Sunday 17 February 2013

The Great British Pine Grosbeak Adventure - Day III

With the early morning sun attempting to squeeze its way through the gloom, we disembarked the ferry in Aberdeen and hiked it over the River Dee and into Torry to pick up the car. With over 430 miles to travel before we were back home you would have thought our urge to head south would have been stronger than that of a flock of Swallows in October. Like four confused vagrants though, we put the theory of reverse migration into practice but travelling north instead.    

St Mary's Chapel at Rattray dates from the late 12th Century.
Photo by Adam Archer

Just under a hour later we arrived at Rattray Head. After parking near the spookiest looking B&B in Britain we cautiously picked our way through the dunes and down towards the beach. Within seconds, Jules did exceptionally well in picking up our target bird around the high tideline, a long staying female DESERT WHEATEAR. This hardy little creature had remained loyal to this exposed, sandy landscape since it was initially found on the 2nd December 2012. Whilst studying the bird it was hard not to feel a wee bit sorry for it considering it should have been hopping around on much warmer wintering grounds than these. Depending whether its origins lie in Central Asia or North Africa it should have been enjoying this part of the year in north-west India or around the Sahara or Sahel regions from Mauritania to Ethiopia. It just goes to show how resilient some species of bird are.    

Rattray Head, Aberdeenshire.
Photo by Dave Perrett
DESERT WHEATEAR (female) - Rattray Head, Aberdeenshire.
Photo by Dave Perrett

Other species in the area included 8 Great Northern Diver and 2 Red-throated Diver offshore as well as 2 Long-tailed Duck, 55 Common Eider, 6 European Goldeneye, 6 Red-breasted Merganser and the odd Northern Gannet. Around the beach there were 30 European Shag, 20 Northern Lapwing, 5 European Golden Plover, 14 Oystercatcher, 33 Eurasian Curlew, 18 Dunlin and 32 Herring Gull.  On the way back through the dunes my first European Stonechat of the year was also logged, a handsome male.

Paul Hackett trying out his new digiscoping kit.
Rattray Head Lighthouse was built in 1895.
Photo by Adam Archer

We then negotiated the rough track back towards the south end of the RSPB Loch of Strathbeg reserve, chancing upon a singing male Corn Bunting as we did so. Up to 80,000 Pink-footed Geese winter in this corner of Aberdeenshire and I made a rough estimate that around 5,000 of these were feeding in the surrounding fields as we drove through. Scanning from the ruins of St Mary's Chapel I also picked out 11 Barnacle Geese, a single Common Buzzard and 33 Eurasian Curlew. Out on the loch there were 3 Mute Swan, 4 Whooper Swan, 52 Mallard, 4 Gadwall, 14 Eurasian Teal, 22 Eurasian Wigeon, 6 Shoveler, 16 Tufted Duck, 45 Common Pochard, 30 European Goldeneye and 2 Eurasian Coot. There were also 20 Common Gull, 4 Black-headed Gull and 2 Skylark in the area. 

Phil, Steve & Jules prepare for the long ride home.
Check out the ASBO Birderz signage!
Photo by Adam Archer

Finally it was time to head home. After nearly 500 miles and just over eight hours worth of travelling I finally arrived home at around 7.40pm. After a long soak in a hot bath and a delicious plate of homemade karahi gosht prepared by Nadia it was time to hit the sack. Another epic twitch had come to an end....... but for how long?

Saturday 16 February 2013


The 225 mile crossing from Aberdeen into Lerwick although very long was no where near as rough as past journeys aboard the same ferry. The worst part is the initial half hour or so after you wake up when you are stiff, sleepy, disorientated and feel as though someone has used your tongue to mop out the vomit splattered toilets. After a quick wash and brush up followed by an 'all you can eat breakfast' we were all ready for action. As we disembarked, the only thing that stifled the highly charged atmosphere was the damp Shetland morning. The first birds to greet us onto land were a pair of Raven 'kronking' away over the ferry terminal. For superstitious Europeans this may have been a sign of ill omen for what lay in store but not for me. I tend to look upon this magnificent animal in the same way as some native American tribes, a bringer of light and opportunity.  

Phil did us proud by hustling his way towards the front of the queue for the hire car and within minutes four burly twitchers along with all our essential equipment were packed into a tiny Ford Ka. For those who are familiar with the computer game Mario Kart, the scene was reminiscent of a quartet of Donkey Kongs squeezed into Mini. It was like a cross between Planet of the Apes and The Italian Job with a sprinkling of The Big Year thrown into the mix.

We had travelled 660 miles at this point and now there were just 37 more miles between us and a dream British bird. As usual Phil Andrews handled the twisting, narrow lanes between Lerwick and North Collafirth with all the skills of The Stig from Top Gear and by 8.15am we had arrived. Over a fortnight of interrupted sleep, stress, day dreaming, careful planning and calculated risks had come to a head. It was time to get stuck in with the rest of the lads on site and find the bird.

