Thursday, 4 December 2014

Shetland Birding, September 2014 - Part 1

This was my first trip to Shetland, and I loved every minute of it. I was staying with friends who’d booked from 18th September to 5th October, although I could only do the first nine days (I had to get back for my son’s 6th birthday). To maximise the time I had, I travelled up by plane - a bit of luxury - flying from Gatwick because I was at a conference in Brighton until the 18th. I expect I won't have the opportunity to get used to flying to Shetland in future.

I travelled on the day of the Scottish Independence Referendum, which was the main topic of conversation which most people I spoke to in Brighton, at the airports and in Shetland. I arrived at Sumburgh Aiport around 15:30, but it wasn’t until gone 5pm before I left for Lerwick. The airline had lost my suitcase and I missed the hourly bus because of all the form-filling. But, as soon as I was out I was adding birds to my new Shetland list. At least until all the windows of the bus became too steamed up to see out.

Day 1

We were out before dawn (of course) on our first full day, heading for Sumburgh Head on the southern tip of the Mainland. Such a dramatic place. The sky was filled with with Fulmars and Rock Doves, and below us were Gannets galore. Shags and Kittiwakes were dotted around the cliffs, and Hooded Crows and Ravens hung on the updrafts. There were loads of Great Skuas about, leading to the quote of the trip. A local arrived and asked “Anything about?”. His response to our reply of “Loads of Bonxies!” was classic: “Just arrived then?”. After we’d seen our 50th Bonxie, we knew what he meant.

Great Skua, Sumburgh Head - Friday 19th September 2014

Looking north from Sumburgh Head - Friday 19th September 2014

Fulmar, Sumburgh Head - Friday 19th September 2014

We scanned the bushes and walls: Song Thrush, Goldcrest, 2 Common Redstart, Twite, and Shetland Wren (big, dark, showy things) were the best we could find as we got our eye in.

Shetland Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus), Sumburgh Head - Friday 19th September 2014

Twite, Sumburgh Head - Friday 19th September 2014

A few other (better) birders appeared (including a local whose grumpy attitude to us lead us to think he’d voted ‘Yes' in the referendum), and the birds started to roll in. A Little Bunting and Red-breasted Flycatcher were both around the lighthouse. Then, a generous fella came over to tells us he’d just found one of the birds of the trip: a Red-flanked Bluetail, bobbing around down on the cliff face, presumably just arrived. We relocated it along the fences and walls on the cliff top fields. An absolute beauty.

Red-flanked Bluetail, Sumburgh Head - Friday 19th September 2014

We headed off to check out other likely sites around the south of the Mainland and ended up parked next to a sycamore in Horwick as we checked the map. I wound down the window to check out a small warbler I’d seen in the tree, as Mike said, “That looks like a good tree for a Yellow-browed Warbler”. “Funny you should say that”, I replied as the bird I looking at showed itself for just long enough for me to ID it as exactly that. Not the first YBW I’d found in the UK, but the first on Shetland. Smiles all round - we were up and running.

On to Geosetter, a famous location for rarities. Here a burn runs down a straight, narrow, wooded gully, then across open fields to the sea. Grilling the trees yielded 3 Goldcrest, 7 Blackcap, Chiffchaff... and our second self-found Yellow-browed Warbler. I was really starting to love Shetland birding.

 Looking west along the Burn of Geosetter - Friday 19th September 2014

At Loch of Spiggie we had 3 adult Whopper Swans, a showy Red-throated Diver, and 3 Slavonian Grebes (although we desperately tried to turn one of them into an unlikely Red-necked Grebe).

 Whooper Swan, Loch of Spiggie - Friday 19th September 2014

Red-throated Diver, Loch of Spiggie - Friday 19th September 2014

Slavonian Grebe, Loch of Spiggie - Friday 19th September 2014

At nearby Brow Loch were 400+ Greylag Geese and a UK-bred family of Whooper Swans: 2 adults and 5 juveniles. Starlings, Meadow Pipits and Wheatear were everywhere.

 Whooper Swan, Loch of Brow - Friday 19th September 2014

By 18:00 we were rounding off the day at Pool of Virkie and then Grutness, by Sumburgh Airport. While at Pool of Virkie, we met a Scottish SPCA officer loading a juvenille Gannet into a van. Apparently, after getting into difficultly and being unable to fly, it had been in someone's garden.

 Gannet, Pool of Virkie - Friday 19th September 2014

 Looking south across Pool of Virkie - Friday 19th September 2014

We finished off the day with Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Redshank, Snipe, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Turnstone, Knot, and Rock Pipit. A fantastic first day.

Day 2

Saturday started with a trip south to Toab, having heard reports of Red-backed Shrike and Common Rosefinch. We couldn't locate either bird, but I enjoyed the search all the same. We did find a flycatcher sp with a very bright eye ring which got me excited for a while, but the other features didn’t suggest it was anything but a Spotted Flycatcher. Showy Northern Wheaters were in a few gardens (what a garden list you could get here!), plus Twite, Starlings, and House Sparrows in big numbers. A few late Swallows gathered overhead.

