Saturday, 15 October 2011

Fri 14 Oct: Gutted...

The weather yesterday was suddenly looking so good for the east coast of southern Britain.  Light easterly/ENE winds, completely overcast, and even some light rain.  Things were happening on the coast - about FIVE Red-flanked Bluetails turned up between Newcastle and Suffolk; there was a relatively big (for these days) arrival of birds it seemed, including, apparently 50 Short-eared Owls at Titchwell - could that be possible?!  I couldn't be on the coast yesterday, but in a brief trip out locally there were Redwings moving, and it just had that wonderful autumnal feel of falling leaves and grey skies.  I longed for the coast.  I thought about going to see the Minsmere bluetail, but the thought just felt dull; I remember all the stress of trying to see one there last year (or was it the year before?), a skulky bird and too many people not using much fieldcraft making it difficult.  I decided to head to Burnham Overy dunes instead and try and find something.  After the longish drive (1hr 20 mins) and a 40 min walk I finally got there at 08.50.  Shamefully long after first light.  During the walk it was evident there were lots of birds around.  I really took my time and checked all the cover I could.  Plenty of Meadow Pipits, large flocks of Starling on the move,  4 Redwing, a Crossbill going west and then a Lapland Bunting.  The morning had dawned bright and clear with only a little cloud.  The fields held fifty or so Skylark.  A group of ten Bearded Tit seemingly dropped into a narrow fringe of reeds following a dyke.  Amazingly I did not see a single other birder until 11am - I had the place to myself.  Other birds included Redpoll, Linnets, Golden Plover, two more Lap Bunts, 3 Wheatear.  Found an earthstar sp. that had gone over.  But I hadn't found a single really rare bird despite all the movement I was seeing and hearing. Are my expectations just too high?...  Should I be settling for less?

Time to start on the Holkham dunes.  Song Thrush, more Blackbirds, two more Crossbill.  I passed a small patch of bushes that three other birders walked past minutes earlier.  I waited a while and picked up a movement, bins up, yes, a Yellow-browed Warbler!  But completely silent.  Well only a Yellow-browed, not even a BB-rarity, but it made my day so far.  Nice to find my own rather than chasing other people's all the time.  Tiny and hard to keep track of, you just see why rare birds are just SO hard to find.  You have to look SO hard.  It would be so amazing to find a really huge rarity but these things don't come along very often.  One needs to spend time in the field, and be constantly 'in the zone' of razor-sharp alertness and focus, and have that other crucial ingredient, luck.

By 15.30 I'm starting to flag with all the walking, as I'm carrying too much stuff with watercolour painting kit, etc.  The best bird finders go out with a scope and bins or even just bins alone (and maybe the camera for recording crucial evidence of the bird that might get away).  Birds were also really thinning out, and I'm not picking up much more so I decided maybe it's time to head off?  The weather is bright and sunny, the wind is forecast to turn southerly and will go round to SW on Sunday, so not much more will turn up, well not in Norfolk anyway... the wind today has been south-easterly, hence more rarities hitting the Suffolk coast rather than the Norfolk coast.  An Isabelline Shrike is found in Suffolk this afternoon - more proof.  Then, whilst driving to Fakenham, text messages chime on my mobile, and someone tries to ring me.  When I got to Fakenham garage, I stopped, and checked my phone, Tony Disley (who's been at Spurn all day) has left me a message to tell me about a Rufous-tailed Robin... at Wells-next-the-Sea!!!   WHAT?!!!  Is that possible??!  I can scarcely take in the news and the words go round in my mind, I filter out thoughts of Rufous Bush Robin before it sinks in he means Rufous-tailed Robin Luscinia sibilans, only the fourth for the Western Palearctic!  This is an absolutely huge bird!  I remember the first turned up, only as recently as 2004 whilst I was on Scilly. 

My adrenalin was pumping, I just had to get there.  I set to immediately.  The time was 17.22, the news had broken at 17.14, there was plenty of daylight if I could get there quickly.  Luscinias can show well at dusk, so there was still hope.  Being in such a rush, I hadn't checked the other messages and assumed the bird must be in Wells Woods... big mistake.  I arrived at Wells coastguards car park to find no birders or other birders cars.  Checked the mobile messages - further texts said the bird was at EAST HILLS!  Well that's it then, no chance, as you can only walk out at low tide when it's safe, which I've done a few times before.  No bird is worth dying for.  Anyway as I drove on toward Warham Greens, a plan hatched in my mind: if the tides were right and I could get there this evening, today, which might well be possible, then I'd be in with a chance of seeing it!  I had a large plastic sheet for emergencies in the back of the car - that would be an ideal groundsheet, and I had a fleecy blanket too, and a couple of apples, if I could only get there today and see it then I'd definitely survive until the morning, and I'd have seen it by then! 

Eventually I arrived at the concrete pad along the track around 17.45, to discover that the bird was NOT at East Hills but on the mainland, along the track down to Warham Greens! Why could the directions not have been clearer?  ...but at least still enough light, and time to get to the point in the track to where the bird had last been seen.  It was clear that a lot of people had not seen the bird.  I reckon there must have been maybe 60-80 birders there by that stage, and given that the news had broken so recently I don't suppose many but the lucky few had connected with it.  The bird was apparently in the canopy, yes IN THE CANOPY and flitting between oak trees.  I don't remember them doing this in Laos, where I only saw 2-3 birds in several months.  It would sit motionless for long periods so it was impossible to detect unless it was seen to move.  Unfortunately no-one knew precisely where it was perched.  A good 20 minutes must have passed before it did eventually move, before settling, again unseen in the canopy.  There was then another long gap where it just vanished amid the ivy and branches and leaves.  Then suddenly it became very active and flitted several times.  I managed to keep track of it for a brief while, but it never perched long enough to get my bins onto it.  Unfortunately too, that there was quite a bit of noise (breaking dead branches) whilst people tried to move quickly to where the bird was, although to be fair the bird was too quick.  However had circumstances been different, it is possible that everyone may have seen it.  In flight it had an elegant shape that was somehow very different to European Robin, and it certainly seemed to have a shorter tail too.  But unquestionably absolutely untickable views - naked eye flight views only and not counatble in my book - just utterly galling.  I have seen this restless behaviour in migrants at dusk before - often this sudden restless activity is a sign that they're getting ready to move off as night falls.  It is still clear skies, and a full moon rises over the North Sea.  With the stars obvious, birds will easily be able to navigate, so there's no way that this bird will be here in the morning.  I decide that getting here for first light will be utterly pointless, so I will wait for positive news.  Indeed as I write, there's been no further sightings of this bird, it's gone.

I noticed a scope and tripod had been left behind at dusk after most people had left.  Someone asked if it was mine; I replied no, and they said they'd put a message out on the pager network so that the owner could claim.  Actually I think they got the wrong end of the stick - the owner had clearly abandoned the scope having decided to give up birding after missing such a huge rarity ;-)

You can read the finder's account at Punkbirder.  Total credit to him for nailing such an amazing bird!  What an absolute mega - far more stunning looking than the Fair Isle individual I'd say.  For me it has become the new Holy Grail  rarity that I somehow need to see one day!  It would have been just so amazing to have seen it.  It is just a pity that events could not have unfolded slightly differently and a few more of us could have seen it. 
But that's birding, you can't see everything, there will always be ones that got away.  Also, I should not complain, I have had a superb run of fortune this year, and I was spared an ill-equipped night under the stars on East Hills as I was expecting! 

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