Saturday, 22 October 2011

A Siberian Rubythroat at Gulberwick, Mainland, Shetland 22 October 2011


It sounds so innocuous does it not but this was no ordinary event. The bird in question, a Siberian Rubythroat was only the eighth of its species to be recorded in the UK and for the vast majority of UK birders represented the ultimate prize in birding cum twitching, especially as it was a male in all it's splendid finery. I saw it. In fact I saw it fifteen times over a period of six hours whilst standing at one end of a windswept stony drive leading to a house sheltered by ornamental bushes and wind stunted trees. It took me three days, 1102 miles and 16 hours of driving plus two 12 hour ship crossings in heavy seas to do it but I achieved it in the company of Paul Wren.

This is the sequence of extraordinary events leading to our successful twitch.

Badger alerted me by text on the 19th October to the fact that there was a male Siberian Rubythroat on Mainland, Shetland. Shetland! - you have to be joking that’s virtually Scandinavia. No, wait a minute, it is Scandinavia! To get there costs a fortune and the only way is to fly as birds like this never remain long. To fly costs a fortune. I cannot afford that and anyway it will be gone tomorrow. Tomorrow comes and it is still there. I call Badger who sensibly declines any ideas of going but suggests trying Paul. I call Paul who is already asking his wife to look at flights. I find myself agreeing to also look at flights and logistics for him. Why am I doing this? I’m definitely not going. Certainly not after finding out the cost of flights from various airports around the UK. I speak to Paul and tell him it is out of the question. He responds with the fact that there is an alternative - a car ferry. Pardon? “A ferry, it sails from Aberdeen.” I respond, saying “ Aberdeen is almost Scandinavia too. It’s a very long way away and we will have to drive for eight hours before we even get on the ferry”. Paul replies “You are right let’s forget it ............ but it is a male”. The phone goes dead. 

I go to bed that night with no further thoughts other than it would be nice to see a Siberian Rubythroat that was about six hundred miles nearer, preferably on Otmoor or in my garden. I wake at six the next morning with an IDEA! Ideas at this time are not good news but I persist and eventually by half six I have formulated a plan. Normally these plans become dust as sleep recedes and sanity prevails but I persist. I will wait until seven, then call Paul immediately, suggest we meet at nine at the latest, drive five hundred plus miles to Aberdeen, catch the ferry which we haven’t even booked and which takes twelve hours to get to Lerwick, drive off the ship and no problem the bird is only a few minutes from the ferry terminal. We should be there on Tuesday morning. Simples. The only remotely encouraging and sensible part of this insanity is the fact that the bird is very near the ferry terminal. It will however, undoubtedly be gone by the time we get there. Siberian Rubythroats only show themselves to birders who charter planes. Forget it.  Seven am arrives and I call Paul. I put the plan to him and astoundingly he agrees to it, telling me he is at work but already has his bag packed with all his birding gear just in case. How does he know? I now, having had my bluff called, find myself having to hastily pack everything I need, inform my ever supportive wife of the devilish plan and head off into the morning traffic.

I collect Paul at Woodstock and we are on the road bang on nine in the morning. It really is happening. Paul tells me the bird has already been reported this morning as still being there. We book ourselves and the ever faithful Audi onto the ferry as we drive up the M40. We are now twitching. Big time. This is it. A huge gamble. The big adventure. A steady drive North with two stops for coffee, diesel etc and we arrive in Aberdeen at five thirty that evening in the rush hour. Surreal. 

