Wednesday 31 December 1975

The 1970s: Camargue, Shetland and Scillies in 1975

More unreliable memories but I'd now got a camera so some photos too.

1975 started with a day trip to Portland and visits to the usual Glamorgan sites.  I went home for a weekend in early February and saw 3 Rough-legged Buzzards at Windover Hill but failed to find the Isabelline Shrike at Pagham.  I was finally successful in seeing a Ring-billed Gull at Blackpill (on my third attempt).  Having Rob Hume and Keith Vinicombe there to point it out certainly helped!  I had better luck with the Isabelline Shrike too on my next trip home, getting good views by the Long Pool at Pagham in March.

Maurice Chown took Hadyn Jones, Dave Pitman and me up to the Solway, Cairngorms and Loch Fleet at Easter.  Geese on the Solway were excellent, but a Black Grouse lek at Holm of Dalquharn was even better – as we approached the site we saw a lone male lekking to itself, presumably not an alpha male.  The lek proper was about a mile further on where eleven males were performing although by the time we arrived they were starting to break up.  We still witnessed some rather comical action between the remaining birds, warily facing each other with tails fanned like rather timid boxers.  We continued via Murray’s Monument (where we saw Golden Eagle) to the Cairgorms and saw a male Capercallie in Rothiemurchus, a welcome change in fortune after drawing a blank the previous summer. If the Solway and Cairngorms had been good then Loch Fleet was absolutely brilliant.  We encountered a flock of 1500 Long-tailed Duck, an unbelievable sight as the most I’d seen together before was just 2!  A flock of 1000+ Eider was also impressive especially as it contained 3 male King Eiders.  We had really excellent views of one of them and it was stunning.  There was also a large raft of scoter present, further out and requiring careful scrutiny through a telescope but amongst 1000+ Commons and 200+ Velvets I eventually managed to pick out both the male Surfs that were present, although views left room for improvement.  As well as the sea-duck we saw 4 Glaucous Gulls - all in all it was amazing winter birding.
The Grampians from the A9
Cairngorm campsite
Dave, Maurice & Hadyn setting up camp near Loch Fleet.  Fortunately the snow was restricted to the highlands 
On 6 April 1975 I was invited on a twitch to the village of Haresfield in Gloucestershire to see a Slate-coloured Junco, my first American passerine in Britain.  A nice bird even if the location hinted at ship assistance.  Back home for a weekend I saw a wintering Yellow-browed Warbler at West Dean in Friston Forest, my first unusual phylloscopus warbler.  Two weeks later we went down to Portland to look for a male Subalpine Warbler.  It was being seen between the Observatory garden and the Coastguards, but I was always one step behind it.  After chasing backwards and forwards for a couple of hours I decided to wait outside the Coastguards and eventually (about four hours after starting my search) I finally saw it there.  It gave excellent views and was on view for about 45 minutes, a stunning bird.  I saw it again later that day and we also saw a Red-spotted Bluethroat in Dorset on the way back to Cardiff.   We had planned to go to Portland the following weekend too and saw the Subalpine Warbler again but the views didn't match my first.  Yes had been playing in Cardiff that weekend, something I was disappointed to have missed as they were one of my favourite bands, but I caught up with them during the week at the Colston Hall in Bristol.  It was a brilliant set that more than made up for having to spend most of the night on Bristol Temple Meads Station waiting for the first train back.  I returned home for a weekend in May seeing a male Cirl Bunting at Beachy. 

The next weekend I set off on a two week VW minibus trip to the Camargue & Pyrenees with Geoff Bond, Richard Bosanquet, Pete Campbell, Ken Dummigan, Chris Murphy, Pete Naylor and Nigel Redman.  Richard, Pete N and Nigel (who did most of organisation and driving, and we did drive some long distances) had been on the Majorca trip the previous autumn.  The others were friends of Nigel’s based around Liverpool – an excellent crowd.  Highlights in the Camargue were the colourful Bee-eaters with their liquid ‘preep’ calls which were often to be seen perched on telephone wires over sandy banks where they might nest.  On two days we saw over 50.  We saw two groups of three White-winged Black Terns, stunning in summer plumage, the last with Black and Whiskered Terns too.  North of the Camargue I had excellent views of a singing male Ortolan Bunting which far outweighed expectations and I was quite taken by a male Lesser Kestrel that cruised past me at eye-level.  The flamingos might have looked a bit artificial on the lagoons but were superb in flight.  Not everything was easy and seeing Collared Pratincoles took a couple of attempts, on our first we bracketed the site by half a mile on each side without finding them.  More precise directions the next time did the trick.  We heard Scops Owls calling from around the campsite on six evenings before a final determined effort tracked one down – the early eater catches the Scops. 
Camargue campsite, Scops time approaching
Large Peacock Moth and my thumb
even more bizarre in flight
Black-winged Stilt
Night Heron
Collared Pratincole, excellent views on our second attempt

