Early autumn on Guernsey can be really great for migrants but it really depends on the wind direction. Most of the time the wind is not coming from the right place but every now and then it switches to an easterly or south-easterly direction which pushes the restless birds out into the Channel and onto our island. However you have to be quick, because it usually seems to be the first morning after the change which is best - it almost seems to catch the birds by surprise. If the winds stay easterly the birds appear to have time to re-set and continue on their usual migration routes. This is why changeable weather is the best here. Some recent autumns have had days and days of easterlies which look good but haven’t produced anything. So when the wind shifted round to the south-east on my birthday, I was out at first light at Pleinmont on 24th August, fully expecting to see some birds that had been displaced from nearby France.
Walking to the Societe fields, I quickly saw at least 4 Whinchat and a Pied Flycatcher around the lower field which gave me an indication that some birds had arrived at least, which was a relief. I crossed the road and skirted the edge of the upper field and I picked up a bird flying in from the east. I couldn’t see any detail on it against the sky but it was bunting-like and, given the date and conditions, was clearly going to be an Ortolan Bunting, which was the number one prediction for today so not at all a surprise. It dropped into the crops and I followed it but it was very flighty and crossed the road again back to the lower field. After a couple more flights it dropped onto a bramble and rested where I could definitely confirm its identity (and take risible photos!). Even though it was predictable, I was very pleased since it was the first Ortolan I had seen for a while, and the first I had found for years.
I put the news out on the WhatsApp group in case anybody was nearby and wanted to have a look. Wayne and Dave appeared soon after as they were just round the corner, but the bird was rather elusive and had disappeared somewhere in the crops. We waited for a bit and we suddenly had a bird flying around which looked like the Ortolan, and then we realised there was a second bird with it which also looked like an Ortolan. Yes, there were two Ortolans flying around. We think that this second bird had just arrived and perhaps the first bird had flown up to join it - no doubt calling to make themselves aware of each other. The birds wouldn’t settle and quickly flew off towards Mabel’s field, where we wandered off to see if they had landed. It was very confusing as there were lots of finches flying round everywhere, the birds all being very restless. We thought we might have seen them go back to the original seed field so we returned there again. Scanning the lower Societe field again, we did see the two Ortolans again briefly very low down in the back of the field.
So we were on the roadside looking across the field and hoping that the 2 Ortolans would give better views, when we picked up a pair of birds high above the field, against the sky, which we thought may be the buntings reappearing. However, immediately as we put our bins on them we were confused, as they were obviously a pair of small warblers, and I thought they were so small that they could have been Wrens. Obviously this was unusual behaviour for warblers, gaining height above us, and not really going anywhere, just seemingly hanging about in the sky. We couldn’t get any detail on them as they were quite high up and silhouetted but, we finally noticed that they were also calling, and then the rather large penny dropped - “zit, zit, zit, zit…..” - the two birds were FAN-TAILED WARBLERS.
We realised that we were so focussed on relocating the Ortolans that we had actually already heard the distinctive Fan-tailed Warbler call a few minutes ago but it didn’t really click in our heads because we were listening for bunting calls. It goes to show that context can really trick you - if we had been in the Med, we’d have probably noticed these birds ages ago. Anyway, the birds dived down from the sky and into the hedge at the back of the field where they were being very elusive. We kept seeing a bird pop out and perch up for a short period but it never stayed out for very long at all. Sometimes one or the other came into the centre of the field but they were always so distant for anything other than rubbish photos.
After a while of enjoying these birds, I decided that I’d make the most of the morning and see what other migrants I could dig out on the ‘top’ of Pleinmont. I didn’t walk far but I saw about 5 Pied Flycatchers, 6 Whinchats, 4 Yellow Wagtails, a Tree Pipit, a Wheatear and a Swift. Returning to the Societe fields I managed to get a bit closer to the Fan-taileds and took a few better, identifiable photos. This was only the 5th record of the species for Guernsey and almost exactly 10 years since the ‘famous’ pair bred in the Port Soif scrub. After those birds, we were sure that the species was about to colonise the island but, perhaps a run of colder winters thereafter, put the blocks on. It may not be a surprise that the species may be coming back after the last couple of exceptionally warm years.
The next day a few people saw a third Fan-tailed Warbler with the original birds, but this was only a temporary situation and, when I went to see them the day after (26th) there were just the original two birds there. They showed a little better this time and I managed a few (debatably) better shots, and I was especially pleased to get a photo with both birds in the same frame - just. (incidentally, click here to see a much better photo taken by Dave through his scope). One of the birds had obvious white tips to the tail, whilst the other one seemed to have none. I also managed a little sound recording. There didn’t seem to have been any new arrivals on the headland, just smaller numbers of the same species as last time. Later the same day I saw a Greenshank at Pulias feeding in Baie des Pecqueries, the first of the year on the patch.
After a whole summer holidays with poor seawatching winds, on the very final day of the holiday (1st Sep) the direction finally swung to the north and so I headed to Jaonneuse rocks. It was an OK seawatch but most of the birds were pretty far away for me which meant most views were unsatisfying. A single Pomarine Skua went past distantly which was really just a jizz job, and we also had about 5 Sooty Shearwaters amongst the 75+ smaller shearwaters, plus 5 Bonxies. However, easily the best bird of the morning wasn’t distant at all - in fact the opposite. I was just having a wee stretch and, out of the corner of my eye, saw a brief speck of dark colour, flick past the rock below us. I thought it may have been a very low incoming Swallow, but it never came out of the crevice. Puzzled, I got up and peered over the rock in front of us, coming face to face with a newly-arrived adult Purple Sandpiper - I didn’t even need bins for an ID. I beckoned the others to take a look but it flew back up onto the higher rocks to our left. Nevertheless, it gave excellent views. This was a pretty early sighting for this mainly wintering species, although there has been a few similar records recently.
Back to work then, and my week-day birding was back to brief snatches. On 3rd I stopped off at Pulias and saw the Wryneck which had been discovered the day before (well, I say “saw”, if you count flushing a wryneck-coloured shape from your feet “seeing”). However, whilst trying to re-find that, I found something much better, a Dune Bee-fly (Villa modesta) buzzing round a patch of sand on the path, the first bee-fly I have ever seen in Guernsey.
The next weekend arrived and coincided with another suitable seawatching day on 7th Sep at Jaonneuse. Again, it wasn’t really spectacular, but we did see a few things pretty close, the highlight being a superb pale-phase Pomarine Skua with some visible, albeit not very spatulate, ‘spoons’, easily the best I’ve seen in Guernsey. Below is a poor photo (I always fail to remember that I should take video rather than still pics when seawatching). We had already had one more distant Pom earlier in the morning and we also saw 2 Arctic Skuas, 12 Bonxies and a Sooty Shearwater. So nothing super-rare again or any huge movement but seawatching here is so unpredictable. Not only does the wind have to be N or NW on the day itself, but the number of birds also seems to depend on the conditions in the upper channel the day before, as well as the weather in the North Sea a few days previously.
Choosing not to trim the garden Buddleja and letting it grow with abandon has been great this year and we had at least 5 Painted Ladies at once on occasion during the period.