 Shetland Pony, Toab - Saturday 20th September 2014

 House Sparrow, Toab - Saturday 20th September 2014

 Northern Wheatear, Toab - Saturday 20th September 2014

The pagers beeped and we were off. An Arctic Warbler - a lifer for each of us - was in sycamores at the Orca car park in Hoswick. We arrived around 15 minutes later, to a typically deserted scene. The finders had clearly moved on to find other things. We scanned the trees, and amongst the Goldcrests, Chiffchaffs, and Yellow-browed Warblers, we found it. A lovely, sprightly bird. The mantle was nice olive-green like an old WII army uniform, with a short, faint wing bar formed from pale tips to some of the greater coverts. The underparts were a grey-white; the bill black and orange. But, the first thing you notice is the eye-stripe. What a corker! Clear, long, and bright; a really dashing bird. The bird became elusive as more people arrived, and we moved on. It wasn’t seen again the following day.

We headed back to Toab, felling we hadn’t dug out all the migrants there. We were rewarded with Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, an elusive Garden/Barred Warbler (never did nail the ID of that one), and a Merlin. We headed over to Hestingott where a juvenile Red-backed Shrike (possibly the one from Toab the previous day) was showing well, with a Spotted Flycatcher (not the same as my bird from yesterday - a duller eye-ring).

 Red-backed Shrike, Hestingott - Saturday 20th September 2014

 Spotted Flycatcher, Hestingott - Saturday 20th September 2014

We tried Loch Spiggie and the nearby beach: the 3 Slavonian Grebes were still present, but we only had Mute Swans at the northern end rather than Whoopers today. 10+ Great Skuas were over the Loch, with most eventually heading out to sea. There was plenty to see from the beach: Fulmar, Kittiwake, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Sanderling, Redshank, and Atlantic Grey Seal.

Conical or Blackening Waxcap (Hygrocybe conica/nigresecens) Loch of Spiggie - Saturday 20th September 2014

Crimson Waxcap (Hygrocybe punicea), Loch of Spiggie - Saturday 20th September 2014

We ended the day between Dalsetter and the Loch of Clumlie, searching for Arctic Skuas. They breed in the area, and we were told there was a small possibility of some lingering into late September. We didn’t see any, but the Great Skuas put on a good show. I also spent my time checking out some of the many alpine-like plants, practically all of which I couldn’t identify…

 Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), Dalsetter - Saturday 20th September 2014

Day 3

It was noticeably colder today and the wind had moved over to northwesterly - not a good sign. But, an Icterine Warbler had been reported at Norwick, on the northeast side of Unst - the most northerly island of the British Isles. Plus, a Rustic Bunting had taken up residence at Helligarth (Thomas Edmondston’s house) in Baltasound (the island’s biggest town). And anyway, we fancied a trip up there just because it sounded interesting.

The journey involved the ferry from Toft on the Mainland, to Ulsta on Yell. Then a timetable-enforced dash across Yell (getting Rabbit on my Yell list from the car) for the next ferry from Gutcher to Belmont, Unst. Great views of plunging Gannet on these crossings.

It was cold, windy and overcast at Norwick. We spent 90 minutes searching the tress and garden shrubs. Blackcap (family party - possibly bred here), Pied Wagtail, and Chiffchaff the best birds. No Icterine Warbler to be found. But, directions for birds on Shetland seem to be pretty general - i.e. Icterine Warbler, Horwick. That’s it. We’d realised that local (or at least prior) knowledge of sites counted for a lot here, perhaps more than elsewhere. Clearly there were often hotspots within these general sites, and we hadn’t learned many yet.

We’d already made our mind up to move on when another group arrived and suggested we check Valyie, just across the valley. They also confirmed the Rustic Bunting was showing on and off at Helligarth, so we decided to try out hand there first. The wind was up now, and viewing was difficult. Robin, (Shetland) Wren, Meadow Pipit, Blackbird, Lapwing and Snipe were the only birds on view at Helligarth. After 2.5 hours of active searching and hard listening, trying to dig the Rustic Bunting out (we knew it was there!), we gave up and headed back north.

 Helligarth, Baltasound - Sunday 22nd September 2014

Valyie was great. We quickly picked up two Common Rosefinches in seed crop in front on the house. We joined in a search for a Barred Warbler, seeing 3 Chiffchaff, 5 Balckcap, Chaffinch, and a Brambling, plus Rock Pipit on the beach and 4 Bonxies having a disagreement overhead.

Really enjoyable birding here and a compelling place to visit while looking for rarities. I can see why birders base themselves on Unst.

Read Shetland 2014 - Part 2 here...

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