British Birders Chartered Private Flights to See Europe’s First Red-winged Blackbird

The bird, a female, was reported on a remote Scottish island this weekend, inspiring "twitchers" throughout the UK to go on the chase of their lives.

In northeastern Scotland, toward the tip of the Orkney archipelago that juts into the North Sea, the airport on North Ronaldsay Island has been hopping with activity the last few days. Around the same latitude as central Norway, the small island has seen more than 15 airplanes land on its runway, as well as boats and ferries carrying anxious travelers, according to The Guardian. What have these visitors come so far to see? A lone female Red-winged Blackbird. 

While common throughout the United States and Canada, a Red-winged Blackbird has never been spotted in the UK—or all of Europe, for that matter. As such, the bird has been drawing droves of excited "twitchers," the British term for an especially dedicated birder, since it was spotted Saturday by Simon Davies, the principal assistant warden at the local bird observatory. Some of these birders have gone so far as to charter private planes, while others are driving or taking trains for up to 12 hours before loading onto the ferries for the remainder of the trip.  

“I tweeted about the news and it went crazy, we had nine planes to the island on Sunday and four or five today,” Davies told The Guardian on Monday. “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.” 

No one is sure how the blackbird made it to the remote island, but there are two likely theories: The bird could have hitchhiked on a transatlantic ship, or, while less plausible, it could have gotten caught up in a hectic storm and rode the jet stream to northern Scotland, a researcher with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told The Guardian. Somewhat recently a North American Hermit Thrush has also been spotted in the Scottish Shetland Islands, which the RSPB says gives more credibility to the idea that the blackbird is wild. 

How much longer the female Red-winged Blackbird will choose to stick around is impossible to say, but one thing is certain: As long as the striped passerine decides to make North Ronaldsay Island its home, the airport and those ferries will remain busier than normal.