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.

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