The initial stakeout was the Greenbrae plantation at Northmavine but at this point the drizzle had unfortunately turned into light rain. Undeterred, we encircled the small clump of pine trees. Every movement amongst them sent the heart racing. Every now and then a Starling, a Redwing or a Blackbird would appear and momentarily send us into panic mode. As we were surrounded by such stunning scenery it was all too easy to become distracted and we would make a quick scan of the land and loch around us.    

Jules Allen scanning eastwards from Northmavine.
Photo by Adam Archer

Down at the water's edge up to 9 Fulmar were present along with a single Grey Heron. Out on the loch itself there was a male Mallard, a female Red-breasted Merganser, a Little Grebe and a Black Guillemot moulting into summer plumage. Further out to sea a first winter Kittiwake was spotted amongst the Common Gulls. In the fields there was a pair of Icelandic Greylag Geese, a pair of Curlew, 3 Rock Dove, 3 Hooded Crow and a flock of 15 Chaffinch. This was a reasonable selection of birds interspersed with the odd northern speciality or two but there was one important omission. Would 'Plan B' need to be considered? If we failed to connect with the bird today then we had taken the decision to stay overnight and try again on the Sunday when the whether forecast looked much better. There were three disadvantages to this alternative plan of action; a flight back to Aberdeen as opposed to the cheap ferry ride - £185.00, a room for the night in a Shetland bed & breakfast - £40.00 and an extra day of car rental - £40.00.  

After a hour or so and with the rain getting progressively heavier we decided to search alternative sites. We drove past the next plantation at Forsa Farm as it seemed to be well covered with birders and instead made our way up to the village of North Collafirth. Our first search in this location was Housetter where again there was no sign amongst the sparse scattering of stunted pines. I did however pick up a single adult European White-fronted Goose feeding amongst a small group of Greylag Geese down in the nearby valley. We then switched to the slightly more sheltered location of Saltoo, another one of the grosbeak's favoured feeding areas. Whilst the rest of the lads scanned from the road I decided to hike around to the rear of the garden. A meticulous search of the young pines here failed to produce anything except for the odd panicky Blackbird. My spirits were lifted however as a pair of Raven flew over and 'rolled' directly over my head. It was as if they were telling me not to fret, either that or they were taunting me. I like to think the former.

As I met up with the lads again I was disappointed to find they had just enjoyed brief views of a European Otter bounding around the pier before disappearing into the loch. My heartache was relatively short lived though. Steve had been keeping a careful eye on different groups of birders out in the far distance. He excitedly relayed back to us what was happening down at Forsa Farm. A small group had congregated on the loch side of the plantation and some of them were pointing upwards. A few seconds later he could make out other birders running towards them. This was the most positive lead we had had all morning. Surely the bird had been located?  Within seconds we were all back in the car and after the quickest mile ever covered on Shetland we were down at Forsa Farm ourselves. I made short work of a fence, a ditch and a couple of streams as I trotted around to where the few soaked birders had assembled. I dug my tripod into the mud, placed my waterlogged binoculars to my eyes and there it was, a stunning first winter male PINE GROSBEAK. What a feeling!

PINE GROSBEAK (first winter male) - North Collafirth, Shetland.
Photo by Adam Archer

Over the next ten minutes as more frantic twitchers arrived on the scene, the atmosphere was absolutely electric. There were handshakes all round and even one or two 'man hugs' amongst the twenty five, rain sodden individuals lucky enough to be there.  For over a hour this magnificent bird provided us all with unforgettable views as it fed unconcerned just a few feet away. The bird was a true monster of a finch as it clambered around from branch to branch, however its true size could only really be appreciated as it made short flights to other areas of the plantation. Since my birth in 1972 this was only the fifth ever PINE GROSBEAK to make it to Britain. Three of those five have only made it as far as Shetland. 

The 'PINE CLOSEBEAK' on Shetland!
Photo by Adam Archer

Back in the latter part of autumn, British birders were hopeful that at least one PINE GROSBEAK would make it over to Britain. During late October 2012 there had been an irruption of the species through the Nordic countries. It was reported that over 12,000 individuals had been logged passing through Finland in a single week from the 22nd October onwards. Birds had then moved through Norway and were found in the southern regions of Denmark by the middle of November. As most birders know the species is largely sedentary with such mass migrations only occurring very occasionally during failure of the rowan crop.  Other notable irruption years have been 1976, when 1,200 birds passed through Helsinki on the 2nd November alone as well as in 1978, 1981, 1995, 1998 and 2001. It is thought that the origins of these movements may lie further east rather than with the nearest northern Scandinavian populations. Interestingly though these large scale movements on the continent have not really corresponded with most of the records on this side of the North Sea. 

