Blue-winged Warbler Story; a personal account

Cover Photo: Blue-winged Warbler?, New Haven Co., CT, USA from the Surfbirds galleries © Mark S. Szantyr

By Chuck Kruger and photos by Paul Hackett and Chuck Kruger


Chuck Kruger, an American living in Ireland, gets caught up in the fever surrounding one of his native birds that got blown across the Atlantic onto Cape Clear off the coast of Ireland. This Blue-winged Warbler was the first record for Europe.

Tail-end of Hurricane Sets A Record On Cape

On Tuesday, October third, the tail-end of Hurricane Isaac sweeps over Cape Clear, winds gusting seventy miles per hour. I know, because, out for a walk and a vibrating peek at mountainous waves, wind-gauge me’s flattened beside a rabbit track on top of a headland. To lift a single foot off Mother Earth means to lose balance. To brace both feet, while hunkering down into a sturdy crouch to leave time for the gust to pass, isn’t always enough. This wind brooks no light-weights, no amateurs.

The next morning, skies clearing, sea spit clouding every windowpane, swells massive but not mighty, a visiting professional, more ornithologist than twitcher, peers about Cape’s waist, a highly protected miniature valley which includes Cotter’s Garden – and hopes, though for what he knows not. Something off course. Something from way west.

A bit after nine he sees a flick of loud yellow. As he zeroes in, praying that the hurricane just might have dropped off an accidental hitchhiker from North America, the man does a double-take, sees something never before recorded in Europe. Yes, hold your breath, ye mighty, ye bird-loving connoisseurs: he’s happened upon nothing less than an occasionally sulky but definitely perky Blue-winged Warbler.

Word goes out. Mobiles ring. Pagers shake with MEGA ALERTS advising of the rarity’s whereabouts.

When I board the afternoon return ferry in Baltimore, having had a collection of monthly errands to complete in Skibbereen that day, I hear of the landing of this special guest, read his pedigree in a dog-eared East Coast Peterson Guide. I learn that he normally winters anywhere from Mexico south as far as Panama, that he has the tiniest black V in front of his eye, that his mature head, throat and chest are bright yellow, his wings bluish and barred.

And suddenly, about me alight a flock of birders from all over Ireland and England, a few from Scotland, one from Switzerland, four from the Scillies via rental plane (pilot waiting for their return at Cork Airport) – with hundreds more underway, some flying in to Cork on £5 return tickets from Stansted (not to mention the £45 tax). Before departing home all grab seven critical items, they tell me: bins (binoculars), pods (tripods), plastics, wellies, waterproofs, scopes, notebooks, and mobiles.

The ferry skipper, advised that another passenger’s arriving momentarily, waits, ferry poised for sailing. Eight minutes late the Kerry Man sprints the length of the pier and off we go. We’re told of an extra sailing made for birdwatchers later this afternoon, of another special run departing Cape at 8:00 pm. I overhear a crew member informing a past Bird Obs warden that a Sparrow Hawk has just been sited quartering the terrain of Cotter’s Garden. It’s somewhat loudly decided that if the Hawk doesn’t get the Warbler, then the Warbler will be leaving about three minutes before this now late ferry disembarks.

Once on Cape, my wife and I bounce home in our banger, unpack the supplies, read the mail. But, truth to tell, a peculiar curiosity gets the better of us and we find ourselves setting forth for Cotter’s Garden. Halfway there we realise that while we’ve remembered camera and zoom, we’re such pre-novice birdwatchers that we’ve forgotten – how silly of us – binoculars. We continue anyway.

There, in a field that once was a garden, a group of thirty-odd birders, and Cape’s present Bird Obs warden, Steve Wing, stand in a zigzag line, focusing on a large clump of nettle and Japanese knotweed. The excitement’s tangible. Cell phones are having a field day, numbers regularly being punched in and farcical melodies – also never before heard in this garden – sometimes superseding birdsong. Along the forward line urgent whispers make the rounds. Odd paraphernalia lie underfoot, rucksacks, collapsible stools, video cameras. Most bird buffs alternate peering through green canvas-wrapped mounted scopes and binoculars. Here and there someone’s glued to a video camera fitted to the back of a two-foot scope.

