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Sunday, 29 November 2015

The True Story behind the pictures of the Aerotwich

Twitcher’s Tales No. 1 The Tale of the Ancient Murrelet
‘Welcome aboard gentlemen our hostess will shortly be coming around the cabin with refreshments’ (nervous laughter).
Before that I have a few safety messages to give you. First - when we ditch (when!) we have a standard order of departure. You go first (right passenger),
I go second (pilot) then its right rear first followed by left rear passenger. Just walk out on the wing and drop off the end into the sea – and don’t hang about.
‘Oh I forgot the life jackets – in fact come to think of it lets put them on before we take off.’
So that was it, there we were, ready for take off at Rhoose in a 4 seater Piper Arrow destination Lundy! Alongside us another plane with pilot and three more twitchers on board heading for the same place. The first recorded mass aero twitch from Rhoose no less.
The reason – well an Ancient Murrelet (of course or off course) from the Pacific Ocean, probably the most unimaginable British tick of the late 20th Century, had taken up residence in Betty’s Cove on Lundy. However Ancient Murrelet is sort of crepuscular, in that it goes out to sea in the evening and comes back to a hole in the rocks in the morning where it remains out of sight for the rest of the day.
In other words – blink and you’ve missed it!!
So why then was it necessary to go to all this trouble I hear you ask? Well the problem was tides. The boat to Lundy is subject to tides and for the week ahead would only be able to get to Lundy in mid morning – too late for the crepuscular Murrelet. It would then leave in the afternoon before the pesky yankee auk woke up after a day of slumber in his hole in Betty’s Bay.
So we had to get there pretty damn quick after dawn if we were to get a result.
Hence the aircraft option.
The take off was no problem and for the record ‘Red Leader’ was piloted by a 737 Pilot from Aruba Airways home on leave and the second plane was piloted by an amateur pilot who incidentally also owned the planes; great friend to have in circumstances like these. We had all previously been weighed to ensure ‘balance’. The significance of this will become apparent to anyone who knows the passenger list. Red Leader – wearing life jackets – left to right Richard Smith, Dave (Jake) Gilmore and Dave Palmer and in the second plane Peter Lansdown, Stefan Golaszewski and Hugh Harrop (now of Shetland Wildlife Tours).
It took little time to get to Lundy where to our surprise no runway was to be seen. There was a fair breeze from the west that meant we had to land across the island and not along it but we were assured (?) that the ‘runway’, though officially out of use, was in fact that thin track covered in sheep with a wall across it that didn’t quite meet in the middle. The idea was to aim to go through that hole.
Like dam busters we made a mock approach to get the hang of it. As we zoomed down over the wall at about 50 feet one thing was obvious – hundreds of sheep, many of which were hiding against the west side of the wall. There was nothing for it but to buzz the sheep away and for the next 10 minutes or so we managed to shift most of them to the edge of the seemingly rapidly shrinking runway.
So we made our first landing attempt that turned out to be a little hair raising. Then we did it for real and hit the grass whilst stalling and were immediately engulfed in a hail storm of sheep s—t that pinged off the wings and windshield. The hole in the wall was a blur as we burst through to the west side and eventually ground to a halt.
We remembered the drill and left the plane – now a weird brown colour – in the order for ditching. Our pilot began to talk down the second plane on the radio. ‘Lower, lower, straighten up lower – soon you’ll hear the stall warning’ ‘ ‘Its been on for the last 20 seconds’ came the shrieked reply and then they were down too.
Without further ado we set off for Betty’s Cove not waiting for the stragglers and we had set up scopes and were scanning before they arrived.

