Monday, June 06, 2011

June 6th, D-Day I found the Citril Finch

On this date we respect the memories of the invasion of Normandy
I also will forever remember a little Bird.

What's that!
Can you tell what that is? The bird sat there fluffed, hiding all it's wing markings...
 Citril Finch - A First for Britain - Fair Isle   Written June 2008
 by Tommy H. Hyndman & Mike Gee

 Fair Isle was covered in fog Friday, June 6th 2008. With a light breeze coming in off the North Sea; in the area around the South Harbour and the Auld Haa Guest House the visibility was a little bit better than most on the isle. The Auld Haa or some times referred to as just “The Haa” is where I (Tommy H. Hyndman) live with my wife Liz Musser & 7 year old son Henry. The Haa is the old laird’s house circa 1700 and has a tradition of entertaining guests notably the writer Sir Walter Scott in 1814. This morning Liz and I had guests ornithologist Kevin Shepherd and his wife Roya wanting to fly to Foula but finding themselves stuck on Fair Isle for another day. Luckily for me they asked for a packed lunch so they could spend the whole day walking the island and bird watching. I have to admit that I was a bit envious as they walked away and to quote my wife “you are not on vacation and you don’t get paid to watch birds like other people on the island”. Running a guest house on Fair Isle means you have to provide three meals a day because there are no restaurants here, so I was happy to have the afternoon off to work in the garden. About 12:00 I was filling my 8 bird feeders with niger seeds, peanuts, raisins and mixed seeds when I saw a yellow bird on the blackcurrant bush. I went in to get my binoculars -  without binoculars I feel almost blind since I moved to Fair Isle from Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, USA a year and a half ago. I spied the bird’s yellow rump as it flew to the sheep cru then to the wire fence. That’s a funny looking grey headed Siskin I thought! Maybe it’s the Icterine Warbler I saw yesterday in my garden or one of the many Siskin that have been eating at my feeders for weeks now. In fact recently there have been quite a few yellow birds around: Willow and Icterine Warblers, Yellow, Citrine and Grey Wagtails, a Yellowhammer, Meadow Pipits, Greenfinch etc. I looked  closely at its beak and was disappointed that it wasn’t crossed having never seen a yellow Crossbill before  knowing that two were seen just the day before. I had to go back inside for my bird book. I didn’t grow up with these birds and  since moving here I’ve seen many common bird species for the first time and have had to identify them my self. I opened to the page with the Siskin, it looked very close, especially the female but on my bird the belly was bright yellow and not streaked. The Greenfinch has lots of grey but no bars on its wings. The book says Citril Finch has a dull yellow green rump and a tinged green belly and this bird seems bright yellow. Then turning the page I was totally confused, was it an escape Canary or some type of Serin or Bunting? Getting the right identification for an amateur is total madness.  In retrospect, problem was the bird seem to change every time I looked at it. First it was plain yellow and grey from the front, from behind green and black stripy thing, then fluffed up hiding the relevant wing bars? I needed to see that bird again and I must say it is quite cooperative staying in the same area and allowing me a few good views. It flew a short distance away showing the yellow rump again. The newly exsposed yellow bars on its wings really narrows it down -  it must be a Citril Finch, or a Siskin? I have to get my camera and take a photo to make sure. Back into the Haa for my camera and I grab my bird book as well, then back outside I place my open Collins Bird Guide on the lichen covered wall, I can see with my binoculars it has no dash of yellow below the yellow bar on its wing like that of a Siskin. I look down to refer to the book again thinking I must get a photo of this. Now with camera in hand I look up only to find it has vanished.

