Kilminning Picnic Area, Fife.
All roads lead to a Mega.
For the whole of the preceding week a mega rarity in the form of an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler had been reported daily from a place called Kilminning in the Kingdom of Fife. Where? You may well ask. Kilminning is the name given to a Wildlife Reserve and also to an adjacent Picnic Area owned by Fife Council but does not appear on any map that I could find. The nearest village on the map is Crail, about as far East as one can get in Fife before falling into the sea. Work commitments just kept getting in the way all week until finally a window of opportunity appeared to be available on Saturday. The plan was however hatched much earlier on Thursday, although at first it seemed madness. I would go at midnight on Friday if the bird was still there, drive seven hours through the night and arrive at 7am on Saturday morning, which I calculated coincided with dawn in Scotland. This was right up there with my long haul twitches to Shetland (Siberian Rubythroat ) and Orkney (Sandhill Crane) and hopefully it would be just as successful. The combination of high risk and long distance plus the bonus of returning however briefly to my native country all added to the excitement and trepidation. Tracey my assistant at work declared me mad. Again. My wife just said 'What is it this time' and pretended to be impressed with my excitable declaration "Only an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. A mega !". On Thursday, to add to the excitement, there had also been two Radde's Warblers and a Red Breasted Flycatcher discovered at the same location but these had not been seen on Friday. Never mind, the Olivaceous was the prime target.
Being my own boss I was able to leave work at lunchtime on Friday and came home and went to bed to prepare for a midnight departure that same day. It was going to be a very long drive so the more rest I could accumulate the better. I like late night driving, it's almost romantic with comparatively empty roads, the sharp edges of daylight gone to be replaced by the soft contours of night and the comforting glow from the car's instrument panel lights. Me and my beloved Audi on the road again but not so alone this time. I have never seen so many lorries as on this night. Were they all trying to get home for the weekend? There were convoys of them, ten or more strong at times cruising up the inside lane of the Motorway. We sped on past them and made a stop at 3am just south of the border. There is something almost surreal about Motorway service stations at this time of night. They are apparently devoid of human life, but all the lights are on and usually there is some dire, totally inappropriate, keep you happy mood music blaring out in the toilets. Has anyone seen The Shining starring Jack Nicholson? Well you almost expect something similar could happen here. But no one attacked me with an axe and no one announced themselves as Johnny so I regained the security of the Audi intact in body if not in mind and continued North across the border, Failte ghu Alba - Welcome to Scotland - and on through the hills to Glasgow and east across to Edinburgh. Then it all went slightly wrong.
It is said the body's metabolism reaches it's lowest at this time of night and if something does not go according to plan, from my experience it's sometimes difficult to cope. The M90 spur road specifically to take you to the Forth Road Bridge and which should have been open was closed. I found myself with no choice, stuck on the M90 going West, heading in the wrong direction and with no apparent way of getting off it. I decided to get off the Motorway at the first exit I came to which after what seemed an eternity, eventually materialised. I zoomed up it and there in all its glorious luminosity was a sign saying Diversion for the Forth Road Bridge. Really? I had found it by sheer chance. Why were there were no signs further back down the Motorway? Have my fellow Scots become psychic? The diversion directed me over the Motorway and back down the other side along a minor road now going in the right direction-East. No sign of the Forth Road Bridge or anymore diversion signs so I carried on in hope and eventually found a left turning which indicated I should turn here for the Forth Road Bridge. Back on track. Over the bridge we went. No tolls! Mine was the only vehicle crossing this triumph of engineering, allowing free access to Fife and an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. Off to my right was the even more impressive Forth Rail Bridge with its celebrated three arches, now illuminated to show their full magnificence.
We were nearing our destination and Scotland was stirring, with other cars now on the road. An hour later found me arriving in the village of Crail and obeying instructions I followed the road through the village and after a couple of miles turned right into Kilminning Picnic Area, parking at the far end to await the approaching dawn. Shortly after 7.30 there was enough light and I ventured out of the car. Kilminning appeared to be a flat area of rough grassland, almost wasteland, complete with abandoned trainers and other items of clothing, scattered shrubs and trees, bounded respectively on three sides by a golf course, the sea and a disused airfield.
All was quiet and the whole area just said 'BIRDS'. It was that kind of habitat and must be a dream to have as your local birding spot. I said all was quiet but shortly after nine that morning the peace and quiet was shattered by the roar of high powered, very expensive looking cars racing up and down the disused runaway. Presumably this was a Scots version of the Jeremy Clarkson driving experience as it even had the male macho men watched lovingly on the sidelines by their devoted babes. They were still at it when I left five hours later.
The Olivaceous Warbler was apparently to be found in a fairly restricted area of dog roses and scrub near to the seaward side of Kilminning Picnic Area. In fact looking at this area it would appear to have been part of the airfield in the past as much of it was derelict. Reports also indicated that the warbler could be best located by it's almost constantly uttered tack tack tack call. I listened in the quiet of post dawn and pre whacky races. Lots of Robins were ticking away, a Fieldfare chackered in an Ash tree and then un-mistakeably I could hear a distant but distinct tack tack tack call. I wandered around trying to locate it and eventually came to what appeared to be a drying shed or some such building surrounded by thick briars or rose bushes. Another birder was already there and indicated that the warbler was in these bushes. I rapidly joined him and for a few frustrating minutes could hear the bird but not see it. It was keeping well under cover and moving steadily along the inside of the bushes. Eventually I got good but fleeting views of it through the bins as it passed through the leafless areas of the bushes.
