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How an American bird became an overnight superstar in Britain

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The British are going through hard times. The queen died. Their economy is a mess. They've had three prime ministers in as many months. But it's not all gloom and doom. NPR's Philip Reeves traveled to a remote part of the British Isles to learn about a recent incident that made some Brits rather happy.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It all started a few weeks ago at around lunchtime on a tiny island in the Atlantic. John Judge was there on holiday.

JOHN JUDGE: Well, the weather was really sunny, really bright. So I just went for a wander round.

REEVES: When Judge talks about a wander round, he really means looking for birds. He's visited these parts every year for 34 years, hoping to see something special. What he saw on this day took his breath away.

JUDGE: Just a real shock. This bird was just hopping up and down in front of us, really.

REEVES: The island is called Bryher. Less than 90 people live there. It's one of the Isles of Scilly, a low-lying archipelago 28 miles off England's southwestern tip. Lucy McRobert was nearby on the largest island, St. Mary's, when John Judge posted news of his find.

LUCY MCROBERT: And I glanced down at my phone to see a WhatsApp message pop up, and it just said, Blackburnian Warbler, Bryher, Popplestone Fields. It was completely unassuming - no exclamation marks, no emojis, no sense of excitement - so it actually took about 20 to 30 seconds to register the enormity of what we were talking about.

REEVES: McRobert is from the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. She dropped everything and raced out to try to catch a boat. So did hundreds of other birders around the islands that day - people who, like McRobert, are just passionate about birds.

MCROBERT: It was absolute chaos. There were people, like, abandoning lunch. There were people running out of meetings. There were, like, boats coming from every island you could imagine and meeting in the middle of the channel, people jumping between boats.

REEVES: When the boats reached Bryher, they couldn't land because the tide was too low.

MCROBERT: So people were basically throwing themselves off the tripper boats onto inflatable dinghies beneath and going up to the shore and basically running, soaking wet from the knee down, across the island to get to the site.

REEVES: Finally, they found him - a very small, young bird with a bright yellow breast. It was gobbling down bugs and flitting around the bushes. The crowd was delighted.

MCROBERT: When we were standing there watching it, it would pop out of the hedge. And although everyone was trying to be very well-behaved and very quiet, 250 people all swearing quietly under their breath produces quite a loud noise.

REEVES: The Blackburnian Warbler is from eastern North America. It's not particularly uncommon there. Here, there've been a couple of very brief reported sightings over the years in remote spots off Wales and Scotland. But this was the first ever found in England. For birders here, that makes the warbler a superstar.

WILL WAGSTAFF: Oh, this is A-list. This is absolutely A-list.

REEVES: That's Will Wagstaff, chair of the Isles of Scilly Bird Group. In the fall, Blackburnian Warblers migrate south to winter in South America. They're roughly the same weight as a tablespoon of butter. Wagstaff says this little guy was simply blown 3,000 miles off course.

WAGSTAFF: Basically, he got caught in transatlantic jet stream winds. So these winds can drag these birds across, but how many make it and how many don't, we don't know.

REEVES: The warbler was a windfall in more senses than one.

WAGSTAFF: Birders, years ago, people said, oh, they didn't spend any money, but of course they do. They've all got to travel here. They all go on the boats.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVE CRASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you waiting?

REEVES: We are lining up at the harbor on St. Mary's to board the wooden launch that goes to Bryher. It's now two weeks after that crazy day when John Judge found the warbler.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

REEVES: In the summer, tourists pour in here to see the dazzling golden beaches, dolphins, puffins, sometimes even whales. Yet the superstar warbler is still here and still pulling crowds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Good morning, everyone. Just a quick safety announcement...

REEVES: Our boat is full of birders, including twitchers. That's the word for birders willing to travel huge distances to try to see one particular bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE HUMMING)

REEVES: The boat ride doesn't take long.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK, folks. This is Bryher. Your return time is 3:15 from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

REEVES: We disembark and set off across the island along a narrow path towards the fields where the warbler's been hanging out.

KARL STOCKTON: I came over on the plane.

REEVES: Yeah.

STOCKTON: And then I shall go back this evening on the boats, the Scillonian, so...

REEVES: Did you specifically come to see this bird?

STOCKTON: I most certainly did, yes. Yeah. It's like a bit of a holy grail, bit of a mythical bird you're never going to see.

REEVES: Karl Stockton's a builder. He's come from Stoke-on-Trent, 350 miles away.

STOCKTON: I think most people think we're mad. And my daughters, my two daughters, 15 and 10 years old, they say I'm the bird nerd, simple as that. So...

REEVES: The bird nerd.

STOCKTON: The bird nerd, so yeah.

REEVES: So they take the mickey out of you?

STOCKTON: Yes, absolutely. It's not particularly respected (laughter).

REEVES: What with family and work, Stockton has only been able to carve out one half day for this mission.

STOCKTON: I'm nervous. I'm nervous because the sun and that - I'm thinking, has he jumped up and gone somewhere else?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

REEVES: Just a few meters from where I'm standing, there are about 20 people in these fields staring into the branches in silence. They've got cameras, and they've got tripods and binoculars. And they're waiting and waiting.

Then, quite suddenly...

RAPHAEL MITCHELL: There. There.

REEVES: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MITCHELL: Go that way a bit. Go that way a bit. It's right above your head, just slightly in front of you and about 10 feet above your head.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

REEVES: Raphael Mitchell's been tracking down birds for half a century. Finally seeing this bird feels...

MITCHELL: Oh, ecstatic. I don't have a problem with my heart, but my heart beat an extra beat when I saw it.

REEVES: Mitchell finds all this therapeutic, but also addictive.

MITCHELL: I would say I'm medium obsessive. There are people who are extremely obsessive about it, who would think nothing of chartering a plane to a remote island.

REEVES: As we head back to the boat, builder Karl Stockton's delighted.

STOCKTON: It's incredible relief. It's great. It really is good, yeah.

REEVES: His gamble has paid off.

STOCKTON: This is one which we'll look back on in, like, 20 years' time over a drink or something and reminiscing. It's one of them birds, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

REEVES: That night, back on St. Mary's, the drinking and reminiscing's already begun. This is a bar that birders gather in to share their experiences.

WAGSTAFF: Crossbill, little bunting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: One Tresco.

WAGSTAFF: One great pull - that was you and your gang, Paul, was it?

REEVES: Will Wagstaff of the Isles of Scilly Bird Group does a roll call to find out what birds were seen.

WAGSTAFF: Blackburnian still alive and kicking? Goody good.

REEVES: Since then, the Blackburnian Warbler's almost certainly left. The birders think he may try to migrate south. Few expect him to survive. Yet the memory will long remain on these islands - of a tiny visitor from America who generated money in times of need and, above all, pleasure, especially for the man who found him - John Judge.

JUDGE: I've never had so many handshakes and man hugs and kisses at all, you know? It's just unbelievable. Some people said to me, this is legendary now, you know? This'll go down in the birding history.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Isles of Scilly, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.