Now I wandered around the doing odd jobs in the garden with my binoculars on, plus my camera in my pocket cautiously going back over the identification book. I kept a look out for a birder staying at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory but it was lunch time. So by 1:00pm I was so convinced that it was a Citril Finch that I called the Bird Obs. even at the great risk of making a fool of myself. I got the answering machine and left a message. In the message I said I there is a Citril Finch and described the bird and that they should send someone to check it out.  I knew it would be a rare bird. Just how rare I really had no idea. The message was full of gaps, pauses and ums. I hung up and went back outside nervously looking about, while working in the yard with my binoculars still on. It’s about 2:15 when an older, knowledgeable and very keen birder by the name of Mike Gee walks down the road and like usual asks "is any thing about" To which I say "A Citril Finch?" Now Mike has been at the Bird Obs. vacationing for awhile now and I see him once or twice a day walking by and we chat about what ever is around. Knowing that I'm very enthusiastic American and have a lot to learn, he very nicely explains that a Citril Finch would be a 1st for Britain and that it is a non-migratory resident of the southern  Alps & Pyrenees.  Now I'm sure it's a Siskin again but that grey head is stuck in my mind. We chat and look at all the other birds. I say there are 4 black Headed gulls one, more than anybody has seen lately and we note 6 barn Swallows, a House Martin, 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull, and 2 Collared Doves.  I showed Mike the pictures in the book and we carried on awhile about possibilities. A half an hour goes by and Mike is about to go on his way when I check the back yard again and there it is. Mike says “so this is your bird is it”? Mike, who had actually seen Citril Finches before in their native France, had up to now been very calm in the way of a Zen master to his student. He lifts his binoculars and now starts to get very excited. He says ‘Oh my god it’s a Citril Finch! It’s a first for Britain you’ll be famous”! Then Elizabeth Riddiford walking by an asks what we had and soon she is agreeing with me.  Ten minutes later. We were joined by the sceptical Ranger, Paul King, who had been alerted about the answerphone message, and then by the returning Haa guest Kevin and Roya. The bird was not showing at this point and Kevin began to grill Mike and I about the bird.  We got as far as describing the head pattern when the bird appeared again. They both echo Mike in saying it is a Citril Finch.   Mike tells me I’ll be famous.  Then the crowds start arriving  and the sound of cameras clicking fills the air.

 I really have no idea of what it really means for such a sighting. It's like I won a bird watching lottery I didn't know I was playing. As we watch the bird every one calls friends and family and tells of the amazing little bird. Fair Isle is thick with fog and no planes can get in but boat loads of twitchers start showing up from Shetland. Photos start going up on the Internet, even my wife Liz starts shooting HD video for a possible documentary, and so it goes. I really enjoy wildlife and on Fair Isle bird watching is one of the best hobbies you can have. I have planted over 40 trees in my little bird garden and bird seed costs me a small fortune to keep the feeders full and mostly I see Starlings, House Sparrows and lost racing pigeons. The Citril Finch has been a welcome guest at the Auld Haa and when we know it should be wearing its yellow jersey watching a mountain stage of the Tour de France it comes here and does me the favour of eating the dandelion seeds. I didn’t have to serve him lunch either. I’m most proud that I was able to identify the bird correctly myself.

Mike Gee & Me
 Fair Isle has a well documented history of rare birds and 27 firsts for Britain. On a island of only 65 people I’m not the only one living here with a first, Stewart & Annie Thomson awoke to the strange song of White Crowned Sparrow in 1977. Naturalist Nick Riddiford found a Sand Hill Crane in 1981 when he was warden at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. Don’t forget 100 year old Fair Islander, Jimmy "Midway" Stout who found a Pechora Pipit, a 1st for Britain in 1925…then it was shot – how times have changed.  The birds are not the only ones that have come far.  

Here is a link to some video footage by Liz Musser (my wife)

This is my favorite photo of the Citril Finch in my garden on a tree that I had just planted.
Photo by Mark Breaks - Asst Warden at the time.
More photos at Breaks Bird Photography 

It's 3 years later...
The Citril Finch is now on the A List of British Birds

I'm still amazed I ever identified it correctly...
Plus I found it not once but twice first on this Island full of birdwatchers.
It has been pointed out to me, not only did I find a first for Britain but I'm the frist non Brit to do so. Cheers!
Happy Citril Finch Day!



  1. Happy Citril Finch day!

  2. Elena Mera-Long6 June 2015 at 12:29

    I just love that historic message! So understated; it's perfect!