28 Oct 2015

28 Oct 15 - Checking The Bunting

On 22 Oct, the pager beeped for a Chestnut Bunting on the small island of Papa Westray, Orkney on the previous day, but it hadn't been seen that day. Some photos emerged that produced further online speculation as to its actual identity: but the photos weren't great. Either way it seemed an academic discussion for most Birders (but not the finders obviously) as the Chestnut Bunting had been & gone. But on 24 Oct, the pager mega'ed to say it had been relocated a few hundred metres from where it was originally found. This prompted a number of Birders to explore ways of getting there for the next day: a Sunday. Having looked at the complexity of getting onto Papa Westray, which involved a drive to Northern Scotland to take the ferry to Orkney & then trying to get onto a charter flight onto the island: a long drive, complex logistics & very expensive. Had I not just had a few days on the Western Isles, I might have used it as an excuse to have a short break on the Orkneys. But after the concerns of its identification & with the previous eight records all on Cat E List (i.e. not tickable), I decided to stick with the committed plan of doing my WeBS count that afternoon.
The Orkney Islands coming into range: Papa Westray is one of the two most Northerly of the Orkney Islands, but it lies to the West of North Ronaldsay: which is closest to Fair Isle. It's still off the top of this map
On 26 Oct, much better photos emerged of the Chestnut Bunting from the first mainland twitchers, both confirming the identity & that it was considered to be a First Winter male. I found more information about the previous records of Chestnut Buntings & why they had been placed in Cat E (see BOURC 37th Report). Six had been in May to July, which the BOU considered this was outside of the pattern for other accepted far Eastern vagrants. The other two records were in Sep, which the BOU considered were too early to have been genuine vagrants, based on their movements through Beidaihi (North China) & Hong Kong. Additionally, most individuals had been adults. The report also stated that First Winter individuals in Oct or Nov would be considered seriously. This was suddenly looking a lot more hopeful. If any record was going to get accepted onto the British List, then it should be this one. This was supported by a number of accepted records, or likely to be accepted records, scattered across the Western Palearctic, included a First Winter individual on Ouessant island on 25 Oct 14: the Brittany equivalent of the Scillies.
Getting closer: EGEP is the ICAO airport code for Papa Westray airport
At this point, I saw places on a charter from Yorkshire being offered on the pager for 28 Oct, which was still two days away. A few phone calls later, I was sixth on the list for the charter, but it was only a five seater plane, but there might be two planes. By the following afternoon, the Chestnut Bunting was still there & I was on the single plane that was going, as three of the people ahead of me on the queue had managed to get over a day earlier (thanks guys). I was all set to pick up two of the passengers over night on the way to Yorkshire. I met the plane organiser, Vaughan Watkins, another ex-Southampton Birder, who I hadn't seen for 28 years at Chieveley services on the A34. A couple of hours later, we were picking up Chris Gooddie, near Derby. After a good journey, we arrived with enough time to go & find a quick breakfast near the airfield. We had all agreed we weren't planning on leaving from Yorkshire, until we knew the Chestnut Bunting was still there. As I was driving the final few miles to the airfield from the cafe, Vaughan received a message from the incredibly helpful Paul Higson on Orkney, to say one of the local Birders on Papa Westray had been out at first light & it was still there. The message ended with "Scramble, Scramble, Scramble". A couple of minutes later, I was pulling into the airfield to see our other two companions, Matthew Deans & Mark Sutton, who had just heard the news.
Matthew Deans & Mark Sutton (right): This photo suggests there was more room in the plane than there seemed to be in reality
Myself & Vaughan Watkins (right): Definitely tighter in theback seats
Our pilot was keen to get going, but was concerned we might not be able to land on Papa Westray, due to low cloud. The plan was to leave & see how the weather developed, with Plan B being a landing at Wick to wait & see, if the weather was poor. So all loaded we were quickly on our way. Fortunately, as we were flying, our pilot said the weather forecast for Orkney was improving & he planned to go straight to Papa Westray & see if we had enough visibility to get in. As we descended, we started to see the neighbouring island of Westray & then Papa Westray.
Papa Westray: It was overcast, cold & windy on the island, but at least it wasn't raining 
All set for the landing, which went perfectly. We were asked if we saw the Chestnut Bunting if we could be back in a couple of hours as the blustery winds were due to increase to a Force 7 wind that afternoon. It was only a ten minute walk from the airstrip to the track which the Chestnut Bunting had been frequenting.
Papa Westray is a small island & only 3.5 square miles in size
Looking West as I was walking to Hollard Farm: I saw few trees on bushes on the island, although there were some around Holland Farm 
No other Birders present, but we had been told to look at the end of the long track or walk around just into the field at the end. We got to the gate, but no sign from there.
