American Cliff Swallow – Portland Naval Cemetery, Dorset

On Thursday my pager bleeped at work and I knew that this meant mega alert and that a major rarity had turned up. In a perverse way I prayed it wasn’t in Dorset and I was therefore slightly relieved to see it was on the Scillies. It was, however, a bird I needed (American Cliff Swallow) and a very rare one at that. I rang Peter who had already had the mega alert on his pager and he had already made some tentative plans to twitch Scilly at the weekend, probably with Richard Baatsen.

Although I could probably get a day off work if needed it was the cost and the time that would prevent me from twitching Scilly. I would just have to hope that the Swallow hung around until Friday 6th October when we would arrive on the Scillies.

On Friday afternoon at 4pm the mega alert went off again and I was shocked to see that another Cliff Swallow had turned up and that this one was at Portland! My immediate thoughts were that I couldn’t go, I had a couple of very important things still to do at work and we also had our new neighbours coming over for a drink later on and I didn’t want to be late for that.

Dad rang me and offered to pick me up, I said I couldn’t go tonight but we tentatively agreed that providing the bird looked like it hadn’t moved on then we would go together the next morning. As I put the phone rang Peter rang to let me know the news just in case I hadn’t heard. He had already booked non-refundable tickets for a flight to the Scillies at 8:15am on Saturday morning, he had also heard that there was possibly 2 Cliff Swallow on St Mary’s. Peter & Richard were going to fly to Scilly as this probably offered a better chance than the Portland bird and also they might still have time to get to Portland on Saturday afternoon if the Scilly bird(s) had gone and the Dorset bird was still around.

I tried to get hold of Nick at Lush but James answered, he hadn’t heard the news but as soon as we’d finished talking he was on his way. When I got home I rang Nick on his mobile, he was just arriving at the Verne, the bird had been seen until 5:25 as it had moved off just in front of a heavy squall. Luckily for Nick the bird reappeared and was seen from 6:05 to 6:35pm before drifting off with hirundines. The question now was do we wait until news from Portland on Saturday morning before travelling or do we get there for first light, we decided to get there early and Dad arranged to pick me up at 6am.

Our next door neighbours stayed until about 12:30 and I had a fitful few hours sleep before the alam and then Dads quiet knocking on the front door at 5:35am. I packed my pillows into Dad’s new Saab and I tried to sleep before getting to Portland at 6:30.

There were at least 25 other cars parked near the naval cemetery and with it starting to get light we started to walk down to the path past the cemetery. I know from my experience as Dorset Bird Report sub editor that this area of North Portland often records the highest volumes of migrating swallows in Dorset in the autumn. I was therefore a little concerned at the very small numbers of hirundines which had appeared by 7:45am. When they did start to appear it became clear that many of them were flying fairly quickly over our heads, out over the Verne and out of view towards Portland Bill. At this stage I was very pessimistic about our chances.

Just before 8am the 50 or so birders who had assembled further down the path all began to look in the same direction and they all looked pretty serious. We later discovered that they had seen the Cliff Swallow with swallows out over Portland Harbour, a range of at least 500 yards. They said that the Cliff Swallow had been heading towards Chesil and perhaps out to sea! Picking out the Cliff Swallow at this range would be very difficult and I began to think that we were going to need a lot of luck.

Soon afterwards several birders in the group we were with claimed that they had picked it up flying over one of the harbour mouths on the east side of the harbour. They then called it flying over the lighthouse and then over a small blue boat, each time I saw nothing and as more and more people began to say ‘got it!’ I began to feel desperate.

Hopefully the group of distant swallows would continue to follow the line of the harbour wall which would bring them much closer to us. Thankfully they did and I had my first definite sighting just beyond the permanently moored prison ship at about 8:20am. It was fairly distant, say 250 yards but through the telescope I could make out the buffy rump patch, buffy collar, square ended tail and dark isolated cap. The overall appearance was of a stocky brownish bird. We all had several views of it flying back and forward in the small dock area before disappearing further around the eastern side of the Verne. We waited for 45 minutes but no further sign.

We were thinking of going home but we decided to give it another 5 minutes and sure enough the Cliff Swallow was relocated at 9:20 at the Verne Battery beyond where the Long-eared Owls roost.

This time the flock of hirundines contained the first House Martins of the day, the species with which the Cliff swallow had been associating the night before. The flocks were swirling around almost against the cliff face and this allowed us to look up at them as they were inland of us and also at a much closer range, in fact right overhead. We were able to see the diagnostic black throat spot and the whitish under tail coverts. After several minutes of excellent views we decided to venture home. The Cliff Swallow was last seen at 1:20pm.

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