Our head torches disturb a Wheatear as we cycle along the dyke before dawn. We get the nets open and at sunrise, are drinking tea in the hut on the polder. Vlieland is the wildest of the Wadden islands and the polder, created in the first half of the last century, is entirely given over to nature conservation and is the site of one of the most active bird ringing stations in The Netherlands.
The nets are stretched between poles in the reeds and bushes, and on each net round we extract the birds and take them back to the hut in cotton bags for processing. Each bird is fitted with a tiny aluminium ring stamped with a unique number and the address of the Dutch ringing office. Birds are also weighed, measured and sometimes photographed before being released to continue their migrations.
On the second net round we catch a young Reed Warbler that looks subtly different. Short-winged, a touch more olive in colour, and with a distinctively short supercilium that bulges in front of the eye and comes to a neat point just behind. We take full measurements and careful photographs and let it go, just like the others.
The strong westerlies have continued for several days and rain has been frequent and persistent. These conditions disrupt the trapping and ringing activities and birds generally wait for more favourable conditions before starting or continuing their migrations. Numbers of Wheatears and White Wagtails have been grounded on the island for several days. We only catch 29 birds all morning, nine of them retraps, but there’s a lovely variety including six species of warbler, Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher. There is plenty of time for watching out for migrants; a few Greenfinches, Meadow Pipits and Reed Buntings move through, a big flock of Starlings and singles of Whinchat and Pied Flycatcher. Walking back to the hut, Mark raises his binoculars and says, excitedly, “Rose-coloured Starling”. It’s an adult, flying low towards the net site, side-on, maybe 30 metres away. The pale, plain body with black wings, head and tail are extremely distinctive. They are typical autumn rarities on the Dutch islands, but adults are exceptional.
Later, examining the photographs and measurements of the different Reed Warbler, and doing some online research confirms our suspicions, discussed when we were handling it. It was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler, the first trapped on Vlieland, making for a truly remarkable and wonderfully memorable day.