Thursday, 4 July 2013

A SWIFT ReTERN to Former Glory

It's been a good few years since I managed two new birds in Britain in the space of a week, with 2 or 3 a year now about my average. And who would have expected it to happen in mid summer and in such a memorable way?

As I held the still-warm, limp and lifeless body of the bird we had all come to see, it felt like I had made a wonderful new friend, then watched them cross the road only to get hit by a bus. How on earth had it come to this? How could one of the bird world's most efficient flying machines be downed in this cruel way like a once-great fighter jet shot clean out of the sky? In these days of optical aids over firepower where the double barrels of a shotgun have been replaced by double barrels packed with nitrogen and glass prisms for your viewing pleasure, rare birds can usually hope to live on a bit longer when they turn up here and not come to a sudden and sticky end. But there was no denying the facts – the culprit, the killer no less, towered over us, and we'd seen the spectacle for ourselves – the Harris white-throated needletail, the bird which had drawn us all to this spot, had collided with the base of a wind turbine blade and fallen helplessly to the ground. Now it was in my hands, a surprisingly large bird sporting features I hadn't noticed in the field, like the sturdy dark legs (much stronger-looking than those of our own swift) and the beautiful green iridescence across the wing bases and tail, a tail terminating with needle-like points to the feathers, one of the features that give the bird its name.

I was later asked what was special about this bird. Well, where do you start? Apart from its exceptional rarity status (less than ten accepted sightings in the UK) and the fact that this was the first for 22 years, it is quite simply, a dream bird. It exudes style. And speed. Swifts are – well - swift, but this one is the turbo model. It holds the air speed record in level flight at a little over 100mph. It features in the top 5 'most wanted' on the lists of many birders and holds the number one spot for a good proportion of those. And it's only ever been 'twitchable' on offshore Scottish islands in the nineteen-eighties.

The news came like a bombshell on the afternoon of Tuesday 25th June. Needletail on Harris at Tarbert, present for its second day. It turns out it was glimpsed the day before but its identity had not been confirmed. But now there was no denying it and a major twitch was soon underway. I left with three friends that night, setting off at 11.40pm with a 16 hour journey stretching before us.

A golden eagle on Skye provided a welcome distraction from the building tension but by the time we reached the ferry terminal on Skye our nerves were shot to pieces. We'd heard the needletail was still present that morning, only to find out an hour or so later that it hadn't actually been seen and that the earlier message had been a mistake. An hour later though, we heard it was back. Two military jets thundered overhead as we waited. We later heard one had continued on to Harris and overflown the site the the needletail was frequenting. It had spooked the bird which had headed south. Not good news.

An hour and a half passed, maybe two. It was back! Relocated two miles to the south of its last location and we were just a few miles out from Tarbert! We docked in Tarbert and searched eagerly for the taxi we'd booked but it wasn't there. A stressful ten minutes ensued but at last we found the taxi and arrived within minutes at the site a few miles down Golden Road. There was certainly a golden prize here somewhere and it was a tense few minutes before we made visual contact with the bird causing all the fuss.

The needletail shot out over the moorland, often invisible behind the uneven rocky ground but occasionally arcing into the sky where it was easier to follow. It effortlessly covered large tracts of moorland with few wingbeats and suddenly for us observers it had all been worth it. The tension, the exhaustion, the disrupted plans no longer mattered. It had been an epic twitch and an epic day already, none of us would forget it in a hurry.

Things were great. Our taxi-driver turned out to be the father of the person who had first seen the bird rather poorly and not known what it was. We sent him into Tarbert with an order for beer and fish and chips which we later ate in the sunshine as the bird continued to show now and then. We must have watched the bird on and off for an hour and a half before the collision. There were perhaps 12-15 birders present and maybe half this number witnessed the spectacle. I was calling directions to a birder next to me, running a commentary which went something like 'it's going right, below the wires, right of the wind turbine, going back behind the turbine – and that's when I faltered. The bird disappeared momentarily behind the turbine's nacelle only to fall back and down, plummeting some thirty metres to the ground. I rushed up the small hill and picked up the body, struggling to comprehend what had just happened.

