The unsound approach

The three and a quarter-day diary of exceptional fieldsmen (thanks Lee!)

 

27th September, 2009

DB & TCL set off from Glasgow on a mission to the far north of Scotland to complete survey work on the bleak tops; this with a slight diversion via Orkney. In true Scottish hospitality we arrived at midnight after some questioning by the local constabulary regarding headlights (I never knew it was illegal to have full beams on in towns!) and speed, but with no paper work to complete, only to be greeted with a pint on the house. A grand start.

28th September, 2009

A dull and dank day greeted us. We joined the queue of typically sober looking pseudo-twitchers waiting for the Gill’s Bay Ferry and sussed the prime spot for Albatross/Gannet spotting out of the rain. A female Orca surfaced heralding a great start to a miserable day, a Sooty Shear made a pass of the boat, and a remarkably albatross-like Gannet loafed with a bunch of adults on the water before we arrived on South Ron. With eight layers, three hoods and two pairs of gloves DB felt happy leaving the warmth of the car to indulge in a spot of twitching with 60 other fashionably late birders. The stroll down the lane saw DB re-evaluating whether this was a good idea when the first call went out revealing the ‘crane’ to actually be a Herring Gull! Anyway, the crane stood in the rain and looked miserable before feeding away amongst the Pinks and occasionally practising impersonating other animals. A seriously smart bird and one worthy of a second look once the rain had ceased.

We headed off to trawl the swathes of Pinks and Goldies in search of a ‘Blue’ Snow or an AGP but after several hours the sum total was a single Greenland White-front picked out by TCL and wet feet so we headed north to Deerness in search of resident AGP’s. The ploughed field which had played host to them was devoid save one Goldie on the verge of death. No sooner had we relocated to check the final 3% of the field over a shallow ridge than a deluge of Goldies flighted in onto the field. Out on the left of the flock two fine adult AGP’s forged the way across the furrows. Unfortunately before we had time to paparazzi the pair the entire flock lifted and headed off over the fields. We chased and continued to scan for additional birds but no joy.  The final couple of hours were spent searching the bays, fields and shelter belts (inc Langskaill – damn REV!) before taking in the crane one last time. By now we had this yank Grus all to ourselves and it finally gave up its atypically shy behaviour to strut around the field even making a brief flight only to land in amongst a seriously unhappy flock of Lapwings.

We left the South Ron and headed back towards Gill's Bay. A Leach's Petrel darted across the waves and the usual mob of Porpoises put in an appearance. With an hour and a half of light left we decided not to blast down the A9 to our B&B in Golspie but bird along the way. A large flock of Goldies to the left of the road caught our eye and we broke away from the train of birders to pull in and scan for more AGP’s. TCL did a fine manoeuvre and reversed down the A9 so we could pull into the field entrance and scan more easily. As TCL commenced ploughing through the 1500 Goldies DB noticed a bird hunkered down in a furrow in amongst the winter wheat. A dark cap with fine crown stripe, a bright yellow beak and discrete black tip, beautifully edged scaps and a plain face shouted Upland Sand. Incredulous DB blasted away a few long exposures (the light was worse than abysmal). TCL jumped out of the car and scoped the beauty up. We managed a couple of minutes of prime photage plus a few extra grainy digi-shots, enough to back up the find and no doubt initiate a wave of nausea for those who not only dipped the this, but also the Crane the following day. This stunner strutted its stuff, pumping its tail and neck-popping along. TCL commented on how the fluffed scaps resembled angels wings, this type of comment is normally reserved for DB in his gayer moments but was actually an accurate description. For over an hour we watched as it probed its way across the winter wheat field before finally dropping over a ridge and out of sight as the light left us. Tragically for those with pagers the Caithness terrain/lack of transmitters prevented the news from reaching the few birders within ten miles of the bird, particularly ironic given that the bird was visible with the naked eye from the A9 and they had all driven right past it! We opted out of the drive south in favour of a celebratory steak and pint, and a second shot at the bird in the morning., unfortunately the hotel had run out of steak so we had a few more pints to make up for it!

29th September

The day dawned as any vis migger would wish with a light northerly airflow and clear skies after the deluge of rain over the preceding days. We headed out for first light and searched the field but to no avail. A couple of car loads of birders added a few extra eyes and a wider search of the area failed to reveal anything other than a prime looking golf course (did anybody search this – DB thinks not).  By now the sky rippled with Pink-feet heading south, Whoopers joined in with the action, and small groups of pipits, larks, and hirundines added some background interest.  TCL phones out the negative news and finds out from Will Soar at RBA that the Sandhill is still on Orkney, much to our surprise given the weather.

