Friday, 1 March 2013

Mainland Shetland, 7th Feb 2013

Somehow I managed not to be seasick on the crossing, I don't know how.  Around midnight I got uo and moved to the middle of the boat which made for a much better night's sleep despite the incessant MTV music videos in the background.  I was so tired though, I slept soundly anyway.  Despite a choppy crossing, I'm still glad I travelled by ferry rather than plane; Lee Gregory recounted later how the aircraft he flew on was struck by lightning last Sunday on its approach to Sumburgh airport!  The strike made two golf ball sized holes in the wing - I sure am glad not to have been on that - give me the ferry and a sick bag every time please!
 The ferry arrived two hours late, at 9am due to the headwinds.  My friend Howard had told me that the forecast was excellent for the day; cold but clear with light winds, and indeed it was - big patches of blue sky welcomed us into Lerwick harbour and it wasn't long before we were on our way.  John had got chatting to an old friend, Cliff Davies who came along too; he was on his own so it worked out for us all.  I did all the driving, amazing after the endless headaches of previous weeks.  It was good to have had a really good sleep too, so I was wide awake now - and I would need to be for the rest of the day, for the Grosbeak was going to play hard to get.

  We arrived at the garden of Saltoo (HU358843) at 10.15am, the last to arrive, to the sight of most birders standing around not looking in any particular direction - never a good sign.  It was certainly an attractive place - the house set in a huge garden with an imitation lighthouse, that sloped away down to a bay with a pier below affording spectacular views.  On the eastern edge it was bordered by a plantation of dense Norway Spruce trees, all quite young as none were much higher than 8ft.  There was also a tiny pocket of more mature spruces, some 20ft high at the north end.  I spent a good hour here carefully and painstakingly slowly inching along the edge of the plantation edge scanning the branches and the ground for the slightest sign of movement that might betray the presence of the grosbeak.  Howard had said that the bird can be incredibly hard to see at times: it can sometimes perch mid-storey and remain motionless making it hard to detect.  Or it can be on the ground.  There were plenty of areas of dead ground too that the bird might be hiding in that it was not possible to check from the perimeter.  Certainly Lee's pronouncement that 'it's definitely not in there, I've been all round and checked' seemed premature.  How could you be so sure?  I'd gone over it with a fine toothcomb, and that still wasn't enough.  Later Lee was saying 'it's not hard, it's an easy bird to see, Jim Lawrence got off the plane, bowled up and saw it straight away!  It's not fair!'
The garden at Saltoo

Presently my mobile phone started ringing; it was John, he'd just had a Waxwing at Housetter just north of Saltoo; then suddenly I could hear a Waxwing trilling too, looked up and there it was!  I got my bins on it and followed it into the distance as it wandered southward.  With time marching on I decided that it'd be best to check the other localities the grosbeak had been noted at - so Housetter was my next port of call.  Again no sign either in the line of spruces behind a grey shed, nor in the younger plantation of the last house.  All very frustrating as it meant I couldn't relax and enjoy all the other good birds there were to see like a pair of Whooper Swans, a flock of 25 Hooded Crows in one field, and numerous Ravens.  If I'd had more time I'd have sat, drawn and painted all these things along with the stunning landscapes too.

Later I went and checked the two plantations at Green Brae (HU350832) and the one at Forsa (HU364846), sadly all to no avail.  I saw a flock of 20 Chaffinch and two Brambling descend upon Forsa - they looked so rare!  I so carefully scanned the trees just willing the grosbeak to appear - it just had to at some point, it couldn't be far away.  It was amazing how I was on my own all the time, no sign of any other birders - were any of them looking I wondered.  While I was at Forsa, former Fair Isle warden Deryck Shaw rolled up in a hire car - I hadn't seen him in over ten years it was good to chat although our minds were really more focussed on searching for the grosbeak.  By 13.30 I was back at Housetter again, adding 30 Twite, a flyover Merlin, Tufted Duck amongst others for the day.

By 2pm things were getting worryingly desperate; I met with John and we decided to expand the search area, taking the decision to drive 4 miles or so to Urafirth, the place where the grosbeak was very first reported back in November 2012, and to check any plantations in between.  So this we did, found one plantation of pines rather than spruces (so perhaps not so desirable to the bird), and then swiftly on to Urafirth.  A good search here showed very little suitable habitat - only a line of shrubby bushes along the back gardens of a line of terraced houses, and just one conifer.  We gave up and headed straight back toward Saltoo in case the bird decided to return there for the evening (as had been rumoured the previous day).  As we passed through Green Brae we met a traffic jam of hire cars and chaos - Deryck Shaw had seen the grosbeak in the tiny plantation on the west side of the road, just 20 minutes earlier!  Aaaarrrghhhh!  I had thoroughly checked this plantation out 2 hours ago - it certainly wasn't there then.  It had just flown in there recently.  Where the hell had it been in the interim period?  Birds are never easy, and the best ones you have to work for.  Deryck had some good record shots, but had to drive to Saltoo in order to alert other birders - he didn't have anyone's number.  When he got back to Green Brae the bird had vanished.  Thankfully a handful of birders hung on at Saltoo, one of whom reckoned he'd seen it, a 'red bird', drop in, but it disappeared from view in the conifers.  It was another 20 minutes before anyone saw the grosbeak.

Then suddenly at 15.34 it showed briefly in the tops of the conifers, and at last after five hours of intense searching I finally saw this mythical bird.  Along with some 20 or so other birders I enjoyed superb views as it nimbly ran along the spruce branches and stopped to feed on the budding tips (the nuclei of the branches, hence the scientific name enucleator).  Quite a large bird, Song Thrush-sized.  I franticly set too with the pencil trying to capture some accurate lines, and then moved to the watercolours - always a hard task when faced with a bird I am unfamiliar with and have not had time to really study.  I was also running out of daylight.  I stayed with it until c. 16.45, so had about an hour of viewing.  Such a beautiful colour - a mid tone of slaty ashy grey with a hint of ultramarine, offsetting the warm bright bronzy colour which Howard said you could make by mixing aureolin with light red.  He was spot on!  There just wasn't enough time to put all the colours down to make a complete painting in the time available.  People just don't understand that.  It also amazes me how apparently top birders, well twitchers, can just revert to idle chat and conversation and make phone calls after they've seen a bird, even when it is still on view, with no regard for anyone else who might be watching it.  Why on earth can't they walk away from the bird and leave others to enjoy watching it still?  Such utterly thoughtless behaviour.

By the time darkness was falling at 16.45-16.50, the temperature was dropping and the still wet background wash had ice crystals forming in it.  You can see the nice crystals making a feathery pattern in the second image below.  And my paintbox was becoming unworkable too, with the paint forming a solid slush in the palette - very frustrating.  I've had this a couple of times before, once in Finland when I tried mixing neat vodka with the mixing water.  It made no difference at -10oC.  I'm glad I didn't have a camera this time - that would have only frustrated me - this was a situation when it was far more important to just watch the bird and drink in the details and watch its behaviour too.  It was interesting that its nostrils were not visible - they will be cloaked by the line of blackish feathering at the base of the upper mandible.  I guess this is an evolutionary adaptation to combatting living in extremely cold temperatures; it would help to warm the air slightly by having it pass through a thin layer of feathering first.  Anyway here's the results:

So, we returned happy and relieved to have connected with this great bird.  Met up with Howard for 15 minutes at the ferry terminal just before our 7pm departure for Aberdeen.

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