When I got back into UK twitching in late 2013 (with a trip to another Cornish valley), after a 15-year break, I wanted to set a few boundaries: for reasons of family harmony, time, cost, sanity - that type of thing. One was not to twitch islands - or to do so only very rarely. Although I have broken that three times in the past eight years, I think that I have seen only 11 or so birds on my British list solely on islands. So a trip to Orkney - even for a bird so gorgeous and so resonant as a Varied Thrush - wasn't immediately on the cards. All the more so, given that it would have been marital suicide to depart the family holiday. I paid homage in my own way, birding Nanquidno the following day instead.
The sole UK record of Varied Thrush is a thing of wonder. Even most of those who saw the bird - in a Cornish valley in November 1982 - couldn't quite credit it: a passerine from western North America, in an extremely rare colour phase. A one-off, never to be repeated. A bird that my mate Mark Pearman routinely gripped me off with during our Quilmes-fuelled evenings in Buenos Aires: 'you'll never get that back, mate'. The irony did not escape me when, last week, I was sitting in a holiday cottage within a few miles of that Cornish valley (Nanquidno) and received news of a Varied Thrush in Orkney. It proved to be a proper blue and orange pumpkin of a bird, found just before Hallowe'en.
And this sunbed-loving, stripe-heavy thrush was worth every second and every pound. It was peerless. In every way gorgeous, stunning, wondrous. And in such a place. I fell quickly for Papay (as locals call it), and resolved to return for much longer next time.
After enjoying the thrush, we scrambled a couple of hours birding in the island, hopeful for something having arrived on the back of the previous afternoon's rain-heavy easterlies. We managed Lapland Bunting, Siberian Chiffchaff and Pied Flycatcher. We gawped at the Grey Phalarope spinning on a tiny pool beside the amazing Knapp of Hamar.
But as we left Cornwall, the bird was still present. I travelled with the words of a friend who had seen it ringing in my ears: 'this is one bird worth pulling out all the stops for'. Moreover, the bird was on Papa Westray, an island that I had long wanted to visit - for its Neolithic heritage, Fair-trade values and Great Auk history (plus the fact that I edited the only travel guide to Orkney a couple of years back). So not long after I returned home to Norfolk, I found myself on the road north, enjoying the company of Will, Sarah and Dave. Land's End one day, John O'Groats the next.
Throw in lots of Long-tailed Ducks, Great Northern Divers, Tysties, Whooper Swans, proper wild Greylags and the like - and you have a truly splendid twitch. It could have gone even better, had the Eyebrowed Thrush stayed a few more hours in Kincraig. We were on site at dawn, but perhaps four thousand Redwing had departed overnight, sadly taking the Eyebrow with them. We made amends by seeing White-winged Scoter and two Surf Scoter at Musselburgh, then (my first North Sea) Great Shearwater plus Wilson's Phalarope in Northumberland. This haul would make for a good enough twitch, but it is the sight of that Varied Thrush hopping around a croft lawn that will stay with me for at least 39 years...