A Pine Grosbeak! A Pine Grosbeak in Shetland! Yes it's true! Really! It's just been identified from photos. Apparently it has been there since November but the garden in which it was originally found was owned by a non birder who just thought it was a normal Crossbill and did not say anything. Then a photo of it was taken in January this year, published and someone else said 'Hang on. That's a Pine Grosbeak'. There have been only eleven previous records of this species in Great Britain, the last was as long ago as 2000 which was also in Shetland. The news went out and doubtless plans began to be formulated by birders the length and breadth of the country.
I, as normal, vacillated between to go or not. This was a bird that really had me eager to see it. Some do, some don't. This one very much hit the sweet spot. It also heralded another adventure. Long, hazardous trips like this are very addictive although the desire only takes me this way every so often. All the dross of everyday life is forgotten. The nine to five routine, the office work, phones and humdrum domestic existence is put on hold for three days. The petty anxieties and worries of life go into abeyance as mind and body in a physical and spiritual gamble leave the tracks of normality and go into an uncharted zone. This in itself brings a relief for the three days, a perverse relaxation if you like as mind and body concentrate on only one thing. To see the bird. It's to gamble hugely with one's emotional state but if you are successful the rewards are long lasting and for me help to cope with what is accepted as normal life.
I called everyone I knew in Oxfordshire and Sussex who might be interested in a trip north. My accomplice on the last trip to Shetland, Paul Wren, was going to wait until the weekend so he could take his wife. I could not do the weekend as I had other commitments. It was now or never. No one else could come mid week. Fair enough then, it's just me and the Black Audi heading north for seven hours and so we did, on Tuesday 6th February. Paul promised to keep me updated as to reported sightings of the grosbeak during the journey north. All went smoothly but updates from Paul advised there was no news either way. A little anxiety crept into my soul. We crossed the border, traversing clear roads but with the white of snow covered mountains shining in the distance. The sun came out as I passed Glasgow and we arrived in Aberdeen in very uncharacteristic full sunshine. Paul sent a text telling me the grosbeak had been seen late on in a garden at a location called Upper Collafirth. Undercurrents of anxiety returned to normal levels. I found a cobbled street where I could leave the car for free during my trip to Shetland and made the short walk to the Northlink ferry terminal as Aberdeen promptly reverted to type, the clouds went black and I was enveloped in a horizontal blast of freezing wind and snow. That's more like it. I now feel much more at home. Mild climatic conditions are not usual here.
Leaning into the wind, dodging fish lorries and sheep transporters, I circumvented the loch sized puddles and went to the ferry terminal to check in. There was still three hours until boarding time at 6.30. I spoke to a friendly and chatty girl on the desk who gave me my boarding card. ' Is the Prince of Wales still in existence. The pub that is?' Absolutely, it's just a wee walk up the hill to Union Street. I'll draw you a map'.
Years ago my sister studied English at Aberdeen University and the POW was the student pub on weekends. I had visited it many times and just fancied a trip down memory lane. It had been twenty years after all. I had many adventures and pleasant times there including an informal chat about being a deer stalker in Argyll, but that's for another time. I found the pub and entered. This was 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon. It could have been a Friday night as it was humming with people and oozing atmosphere. The decor had improved but the place was still the same eclectic mix of clientele and the long polished bar still welcoming and warm. I wriggled my way through to the crowded bar and viewed the considerably increased range of beers. I selected the enticingly named Sporran Warmer accompanied by a Glen Morangie whisky. This is obtained by incanting the words 'I'll hae a half o' heavy and a nip, pal'. Years ago in the student days I learned this in the very same pub, when on ordering a beer and whisky I was confronted by a barman with a huge black beard and bushy eyebrows who looked me in the eye and demanded to know 'What whisky exactly I required?'. Silence as my brain went into scramble mode. I had one chance. 'Grouse' I squeaked. It was the only whisky that came to mind. He looked at me. He leaned forward over the bar, smiled and growled 'Wise choice pal.' I grabbed the glasses and fled back into anonymity.
