Friday, 8 February 2013

Rock and Roll to a Pine Grosbeak

543.3 miles away from my farm a Pine Grosbeak has been located feeding on pines in a Shetland garden.
Only the sixth time in my lifetime that this species has been seen in the UK. But most importantly, never seen by me!
I did try to see one at Easington in Yorkshire a few years back. It had been hanging around (but not publicised) for 3 days, but decided to fly off a couple of hours before my arrival.
I saw another in Hertfordshire in 2006, but this one had hopped out of someone's cage. They'd even fed it pigmented food to change its colour. So that one didn't count.

In 2012 I only saw a couple of new birds for the UK all year, so here was an opportunity I wasn't going to let pass me by.

I was supposed to be flying up to see it on Monday, but this happened...

The black patch to the north of Scotland is not good!
Stenness waves 

  Eshaness waves  

Force 12 winds and 50 foot waves closed the airports and confined the ferries to port. A huge storm surge coincided with high tides to create some horrendous conditions.

So plans were rescheduled and on Tuesday morning I found myself at a small airport in central England with the pilot scraping the snow and ice off the wings of a small aircraft.
Our pilot prepares the plane for the journey
(courtesy of Andy Cotton)
The forecast was still  a bit dodgy, with a dumping of snow across parts of the country overnight and
strong northerly winds due to bring blizzards into the northern isles later in the day.

However our pilot, Colin, was not at all concerned about the buffeting winds we might encounter, or by the prospect of snow. Though he did inform us that hail would present more of a problem.

The sun rises, the snow melts and off we go!
(courtesy of Andy Cotton)
So it was that at 7:30am five of us (plus the pilot) squeezed into an aircraft and sped down the runway as the sun rose. We were desperately hoping that the bird would remain in the same garden as the previous day, for the flight and subsequent drive up Shetland would see us arrive some time after midday and we would need to leave before dark. In fact it would be prudent to leave earlier than that, as after 6pm there would be no-one around to clear the runway for our landing back in England in case of snow!
There would not be much time for searching the isolated settlements of Shetland should the bird have decided to feed elsewhere.

The journey was surprisingly smooth. It would be good to have a tale to tell of being buffeted around in the air, braving thunder and lightning, climbing onto the wing to knock the ice off... But it turned out that the pilot's exclamation as we left - "Let's Rock and Roll" - was not a prophetic one.

We could track our progress by memories of twitches as we passed up the East coast, over Lindisfarne, Fraserburgh, skirting the snow-covered Cairngorms and reaching the tip of Scotland. Past the Orcadian archipelago and onward we flew, the pilot skillfully avoiding any troublesome weather, either veering round it or rising above. The strong northwesterly cross wind slowed our progress, but by 11:30 this was the view from the cockpit...
Sumburgh airport runway comes into view.
(courtesy of Jim Lawrence)

The landing was smooth and we walked across the tarmac towards the airport terminal. We were stiffly admonished for daring to cross such a dangerous area without the presence of an official in a high-vis jacket! But right now only one thing was on our minds. Would the bird be there?

As we headed out of the airport, no joke, plumes of smoke rose up from the vicinity of our plane. We headed onwards to Housesetter in the north of the island.
Astonishingly we had hit upon a window of beautiful weather between the storm and the blizzard. Blue skies and breathless air greeted us.

As we pulled up at the garden where the bird had been watched the previous day, we were more than a bit relieved to find two Shetland locals pointing their lenses at the pines. We clambered up the hillside and strained our eyes.
For just a few seconds there was nothing, then this giant finch came lumbering through a small pine, just above eye level in front of us.
What a beauty!
An excellent photo of the Pine Grosbeak, taken by Jim Lawrence
We watched this lonesome waif munching its way through the pines for almost two hours, until the sky clouded over and rain threatened. Time was marching on and a text from the pilot informed us of snow back at the airport in England.
The scene of the twitch, otter in the bay, Pine Grosbeak behind us.
We hit a window of beautiful weather. (Andy Cotton)
 
There was just time for a quick scan of the bay below, where an otter was swimming on its back, before we began our journey back south.
A quick detour to Scalloway on the way back, where we watched an Iceland Gull along with Eiders, Mergansers and Black Guillemots in the waters below. Time passed too quickly in the company of a couple of old birding friends who were stranded on the island, having come over on the last ferry to run.
A mad dash back to the airport, where we met the pilot who regaled us with tales of how the sea had thrown a whole load of plastic drums all over the runway. Oh, as for that smoke we looked back on when we last saw the plane - just a standard fire drill.

By 4:30 we were lifting off on our way home. As it got dark, we witnessed an amazing effect as the flashing lights on the tips of the plane's wings strobe-lit the snowflakes, freezing them in the air like a plethora of jewels in suspension. Meanwhile the pilot shone a small flashlight onto the wing, checking for ice.
A healthy tailwind meant that in what seemed like no time we were flying low over the night lights of York City (or was it Lincoln?) and it was just after 7 when I bade farewell to the others and climbed into my car for the final leg of the journey.

Fifteen hours after walking out the door I was back home.
What an incredible day trip. What an incredible bird.


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