Thursday 2 June 2016

North Uist and back

If you were to ask most birders what the likelihood of them seeing a live Black-billed Cuckoo in the British Isles was, it's highly likely that the vast majority would have rated the probability somewhere between "microscopic" and "nil" before last Sunday.

Black-billed Cuckoo, a bird that has only appeared once in Britain in a quarter of a century, has a reputation for arriving on this side of the Atlantic in poor health (many have been dead or dying) and rarely lingers for more than a day, is notorious for being among the most difficult species to catch up with on our shores. Even in the heydays of the 80s there are countless tales of birders arriving a day too late to see one, or even stuck on the wrong island while down on Scilly. This, combined with their apparent decline in the States and the clear downturn in occurrences on this side of the Atlantic, created a dire scenario - it seemed any occurrence of the species had become almost impossible to come by, let alone a remotely twitchable individual. Then came the faint glimmer of hope: records from Brittany, France, in November 2013 and North Ronaldsay in October 2014 hinted that, one day, British birders might be afforded another opportunity to see what ranks as one of the most enigmatic of all Nearctic landbird vagrants recorded in Europe.

I spent last week in Finland. It was a fantastic six-day trip - beautiful scenery, brilliant wildlife and great weather. The only blemish on a perfect - if largely sleepless - week was that little more than an hour after our arrival in Helsinki on Sunday 22nd, Chris Batty had phoned Dan to tell us that a Black-billed Cuckoo had been found on North Uist. Initially we tried to dismiss the report - a Coccyzus in May?! It surely had to be rubbish! It wasn't. Dan was beside himself; even the failed twitcher, yours truly, couldn't help but feel gripped.

The week slipped by and, day by day, we were informed of the cuckoo's continued presence. It showed no signs of poor health, like so many of its predecessors, and by Wednesday the first waves of cautious optimism were beginning to flow through our veins. By the time we flew back on Friday, a plan was in place - we'd land at Heathrow, head back to mine in West London and hit the road north with the aim of getting on the Saturday afternoon sailing of the Uig-Lochmaddy ferry.

The drive was one of the worst I've done for a long time. A chronic lack of sleep in Finland made it a battle. By the time we reached Glasdrum Woods, north of Oban, we'd been travelling constantly for the best part of 18 hours without rest. But with these sort of things, you just have to grit your teeth and keep going - the last remotely twitchable Black-billed was in October 1990. I was nine months old, Dan two months and both James and Liam, who made up the rest of the team, were still some way off being born.

It was a beautiful morning in Argyll and it was no surprise to see that Glasdrum's Chequered Skippers were out enjoying the already-warm sunshine at 7 am. At least 15 were seen, some of which hadn't yet warmed up enough and were affording decent photo opportunities. Also there were plenty of Small Pearl-bordered and a single Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

Chequered Skippers, Glasdrum Woods, Argyll, 28 May 2016

Shortly after leaving Glasdrum our nerves were transformed to exaltation as Dan received a text message from Adam Archer saying something along the lines of "f**king get in!" Evidently the cuckoo was still around, now all we had to do was get there ...

Skye proved packed with eagles: we had an adult Golden south of Portree, 3cy White-tailed just north-west of there and then three Golden and two White-tailed around Uig. The ferry crossing produced a couple of Arctic Skuas, a Bonxie and a breeding-plumaged Great Northern Diver plus some extremely distant Bottlenose Dolphins.

Dan barged his way to the front of the hire car queue and we were soon on our way west from Lochmaddy. Fifteen minutes later and the search was on. More and more people arrived and fanned out. It was a particularly warm afternoon - far too toasty for the jeans, coat and boots I was in. For some time it was just the usual displaying waders and a singing Common Cuckoo that kept us entertained.

An hour or so in to the search and suddenly, some distance from where we were stood, there were the tell-tale signs that something exciting was happening: birders waving, starting to run. We jumped straight in the car and bombed down to gardens near Loch Sandary. The crowd grew near, the car was ditched. Seconds later there it was, poking its fantastic head out of a Christmas tree. The bird we all hoped - but dared not believe - we might one day see.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Paible, North Uist, 28 May 2016

It proved quite mobile for the next hour but afforded great views for much of that time. It was, however, pretty unobtrusive for long periods as it sat motionless in bushes. It could easily go missing without large numbers of observers looking and it's no wonder that there'd been no sign for much of the previous day.

After having had our fill of the cuckoo, we mooched off for a drive around North Uist and Benbecula. It was a glorious evening and waders were displaying all around: Dunlin, Common Snipe, Redshank ... and eventually our target, Red-necked Phalarope; a cracking pair.

Rather than head back for the cuckoo (which apparently showed beautifully at around 8 pm) we decided to return to Lochmaddy. We wanted to watch the Champions League final and so went to the Lochmaddy Hotel, but were given the cold shoulder ("we're too busy", said the waitress). This was a fortunate turn of events as we ended up eating at the nearby Hamersay House, where the food was excellent and the place generally far superior.

Sunday was spent sleeping and mooching around the cuckoo site (we didn't see it) before checking a few gardens on the south side of the island. Nothing interesting, but another pleasant day and a calm return crossing on the ferry. The journey back south from Uig proved tedious due to an hour-long tailback near Loch Lomond; it wasn't until after midnight that we reached Dan's in Staffordshire. Not that it mattered much after such a successful 48 hours - Outer Hebrides twitches are always among the most enjoyable, not least because of the wonderful scenery on offer both en route and on arrival. Here's to the next one!

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