends - a pilot from the airfield at St. Just - and the Word was: said pilot had been charmed into risking his license, disobeying the rules, and shuttling back and forth on to St. Mary's as many birders as could make it to the airfield by midday.

The rumour proved well-founded. At the airport I quickly signed myself up for the third flight out there that morning, leaving in approximately one hour, and sat down to take stock. Non-twitchers, we know, can never quite fully fathom the passion that drives certain birders to such extremes to see new birds - but as far as I was concerned, sat there in that little airport having earlier in the day doubted any possibility I'd see Scilly before Monday morning, feeling the full torment of Lewis's prediction coming up to haunt me, this change of fortune, this very possibility that such an audacious coup was on the cards, was the epitome of unsurpassable emotional cliffhangerdom. Does life ever get any better?

It does when a birder walks into the airport and casually informs the sitting brigade of two dozen of us that a Swainson's Thrush (last available on Scilly in October 1984: a bird hundreds still 'need') turned up a few hours ago in Cot Valley, a couple of miles down the road. Fifty minutes to go before the next plane. Have we got time to see it? Yes we do. I pile into one of four cars that screech out the gates of the forecourt: and in ten minutes we're in Cot Valley. We find the spot...ten birders already there - and the bad news is...the bird hasn't been seen for the past two hours! Oh no? What's that there, then? It's the Swainson's Thrush! Sat motionless in a nearby bush...now on to the ground: ten minutes not at all bad viewing...then into the car; and back to the airport...on to the plane...and on to the Scillies.

After the tension of the first few hours of the morning, the twenty-five-minute flight and the descent into St. Mary's was eminently peaceable - one of those delicious, calm periods amidst the cut and thrust of high-velocity twitching when all seems well with the world. How can one not be at peace gazing down from above at the beautiful, semi-tropical islands of Scilly with their waving tamarisks, bulb-fields, long strips of sandy-white beaches...

It was strange touching down. Not a soul in sight. Normally the airfield and its environs would be dotted with birders. Unofficial records back in the late 80s state that up to 3,000 twitchers turned up one freezing cold Saturday morning in February for the famous Tesco's car park Golden-winged Warbler: possibly 1,500 were present first day for the 1989 Wells Red-breasted-Nuthatch. But one figure we do know for sure was that the Scilly boatmen transported 843 birdwatchers that morning from St. Mary's onto Tresco for the Philadelphia Vireo. No wonder there was no-one on St. Mary's when we got there just before twelve midday. Eerily then...somewhat...my planeload of five took up a taxi and rode in silence the two-and-a-half miles to the quayside - the familiar laneways and high street, for once, utterly devoid of the wellington-clad, green-uniformed bodies of our fellow enthusiasts.

It was just after midday when our boat from St. Mary's pulled up on Tresco quay. I didn't count them, but it seemed to me the majority of those 843 bodies were now lining up there and then awaiting their return, all having safely seen the Vireo, reportedly showing well. The looks on some of their faces were a picture. I don't think they could have looked more astonished at the sight of these five latecomers if we had swam up and stepped out the sea.

"Where on Earth have you lot washed- up from!" I could tell some of them were thinking.

I probably recognized about half the faces there. More pertinently, half of them recognised me. (You can't go all out for a British year list and expect to remain anonymous for long). There was plenty of good-natured banter as I walked the line, fully enjoying the moment. It was a lovely October Sunday, we had made it to Scillies on time, the Swainson's was in the bag, the Vireo was not likely to be leaving before I got there, and..."Oh, by the way, there's a Corncrake in the field over there..."

Corncrake (Photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly)

Despite having made two three-day visits to the Western Isles of Scotland the previous year, Crex crex had eluded me - both times in lashing rain. The moribund specimen crouching under some bushes in a field one down from the vireo was therefore a lifer (and seventeen years later it's still the only one I've ever seen) - my second of the morning (not bad, when your list is in the mid 380s) - and ten minutes later, I added another: strolling up the lane and casually ticking off the Philadelphia Vireo.