Les Baux
La Caume
We left the Camargue after a week and headed via Carcassone (Rock Sparrow) to Gavarnie in the Pyrenees where we camped for four nights. We saw a selection of good birds – Lammergeyer, Rock Thrush, Snow Finch - but I was particularly keen to see Wallcreeper. On our third day I ventured up one side of the D’Ossoue Valley which looked a likely spot for Wallcreepers. I laid on my back scanning the cliffs above me, more in hope than expectation. After some time, and before dozing off!, I saw a flash of red as a bird flew in and landed on the rock above me. I turned over and got by binoculars on it just in time to see another flash of red as it flew off. Very frustrating. I returned to tell the others that I’d probably seen a Wallcreeper and we all climbed back up to where I’d been. I continued higher up but saw nothing while some of the others saw two fly over from the original place. Typical. We returned the next day and in four hours of watching I had two views, the first was of a small bird with very rounded wings flapping not unlike a large butterfly which flew over us and landed on the rock face above and disappeared into a small hole. I got my telescope focussed on the hole and when it emerged I was able to get reasonable views as it crept around the rock face a bit before flying off.   It was distant even through a telescope but its down-curved bill and white spots on the primaries were readily seen. Half an hour later another bird flew directly over us heading in the same general direction. Up to then Wallcreeper had been an obsession bird and although I was looking forward to getting better views it was an encounter that would linger in my memory. The length of the drive home was, unfortunately, something else that lingered in the memory but it was worth it as I had seen 191 species of which 48 were new and the two weeks cost me just £90! 

Carcassone, a good site for Rock Sparrow
Alpine Chough in the Pyrenees
Ken Dummigan and Pete Naylor in the Heas Valley
D'Ossoue Valley and likely looking cliffs for Wallcreeper
Pete Campbell, Geoff Bond, Nigel Redman and Chris Murphy at the foot of the cliffs
further up the road to Port Gavarnie
Port de Gavarnie

the end of the road for our transport

Back in Cardiff I was told of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker’s nest in Lisvane which I visited a couple of times seeing both parents and two young.  The latter must have been hungry, despite the adults visiting every 5 minutes or so, as they were audible 50m away.  We had a successful trip to Eckington Bridge seeing Marsh Warbler and a Ring-necked Parakeet.  With Bee-eaters fresh in my mind from the Camargue I first thought the parakeet was going to be one and was quite disappointed when I realised that it wasn’t.  I visited the New Forest on the train but took a tent this time and got a much better night’s sleep there than the previous year, one lesson learned!  I got a lift with Peter Lansdown, the most knowledgeable birder and biggest twitcher in South Wales, to see a White-tailed Plover at Little Packington.  My first First for Britain and a very striking and elegant bird.  We saw it resting on its tarsi and following letters in British Birds a couple of years later on similar subjects I penned my first.  It was published in March 1978 (Brit. Birds 71:128). “…When resting in this way, the White-tailed Plover’s tarsi and toes stretched in front of it to about the level of the tip of its bill and its body was kept far enough off the ground by its fibulae for it not to look unusual”.  Ken Dummigan, from the Camargue trip, had a note in the same issue (Sabine’s Gull head pattern) as did the late, greatly missed Peter Grant (Head pattern of Icterine and Melodious Warbler) while the main paper was on Paddyfield Warbler identification by Dave Flumm and Nick Lord, two exceptional birders based in Brighton at the time.  They rather put my White-tailed Plover note in its place!
from Cottridge & Vinicombe (1996) Rare Birds in Britain & Ireland: A Photographic Record
I returned to Shetland in late July with Maurice Chown and Hadyn Jones, stopping briefly and seeing Crested Tits and Ptarmigan in the Cairngorms on the way.  We had a day on Noss where the seabirds were as impressive as on my previous visit although the skuas were less aggressive, perhaps because it was later in the season and their young were older and less vulnerable or maybe I knew what to expect? 
brilliantly camouflaged Ptarmigan on Cairngorm
Fulmar chick on Noss
Noup of Noss seabird city
they were unbelievably impressive but quite smelly
note Puffins in the foreground
hard to imagine a more comical bird
we must have seen at least 10,000 Puffins on Noss
We went up to Hermaness which had almost as many seabirds but spread over a bigger area. It also had the added attraction of Albert Ross, the lonely Black-browed Albatross that had taken up residence in the Gannet colony at the Saito outcrop. Other birders were there when we arrived and pointed it out to us – it was almost directly below us but we had to get close to the edge to see it. It just sat there on the edge of the Gannet colony hardly moving, looking like a large Greater Black-backed Gull with enormous pink feet. We returned the next day hoping it might fly but again it just sat there. The best action we had was when a nearby Gannet tried to prod it with its beak. Albert engaged in a bit of beak wrestling which lasted the two seconds it took to wrench the Gannet off the cliff. 

