Sunday 21 February 2016

Going Dutch 20th February 2016

Siberian Rubythroat. The very name brings a vicarious thrill to most birders especially those who seek out such rarities. This bird is ultra rare in the Britain and apart from two records on the  mainland at a place called Osmington Mills, Dorset in 1997 and in Durham in 2006 it is a speciality of the northernmost islands off Scotland such as Fair Isle and Shetland.

The ultimate prize is of course to see a male. The bird itself is about robin size but more slender and elegant. Its plumage is warm brown on the upperparts and a paler greyish buff colour on the underparts but males have a striking pattern of two white stripes on the sides of their head, above and below a black area around the eye and a chin and throat of brilliant, almost iridescent red, encompassed by a thin black line.

Its breeding range is in Siberia, northern Japan and North Korea and it winters in southeast Asia from Nepal east to Thailand, Cambodia and southern China. It is a bird of romance and enigma and is the holy grail for many British birders including myself

I have only seen one before, a male at a place called Gulberwick in Shetland in October 2011 and my views of it, although adequate were always fleeting as it flitted  nervously into cover from one side of a path to the other. I have always savoured this experience as one of the true highlights of my birding life but on my return from Colombia two weeks ago I learnt a male had been found at a place called Hoogwoud in northern Holland, just 50km north of Amsterdam and had been there since the 15th of January. This was the first record of this species for Holland and it had obviously decided to spend its winter in Hoogwoud despite being thousands of miles west of its normal winter home. 

It was so tempting and when on a visit to Badger last week he told me how badly he had wanted to see it while I was away and he was all set to go with Andy, but at the last moment Andy decided against it, I thought later that evening that  here was a chance. Take it or you will forever regret it I told myself. I sent a text to Badger the next day, Friday, suggesting the two of us go. 

'Let's go. Why not? What's to stop us, we have been to Holland twice before twitching and the bird is only just north of Amsterdam'. 

It was decided in the affirmative late on Friday afternoon and Badger being somewhat preoccupied with other matters, it was down to me to get the trip organised.  A couple of hours on the internet had us both booked on the 0635hrs BA flight out of Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam on Saturday morning, off airport parking arranged at Heathrow also, and a hire car booked for us to collect at Amsterdam Airport in order to drive the 50 kilometres to Hoogwoud. We would come back that night on the 1930hrs BA flight from Amsterdam. Easy.

To get to Heathrow Airport entailed me leaving home at 2am on Saturday and collecting Badger from Abingdon at 3am for the hour and a half car journey to Heathrow. I was so excited that I could not sleep despite going to bed early on Friday. Still, a can of Red Bull as I left home would keep me bright eyed and awake. I had pre-booked parking for the Audi from 5am-8pm with Purple Parking, an off airport car parking company  to save us the extortionate charges for parking for a day in Terminal Five. It worked like a charm and Purple Parking duly delivered Badger and myself to Terminal Five at 5.30am. So far so good.

Terminal Five was just waking up, as were we. We gaped in awe at the steel and chrome magnificence of the Terminal and after going up, down and round on a series of escalators and stairs we arrived at  an area where there was a cafe open so we could get a coffee for Badger and a hot chocolate  for me. 

We sat quietly fiddling, like everyone else does these days, with our mobile phones, feeling just a little bleary and detached from reality under the unforgiving bright lights of the Terminal. The various shops around us started to open and the Terminal slowly and grudgingly came to commercial life. We were much too early for our flight so just sat and waited until our flight was ready. Then it was another merry go round of escalators, up and then down and a short shuttle train ride before we got to our gate.

With little fuss we boarded a half full aeroplane and were pleased and pleasantly surprised to receive  a complementary in flight snack and drink from the friendly BA flight attendants. Mind you I have never had a bacon and cream cheese croissant before but the combination seemed to work. We both slept a bit on the plane and an hour later we made a rather bumpy landing at a wet and grey Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and were soon at the Enterprise car hire desk where a very friendly and helpful man organised our pre-booked car for us. Because we asked for a Satnav we were upgraded to a bigger more luxurious car for no extra cost. It was going well so far.

Up yet another escalator and then a very long walk along a wing of the huge terminal building took us to another lift and down we went to collect our car. I had elected to drive. After some considerable confusion with a young lady trying not very successfully to show us how to use the Satnav system Badger and myself, between us, well Badger mainly, finally mastered it and we were off on the ring road round Amsterdam.  Hoogwoud here we come.