Back to the present and I surveyed my fellow drinkers and saw that my Sporran Warmer was in the company of many young guys in kilts, Scotland football shirts and sporting a bewildering array of aforementioned sporrans. We got talking. Scotland were playing Estonia at football, in Aberdeen, that night. I was invited to join them at the match but declined with, to me, the not unreasonable excuse that I was going to Lerwick in a couple of hours. 'Are ye crazy. Have you heard the forecast?' 'Yes but the Northlink ferry is still sailing'. 'Respect. Good luck pal'. 'Cheers lads. Come on Scotland'.
I returned to the terminal and boarded the ferry. This time I had booked a cabin as the previous trip's 'floor experience' of two years ago was still haunting me. The long drive and a few bevvies in the POW suggested sleep. I lay down on the bed and at 7pm the huge ferry slipped out of Aberdeen, slowly passing the blazing lights of massive oil support vessels moored alongside the harbour wall. We passed the outer light at the end of the harbour, then into the darkness and the twelve hour crossing of the North Sea. The vessel started to roll as it hit the open sea and strange metallic noises permeated the cabin from the car decks below. The rolling and pitching increased and the captain advised we would be two hours late into Lerwick due to 'adverse' conditions at sea. The night was sleepless or so it seemed. The vessel not only rolled alarmingly but regularly there would be a huge Whuuumph as it dropped into a wave trough, rolled and pitched alarmingly. There was no need to turnover in the bunk, the motion of the vessel ensured I would be constantly on the move. Every time I fell asleep the next Whuuumph and subsequent jolt would wake me. I gave up worrying about it and just lay there. I must have slept or at least passed out from exhaustion as I did not feel too bad when we were awoken by the captain, advising we were two hours out of Lerwick and breakfast was now being served.
I went upstairs for a light breakfast. Some Geordie scaffolders who had been hitting the bar with a vengeance last night were recounting in full detail how much they had drunk and how seasick they had been on the journey over. One lad pulled out two bottles of lurid orange Iron Bru and a bottle of water from his bag. He looked at the water with suspicion.'Why aye what's this. Where did this come from?' You wouldn't know what that is' said one of his mates. 'It's water'. Laughter all round.
Boarding the ferry and during the journey I had seen no other birders but now when about to disembark it was apparent there were around twenty fellow birders assembled including Lee Evans and a short lady known as Joan who seems to accompany him everywhere. She manages the not inconsiderable feat of being quite sweet but at times intensely annoying, all at the same time. I met up with Richard Thewlis, who I last saw on Scilly when we watched a Northern Waterthrush together. I looked out at the weather. It was snowing. I was not surprised. A light dusting had settled over everything but it soon stopped and the sun shone briefly. It was intensely cold. Sorting out the hire car was quick and effortless and I was ready to go but not quite sure where. Next to me in the car park was another group of birders from the Midlands and they said to follow them as they knew where to go. The Pine Grosbeak was about forty miles north of Lerwick. We headed off around 8.30, into I suppose what was the rush hour in Lerwick. Soon signs of habitation were left behind and the road snaked through a desolate yet appealing landscape of snow frosted moors and cold looking lochans. I saw my first two Whooper Swans as we drove past an isolated lochan. Hooded Crows were ubiquitous by the roadside. The location we were headed for was an isolated garden either at or called Upper Collafirth. This is where the bird had finally been seen yesterday, in the late afternoon, feeding on the buds and shoots of small conifer trees growing in the garden. Shetlanders in isolated properties often plant small conifer plantations to act as presumably windbreaks and these were what the grosbeak was favouring.
