Thursday, 14 October 2021

The Rarest Stint of All 12th October 2021

Videograb c Alan Tate

Mark my twitching pal and myself were on Shetland for ten days birding commencing at the beginning of October, fulfilling a long standing desire to see some really good and hopefully very rare birds and forget about the mess that Britain finds itself in due to Covid and Brexit.

All was going well and we had indeed seen some excellent birds such as no less than two Red eyed Vireos, a Semi palmated Sandpiper, Rustic Bunting and a Western Bonelli's Warbler to name but a few.I will write about these later but for now wish to concentrate on our involvment in a truly momentous event that happened not on Shetland but in Yorkshire, many miles to the south.

We were sitting in the conservatory of our rented cottage in Scalloway on Friday evening, the 8th October and Mark, as usual was uploading his photographic images onto his laptop.I got up to make some tea and from the kitchen heard an anguished cry.

'Oh no! I don't believe it!  The mega we have been wishing for has arrived but its not on Shetland.'

Returning to the conservatory I enquired as to what was causing such angst

Mark supplied the details

'There's a Long toed Stint in Yorkshire!'

'Its been re-identified from originally being a Temminck's Stint, then a Least Sandpiper, to finally a Long toed Stint. We have to go and see it'.

'Are you happy to cut our Shetland trip short? He enquired 

My answer was unequivocal

'Of course.We only have two days left of our stay anyway and this is a  mega but we will have to change our booking with Northlink.' (the ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen)'

Truly the Long toed Stint was an absolute mega, as there are only two previous records for Britain and one for Ireland. The last was seen  in Britain twenty years ago at Saltholme in Cleveland, present from 28th August-1st September 1982. This latest discovery was big, very big indeed.

Mark rang Northlink immediately to see if we could change our booking from the coming Monday to tomorrow night. I sat listening apprehensively to his conversing with a very nice lady at Northlink who told us it was impossible to get us and the car on any ferry that weekend as they were fully booked due to the school holidays.We could go on a waiting list but that was already ten deep. Doubtless the majority of visiting birders on Shetland were also trying their luck with Northlink at the same time as us but they too would be confounded.

The lady told us if we could wait until Sunday she could offer us a sleeping pod each. If anyone has tried this form of torture you will know why we baulked at this. Mega or no mega it was not worth a night trying to recline on a sleeping pod. Why Northlink persist with them is beyond me. OK they are cheap but they are truly awful and make sleep close to impossible.

So we had to sit it out until our confirmed booking on Monday night.The earliest we could get to the bird would be midday on Tuesday 12th October, after the ferry docked at 7am in Aberdeen, which is seriously pushing one's luck, as megas have a habit of flying off long before.

There was, however, no choice and we had to rely on hope and chance. I think it fair to say I was the more sanguine and philosophical about our situation.There was no point in getting worked up into a state of extreme anxiety for the next three days, well no more than normal. Mark however was less inclined to try and put it to the back of his mind.

The next three days until we finally boarded the ferry were, shall we say, a little fraught as Mark regularly checked that the stint was present at its temporary home, the RSPB's St Aidan's Reserve near Castleford.

On Saturday it was showing well and pictures appeared of vast crowds of fortunate birders from all over Britain looking at the little bird on its muddy scrape, fussing along  by the water's edge.

On Sunday it was with no little trepidation that we checked Birdguide's app and saw that it was still there and yet more large crowds from all over Britain had come to admire and enjoy this feathered celebrity, 

On Monday, after a vexing delay awaiting news, Mark announced with some relief that the stint was still there.We would board the ferry at 5.30pm tonight and at just after 7.30am in the morning be on the road south from Aberdeen.

Later that evening on the ferry we sat in our cabin and discussed the likelihood of it still being there tomorrow. Both of us were optimistic but were loathe to appear so as it could so easily be gone in the morning and we would be left rueing the fact. We were so near and yet so far. Just one day to go.

