We awoke to yet more wind and rain... the wind had been S/SSE for the past few days so we all felt there had to be something out there to find... Indeed as Phil, Mark and I wandered around Helendale in the showers, leaving Sean and Al at the house in the warm and dry, Phil looked at us and said, ''We're going to have something today... It just feels good''... We had to agree, there were plenty of bits and pieces moving and dropping into cover in Lerwick.... Redwings, Blackbirds, loads of Robins everywhere.... he was right.... it felt good.... but it is easy to say that knowing what happened later that day, but it really did feel like there were more birds about even though the weather was pretty terrible.
We picked up Sean and Al then headed back to Wester Quarff for another look around but found very little apart from a few more Brambling, plenty more Redwing and a small flock of 7 Goosander on the sea. By this point, time was moving on after our late start so we decided to give Quendale a bash before we headed back home for the night.
I've always found Quendale hard work..... no surprise there.... it's got a small amount of scrub near the mill but after that it's pretty much a solid half-mile of iris and nettle beds leading up the valley to a small quarry.... It holds birds well enough, but it's tough going and through the week I'd lost count how many ditches, burns and iris beds I'd tramped through for precious little, but if you don't try.....
So Phil and I took up the challenge, walking either side of Quendale burn and it wasn't long before birds started to appear out of the irises and nettles.... three Whinchat, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and a few Blackcaps darted up the burn, but as we got almost two thirds up the burn a small brown bird skipped out of the irises next to my feet and flicked low up the bird.... I'm afraid I can't repeat exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of "Flip me, flip me, flip me!!......". Phil, who had picked up another bird flying up the burn further along said "It's a Redwing....".... Needless to say, from the way that I started gibbering and pointing to the patch next to my feet he soon realised that we'd been on different birds. I told him where I thought it had landed and we moved slowly forward.... As we got nearer to the spot where it disappeared it shot out again and flew half way up the hill, landing briefly in a rabbit hole, before heading further up the hill landing in short grass next to the fence. We looked at each other with that look that both of you don't know what the buggering hell it is, but you know it looks kind of good and we started to sprint up the hill.
I decided to go wide and get to the top of the hill and walk down towards Phil at the bottom in case it flushed again (in the hope it would go back to the burn) and sure enough, as I neared the fence it flew out and headed back towards the burn, dropping out of sight behind a gate near to where I originally found it. I managed to fire off a few pictures, most were impossible to tell what planet we were on because they were so blurry, let alone if there was a bird in the frame, but I clicked through until we found a single frame with a bird in it.... I zoomed in.... we both looked at it.... "F@#*, it's a Locustella.... it's got a black tail!! It's a PG Tips... isn't it?" (PG Tips is birding speak for a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler... a very rare vagrant from the far east and a bit of a Shetland speciality!)
|Photo 1 - *knees start to go*|
I tried ringing Sean, but the battery died just as I pressed 'call', so Phil rang Mark.... "We're up the burn, we've had a Locustella, possibly PG Tips..... GET UP HERE!"... We waited for them to arrive planning what the best course of action was.... 5 minutes went by.... No sign of the rest of the guys.... Phil rang Mark again... "Where are you?........ What do you mean you're still by the mill? Get up here and give us a hand!....... What do you mean it's just an OBP?!?! That's not what I said..... I said PG TIPS!!!".
It wasn't too long before they made it up the burn after that, but still walking quite slowly..... it wasn't until we showed them the picture that they started to realise we did have something that could be good. We decided to back-track a bit and walk the same section where the bird had originally flew from and sure enough, as we got near to the exact spot, it flushed again flying up to the fence to the left of us, perching briefly on the bottom wire.... I snatched a few more record shots... still not enough to say definitively what it was, but on the views Al, Sean and Mark all agreed it looked good for PG Tips. The big dark tail really stuck out in the bins and the photos showed it too. It also seemed to show plain dark undertail coverts contrasting with the belly which when we looked on the Collins app was a feature of PG Tips.... It was beginning to look better!
