Friday, 15 February 2013

The Great British Pine Grosbeak Adventure - Day I

On Friday 1st February sizzling, hot news hit our pagers of a legendary MEGA beast from the chilly, coniferous forests of the north. There was a PINE GROSBEAK stomping around a small area of North Shetland striking terror into the hearts of villagers by stripping whole pine trees bare with a single swipe of its gargantuan bill. After some extensive CSI Zetlandica style forensic analysis..... well, after having a quick glance at a few photos, it then transpired that this particular bird had been present in the same locality since the 2nd November 2012 at least!

To be quite honest I was not too fussed initially. The long winter months seem to instil a touch of 'twitch hibernation' in me.  This is only usually shaken off around the same time as the first Northern Wheatears make landfall on the south coast and we were a number of weeks away from that happening yet.  The problem is, as the days go by and frame filling photographs of the bird emerge and numerous numpties who are shelling out the equivalent of a month's mortgage payment for a charter flight are connecting, you finally succumb to the urge. The thing is though, I refuse to embark on a marathon, long distance twitch with just any irritating, yawn inducing, bird geek I can scrounge a lift with. If I choose to head off to some far flung corner of the British Isles then I insist that a posse of close birding brothers are assembled for the arduous journey ahead. For a large proportion of losers out there it is all about the next 'tick' whereas the more discerning birder puts as much emphasis on the craic as they do peering down their bins at the next major rarity.

So with nearly a fortnight passing by, a carefully selected gang of West Midlanders consisting of Phil Andrews, Julian Allen, Steve Richards and I finally made the decision to venture northwards. With friends, wives, girlfriends, relatives, work colleagues and even some birders thinking we were mentally deranged for considering the trip, we arranged to commence our adventure early on Friday 15th February. Some of these same people then considered having us sectioned when they realised there had not been a sniff of the bird since the previous Tuesday.

We departed Cannock, Staffordshire at 6.45am. The mood was jovial as we all attempted to reassure each other that the bird would still be present when we got there. There were several valid reasons why it had not been reported for a few days - remoteness of location, lack of birder coverage, adverse whether conditions. Not one of us dared utter a word about the bird zipping off to pastures new, or the poor wretched rarity lying claws upwards at the bottom of a dark, damp plantation, or it becoming a hearty meal for a famished Merlin. We all needed to remain positive and poke a tri-pod leg in the eye of the unthinkable. 

Jules Allen (front) suffers travel exhaustion....
... at this stage we had not even cleared Cheshire.

As Phil pushed his trusty Peugeot to the extremes, the snow-capped peaks of the Lake District drifted by and before we knew it we had entered Scotland.  A few hours later we had crossed the River Tay and by 1.30pm we had entered the sun drenched 'Granite City' of Aberdeen. With over five hours to kill before the ferry left the harbour for Shetland it was time to find some birds.  Rather than head too far out of our way we opted for the convenient location of Girdle Ness where various new species were added to our year lists. There were plenty of Common Eider, Shag and the odd Long-tailed Duck and Red-breasted Merganser at the mouth of the River Dee. Waders included Oystercatcher, Redshank and Turnstone however the main highlight was an impressive flock of 74 Purple Sandpipers milling around one of the piers. Out to sea there were small groups of Common Scoter loafing around along with around half a dozen Red-throated Diver, 20 Guillemot and a single Razorbill. The stars of the show however were a small number of Bottlenose Dolphins performing like attention seeking children close offshore.

A few Common Eider bob around as a rusty ship leaves Aberdeen.

We then battled through the city traffic and made our way around to Aberdeen beach. It was pretty much the same story in this area with closer views of Common Scoter rafts, several Long-tailed Ducks and more Red-throated Divers. We then made our way around to check out Aberdeen's northern river via Donmouth Local Nature Reserve. From the tiny bird hide south of the river we enjoyed excellent views of 4 Long-tailed Duck and hundreds of Common Gull flying in to bathe as well as several Common Seal. It was whilst we were all huddled together here that we experienced one of the greatest moments of the entire trip. 

At around 3.45pm Steve's pager bleeped away and the rest of us waited with baited breath. His baby blue eyes sparkled and his face beamed, the PINE GROSBEAK was still present. There was an enormous sense of joy and a similar quantity of relief as we shook hands, fondled each other and screamed out loud. The twelve hour crossing to Lerwick would now be far more bearable with this nugget of information at the forefront of our minds. Before we headed back to the harbour we had a quick drive around the outskirts of Aberdeen and found a single confused looking Waxwing. There had been a flock of forty birds reported earlier in the day but considering the scarcity of berries in the area we were not surprised they had moved on. More or less every suitable tree or bush had been stripped completely bare. 

Common Gulls at Donmouth Local Nature Reserve

As we entered the ferry terminal it was evident that other eager birders were here to make the trip. Either that or a day trip had been organised for the entire network of Big Issue vendors from the northern Scotland region. Up on deck there were more birders, about twenty in total. This was great news, the more pair of eyes searching the following morning meant that we had a better chance of locating our target bird quicker. After downing the odd pint of Guinness and devouring a plate of fish and chips it was time to find a bed for the night. In order to keep costs down and the fact we were all stingy, tight-fisted birders none of us had opted for the luxury of a cosy cabin below deck. We all took our chances in the lounge area. We all prayed for a smooth crossing over the course of the next two hundred mile leg of our journey. As I steadied my nerves with the calming tones of Simon & Garfunkel on my iPod, I drifted off to sleep dreaming about what the next day would hold. What it be sheer elation or bitter disappointment?   

Phil Andrews all snuggly!
That's not vomit on his sleeping bag, it's the actual design.
Jules Allen finds a quiet corner to rest his weary head!

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