The night on the ship passed slowly and sleep eluded me. I made a brief sortie onto the outer deck to admire the Northern Lights and then tried to get my head down. The night seemed interminable. The huge ferry eventually docked in a wet Aberdeen and our car, sandwiched between two lines of very smelly fish lorries, was one of the first to be ushered onto dry land.It was still dark as we wound our way out of Aberdeen in increasing traffic and onto the main road south to Dundee, Perth, Glasgow and beyond.

St Aidan's Reserve seemed an awfully long way from our current position between Aberdeen and Dundee. It was impossible to put the stint to the back of our minds and Mark was regularly checking for news even though it was still dark. It was sheer anxiety that caused him to do it but I understood perfectly how he felt. Anything to relieve the tension. At least I had the diversion of driving and concentrating on the road.

An hour passed and inummerable RBA checks had elicited no news. It was now light and friends who had managed to see the stint rang to wish us luck which ratched up the tension even more. For the umpteenth time Mark consulted his app and as we passed through Finavon, just north of Forfar announced welcome news. 

'It's still there! The stint has just been seen at its scrape on the reserve!'.

'Good.Now we have a more than even chance of seeing it'. I replied

Mark was still anxious

'What if it flies off?'  he enquired.

'It won't.'  I countered

'A Sparrowhawk could get it' '

No chance! I replied 

'Mark just stop it, you are winding us all up. It will be there, I know it will.'

We made a stop for fuel and a coffee at Dundee, in the rain and rush hour, and then it was a four hour slog down the motorways to turn off just after Carlisle and cross from west to east to join the A1 at Scotch Corner. Another stop for a coffee and a pasty and we were off on the last leg of our marathon journey. In an hour we would arrive at St Aidan's and be within touching distance of the tiny bird that had dominated our thoughts for the last three days

We followed the satnav instructions and at Swillington came to a brown sign pointing to the RSPB's reserve. Aberdeen was but a distant memory as we drew up into a reserve car park made extraordinarily busy by the reserve's exalted bird guest. A large blackboard listed the days sightings but one above all else dominated.


Relaxed birders stood around enjoying their indivdiual moment of triumph at having already seen the Long toed Stint.They gave us instructions as to where to go to see the stint as it began to gently rain but we were hardly going to be troubled by a spot of rain, having already spent ten days on Shetland! 

The stint, we were told, was currently residing on Astley Lake which would entail a half hour's walk along an all weather track to the far end of what appeared to be a very large reserve, converted from an open cast mine when the workings flooded in the 1980's.The stint from all accounts was feeding on a muddy spit out on the lake and showing well but distantly.

We passed many birders returning from the site and they gave us encouragement and further guidance.The walk went on forever or seemed to but finally we got to the point where around twenty birders were scoping the muddy spit, some way distant from us. 


I asked a birder next to me for directions and was guided to the front of the spit.At first all I could see were Lapwings with the occasional Coot and Moorhen for variety. I looked closer and increased the magnification on my scope to its maximum and there was the stint, looking tiny against the Lapwings, its hunched body, on what were for a stint longish legs, moving back and fore, head down, picking at the mud.

Videograb c Alan Tate

I would like to say this moment filled me with the usual addictive, surging mixture of adrenaline and excitement. Sadly six hours spent driving four hundred miles in mainly rain had put paid to that but I would enjoy the bird after a good night's rest at home. For now I concentrated on studying the stint as it fed back and fore in front of me. Always quite distant I could still admire its brown upperbody and  white underparts. The upperparts distinctively and symetrically blotched, almost turtle like with darker centres to its feathers. Its head displayed marked white supercilia, extending from the eyes backwards and dark brown ear coverts on an otherwise paler face.Its breast was greyish white with narrow dark streaking. Most noticeable of all, and which I admit making a special effort to see, were its extraordinary feet. Occasionally it would high step along the muddy margin and the elongated toes, especially the middle one, were briefly visible.Think of a Moorhen's feet but on a much smaller scale and you will get an idea.

For forty five minutes I admired this tiny and very rare wader scuttling around amongst the larger birds, occasionally being chivvied but never really threatened.The rain began to fall more persistently. It was time to make the long walk back to the visitor centre.We still had a long way to go but three days of anxious waiting had seen us triumphant and that could be savoured on the drive home. 


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