|Photo 2 - "Jesus boys, it's looking good for PG Tips"|
|Photo 3 - That contrast is obvious... it has to be PG Tips right?|
It then flew out and landed in the middle of a stubble field where we couldn't find it but it didn't stay there for long before it flew back out, landing near Phil halfway down a grass bank where it ran down into the irises. We still hadn't managed to get a decent view of this bird and Al was quick to push me to the front saying "Get some bloody pics, we're going to need them if we're going to nail this!". I set up my camera to compensate for the terrible light and Al slowly made his way into the iris bed hoping to coax the bird into the open when it flew out, landing on the side of the burn in short grass. It sat there for what could have been seconds or minutes, I'm not entirely sure, but I managed to get a few better pictures as the guys grilled it the best they could through their bins.
|Photo 4 - good super.... nice gorget... bi-coloured bill... still looking good!|
|Photo 5 - that looks capped to me.... it has to be a PG Tips!|
We decided to put the news out even though we weren't 100% sure of what the bird was, but we knew the more birder that saw it, the more opinions we'd get of the bird and hopefully we could nail the ID, so we put it out as a 'possible' PG Tips on the news services. While we waited we reviewed what we'd seen and what we needed to look for to clinch the ID, but at that time all of us, (including Sean who was the only one of us to have seen PG Tips before), were leaning towards PG Tips rather than Lanceolated Warbler or Grasshopper Warbler. It was quite a nervous wait until the first birder arrived. Eventually a further 9 people made their way up to where we were and we tried an organized flush through the irises. Nothing. Not a single bird. We decided to try again and not too far from the original spot it flicked out again... It dropped into the irises a bit further on, so we carried on, this time when it flew, it went up the side of the quarry and landed on the bare earth. Everyone managed to see it as it sat there for a few moments until it flew up and over the lip of the quarry, disappearing inside.
We decided to leave it to roost in the quarry as we thought it might hold it until the morning, but speaking to the rest of the observers everyone was happy at the time that it was a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler! I spoke to Rob (@GlamBirder on twitter) and he said he would put out the news that the bird was still present and had gone to roost in the quarry, but that we still wanted it as a possible until we were absolutely sure.... but it looked good! We were on a high on the way back to the house, Phil and I deciding to go back to the house and sort out notes and photos to make 100% certain before we asked the news services to 'mega' it.
As we looked at the photos, we started going through all of the ID features we thought we could see on the screen and we waited for Fred Fearn to arrive to give us his honest opinion. When he walked in after having a couple of celebratory pints with Al, Mark and Sean at the pub we showed him the photos and asked for his take on the ID. He wasn't certain.... he said he could see why we thought PG Tips to start with, but the photos didn't show enough of the features for him to be happy and the features that were there weren't as clear cut as he'd expected..... We started to feel a bit concerned that we'd made a mistake so we put the photos up on Birdforum and sent them over to Paul Harvey as well to see if he could help.
It didn't take long before the messages started coming in.... 'Looks like you've found a Lancy'...... 'Not PG Tips... looks more like Lanceolated'..... and then we got an e-mail from Paul Harvey..... 'Lancy'.... Balls..... It's easy to make excuses for a balls-up..... the light and conditions were rubbish, the views were awful.... yes, indeed that was the case here, but simply and honestly put, we messed up.
We put the seed of what we thought it was in our minds too early (my fault, I have to admit).... and although the bird showed hints of the features of PG Tips, I for one, turned those hints into absolute features in my mind, so I found it difficult to look past what I thought it was. In the heat of the moment, it's very easy to do... especially in the situation we found ourselves in at Quendale, but sat there.... looking at the photos on the screen, all those mental blocks were scraped away and I saw the real bird underneath.... it was absolutely a Lanceolated Warbler.... Double Balls!
I found myself in a weird place at that moment.... the sheer excitement and joy of finding a 'mega' lifer that I'd felt on the way home had been stripped away.... I'd seen Lanceolated Warbler a few years earlier on Unst, so although finding one now was still massive, it didn't feel the same..... I felt happy that I'd found a lifer for the rest of the group, but still had a sinking feeling that it wasn't a PG Tips, we'd made a mistake and it wasn't a lifer. Triple Balls. Needless to say I don't feel like that now, but at the time it was a bit of a mindf@#* and I went to bed feeling a little bit sorry for myself! Birding's an odd game!
Anyway, we went to bed knowing that we'd found a Lanceolated Warbler but we all hoped that it would still be there in the morning so that we could absolutely nail it without any more doubts.