Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Great Blue rollercoaster

Picture this - the perfect Atlantic midwinter storm as it hits the southwest of England back in early December 2007. On the Friday afternoon, Ash F stumbled upon a first-winter Great Blue Heron from the hide at Lower Moors. And with the bird present until dusk it was time to give it a go. A decent group of birders managed to somehow fly on the next morning, but amazingly - despite horrendous weather - we couldn't locate this bird. As it happened, the wind then strengthened to 80 mph during the day and with this, the flights stopped and we were all stranded til the Monday. To cut a long story short, I had to miss a day of work, eventually fly off on the Monday as well as return empty handed on the Ardea front. So roll on this week...

Tuesday 14th April. My Champions League watching of the two Madrid clubs was quickly curtailed by a call I received from Bob W, informing me that Ash F had been up to his old tricks and had found another Great Blue Heron. Again in Lower Moors, and then on the beach at Old Town, it was pretty rude not to give this bird a go - and with a bit more information and the bird showing til dusk, I was relatively confident for the next morning. With lots of fog forecast, it looked as though the Scillonian would be the only option. And it was...

We all piled onto the Scillonian, all 70 or so of the usual suspects - same faces, just everyone starting to look that bit older given how long it'd been since a massive bird like this had got us all together. The omens were good; positive news right from first light until we lost signal on the Scillonian crossing between Land's End and the islands. However, despite the fact the bird had remained on Old Town beach all morning, there'd been no sign since 11am when it apparently just headed out of view. Arriving at just after midday, we all had about 4 hours on the island before having to get the boat back - so people starting spreading out. I headed around Peninis, seeing the odd Swallow in the process but not too much else, while others headed out in all directions. It took a couple of hours, but Andy H and Vicky T had the good fortune to relocate the bird; in a weedy field at Holy Vale. A bit of excitement for those nearby, and even before I'd arrived with the majority of others, the bird had been spooked and headed off frustrating pretty much everyone. And on this note, with a requirement to be back in London the next day, I left empty handed despite knowing the bird probably hadn't moved too far.

Thursday came and nearly went with no sign of the heron, despite a load of birders having stayed on and scoured the islands. It wasn't until a Bryher local had posted a photo on Facebook that everyone realised the Great Blue Heron had presumably spent the day on there without being detected. So, car back in action and team assembled, it was back down the M3, A303 and A30 overnight once again. Along with Josh J, James S and Sam V it was back on the Scillonian (where it was good to catch up with Ian E from my 'back in the day' Cheshire times and we had a mini fall of phylloscs) and across to Scilly again. News was again positive, as Billy S had slept over on Bryher so that he could be there at first light, so by 6.30am the heron was again on Big Pool. It was a bit nervous, but with the Scillonian having docked by midday, the 30 or so birders who had come back piled onto one of the inter island boats and headed towards Bryher. The tide was still really low, meaning we had to wait a bit to get through the channel, but once done it was a quick stroll over to the other side of the island where finally it was possible to clap eyes on this: -

1st-winter Great Blue Heron Bryher, Scilly 17th April 2015
Utterly incredible how much of a pain this massive (in all senses of the word) species had been and genuinely good to see, as well as a relief. Having an hour and a bit to watch the bird on Big Pool, it was good to see it catching a small fish despite the relatively poor weather. Plus the opportunity to look at its large size, off white thighs, reddish epaulets and finely streaked neck - add to this a concave looking bill and blotches of reddish/mauve on the next sides too.  I'm not too sure how long it'll stay on Scilly, but with over 35 records from the Azores, it's possible there will be the odd one or two more Great Blue Herons turning up in Britain in the future. Though given that this is only the second, despite everyone's awareness to look for this species, it's always going to be a bit of a mega rarity.

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