There were four areas of small conifer plantations spaced out over a distance of about two miles and the grosbeak could apparently be in any one of them. However with twenty birders present we could presumably split up if necessary and cover them all maintaining contact via mobile phones. Not unreasonably everyone first assembled at Upper Collafirth where the bird had last been seen. We stood about but there was little to see and certainly no grosbeak. After about half an hour we all went the short distance northwards over the hill to Housetter, another favoured location but there was no sign of the elusive grosbeak there either. Back to Upper Collafirth. Nothing. The adrenalin of the early morning was now rapidly diminishing to be replaced by anxiety and the sinking depression of contemplating failure. Where could it be? We tried the other two locations a short distance south of Upper Collafirth namely Forsa and Green Brae Farm, both visible in the distance across a small inlet of sea. Nothing was there either. The hours passed.
Standing about doing nothing did have the one advantage of making us more aware of the other birds and wildlife to be seen. At Housetter we saw Ravens, a female Merlin carrying off its prey, tiny Goldcrests eaking out an existence in the small conifers, a flock of around thirty Twite flying over and an Otter swimming around in the sea below us. At Upper Collafirth a trilling call heralded the flypast of a Waxwing, another call and a Lapland Bunting flew over followed later by two small flocks of around forty Snow Buntings in total. Another flock of around twenty Snow Buntings flew over the conifer plantation at Forsa and a small flock of Chaffinch also there, contained one Brambling.
So the morning slowly wore on until it was noon and still there was no sign of the grosbeak. Everyone was becoming increasingly despondent and driving randomly to the other three locations almost for something to do rather than stand in mute frustration at Upper Collafirth. Snow flurries chilled us as we all now did our own thing rather than act collectively. Independently we repeatedly visited all four plantations in the increasingly despairing hope of finding the grosbeak. Every plantation must have been checked on multiple occasions but of the grosbeak there was no sign. It made no sense. Every other day it had been seen. Was there some location we did not know about? Had we somehow overlooked the grosbeak? It could apparently go unseen in the thick cover of conifer branches for long periods.
Lee Evans told all and sundry it had gone, he was sure of it and he was giving up and going to see an Iceland Gull at Scalloway. He was politely ignored as the rest of us were here for one thing only. We were joined just after lunch by Deryk Shaw an ex warden of Fair Isle Bird Observatory. Even he brought us no immediate change in fortune. I remained on my own at Upper Collafirth and a Waxwing flew in and settled briefly in the small conifers before disappearing. A couple of Otters swam in the sea below me and Black Guillemots dived and surfaced on the silvery water. Another birder came walking up the road to join me and eventually we were all assembled back at Upper Collafirth. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Despair. Anxiety. Frustration. The hopelessness of knowing you were in the hands of fate and there was nothing to be done that could change it. My new found birding colleagues were now making plans to stay an extra day, calling to re-book bed and breakfast accommodation and hired cars. Finally one of my fellow birders suggested we ask the lady of the house at Upper Collafirth if we could look in the dwarf conifer plantation at the far side of her garden. As is usual with Shetlanders she readily agreed. Our colleague entered the plantation. There were birds in there but only a Redwing and a couple of Blackbirds appeared until suddenly a Woodcock flew out, dark and mysterious, passing above the rest of us stood on the road and disappearing over the hillside behind. There was no Pine Grosbeak hiding in there, sadly.
Deryk Shaw said he had to go and went off south to have a last look at the plantation at Green Brae. Lee Evans and his pals went north to Housetter. I mentioned to another birder I had seen a Wren at Housetter. 'Whereabouts exactly?' he enquired. Matters had got so tense that he wanted to twitch a Shetland Wren as it was a sub species of a normal Wren. That is how dire it was getting. Just as he was about to leave I saw Deryk's little white hire car hurtling back towards us along the road, horn blaring and lights full on. This is the Fair Isle version of a mega alert. It could only mean one thing. I would like to say he roared up the hill but a 1.0L car does not do this. Nevertheless he arrived at speed and stopped beside us. 'It's showing guys!!!! It's in a tiny area of six conifers by the red metal shed opposite Green Brae Farm. Go! Go! he yelled. 'Where's Evans and his lot?' he shouted. 'They're over at Housetter'. 'I'll go and alert them' he advised. He gave us further explicit instructions about the location and then drove off to Housetter and we were off in the opposite direction.
