1999 was an exceptional year for rarities in Britain, and two birds in particular stand out for me. In April, Steve Lister found Britain's fifth (and first twitchable) Crag Martin at Swithland Reservoir. This was so unexpected that when it came on the pager (yes, I had a pager in those days) my first reaction was to assume it was some sort of cock-up. Fortunately sense prevailed, and I got to the reservoir in record time to become only the ninth person to see a Crag Martin in Britain (which then became totally un-noteworthy as thousands of people saw it). This bird surely ranks alongside the Rutland Water Bridled Tern as proof that anything can turn up even in a 'crap' county like Leicestershire.
The only other ticks I had in the first half of the year were the Iberian Chiffchaff at Portland (yawn) and the Baillon's Crake at Stodmarsh, but it was the then annual visit to Scilly in October that made 1999 really outstanding. Just before we arrived for our two weeks on Tresco, both Siberian Thrush and White's Thrush had been found on St Agnes, and the Short-toed Eagle was still hanging around the Eastern Isles. The Siberian Thrush had disappeared by the time we got there, and we spent the first two days of our holiday not seeing the White's Thrush (Rob & Richard saw it briefly). On the 11th we finally got round to having a proper look for the Short-toed Eagle from the southern end of Tresco, and were very fortunate to have it fly right over our heads as it buggered off for good!
And so to the 'Glorious Twelfth'. Not being a huge fan of standing around in a crowd seeing nothing, I decided not to go back to St Agnes, reasoning that I'd see a White's Thrush one day (I was right, although it took me another eight years). I spent a pleasant day wandering around Tresco on my own, but saw nothing of any consequence and ended up back at the Borough Farm chalet at about 16.30. A cup of tea and a 'herbal' cigarette ensued, and that could so easily have been the end of my birding for the day, but for some reason I staggered back out and headed down to the Great Pool.
At about 17.45 I came across a load of small birds mobbing something in the bushes. This struck me as odd, as there aren't any resident owls on Scilly, so I thought it was worth investigating. Finding a convenient gap in the bushes I raised my bins and immediately saw a yellow eye ring and yellowish beak straight ahead of me. In the space of a couple of seconds I thought 'that female Blackbird's doing a good impression of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo' and then 'fucking hell - it is one!!!" as it moved slightly and I saw the whole bird.
Fuck, shit, panic! No digital camera in those days of course, but mobile phones had been invented (just), so I was able to get the news out. RBA pissed me off by putting it on the pager as 'reported' but that was soon corrected once other people arrived and saw it. The boatload that arrived from St Mary's famously included a very pissed John Hague and Mark Skevington, who had somehow managed to get from the Bishop all the way to Tresco, a journey almost as remarkable as the cuckoo itself had made from America.
The remainder of 1999 added three more birds to my list: Blue Rock Thrush on St Mary's on 14th October, Chimney Swift again on St Mary's on the 22nd, and a Red-flanked Bluetail at Rame Head on the way home, which meant that we missed Mark's wedding reception. Sorry Mark.