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Monday, 17 October 2011

The RUFOUS-TAILED ROBIN at Warham Greens - the circumstances of the find by James McCallum

Firstly congratulations to Rob Martin for an amazing find!

It was disappointing that the Rufous-tailed Robin didn’t stay for all to see. It was also frustrating to find out about the mix up on the pagers despite the news being put out as soon as the bird had been identified (none of us who phoned the news out have pagers so we didn’t know what message was put out, I thought we had done our bit and concentrated on trying to relocate the bird for those arriving!). This mix up unfortunately resulted in many familiar local faces not setting off immediately and only after the mistake was noticed and corrected. Many therefore arriving late and missing the bird due to failing light.

There was obviously a lot of disappointment that evening and more so the following morning. As ever lots of tension and emotional energy was generated by the process of travelling to the site, then waiting to see if the bird would still be there...etc. When it was clear that the bird had gone this energy turned to disappointment and frustration. People deal with this in many ways, for some the focus point is an analysis of the circumstances surrounding the find and subsequent release of news. Things get said in the heat of the moment that are not really meant and frequently these are levelled at the finders. If you happen to be the finder it’s not pleasant but it’s all part of it and you learn to take it on the chin (But I do remember getting some negative comments concerning the release of news of the Alder Flycatcher by somebody who was watching it within hours of it being found – I remember looking at this chap, scratching my head and thinking ‘What?!’)

This weekend, however, I’ve encountered a little too much bitterness and hostility and have certainly heard too many different and often peculiar scenarios of what people think happened on the afternoon it was found. So much so that, for the first time, I feel the need to put the record straight.

So for those who are interested here is my account of just what happened at the Rufous-tailed Robin;

Along with Andrew Bloomfield and Baz Scampion I had been birdwatching on the East Hills, Wells. Whilst out there we met Rob Martin who had been on site since first light. We chatted for a while then Andy, Baz and Rob left while I stayed to look for a Yellow-browed Warbler that Rob had seen earlier. After around an hour of unsuccessful searching I decided to leave so crossed the creeks and saltmarsh until I reached Warham Greens. On entering Garden Drove I saw Rob standing with another birder. I was surprised to see him still there as he had told me that it was his birthday and he had to get back to meet his wife early that afternoon. I jokingly asked what he was still doing there and he replied that he had seen a bird that he couldn’t identify but looked interesting. He went on to say that it looked chat-like. I quizzed him further and it turned out that the sighting had been very brief; basically the bird had flicked up from the ground and darted into the canopy of a hawthorn. Rob had managed a short, largely obscured view but strongly believed that he had seen a few distinct semicircular markings on its breast. Then a Chaffinch had chased it and the bird was lost. ‘I jokingly said crescent markings – as in Rufous-tailed Robin?’ To which Rob replied ‘Well, sort of but it could easily be something like a young Robin in some kind of retarded moult or even something like a Thrush Nightingale’ I could tell from his body language that he was clearly ruffled so I knew that he felt he had seen something interesting and it was not simply a case of ‘Oh what was that?’ I remarked that I thought that likelihood of a young robin in mid October seemed very remote and the behaviour didn’t really sound typical of a Thrush Nightingale.

The bird had already been lost for around 40 minutes and after further searching for ten minutes the other birder drifted off. Rob remained in the immediate area and I started looking further up the drift. He was determined to see it again and his self-belief in what he had seen, especially after what sounded like very brief views, was admirable and made me want to stay and help look for it. A car suddenly appeared halfway down the drift and I recognised the driver as Norman Williams who had come to do a bird count. We chatted and I mentioned to him what was happening. Then Rob started waving – he had seen the bird again. By the time we had reached him it was gone. Norman had seen a movement as we approached but I was yet to get a view. Rob again had had poor views mainly of the bird directly above him but from what he could see on this occasion the markings below looked extensive but, confusingly, this time they appeared ‘more blotchy’. The bird just seemed to vanish into mid air. Rob was getting increasingly ruffled, he now knew that it was something really unusual but he still couldn’t put a name to it. He remarked that at times it had appeared almost Ovenbird-like from below! Although I hadn’t even seen it I was now wondering if it was going to turn out to be an American Thrush!

Another long wait began but we just couldn’t work out where it could be hiding. Rob remained in the same place and Norman and I checked the nearby bushes. After another fifteen minutes Rob suddenly announced that there was a movement above in the canopy where it had last been seen (We later realised that the bird was actually flitting then freezing – sitting totally motionless for periods of up to c20 minutes). Rob then felt sure that the markings were more crescent-like than blotched but the views were tough in thick canopy and the bird was moving quickly. The bird had now dropped on to the ground. Norman saw it with his naked eye running fast along the ground before it flicked up into tall hawthorns. At last I had my first view! Its flitting movements were lightning fast almost Red-breasted Flycatcher-like but on landing it would stop dead, completely motionless. It was a movement quite unlike a Robin or Redstart but did remind me of a Red-flanked Bluetail that I watched last autumn in thick canopy at Kergord, Shetland.

