A Tale of Two Firsts!!

Subhojit Chakladar

Most of the time we write something on the blog, its either Bird News, Field Identification or issues (usually grim) related to Conservation. However, being in the field birding can also throw up a lot of drama – especially if it involves national firsts. This post is about an extraordinary 24 hour period which partly coincided with the Global Big Day on May 8th. The technical aspect of the day have been reported earlier in form of a very descriptive identification report by Dr Nial Moores and a more general day by day birding account by me. However, we rarely talk about the human drama involved in the process. This post is all about the drama …

The characters involved are Subhojit Chakladar (SC), Dr Nial Moores (NM), Prof Todd Hull (TH) with a guest appearance by Dr Soyoung Sung (SS)!

It all started at dinner on May 7th. TH had finally seen (one of) his long time nemesis – the Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, on a day when the air was filled with yellow dust and there were very few good birds. At the end of a long day, while having dinner we welcomed TH in the “Rufous-bellied Club” (having seen the species on Baekryeong Island!). NM suggested we use “Rufous Bellies” as our team name for the Global Big Day – though at that point “Rufous Cheeks” would have been an equally appropriate term! Anyway, we went to bed with high hopes since the wind and weather system looked promising after a couple of dull days (by the standard of the island).

Gate pass to the “Rufous-bellied Club”!!

The next morning, we started early, with a spring in our steps (since it was also our last full day on the island) and eyes and ears processing every bit of information out there. The morning seemed promising with an increase in the sound of warblers and one (and possibly two) Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers in flight. However, by 9am things had calmed down considerably and by 10, we were fighting to stay awake!! SS (who was birding on Eochoeng Island) sent me a message asking if there was anything interesting going on. At that point of time, we had spent about 30mins sitting on a trail waiting for things to fly overhead. TH was definitely asleep and very probably NM (dark glasses you know 😎 ) as well. I was in the twilight zone between being asleep and awake when the message from SS woke me up. A Black-naped Oriole and a Mugimaki Flycatcher passed by. I got up, stretched a bit …

SC: I’m gonna slowly walk in this direction … see if I can find something a little more stimulating! (Looking at NM) Will ping you if I find a Malayan Night Heron or something (wink 😉 )

TH joined me and we slowly walked along trying to fight off the sleep. It was probably less than 5 mins, when I heard TH hissing at me from a few meters away. He came running

TH: NM says he just saw an Alstrom’s Warbler!

SC: What??? What have you been smoking??

TH: He said that he tried calling you but you’re not picking up …

I got the phone out of my pocket. I have the habit of turning on the “Do not disturb” mode when I go to sleep. Today, I had forgotten to turn it back off. Saw the missed call and read the message. A moment of sheer panic!!!

We sprinted back to where we left NM a few minutes back.

NM: (in a hushed but highly excited voice … imagine violently shaking a bottle of beer and trying to plug the mouth of the bottle) The bird came in from over there and sat on that branch eating a fat caterpillar. I got good looks through the binoculars but lost the bird as I tried texting and calling you.

For the next couple of hours, we searched in vain for the bird. Even though at that point we were not sure of which species it was (it could have been any one of four possible “spectacled warblers”), we initially went with Alstrom’s. We thought we could hear the bird a few times but we never managed to get a visual. We could feel that there was a fresh arrival of birds coming in, calling and feeding busily. Since the warbler was not showing (and was clearly WAY WAY off from home or where it should have been), we thought that it would spend some time in the area, feed and reorient before heading back in the right direction. We would resume our search the next morning, when it’s more likely to be active.

It was close to 5pm when we reached the reservoir at the SW corner of the island. Since it was quite close to sunset, we decided to split up and work the reservoir from both sides. I dropped off NM and TH and drove around to the other end.

SC: I’ll work the other end. If I see something interesting, will give you a call.

NM: After what happened in the morning, I’m kind of nervous to let you wander off on your own. What if we find something crazy?

SC: Don’t worry … what are the chances of more than one national first on a day? Its a statistical impossibility! (wink again 😉 ). (Make a note of this line!)

We worked the reservoir from both the ends. It was quite birdy but nothing crazy. In addition to a Siberian Thrush, the only interesting birds were two calling Sakhalin Leaf Warblers (based on sonogram analysis of the recorded sounds later). As it was getting close to sunset, we walked up a side trail. We came to an open area, where NM waited, while TH and I walked a bit further along to see if there was anything else to be found in the dying minutes of the day.

The drama set … the shrike was seen on the left side of the frame!

Suddenly, another familiar sound. TH hissing at me … “Grey-backed Shrike! NM just texted me!” Again!

It was the first time I realized that it’s possible to sprint up a slope with a scope over your shoulders, camera hanging from another one and bins around your neck!!

When we reached NM, we found him in a state …. for the lack of a better description and to continue with the previous analogy … the beer bottle about to burst!!!

NM: I was walking back when this big shrike flew in and sat right there. Definitely a Grey-backed Shrike … so beautiful … the bird just flew into that minefield, disappearing into a bush.”

I was totally befuddled (Remember the talk of statistical impossibility … the Black Swan had struck back … with a Grey-backed Shrike!!) and the same thought kept circling in my mind: “Not my day!!!”

The next 20 mins or so were excruciating. We knew where the bird was but just couldn’t get there. Just as we were about to give up hope and walk away, I found something perched on the back of a tangle of vines. Turned out to be “the statistical impossibility”. I looked at the shrike through the bins and tried to get NM and TH on to the bird.

SC: See that Y-shaped fork? Its just below the right-hand end over the tangle.

NM: There are so many forks out there …. get a photo first!!

Finally, all of us were able to get good looks and plenty of photos of the bird as it sat watching the sun. Perhaps it was calculating its next move and trying to reorient itself for the journey forward.

There are lots of Y-shaped forks out there … You REALLY need to be more specific when it involves a national first!! 😀

So we got evidence of the Grey-backed Shrike, which meant the next morning we would focus on looking for the warbler.

Next morning, we did find the warbler after a bit of search, got decent photos and most importantly got recordings of the calls which helped us identify the species as Martens’s Warbler Phylloscopus omeiensis. Amazingly, I also saw a Yellow-streaked Warbler (a lifer for me) in the same bush (and almost at the same time) with it as both the birds responded to the call of the Yellow-streaked Warbler

Less than an hour later, we also came upon an Alpine Leaf Warbler – or rather the bird found us, calling and feeding in the closest bush to our car. This made it a day where I had 2 lifers in less than a minute, 3 lifers in less than an hour … all of them being Phylloscopus warblers and 4 lifers in less than 24 hours), all under a cloudless blue sky (the sky does look a bit more blue when it’s going so well 😀 )

Alpine Leaf Warbler – phyllo overload!

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