Monday, 6 June 2011

WHITE-THROATED ROBIN in Cleveland.... it's enough to drive you up the wall!

The day started with an early rise and a 6.ooam session at the gym before heading into the office for an exhausting day of banking based graft. Whilst perched at my desk, sipping away at an over-priced yet mildly stimulating Americano, the old pager beeped away telling me that a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL had been trapped and ringed on Hartlepool Headland. 'Mmmmm nice!' I thought and I continued to bring a degree of organisation to my already overcrowded desk. A few minutes later another early message was zapped over to Birmingham via a complex series of orbiting satellites direct from the RBA headquarters in Norwich.... MEGA Cleveland WHITE-THROATED ROBIN Hartlepool Headland trapped + ringed + will be released shortly (not Red-flanked Bluetail) ..... My throat went instantly dry and I struggled to unbutton the top button of my shirt in order to increase the flow of oxygen to my brain. I re-read the message a couple of times before the pre-twitch shivering began to kick in. This was a species that breeds at its closest point to Britain in Turkey and had never been recorded in England before.

Taking a quick swig of water and a deep breath I composed myself, puffed up my chest, summoned up the courage and asked my boss if I could take an emergency afternoon off work. He enquired as to the reason for my early departure. I told him that an extremely rare bird had turned up. He shook his head in disbelief, checked that it was acceptable with the rest of the team and reluctantly agreed to let me leave at 11.30am on the condition that a huge pile of pre-audit checks were completed. After shuffling more paperwork than a team of Ryan Giggs's lawyers in record time I made my escape out of the City. After a quick stop off in Tamworth to pick up my optical equipment and a change of attire I was on my way up the M42 and eventually the M1 to pick up my birding partner Stevie Dunn from Tibshelf. As he entered the twitchmobile I was overcome by the intoxicating aroma of Captain Morgan. Steve soon admitted that he had knocked back a small quantity of rum in order to calm his nervous disposition. Not only was the robin too much for him to handle but on top of this there was a Red-necked Phalarope in eastern Nottinghamshire, a much desired County tick for him. The daft bleeder even had the audacity to give both birds the same priority. I assured him that there would be future Red-necked Phalaropes dropping in on Robin Hood's County however a mainland WHITE-THROATED ROBIN may never appear again in his lifetime.... especially if he continued to insist on having 40% proof spirits for breakfast.

As we continued our journey north we received intermittent messages that the rarity had flown off from its favoured area around the bowling green and into the famous doctor's garden. Fortunately though it always seemed to return, much to the delight of the increasing numbers of birders that were arriving from all corners of Britain. We arrived on site at around 3.20pm and staked our claim to a small area of road on The Lawns overlooking the robin's prime feeding area. After speaking to Mark Payne we learned that we had missed a brief appearance less than ten minutes previously. As the minutes turned into a hour and the hour turned into two I was far from optimistic. Despite birders easing back from Olive Street to give the bird some breathing space and despite an organised search of the adjacent gardens, there was still no sign of the critter. It was not looking good at all and I was dreading the long, depressing journey back south.

WHITE-THROATED ROBIN (first summer female)
Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland.

At around 5.30pm we decided to head off to search a wider area in desperation. It was at this stage that we heard Ashley Howe say that the bird was still present but was feeding in the doctor's garden, an area with zero access. We then caught a glimpse of a few birders jogging down to Durham Street and so we followed. Upon turning the corner we were faced by the bizarre sight of a dozen eager twitchers standing on the top of vans whilst peering over a 12 foot wall.... they were watching the bird. Some entrepreneurial local 'monkey hanger' was quick to charge punters £20.00 to sit on the roof of his Ford Transit. Hard cash was being exchanged hand over fist like a night out at Spearmint Rhino. I needed to get on top of the wall by any means necessary. The lamp posts were off limits as they were covered in anti-climb paint and various portions of the wall were defended with shards of broken glass.

After abandoning my scope at the bus stop, I jostled for a position to board one of the vans. Unfortunately just as I made it on to the roof, the owner decided that enough was enough as the force of the combined weight had cracked his windscreen. As he pulled off to escape the hoards, I leapt on to the wall like Spiderman and straddled the fine Victorian brickwork. What lay in front of me was a well manicured large garden complete with a vast lawn and a fine selection of flower beds, much different to the species usual favoured summer habitat of sparsely vegetated rocky slopes of Afghanistan. After what seemed like a lifetime I caught sight of movement in one of the compost heaps. As I focussed my bins, there it was in all of its glory a fine female WHITE-THROATED ROBIN. The feeling I received from that initial sighting was tremendous. The pressure was off for me but I needed to get Steve up there too. As the bird showed well darting around the base of the rose bushes, Steve at last managed to find an accomplice to help me hoist him up. Within seconds of him gaining his composure he too was watching the rarity as it sat in a hollow in the parched soil, basking in the early evening sunshine.

Twitching legend Franko....
... rear-end a camouflaged photographer!

As we continued to enjoy the occasion we were pretty much oblivious to the chaos that surrounded us. A number of ladders had been provided by some friendly locals and a small scaffold structure was even assembled on the back of a builders truck in order that all those present could catch a glimpse of the target bird. This was by far the most unusual twitch that I have been party to and I must admit to enjoying every single minute of it. We eventually dismounted the wall to let others join in the fun and headed home at around 7.30pm. It had truly been a day to remember!

A 'lucky twitcher's view' from atop the Doctor's wall....

The WHITE-THROATED ROBIN in Britain.....

There has just been a single record of this species in Britain before. On the 27th May 1990 a female bird arrived on the Welsh island of Skokholm off the Pembrokeshire coast. Unfortunately the news of this particular bird was kept under wraps in order to protect the various seabird species that breed there. The bird lingered until the 30th May but was only seen by the wardens and a few selected guests that were hastily shipped over for the occasion.

There is also a further record of a male bird from the Isle of Man on the 22nd June 1983 only.

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