Friday 31 December 1976

The 1970s: Exams, Shetland and Scillies in 1976

1976 started with more views of the King Eider and Surf Scoter at Loch Fleet and an immature Greater Snow Goose at Loch Eye.  The latter was about as good a candidate for a wild bird as one was likely to see in the UK.  We headed south to Caerlaverck but rounding a bend on a narrow snowy road we encountered a car coming in the opposite direction. Neither Andrew nor the other driver was able to stop in time and both cars ended up dented although fortunately both were still drivable.  It put a rather sombre gloss on proceedings that eventually picking an American Golden Plover at Caerlaverock out of a distant loose flock of over 1000 Golden Plover failed to lift.

Back in Cardiff for the early part of the year I visited the usual sites (Kenfig, Slimbridge, Tregaron) as well as a return to the Teign Estuary to see the Lesser Yellowlegs again.  I had an abortive trip to Theale Gravel Pits with Graham Hearl for a Night Heron, seeing it on a second attempt, had a pleasant weekend in East Anglia with Maurice Chown without seeing anything particularly unusual.  A couple of days later I learnt that there was a wintering Black-throated Thrush at Coltishall in Norfolk and I made arrangements to go with Andrew Moon, Richard Bosanquet and Pete Naylor who I met in London.  It was an impressive bird and we made a weekend of it seeing 3 Great Grey Shrikes, a superb Bittern in full view at the edge of a reedbed and at Woburn on the way back my first Lady Amhurst’s Pheasant.  I as home at Easter preparing for m finals but managed to get a ticket to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Hammersmith Odeon, very impressive.  A few days later we heard of a Ross’s Gull at Filey but went and dipped at the weekend.  A Ring-necked Duck near Cambridge was a new bird but little compensation.  Ross’s Gull was elevated to join Pallas’s Leaf Warbler as my most wanted bird.  Back in Cardiff and studying hard I still managed an early May weekend at Portland.  It was quiet, as were stops in the New Forest on the way home but in a field at Pitton, near Salisbury, I spotted 5 Dotterel which turned out to be the first record for Wiltshire since 1955!  A day trip to Dungeness for an Alpine Accentor was less successful, it ad gone, and I then had a solid three weeks of revision and exams, the longest period since I started birding when I didn’t lift a pair of binoculars. 

With exams (Andrew was doing his dental finals too) and various other things plans for a foreign trip never materialised and I caught a train to Aviemore.  I had two nights in the glen more campsite at Loch Morlich before going to Aberdeen and across to Shetland on the St Clare.  From Lerwick it took me over 5 hours to hitch to the top of Unst.  The weather there was really grim with low cloud/mist and poor visibility but I found my way to Saito and saw the albatross again.  I camped nearby and the next morning was superb.  Even better the albatross flew, although I did have to wait several hours for it to do so.  After about three hours it started walking around and stretched its wings.  I thought “this is it” but it returned to its spot for another hour.  It then took four steps and was airborne.  I nearly was too as I automatically leaned forward as it disappeared behind the cliff but fortunately it soon came back around and gave excellent views.  I then had seven nights camping on Fetlar which was great although I’m not sure I added many species after the second day.  I had really gone to escape my degree results and a couple of days after they were due but I got up the courage to walk to the phone box and call home.  It was good news - I’d got an Upper Second which I was hoping for but rather anxious about.  My parents had had my results for two days and been waiting for me to call.  It turned out I’d done better than anyone else in my year – obviously not their finest intake!  Needless to say I walked on air back to my tent.  Birding highlights were Red-necked Phalaropes, two female Snowy Owls and a couple of nights at Storm Petrel burrows although as much as those I remember just missing getting to the shop before it closed on a Saturday and having to last until it opened on Monday morning on a single packet of biscuits!  I left Shetland and spent an excellent evening on Unst watching an Otter for half an hour.  The next morning I hitched back to Lerwick and got the ferry across to Bressay where I camped but thick mist prevented me from going to Noss until the following day.  The seabird colony was as impressive as ever and a superb finish to my visit.  I saw 8 Storm Petrels from the St Clare and a Little Owl north of Newcastle from the train south.
Dipper at Loch Morlich
Ptarmigan on Cairngorm
Dotterel on Cairngorm
female Dotterel
Black-browed Albatross at Hermaness
it could fly ...
... effortlessly
Muckle Fugga, the most northerly of the British Isles
my campsite at Papil Water on Fetlar
distant view of my campsite, the only noisy neighbours were the Red-throated Divers!
stunning birds when seen up close
Arctic Tern on Fetlar, they could be noisy too
Snowy Owl on Fetlar
like a big cat
not appreciated by the Arctic Skuas!
worried their chicks would make a nice snack

