Sunday, 10 February 2013

Just a quick trip

The Pine Grosbeak on Shetland had obviously caught my eye but lately I'd begun to mellow in terms of twitching, at least I thought I had. I had come to realise that it's not worth getting uptight about every mega that turns up hundreds of miles away because a lot of the time it's just impractical getting there. That said, if I need it, it's rare enough and I can go for it then I will, so when I got a call from Michael and Dan saying that a lift was on the cards with Kevin McCoy I jumped at the chance.

In the early hours of the morning we set off from Reigate, it was great to catch up with Dan and Mike and to meet Kevin but I wasn't used to being awake at that time in the morning. We arrived in Aberdeen late morning (Red Kite seen by the road somewhere in Scotland before this), where we gobbled a top notch serving of Maccy D's in no time before heading to Blackdog for a quick bit of birding. On the sea there were about 25 Long-tailed Ducks, 5-10 Red-throated Divers, 80-odd Common Scoters, 7 or so Red-breasted Mergansers, 30 Eiders and a Guillemot, plus a couple of Harbour Porpoise and fourteen Pink-footed Geese were clocked flying over. Kevin was in contact with Lee Evans who was on Shetland with about 25 other birders - Lee was put on loudspeaker and the news was very frustrating: despite everybody's best efforts and favourable conditions, there was no sign of the bird. We'd already booked our tickets for the ferry and, with the bird having been present since November, it would surely be unrealistically unlucky for it to have departed just when we were making the pilgrimage?!? It was unnerving, nonetheless.

Long-tailed Ducks, Blackdog

With time ticking, the enjoyable seabird-watching session came to an end and we drove back to Aberdeen. As we parked the car, a Mallard started quacking in the car - oh no it was Kev's phone: Lee Evans. This could only be good news... 'KEV THE BIRD'S HERE, IT'S STILL HERE!!!!!!!!!!!' bellowed the infamous voice. What a relief! We knew it was probably still there somewhere but it was so reassuring to know that it had actually been seen the day before we were due to be on the island. With that, we collected our bags and raced to the boat (interrupted by trying to fathom the parking system for about fifteen minutes), secured a cosy-looking corner to kip for the long night ahead and settled down. The Northlink ferry was a vessel of luxury compared to the good old Scillonian, however that didn't help the fact that the boat leapt like a dolphin through the big oncoming waves, which wasn't conducive to sleep. Minutes passed like hours and the prospect of chasing the elusive bird around after two virtually sleepless nights did not feel good. Then our guardian angel came in the form of Kevin who had found a free cabin that slept four; this was at 11.00pm. We slept like babies till 6.30am when we got ready to disembark from the ferry and complete our journey. Arriving at Lerwick, we didn't have to wait too long for the hire car and then we were off. The weather wasn't the best, with overcast conditions and constant drizzle but it was still birdable.

45 minutes later and we parked up at North Collafirth, already having picked up Black Guillemot from the car park at Lerwick and Hooded Crows and Ravens while on the move. Kev and I decided it would be wise to don waterproof over-trousers while Dan and Mike approached the bird's favoured plantation and one of the other carloads that we met on the ferry arrived. We'd only just hitched our leggings up when Dan and Mike shouted that the other lads had got the bird. We ran the fifty yards between us and them, but not quickly enough. The bird had decended into the conifers and all I caught was a twig moving. One of the Cleveland birders picked it up again briefly again but again Kev and I couldn't get on it so we went to the sheltered side of the plantation and played the call from my iphone briefly. BINGO! There was the PINE GROSBEAK sat in the open in all it's glory, calling away!!! I was expecting to be impressed but didn't anticipate the intense high and satisfaction from laying eyes on this big chunky beauty of a visitor! It showed well for five minutes or so before it called again and flew towards Housesetter. Wow! I wasn't expecting it to be that easy. The trip was worth it there and then whatever happened next but we wanted further views so drove round to the other gardens it had been frequenting. It didn't take long here either, with the bird affording spectacular views and calling frequently for over an hour before it took a break from its performance.  Also at Housesetter: a Waxwing flew over, a Twite perched near the grosbeak and Hooded Crows and Ravens gave good performances while my first-ever Otter completed a tranquil scene on a still lake in the now clear weather, not forgetting a drake Goldeneye and a small handful of Wigeons and Redshanks.

Pine Grosbeak, Housesetter. What a bird!
Happy twitchers at Housesetter - our car-load being the right-hand four at the back - pic by Hugh Harrop (Nature in Shetland/Hugh Harrop Wildlife Photography)
Michael, Dan and Kevin after a scopeful of grosbeak
Housesetter views
Twite, Housesetter
Hooded Crow, Housesetter

We were star-struck; the grosser certainly made it into my top five all-time rarities. We took this as the perfect moment to grab from fish and chips from Scotland's third best chippy where we hatched plans as to what to do next. The next rarest bird on the island was at Burra so we hit the road for there where a few pringles and buns soon drew in the first-winter Ring-billed Gull which put on a good show. This was a plumage tick for me and quite an education as I'd been waiting for an opportunity to get experience with this age of R-b Gull in the field; the extra faded half effect to the tailband when the bird was seen in flight was one of its most striking features. A few Turnstones and a Redshank showed here.

Ring-billed Gull, Burra

We were after Iceland Gull mainly after this so drove a short distance to Scalloway to grill the gulls. It turned out there were very few to scan through but I enjoyed my best ever views of Black Guillemots (including a bird almost in summer plumage) while two distant Slavonian Grebes skillfully picked out by Dan were another highlight along with a single Long-tailed Duck, 30+ Eiders and a close encounter with a first-winter Kittiwake and my sole Ringed Plover of the trip and an Oystercatcher.

Black Guillemot, Scalloway
Black Guillemot, Scalloway
Eiders, Scalloway
Slavonian Grebes, Scalloway
Raven, Scalloway

Continuing the quest for Iceland Gull, we returned to Lerwick where we searched from near the Shetland Catch fish factory. I was very pleased to pick out a second-winter Glaucous Gull distantly on Bressay and Dan spotted another of the same age further along the beach of that island. It turned out there were three birds on show: two second-winters and a first-winter. I'd only ever seen single Glaucs before so this was quite exciting despite the range. There were more Black Guillemots and Eiders here and a nice pair of Long-tailed Ducks but flushing four Common Snipes from the shore was more of a surprise and seven Red-breasted Mergansers were also visible towards Bressay plus a Redshank was present. After enjoying the birds here and meeting a couple of friendly Notts birders we decided it was time to make final preparations before boarding the ferry - restoring the hire car to a full tank and stocking up on junk food. It was then goodbye Shetland and the long journey home began. We learned from the outward crossing and secured a sleeping cabin straight away, Kevin regaled us with tales of twitches and foreign holidays plus a recital from his portfolio of jokes before a relatively undisturbed night's sleep (i.e. Kev's gaseous emissions caused slight sleep infringement). We were as lucky on the drive back as were we on the way up and the M40 was graced by several Red Kites, mainly picked out by Mike's sharp eye.

Glaucous Gulls viewed from Lerwick: first-winter (second bird from left) and second-winter (rightmost)
Shag, Lerwick

Thanks to Kevin for being such an excellent driver and story/joke-teller and for letting me come along on this fantastic trip. Equally, thanks to Dan and Mike for highlighting the opportunity and for providing great company. It was a real ball and almost everything went right to plan, I'm so glad I went and look forward to more such trips in the future!