Three cars, a five minute journey and we were at Green Brae Farm.There was the red metal shed and six pines just as Deryk had described. Out of the car and up the bank Oh yes! At last. No dip now and a much better and happier journey home was in prospect. We surveyed the conifers, inside and out which took all of two minutes. We walked around them again. No grosbeak. 'Have we got the right spot?' 'It must be - there is the red metal shed and small pines opposite the sign for Green Brae just as Deryk told us'. 'Well it's not here'. I metaphorically sank to my knees. Terribly tired, cold, exhausted by the roller coaster of emotions, I was sinking fast, all physical and spiritual energy draining from me. This was even worse than it not turning up at all. To contemplate having been this close and to have missed it by minutes, seconds even, was almost impossible to accept. Lee Evans arrived some minutes later with his friends. 'What are you all doing here? What's going on?' 'It's here or it was, Lee'. 'What was? What are you talking about?' 'The grosbeak. This is where Deryk saw it'. 'Where is he?' he demanded. 'He came looking for you. Didn't you see him? The grosbeak is or was here' we chorused again. 'We havn't seen him' he replied.
So we told him what Deryk had told us. Lee Evans lost control and went into full diva mode.'Why wasn't I told' he shouted. 'Why did no one call me?' he ranted. 'Because there is no phone signal here. Deryk kindly came to alert us in his car' we replied'. Well he isn't here is he?' Evans stomped around in the road and started shouting it was a disgrace. The rest of us just stood amazed at this display of petulance. 'Go and get him' he demanded of us. 'Why should we? It's hardly our fault'. Another birder told him to behave and to stop shouting. Thankfully, before it got worse Deryk returned and sanity prevailed. Deryk repeated that the grosbeak had been here, calling and feeding in a conifer and he had got pictures of it which did not make the rest of us feel any better when we saw them, but it was not his fault the bird had flown off while he had done his very best to alert all of us. Lee Evans eventually calmed down. I guess he was as tired as the rest of us but there really was no need to allow his frustrations to get the better of him. I now just wanted to remove myself from this scene of disappointment so drove back to Upper Collafirth. I reasoned that as the bird had been seen to fly into the dwarf conifer plantation at Upper Collafirth at mid afternoon yesterday it was possibly feeding there now before going to roost in the garden's conifers. It was a long shot but I had nothing to lose nor did the others. It had flown from Green Brae after Deryk saw it. That was now obvious to everyone.
Upper Collafirth was visible from Green Brae and I considered, as it was now 3.30pm, that it was not unfeasable that the bird had repeated it's actions of yesterday. Most of my colleagues agreed with me so we returned to Upper Collafirth and surveyed the still ominously bird free garden from the roadside. It had all started here six hours ago and one way or another appeared destined to finish here also. Nothing was happening in the garden. Then a birder on my right said 'There it is. At the back of the plantation. Oh, it's dropped down out of sight. I just saw the wing bars and a bit of red.' 'Are you sure?' we anxiously enquired. 'Well reasonably so' he replied. We all looked but there was no movement or sign of any bird. Ten minutes passed but still nothing moved or appeared. 'Let's go round the garden and survey the conifers from the field at the back of the property. We will be closer to the plantation and maybe we will see it from there if it really is the grosbeak.' 'And that is a big IF'. We duly made our way to the field but there was nothing. Not a sign of life. Lee Evans started complaining again. 'There is nothing here. I can't see anything'. Others also queried the birder's original identification. 'You said red. It is more orange than red on the head and breast. Are you sure it was not a Chaffinch?' Well it had big white wing bars. I saw them clearly' he replied somewhat defensively.
Five more minutes passed as we all stared at the eight foot tall conifers ranged in front of us and then came those magical words from lower down the field to my left. 'It's here. It's here! Bloody hell. Look at it!' The conifer branches gently swayed and moved and then a rusty orange head poked up above the blue green branches shining in the late afternoon sunlight.
