Monday 19 October 2020

Yet Another Mega - Rufous tailed Scrub Robin 17th October 2020

Late  on Thursday night I returned from seeing a Taiga Flycatcher in Northumberland and lying in bed I relished the thought of a day doing very little, spending Friday morning ambling round Farmoor Reservoir with two friends, Dave and Phil, chewing the fat and sharing a coffee or two at the reservoir's Waterside Cafe.

On Friday I met Dave and Phil as planned and we sat with a coffee while I told them of my birding exploits over the last two weeks. I jokingly said I was praying that no more rare birds would show up for a while as the pace was beginning to catch up with me. We wandered down the causeway and saw, as usual very little, just a migrant Rock Pipit and a couple of Meadow Pipits and that was that. No stress, no anxiety, no worry about getting to some far distant location. It was all rather pleasant in the autumnal sunshine and the unexciting and untaxing surrounds of Farmoor.

After our wander and another coffee I bade Dave and Phil farewell and returned home, stopping off to get the car washed and cleaned.Tomorrow, Saturday I planned a lazy day with maybe some light gardening and then some sofa surfing watching Exeter Chiefs playing the French club Racing 92  in the European Rugby Union Championship Cup Final. Perfect.

I wake early these days and after a coffee on a grey Saturday morning, as is my habit, consulted the RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app on my phone to see what if anything had been found at this comparatively early hour. I knew that two Pallas's Warblers, always a good bird to see, had been found in the wood by the campsite near Stiffkey in North Norfolk. If they were still there today I might consider going to see them on Sunday.

There was no mention of the warblers but the second entry on the RBA app sent a shock of adrenalin through my body.

The entry was timed at 7.24am.

MEGA Norfolk RUFOUS BUSH CHAT  Stiffkey Campsite Wood just east of car park at 7.23am

Aaaaggghhh! Thoughts of a lie in, gardening and rugby fled as fast as the clouds of night. 

The last Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin to be seen in Britain was in 1980, forty years ago, so this was going to be a huge event. There are in total only eleven records, of which eight are in Britain and three in Ireland and of these eleven, four are from the last century. All bar two are of birds found in September or October, the exceptions being one at Cape Clear in Co. Cork, Ireland on 20th April 1968 and the last to be recorded in Britain, until today, which was at Prawle Point in Devon on 9th August 1980. 

I immediately rang Les to see if he was interested in going and he answered on the second ring.

'You seen the news about the scrub robin?' I enquired

'Yes I know. I am already on the way and am at Lakenheath.Should be there in an hour!' he replied

I wished him luck, said I would see him there and hung up.

I rang Mark but knew he would still be asleep. Predictably there was no answer so I left a text message for him to call me as soon as possible as I knew he would want to go and it made sense for us to travel together although I was not willing to delay my departure for Norfolk. 

Now conditioned to the almost constant arrival of rare birds this autumn I leave everything I need ready and prepared for a swift departure and I was out of bed, dressed and set to go in minutes. 

I met Mrs U in the kitchen.'What is it this time?' she enquired

'Rufous tailed Scrub Robin. Norfolk. Got to go. I'll be back late'.

She rolled her eyes and wished me luck

I set the satnav for Norfolk and tried to call Mark en route but still could not raise him. Two calls, three calls as I sped along and still no answer. The satnav told me I  would be at Stiffkey in three and a half  hours and  I knew that every other twitcher would be making the same plans. It was going to be chaotic at Stiffkey and parking in the tiny village with its very narrow roads and limited areas for.parking would be a challenge to say the least.

By now it was near to 8.30am and as I was approaching Milton Keynes Mark finally called, having just woken up and noticed all the missed calls on his phone

'I've been trying to call you' I told him

'Sorry. Where are you? Are you on your way to Norfolk?

'Yes. I'm near Milton Keynes'

'Can you pick me up?'

'Yes but you need to be ready to go when I get there'.

'Not a problem. It will take you another half hour to get to me so I can have breakfast and get my stuff together'

'OK. See you then'

I reset the satnav for Mark's home which fortunately did not require a huge deviation from my route to Norfolk.

As promised Mark was ready and waiting outside his house when I drew up. Five minutes later we were on our way to Norfolk or at least we would have been but I needed to refuel the car. Mark knew a nearby Sainsburys and of course, when you are in a hurry, there were queues of cars at the pumps which meant a frustrating wait. Time was of the essence but eventually we were all set and now it was a matter of making the long drive east to Norfolk.

Mark commenced calling other twitcher friends to find out the current situation at Stiffkey. Some were still on their way whilst others were already there.We learned from one contact that there was an accident that had closed the road at Lakenheath in Suffolk, which was on our route but we hoped it might be clear by the time we got there.