Following a hearty Scottish breakfast we opted to head south as work commitments called somewhere in the deepest highlands. Due to the overwhelming pull of migrating birds we faffed around close to some bushes, scanned a few more Goldie fields and even dropped in on a regular Yank Wigeon spot in Wick, all of which fruitless (not that we were complaining in the slightest).  The A9 lead us south and away from the action. By some miracle a single message flashed up on the pager…’Sandhill Crane still present Burwick, South Ron until 1012 when flew SE’…flew SE!!!! Holy ****!!! By our calculations that would put it heading out to sea, next stop Denmark? Surely it would cut back in towards the Scottish coast and head south-west. Dilemma, do we carry on south and work like conscientious surveyors hoping that we may encounter a Buzzard or maybe even a Merlin, or do we go Usher stylee and U-turn back up the coast on a mission to intercept a bird that might not even be flying along the coast? Clearly we spun it and headed back north. A close examination of the map revealed a couple of likely interception points. Noss Head was an obvious bet but Sarclet, to the south, was marginally closer and sandwiched between the sea and a big hill. By now the Crane had been flying for 10 minutes although we reckoned on an hour before we had any chance of intercepting it. Twenty-five minutes later we were pulling up in to a random persons garden at the tip of a dead end lane in Sarclet. The residents were out so we established a vantage point in their drive-way and prepared ourselves. Camera’s out, scopes up, tripod legs tightened, and one of Hannah’s muffins consumed. This is what happened next…

1012 Sandhill leaves Burwick, South Ronaldsay and heads SE

1014 Pager message alerts the world to the above event

1020 TCL & DB make the decision the spin the vehicle and attempt an interception

1045 TCL & DB screech into someone’s back garden. Luckily the residents aren’t at home and we are able to establish our base here for the next 9 minutes

1051 TCL picks up his bins and immediately detects a Crane off to the NW circling over a nearby bungalow. The scopes are swung into action and the bird is confirmed as the Sandhill! The UK’s first mainland record. The bird circles out past us and hits the coast where it thinks twice before deciding that flying over land is a better option.

1054 The news is phoned out and the chase is on. DB clings on for dear life, TCL puts his right foot down. The initial chase is hampered as we have to back-track north to meet the A9 scattering kittens, small children and old ladies all over the show. Crofters shake their fists and young lovelies look on in admiration (its possible DB’s memory has been distorted due to experiencing extreme G’s).  More critically fuel consumption is high and the petrol light comes on indicating that we only have 50 miles of fuel left in the tank.

1115 After 11 nail biting minutes DB relocates the crane out of the passenger window at Latheron. The bird is motoring with amazingly elastic wing-beats. TCl overtakes his 23rd car in 11 miles then slams on to let them all go past whilst we pap away at this phenomenal sight. Once again the Crane overtakes us but this time we’re already on the A9 and the bird is clearly visible tracking along the coast. The road takes us away from the coast but out of DB’s passenger window that distinctive silhouette is still caning it along.

1127 At last it slows. A ridgeline descends to the coast ahead of us and it is apparent that there is no way this bird is cutting out over the sea to get around it. For nearly 10 minutes its circles up above Dunbeath gaining enough height to pass the ridge ahead of it.

1133 Its off…. Like a Tufted Puffin in the Swale the bird powers on SW. We jump back into the car, the dial of the rev counter permanently in the red. The road now swings back to the coast over the ridgeline and we realise a direct interception is imminent. Three miles and 12 over-takings later we mount the grassy verge as the Sandhill aims straight for my window. The camera machine-guns in to action as it cruises by, breaking the ridge and away. Back on the road the bird is viewable through the windscreen as it follows the A9. At 48mph the bird stays in the same position in the window for several miles before finally slowing for another spell of circling. It is apparent now that a distinct ridgeline running just inland is keeping this bird on track. To the SE Tarbet Ness is clearly visible and the coastline stretching away beyond it but there seems to be no interest from the Crane in making this sea crossing. Off again, this time tracking along the ridge and maintaining considerable speed.

