There have been easterly winds for a few days now so, bearing in mind the time of year, there have also been reports of sightings of rare birds all over Orkney (and elsewhere, I'm sure). Birds which are heading north to breed in the short, but bounteous, Arctic Summer have been blown off course, and the Orcadian birders are very organised in finding them and also spreading the word.
A local social media group is overseen by a dedicated volunteer, who manages to alert group members to a wide variety of fantastic wildlife. Not just birds, mind, but also Otters and any cetaceans that may be in Orkney waters.
And so it was on Friday morning. Our Lass had gone of to work, I was busy vacuuming whilst waiting for a customer to collect some equipment and my phone kept 'pinging' with updates of newsworthy birds seen on some of the outer islands of the archipelago. Now as I hope you know, I am not the kind of guy to drop everything and jump on a boat or a plane to go and twitch a rarity, so these reports were useful information, but no more than that. Then, the news arrived that a Woodchat Shrike had been seen in an industrial estate in Kirkwall. Not only was this bird on the same island as me, it was only fifteen minutes away (and that's driving slowly) and it would be a lifer for me. I have not previously seen a Woodchat Shrike. Well, there was that time when I was walking home from Junior School along a country lane when I thought I saw one, it is a very vivid memory, but I suspect it might have been a dream.
To be honest, it was a very moot point, as I still had forty five minutes to wait for my customer, so I couldn't really shoot into town to see the bird. Technically, I could do it... but it would be bad form if I was delayed and kept the customer waiting. So I vacuumed the workshop too and then threw a load of clothes in the washing machine.
Just before the designated arrival time, I received a different 'ping'. The customer was running late and would be another twenty minutes. At this point, a succinct expletive may have been uttered. By the time I was hanging out the laundry to dry, there had been further news that the shrike was still around, but for how much longer?
Resigning myself to the fact that the chance had passed, I decided to bake a cake, as there was plenty of rhubarb to be cropped and I had found some crystallised ginger in the dry goods cupboard.
The customer duly arrived, pleasantries were exchanged, equipment was handed over and farewells were said. On checking my phone, it appeared that the bird was continuing to show well, but now I had forty five minutes to wait for the cake to be ready. Birds on migration tend not to remain in one place as they still have some place else to be. It was a pleasantly warm day, with lighter winds, so decent enough weather for a bundle of feathers to do the avian equivalent of a satnav's "Recalculating..." However, this species does not usually occur any further north than Southern Europe, so who knows?
Remembering that Eagle-eyed M was in town, as we were due to meet up later to go and search for damselflies, I messaged to see if she had heard about the shrike. She had, and was collecting some new binoculars and then a coffee before heading over to the industrial estate. I had to admit that I was being delayed by confectionery.
Eventually, the cake was deemed ready, hoicked out of the oven and left on a wire rack to cool, whilst I hot-footed it to the car and disappeared shrike-wards, muttering silent pleas that the bird would hang around for a few minutes longer.
Upon turning into the designated road, I could see, in the distance, past some industrial units, a few cars parked by the kerb. Beside them were four individuals armed with cameras and binoculars. This looked like the correct place!
I parked up and scrambled out of the car, trailing my own bins and camera behind me, and tried not to look too sheepish. For this was Tense on a twitch, a fact not lost upon several of the gathered birderazzi. In 2018, I may have overplayed my hand as regards my Small Year!
Thankfully, at that point, Eagle-eyed M pointed out the shrike to me and I concentrated on enjoying the moment, that this wasn't a dream, and after a further five decades I was finally watching a Woodchat Shrike.
The bird was some distance away across a paddock, perched in bushes on an embankment behind a wire fence. It was obviously very hungry and made countless hunting trips down into the paddock to pick up, presumably, insects from the ground. Occasionally, it appeared to be attempting the shrike trait of storing food in a larder, but Willows do not have the same capability as Blackthorn for this purpose.
Rather pleasingly for M, the first bird seen through her new bins was this one, which is certainly a christening present to savour.