I realize it can be impossible to put a value on these things, but for several years later, whenever someone asked me 'What's the best bird you've ever seen?' my mind harked back to that Vireo. It was the combination, of course, of everything I've told you about so far: leaving the old job, the miraculous hitch down, the worry I was going to miss it, the surreal atmosphere of actually arriving on Scilly - but also, it was a cracking bird; far more enjoyable in its own subtle, lemon-washed way than any one of the five rather fierce, spiky Red-eyed Vireos I'd seen that (for me anyway) had never quite lived up to Richard Millington's Twitchers Diary billing of them as 'total hyperzonky megacripplers!' It was also, I suspect, something to do with the timing. The twelfth of October: almost midway through the month; slap bang in the middle of the British rarity season - just at that point of the year where the sycamore trees the bird was haunting were starting to turn a touch brown at the edges, curling up, ready to play host to any one of those eastern late-autumn wonders that might possibly give the Philadelphia Vireo a run for its money when it came to selecting 'my most favourite bird of all time'.

Like Eye-browed Thrush, for example?

By 5pm on the Sunday of the Vireo I remember walking around the heliport on Tresco, watching a Richard's Pipit, and realising I was losing control of my legs. It felt like I was floating on air - and it had nothing to do with the morning I'd just had. It dawned on me I hadn't actually eaten anything in the 24 hours since I last visited a supermarket in St. Ives somewhere in the middle of the Saturday afternoon. I wasn't starving simply myself for the sake of it...it was just in the excitement and tension I'd forgotten to eat! (Gosh, those things Bill Oddie once said about young, daft twitchers and birds being more important than food were true, weren't they?)

Little Bunting (Photo: Tony and Helen Mainwood)

I got back to the flat I'd arranged to share with a dozen other birders up by Porthloo Beach on St. Mary's and cobbled myself something together with what little was in the cupboards (spaghetti and soy sauce), promising I'd go out and buy my share when the shops opened in the morning. Which I did. After an early morning start where I wandered off and came across my very own Little Bunting (the only thing I ever 'found' in a total of about ten weeks spread over six years on Scilly), I toddled off to the supermarket and emerged with two plastic bags of groceries which basically comprised a box of cornflakes, a load of pasta, a big block of cheese and some biscuits. ("This little lot should last me the fortnight," I remarked to myself).

"Eye-browed Thrush!"
"Eye-browed Thrush!"

None of the puffing and panting fellows rushing past the supermarket up Hugh Town High Street bothered to stop and tell me 'where' so, naturally, I just set off and followed them! Well, you would, wouldn't you? Loaded down with shopping and minus a scope or not I wasn't making any detours to the flat in this situation. I simply ran.

The bird was at Longstones. Who had found it or how long it had been there I still had no idea. But it was moving. At this stage of the year there were none of the big thrush flocks we might see in the next couple of weeks - only two Redwings and one Eye-browed Thrush, looking unsettled and ready to scoot at any moment.

There was tension, understandably. I still hadn't got my breathing back to par after the mad dash up the hill, and as I was invited to look through another's telescope I could barely concentrate and focus my eyes to register what I was seeing - the blurry, distant shape of a much-desired mega buried somewhere in a bramble patch.

And then it was gone, flushed by a Sparrowhawk. Over the next hour and a half I had plenty of time to dwell on how critical I'd been of a number of people I'd heard who had ticked the 1984 Salakee Lane Eye-browed Thrush in flight - the original, gripping, never-to-occur-again Eye-browed Thrush: or so those of us who missed it all thought at the time. Yet here it was: the chance to 'grip-back' one of the genuine, mythical rarities...and we were blowing it. Late-coming birders were arriving in their dozens, crowding the lanes around Longstones, desperately searching for a chance of redemption - until at last it was re-found! It had flown into another bramble hedge adjacent to the main footpath to the Longstones Café and hundreds of us were crammed in, straining for a view. No-one could see it. But everyone knew it couldn't get out of its hiding place without us all getting a look at it. The question was...how good a view were we going to get?

The answer was a tense fifteen minutes away. The bird, still with the two Redwings in tow (or vice versa), broke from cover and flew across the field, perhaps not in to the withering sycamores I'd previously prescribed for it, but into a Pittosporum hedgerow that had died off the previous winter, now stripped bare, concealing nothing of the three thrushes that were sat in it, pondering their next move.

I'm endeavouring here to be as honest as possible and give you as accurate a description of my feelings and impressions as I can remember from the time. I'm trying hard to avoid cliché. It would be nice to say 'we all enjoyed crippling views of this mythical Russian beauty and went off and celebrated for the rest of our lives' but we didn't. The bird sat there for about five minutes before it dropped down and disappeared and the emotion I felt in that time (perhaps it was the same for others) was relief. Relief I wouldn't have to tick it on those first awful views and relief I really could say I'd seen an Eye-browed Thrush with my very own eyes. Though I'd like to get better views of another one day that would be enough for now. I didn't join in the subsequent hunt to see it again. God only knows where I'd left my shopping!

