Friday, 28 June 2013


NEEDLE-TAILED SWIFT on Outer Hebrides in June 2013

During the early afternoon on 24th June, relatively novice birdwatcher Dick Myatt contacted a minority Bird Information provider with news of an odd swift, perhaps an Alpine or a leucistic Common Swift. He had seen the bird flying low over Loch Direcleit, just SW of Tarbert town, on the Hebridean island of Harris. Anyhow, little became of the report and the observer failed to follow up with any subsequent sightings.

Incredibly, next day, two visiting birders (Adam Gretton and Mark Cocker) travelling up from Lochmaddy and set on visiting Tarbert for touristy reasons, independently came across the same swift whilst walking towards the town from the quay. Even more remarkably both observers shouted immediately - NEEDLE-TAILED SWIFT - and within seconds of their sighting at 1556 - they had texted their friends Tim and Ann Cleeves whom they had waved goodbye to on North Uist as well as BirdGuides. They continued watching the bird for a couple of minutes, Mark being without his bins at the time, before it disappeared south around the headland and out of view. The two observers then managed to get back to their parked car and relocated the bird flying back and forth over the main road just SW of Tarbert, keeping with it from 1640-1700 hours, at which point they had to return to the Leverburgh ferry terminal. About an hour later, Tristan ap Rheinaullt travelled down from Lewis and connected with the bird flying backwards and forwards over cliffs just SW of the harbour at Tarbert from 1800-1830 hours, eventually losing it as the rain got progressively heavier.

Being the first Needle-tailed Swift to have been seen in the UK since June 1991, some 22 years hence, it's appearance sparked excitement and hysteria amongst hordes of twitchers many miles south and within a couple of hours of the breaking news, several carloads were on their way and heading north. Overnight on the Hebrides had been a mixture of rain and cloud, with the moderate to fresh Northwesterly wind still blowing - reasonable conditions for a swift's overnight stay. Those travelling over from North Uist (Steve Duffield, Ann & Tim and both Mark & Adam again) were the first to arrive that morning (at 0910) even though the twitter network had erroneously announced the bird's continued presence at 0715!

Fortuitously as it turned out, it was that initial network that spurned on both scheduled flyers and Ullapool ferriers to embark. After paying between £250 and £356 for a return flight, just over 20 twitchers were in Tarbert by 0930 hours, including Garry Bagnell's team, Chris Batty's 5, an independent Johnny Mac and another crew headed up by Chris Bromley - the new Dickie Bo in town. Sadly, there was no sign of the bird, but at 1010, Adam Gretton was on the boil again and relocated it once more over Loch Direcleit, within walking distance of  Tarbert town. Pandemonium ensued as the 23 or so observers all scrambled to get on site. The Needle-tailed Swift was flying back and forth over the loch, occasionally utilising neighbouring hillocks to gain speed and drift. It spent ages doing suchlike, in fact over two hours or more, quite often flighting to within inches of observers, Chris Birding obtaining the remarkable image below - the best image I have ever seen of the species.

At around 1220 hours, the RAF on training exercises flew low over Loch Direcleit spooking the swift and it flew off strongly to the south. Some 45 minutes later, I and 22 others arrived from Stornoway, after enduring a near four-hour journey across from Ullapool in NW Highland - and the mood went from exultation to despondency. Was it to be a repeat of the Butt of Lewis Purple Martin where both CDRH and I missed that mega by the same time period after trying to twitch 'on the cheap'?. Although I had seen two Needle-tailed Swifts before in Britain (both in the Northern Isles), I had resorted myself to a classic dip and was in depressive overload. A number of us split up and explored different areas but after two hours of doing this, I eventually became so depressed (particularly after hearing of Baggers' life-thrilling experiences) that I decided to wander back to town and commit suicide. Just as I was about to jump off the cliff, Bob Swann and Peter Stronach relocated it at Plocrapool, as it scythed across the road in front of their car. This was not just 1, 2 or 3 miles away but an astonishing EIGHT miles to the SSE of Tarbert and as I was whisked from the roadside by a beligerrent Ade Kettle and PD, literally threw the car keys at Allan Stewart as we zoomed past him shouting obscenities at me from the kerbside. Clinging on for dear life as Ade negotiated hairpin bends on a 10-foot wide mountain track at breakneck speeds, we were eventually forced to disembark as the road became jammed by abandoned cars - and the Swift was quartering the peak of Ardmeaveg, north of Drinishader. I ran down to the Loch Granoda to get closer views (and perhaps photos) whilst the remainder of the flock jostled and jeered from the roadside. Over the next 50 minutes or so, we were all treated to some nice flyby's, the bird seemingly in control, albeit rarely flapping and keeping to just 5mph or less rather than its usual 75-113. At last it felt good to be alive, although sleep deprivation over the past 24 hours was having some serious affect. Also, the Tarbert to Uig ferry beckoned at 1600 hours, and reluctant as it was, we had to pull ourselves away and leave this saddle-backed himandropus for others to enjoy. Although Frossy was firmly in place in the Caledonian Macbrayne queue, it was with some trepidation that we last-boarded at 1608 - waving goodbye to our colossal aves-rare as the ferry sailed parallel with The Golden Road.

Then, tragedy struck - David Campbell (of Devilbirder fame) 'phoning me at 1745 hours to say that the Needletail had just struck the Drinishader Wind Turbine and fallen to the ground. Elation converted to sadness as David confirmed minutes later that James Hanlon had retrieved the motionless body beneath the monster's blades and sadly the bird was dead - blood seeping from the bill as a result of the collison and falling 60 feet to the ground. A tragic end to an event that had inspired a lot of heartache and emotion - and a loss of a truly rare migratory bird. To have covered so many thousands of miles across Continents to meet such a fate was somewhat incredulous and so, so sad. I spoke my commiserations to David and pondered on my thoughts - it is a strange World that we live in.

The body was retrieved by a local Harris birdwatcher and promised to the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh - David's fateful recording of events being published below.......

In all, just 66 observers connected before this bird's unexpected demise.

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