Les rang us to say he was already there and had seen the bird fantastically well in his scope.Thanks for that Les, as our anxiety consequently shot up several levels. He also told us parking was very difficult because there were so many cars, the small car park was full and the road leading to the village was lined with cars on both sides.The police were already taking an interest which also added to our worries but there was nothing we could do but drive on.

We wound our way across eastern England and soon ran into wet weather but it was not persistent rain just a smirrr of drizzly showers that came and went. Approaching Lakenheath we found that the accident was still causing the road to be closed. Police cars with flashing blue lights diverted us off onto a side road and we followed all the other traffic.

The satnav then took us on a magical mystery tour of rural Suffolk and Norfolk but we had to presume it was taking us in the right direction but the lanes seemed to get smaller, narrower and ever more remote. I shrugged and we carried on until finally we got onto a main road and Mark, at least had some idea of where we were.The rain continued coming in squalls and it looked pretty miserable outside.Worse, my newly cleaned car was now covered in a thin layer of mud left on the lanes where tractors had passed down them. The previous day's car clean and wash now a complete waste of money.

From various reports we learned the scrub robin was in a large clump of suaeda right out on the marshes below the Stiffkey campsite and if the rain persisted it would be pretty miserable viewing but there was nothing we could do about that either. When we arrived, in the rain, on the outskirts of Stiffkey, I swallowed hard at the sheer numbers of cars lining each side of the road.There was not a space to be had. Birders were running down the road in their anxiety to get to the marshes. 

One of Mark's friends had advised us to turn off the road and drive down the rough track to the small car park at the end that lay adjacent to the marshes .The hope was that birders who had seen the scrub robin earlier would be leaving and we might find a space if we were lucky. I was less sure about this but we turned off the road, drove a short way down the track and opted to take the first space we found along the track. As soon as we saw a space we dived in and one major worry was gone. We had successfully parked the car. The track, as with the main road near the village, was lined each side with cars. It looked to be utter chaos but somehow everything worked out fine, no one was blocked in and people and cars could come and go freely.

We donned wet weather gear and set off down the track, then passed through the car park and walked out further onto another wide track, now a very wet quagmire of lake like puddles and shallow mud, churned to perfection by hundreds of birders feet as they made their way to or from the saltmarsh. Still it rained. 

I could see literally hundreds of birders lined up along one side of a deep tidal channel of glutinous mud and water looking over it to a large clump of suaeda in the saltmarsh beyond.This was obviously where the bird was and more to the point it was still here.

We now had two options, cross a small wooden bridge and view the suaeda from the seaward side or divert right to view it from the other side.Mark told me to cross the bridge as one of his friends told him that was the best side from which to see the bird.

Now came our second logistical problem, finding a space amongst the throng of assembled birders to view the suaeda clump. We walked along the back of the birders and found a gap which gave us an uninterrupted view of the suaeda. The bird would appear from the depths of the suaeda we were told but was highly elusive and we might have quite a wait.

That was not a problem, so we stood and waited. Fifteen minutes later a very bedraggled scrub robin hopped up onto a twig in the suaeda. Pandemonium ensued as the bird was partially obscured, so not easily visible and from certain angles not at all. Panicky cries asking for directions rang out. I had the good fortune to be standing next to a birder who had it in his scope and offered me the opportunity to see it through his scope. I seized this generous offer with indecent haste and grateful thanks and here was my first sight of a bird not seen for forty years on British soil. Thirty seconds and I relinquished the scope to its kindly owner and transfered to my bins.

The scrub robin was very wet and its wing and tail feathers were reduced to spikes. I watched as it shuffled and fanned its wings to shake off the water and then sat for a minute or two before jumping back into the heart of the suaeda and it was gone.

A sigh of relief went through the crowd or at least those who had managed to get onto it. We had seen it and that was what mattered and now we could relax and wait for another view with the  pressure we had felt during the previous few hours well and truly lifted.Others who had missed it would have another anxious wait but would surely see it when next it became visible.

Half an hour later the scrub robin appeared once more in exactly the same place as before and sat for a few minutes before disappearing once more into the suaeda.It had stopped raining.

Mark and myself then discussed if we should move our position but decided to stay put. In hindsight this was not the wise thing to do. Over the next hour it became apparent that the scrub robin was being seen regularly on the other side of the suaeda. The weather in the meantime had improved markedly and it was now sunny with no hint of more rain.The other side of the suaeda clump was also sheltered from the east wind that was blowing across the large expanse of saltmarsh.

I said to Mark that if I was a bird it would make sense to favour the other side of the suaeda clump as it was out of the wind and also that is where the sun is shining into it. The side we were looking at was in the shade and open to the wind.

