The strong black current of the River Maine swept rapidly past us in the half-light just before day-break, flecked by white waves and the occasional splash of a surfacing Salmon clocking on for another Tuesday in Antrim.
The gloom meant mercifully we couldn’t see what we were standing in, but Neill Hunt, Dan Pointon and I were certainly glad we had our wellies on as we squelched through the fields.
Suddenly just before 7am, I heard Dan shout further down the bank – and within seconds the stunning Common Nighthawk was whizzing past us, powering along over the fast water, or hitching and turning in the air, part giant Dot Moth, part Arctic Skua and part Leach’s Petrel.
An incredible bird, the huge white wing patches shone out in the gloom, and as the light improved we could see its forked tail, long pointed wings, paler striped belly, dark scarf and white throat as it made pass after pass along the river and over the fields.
Twice it came in so close you could almost touch it, once the bird passed between us as we stood open-mouthed on the bank.
The tranquility of the setting, the grace of the hunting Nighthawk, and the fact there was only three of us (rising to four when Josh Jones, who’d done so much to pin this bird down the day before, joined us) made it just a magical few minutes.
As suddenly as it appeared, the mega-Yankee was gone, off to roost at about 7.20am.
Time to reflect on the journey over from Spurn on Monday night via the 3.45am Stranraer-Belfast ferry, where Neill and I met up with Dan, passing the time expanding our vocabularies as different generations do when sacrificing two nights sleep for a mega rarity.
As far as I can remember modern definitions have changed about a bit – “druid” means absolute shower and “rancid” means well, rancid; but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what “morbid” means.
No problem, Dan is writing us a list, so we can keep down with the kids, if indeed “down” is where they still go.
We docked in Belfast at 6am on Tuesday and hit the M2.
The bridge over the River Maine at Corbally Road in Galgorm near Ballymena was only about a 30 minute drive out of Belfast and as the day got lighter, the long haul was completely vindicated.
Big smiles on Neill’s selfie said it all – the bird had gone for a nap by full light, but those 20 minutes or so were one hell of a close encounter…
For the next hour or two we wandered about looking for the bird’s roost site, as Hooded Crows and Grey Wags moved along the river and Irish Coal Tits zipped between the trees.
What happened next is well-documented elsewhere as just before 11am, Neill suddenly turned and started waving at us, understandably wide-eyed as the Nighthawk was roosting out in the open about 20 feet from him on a single branch in front of a large woodpile we’d checked several times that morning!!!
By now twitch numbers had swelled to at least six people and four horses, as we crawled through the horse manure to watch the Nighthawk at point-blank range while it snoozed in the morning sun…
Hardly daring to breathe, the Nighthawk ignored us as I pressed the “record crap video” button on my P900.
You can see the results here.
I’m sorry to report however that the horses displayed a complete absence of fieldcraft, narrowly missing prostrate birders as they cantered about as if they owned the place.
They pee-ed on discarded bags, coats and ‘scopes and finally and most unforgivably, trotted past us up to the woodpile and walked OVER the Nighthawk, which remarkably stayed put until one of ’em (the black one in case anyone wants a word) kicked the branch and the bird took to the air, gliding past us on long wings to land in a Sycamore 50 feet away.
It moved like a huge gliding and flickering Leach’s Petrel, a fluid motion in flight, deliberate but fast, covering the distance to the tree in just a few seconds.
And that’s where it stayed till the early afternoon at least, dozing in the shade, aloof above the growing numbers of birders beneath it.
What a beast.
We headed back to catch the 3.30pm boat back to Stranraer, via an hour or so of noodling around Carrickfergus, where Black Guillemots and Eiders were close inshore and the huge “Samson and Goliath” cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyards towered over the other side of the bay.
Sailing back into Scotland past the hulk of Ailsa Craig, as Gannets, Kittiwakes and auks whizzed around the boat before we docked at 6pm, we said cheerio to Dan, then drove back to Spurn with Neill at the wheel, pulling into Kilnsea again by 11.30pm on Tuesday night.
Some detour from Beacon Lane.
It had however, been a completely “morbid” day.
I think. Maybe not.
I’ll have to check with Dan.