(Chronicle of an unusual days birding)
It all started with a message in our local group’s WhatsApp group last Wednesday – one of the group was going to Holland to photograph the Siberian Rubythroat that has been there since the 15th of January, and there was a seat available should anyone be interested.
Locally, things have been very quiet over the last few days – nothing since the Bewick’s Swans on Wallasea Island, and I’d be returning to Spain the following week, so although a ‘EuroTwitch’ isn’t normally my sort of thing, I got to thinking about it.
Siberian Rubythroat – always considered the pinnacle of birding when I was younger, with few records in the UK, the majority of which have been on the northern isles (Shetlands, Fair Isle) and extremely few on the mainland (only two I think), and hardly ever twitchable. I would love to see one, but to do so, would have to go to Asia or Siberia (no plans at present to do so!), or possibly spend a month on Shetland or Fair Isle in the autumn (again, no plans to do so, and would be very expensive).
Or, jump in someone else's car, be chauffeur driven to the site, see the bird and come back again, all within a day.
As you can tell, I didn’t take much persuading!
So, Friday evening at 9:15 saw me being collected from home by Steve Arlow of our local group (SOG – Southend Ornithological Group - http://www.sognet.org.uk). We then met up with Brett Spencer and Richard Bonser (who was to be our driver for the trip), and caught the first Channel Tunnel train just after midnight to Calais (which in itself was a new experience for me).
On a cold but dry night with various stops, we got to the site of the Rubythroat (Hoogwoud) just before eight in the morning (local time), parking just around the corner from where it has been seen. As there was only a slight slither of light on the horizon, both Rich and I decided to make the most of being stopped, and take a half-hour’s nap in the car. Steve and Brett went out to survey the site, but within 5 minutes were back at the car – the Rubythroat was showing!
I should perhaps point out here that we had been told that normally it has been seen for 5 minutes, then disappearing for about a half hour before returning to the same area. Also, the weather forecast for the day was not particularly good – overcast (with possibility of snow) to begin, clearing after midday. So knowing that it was out and about already, it HAD to be seen while we knew it was there! So, that was our power-sleep out of the window!
And so much for its habits – apart from 2 periods of about 20 minutes when it disappeared, once with a Robin and the other time chased off by a Blackbird, it hung around the same area all the time! And apart from the area being in shadow to start with, it was pretty much a sunny morning all morning. The four of us (and all the other Dutch birders who passed by) had SUPERB views of the bird, with it coming out into the open down to less than a metre (too close for some of the big lens's to focus), and for a period of just under 10 minutes, we had it in a bush singing! Sufficient for me to say that even the photographers Steve and Rich, who specifically wanted to see the bird to photograph it, had seen enough by about 11:30, and so we decided to go off and see if we could find some other birds. Both Steve and Rich, who have both seen Rubythroats in the UK and abroad before, said it was the best sighting they´d ever had.
Rich had all the details of another bird on his WP birds wishlist, which we gave ourselves five minutes to find and watch – Alexandrine Parakeet in a park in the centre of Amsterdam. Once we’d found the park (Oosterpark) and had parked up, it DID only take about 5 minutes. The park is full of Rose-ringed Parakeets, but also has a self-sustaining population of these Alexandrine Parakeets which look very similar to the Rose-ringed, but are larger with a much chunkier bill.
So within 15 minutes of arriving at the park, we were back on the road again.
As part of my preparation for the trip, I had printed out map locations of various other birds that I thought we may have found of interest, and we decided to go for one of them, about halfway back towards Calais (i.e. on our way home), at a coastal site called Wilhelminadorp, where a female Pine Bunting has taken up winter residence and has been seen since the 18th December 2015. Arriving at the location at around two in the afternoon, we were lucky enough to bump into a birder who could give us the exact location, and after some 15 minutes scrutinizing the area, we had the bird. It was acting like a mouse, running around the upper high tide limit where a lot of broken canes had floated, and appeared to be eating the canes in order to get to any insects that had taken up residence in the stems. It was another bird that seemed very confident in the presence of humans, being photographed at down to just over a metre, and again in all the time we watched it, it only disappeared into the grassy area out of view a couple of times for a few minutes. Eventually, we lost the sun behind a large grey cloud and the bird flew off giving a single metallic call as it flew, (nothing like a Yellowhammer’s). It flew over the seawall to the area where we were parked, but we couldn’t get back on it, so decided to call it a day – excellent views of two very smart birds, plus the parakeet in between!
And our luck remained with us as the weather now turned nasty as we headed back to Calais. When we got there, we were far too early for our booked train, but were allowed to catch the one one-and-a-half hours before our scheduled train for no extra charge (and in actual fact, by mistake we caught an earlier one still), so I was back home at just after 9:35 pm – just over 24 hours – and at a total cost of £50!
So my thanks to my companions, Steve, Brett and especially Rich for the driving and the use of his car, and for an excellent days birding which I will remember for a long, long time to come!
Siberian Rubythroat (Calliope calliope) - Hoogwoud, Netherlands
Alexandrine Parakeet - Oosterpark, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pine Bunting - Wilhelminadorp, Netherlands