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Finders-in-the-Field: Siberian Rubythroat, Tresta, Fetlar

Siberian Rubythroat, Tresta, Fetlar, (© Jason Atkinson)

Tuesday the 15th of October 2019 will remain forever in my mind as ‘Ruby Tuesday’ – for those to young to remember it’s the title of a song by the venerable Rolling Stones. I’ve been going to Shetland every autumn since 2007 except last year when the trip was cancelled due to the combination of my father’s funeral and bad weather. For the past few years we’ve been going to Fair Isle and had booked to go again this year. The devastating fire meant we had to change our plans and as we’d always fancied going somewhere a bit more remote and had discussed Fetlar previously it appeared to fit the bill.

Arriving Friday the 10th with forecasts looking promising we were filled with enthusiasm. Our team consisted of me, Jason Atkinson and Mark Payne. The first afternoon we explored the island familiarising ourselves with the best birding spots. We got into a routine of getting up early, walking Feld Burn before breakfast then heading up to Everland and working our way back to our accommodation in Houbie and walking the burn again before lunch. In the afternoons we went the other way – working the areas around Velzie, before moving on to ‘The Manse’ (apparently now called Glebe House) and Tresta.

We’d found a few good birds – an eastern looking Lesser Whitethroat, Siberian Chiffchaff, Ring Ouzels and with lots of commoner species moving and winter thrushes piling in our expectations continued to soar that we’d find something a bit rarer.

On the day in question we’d done our usual routes and ended up at Tresta early afternoon. Just before Christmas last year I herniated a disc in my back and the recovery has been long and slow. A few weeks before we were due to travel to Fetlar I was taken to hospital in an ambulance in the early hours as my back gave out and I couldn’t stand. Intensive physio three times a week and a first aid kit filled with anti- inflammatory’s and painkillers meant I was able to make the trip but was generally slower than the other two traipsing round in waterproofs and wellies. As I kept reminding them, I’ve got a good few years on them both as well! Jason had already looked in the garden of one cottage as I was still walking from the parked car. As I approached the garden of ‘Tresta 1’ I saw a brief movement on a broken fence beneath some fuchsia bushes. Expecting a wren I lifted my binoculars and was stunned to see a red black and white head pattern as the bird turned towards me. A male Siberian Rubythroat! Panic mode then set in as I simultaneously tried to get that all- important record shot and phone the other two at the same time. I was worried the bird would disappear before the other two saw it and they were nowhere to be seen.

Where's Ruby? An uncropped photo showing Phil's first views of the Rubythroat (© Phil Woollen)

I managed the record shot and blew it up on the back of my camera just to be sure I wasn’t seeing things. There it was – a male Siberian Rubythroat.

There's Ruby! (© Phil Woollen)

Mark was the first to answer his phone and came running over. I showed him the photo on the back of the camera followed by the inevitable expletive and we waited until we could get hold of Jason before slowly moving forward to check the garden. Jason still wasn’t answering his phone but I could see him and frantically started waving my arms and gesturing to come over. Eventually he saw me and came running over. ‘Whats up bud?’ he asked, followed by some good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon swear words when I told him, followed by even more when I showed him the photo on the back of my camera. I also put the news out on the Shetland Rare Bird App. A tense few minutes ensued but luckily the bird was re-found and Jason could celebrate his ‘lifer’.

Local birder, Paul Macklam was the first to arrive closely followed by Brydon Thomason of ‘Shetland Nature’ who, incredibly, had been helping his father with their sheep on the family croft nearby! The RSPB’s Martha Thomson arrived a few minutes later

Siberian Rubythroat, Tresta, Fetlar, (© Paul Macklam)

The Rubythroat was getting chased out of the garden by a Robin and at one point ended up in a nettle patch by the road before flying into the back garden. It always returned to the same dark cover of the front garden and with patience gave good views as the photo’s attest. It was calling regularly even when it wasn’t on view that gave us an indication as to where it was.

In the excitement I’d lost my reading glasses and with my phone going ballistic I returned to the car to try and find them as I hadn’t a hope of reading or replying to messages without them. A bad move from a photographic point of view as the belligerent Robin chased the Rubythroat right into the path of the waiting lenses resulting in some stunning photos.

In total only seven people got to see the bird and the last I saw of it was it getting chased out of the garden of ‘Tresta 1’ and into the garden of ‘Tresta 3’ so we left it in peace to find somewhere to roost as dusk was now falling and the light was rapidly failing.

Siberian Rubythroat, Tresta, Fetlar, (© Brydon Thomason)

That night the weather changed and a front moved through. We set our alarms for 06.30 but with pouring rain and poor visibility we didn’t leave the house until gone 8.00 with the intention of going to look for the bird as we knew people were coming over for it. At that point Paul Macklam had already texted the news out that the bird was still present, albeit briefly so we decided to leave it and check later in the day. Unfortunately the bird wasn’t seen again that day and there was no sign on subsequent days.

Unbelievably this was my third Siberain Rubythroat in the UK. All on Shetland and all males. The first was the Gulberswick bird in 2011, that I twitched from Cheshire, followed by the bird found by Dan Pointon in Levenwick in 2014 when we were already on Shetland. I’m still waiting to find a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler as in 12 Shetland Autumns I’ve not had a sniff of one. In the meantime a self found Siberian Rubythroat is a nice consolation.

Phil Woollen
21 October 2019

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