The bird was found to have no obvious broken bones or external injuries and appears to have died from a blow to the head. It was initially passed to the RSPB but is destined eventually for the National Museum of Scotland. Naturally, there was a great deal of press interest in the incident. The locals too were very interested and it soon reignited the debate over wind farms and bird collisions. Many birders were shocked and vented their anger on forums in opposition to the 'Blades of Death' rotating in ever increasing numbers across areas such as the Western Isles. But the turbine involved is small, (with about a twenty metre span) and it only serves the small village here. It is not part of a major fleet and is most likely a sensible and efficient solution to the energy needs of the local community.

Those in opposition to wind power might think of this bird as a bit of a martyr. It has certainly re-ignited the wind farm debate, and there have been many more hits on that alarming You Tube clip of the vulture colliding with the rotating blades of a turbine. A traumatic incident to watch, but on that occasion the bird did survive at least. What is clear though is that the problem of birds flying into wind turbines is not going away and if a bird like a needletail can't avoid one, what hope is there for other species? Large birds of prey seem to be the most vulnerable to collisions and the Western Isles is a very important area for hen harriers, golden eagles and sea eagles.

It was a long drive back. The entire journey took eighteen hours, including a stop at BBC Cumbria's studio to do a piece on TV for Newsnight (see 15 mins in here Somewhere in southern Scotland through the murk I spotted a large wind turbine – it was the first I'd noticed since the collision I had witnessed. I narrowed my eyes and glared at it as if at a new enemy but even then I was aware that wind power has many advantages and there's no point opposing it just because of the incident I had watched the previous day. It's a complex debate but if wind farms are to be limited because of bird collisions then it's the vulnerable native species we have to watch, the number and location of collisions we have to keep tabs on. The needletail's death was a sad event (and truly heartbreaking to witness) but it was a quick death with presumably no suffering involved and to lose a proportion of our breeding eagle population due to careless positioning of large wind farms would be very much more serious.

One thing's for sure though. Whenever I see a wind turbine my mind will take me straight back to Harris on that unforgettable, yet ultimately tragic, day.

The day after my return I headed to Aldeburgh for a family holiday in a large house overloking the area the Hornemann's redpoll frequented in December. Once I'd recovered from the Hebs trip I managed to get out to Minsmere for a few hours' birding in the afternoon and early evening. Little did I know another biggie was about to break. But the local birdlife knew something was in the air and there were some ruffled feathers about.

Bittern, easily identifiable due to its close resemblance to a part-eaten corn-on-the-cob

Bridled tern – Inner Farne. Found by photographer Rob Wilson and local ranger Will Scott. OMG. Not now though... I used up my brownie points last week and I couldn't leave in the middle of a family holiday! Or could I? Of course I did. I eventually got my wife's blessing (maximum respect to the missus for that one, she really is the best!) and headed north with Adrian Kettle & Mark Thomas, with Adrian driving through the night to meet the 6am charter boat.

And what can I say about the twitch? Well it went like a dream. Calm weather, and we saw the bird on arrival. There was a wonderful seabird spectacle all around us and there was never a dull moment even when the bird did a bunk for an hour or so. It was conveniently hanging round the jetty area which was just as well as the island itself would be out of bounds until 10am by which time we'd be back on the mainland.


To have it under the belt by 6.30am was great and we were soon homeward bound, stopping off at Coquet Island to watch some distant roseate terns fishing in the channel in front of the island. The bridled tern showed on and off all day, delighting hundreds of visitors and providing significant compensation for those unable to make the star bird of the previous week. Terns are a tough group to connect with but this just leaves me needing Aleutian and royal and takes away the pain of missing a Bridled in Essex just 20 or so miles from my house back in 1991!

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