Suddenly, having all but given up hope, I see him, a blur of yellow. It’s as though the entire group’s been given a shot of adrenaline. Caught in this collective, I want to shout Hallelujah and for a moment imagine Handel’s chorus reaching crescendo in the shrubbery behind. Why, I’m in on a not rare but unique sighting. My approaching-sixty wife’s hopping up and down with the glee of a child who’s just seen Goldilocks emerge from a forest with three docile bears in tow.

Again and again, we watch, mesmerised, as the warbler darts from plant to plant, to a nearby willow, across the field to a stand of pines, then back to where he first went to ground. He’s not glimpsed for twenty long minutes. Then somebody spots him and yet again the crowd goes rapt. A Scottish birder scrutinizes him gulping a caterpillar. Someone from the North watches a grub disappear down his gullet. A Peregrine – not a Sparrow Hawk – cruises across the valley. While most are aware of his presence, I notice that, apart from we two pre-novices, no one bothers to follow his flight.

The crowd swells. A few more Islanders join the group. Then we hear the ferry return from its first extra run, see a dozen or so birders leap off, race the length of the pier, dash along Tra Kieran, sprint up the hill. They join us breathless, pods hitting the ground, scopes focused by panting, gasping creatures who might just be that second too late. But aren’t.

On the way home, light fading, we bump into an Island woman, describe what’s going on, including the birders hotfooting it from ferry to garden. She recalls a similar incident years ago when she too saw a group of visitors madly dashing from the ferry to God knows where. When she stopped one of them, wanting to help, she asked, "Who’s died?"

Such is the fervor exuded by this exotic event.

The next day, the germ of a short story flushed from under cover in the morning, I return to Cotter’s Garden after lunch. Three times as many people in the field, more above it. The few who talk whisper, often urgently. I learn that a third of those from the day before who saw the bird have gone on up the west coast, some to see a Paddyfield Warbler that’s arrived in Allihies, others further north to check on a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I overhear a man on his mobile discussing his flight to Inishmore from Galway later in the day.

Occasionally the birders about me take time away from the Blue-winged Warbler to check out another visitor from America, a Red-eyed Vireo, who’s flitting about in the upper branches of a nearby sycamore.

These bird enthusiasts give my wife and me pause to wonder.

Thinking twice about going as far afield as Skibbereen, let alone Cork, we can but gawk at the 50 to 70 visitors (so far) from England alone who’ve dropped everything to see this celebrity. One man tells me that his wife left for work before he got up on Wednesday. Rising at seven himself, he checked his pager. Made a call. Packed. Left for Heathrow. There called his wife to wish her happy birthday before he flew to Cork and headed for Baltimore in a rented car.

Such is the dedicated passion that underlies birdwatching.

I suggest to him that his wife wasn’t a grass widow – he confesses that he doesn’t play golf – but, as we stand in line looking around us, a thicket widow. He laughingly agrees.

Then I hear a man complaining that someone’s taken, or stolen, his knapsack from the middle of the field. Concerned, several of us go to help him find it. He informs us it’s red, we can’t miss it.

Oh my. What a day. Such a buzz. But now this.

"It’ll turn up," he’s assured. "Nothing’s stolen around here. This is west Cork."

But he’s distraught, confesses his beloved telescope’s in there too.

Abruptly, remembering lost glasses sometimes found on the top of my head, I ask him about the pink contraption on his back. He feels the straps over his shoulders. Disbelievingly he sheds the affair. Looks around, slack-jawed.

Such is the excitement of a record sighting, something another birder tells me happens once every three to five years. He should know. He’s one of seven or eight in all of England who’s seen more than 500 different bird species. Over 200 already puts you into an elite group.

Look, there goes the Blue-winged. There. By the post. Brash, his colours! These Yanks! In the willow. Down to earth for another sulk or night. And into the European bird guides, all of which now need revision.

And of the 600-plus birders who visited Cape the first five days of the Warbler’s presence? Over 200 dropped in from England alone, spending, on average, £200 each. That’s £40,000 at a conservative guess.

'Tis an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. Thanks, Hurricane Isaac.