Great Skua  at Hermaness keeping an eye on me ...
who was showing too much interest in their offspring and its greying hairstyle
Puffins were very common at Hermaness too
with easily another 10,000+ seen
Gannet at Hermaness
Saito outcrop and Black-browed Albatross given away by its enormous pink feet
the Gannets gave Albert Ross a wide berth as he was an expert beak-wrestler.  He didn't feel like flying though.
We spent four days on Fetlar where the Snowy Owl pair had four large youngsters. They were only a few days off flying and one day we saw them being ringed although we were only allowed to watch from a distance. The largest would stand on a hummock and jump up and down flapping its wings like an early flying machine. Very comical. On one occasion the female came in with a rabbit while on another it drank from a stream like a big cat. Red-necked Phalaropes on Loch Funzie were excellent again and one walked up to within three inches of my foot and would probably have come closer if my trouser leg had not flapped and disturbed it (and they were not excessively flared).

Red-throated Diver on Fetlar
Red-necked Phalarope on Fetlar, they were brilliant

An August Bank Holiday trip to East Anglia produced 6 Spoonbills and a Red-necked Phalarope at Minsmere but Norfolk was quiet.  I returned the following weekend seeing Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Walberswick, Spotted Crake (the most two dimensional bird I’d ever seen) at Cley and Red-breasted Flycatcher, an Ortolan and 5 Lapland Butings on Blakeney Point.  Five new birds in a day, plus Ruddy Shelduck.  A decent seawatch the next morning from Cley produced 3 Sooty Shearwaters, 4 Pomarine, 50 Arctic and 10 Great Skuas.  THe next weekend I passed up the offer of a lift from London for a Greater Yellowlegs at Great Yarmouth - I was still in Cardiff and it didn’t seem worth the train fare for a day trip (a decision I regretted for years).  A couple of trips to Portland were quiet although a Willow Tit in the net caused some excitement for the Radipole ringers as it was only their second ever record.  We would have preferred to have seen the Aquatic Warbler they had trapped and released before we arrived.

Graham Hearl booked a chalet on St Agnes for the last week of September and I joined him, Richard Bosanquet, Maurice Chown, Hadyn Jones, Pete Naylor and Nigel Redman.  It was nice to return to the Scillies as a birder.   We found an Arctic Warbler by Gugh Bar which we saw well but it soon moved on.  Later we refound what we assumed was it in the Parsonage where it was subsequently seen by most birders on the islands.  The next day however another Arctic Warbler was found at Covean and it seems likely this was the original bird we’d seen nearby.  Both remained for several days but I only saw the bird at Covean once.  Graham had booked the last week of September to avoid the crowds and it suited me too being before term started.  Our week was enjoyable but other than the Arctic Warblers a little quiet, as expected being early, but that was all soon to change when the first of several Atlantic lows hit and David Hunt found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on Tresco, a first for Britain! 

