Thursday, 24 May 2018

One hard earned Alpine Swift

Ted and I made our annual pilgrimage to Skomer between the 17th- 20th May to count and map the LBB’s (Lesser Black-backed Gulls), something I have done for many years now, and Ted for the last five.

Mike and Ted Wallen (front left and right respectively)
On the journey down Ted and I spoke again about how amazing it would be to see a certain bird at The Garland Stone, a conversation we have had a few times over the last few years, knowing it was just a dream ………….
The first task of the day however was to move 3 tonnes of sand/gravel up the steps, but with incredible staff on the island, Dale sailing and volunteers from elsewhere, somehow we managed, although some of us were a little worse for wear by the end of it!

140 'innocent' looking bags of grit. Believe you me they weren't that innocent when we were getting them up the steps 
We were then greeted by the islands wonderful wardens - Ed and Bee and more wonderful staff, assistants, volunteers, researchers, all making Skomer such a special place.
Soon we were onto the counting- this involves covering the whole island and counting LBB’s on nests, or birds about to nest, not gulls just standing around (as the photo). These are called the eye-counts, then later more accurate counts are carried out in certain colonies to establish the population of the whole island. The LBB’s on Skomer are of the race ‘graellsii’, which is in decline and of conservation concern.
Lesser Black-backed Gull 'just standing'

After a couple of hours Ted found a really good bird, whilst I was counting he did a quick sea watch and found a Pomarine Skua complete with spoons which I watched through my bins.
As we moved around it was very obvious that the island’s seabirds were in full swing, with first eggs being laid amongst the auks, gull chicks hatching and Kittiwakes nest building. Many of the latter visiting Moorey Mere (a small pond) to collect mud/vegetation, although after they’ve had a wash straight after they’ve collected some not a huge amount gets back to the nest. It is clear that some birds seem to go for much bigger beakfulls ……
Kittiwake collecting nest material from Moorey Mere

The next couple of days saw the counting continue in beautiful weather and light winds- winds from the right direction!
We saw the very elusive Black Redstart which appeared to have missed its chance of competing at the Winter Olympics-
Eddie the Eagle!

Tim Birkhead found a lovely male Whinchat which much of the island enjoyed and the large numbers of Short-eared Owls kept everyone happy, especially the photographers –
A smart, and showy, male Whinchat near the Farm
One of the even more showy Short-eared Owls

It was Saturday 19th when things really kicked off –
Early morning Ed and Bee found 2 Spoonbills heading north off of the north coast, now Spoonbills are one of Ted’s favourite birds, but by the time we got on them, it was a white blob heading for Ramsey, not brilliant, but the feeling in the air was that the day was young.
By mid-morning a flock of 8 Chough thermalling near the farm were suddenly joined by 4 Red Kites, in 33 years of visits I’d never seen Red Kite, I was very happy. After lunch Ted and I went to the north coast, specifically to The Garland Stone, our favourite place on the island, actually its our favourite place on planet earth, before we continued counting along the north side of the island. Ted and I were about 12ft apart, staring out to sea and along the cliffs checking through hirundines (Swallows and martins), we were about to move to the count point but we decided to stay for five more minutes, what a wise decision. All of a sudden a large bird flashed through, literally between us, as we both jumped up uttering the unbelievable words ‘ALPINE SWIFT’. It turned and flew straight at us, passing us at about 25ft!! Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for this moment- it was the bird we had spoken about for at least 3 years, at the exact location, it was unbelievable, totally unbelievable, it was literally a dream come true.
Bins were flying, camera’s were clicking as the bird whizzed around and then went east. I rang Ed and Sarah to get the news out. After a short while Ted said he’d got it again, I looked at the bird circling about a mile off the north coast - well out to sea and said, ‘no Ted that’s a Peregrine’, only for it to accelerate towards the island and indeed show itself as ‘Alpi’. Quite how Ted picked this up I’ll never know. By now Ed and Sarah had seen it and other birders on the island were trying to twitch it!

33 years in the waiting and probably one of the hardest earned birds of all time

We saw it four times in about an hour and then we lost it. We had to carry on counting so worked our way to the next point on the north coast, after about 15 minutes I heard Ted say ‘Spoonbill’, I thought he was saying something about the morning’s birds when I saw him grabbing for his camera, I looked up to see a Spoonbill coming in-off the sea, 50 ft above us !!!!!!
A Spoonbill which flew in off the sea during the afternnoon of the 19th May

This was crazy stuff. We took pics as it came in, and then I got on the phone to Ed, this is when it got even more crazy, as we watched the Spoony heading towards north pond I was talking to Ed, giving him directions, when I was suddenly uttering the words ‘ Oh my God, the Alpine Swift has just flown through my bins’, I’m really not sure if I was making much sense at this point, we had an Alpine Swift and a Spoonbill in the same binocular view- incredible stuff.
The Alpine Swift moved West and then dived over the cliff towards Bull Hole (never to be seen again), the Spoonbill decided against the pond and flew south.
This was simply the most exciting hour or so of birding I’ve ever experienced, something I will never ever forget.
The next morning was the last for us, we were still running on adrenaline from the day before but needed to finish the counts. We were almost finished, but the island had one more trick up it’s sleeve-  Ed rang from the CES ringing site to say they’d just trapped a Subalpine Warbler. We dropped all our stuff near North Haven, ran to the ringing site, saw the warbler as it was being processed and then ran back for the boat.
So we missed completing the final count that we were going to do, but sometimes the rares win the day.
The Swift was the first on the island in 50 years!!
What a fantastic few days, the likes of which I’m sure we will never repeat.
Mike + Ted Wallen
All pictures by Mike and Ted Wallen

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