Caught by the River

The Bird Effect Diaries

Ceri Levy | 15th January 2010

The diary of the making of a film. and an on going fascination with birds and their accompanying cast of human characters. By Ceri Levy. Read previous entries, starting here.

Isles Of Scilly – Part 1.
Saturday 3rd October

I am so excited as I am off to the Isles of Scilly for three weeks tomorrow. It is the height of the migratory season for birds and many rarities turn up on these islands, either as a deliberate stop-off point, or sadly, because they have been blown hopelessly off course. This influx of birdlife means that an interesting cross section of the bird world should be down there and I hope there will be plenty of filming to be done. I am looking forward to being more of a participant in the birdwatching community on Scilly this year compared to last year when I first went to Scilly for the migratory season. Then I was more of an observer of the bird events that happened, as I was getting to grips with the simpler elements of birding itself. But this time around I feel a little more experienced and a little more equipped with enough knowledge that should help me through the holiday. After all, now I even have my own CB radio, which is the main method of communication for many of the birders on Scilly. A rolling bird news service transmitted on the airwaves. You hear the crackle of CB’s all over the islands and carrying your own CB is like a birding badge of seriousness. It’s toys for boys time, and this time this boy is ready to go. The CB is used to report sightings and it keeps one up date with all the news as it happens, and if you have one, it is your duty to report a finding rapidly and clearly with the species of bird and its immediate location. After all you don’t want to be considered a suppressor of information. (See the bird definition of the day below.)

Sunday October 4th

23.00. I am at Paddington station to get onto the romantic sounding Night Riviera sleeper service to Penzance, and after a mighty victory for Chelsea against Liverpool, I go straight from the match to my bunk and I am ready for a fitful night’s sleep rolling across the rail track heading as far south west as one can go without leaving land. But I don’t care about the probable lack of sleep, as in the morning I will arise to the smell of the sea air, the screeching of gulls and the beginning of a three-week adventure. The only sad thing is that Jackie, my wife, a freelance TV producer, has a job on and won’t be able to join me until the end of the second week.

Monday October 5th

I awake in Penzance, after a surprisingly calm nights sleep, making sure to avoid the on board micro-waved spongy mush, which has to be the worst excuse for a bacon sandwich I have ever seen or smelt, and lurch from the train with all my luggage to find a taxi to take me to the quay. There I will embark upon The Scillonian, an ageing, flat bottomed ferry, which apparently often has 90% sea sickness amongst its passengers, due to the roughness of the seas and allegedly its design, even though it is only 28miles from the mainland and the journey takes under three hours. Because of the boat’s reputation many people refuse to travel on it at all, whereas I, mercifully, have never been prone to feeling sick at sea, and I am afraid that I have always found it of slight amusement that my only concern when the weather is playing up, is that of not spilling my pint through the undulations of the waves, whereas many people cannot avoid hanging over the side of the boat in their moment of illness and then discovering the merits of getting the wind direction right. I raise my glass to these poor souls.

I am the first to arrive for the journey over to the Scillies, and of course it starts to rain as I wait in line, well, I say a line, but it’s just me because I am very early. Luckily there are a group of Ringed Plovers to entertain me as they wander around in their usual frenzy on the quay, searching out scraps of food. Gradually people begin to join my queue and we eventually get onboard. I take up position on deck as the sun is coming through and I am hoping that there may be a chance to look out to the horizon for birds and cetaceans. We pull out of the port and get onto the sea proper, which is now rock pool calm, and indeed, as the sun brightens and the skies clear, we are lucky, and firstly we see a Bonxie, the Shetland name for a Great Skua, thought to be derived from the Norse word Bunksi, meaning a dumpy looking bird or an untidy old woman. Then we see a Basking Shark, a couple of pods of dolphins, and a Minke Whale, which all keep me occupied and enthralled on the way over. One forgets how much the seas that surround us are teeming with life. The Bird Effect is really teaching me things I had forgotten I was aware of. Not a bad start to the holidays. If it continues like this it should be an utterly fantastic experience.

I arrive on Scilly and make my way to the flat we are renting. It is in a fantastic location in the centre of town and I can see in all directions from the kitchen window, which is useful to work out who has gone to which pub. The one drawback is that I am really unimpressed by living in an Ikea house. Why do people get sucked in to buying that cheap rubbish? I venture out for a wander around the town and get my bearings. This place never seems to change, everything seems to be in the right place and I am happy to be in this timeless zone.

I get down to the Scillonian Club at 9.00 for a pint (Ales of Scilly – Scuppered or Firebrand, both thoroughly recommended) and the first log of the year, which is going to be called out by my mate Will Wagstaff. The log is a daily record of all the birds seen by the birders on the islands from the common birds to the rarities. Judging by the list tonight it is a fairly quiet start to the season.

I chat to a couple of the local birders, Chris Langsdon and John Higginson, about a bird we had seen during my last visit to Scilly during the spring, which was considered to be, potentially, a female Collared Flycatcher. I say potentially because a sighting of a possible rare bird is not enough to say that it was, definitely, a rare bird. Information about the bird has to be noted at the time and preferably photos should be taken as well. This is all part of a due process to go through to get a sighting of a rare bird accepted by the powers that be. Let me tell you what happened in the spring.

At 11.51 on 12th May, I took the photo below of a bird on the island of Bryher. I knew it was a flycatcher but that was about as far as my knowledge got me. I don’t know why I took a picture of it but I did. Perhaps because it was so obliging and it allowed me to take photos.

On returning to St Mary’s later that day, I bumped into Will and showed him the photo, and that is when Chris and Higgo turned up with much better photos of the bird that they had taken as well. Everyone got in a huddle and discussed the fact that it could possibly be a rare female Collared Flycatcher. I left them to it, as I could offer no real input, but I was glad that at least unknowingly I had spotted a possible rarity. In fact, if proven, it could be only the second one of these in Britain. Surfbirds ran a piece on it that you can read HERE.

But just because people are pretty certain of what they have seen doesn’t mean that the bird is accepted by the bird world. A relevant form has to be filled out with all accompanying evidence, including photos, which will be studied and then hopefully accepted by The Ten Rare Men, otherwise know as The British Birds Rarities Committee. I imagine a candle lit room with a long table, port, the smell of cigar smoke, a giant fireplace with logs burning within it and then the learned rare men themselves discussing the merits of the bird before them. I asked my mate Jim about this and he shattered my fertile imagination and said the decisions were made by email now. Is there no romance left?

Chris, myself and Higgo, carried on chatting about the birds to come in the next few weeks, and we hoped it would be a good season. Chris admitted he had yet to submit the form and I urged him to do it as soon as possible, as after all, a major tick is riding on it, and it would be my first self found rarity. Maybe I will have to look into submitting the report myself if he doesn’t do it soon. Hmm, I’m starting to be interested in my list a little too much, methinks.

Bird Definition of the Day.

Suppressor. He is the worst birder of them all. He suppresses bird information, deliberately, but also sometimes unknowingly. Perhaps he passes on info about a rare find deliberately too late, leaving the suppressor as the only one to see the said rare bird. He is to be avoided at all costs and should be outed immediately. Not met one yet but I know the fear of the word now. He is the boogie-man of the bird world. Information should be shared.