It is a small brown bird with no ostentatious marking and unremarkable to the untrained eye. But a single female American blackbird spotted on a remote island in the Orkneys has prompted birdwatchers to charter planes, drive through the night and catch ferries to in the hope of catching a glimpse of it.
More than 15 planes have landed on North Ronaldsay in the past two days, and dozens of birdwatchers have arrived by boat, since news spread that the first red-winged blackbird ever spotted in Britain – and indeed in Europe – had landed on this distant Scottish outpost.
The vagrant bird, which experts think may have hitchhiked from its usual habitat in North America on a transatlantic boat, was first seen on Saturday.
Since then planes have been chartered from Kirkwall airport – with others coming from airstrips across the UK – to fly to Orkney. Birdwatchers from Devon, Bristol, London and Yorkshire have taken planes, trains or driven for 12 hours before boarding ferries in the hope of ticking the visitor off their lists.
The bird was spotted on Saturday by Simon Davies, principal assistant warden of the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.
Davies said had been carrying out a routine census of breeding and migrating birds when he heard a call he did not recognise.
“I didn’t realise what it was at first, but then the penny dropped,” he said. “It’s fantastic, it’s every birders dream to see the first bird of its kind in the UK – and if it’s the first in Europe, even better.”
The observatory has been swamped with calls, while the news brought a glut of visitors to the normally quiet island.
“I tweeted about the news and it went crazy, we had nine planes to the island on Sunday and four or five today,” Davies said. “It’s incredibly exciting and top twitchers like to see these very rare birds for themselves and are willing to pay a lot of money to do so.”
Among the first visitors was James Hanlon, author of UK500: Birding in the Fast Lane. He took a plane with three others from Nottinghamshire after hearing the news.
“The magnitude of the rarity of this bird is what makes it so exciting,” he said. “We don’t know exactly where it has come from, but where it is and the way it is behaving all suggests it is a wild bird.”
Hanlon said his phone had “gone crazy” as news of the sighting spread, and he had booked the flight without hesitation. “It cost more than the average taxi fare, but I’m not telling you how much because my wife might read it,” he said.
He said some enthusiasts had driven for 12 hours to get to Orkney to take a ferry to the island, while others had booked a one-way plane ticket to get there and were not sure how they would get home. But it was all worth it, he insisted.
“It’s hard to put into words what it feels like [when you see it]. Seeing a rare bird is special, and seeing a very rare bird is just an amazing thing to witness,” Hanlon said.
The male red-winged blackbird is black with a red shoulder and yellow wing bar; the female is dark brown and – whisper it – rather unremarkable.
“The male is quite smart, but the female is as dull as anything,” said Hanlon. “Still, it doesn’t resemble any of our birds and that makes it pretty special.”
How the bird arrived in Ronaldsay is a mystery, but experts say it could have caught the right winds or the bird could have hitched a lift at least part of the way on a boat.
“There is a possibility that it was on a ship across the north Atlantic, and when it saw land it hopped off,” said Andre Farrar of the RSPB. “We are also on the receiving end of a jet stream, so it’s possible that it was caught in a storm, has hit the jet stream and ended up here – no one knows really.”
Despite North Ronaldsay being “hideous” to get to, Farrar said he expected many birdwatchers to make the trip. “A red-winged blackbird is a red-letter day for birdwatchers,” he said. “And no one knows how long it will stay around. It could be 20 minutes, it could be a few weeks – that’s in the lap of the gods.”
He said there had been a recent sighting in Shetland of a hermit thrush, also from North America, which increased the chances that the red-winged blackbird was also a wild bird.
Red-winged blackbird breeds from Alaska and Newfoundland south to Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, and Guatemala, with isolated populations in western El Salvador, north-western Honduras, and north-western Costa Rica.
It is very common in North and Central America – with flocks as large as a million-strong, and the full number of breeding pairs across North and Central America perhaps exceeding 250m in peak years.
Josh Jones of Birdguides said it was a good sign that the red-winged blackbird had survived into a third day on North Ronaldsay.
“It terms of the keen birders and twitchers who chase rare birds, the red-winged blackbird has never been seen in the UK so it’s about as big as it gets,” he said.
But with the lone bird so far off course, it was unlikely to ever find its way home, he added. “This bird is treasured, but its fate is probably not a happy one,” he said. “These vagrant birds are the intrepid ones who have a short but exciting life, and give a lot of pleasure to people along the way.”