Monday, 8 February 2016

Going Dutch, part 1: rubythroat quest

When I was a fledgling birder in the early Seventies, I used to thumb the pages of Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow in wonderment at the more exotic species of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. None stood out more to me than Siberian Rubythroat, a relatively drab bird but for the male's utterly dazzling throat patch. It was virtually unknown west of Siberia, and only in Asia could it realistically be hoped for. In April 1991 I was in Hong Kong for a conference, and on a day off Hazel and I were out walking on the mountain of Tai Mo Shan when I flushed a darkish chat from a scrubby gully; it flew up onto a low branch, turned and flashed its best jewelled side at me. Incredible! Completely unexpectedly, I had fulfilled an ambition held since childhood, and I can still remember that view like it was yesterday.

I've seen a few rubythroats since then in Asia, but never in the Western Palearctic. So recent news of the first-ever record for The Netherlands, a lingering male in gardens in the small Noordholland town of Hoogwoud, could not be ignored. Using Avios points and just £35, I booked return flights on British Airways from London City Airport to Amsterdam on 5th February, returning to Heathrow the following evening. With time at a premium, almost inevitably the outward flight was delayed for more than two hours, but by early afternoon I was parking the rental car in Hoogwoud full of anticipation at another overdue encounter with Luscinia calliope.

Dutch birders and photographers focus on their target on a quiet housing estate in Hoogwoud.
"It was showing well 20 minutes ago," said Marcel Haas, who I'd arranged to meet on site, "but then it flew off." These are not the words anyone wants to be greeted with after the morning I'd had, and with the heavens starting to open things were beginning to look ominous. But Marcel, archivist for the Dutch Rarities Committee, had seen the bird before and knew its 'MO', so hopefully I wouldn't have a wasted journey. After 40 minutes patrolling the footpaths through the quiet housing estate the bird had adopted, I caught a movement as something flashed over my shoulder and went into a tree. Whistling to the small crowd waiting nearby at the usual stakeout, I got onto the bird and knew instantly what it was: "Rubythroat!" The bird returned to its original spot and over the next 30 minutes we all saw it very well indeed, though in the poor light photos were tricky.

Male Siberian Rubythroat at Hoogwoud - about the only decent image I managed on the first afternoon.
Temporarily sated, Marcel and I left to visit a couple of other sites before nightfall. I knew the weather would be better in the morning and the rubythroat apparently performed best then, so I would return. Instead, we hurtled around several Noordholland sites, our end-of-day whistle-stop tour peaking at Den Oever where a wintering drake Bufflehead was in residence. How many day lists have ever featured those two species? We celebrated with a sizeable dinner and a healthy discussion around our common interest in Western Palearctic birds, and particularly the region's rarer species (Marcel's excellent book on the subject is a must for all serious WP birders). Then the following morning I thanked Marcel for his hospitality, hit Hoogwoud for round two with the rubythroat and birded my way back to Amsterdam.

At times the rubythroat could be observed singing quietly, and has been heard mimicking Yellow-browed and
Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers, instantly giving away genuinely Siberian rather than captive origins.
This drake Bufflehead was a fine way to end an afternoon that began with Siberian Rubythroat.


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