PINE GROSBEAK (first winter male) - North Collafirth, Shetland.
Photo by Dave Perrett

At around midday and without warning the star performer took one last nibble at a pine bud, called loudly and flew off deep into the Forsa plantation. Maybe it had become just as fed up of the rain as we were. Soaked to the skin, we headed back to the shelter of the hire car to warm up and dry out. Never before have four birders been so soggy yet so very happy with life. The gamble to proceed with the trip had reaped the ultimate reward.

For once the weather forecast was spot on. We knew to expect heavy rain during the afternoon and it duly came. On the way down to Scalloway a quick scan of Loch Tingwall produced a pair of Whooper Swan as well as 2 Mute Swan and a scattering of Tufted Duck and Goldeneye.  In Scalloway itself we stumbled upon the first winter Ring-billed Gull without really trying. As we headed into town for some celebratory supplies the American rarity was found plodding around the fields just south of the castle ruins. Other species in the area included 5 Common Eider, 6 Red-breasted Merganser, a single Black Guillemot, 8 Oystercatcher, 3 Curlew and a Hooded Crow or two.

We then headed back east into Lerwick and more specifically the 'Catch' fish processing factory around the harbour. As soon as we drove past I spotted our first of two juvenile Glaucous Gulls standing out like a beacon on top of the factory roof. 

Gulls & Grey Seals scavenge around Lerwick Harbour.
Photo by Adam Archer

Using the factory's 'smoking shelter' as a temporary Laridae hide we enjoyed some excellent views of the gulls. A second winter Iceland Gull performed well on and off and a third Glaucous Gull was picked up by Steve, this time a brutish looking adult. One of the juvenile Glaucous Gulls was particularly aggressive as it battled the other gulls for every scrap of fish it could grasp. At one stage it even did battle with a Grey Seal, a dozen or so of which were scavenging just offshore.

Glaucous Gull (juvenile) - Lerwick, Shetland.
Photo by Dave Perrett

Other species around the harbour included 52 Common Eider, at least 14 Long-tailed Duck, 10 Shag, 2 Black Guillemot, a Fulmar, a Gannet and a Turnstone. Other gulls taking advantage of a free meal included 105 Herring Gull, 17 Great Black-backed Gull, 14 Common Gull and 6 Black-headed Gull.  The views of the Long-tailed Duck in particular were a major highlight including the odd handsome male displaying to small groups of females. 

Long-tailed Duck (adult male) - Lerwick, Shetland.
Photo by Dave Perrett

With the weather not improving, the decision was taken to head back to the ferry terminal and thaw out our frozen bones with some much needed warmth and a hot drink. It would also be a chance to dry out our clothing in preparation for the trip back to Aberdeen. Once back onboard the boat we headed straight to the bar for a celebratory pint or two followed by a tasty meal in the restaurant. All of us were over the moon with our day of success however the rigours of the previous 48 hours had taken its toll on my stamina. I retired to my dark corner of the relatively empty lounge, raided a few chairs of their cushions and fashioned a makeshift mattress in the footwell of some seats. It was as far removed from luxury as you could imagine but I enjoyed one of the best nights sleep in ages.  It had been an epic trip but it was not quite over yet!

Special thanks to Bert Ratter for making all this possible and to Rebecca Nason for keeping the dream alive!  Click here for the reasons why.

Special thanks also to Dave Perrett for the generous use of his excellent photographs.

Extra special thanks to Phil 'The Duke of Hazzard' Andrews - Transport & Logistics Executive, Steve 'The Snapper' Richards - Entertainment Manager and Jules Allen - my Probation Officer & Behavioural Advisor for tolerating me over the past three days.


This superb footage of the famous first winter male PINE GROSBEAK was taken by Dave Gifford the day after our visit on the 17th February 2013.

PINE GROSBEAK in Great Britain

The nominate race enucleator is resident across northern Scandinavia east to the Yenisey River in central Siberia. Other races are also largely resident in east Siberia and Kamchatka south to Hokkaido in Japan. It is also widespread across much of northern North America east to Newfoundland and south in the mountains down to central California and northern New Mexico in the United States.

All of the documented records in Britain are as follows:

pre 1831 - County Durham - female shot at Bill Quay, Pelaw - no date.
pre 1843 - Greater London - first winter female shot at Harrow-on-the Hill - no date.
c. 1861 - North Yorkshire - immature shot at Littlebeck near Whitby in the winter - no date.
1890 - Nottinghamshire - one bird shot at Watnall - 30th October.
1954 - Fife - adult female trapped on the Isle of May - 8th to 9th November.
1957 - Kent - female or immature male at East Malling - 2nd November.
1971 - Kent - adult male at Maidstone - 15th May.
1975 - Northumberland - male at Holy Island - 11th to 12th May.
1992 - Shetland - probable first winter male at Lerwick - 25th March to 25th April.
2000 - Shetland - first winter male at Maywick - 9th November.
2004 - East Yorkshire - first winter male at Easington - 8th to 10th November.
2012 - Shetland - first winter male at North Collafirth - from 1st November 2012.

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!