There could be endless discussions as to what constituted the 'best ever year' on Scilly and though, in my day, 1983 and 1985 would undoubtedly have vociferous supporters, this current year, 1987, was my own personal halcyon heyday. I'd missed 1983 altogether (I was still wandering around my local woods with a list of about 160 at the time) and in '85 I'd got down only for an exciting long weekend (though I did tick off Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Black-billed Cuckoo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Bobolink and Myrtle Warbler, all in the same day). 1986 was okay, I suppose: I stayed on Scilly for a total of three weeks (making three separate week-long visits); but in my 'year list' year, a total of three lifers and ten year ticks was, overall, a little disappointing.

Booted Warbler (Photo: John Coveney)

In '87 there were birds turning up every single day. Not all of them cripplers, but certainly some great rarities and a number of late 'lifers' - Olive-backed Pipit and Melodious Warbler - that propelled my list into the 390s with something of a flourish. There was a Blackpoll Warbler, a Swainson's Thrush, a Booted Warbler and an influx of ten or more Red-rumped Swallows - all birds I'd seen one or two of before, but were there to be watched with that completely different sensation of emotional satisfaction that comes from seeing a rare bird when you know you don't 'need' it...a 'second' or a 'third' There were one or two days lost to lashing rain that with hindsight could be seen as a necessary evil - a prelude to great moments - even if at the time, our adrenalin-addicted bodies could see no further than the next fix and elected to sit and sulk at the unfairness of it all.

One of those heavy rain showers, midway through my stay, interrupted another of those great defining moments of Scilly '87 - the Hermit Thrush on St. Agnes. Found by a friend of mine from north-east England after spending five hours painstakingly waiting on a red tail he'd seen dart into a bush, this was the first of its kind to surrender itself to the Scilly masses. (A late individual had appeared to a hundred pairs of eyes in October '84.) On its first afternoon we spent a good hour looking for it to no avail before the skies opened up and produced the kind of downpour that makes even the most dedicated of twitchers surrender to a force far greater than themselves. We got drenched.

There was no news the next day, but the day after that the boatmen were rubbing their hands again as the whole lot of us abandoned St. Mary's once more and trooped off regimentally to take up positions around an isolated set of fields where, again, like the Eye-browed Thrush before it, the Hermit Thrush had ended up moving into a spot where it was now impossible for it to escape our view. Within ten minutes it did a memorable show: hopping out on to a mound of piled-up soil, slowly raising its russet tail, about-turning to reveal, successively, its front and back views, then hopping off again and - from my point of view, at least, because I deigned not to chase it any further - back into obscurity. A burst of vibrant hand-clapping arose spontaneously from the crowd like a crucial putt at the World Open Golf Championship. (You might be used to me making footballing analogies in my accounts by now...but this wasn't quite that same winning-goal roar.)

Late Friday afternoon, 24th October. The season is winding down to a close and already my thoughts are being projected to the imminence of starting my new job on the Monday. I'm hanging around the quayside on St. Mary's with a handful of others after reports have come in across the CB (no mobile phones in those days) of a 'funny-looking Greenish Warbler' across on St. Agnes. Some suggested it might be a far eastern Two-barred Greenish...others that it might be a Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler! We half-heartedly engage conversation with a chap who owns a speedboat with a view to dashing across there and are still pondering the decision when a more immediate call crackles over the radio announcing 'Black-throated Thrush at the Silver Trail Farm.'

Black-throated Thrush (Photo: Mike Buckland)

I'm loth to take taxis. I'd rather walk or wait an hour for a bus and spend a tenth of the amount I would sitting there cringing every time the meter chalks up another 30p. But there are no buses on St. Mary's and The Silver Trail is way outside running distance...so a taxi it is: along with twelve or thirteen others hanging, Third-World style, from the roof-rack, the exhaust pipe and the windscreen wipers.

The last half-mile dash on foot to the site, the unsettled nature of the bird in question, and indeed, the whole nature of the episode had certain parallels with my earlier account of the Eye-browed Thrush at Longstones. This time, however, there were thrushes on the move, and lots of them. We were, I'd say, about 45 minutes from dusk when I got to join the rows and rows of the couple of hundred birdwatchers 'scoping, not this time one or two fields back, but three fields off in to the distance. This was where the Black-throated boy was said to be lurking. The trouble was the Fieldfares and Redwings were heading off in their droves. Everything about the situation said these were birds that were about to take part in a long, overnight journey. Migration and movement were all around. It was dynamic. I sensed no great panic, though...because by now I'd seen enough good birds during the week not to be churlish: but I was getting concerned.