Holland is flat, very flat and the motorway was a grey, wet strip passing through wide and wet, green fields, liberally sprinkled with flocks of Greylag and White-fronted Geese whilst other skeins of geese were crossing the motorway in a grey and sullen sky. We followed the instructions, in English, coming  from the Satnav. A few Shelduck. an Egyptian Goose, a Great White Egret, and lots of Wigeon and Lapwing came and went as we drove along. I was getting a feel for the car and Badger was becoming a lot less nervous about my driving!

In about an hour we arrived in Hoogwoud, an unremarkable little place of quiet streets and modern houses with small gardens and landscaped open areas and the Satnav directed us via several turns to a street called Beukenlaan. We had no real idea exactly where the Siberian Rubythroat was apart from the aforementioned street being mentioned in the reports of the rubythroat on the internet and my heart sank as I could see no birders anywhere. Being a Saturday I had assumed that some birders would be around to indicate where exactly the bird was but it looked like I was wrong. We drove round one corner but found nothing.' Lets drive down there.' We did and again found nothing. 'I'll just go round here.' Turning another corner we saw a group of four birders with telescopes and cameras standing on a pathway. Bingo!'

This told us two things. We had found the right place but more importantly the bird was still here. We parked the car in another side road and got our bins and camera, in my case, and video in Badger's, and walked back to join the other birders. They were Dutch and as I often find with Dutch birders spoke good  English and were very friendly. One of them pointed to a tiny area of landscaped planting at the back of the housing they were standing near and there, within a few feet of us was the Siberian Rubythroat, hopping around on the ground amongst the red and green twigs and leaf litter of some ornamental shrubs. 

The Siberian Rubythroat spent most of its time in and around
the bushes to the right occasionally venturing out onto the path

Badger had his lifer. The Dutch birders told us that the bird was so confiding it would come almost to our feet and so it did. Unbelievable. No need for binoculars as I admired its jewel like red bib and black and white face and took its photo many times.

Then for the next five hours we just stood and enjoyed this wonderful little bird. Thousands of miles off course but oblivious to its situation. We had planned to go on elsewhere but in the end a combination of tiredness and equally an appreciation that this was an almost unique event, persuaded us to remain here.  A few other Dutch birders came and went as well as an English couple and two Belgians but there were never more than half a dozen of us present at any one time. Earlier in its stay there had been large crowds and the house backing onto the landscaped strip had made a lot of money by charging birders five euros to come in and watch the bird for twenty seconds only, in their garden which seems a bit mean, but thankfully today there was no need for that.

The rubythroat had established a routine and a feeding circuit, coming back, again and again, to the favoured landscaped strip alongside the path running between the houses and would feed on it, coming to within three feet of us and at one time even down to one foot. It was entirely untroubled by our presence and carried on with its feeding oblivious to camera clicks, loud voices or sudden movements as we adjusted our positions for a better angle to view it. There were a couple of long gaps when it disappeared into the fenced off  gardens but it always eventually returned to its favourite area. Worryingly there were many cats wandering the paths and gardens but it never seemed troubled by them and if any cats approached too closely we chased them off. 

Although we were concerned I reasoned that if the rubythroat had survived the cats since mid January it should be alright.


A few Tree Sparrows called from a tree in a nearby garden and a couple of Siskins fed in an Alder tree above us but our focus was on one bird only, the Siberian Rubythroat.

It rarely moved from the ground, preferring to remain there unlike a Robin which visited only briefly and it seemed to be feeding on mainly ants and other tiny invertebrates. The only other bird regularly present was a female Blackbird which the rubythroat  avoided whenever they came close and in the afternoon it began singing quietly as it fed, its red throat swelling as it sang and you could just about hear its quiet sub song above the increasing wind.  

It did not like being right out in the open on the path and showed a marked preference to remain near or under the cover of the bare, twiggy shrubs. In the end we were the only two birders left, mounting a lonely but fruitful vigil and the rubythroat responded by seeming to be even less concerned about us, if that was possible. The wind had strengthened markedly by now and I felt the first spots of rain which began to fall with increasing frequency.

It was now 3.30pm and it was time to go as the rain had set in and was not going to stop. As if to confirm we had made the right decision the Siberian Rubythroat suddenly flew to a nearby tree and then flew fast over the nearby houses and was gone.
Yours truly c Badger
We had been remarkably lucky as rain had been forecast for the whole day but had held off giving a window of opportunity which we had been able to take advantage of.

A happy Badger with our Dutch friends
We drove back to the airport in a relaxed frame of mind and with a feeling of true accomplishment, returned the car and spent our remaining hours in Holland relaxing  in the airport until it was time for our flight to be called. Again, all the pre-planning and bookings worked perfectly on the return journey and after dropping off Badger in Abingdon I was home at just after 1030pm, reflecting that not many people could say they had spent five hours in the company of a male Siberian Rubythroat.

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