We find the ferry terminal with “nae bother” and line up waiting to board the car. Paul announces he wants to go to the toilet but remains in the car. Thirty minutes later he finally decides to go and sets off but just then I am given the go ahead to drive onto the ferry MV Hrossey. A hasty return to the car by Paul. “I am sure they must have toilets on the ferry”. We get on the ferry, find the toilets and then the bar. Sailing time arrives - seven thirty -  and it is dark as we slowly creep out of the harbour past huge, brightly illuminated oil rig support vessels. “I told you we were in Scandinavia - they all have Norwegian names.” Not a trawler in sight. The lights of the vessels and Aberdeen recede into the darkness and we contemplate the daunting prospect of twelve hours of nothing but trying to get some sleep in the not so reclining chairs. They are not comfortable. We try the floor. Even less comfortable, horribly hard and cold. We try the seats again. We close our eyes hoping when we open them it will all be over. We open our eyes, it is only nine pm. Another ten hours of this. Groan. Back to the floor. Then the seats. Then the floor again. Finally the seats again. I throw my fleece over my head to cut out the lights and I must have passed out. I am awakened by an announcement that we are one hour out from Lerwick. I have no idea how long I have been asleep but I do not feel too bad.

We go down to the car, driving off the ferry as it is just getting light in Lerwick and as Paul, from previous visits has the local knowledge, quickly find ourselves at Gulberwick Church which is the designated spot for our tilt at eternal happiness. 

Gulberwick Church
Paul is very nervous and convinced the bird will have flown but I am confident it will be here. There is no reason for my confidence. I know just as much or little as Paul but throughout the journey driving North and on the ferry crossing I just knew it would not have gone and we would see it. We parked the car, at just before eight am, in an empty car park by the church and walked up the track to a gate across a drive and a sign which says “stand here to get the best views of the Rubythroat”. We stand there with our scopes focused on the far end of the drive. Other birders join us from a taxi. I just keep looking at a particular spot at the end of the drive which looks the most likely place for a Siberian Rubythroat to appear. Not that I know anything about them apart from the fact they are skulking and behave like a Robin. A Robin duly appears out of nowhere, feeding furtively on the drive. I don’t make a fool of myself! 

Some fifteen minutes later there is a flick of wings and another bird flies low from the bushes on the left, across the drive and perches briefly atop a large stone on the other side. Tail cocked and wings drooped. Grey brown body, white stripes on black face and an almost luminescent red throat. No time to be excited. I just say “There it is - on the stone” but even as I speak it flicks its wings and is gone further right and out of sight.

No one else saw it but me. Paul did not see it as it was just too quick. However at least we now definitely know it is still here which was a major concern for Paul and so he and the other birders can hopefully, partially relax in that knowledge. Another tense wait ensued. Forty or so minutes passed with just the odd Blackbird landing on the drive and then it flew back low across the drive from the bushes on the right and a few seconds later showed itself from under the same bushes it had flown from when I first saw it, hopping along the side of the path, perching on low growing plants and then the stone before finally disappearing back into the bushes. Various exclamations and gasps of relief came from around me as all my fellow birders connected with this beautiful and much desired avian gem. 

It all happened so quickly that it is difficult to remember what I saw but this is what I think I noted at the time or maybe this was amassed over the fifteen times I saw it. Who really cares. What a picture it presented, a magnificent, iridescent red chin and throat, huge white stripes over its eye, broad white stripes running down the sides of the throat from the bill contrasting with a black face. Its upper-parts were more grey than brown. The under-parts showed grey on the breast and a warm orange buff on the flanks with pure white under-tail coverts. Its behaviour was very robin like, bobbing and flicking its tail and wings, constantly nervous and rarely still for longer than a few seconds. It appeared slimmer and possibly smaller than a Robin. 

The relief of tension amongst my fellow birders was palpable. Paul was now one very happy and relieved man, grinning and punching the air and shaking everyone’s hand. Up until this point there had been absolute silence as everyone waited to see the bird but now the volume levels increased considerably as adrenalin took over and birding decorum rapidly went downhill. Despite the rising decibels we decided that we would remain here for as long as possible to see as much of the bird as we could because this would probably be a unique occurrence for both of us and we should make the most of it. We had after all travelled an awfully long distance to see it. The bird seemed to have developed a vague routine and would show itself briefly every forty minutes or so, usually in the same area of bushes. Some of the views were excellent, others more brief and tantalising but it was constantly thrilling waiting for the next glimpse and by the time we left at two thirty we had seen it from all angles no less than fifteen times and really felt our huge effort and long journey had been fully justified and we had seen the bird really well. No Bagnallesque micro-second only views for us! I estimated over a six hour period (0800-1430) we had seen it for around seven to eight minutes.

