Got those Whalsay blues

When I was a keen young birder, on the cusp of leaving school and heading off to university, I spent a week in October on the Isles of Scilly. It was a taste of freedom to come. It was also the beginning of a love affair with islands that was to shape my life. There was something incredibly right about being in an island setting, with sea boundaries all around me. That feeling of having found my place was ill-formed, then, but what I could say for certain straight away was that I loved birding on islands. The potential for the next bird to be something extraordinary, something other, something from hundreds or thousands of miles away – that was thrilling, a sense of anticipation like a drug in my system.

Whilst on Scilly that year, I saw some good birds, birds from the USA I had only dreamed of hitherto. As was the way, back then, in the evenings in the Porthcressa photographers would have tables laid out with 6×4 glossy photos of the rarities seen on the island that day or week. I would carefully choose the best, part with a couple of pounds, and there was a memory to stick in my birding journal alongside my notes. Sometimes there would be a table laid out with books for sale too… and I was drawn to one book like a moth to a candle flame.

Fair Isle’s Garden Birds, written and illustrated by John Holloway, described the author’s six years of life on Fair Isle, at Shetland’s southernmost extremity. The book was packed with accounts of amazing birds. I knew my next island destination, the following year, had to be Fair Isle, to stay at the world-famous bird observatory.

There were certain species, amongst the constellation of stars John Holloway described and painted, that had a mythical status amongst birders at the time. One in particular grabbed me like no other – Red-flanked Bluetail had it all going on… Not only was it achingly rare – at the time, a mere dozen birds had been recorded in Britain – but it was also strikingly beautiful, a compact chat that, in first-year birds, had sullied white underparts and mink upperparts offset by pale apricot flanks, a cream eye-ring, and a cerulean blue tail. Like pretty much every birder of the day, I wanted to see one very badly indeed.

I stayed on Fair Isle in 1992 and, while I didn’t see a Red-flanked Bluetail, the birding on the famous island, and the welcome there and in Shetland as a whole, made a powerful impression upon me. This, I knew, was where I wanted to be, one day, as soon as possible. Having said that, in 1993 I decided to venture for a week on North Ronaldsay, Orkney’s answer to Fair Isle. North Ron had had a brilliant autumn in 1992, and it had caught my attention. Perhaps I would enjoy similar good fortune?

My timing was dreadful. North Ronaldsay was stubbornly quiet, while Fair Isle was consistently firing on all cylinders where birds were concerned. Bad enough that I could see Fair Isle on the near, northern horizon… worse still when news broke of a Red-flanked Bluetail on there on 16th September. We were disconsolate on North Ron, but determined too. A bluetail had missed us by a few miles, but was almost within touching distance. Someone, I forget who, though it may have been North Ronaldsay’s resident rarity-finding god, Martin Gray, got in touch with an Orcadian fishing boat – for the sum of £50 a head, they would take us north to Fair Isle.

We needed no bidding, and piled onto the small open vessel. It would be touch and go if we’d get to Fair Isle before dark, so we would spend the night at the Obs and then head back to North Ron later the following day, hopefully a Red-flanked Bluetail the richer. That was the plan. In the event, we arrived just after dark, clambering ashore on a still, cold, and ominously clear night.

The following morning found us, having spent the evening in the company of euphoric birders who had seen their Red-flanked Bluetail, staring into an empty, frosty garden. The bird had either continued its wayward migration, or died overnight in the cold. One way or another, we had dipped, or missed the bird.

Some weeks later, back in Kent at university, frankly incredible news broke late in the afternoon of 30th October. A Red-flanked Bluetail had been found in the depths of Winspit Valley on the Dorset coast. Two of us piled into a car, drove to London, gathered more passengers, and headed to Dorset, arriving at Winspit in the dead of night. I slept outside the car, stretched out in a sleeping bag pressed against the tyres. My sleep was fitful, interrupted by the periodic arrival of more vehicles throughout the small hours. A nation’s keenest birders wanted a Red-flanked Bluetail just as badly as I did. Gravel pattered against the shell of the sleeping bag as cars slewed to a halt close around me.

