Chance is important for finding very rare birds

In spring 2014, an old friend Tony Marr asked me to come to Port of Ness to open the new bird hide at Loch Stiapavat at the north end of the island of Lewis in the Western Isles. Tony and I both started birding on the south coast – he is Sussex and me in Hampshire.  He now lives at Cley in North Norfolk but to get some peace when birding he chose to buy a cottage at Port of Ness. There he can birdwatch every day and when he finds rare birds he can watch them without a large gathering of twitchers. I said I’d come back in the autumn and have a few days looking for rare birds with him.

Recently hurricane Joaquin was heading for Scotland from America and I thought that might be worth watching, but it veered off to Portugal. Nevertheless on Sunday I set off on the ferry to Stornoway for two days of birding with Tony. Yesterday was a quiet day – barnacle geese coming in off the sea, a few blackcaps and then great views of sea eagles at Uig in the afternoon, and a glorious sunset at the Callanish stones.

Today, we were out early again with a most beautiful clear sunny morning with all the mountains of Wester Ross and Sutherland showing clearly fifty miles over the Minch.  Tony is a dedicated ‘local patch’ birder – nothing new at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse but a lovely young merlin mobbing a hen harrier. We checked various gardens for migrants but drew a blank, and a careful search of a big flock of golden plovers found no stray American waders. After a visit to the bird hide it was lunch time at his house.

Tony and I have so many old mutual friends that our lunch became extended with tales of old times and favourite stories. Suddenly it’s 2pm and we’re here to bird not talk, so we get our bins and coats and head out again. First stop is next door’s excellent wooded garden and ten minutes later we are watching a Wilson’s Warbler. A small beautiful North American warbler, brilliant yellow with a tiny black crown. The briefest of views before it dives back into the little wood. Twenty-five minutes later we get another good but brief view to confirm our identification.  This is a mega-rarity, being the first ever identified in Scotland, second for Britain and third for Britain and Ireland. There was also a yellow-browed warbler in the garden, all the way from Siberia.

Of course it is Tony’s dedication in birding every day during the migration seasons at the Butt of Lewis which gives him the excitement of finding rare birds and witnessing the annual migrations. But it’s also chance. If we had not regaled each other with stories of old friends we might have visited the garden ten minutes earlier and missed the warbler, and if we had talked too long we might have missed it as well. And then of course you need to be able to identify species you’ve never seen before.

Tomorrow I go home after a brief but brilliant birding trip, with the icing on the cake being a magical Wilson’s Warbler all the way from the States. Great fun with great company. In the morning Tony’s day will be taken up with hosting birders from around the UK keen to see a new bird for their Scottish and  British life lists. I hope it’s still here.