18 Jun 2015

18 June 15 - Birding Le Mans

On Tuesday, one of my work colleagues returned to the office after taking a long weekend off to visit the Le Mans race. This is the legendary endurance race in France when each team completes to race around the Le Mans circuit for the full 24 hours. At the time I was contemplating my own version of Le Mans, following the news that a Cretzschmar's Bunting seemed to be settling down to a routine on the distant North Welsh island of Bardsey. Briefly seen on the 10 & 12 June, it was finally pinned down on Sunday 14 June. But there was no way I could get up there from Dorset with any likelihood of getting onto the island that day. There is only one boat taking 12 people at a time on a first come, first served, basis. So Monday morning I headed off to work as I no longer have the luxury of being able to skip work for twitches, whilst mates from the West Country were heading to North Wales. That morning all sounded chaotic, with pager messages telling people the queue was already long enough to keep the boat full booked for the day by 07:15. With messages also saying there was no advanced booking system, then it was also a long way to drive only to find you were too far back in the queue. Ce La Vie: I guess I would just be having to wait for the next one to turn up, as I didn't fancy driving all the way there on the off chance I would get across. The next check of RBA that afternoon mentioned an alternative boat had been organised for Tuesday by somebody called Ewan, but was now fully booked. I checked the phone number & as suspected it was Ewan Urquhart, my Birding companion on the Mourning Dove twitch. I gave Ewan a ring as I was leaving work, to check out the boat details with the plan of trying to charter it later in the week. I was told he didn't have the boatman's details, as his mate had spoken to him. He was just organising filling the boat, but he would pass on the boatman's details when he got them. Well that was a bit of a plan if I needed it.

