Since the turn of the month I have moved back up to Carlisle for my final year of University, so I don't intend being back in Hampshire till the christmas break now. Being based in Carlisle during the autumn period is usually quite rewarding putting me in a prime position for twitching any of the Northern or Western Isles. So with this in mind when news of a Swainson's Thrush broke on Barra (Outer Hebrides) I was initially enthusiastic to go. But after speaking to various mates I decided not to go since the species is almost annual nowadays. The following day the bird was still there and apparently showing well, but I had a lecture that I didn't want to miss so the answer was still no. The next thing I know that lecture had been cancelled and I've got five days spare!
At that point I simply decided I wanted to go to fill up my time despite getting the feeling that it was going to be an unsuccessful trip. We left during the early hours of the 4th and caught the ferry from Oban to Castlebay - via Coll and Tiree. The highlights were about a dozen Harbour Porpoise, Black Guillemots and two amazing adult White-tailed Eagles fishing successfully in the Sound of Mull. Though we still had no news of whether the Swainson's was actually still there...
On arrival at 15:00 we dashed to the Northbay Hotel, only to be greeted with a letter addressed to us that the bird had relocated. Interestingly 3 miles to the south to Brevig (coincidentally the 2010 Hermit Thrush did a similar thing), so off we went to Brevig. Once there we found out the Swainson's had only been seen for a matter of seconds in the early afternoon and not again since. Our hearts sunk, this was probably the most vegetated place on the island and knowing how skulky these birds can be; knew it would take something special for us to see it!
Our luck was really in with this one when a ringer then appeared pointing to a bag in his other hand. He had only gone and caught the Swainson's Thrush in a mist net running through one of the adjacent gardens and therefore treated us to close-up in hand views!! After being processed it was released into another sparcely vegetated garden where it simply skulked, before flying to another bush and remained mostly out of view until we left. Meanwhile two Golden Eagles soared overhead. The Swainson's had a fat score of zero so the outcome of this bird is anybodies guess.
We drove non-stop for 10 hours to Holyhead where I teamed up with Fred Fearn, Pete Antrobus and John Gregory. The trip ran surprisingly smoothly; we caught the 02:30 ferry to Dublin and drove to Rossaveal (Co. Galway) in good time ready to catch our connecting ferry to Inishmore at 10:30. Unfortunately news had filtered out the Kingbird had gone. Gutted!! Then things got manic; a Belted Kingfisher was found near Letterfrack and a Myrtle Warbler on the same island the Kingbird was. I hadnt seen either, but knew immediately which bird I was prioritising. We dashed up to Letterfrack but had no idea where the Kingfisher actually was; no maps and no signal we just drove around aimlessly trying to locate likely places without success until one of us managed to get a signal and phoned Alan Lewis; who we knew was watching the bird!! Thankfully we were close and were there watching this amazing beast within five minutes! This was without doubt the best compensation I have ever had from dipping another bird, and I have always wanted to see one since missing the touring 2005 bird!
The week leading up to my birthday was pretty unproductive with casual local birding, and I spent my birthday (12th) marching back and forth on top a quarry in Durham trying to see a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. Another waste of time, but I did see a Locustella sp twice, once inflight, the second moving quickly through the low branches of a young pine but too quick to focus and get a decent view. One that got away; though it was good to see that things were on the move again with small numbers of winter thrushes arriving in off the sea.
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was a bird I thought I'd eventually see on Portland so had been waiting for a close one for quite a few years. Fife Ness was only 2.5 hours away from me in Carlisle so I decided straight away that I'd head up for this bird in the morning (15th). It was an early start - meeting with Mick Frosdick and arriving at Fife Ness before dawn. There were migrants everywhere, prodominantly finches and thrushes; all of which on the move in the clear conditions. Two Yellow-browed Warblers were found around the car park whilst we waited for the sun to get high enough in the sky to light up the rose bushes behind the ruined toilet block. As soon as it had the Olivaceous began to 'tjack' and before long the bird was giving fantastic views. This was another educational bird; olive-grey upperparts, grey legs but the primary projection didn't seem all that short, neither long. White outer feathers to the tail that the bird frequently pumped downwards as it 'tjeck'ed regularly. The bill was long and pointed, yellow-orange lower mandible that was very wide at the base ruling out other similar species! Later that day I headed south back to Southampton to work for a week.