On Saturday 27 September, despite gales, we got off St Agnes and on to St Marys. We were all due to leave the Scillies that day but the Scillonian sailing had been cancelled and no helicopters were flying, also there was a certain sapsucker we wanted to see.  Nigel, Pete and I managed to get across to Tresco but the others didn’t join us as it was uncertain when we'd be able to get back.  It was a very rough crossing with waves breaking right over the boat but we made it and we soon found the sapsucker which we watched until dark.  We were stuck on Tresco so adjourned to the pub feeling quite pleased with ourselves.  This was short lived when a phone call to St Mary’s revealed that a Black & White Warbler had been found on the Garrison that evening and the rest of our group had seen it.  We had an anxious night in a barn and an even more anxious journey back to St Marys but the warbler was on view when we arrived.  We ran up and apparently disturbed it just as David Hunt was about to get his best ever picture, at least that was his story.  We sensibly kept a low profile but I had to smile as the incident, suitably embellished, was mentioned in all his subsequent slide shows.  Luckily he didn't know me then, he would have done a year or two later.  The warbler was absolutely brilliant but it didn’t end there.  Graham, Maurice and Richard had gone to Tresco for the sapsucker, which they had seen, and later bumped into Roy Alderton who had found an immature male Scarlet Tanager which they just had time to see before getting the boat back.  We were playing catch-up again!  We had a night in a church and the next morning we returned to Tresco and after an anxious hour and a half of searching found the tanager which I described as a cross between a female Golden Oriole and a female Crossbill.  The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was performing again and we finished the day at the Black & White Warbler - three American land birds in a day. We spent the night with many other stranded visitors in the Town Hall but fortunately transport was back to normal the next day.  After seeing the Black & White Warbler for a final time we left the Scillies, calling in at Langton Herring on the way back to see a summer plumaged Sociable Plover near the Moonfleet Hotel.  I’d seen 4 superb new birds in as many days but my British List was still only 265!
Dotterel on St Mary's Airfield 

Scarlet Tanager on Tresco, taken by David Hunt.  From Mitchell & Young (1997) Rare Birds of Britain and Europe
Peter Lansdown found a female American Wigeon at Kenfig and I went down one day during the week and had excellent views of it.  A very subtle bird and a very good find that I would have overlooked.  I went with Graham Hearl to Ynys-hir to see a Spotted Sandpiper found by Steve Madge while a minibus trip to Norfolk in early November added a superb, pink-flushed Lesser Grey Shrike and my first ever Waxwing.  The later was a bird I had eagerly awaited seeing and the only disappointment was that it didn’t stay around for longer – it was perched bolt upright on a TV aerial behaving like a flycatcher before suddenly disappearing.  Later in the month we saw the Red-breasted Goose at Farlington.  On the first attempt the fog came in soon after we arrived and only cleared mid-afternoon when it started raining heavily.  We saw the bird distantly and tried again the next morning.  It was still raining but it was much better, the tide was in and at one stage it was the closest bird on the water.  A few days later Graham had a call to make in Devon, he was working as a company rep, and asked if I’d like to join him in trying for a wintering Lesser Yellowlegs.  I did and we found the bird on the Teign Estuary without too much difficulty.  A week later I saw a flock of 300 Bramblings near Cardiff, looking exceptionally colourful in brilliant sunlight.  I returned to Farlington with my dad before Christmas seeing the Red-breasted Goose again and 6 roosting Long-eared Owls, another most wanted bird for me.  Although the owls appeared to be asleep their heads had a way of following me as I walked around them.  While watching them a Short-eared Owl flew past over the marsh, 7 owls in a minute!
Two days after Christmas Andrew Moon drove Pete Naylor, Nigel Redman and me up to the Cairngorms and Loch Fleet.  I was rather anxious about the journey up having just got over a bout of diarrhoea but kaolin and morphine did the trick We started at Cairngorm where we saw Ptarmigan in camouflaged winter plumage.  That was all very well when there was snow on the mountains but when we looked there was none and they were rather easy to spot.  We saw six birds, all white with black edges to the tail and a small black eye.  One was a male with red combs.  Andrew drove on to Rothiemurchus where we saw two Capercallie and Loch Fleet where duck numbers were lower than they had been when I’d visited at Easter but still impressive and more time in the area gave us time to see divers, birds of prey and a Spoonbill.  We saw single male King Eider and Surf Scoter, the former giving excellent views but the later was rather poor.  This visit we saw 3 adult Glaucous Gulls, at Easter I’d seen 4 first-winters.
The same Loch Fleet campsite.  No escaping from the snow here despite none in the Cairngorms, in complete contrast to my Easter visit

[blogged April 2014]