It took twenty minutes before the black-gorgetted male Thrush hopped into my view (complete with a distinct Ring Ouzel-white bib: bang in the centre of the gorget). I saw it for just five minutes: very distantly remember, but, and I have no real understanding as to why, much more so than the Eye-browed Thrush, I was absolutely 100% happy with the event as it stood. I did not long for better or longer views; I felt not 'relief' but proper satisfaction; I did not care then and do not now whether or not I ever see another Black-throated Thrush in Britain as long as I live (and I haven't so far). The moment was complete as it was. Maybe, as I took one step closer to 400 British birds I was undergoing some kind of personal, philosophical nadir into the nature of twitching in itself...but I'm not going to delve into that. As Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, is reported to have said late in life: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" The same goes for a Black-throated Thrush.

As I was due to leave Scilly on the 4 o'clock ferry in the afternoon, I decided Saturday morning to take an early trip across to St. Agnes to see what was going on with this 'Greenish Warbler'. There were very few other birders on the boat. The cynic (which we all are at some time) in me muttered at the fact nobody could be bothered to go across because there wasn't a cut-and-dried tick waiting there for them - but the birder (not the twitcher) within, was secretly glad to have this opportunity to go look at the bird and come to its own decision. Despite having topped the British twitching charts in 1986, in 1987 I wasn't as experienced a birder as I might then have liked to think I was. I'd done no travelling abroad at that stage. Still, I wasn't a complete fool...and because I'd seen a few Greenishes myself (found one back home!) and certainly plenty of Yellow-broweds, I was able to get close enough to the bird to (a) regard it as an absolutely outstanding little beauty and (b) be pretty sure myself it wasn't a Greenish or Yellow-browed Warbler, and in all probability the potentially exciting, first-confirmed, Two-barred Greenish Warbler for Britain. Which, eventually, everyone pretty much agreed that it was. (I remember in the aftermath going home and reading up in Kenneth Williamson's Ringers Guide to Phylloscopus Warblers the taxonomic complications between the nominate form of Greenish and plumbeitarsus (Two-barred Greenish) and the evocative delights it raised of such names as the Ob, the Yangtze and the Yenesei river valleys, the Tien Shan Mountains, and the '45 miles of untenanted countryside between eastern trochilodes and western plumbeitarsus where neither species is thought to occur.' Three years later, flying back from Thailand, crossing central Russia, I gazed out the window at the snow-covered wastes beneath us and tried to imagine just where in that vastness this 45-mile 'Greenish' Warbler no-go zone existed!)

That just about wrapped it up for the season for me - or would have done if news of a Veery on Lundy hadn't broken just after midday. This was not, I admit, what I wanted to hear! I had a new job to get back to first thing Monday morning, and I'd intended coming off Scilly Saturday evening and spending a long Sunday hitching back home to Newcastle. I wasn't in the mood for complications. But what else was I to do? When I listened to birders ringing up the harbourmaster in Bideford, North Devon, asking whether or not they could charter any fishing boats to take us to Lundy next morning, I was caught up in the whole sense of mission and elected to go. Mark Sutton - a friend of mine from Cheshire who I'd twitched with on a few occasions - was booked to fly off Scilly on the Saturday night, and it was he who willingly took charge of travelling arrangements while the rest off us sailed off on the Scillonian. It was Mark Sutton already waiting in Penzance that evening with a list of names and sailing arrangements for next morning, Mark Sutton who cheerfully waved everyone else off and wished them all luck, and Mark Sutton's car (the one I was set to travel in) that wouldn't start at five minutes to eleven as he turned the key in the ignition, the last vehicle to leave the Penzance car park!

I still can't believe that we got out of this predicament...but this is how we did it: Just gone eleven o'clock, Mark, having first gone to Directory Enquiries, starts ringing up the three hire-car companies known to be in the Penzance area. After no reply from the first two, a woman answers the phone from her office ten miles up the road. She is a small firm (who normally closes at exactly eleven) who only has five vehicles, the last of which was taken about 45 minutes ago. Mark tells her his story.

"Well, my husband's a mechanic, so I can send him down to take a look at your car and if he can't do anything, maybe you can take our car to go up and see this bird of yours?"