Its favourite lane
A good search in the field & no joy either after fifteen minutes of looking. Fortunately, Vaughan & Chris walked back up the track & found it grovelling in the grass at the edge of the track. I suspect we had walked too fast down the track & had managed to boot it without realising & it had then flown behind us on the track.
Chestnut Bunting: It spent a lot of time partially obscured & grovelling in the grass
Chestnut Bunting: It is a Juvenile Male plumage, as they don't moult until reaching the Wintering grounds
Chestnut Bunting: An all too typical view based on my photos
Chestnut Bunting
Chestnut Bunting
Either way, we were soon all watching it in the grass at the edge of the track. By staying still or moving slowly, it was quite happy to feed in the grass about ten or fifteen metres from us. Despite, being fairly short grass, it was very adept at keeping out of sight or partially obscured. Eventually, it quickly crossed the central bare earth track, which allowed some photos in the open. A little later, it quickly walked back across the track. Finally, we carefully walked a bit closer so we were about eight metres away.
Chestnut Bunting
Chestnut Bunting
Chestnut Bunting
As it was feeding on the edge of the track, it tended to move in one direction. Chris decided to take advantage of this & jumping the wall & then using it as cover, he moved to the far side of the Chestnut Bunting. The plan was he was going to slowly move it towards us, but it seemed more happy to feed & walk towards him.
Chris Gooddie: Enjoying it slowly walk towards him
At one point, it stopped to have a drink from a small puddle on the track & then sat in the open for a minute or so.
Chestnut Bunting
Chestnut Bunting: Note the pointed tail feathers
Chestnut Bunting
Chestnut Bunting
Soon after one of the islanders on a walk came past & it quickly flew onto the wall, before disappeared further along the track. As we had all had plenty of time to watch it & get photos, then we decided on a quick look around Hollard Farm on the way back to the plane.
A trip photo after we had all seen it: (L to R), myself, Mark Sutton, Matthew Deans, Vaughan Watkins & Chris Gooddie
Looking South from the Chestnut Bunting track
Holland Farm: Site of the last UK Ovenbird. Had it stayed for a few days, I might have already visited Papa Westray. Having a tractor parked outside your house will be a lot more sensible than a car
Back at the plane
The windsock shows how strong the wind was
We had a refuelling stop at Wick both for the plane & with fish & chips (just chips for me) & about 2.5 hours later we were looking to land again in Yorkshire. Again there was a worry from the pilot as to whether we would be able to land, given there was a lot of mist in Yorkshire, but fortunately, it clear over the airfield (but with a fog bank only a mile beyond the airfield). Had we not been able to land, then it would have been a diversion to Teesside airport & a taxi back to our airfield. We were all relieved to be able to start the journey South again (& not to have had to go via Teesside airport).
Taking off over the Chestnut Bunting lane
The Chestnut Bunting stayed for one more day & then disappeared after the first clear skies night for at least a week, when there was a clear out of Thrushes from the area. Further reading up has shown that Chestnut Buntings, in line with several other closely related species migrate in their juvenile plumage & then moult on their Wintering grounds. So I guess it is fairer to call it a juvenile male in its First Autumn, rather than a First Winter. Young Birds are prone to make navigational errors on their first migration, so that would look good for it being wild. The date looks good. I also saw a map of the breeding grounds for White's Thrushes & Chestnut Buntings & there was very good overlap. I'm sure few Birders doubted the authenticity of the White's Thrush that was found on Shetland on 23 Oct: just two days after the Chestnut Bunting was first seen. But obviously, there is a more established pattern of late Autumn White's Thrushes in the UK.
The Southern end of the island has a beach & a lake
Personally, I think if this Chestnut Bunting doesn't get accepted, then it will be hard to admit any records onto the UK List. But I also think the BOU have made a good analysis of the previous UK records & can't see any of them getting accepted after the event. One of the other factors affecting those records, was the species was being regularly imported into Europe up to about ten years ago, but apparently this trade has been stopped following the avian flu epidemic a few years ago. All the previous records were before the ban. It is interesting to see the usual band of naysayers on line pointing out how approachable this Chestnut Bunting was. Well it was happy to feed about ten metres away while we were there, but did quickly flush when the islander tried to walk close to it. I have seen a photo of somebody standing close to it, but certainly no closer than Birders have got to a number of other approachable Buntings in the past on the Northern Isles. But given its Cat E classification, I will be waiting to see if the BOU accept it as a Cat A vagrant before ticking it. I think the supporting evidence looks good, but will have to wait & see. In the meantime, it will go down as another of those memorable twitches in my books with a great bunch on the plane.