The bird moved higher and the orange head and breast were followed by a pale grey body with a profusion of white bars on the wing feathers. Oh the joy! Oh the relief! It's here at last and I have seen it, we have all seen it. The grosbeak then dropped down to again become invisible in the dense cover of the conifers. Impatient to see more of it Lee Evans went back to the road, entered the garden and must have pushed the bird so it came to the back of the plantation again where we all saw it. It always kept in a certain amount of cover so was difficult to photo. I took many images, a few of which came out, but in the end abandoned the camera and just watched this beauty through my binoculars savouring every precious moment. By this time the failing light precluded photography anyway.
It did finally come out fully in the open and we all got the most stunning close views of this beautiful and charismatic bird. It was like a small parrot with its black conical beak and parrot like head. It fed constantly on the buds growing at the very tips of the thin conifer branches, at times hanging down parrot fashion to get at the buds. We watched it feeding and constantly moving in the small conifers, often giving point blank views, as the light slowly faded at around 4.30.
I noted the orange on the head and breast, the pale grey body plumage with the broad white fringes to the wing coverts and tertials, almost zebra like in appearance. It's long forked tail and chunky black bill. I just could not get enough of it. An absolute joy to behold after the privations and emotional upheaval of the hours that had gone before. It is hard to describe the feeling of elation and yes, euphoria that envelops one after such an experience. It feels it is almost like walking on air. The world becomes a better place for a day or so as the tension goes and one relaxes. On the returning ferry I realised I had not eaten a thing all day so that night I relaxed with a meal, a few beers and whiskies, reliving the experience with Richard and some of my fellow birders.We chatted on until around ten and then I could stay awake no longer and returned to my cabin. I slept very well that night. Nothing could interfere with that. The next morning Aberdeen was still in darkness as we arrived and I disembarked to the sound of rain hammering on the walkway roof. Back to the car. Decision time. Go forty miles north to Rattray Head, to try and see the wintering female Desert Wheatear and hope the rain stops or head for home? 'He who dares' is I believe a phrase in vogue so I set the Satnav for Rattray and drove north in the morning rush of Aberdeen traffic. I passed Blackdog, scene of the successful White winged Scoter twitch a few years ago. I recalled it was raining then too. On and on I went, now on deserted country roads and the day dawned with the rain clearing and little wind. As I approached Rattray, heading for the coast, skein after skein of Pink-footed Geese, strung out across the clouds like spider lines of unsteady writing, were coming in off the sea in their thousands and heading inland to feed. I took the car slowly down a long and hazardous, potholed road heading for the now visible Rattray Head lighthouse and passing some Pink footed Geese already feeding and resting by the Loch of Strathbeg.
Four Whoooper Swans eyed me warily from a small loch at the back of the dunes as I parked the car by the lighthouse cottages. The beach here is where the wintering Desert Wheatear was residing. I was entirely alone walking through the dunes and onto the red sand beach. The vast sky of pale blue and the constant roar of the surf on the shore lifted my spirits. The sun shone and the sea turned turquoise. A Grey Plover called, so sad and wild, the very essence of the open expanse of sea and sky around me.
It took very little time to locate the Desert Wheatear which was sitting perkily on top of a clump of sand and stranded seaweed.
It appeared to accept my presence and allowed me to take it's picture from close proximity. I watched it feeding, picking tiny invertebrates, invisible to me, from the sand. Then it seemed to feel enough was enough and flew a long distance away from me, low across the sand and assuming an elevated viewpoint from yet another clump of stranded weed.
I left it to it's lonely vigil and diverted my attention to the sea. Groups of Eiders floated just beyond the surf and the occasional Long tailed Duck flew past them. Up to four Great Northern Divers and a couple of Red throated Divers rested further out. Shags and Guillemots flew east and west. I watched them, relaxed and calm. I had done it all.