Being a fairly ‘green’ birder, mainly cycling and using public transport, I normally only travel long distances for one particular bird if it is exceptional and can be reached easily. I will make the 400 mile trip up to Scotland to add anything to my Ayrshire list, particularly if it is showing well for photographs. My last trek (unsuccessfully) was for the Glossy Ibis in October 2015.
In mid-January a Siberian Rubythroat (Calliope calliope), one of the most-wanted of vagrants to the British Isles, was found by a non-birder in the village of Hoogwoud in Noord-Holland. Hundreds of Dutch birders travelled to see this ‘first’ for the Netherlands. Weeks passed and it was clear that the bird, aged as a 2nd calendar year, was wintering. I realised that this may be my only chance of seeing one in the Western Palearctic and I was really itching to go.
Together with my wife and fourteen month old we flew from Southend to Amsterdam and stayed a couple of nights at the four star Van de Valk hotel in Hoorn. A couple of days would allow for extended viewing and also make a small family break without too much rushing.
We arrived late on the 13th but the following day we were all up for breakfast at 06:30, ready for the short drive to Hoogwoud. As we approached the favoured site at Beukenlaan it was clear that area of gardens and greens held a lot of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Robins, Tree Sparrows and a singing Blackcap. After about 30 mins of waiting and talking to a couple of Dutch birders I was beginning to get worried. One guy went off to look elsewhere after three birders from Devon arrived. Not long later we were all rushing around the corner to a small patch of scrub at the end of Het Achterom and there it was. Feeding in a small mossy clearing was this rather plain bird except for the glittering, red throat – almost hummingbird-like in iridescence – topped with a striking white supercilium and submoustachial stripe, black lores and a fine black malar stripe. When you finally see a bird like this that you’ve dreamed about for years, when you see it for real in the flesh, it’s a magical experience. I always think to myself: “so you do exist”. The rubythroat packs a lot of charisma into its small size and its shy, furtive behaviour while foraging in the undergrowth seemed at odds with its unconcerned and very approachable nature once it broke cover and hopped to within a few feet of the gathered observers. I guess the bird is just not used to humans in its remote breeding area. However, a Sparrowhawk passing overhead, the occasional approaching cat and flocks of noisy Jackdaws did see the bird becoming very alert and returning to cover.
Over the course of the morning its routine alternated between periods of subsinging and preening undercover to feeding forays through the block of low scrub to the mossy patch at the pavement edge. By lunchtime we decided to head for a bite to eat and some general touristy sightseeing. The following morning I returned early to Hoogwoud on my own. Again the Siberian Rubythroat was keeping to the scrub at Het Achterom and while showing very close at times, its position did not allow for images with nice, clean, out-of-focus backgrounds. Still, the mossy patch it frequented provided some more natural looking photographs. I spent most of the morning waiting and observing and at times it was subsinging just a few feet away, concealed in the low scrub, but with the dazzling throat revealing the source of its soft, squeaky warbles. Then it was time to return to the hotel and collect the family. I had one last look. This one could possibly be the last one I’d ever see. The rest of the day we did some more touristy things, visiting Edam and Volendam before our early evening flight. We looked for no other particular birds though there were plenty of quality birds around including Bufflehead, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck and Pine Bunting. We did enjoy hundreds of geese along most of the drives and we had a flock of Barnacle Geese in the fields opposite the hotel. We also noted Great Crested Grebes in almost every canal with pairs displaying in small roadside ponds, even in urban areas. Information updates were obtained from www.dutchbirdalerts.nl and www.waarneming.nl
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