And there's people out there who'll tell you that 'folks ain't as generous as what they used to be!'

Imagine that. Would you lend out your car to five complete stranger to go off chasing a five-inch bundle of feathers at midnight on a Saturday night! This lady did. Her husband couldn't get Mark's car started so he towed us up to their office, chucked us his keys, and there we were...back on track, North Devon-bound, three-and-a-half hours up the road. What on Earth had I done to deserve this continuous spell of good luck?

Off-island twitching was in its infancy in 1987. A select few at the top end of the scale had made the odd trip to Shetland or Orkney or sometimes Scilly itself, but for the majority of us this was still something beyond the realms of possibility. Nobody, I'd say, had thought of twitching Lundy in the Bristol Channel before this Sunday morning. What a sight it must have been from the shore to see five fishing boats and two yachts setting off in formation soon after first light on the Sunday morning, each with a dozen birding passengers on board. Excitement? You wouldn't get this from train-spotting or stamp-collecting.

The Veery turned out to be handsomely co-operative. Over the course of the five hours we were on the island it must have been on view for at least half that time. The best moment - and I'd love twitchers past and present to have a vote on what they thought were the greatest moments in British twitching history, like the newspapers do with All-Time Great Football Teams - came, when the Veery had been 'lost' for ten minutes and somebody said 'Oh, there it is on the grass over there' and somebody else said 'No, that's a Swainson's Thrush.'

Now, we all knew there'd been a Swainson's Thrush around, alright, but this is what happened...

The Swainson's was feeding on an open area of greensward like a familiar garden Song Thrush, hopping along, cocking its head, and gently listening (or is it looking: can't remember where the current argument lies) for worms. Fifty yards away, in front of the opposite end of the line of seventy-odd twitchers, the Veery re-appears, doing exactly the same thing. The Swainson's is at the right hand end of our line, but hopping, gradually, towards the left. The Veery is heading left to right. We all anticipate what's coming next...hop, hop...wait for it, wait for it...hop, hop...and there it is: the one hops past the other - Veery and Swainson's Thrush in the same binocular field of view, on British turf, 3,000 miles or more from where they were both born. The majority of this crowd of birders have all shared in the enthralling series of events of this past couple of weeks, we all more or less know each other, and the grins on the faces at this last magic moment just about summed it up for every single one of us.

But how am I going to get home?

There wasn't a single birder from north-east England on Lundy that Sunday (er...except me). There was no-one from Yorkshire, no-one from Manchester, no-one from Lincolnshire...no-one, in short, going within 200 miles of my house. It was 7pm. by the time we got off Lundy. In just over thirteen hours, at 8.15 next morning, I was supposed to be starting a new job that (I hoped) I was going to be able to settle in to for a good number of years. I'd already missed most of my sleep the night before. The best I could arrange with the birders who were present was a ride towards London where I was dropped off on the M1/M25 intersection at just gone a quarter to midnight.

Most of the night is a blur in memory. I remember getting off to a very good start and halving the distance of 280 miles in reasonably quick time only to get stuck for hours, inexplicably, at a very good spot near Doncaster, that made it virtually certain I wouldn't make it on time. Nevertheless, at seven in the morning, at Scotch Corner, near Teesside (a decent spot, but one which regularly held me up for more than an hour both before and after this current journey) I got picked up in two minutes and the race against time was suddenly mine for the taking again. Five minutes to eight: my mother's anxious face peering out the window at home, then shaking her head in silent disbelief wondering how on Earth I'd made it.

I didn't have time for such luxuries! My mother started the car as I fell into the shower, scraped a couple of days' worth of mud off me, grabbed hold a shirt, jumped in the car and then raced off to join the bunch of twenty eager new recruits sat patiently, awaiting their new starts in life. I was exactly three minutes late. Another new starter, a bloke I later found out lived just across the road from the office, strolled in five minutes after me...

How did I get through that first day? Two successive nights without sleep, the sounds of boats and car engines throbbing through my temples, memories of what had been a marvellous, marvellous two weeks. Somehow I kept myself awake and tried to take in the new information I was being told as best I possibly could. Fortunately, it was a fairly low-key and informal trainee induction day so my zombie state went largely unnoticed. Most of the other new starters couldn't wait to be out the door at 3.30 at the earliest opportunity. Me? I thought I'd hang on an extra hour to start building up my flexi!

The things we do for birds.

Written by: Graham Gordon