I spent much of the day of Thurs 20th October ruminating on what to do: the lure of a male Siberian Rubythroat on Shetland was huge. Should I go to Scilly instead; I might have a relaxing week, and there's a Scarlet Tanager on the way too! But the journey to Shetland is just so far. The risk of dipping is enormous, and how agonising would that be? To arrive there only to miss the bird by a day perhaps? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve missed a good bird on the Northern Isles, so I’m understandably feeling apprehensive.
Anyway I packed my gear on stand-by and, then positive news came through on Friday 21st, so I finally cracked and set off on the long journey northwards. Feeling under a lot of pressure – it is a ten hour drive to make Aberdeen for the 19.00 hrs ferry... frustratingly I missed the boat by ten minutes. I then drove to the airport: there is no airline check-in desk to buy tickets there with FlyBe or LoganAir: you can only buy tickets on-line. I discovered there was one flight available at 09.45 the next morning, a single ticket for £190. After various complications I decided to wait for positive news the next day (Saturday 22nd) and catch the 17.00 ferry if the bird was still there. Amazingly it was still there and I was on that ferry! It was good to meet some other like-minded birders to share the journey with - Andrew James, Wayne and Dave Barnes. Particularly after leaving Kirkwall, Orkney, it seemed to be one of the roughest crossings I have been on, there seemed to be an enormous swell and there was a loud bang every time the bows smashed into the waves. The whole ship shuddered and flexed every time it hit the water. Thoughts passed through my mind that the boat could break in two. I asked one of the bar staff on the boat ‘is it always this rough?’. So it was a relief to be told ‘this isn’t rough’! The rest of the journey was awful, with many people being sick on-board, I felt a bit queasy. I’d been in such a rush to travel north I’d forgotten to bring any sea-sickness tablets with me. I took to lying down on a long couch in one of the bars after closing, and remaining stock-still, trying to sleep for the remainder of the journey. I was fine.
It was a relief to finally arrive in Lerwick at 07.00 on Sunday 23 October. My friend Howard met me at the ferry terminal and we were soon at Gulberwick. After a tense 40-minute wait, there it was, a stonking male Siberian Rubythroat!!! The first views of it were in very poor light, at the top of the drive to the house. At one point the Rubythroat was involved in a skirmish with a defensive Robin, and the Robin was seen standing on the Rubythroat! The wind was gusting south-easterly force 6-7 so it was tricky to keep my scope steady at times. Over the course of the day the bird performed many times, never especially close but quite adequate through the telescope. The light also improved, and on one occasion it appeared underneath a trailer parked in the front garden at about ?50m range. There were quite a few other birds in the vicinity too – Goldcrest, several small flocks of Redwing, 2 Blackcaps and I heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling several times from the valley below. In the afternoon two different Sparrowhawks were in the area, and a female even perched up in the trees bordering the bird’s favourite track. Dave managed to get some great shots of the bird as you'll see from his website. My sketches are ok, but I could have done better were conditions not so testing. At least I have some good material to work up when I get home!
Monday 24th October dawned dark and stormy with the wind at SE force 7.
I went back to Gulberwick and was there until 13.30 hours before giving up. By this time the wind had picked up to force 8, and it was getting too windy to even hold my binoculars steady. Also the wind meant I was getting chilled too, even though I was wearing seven layers of clothing! Met three birders from Northamptonshire at Gulberwick this morning. They left around midday, relieved to have seen the Rubythroat albeit in windy conditions. They were day-tripping it: their return journey can’t have been much fun in such stormy weather: the ferry was unable to dock at Aberdeen due to conditions at the harbour mouth, so was diverted to Rosyth, Fife, the 12 hour journey taking 26 hours. They then would have had to get from Rosyth back to Aberdeen to collect their car before enduring the mammoth journey back south.
Tuesday 24th October: trip around the Ness in force 7/8 gales. Dry all day but very challenging birding conditions with many birds keeping low. Tonight’s ferry sailing was cancelled.
Wednesday 25th October: force 9 gale all day today, and continual light rain which became heavier as the day went on. Got a bus from Lerwick down to Sumburgh Hotel and Jarlshof area. I just took my bins with me – nice to be free of a scope which was useless in such windy conditions. There had clearly been a large fall of birds with hundreds of thrushes - Blackbirds, Redwing, Fieldfares and Song Thrush in this order of abundance - present in every field. Every scrap of cover whether a stone wall, cliff or garden alcove was harbouring sheltering birds. I was careful to minimise disturbance to them. I scoured the area of Grutness, Sumburgh Head Quarries, Sumburgh Farm, and finally Sumburgh Hotel Gardens and the Jarlshof, before giving up and catching the bus back to Lerwick at 13.15. By then the rain and dampness was seeping in despite my waterproofs. It was also getting frustrating having to continually wipe salt spray and rain from my glasses and binoculars. Nevertheless it was a very exciting morning’s birding, and I didn’t see a single other observer in the whole time. Other than thrushes, birds noted included Goldcrest, Blackcap, Reed Bunting, 30 Lapwing, and resident Twite, Rock Dove and Raven. So I didn’t find a Dusky Thrush, but the potential was certainly there!
Thursday 26th October: Today dawned bright and clear, the wind having dropped to southerly force 5, it felt quite pleasant. Howard had to do a seal pup count along cliffs at Dale of Walls, so I birded the Dale of Walls Burn which supports quite good patches of cover for migrants. Again there were hundreds of Redwing, Fieldfare and Blackbirds. Other birds noted were 3 Brambling, 2 Woodcock and 2 Chiffchaff. Later, saw the 1st winter Mediterranean Gull at Norby beach, and found a Black Redstart next to Sandness Church. More stunning views of Raven – amazingly high densities of them on Shetland, more even than on Dartmoor.
Early afternoon went back to Gulberwick and saw the Siberian Rubythroat again shortly after arrival at 13.30. After this the bird went to ground and I did not see it again until 1.30, and then again briefly at 17.00 just as it was going dark. Left Shteland on 19.00 hrs ferry. Crossing quite rough initially but becoming calmer as the night went on. Finally back to Norfolk late the following day. Amazingly the Rubythroat is still there now, presumably waiting for calmer conditions and clear skies to depart. However the conditions that are holding it there make it difficult for birders to get there, with autumnal storms making for rough crossings, and the risk of being stranded on Shetland. I’d been thinking what if a Dark-sided Flycatcher or a Siberian Accentor gets found on Fair Isle? Even if you could fly there by plane you’d be at risk of being stranded there, not to mention the risk of it crashing. It sure felt risky leaving Shetland – I was wondering what might get found after I left; thankfully nothing too amazing, a Pallas’s Warbler was the highlight.