Rufous-tailed Robin, 2nd October 2010

Mark Warren

Having previously worked on Fair Isle and spent autumns on Fetlar and in Mainland Shetland, it perhaps wasn’t surprising when a good mate of mine Rael Butcher persuaded me to join him and the other assistant warden Paul Brown on North Ronaldsay along with (Danger Ranger) Rory Tallack for a couple of weeks of intensive rarity hunting in 2010. We arrived on 23rd September and cracking views of the lingering Horneman’s Arctic Redpoll on our first day were a good start. Our efforts during the first week produced a Little Bunting, a Richard’s Pipit and a Short-toed Lark. On 30th we stepped things up a notch when Rory found a Blyth’s Reed Warbler at Inglis Geo on the west side late in the afternoon. It was looking good from the off but we trapped the bird easily enough just to make sure of the Identification. The next day (while I was slogging it out in an easterly gale on the links) Rory found another Blyth’s Reed, which gave us the run around for a bit but eventually gave itself up and allowed photos to be taken. That night the weather was truly horrendous (we attempted a bit of dazzling on Gretchen Loch for a short time), with a 70mph easterly gale and heavy rain, but there was a little anticipation and we all speculated as to what tomorrow might bring...


The morning of 2nd October dawned beautifully; the wind and rain was all gone and the sun was out. At 8am Rory and Rael headed off on bikes up to the north of the Island and I set out up the west side. A few minutes later I was calling them back! Upon jumping over the sheep-dyke before Gretchen, I noticed a chat-like bird lying freshly dead on the ground in the corner of the wall. It initially seemed like a nightingale, and on noting its blotchy breast I considered Thrush Nightingale for a second, but it seemed too small, barely the size of a Robin, and the tail wasn’t red enough or long enough, and next I noted the long flesh-pink legs. Realisation was setting in and I began to believe the unbelievable. A quick look at the underwing to check I really wasn’t hallucinating – “Oh $#*& it’s a RUFOUS-TAILED ROBIN!” I must have said this out loud to myself half a dozen times while still looking it over, trying to find any reason for it not to be one, but I couldn’t! Here in my hand was the ultimate mega-rarity – I had found a dream bird – DEAD! I wasn’t sure if I should cry or appreciate the significance of the record.


I rang the Obs and the others one by one and told them the news. Each person I spoke to was equally stunned. Upon returning to the obs, I handed the bird to Paul in a bird bag. I think he became a little hysterical as he started running around the obs car park with the bird in the ringers grip (despite it being dead). I can’t remember who, but someone even tried to give it mouth to mouth! We all had a good look at it and consoled each other with a cup of tea, eventually heading back out into the field.

There were other birds around that day but it was difficult to concentrate. A few hours later Rory phoned to cheer me up – he had a “cracking Rosy Pastor” (his words not mine – I think he forgot I’m from Cornwall where ‘pink stinks’ are pretty regular and the word ‘cracking’ would never be used to describe one)! I continued onwards up the west side and had two Richard’s Pipits, a Corncrake and a Quail in all. That night we all chatted (and drowned our sorrows) in the bar about what could have been. It was a great record, on the exact same date and in almost the same place as the Siberian Blue Robin of 2001. If only it had managed to find something to eat – it was such a shame to have made it all that way and not survive. A full in-hand description was taken and the bird has been accepted as the second British record (and third for the Western Palearctic). The specimen now resides in the Scottish National Museum.


On the plus side, finding this bird had shown me the true potential of North Ronaldsay. There was an impressive fall on the 9th October during which we trapped and ringed over 180 birds at Holland House, and the next day (my final day on the island) I found a female Pied Wheatear in almost exactly the same place as I’d picked up the robin. This eased the hurt a little and I could head back home to Cornwall with a smile on my face, but I knew I’d be back...

...and in March 2011, together with my girlfriend Fleur and our dog Pumpkin, I moved to North Ronaldsay to work at the Bird Observatory.