Wednesday 19 October 2022

Superb Shetland - Least Bittern - 7th October 2022

It was early  afternoon and Mark and myself were debating when to say farewell to the second Myrtle Warbler we had seen in two days.

The discussion became academic when news came through on our phones of a possible Least Bittern being found in the tiny car park at Scousburgh Sands, adjacent to Loch Spiggie.

Although it was currently being described as only a possible, with a bird like this, a first for Britain if confirmed as a Least Bittern you go, straightaway, no messing, no question. Get there as soon as  possible. We set off across the boggy fields back to the road and headed uphill on the road to Bigton. It was almost a mile walk back to the car and Mark soon fell behind carrying his huge lens and camera combo.

As we walked the news came that it was indeed a Least Bittern at Scousburgh and it was in the car park, standing exhausted after a marathon flight from North America. Currently it was at the edge of the sandy car park and not looking like it was going anywhere soon.

Time was of the essence. Mark called out to me to take the car keys, run to the car and drive back to collect him as otherwise it would take an age for us to get to Scousburgh Sands. I ran downhill in  my wellington boots and then uphill towards the car at the Community Centre, the boots feeling like a dead weight, my heart pounding in protest at the anxiety, adrenalin and physical overload. Who cares. I must get to the car as soon as I can. I passed three other birders who looked at me in astonishment but then started running themselves.

I dragged myself into the car and fought the gears to get going.Roaring back down the deserted road I found Mark and he got in with all his gear as quickly as possible. There was no time to lose.

Drive! he shouted

We followed Birdguide's satnav instructions with  another birder's car in front of us.We arrived at the top of a hill to join several other cars and their birder occupants, all looking confused and harrassed.

This can't be right.On a hill?

Scousburgh Sands, the clue's in the name surely.

It was obvious we were in the wrong place. The car park we wanted was away below us and so it was back into the car, reverse and a race downhill to drive along the road by Loch Spiggie and find the elusive car park.

Unfortunately many other birders had preceded us and every possible parking space on the road was occupied with birders running down the road to the track leading to the small car park at the end.

There's a space!

No it's a gate, we can't block it.

We passed the track to the car park but there was nowhere suitable to park the car. A quarter of a mile  further we just abandoned the car on a narrow grass verge. It wasn't blocking the road so it should be alright.

Grabbing my gear I legged it back down the road with Mark a distant second.It took forever to get to the track entrance but eventually I made it and headed down towards the tiny sandy car park in the dunes.Would the bittern still be there. Please let it be so.

I arrived in the car park and joined around a hundred birders.There was no sign of the bittern. 

Where is it? 

Mild panic took hold.

I was told by another birder

It's walked into the marram grass by the edge of the car park and you cannot see it. The only way is to queue up and climb onto the top of the fence over there, hang onto that large post and look down on it from there.You should be able to see it hunkered down in the grass very near to the post, it's just by those two spikes of dead sorrel in the marram grass.


I joined a short queue with two others ahead of me. I had to curb my impetuosity and wait my turn.It was mental agony but finally it was my turn and clambering up onto the top of the wire fence I clung for dear life to the post and looked downwards. Deep in the grass I could see the bittern, a mass of brown and black feathers and a head pointing away which moved slightly

Someone had suggested the bittern had died but it definitely moved its head. I had but a minute before I had to vacate my position.I looked one more time to check it was definitely the bird and alive. It was. I had seen it.

Relaxed, I joined a throng of other birders who had also seen the bird, and were now awaiting any further developments. Others had still to see the bittern and a long queue had now formed to climb up the fence to see the bittern.

For half an hour this was the situation but it could not go on like this and it was announced that on a vet's advice, a local birder would approach the bittern in the dunes and if it walked out of the dunes of its own accord it would be left in peace but if it did not it would be picked up and taken into care.

Everyone was ordered to stand back.Voices were raised towards those who failed to do so quickly enough. Order having been restored everyone waited.

Phil duly walked towards the bird which did not move, so he picked it up. It looked miniscule in his hands, his fingers comparatively huge as they enclosed the bittern's tiny body. It was paraded along a semi circle of around 150 over excited birders, everyone taking photos as a memento of this unique occasion.

For fifteen minutes it was admired and then taken away to be put in a box and taken into care.Where it went and what happened during its transit to Phil's house is a matter of conjecture and dare I say controversy. Should it not have gone to a vet or animal rescue centre? 

Some well known high listers who had not seen it even intercepted Phil's van and got to look in the box to see the bird.Should this have been allowed? Again I apportion no blame to Phil but I do question the judgment and motives of those who pressured him into opening the box so they could see it.

The bird was found to weigh only 50gms as opposed to its normal weight of 85gms.

It died during the night despite some birders taking the high risk strategy to travel to Shetland that night in the hope of seeing it the next morning if it survived.

So I got to see a lifer, and a new bird for my British list but the manner in which this was achieved does not sit easily with me.

True I did nothing to harm the bird but I feel my presence contributed to its demise.I was one of a hundred and fifty birders stood around waiting for the bird to either move from the dunes or be picked up. It looked relatively lively when picked up but was it in the bird's best interest to be paraded in front of all of us? Our close presence and all the accompanying noise must surely have further distressed the already exhausted bird.

It was put in a box but then to open the box once more to allow some top listers to see it was in my opinion also unwise.The bird should surely have been kept secluded once it was picked up so as to be given every chance to recover.

I do not blame anyone involved in its rescue as the pressures of satisfying the desire of a huge number of birders to see it must have been enormous and irresistible and it was clearly impossible to leave it in the dunes as inevitably it would have been disturbed by those unable to curb their competitive desires.

This occasion for me clearly demonstrated the fragile balance that exists between a bird's welfare, which should always take priority and the competitive essence of twitching which can sometimes cloud  the judgement of all of us, myself included.

To say, as some did 'It would have died anyway' is not the point.

1 comment:

  1. Well written. It is indeed a tightrope to walk. We cannot say for certain what the outcome would have been, but I believe that most of the long distance travellers do die. But excessive and aggressive twitching is partially to blame.