Red-necked Phalarope on Fetlar

seabird cliffs at Noss

Kittiwakes and Guillemots on the ledges


they don't just paint their nails!
Black Guillemot on Noss

In early August I went up to Lakenheath with Andrew Moon and Pete Naylor to see the Golden Orioles which we had recently got wind of.  We saw at least 12 in a matchstick plantation by the railway line, 3 Stone Curlews at Weeting and a Red-backed Shrike at Santon Downham.  At Cley we heard there was a Black-winged Pratincole at a sewage farm near Reading.  We got poor views the first evening on adjacent farmland but the farmer was not impressed and drove around chasing off birders with a muck spreader.  We stayed overnight and got better views early the next morning, untroubled by the farmer who thankfully was not an early riser (or had better things to do).  Andrew knew the RSPB warden at Loch Inch and we went up for a week volunteering.  It involved a bit of path building and quite a lot of skiving off seeing Capercallie and Black Grouse at Badan Dubh and Golden Eagle at Strathconnon.  We came back via Norfolk where there was a Greenish Warbler at Holkham and Portland for a Bonelli’s Warbler.  It was easy to see the latter's rump as it had shed its tail while in the hand.

I was home for a few days then we went up for a week at Cley seeing Fan-tailed and another Greenish Warbler at Holme, 10 Wrynecks and an Ortolan on Blakeney Point, Long-tailed Skua past Cley, Red-necked Phalarope at Benacre and Kentish Plover at Minsmere.  We came back via Dungeness where a Dusky Thrush had been claimed but soon gave up on it, continuing on to Birling for a Sardinian Warbler.  We gave up after a five hour wait and had started back to the car when Paul Griggs ran up to let us know it had showed.  I ended up getting a good two second view.  I had a rare weekend in Sussex and another in Norfolk seeing my first Pectoral Sandpiper, a Bluethroat and two Red-backed Shrikes but my ‘free-time’ was coming to an end and I started work as an articled clerk at a firm of accountants in Brighton.  A trip down to Somerset added Whiskered Tern, Red-crested Pochard and White Stork while Church Norton in early October produced three Lesser Spotted woodpeckers and two ring-necked Parakeets. 

Despite having only just started a job I got time off to go to the Isles of Scilly for 10 days in mid October, staying on St Marys with Andrew, Pete Naylor and Richard Bosanquet.  We had a superb time seeing 4 Blackpoll Warblers (one found by Andrew at Watermill and just seen by the two of us), Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 3 Grey-cheeked Thrushes, American Robin (found by Nigel Redman who was staying the month on St Agnes), Greenish, Bonelli’s and Dusky Warblers, a live Nightjar and a dead Nighthawk. We saw a fourth Grey-cheeked Thrush at Porthgwarra and an American Wigeon at Cheddar on the way home.  Another weekend in Norfolk was quiet although I saw my second ever Social Plover in Cambridgeshire on the way home.

I’d left Scillies with a British Life List of 299.  The two birds I most wanted to see in Britain were Ross’s Gull and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler.  News late on Saturday evening of the latter in North Norfolk had us making plans.  I’d missed any chance of getting to Andrew Moon’s in Rickmansworth that evening or early the next morning, the best I could do was to be at Victoria Station just before 07:00.  Andrew was good enough to come into London to pick me up from there and he, Pete Naylor and I set off for Holkham.  It was a very tense drive as we were all too aware that at least half the records of PLW were one day birds.  We arrived in the car park and the first person we saw was Brian Bland.  We hardly dared ask him if it was still there but he told us it was and showing quite well.  We dashed round to the Dell and there it was.  My first view was of it head on and head down and a mass of pale yellow crown strip, supercilium and wing-bars.  A superb bird that was every bit as good as I had imagined it would be.  It was a hyperactive super-sprite, often hovering and giving brilliant views.  It was my 300 bird in Britain.  I was Paul Flint’s 300 bird in Britain that year, a year list record that rather put my 300 in context.  The rest of the year was a bit of an anti-climax, another weekend in East Anglia which produced little and the Glaucous Gull on Brighton seafront.  I finished the year having seen 273 species and thoughts were already on a foreign trip in 1977.

[blogged April 2014]