Monday 13 April 2020

From the Archives: White throated Robin at Hartlepool Headland 6th June 2011

MEGA!!! Three red exclamation marks on the Birdguides daily sightings internet site indicated a very rare bird had been found. Indeed it was. A female White throated Robin no less, only the third to be found in Britain and with the previous two virtually untwitchable this was going to be a big one. My mobile announced a text from Badger as I was sitting at my work desk at nine thirty on a dull Monday morning. I called Badger back and learnt that he, Justin and Paul were shortly setting off for Hartlepool and if I wanted there was a seat in the car for me. If only he had called before nine I could have called in before work and found an excuse to not go in.  I could but swallow my disappointment and wish them luck and sit frustrated at my desk, looking out of the window, in a place I detested.

The White throated Robin had been trapped and ringed early that morning and on being taken out of the net before being put in a bag to be processed, originally identified as a Red flanked Bluetail, but then its true identity was discovered as it was removed from the ringing bag. It had been decided to release it, after processing, onto the nearby Bowling Green. Would it show well after that or disappear forever? It could go either way. It turned out, much to my chagrin, to be the former and was being enjoyed by local birders even while my three friends drove north and I remained behind my desk. A text arrived from Badger. They were just passing Leeds. Another text arrived a couple of hours later - they had seen the bird.

An all too familiar sense of gloom and anxiety consumed me but then as usual came reflection and relative peace of mind. There was nothing to be done and that was that. I checked Birdguide's sightings throughout the day and it told me the bird was being seen regularly but had now flown into the garden of the nearby local Doctor, a garden which had a very high brick wall around it and definitely no access. Was that the end of it?

Not quite.

Intrepid as ever birders found means to look over the wall from the road, aided by various co-operative builders who arrived in the obligatory white vans complete with ladders that they propped against the wall. Birders formed queues, money changed hands for the opportunity to take a turn in swarming up the ladders. There was chaos in the road and on the pavement as all the anxiety racked birders milled around, birders became covered in anti vandal paint from climbing the wall, birders straddled the top of the wall, a builder's van roof buckled under the strain of supporting too many birders, others teetered unsteadily on top of the ladders or supported by colleagues but it was all done in great spirit and good humour. The local residents enjoyed this unprecedented crazed invasion immensely and the vast majority of birders contrived to somehow see the bird. No mean achievement given the circumstances. Thankfully this was a weekday, as on a weekend it would have been infinitely worse with many more birders present.

By that evening I was forming a plan to go the next day but reviewing the postings on Bird Forum did I really want to endure the ladders in order to see the bird? There was no other way to see into the garden so it was the ladders or nothing. Not a very enticing prospect, especially with Hartlepool being such a very long drive away.The views would at best be brief and did I  want to go all that way for a perilous view from the top of a ladder, invading the privacy of the Doctor's garden in the process. Anyway it would probably fly off in the night, this was Hartlepool after all, which would solve my dilemna. I resolved to await news the following morning and see what the situation would be then. As a precaution I downloaded a route map to the location. If it was reported tomorrow I would go first thing. Next morning arrived and at just after seven am the first report came through. The robin was still there! No further doubts! No further delay! I grabbed scope and bins plus other birding essentials and set off north at around eight, asking Badger to update me with reports of sightings as I headed for distant Hartlepool.

It was a lovely sunny but windy day. A big jam on the M69/M1 interchange brought immense frustration but at last I was on the M1 and properly heading north. Onwards up the tedious miles of MI, then crossing over to the A1, then the A19 and ever onwards, forever it seemed. Finally I crossed over the Tees Bridge and it was then a short drive into Hartlepool. The usual panic consumed me when I could not find the precise location. I asked a couple of birders who directed me to the Doctor's house which was very close by.

Now luck took a turn for the better as it sometimes can, for unbeknown to me access to the Doctor's garden had been negotiated that very morning while I was driving north. This was much better as now I had the chance of prolonged views of the bird and I could forget all about ladders and white vans. I parked the car in the street and walked a short way to the Doctor's house, a rather imposing grand looking house, passing the adjacent Bowling Green on the way, then I passed through a green door in the now notorious wall that lead through a garage and out on the other side into the garden. A nice man with a collection bucket gestured me in and told me to just go ahead and find a place amongst at least fifty other birders ranged around one side of a lawn, looking over to the far corner of the large garden at a place which the robin apparently favoured. I found a place in the throng and the first person I encountered was Oz,  another Oxonbirder who had arrived literally seconds before me. The robin was currently not on view and due to the throng and my current position I realised that I would not get much of a view of it, if at all, when it appeared. I took a chance and moved down a path to the side of the house.This was much better as I could now see through an arch in a pergola that gave me an uninterrupted clear view of the favoured corner in the garden. Then an anxious wait ensued. Finally came the welcome and always thrilling moment when someone locates the bird. 'It's on the green post.' 'Where? came a chorus of enquiry. 'The green post in the far corner by the shed'. Quick, bins to eyes and there it was dropping down onto the lawn to pick up invertebrates, probably ants. A bird with orange flanks but otherwise fairly featureless, being brownish grey above and dull white below apart from the rusty orange flanks, a narrow white throat and undertail coverts. This really did not matter, it was attractive due to its uncontestable rarity and thus to be enjoyed regardless. However as I watched, it became ever more enticing as more of its subtle plumage features became apparent. It would disappear and return to the same general area of the garden on a regular basis, so sometimes l looked at it through my scope and others just my bins or took its picture with my camera.

The sun shone and I relaxed with my fellow birders in the rather charming large garden full of roses and anthirrinums. Percy Granger's arrangement of 'In an English Country Garden' came to mind Everyone was at peace but then someone, ignoring the notice not to, walked over the rhubarb patch just behind us. He was roundly chastised as we were all guests in the garden and everyone else had managed to exercise consideration on what was after all private property. It got briefly heated and silly as the offender got upset complaining he was disabled and to be criticised twice for walking on the rhubarb was acceptable but three times was annoying. Peace resumed as he grumped away. I have seen him before and he certainly wasn't disabled then but was still contriving to be involved in another altercation.

The robin popped out again and hopped around the lawn, then was not seen for a long period. The sun went in and I decided to head for home. Five pounds in the collection bucket for the local bird ringers who had caught the robin  and arranged access to the garden. Good wishes to one and all. A warm feeling. Out through the green door and back onto the street. I had been in the garden for two hours.

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