The Siberian Thrush, Baltasound, Unst, September 2017
I opened our front room curtains about 07:30am. I’d been slow to get up due to your daughter Nula (15 months) having a restless night’s sleep, resulting in me having none! Two Yellow-browed Warblers chasing each other round the trees however was enough to get me fired- I grabbed my bins and set off for my morning circuit next door in Halligarth. The previous fall of Yellow-brows had been cleared out for a couple of days so clearly there were new arrivals. A third followed by two Willow Warbler and two Garden Warbler was enough to prompt a text to Roger Riddington; ‘New birds in!’, I wrote excitedly.
It was one of those flat calm mornings that just feels ‘rare’, that indescribable autumn atmosphere when you feel a monster rare is possible. The above tally was enough to convince me to carry on for an hour after breakfast and putting bairns to school. 12 Yellow-brows and an hour later, it was time to head home- I had work to do preparing for starting ground works with digger arriving next day.
A quick jaunt across Baltasound to borrow a ‘pinch bar’ (for lifting paving slabs), from Robbie Brookes was in order and on route yet more YBW’s caught my eye along the Ordaal road. Two feisty ‘Sibeie’ sprites were chasing each other round a roadside garden, visible from the car so I stopped and pulled over. Id tried earlier, with zero success to photograph one so I thought I’d try again, with a cheeky of the gardens too!
Standing outside the garden on the roadside, I’d been mimicking their sweet little call and probably doing a pretty poor job, but they’d posed nicely. A few frames in the bag, feeling mildly pleased at my efforts a bird flew up from just a couple of feet from me, out of base of hedge, flying straight across garden away from me and landing in a Sycamore only 30-40ft away.
As is often the way, it could only have been a three or four seconds glimpse as it flew across- as fast as mind could process….distinct white corners to outer tail… flashes in the wing…scaly plumage– WHITES THRUSH?? But no, even in such a short few second view I knew before it even landed it was too small and what it had to be. Even though I’d had my camera raised, shooting the YBW’s, I still dropped it to raise my trusted EL 10 x 42’s and man, I am actually so glad I did! There, superbly scaly and ‘superciliumed’, shadowed in Sycamore canopy was a female SIBERIAN THRUSH!!
When writing up a rarity or if lucky a mega, it’s almost customary to describe the overriding surge of adrenalin coursing through the body but strangely, today I was actually rather ‘together’ and level headed, (although my legs did feel considerably weaker than normal!). I think because it was so strikingly obvious, even on this first two views and I had no doubt as to what it was, maybe helped me keep it together? It’s hard to say.
After perching for just a few seconds, it flew out the garden, calling as it went- a beautiful and quite sweet but fairly clear ‘tssi’, rather like a cross between a Song Thrush and a Hawfinch. The wing bars; white outer tips to tail and underwing patterns combined to create a truly sensational sight. Grabbing for my phone to get news out and the lads around was actually when the reality and shakes started to hit me. Now ok, there had already been five Sibe Thrushes in Shetland and the last was only a year ago (and on Unst!) but still, this is a dream Sibe, still one of the ‘big guns from the east’ and although we allow ourselves to dream of such things, I don’t think I ever imagined finding one!
Perhaps predictably EE network was down so I’d have to leave the site and the bird to use a phone but thought hang on, I’ve just found a Sibe Thrush(!) which I’ve only seen for a few seconds- If I risk leaving it I could risk losing it! I had another couple of flushes and flight views as it flew from garden to garden (barely 50 yards apart), but it was remarkably reluctant to show. Over ten to fifteen minutes I felt it appeared settled between the two gardens so legged it along road to use a landline or Wi-Fi signal.
Within five minutes the lads started to arrive and to my and everyone else’s relief, it showed well enough, even if only tantalising flight views for all that made it. With permission to enter its favoured fly-to garden by Mike Pennington I was able to encourage it out a couple of times. We all agreed it best then to leave her in peace and by before 14:00pm, less than two hours from when it had been found, we had all left. Way too often birders put far too much pressure on birds that are reluctant to show meaning they don’t have time to feed and rest.
To my knowledge everyone arriving over course of afternoon managed to see it too and thankfully everyone even behaved!
The images above actually capture the overall experience quite realistically, especially Rebecca’s back-of-the-camera flight shot. It was surprising just how astonishingly good flight views were, especially through bins. Rebecca and I both mocked our own efforts from photographers perspectives but celebrated them from birding ones!
Having refrained from twitching the Uyeasound bird last year and not having seen any of the previous birds, this little lady was all the more tremendous. I had however seen them in China about ten years ago and so could well remember their frustratingly elusive nature and she certainly lived up to that. Over the course of the two hours I was there (including with everyone one else) I only saw her twice actually perched in sycamores in view- never once in full view on the ground, nor did anyone else as far as I’m aware! Unfortunately there was no sign the following day.
This was the 12th record for Britain and the 6th for Shetland. A big thanks to Brian and Beth Edwards for allowing me to use their phone and to Jim Mouatt for being so accommodating round his and his mothers gardens.