I must also mention a huge kindness from Mr Ockendon, the friendly owner of the property who about four hours into our odyssey drove down the drive, passed through the gate and parked his car behind us. What was going on? He duly opened the tailgate of the car to reveal thermos flasks of coffee and packets of Digestive biscuits and invited us to help ourselves, no charge. 


What a truly magnificent gesture and a life saver for us, as with no breakfast I was feeling a little faint from lack of food. The sustenance and the kindly gesture revived me no end and I am sure the same sentiments were probably felt by the rest of the birders present. The wind had been steadily increasing during our vigil and was getting progressively stronger blowing straight into our backs and up the drive.  Thankfully there was no rain so we stuck it out for a while longer and were rewarded with further views but we had agreed that at two thirty we would leave which is what we did.

The road leading to the distant house where the rubythroat was to be found

So the successful end to our madcap twitch came and it was back to the car but not before celebratory photos to record the moment of our triumph. Both of us were ravenous by now not having eaten anything substantial since the night before and we went in search of a fish and chip shop of which there appeared to be no shortage in Lerwick. We settled on the Happy Haddock which had the twin attractions of being warm and had tables so we could eat inside the premises.

With hunger satisfied we did a bit of birding around the quaysides before going in search of the ferry. The main highlight was very close views of winter plumaged Black Guillemots. Finally as the light began to fade we made our way back to the ferry terminal to book in for the trip back. The forecast was dire, with gales and strong seas predicted. Our spirits began to waiver at the prospect of another twelve hours lying on the floor of the ferry or trying to sleep upright in the not so reclining chairs. Grown men should not cry but it was coming close. I spoke to the girl on the desk about the weather prospects and almost as an afterthought asked if it would be possible to upgrade our tickets to get a cabin and if so how much would it cost. “Just a wee minute I will have a look” says she and then announced she had cabins available but it would cost another £84. I looked at Paul and he looked at me. There was something in his eyes approaching desperation. Probably the same went for me. Neither of us spoke, the world turned and then I spoke the fateful words. “We’ll take it”. The sense of relief and warm glow that enveloped me and I guess Paul will stay forever. One of the best calls I have ever made. The nightmare scenario of THE FLOOR was banished. Paul broke into smiles and was obviously as relieved as me. I was relieved Paul was relieved. Let’s face it if she had said £840 we would probably have taken it. We boarded the boat with just a few other people, found our cabin and looked in awe at the facilities now available to us - a mattress and a duvet for each of us, our own bathroom, shower and tea making facilities. The night was now not to be feared and would be more than bearable. It would be brilliant. I confess I lay on the bed and just kicked my legs in pleasure. We were like a couple of kids released from school and the world had become a much better place.

A change of clothes and up to the bar for a few celebratory whiskies - Glen Morangie for Paul, Old Pulteney for me. We watched some football on the TV, a trawler crew proceeded to drain the bar, the ship slipped out of Lerwick and began to roll on the raging seas. We looked at the time, only eight in the evening, we tried to last out to nine but it was hopeless. We were more tired than we cared to admit. Inwardly content with that indescribable feeling of a successful long haul twitch under our belts we hit the pillows around nine and felt the ship being bounced around on the seas as we slept on soft mattresses. Pity the poor souls who were roughing it on the floor. They would be rolling in the aisles - literally. The ship was inevitably delayed getting into Aberdeen due to the heavy seas and we docked at around nine thirty. It was then a long drive South with a couple of hours stop in Glasgow to see Polly, my daughter. We were home in Oxford by eight that night. It seemed like we had been away for weeks.

We had done it. We had gambled. We had seen the birder’s Holy Grail. A Siberian Rubythroat.