Jump forward to the Tuesday afternoon, the Cretzschmar's Bunting was still there, more mates from the South West had connected & there were no more boats planned for Wednesday as the weather was cutting up. Then a surprise call from Ewan. Their boat had fallen through on the Tuesday & was rescheduled for the Thursday. But some of their twelve had gone anyway to take their chances on the regular boat. So did I want one of the available spaces. Obviously, yes, despite the fact I hadn't discussed it with the boss. But with my colleague Zain being allowed a long weekend off for Le Mans, then surely a day off for a trip to North Wales wasn't going to be a problem. When I asked I quickly got the OK, although I never explained why I needed the day off at short notice. All I needed to do now was hope it stayed for a couple of days. The Wednesday weather front meant it was still there that evening. But Birds have a habit of disappearing as the weather improves after bad weather. But I was committed so it was off to North Wales that evening. I got away about 20:30 in the end & arrived sometime after 04:00 the next morning. In theory, this allowed about 3 hours kipping in the car. I can normally sleep well in cars after a lot of practice on many foreign & UK twitching trips over the years. But it is always difficult on the first night: a combination of the first night, coupled with adrenaline & fear of over sleeping. So I only had a very broken hour or two of dozing. As a result I was up early & heading the last five miles into Pwllheli. Time to check where the charter was heading off from & then into the town for a filling breakfast. Then back to the quayside to join Ewan & the other ten on the boat. At 09:00, our boatman Tony appeared. There had already been pager messages of don't organise fishing boats to go over, but it turns out the boatman Tony was fully licensed to land on Bardsey. He had spoken to Bardsey to say we were coming over and that wasn't a problem. Our charter was £50 for the day, which was more than the £30 on the regular boat. But he was happy to take us over & stay as long as we needed on the island, so the extra £20 was well worth it. It was also a ninety minute crossing, compared to a twenty minute crossing on the regular boat, so no surprise it was more expensive.
My companions on the trip: Tony Clarke is facing us
The two younger lads were from Sussex: left was Matt Eade & right was Jake Everitt
Ewan Urquhart (with the camera) & the rest of the group
We soon picked up speed as we left Pwllheli harbour: Soon after that the spray started
A very bedraggled Tony Clarke: Who stayed on his seat despite the spray
We were quickly on the boat & I headed for the covered space at the front of the boat, while others enjoyed sitting in the sun further back. I wasn't sure if this was the joy of the sunny conditions or foolhardiness. But as we got further out to sea, they quickly realised their mistake as waves & spray started to regularly appear over the sides. Not that we were completely dry, as there was a backward spray that managed to dampen down the inner area as well. But that was minimal compared to the rear deck, which most had finally left as it got wetter.
St Tudwal's Island West: Owned by Bear Grylls
After a bit over an hour of travelling we could see Bardsey in the distance & it quickly got bigger over the next thirty minutes. The tide was high so we could land on the rough quayside. We were soon off & heading for the lighthouse.
The landing quay: This was a wired framework of stones
It was easy to figure out where we were going: The Bird was showing occasionally by the lighthouse
It was no more than a ten minute walk before we were greeted by one of the wardens. We were told it was still showing, although we knew it had been already seen before we left Pwllheli. We were then walked up to the group after being told to approach quietly. But we were at the back of the group. Ewan was lucky as he jumped onto a stool & saw it. But it quickly flew off before I had the chance of a view. But I wasn't too worried about that. It was being seen for a few minutes every hour & Ewan deserved to see it first, given he had organised the boat. Fortunately, the crowd thinned out a few minutes later as some left for their boat & I was now near the front of the group.
The preferred area when it appeared was in the shade to the right of the drainpipe
Chough: Occasionally, a party of Choughs appeared along the cliff edge, but only popping into view every now & then. Hence this is only a record shot. I obviously wasn't going to try & get a better photo when the Cretzschmar's Bunting could appear in view at any moment 
It was a long hour of waiting, when all I really wanted to do was lie down in the sun & catch up on that missed sleep. But sleep is for wimps on an endurance day, so I stuck it out. Besides, if it showed, we were only likely to get a few minutes of it being on view & I couldn't afford to lose my viewing position. After an hour, there was still no sighting. But the crowd finally thinned as people (who had already seen it), had had to leave for the boat. Even better they hadn't been replaced by a new set of faces. The boatman was also running preplanned trips for non Birding visitors, so I guess that explained the lack of new people. Fifteen minutes later there was a whispered call: 'it's by the drainpipe'. Not where I was expecting it to show & I had to quickly look for the drainpipe. It turned out to be only a couple of metres from where I was expecting it to be & it was quickly on the list. A nice long bins view, before grabbing the camera for some photos. I only had the SX60, but it seems to have done the trick quite well. All too quickly it had gone. A quick check: all our boat had seen it. That took the pressure off. As a new boatload hadn't arrived, we could stay in place for more views. Eventually, our numbers were swelled by three. Keith Vinicombe who wasn't on any boat & I assume was staying on the island & just two extra Birders.
Cretzschmar's Bunting: Male
Cretzschmar's Bunting: Male 
Another hour & it was back again. The chance for some better views as I had now moved my scope into position & some more photos. Then all too quickly it was off again. But it was time to head back to our boat. We had seen it twice & were happy. At this point, I would like to say a big thank you to Steve, Emma & the other wardens for being so welcoming & managing the access to the Cretzschmar's Bunting. Without their efforts, it would have been a much more stressful & potentially less successful twitch: as the Cretzschmar's Bunting had an occasional habit of wandering elsewhere on the island.
Cretzschmar's Bunting: Male
Cretzschmar's Bunting: Male. In case you were wondering, it is named after Dr Philipp Jakob Cretzschmar (1786-1845) who was a German physician, but who also was a founder of the Senckenburg Natural History Museum. He also had Cretzschmar's Babbler named after him, although that is more commonly known as African White-headed Babbler Turdoides leucocephala these days 
As we walked back, there was another boatload arriving & it was good to know they would be able to get the best places.
Looking back to the harbour on the right & the Bird Obs (the far left building)
I finally arrived home at 04:15 on Friday morning. Tired but I had slept for two hours on a couple of occasions on the way home. The adrenaline had gone & the tiredness of a long twitch had taken over. But by 04:20 my Le Mans endurance event was over & I was in bed & asleep.
The tide was too far out to allow our boat to get in, so Tony ferried us back, three at a time
If you want to read of a more harrowing ordeal, then have a read of Peter Moore's excellent write up of his trip the next day. Peter was unable to get away until the Friday & went with a couple of mutual mates: Andy Mears (who I went to Croatia with) & probably the sharpest Birding Tomato in the world, Mr Tomato Head (formally known as Brett Spencer). 
Four trips & we were all aboard
This was BOU & Irish Tick number 520 was on the list. While I am not trying to complete with other UK Listers, I do like to see how I'm doing against Steve Webb's list. Steve is the only one of the top handful of UK Listers prepared to openly disclose his list & he follows the BOU/Irish rules as well. Thanks to the Hudsonian Whimbrel & this Cretzschmar's Bunting, I'm now only 33 species behind Steve. Not bad considering the large number of years (until fairly recently) when I was not prepared to twitch Scotland or the outer islands of the UK at the drop of a hat. With Lesser Canada Goose (if the BOU ever accept one onto the UK List), Wilson's Snipe, Lanceolated Warbler & Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler as potential easy-ish grip backs in the future, then there is still the chance I can close that gap in the future. But I will be lucky if I can ever get as close as twenty five species to Steve.