28 Sep 2016

28 Sep 16 - Joy & Sadness

In July 1989 I twitched for the first time to Shetland with Brian Field, Pete Aley & Jem Babbington for a Brunnich's Guillemot. It had been seen sitting on the cliffs in a Guillemot & Razorbill colony for a couple of weeks and justified the long distance drive to Aberdeen & the significant expense of a flight to Shetlands. The flight into Sumburgh was straight-forward & we quickly drove the 2 miles up to Sumburgh Head. Frustratingly, there had been no sign that morning as the wind had veered & was blowing onto the cliffs. We spent the whole day there, apart from a quick trip to a pub for some food that evening, before myself & some of the other Birders maintained the vigil throughout the night. The rest of my crew chose to catch some sleep: a wise move given that Brian & Pete were the drivers.

The following weekend, Brian & Pete offered me a lift back to Shetland again, but I declined that time as I couldn't justify the cost or face the trip again. On the Sunday, I was just leaving the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater at Cowden, Yorkshire, when Brian & Pete appeared on their way back from a successful return trip to Shetlands. Since that date, there haven't been a lot of chances for me to see a Brunnich's Guillemot in the UK. There was the Dec 2005 Brunnich's that hung around for about a 3 weeks stay, but I wasn't considering extreme distance twitches at the time. The next twitchable individual was the well twitched Portland Harbour Brunnich's with better shots here that stuck around for a week or so between Christmas & New Year's Eve 2013. There must have been very few Birders who wanted to see a Brunnich's that didn't have an opportunity to see that one. I was one of the few who didn't see it. Despite being only a one hour drice from my home, I was in the Andaman islands when I heard the news. With another five weeks left on the Indian trip it was clear it wasn't going to stick around.
Andaman Crake: Ample compensation for dipping Brunnich's, Chiriya Tapu, Andamans (27 Dec 2013)
I had resigned myself to a long wait for the next Brunnich's & also having to head up the Northern Isles on a very expensive trip, especially as the Dorset individual was the first mainland record to have been seen on more than one day. An opportunity to see a Brunnich's appeared to arise a bit sooner than expected when one turned up in Orkney in Jan 16: but it wasn't seen the next day. I was about to start job hunting, so with the negative news, I started circulating my CV. No sooner than the CV was on the job sites, then the phone began ringing. Several agencies interested in discussing job opportunities, followed by Dave Gibbs saying the Brunnich's was back again & offering me a lift to Orkney to see it. But when job hunting I need to stay close to the phone & laptop and had to decline the trip. I thought about a trip the following weekend, but Dave was about the last Birder to see it.

Last Sunday afternoon, I had a concerned phone call from Peter Moore (using the alternative meaning for concerned of "it's not a Tick for me, but I know you need it & you haven't got a hope of getting there before work tomorrow"). Did I know about the Anstruther Brunnich's? No I hadn't been checking the pager in the last hour as I was working at home. I quickly checked Anstruther was a small port on the mainland to the North East of Edinburgh, but a quick look out of the window confirmed there wasn't a two seater Harrier jump jet sitting in the field next to my house. With three hours of light left that would have been the only option to get there before another week of work. Monday & Tuesday dragged with regular checks to RBA confirming it was still showing extremely well in the small harbour. By Tuesday afternoon, I had made good inroads into my urgent to do work & could consider asking for a day off at short notice. Fortunately, the boss said yes. The car was already packed in the hope I could head North that evening & it was only a modest 490 miles from the Winchester office until I was pulling into Anstruther harbour about eight the following morning. A quick check to RBA confirmed it had been seen that morning, but I couldn't see anybody looking at it. Twenty minutes later I had checked the inner & outer harbours & also the bay beyond on the South side of the harbour. No sign of the Brunnich's or any Birders. Surely it must have moved out of the harbour, as there should have been other Birders. But despite being a major rarity on it's third morning, there was nobody else there. Finally, one local Birder arrived. He confirmed he had been watching it among the boats in the inner harbour the previous evening. He then headed off towards the harbour mouth which I had already checked. I headed back to the inner harbour where I picked it up swimming across the main channel. It must have been swimming between the boats as I walked past earlier that morning.
Brunnich's Guillemot: Hanging around the boats
After waving to the local Birder to indicate I had seen it, I started to watch the incredibly showy Brunnich's & to get some photos.
Brunnich's Guillemot: It spent most of the first hour asleep between two close boats. Occasionally, paddling to keep it's position between the boats. No wonder I hadn't seen it earlier
Brunnich's Guillemot: Looking more closely it was clear it was in heavy wing moult & seemed to have shed all its longest primaries
Brunnich's Guillemot: More worryingly, it also had traces of oil on its wings
Finally, it woke up, headed out into the main channel within the inner harbour & started to preen.
Brunnich's Guillemot: Showing the chinstrap
It was clear at this point, that not only was there oil on the wings, there was also oil on the breast. I was worried that it was injesting some of the oil & that ultimately that might end make it worse than it already was. Although I didn't see it feed, the local Birder said it had been actively catching small fish in the harbour the previous day.
Brunnich's Guillemot: It looked a very sad individual when it flapped its wings. The oil was quite extensive on the lower breast
Hanging around in the small harbour isn't a typical habitat for this hardy Auk & it reminded me of the Northern Bottled-nosed Whale that hung around off Bournemouth beach in Sep 09. This was another species that typically isn't seen close to land in normal circumstances, but for several days it hung around breaching & performing on the surface. Then one morning it was seen floating motionless in the water having died overnight. So I wasn't surprised to hear the Brunnich's had been found dead a couple of days after I saw it: a sad end for a great looking Auk. Having said that with over half of the UK records being found dead or nearly dead, then perhaps it isn't too suprising that it didn't survive: especially given the oil. It's a shame that there wasn't an attempt to catch it & hand it over to a local rescue centre which have experience of dealing with oiled Auks.
Pink-footed Goose: We are grateful for any Pinkies in Dorset & certainly don't expect to see sights like this 
It was great to see a couple of flocks of Pink-footed Geese fly over: one of 71 & then a smaller flock of 12.
Pink-footed Goose: You can just make out what it is
As I left the numbers of local Birders had swelling into a major twitch: The fourth Birder had just walked out of view of the camera