So where is it then? Can’t see it anywhere.
Bryan Bland once called this the feeling of the sinking gut – dip time. Were we too late? Perhaps it had gone? For an hour, maybe two, each of us scanned the open sea and interrogated every dot, but to no avail. Until we got down to the ‘Well lets give it another half hour / ten minutes / five minutes – well we’ll give it five more minutes and if it hasn’t shown up by then we’ve definitely dipped’’ We’ve all been there haven’t we?
As even Peter was packing up his scope Hugh Harrop (numerous expletives deleted) shouted ‘I’ve got it!’ well that’s what he meant anyway.
Panic ensued as put away scopes were dragged out again and hurriedly placed on quivering tripods. Eventually the little beauty floated into the cove directly beneath us giving ‘stunning views’ before, as predicted it suddenly flew up to a ledge and vanished into a hole never to be seen again that day.
High fives – tick time we were elated and quickly grabbed our gear to head back to the two pilots ‘kicking stones’ – big ones.
In the rush to get off to Betty’s Cove after landing we had paid just a passing reference to the fact that there were boulders at the end of the ‘runway’.
On landing we approached these stones slowing down through fairly long dragging grass. Taking off was going to be an altogether different problem – hit a boulder and we would literally crash over the cliffs.
Weight calculations now came under review. The grass had dragged so much on landing that we may not even reach take off speed. Could we stop before hitting the boulders? Who put these b----y boulders here anyway?
Red leader decided to ‘have a go’. Having a go was not what the passengers wanted to hear. Imagine it ‘ Welcome aboard this 747 – the runway is too short for us, its covered in sheep’s dos, and so is the plane, some clot has strewn boulders about at the end of the runway – but hey lets have a go eh –
Remind me never to fly Aruba! Look on the bright side – we’re wearing life jackets and the wind is freshening.
Do you know that kind of willing action that Jockeys have when they are straining to get the horse off the ground before Beacher’s Brook. That curious rocking backwards and forwards in the saddle shouting get up you B-----d. Well half way down the runway that was what our pilot looked like. The grass was holding us back, the sheep-do was flying through the air – but we certainly were not! – in fact the only place we looked like going was into a boulder and over the edge.
Suddenly with a giant heave on the stick we clambered into the air and then the wind had us in its grip and we were up and away. A turn to starboard to head for home but down on the ground we could see the other plane ‘crawling’ along the runway doing a speed that had no right to result in flight. They scraped off the ground somewhere very close to the boulder field it was that close.
Our pilot, clearly elated – it was never like this in a 737 - turned around to have a chat and suddenly we hit the wind shear coming off Lundy and plunged into a dive. Oops! As if we had not had enough adrenalin for one day he then did a victory half roll wing dip to the MV Oldenberg with twitchers on the deck with shear astonishment on theIr faces. We could almost hear them saying those Bs have seen the bird! Jake making big ‘tick’ signs through the window at them.
They didn’t see it of course because it was tucked up all day in the little hole that we saw it go into – life’s like that sometimes! Gripper.
Two pilots and six happy tickers landed safely at Rhoose later that day –mission accomplished.


MITCH said...

Well worth it !

Alex said...

2 trips on the Oldenburg for me. First time saw the bird but it was a long long way off, so a return trip a few weeks later was in order for much better views. Another reason to fly is that bloody hill aka Heart Attack Hill. Not sure I could race up there these days like I did in 1990!

The Ancient Murrlet was my 3rd tick in 3 days, after Alpine Accentor & Black-headed Bunting. Things got even worst as within a week I had also seen Pallas's Sandgrouse and Tree Swallow. 1990 the greatest Spring ever!

Seymour said...

Epic Rich! Re. Alex's last paragraph - where was yours truly for the 2 weeks when all this happened? In Kenya (so shouldn't moan really!) and by the time we returned home, all those goodies had departed our shores with the exception of the murrelet. With hindsight, if one was going to hang around long enough for me to see it then that would've been the bird of choice and by some distance....

Steve Hinton said...

I was in Holland for a wedding for 5 days.
Picked up by a frind at Heathrow and greeted with an Ancient Murrelet on Lundy. Then home to an answerphone message from Alex about B H Bunting in Pembs.
Next few days were spent on various islands, and of course the Tree Swallow.
Gutted that I missed the Sandgrouse on Shetland with the words from my wife "you should have gone to Shetland, you didn't have to go to Holland"