Five minutes later, with Mark unenthusiastic about moving, I decided to move so I could observe the other side of the suaeda

The scrub robin frequented the clump of suaeda on the other side of the 
channel.The suaeda can be seen in the middle of the picture and the scrub
robin favoured the brown patch half way along it

I found a position where I could view the  other side and it bore instant results as the scrub robin was immediately in view and, just as I had thought, was standing in the sun sheltered from the wind. 

Through my scope, only just returned from a service by Swarovski, I studied its plumage. Overall its upperparts were an unremarkable sandy brown and its underparts buff white, whiter on the throat and washed with darker buff on the breast. Its similarly bland coloured head was marked with a large pale supercilium contrasting with a dark eye stripe.In direct contrast to this understated appearance was the rump and tail, both of which were bright rufous in colour, the tail with a prominent sub terminal black band and white tips to all but the central tail feathers.When it fanned its tail these features were most obvious and the contrast between the strong colour of the rump and tail and the rest of its body was very marked.  

In size it was slightly smaller than a Skylark. It spent much time preening, doubtless after all the rain a few feathers needed sorting and putting in order but even when dry it looked markedly scruffy and rather unkempt, an image enhanced by its habit of fanning its wings and allowing them to droop as it hopped around on long pale legs, while at the same time also fanning its long tail and cocking it until it was at times completely upright.

It had a favourite spot that was a small bank of dead grass stems in front of the taller suaeda with a pale stick running horizontally across it. Here it would return regularly after sorties into the suaeda, to either stand, preen or sleep. Yes it would literally snuggle down into small depressions in the grass stems and close its eyes, basking in the sun, the suaeda acting as a windbreak. It was obviously a very tired migrant although others said it was unwell. I disagreed with this. I have seen migrants such as this before that are tired and sleep when they can to recover their energy. To prove my point the scrub robin would only rest for a period before jumping up and with much wing flicking, tail fanning and cocking, hop into the suaeda in search of food.When it did this it looked very lively and I knew all was well with it. 

Even when squatting on the grass, half asleep it opportunistically snatched a large fly that came too near its bill. Mark got the message and he too moved to where he could see the bird and with many others enjoyed regular views of this very rare bird as it came back to its favoured spot to sleep or preen.

We were on the saltmarsh from just after noon until around four pm and for the last hour and a half the scrub robin was more on view than not. The crowd too had thinned out considerably and there was space enough for everyone to get a good view of the bird and maintain a social distance.

It was an absolutely thrilling experience and so totally unexpected to find such a bird in such atypical habitat, this also being the first record of a Rufous tailed Scrub Robin for Norfolk.

Their normal habitat is dry, scrubby open country with patches of dense bushes so I suppose an area of desolate albeit very wet open saltmarsh with clumps of dense suaeda is the next best thing for a completely disoriented and thoroughly lost migrant such as this.

c Mark - my twitching buddy

Rufous tailed Scrub Robins are found breeding in Portugal and southern Spain right across North Africa from southern Morocco east to Egypt, the Levant and parts of Arabia, through Transcaucasia and much of Central Asia. They are migrants and winter in sub Saharan Africa and as far east as India.With such a large distribution it is inevitable that there are a number of races, three in fact. This bird's relatively pale coloured, grey brown body plumage has suggested it is from the east and either of the race Cerchotrichas galactotes syriaca or C.g. familiaris, the former being found in south and central Turkey, northern Levant, south to western Syria and wintering in the Horn of Africa and Somalia.The latter is found in southeast Turkey, Iraq,Transcaucasia and Iran, east to Kazakhstan and winters in northeast Africa as far south as Kenya. 

Eventually we agreed that we had both got as many images as we wanted and had watched the bird for so long that we were sated with viewing it. 

There was now the welcome dilemna of whether to go and see a nearby Red flanked Bluetail at Holme or an even nearer Pallas's Warbler. in the adjacent campsite woods. We decided on the latter which only required a ten minute walk through the wood to its far end, where we had been told we would find the warbler feeding with a small number of Goldcrests.

At the end of the wood we joined about half a dozen birders standing at the edge of a field looking up at the trees  and immediately we saw the tiny form of a charismatic Pallas's Warbler. An absolute gem of a bird, hardly larger than a Goldcrest, having flown here all the way from Siberia. A bird of yellow stripes and bars on head and wings respectively, moss green upperparts and a square of pale yellow on its rump. It was a total nightmare to try and photograph, as it searched the twigs and leaves, high and low, endlessly active, never still, even more so than the Goldcrests with which it shared the trees.

The light began to fade. A Peregrine flew over us and Brent Geeese muttered out on the marshes.

What a day to savour as our unbelievable run of good fortune twitching rare birds continues.

Not having eaten all day we stopped at Swaffham for al fresco fish and chips and then headed for home.

Such days do not come often but when they do they are to be savoured.


The Rufous tailed Scrub Robin was still present around the saltmarsh near Stiffkey from 18th-21st of October after which it was seen no more

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