1155 We pull into Helmsdale and fling ourselves out of the car. The road is back down close to sea-level but the bird is now 300m above us and still cruising. A bunch of locals welcome it into Sutherland with a large banner clearly visible to it as it passes by.  Onwards and the ridge and roads now start to diverge. The bird is still clearly visible and TCL and DB can enjoy some more leisurely driving than the previous hour. By now we have less than 23 miles of petrol left and opt to continue going until the fuel runs out.

1216 The bird is now a dot as we pull in just north of Brora. The ridgeline is broken by Strath Brora, and on the south side a large hill stands in its way. For ten minutes we watch as it circles higher and higher probably reaching approximately 500m asl. All of a sudden its away again. Shit. Panic. The A9 goes through Brora at 30mph. The road is longer than as the Crane flies. Shit. The bird is still visible as we hit the first house but for the first time in over an hour we lose sight of it. We burst free of Brora and pull in at the first possible opportunity. If it had been doing 50mph then it would have cleared the valley by now. The cloud appeared to have dropped and as we scanned a skein of Greylags whiffled into view out of the grey, presumably escaping the weather.***! Still no sign. Had it gone up Strath Brora to investigate the lochs? Had it been lost in the cloud? Had we been too slow? Where the hell was it?

1225 We phone out our first negative news but do not give up. A quick glance at the map reveals Loch Fleet to the south, could it have dropped in here? As we head south stubble field after stubble field pass by and we realise the potential for this bird to drop in anywhere and no doubt pass right down the country with out ever been seem again (or at least until some Spanish birder picks it up with the Cranes there). Loch Fleet proves fruitless and we have to finally give up to get to work. So frustrating with so many questions left to answer about its route but undoubtedly one of the birding highlights of our lives. We eventually make it down off the hills with -16 miles of petrol in the tank, so much for need petrol to power a car!

Later that day and unsubstantiated claim came from further down the coast. It would seem that if it were genuine that the bird either came down in between sightings or, that it had followed the ridge west up the Dornoch Firth before carrying on the south side and around. Even so it seems strange that it would a) take so long, and b) if it did come down, that it didn’t feed for longer. Could that sighting refer to one of the Tain Common Cranes?

So how fast do Sandhill Cranes fly? That is the question of everyone’s minds these days and now we can provide the definitive answer. The table below provides some indication of the minimum speed the Crane travelled at, including several periods of circling and assuming the shortest route was taken on every leg.

 

Average speed of the Sandhill Crane

Time

Location

Distance since last report (miles)

Duration of flight

Average Speed

1012

Burwick, South Ronaldsay

-

-

-

1054

Sarclet

25.4

42

36 mph

1115

Latheron

11.5

21

33 mph

1127

Dunbeath

3.0

12

15 mph

1133

Dunbeath

0

6

-

1155

Helmsdale

12.4

22

34 mph

1216

Brora

11.1

21

32 mph

1225

Brora

0

9

-

1425

Kildary

20.2

120

10 mph

 

Overall between its time of departure and our last sighting it average 29 mph over the 6o miles it had covered, however as stated earlier, at times, following a spell of ascent, it was able to maintain a steady 45-50mph.

The final question – where is it now? It could have taken one of three main routes: 1) followed on its course and passed down the Great Glen, out over Fort William before coming down somewhere between there and Oban, 2) gone due south and passed through the Spey Valley; 3) done a 90o left and decided that Strathbeg is where it’s at then followed an eastern route south along the coast of the UK. By now (Friday morning) it is probably not in the UK so anything I write is merely killing time instead of doing the washing up, but just in case it has been side tracked then the following places would seem logical to keep you eyes to the sky. If it took route 1 then it probably passed down the Mull of Kintyre. Could it have gone to Islay? It may well have gone over Myroe levels and then where? Tacumshin? Will it turn up on Mizen or Cape? If it had taken route 2 then it could be anywhere but its possible that it would still try to go SW in which case Wales and the SW offer a good bet. Lands End, Sennen, Drift Res…? Or what about route 3? Well it could have passed over Montrose Basin, down to Aberlady, along the NE coast past Flamborough, over Spurn, across the Wash, a quick stop to see relatives at Pensthorpe and on to Dover/Dunge. However we just don’t think it will do that. Either way, don’t dismiss any Cranes anywhere!

30th September

Skye – it never has anything – why? ‘Cos its massive! A day of survey work here produced 10 different Golden Eagles and 8 White-taileds with 10 eagles on view at once. Skeins of Barnies headed south accompanied by one female Teal (why did it chose Barnies?). Too much habo, not enough time.