I saw that it had a relatively short, bright red tail. My next view was very brief of the bird perched low down, most of its body was obscured and all I could see was a large eye and an obvious dark malar stripe. It then flicked up again and landed, again frustratingly obscured but in good light. I then knew it was from the East! A wonderful big dark eye with a thin but complete eyering and obvious pinky gape. On landing the short red tail was half-cocked then seemingly left to drop back down again and there, protruding below a tangle of branches, were its bright, pale pink legs. During the moment that followed I was blessed with a wonderful view of the bird – it flicked forwards then stopped side-on in full view. If this wasn’t enough it then turned to face me showing off fully its intricate breast markings before darting off out of view once more.

I turned to the others and said ‘It’s a Rufous-tailed Robin!!!’ I shook Rob’s hand congratulated him on his amazing find then wished him happy birthday! It was such a tricky bird to see and full credit to him for believing in what he had thought he had seen and sticking with it. During all the chaos Rob had rattled off a few shots and later looking at some of the images I saw that they had come out amazingly well considering the circumstances.

We were naturally all quite shocked by the situation and could hardly believe what we had seen. But, at last, we had confirmed the bird’s identity and then wanted to get the news out straight away to give others the chance of seeing it.

By then the time was about 5pm – it had taken an hour and a half just to get a view good enough to identify it – anybody on site that evening can confirm just how difficult it was to locate the bird let alone get a perched view!

Rob’s phone battery was flat so he sprinted to the car to plug it in order to contact RBA and get the news on the pagers, Norman phoned the Natural England staff at Holkham NNR and I called two local birders, both of whom I knew didn’t have pagers, but who regularly watch the local area, Andy Bloomfield and Ash McElwee. With this combination of calls I was pretty confident that everybody would get the news very quickly.

Within 15 minutes the first people had arrived, Natural England staff, closely followed by Richard Millington then several visiting birders and several minutes later the two locals I’d called. As none of us had pagers it initially appeared that all was going to plan and the news was out. After a further ten minutes there were only around 30 people there – this didn’t add up as I knew that lots of locals should have arrived by that time. It then transpired that half of the people, including Richard Millington, had actually come to twitch a Barred Warbler that had just been found nearby on the Greens and were using the Drift to gain access to it!

Something had clearly gone wrong with the pager message – people with pagers then informed me that the message stated that the Rufous-tailed Robin was on East Hills – inaccessible with the tide then flowing- and not Garden Drove!! I don’t know what had happened as I didn’t make the call but it was obvious that a genuine mistake had been made and wires had been crossed, presumably in all the excitement. This was very unfortunate for by the time the information was corrected this delayed many birders by 20 – 30 minutes and resulted in some locals, including good friends, missing the opportunity to get there before it got dark.

So the lengthy account above is my experience of what happened.

In short Rob had found an interesting-looking bird, it took c.90 minutes to get a decent view and fortunately this view was good enough to identify it. As soon as the bird was identified news was released to all parties including the pagers, there was no ‘chosen few’. There was not enough light left to even think about being selective with news. Individuals twitching a Barred Warbler can count themselves exceedingly lucky in being at the right place at the right time. If people still find issue with the circumstances I’ve written here then I don’t know what more I can say. I guess they will never be happy with what happened.

If we wanted people not to see it then it would have been straightforward simply not to report it! If we wanted to delay people then we could have simply phoned it out later! – the idea that we wanted to confuse people by putting out the wrong location seems totally bizarre to me – what a strange concept! The area is not tidal, there is access and parking so I see no issues for withholding news.

If it had of been on the East Hills at that time of day with the tide then flowing then I would have thought twice about releasing news – I think that would have been irresponsible and very dangerous.

Finding rare birds is seldom a case of walking along a hedgerow and seeing a vagrant sitting out in the open in perfect lighting, well not in my experience at least! It frequently involves seeing an unfamiliar movement or shape and having the belief that it is worth pursuing. Sometimes, as in the case of the bird in question, it can take a very long and tense time but ultimately it can be very exciting!

If some of the energy certain birders spent in being unpleasant had been channelled into looking for migrants then maybe more birds could have been found this weekend.

At the end of the day Rob Martin found a fantastic bird – the result of much time and effort – congratulations to him!

James McCallum