Perhaps the less said about the following morning, the better. Viewing conditions in the confines of the valley weren’t ideal, let alone for several hundred jostling birders trying to catch a glimpse of a small, elusive bird. I saw my first Red-flanked Bluetail, but it wasn’t how I had dared to hope the experience might be. The euphoria was tempered by my island yearnings.

Years later, I moved to Shetland for good, to a small croft on the north-eastern extremity of the island of Whalsay. The croft had some pedigree where birds were concerned. Britain’s first Collared Flycatcher had been shot there on 11th May 1947, while later that same year what was, at the time, believed to be Britain’s first Red-flanked Bluetail was also shot, nearby, on 7th October (an earlier record, from Lincolnshire in 1903, subsequently stole Whalsay’s laurels).

I couldn’t wait to see what I might find for myself and, just a few years later, the unthinkable happened – I walked to the byre late one evening in October to shut away my hens for the night, and found myself staring eye to eye with Whalsay’s second, and Britain’s 40th, Red-flanked Bluetail. They had, after the Fair Isle and Winspit birds of 1993, started to be found in Britain a little more often – but were still pretty rare. This, this was how I had always dared to dream my Red-flanked Bluetail would be. Just me and the bird, and a few mere yards from my back door.

Since then, I’ve seen two more on Whalsay – they have become significantly more regular in Britain, annual scarce arrivals each autumn – but they’ve not lost their lustre. Any day with a Red-flanked Bluetail in it is a Good Day.

Yesterday, by any standards, was a very good day indeed. Resident Whalsay birder John Lowrie Irvine found a Red-flanked Bluetail a couple of hundred yards from my home early in the morning. By the evening, when I’d finally had a chance to see the bird for myself, it was the third species of bird I’d bumped into in the surrounding area with ‘blue’ in its English name – coming hot on the heels of a nearby Bluethroat, and two roving Blue Tits.

Remarkably, the latter were the rarest birds of all. Rarer, in a Whalsay context for me, than hitherto dream bird Red-flanked Bluetail. These were my first Blue Tits at my end of Whalsay… They’re not resident in Shetland, and are seen only infrequently in Shetland as a whole, and certainly not often on Whalsay.

Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. That’s a little harsh, but it’s true that I didn’t spare the Blue Tits in my southern English garden more than a passing glance when my dreams were consumed with Red-flanked Bluetails. It was good, yesterday, to look at them afresh, and appreciate them anew – they really are spectacularly good-looking creatures, and aesthetically blow even a Red-flanked Bluetail clean out of the water.

A friend told me how he saw them afresh after returning from his first birding trip to South America – a continent where colourful passerine birds are de rigeur, rather than the exception to the norm. We can feel blessed to have them as a common breeding British bird and, while the two I saw yesterday probably hatched in Finland or Sweden, I feel blessed to have finally seen them in my corner of Shetland.

And the bluetail? Yes, still brilliant, and still giving that massive adrenaline rush…

Postscript – the world-famous Fair Isle Bird Observatory was tragically destroyed by fire in early 2019. The Trust that operates the bird observatory is currently fund-raising to help to rebuild the facility to be better than ever before. The observatory is the beating heart of the island, and when it’s rebuilt I would urge readers to go and stay there, whether it’s to see firsthand the hard work the staff undertake monitoring breeding bird populations or migrating bird numbers, or in the hope of bumping into a rare bird or two… maybe even a Red-flanked Bluetail of your own…

So, if you’ve ever enjoyed a bluetail, or dare to dream about seeing a bird that’s captured your imagination, please consider making a donation towards the rebuild costs. Every little will make a huge difference. Thank you.

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3 Responses to Got those Whalsay blues

  1. Paddy Tobin says:

    Oh, the excitement of the chase! I was friendly with a birder (and netter and ringer) when I was a young lad and caught the enthusiasm and began to imagine great rarities at every lift of the binoculars. I remember one memorable rant from him after I spotted another rarity, in my imagination. It ran along the lines of “unless you can read its f……ng birth cert sticking out of its f….ng ar….ole then its a f…ng sparrow or a f….ng tit”

    • Jon Dunn says:

      Birders really are a breed apart, Paddy. And there are more subspecies of them than there are iterations of Early Marsh Orchid… 😉

      • Paddy Tobin says:

        We might address similar comments to those who split and subsplit the many variants of the Early Marsh Orchid and others!

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