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
The main thing I noted was how grey it was on the upperparts and dull white below with a long, pale bill noticeably orange on the lower mandible. It's plumage was nothing like the more familiar warm brown tones of a Reed Warbler. It also moved its tail up and down regularly and kept up an insistent tack tack tack call, making it easy to follow as it moved through the bushes. It was on the move constantly and virtually always remaining in cover. Occasionally it would come out in full view but never for more than thirty seconds at a time. About another twenty five birders were present at first light with more joining throughout the morning but the number of birders watching the warbler later in the morning was never more than just a few.
The Eastern Olivaceous Warbler favoured the thick leafy dog rose adjacent to the
birders.This appeared to be its favoured habitat wherever it was
There was no fuss or scrum as everyone apart from the dreaded photographers had ample space to stand and watch it. I just do not understand why some, but in fairness not all photographers have to insist on getting so close. One individual did not even have bins or scope. His sole mission appeared to be to try and get as close as possible to get his photo which on occasions meant he would regularly stand bang in front of me or others until our patience finally ran out. I take photos too but the light was initially very dull and the bird too well hidden to get anything half decent so preferred to actually watch it through the bins. In the end I got fed up with the crowd and wandered off. I stood on a bank overlooking some briars and there was the warbler. I watched it on my own for a few minutes until it disappeared. Occasionally it would stop calling which I learnt from experience meant that it had flown to another area nearby and then would recommence it's monotonous tacking call. On one such occasion when it was silent I went to another area and it appeared high up in a tree calling but also using the rain on the leaves to wash and preen. Again I had it to myself and I watched it frenetically jumping about in the wet leaves for around five minutes.
First winter Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
You can just see the white fringe to the outer tail feather.
Also the medium primary projection, the fairly thick grey legs and pale orange lower mandible.
Note also the comparatively featureless pale face with dark eye
Overall it was virtually on constant view or its presence could be heard for all the time I was there, which was five hours. Apparently when the sun came out in the afternoon, after I had left for home, it showed itself much more in the open which was a little annoying. When I was there it was overcast and presumably that was why it remained in cover although with patience there were more than adequate opportunities to see it well. I was happy with my encounter with the warbler and even managed some photos in the end.
While chatting to a birder from Manchester mid morning we got an alert that there was a Radde's Warbler a few hundred yards away and we could even see the small group of birders watching it. This was a new UK species for me so with due respect to the Olivaceous Warbler I was off post haste and joining the small group saw the Radde's almost immediately, perching low down in the base of bushes and behaving very much like a Cetti's Warbler i.e more invisible than visible but without the voice. Eventually it showed well and what a subtly attractive bird it was with dark brown upperparts, a long, broad and creamy supercilium and rufous undertail coverts. It played hide and seek in the bottom of the bushes and the rough grass but I did get some great views of it so was very happy. Especially as it was so unexpected. Was this one of the birds from Thursday or another? It certainly was not in the same place as the other two had been reported from. Still, I was hardly worried by such trivialities.
I went back afterwards to renew my Olivaceous Warbler experience but now was running against the clock. I had to be in London at eight the next morning and even my unbounded optimism told me that I should head South at twelve noon which would get me back home by around 7pm. Enough time to get some sleep before driving to London at six the next morning! I had an hour left of the morning and as things seemed to be going my way went to the area where the Red breasted Flycatcher had been seen a couple of days ago. It had not been reported today or yesterday but I could see no good reason why it would not still be around. I stood about with a few other birders but there was no sign of it. Four Whooper Swans flew over bugling. Someone claimed to have heard a Yellow-browed Warbler. Then a small shape flicked into a sycamore.
First winter Red breasted Flycatcher
First winter Red breasted Flycatcher.
Note the pale tips to the greater coverts and tertials showing it to be a first winter bird
So quick and ill defined it was easy to miss it. Bins up and there was a first winter Red Breasted Flycatcher. They are such a delight to see. A veritable woodland sprite with a flycatcher's engaging way of looking at you almost benignly and knowingly. It was a real trial of tired eyes following it through the trees as it rapidly flitted around especially with the constant falling of leaves. Many a call was stifled as people realised that the flycatcher they thought they saw was a dropping leaf. Eventually the real thing would turn up and engage us all with it's charm and perky demeanour. Tail cocked, wings akimbo, the epitomy of restless energy.
First winter Red breasted Flycatcher.
It even gave it's ticking call and also a rattling call which they are said to use only on migration, very similar to a Wren. What a great bird to see. So my high risk twitch paid off big time. Forgive my self satisfaction, understandable after the triple dip in Ireland. Now it was a long haul back to home, via St Andrews to stock up on Scotch Pies and organic Venison sausages to take back a taste of home for the freezer. Seven hours, four power naps and 895 miles later I was home with a large Old Pulteney malt whisky in hand. 'Did you see it dear'. "Yes". "Thanks". "Goodnight". Out cold.