Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Shetland Birding, October 2015 - Part 1

My second trip to Shetland (after last year's debut), but hopefully not my last, this was another fabulous ten days of birding.

This year's trip didn't coincide with the hoped-for mega rarities, but I got exactly what a wanted from my time there: insight into how best to find my own birds on Shetland and plenty of time to put it into practice. I visited many more sites across the islands than last year, and put many more hours into searching for - rather than twitching - birds. Add to that a Yank mega, top quality padders, and some great laughs, and the trip was well worth it.

I flew from Edinburgh on Wednesday 20th September. Of course, the ferry can be cheaper, particularly saving on car hire, but time constraints (including my son's birthday and a lack of work holidays), flying was the best option for me. At Sumburgh Hotel I met up with old friend Chris Morgan, and the plan was for us to do three days of birding around the south of Mainland until late Saturday Then we'd join up with Chris Rodger from Shetland Nature for a further week of birding, based on Unst.

Thursday 1st October

The pre-breakfast view from Sumburgh Hotel - Thursday, 1st October 2015

We spent the day mopping up the rares around Mainland, or at least trying too. We started at Quendale Mill, searching unsuccessfully for a Blyth's Reed Warbler. It was only later in the week that we realised we were being too tentative with our searching techniques by not going through the iris beds. We also drew a blank on the American Golden Plover at Sandwick, which had clearly departed a couple of days earlier, leaving a smaller Golden Plover flock.

First scarce bird of the week! Muscovy Duck at Quendale, Shetland - Thursday, 1st October 2015

We had more luck with an Arctic Warbler at Cott in Weisdale and a Pechora Pipit at Loch Norby, both lifers for Chris (birds he'd missed last year). My favourite bird of the day was a lovely Red-breasted Flycatcher at Wester Quarff, which, like so many of the scarcities on Shetland, we had to ourselves.

Red-breasted Fylcatcher, Wester Quarff, Shetland - Thursday, 1st October 2015

After birding around Bixter, with only Red Grouse to add to the Shetland list, we spent the rest of the day birding the southern end of Mainland: Sandwick, Hoswick, Virkie, Grutness, and Sumburgh Head and the nearby quarries and hotel. Nothing unusual around, though we did get the first of many (many, many) Yellow-browed Warblers.

Typical habitat: Iris beds by the burn at Bixter, Shetland - Thursday, 1st October 2015

Black-tailed Godwit, Pool of Virkie, Shetland - Thursday, 1st October 2015

 Fulmar, Sumburgh Head, Shetland - Thursday, 1st October 2015

Friday 2nd October

My wife's birthday (sorry I missed it!). Coincidentally, it was Chris's birthday too, not that it put him in a good mood. In fact, his mood was so bad, I should have dropped him off here for a few hours:

 Bus shelter on the A970, Shetland - Friday 2nd October 2015

The wind was from the west, so we started at Geosetter. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of note in the windblown willows. And if there had been, the Sparrowhawk that flew out as we pished no doubt had spotted them before us...

The wooded burn at Geosetter, Mainland, Shetland - Friday 2nd October 2015

The area around the Orca Country House in Hoswick had two Yellow-browed Warblers, two Chiffchaff (including a very pale one) and Willow Warbler. A Slavonian Grebe was out on the bay.

We decided to stay on the eastern side and tried Gulberwick (where a Golden Plover flock was the highlight), then headed down to Virkie (Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Dunlin, Turnstone, and Pink-footed Goose, plus our first Redwing of the winter) and on to Loch Spiggie (highlights 10+ Snipe, Tufted Duck, and Great Skuas hassling anything that moved...).

 Turnstone, Pool of Virkie, Shetland - Friday, 2nd October 2015

A report of a Bluethroat at nearby Quendale quarry got us moving. After a heading the wrong way up the hill (a nice walk all the same), we arrived as the hordes were leaving. After playing hard to get for a short while, the bird eventually showed well; preening in poor light but at least in full view.

 Bluethroat, Quendale, Shetland - Friday, 2nd October 2015

An Olive-backed Pipit (a lifer for Chris) was reported near the hospital in Lerwick, so headed back up the island. By the time we arrived the bird had disappeared, and after a after a brief look around while dispondent birders drifted away, we decided to cut our loses too. We ended the day working the gardens and hedges in Cunningsburgh, trying in vain to re-find a Barred Warbler, but came across five Yellow-browed Warblers instead.

Saturday 3rd October

We started with an early breakfast, and a look around the hotel grounds, finding a Spotted Flycatcher behind the chalets.

 Spotted Flycatcher, Sumburgh Hotel, Shetland - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

The Olive-backed Pipit was reported again in Lerwick, this time with more accurate directions. We searched the gardens in the area well, but only found Yellow-browed Warblers, a Chiffchaff and a Northern Wheatear.

We had to give the hire car back, so after dropping it back at the airport (such brutalist architecture), we walked back to check out Grutness.

Sumbrugh Airport main building - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

A strong south-westerly - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

The tide was in, so waders were thin on the ground, just small numbers of the usual Sanderling, Dunlin, Redshank, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Curlew and Snipe. A Red-breasted Merganser was on Grutness Voe.

 Grutness Voe, Shetland - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

 Grutness Voe, Shetland - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

 Sanderling, Grutness Voe, Shetland - Saturday, 3rd October 2015
  Northern Wheatear, Grutness Voe, Shetland - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

Sumbrugh Airport main runway, looking west - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

We crossed the runway and checked out Virkie and Exnaboe. We came across a particularly productive garden in Exnaboe. Garden Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler and Pied Flycatcher showed well as we sheltered in the home-owner's barn (and heard his fascinating life story).

  Pied Flycatcher, Exnaboe, Shetland - Saturday, 3rd October 2015

The rain eventually became very heavy and conditions unbirdable. We were offered a lift by another generous local and his son (and dog), who went out of their way to take us to back to the hotel. We then met up with our companions for the next week: Steve Flynn, Andy Williams, Donna Humphries, and Shetland Nature guide Chris Rodger. It was clear from the dynamic around the table at tea time that we were all going to get on famously.

Sunday 4th October

We started around the hotel again, picking up c25 Harbour Porpoise and Black Guillemot in West Voe. We concentrated on the fields and ditches, with Chris Rodger pointing out the best way to find birds on Shetland is to get into the habitat and amongst the birds. This way birds are gently flushed but won't go far because of the lack of cover. The key, of course, is to be able to identify the bird when you first see it, or at least recognise it's worth following up.

We had plenty of Common Snipe and four Jack Snipe too. Around at low tide on Pool of Virkie were good numbers of Ringed Plover, with both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruff and Grey Plover. We had three Yellow-browed Warblers in Exnaboe/Clevigarth, before heading off to Hestingott for another lovely Red-breasted Flycatcher.

  Red-breasted Flycatcher, Hestingott, Shetland - Sunday, 4th October 2015

The bird was in a garden by the playground, with two Yellow-browed Warblers. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling, and 11 Whooper Swans flew by low down. At Quendale quarry the Bluethroat was still showing, allowing me to get some better shots.

  Bluethroat, Quendale, Shetland - Sunday, 4th October 2015

 Quendale - Note the birders "working" the iris beds

Quendale quarry, Shetland - Sunday 4th October 2015

We headed to nearby Toab for Olive-backed Pipit, but luck wasn't on our side. We worked the gardens hoping to dig out the bird, and I found what could have been my 20th self-found Yellow-browed Warbler of the week already. "Self-found" YBWs on Shetland clearly don't have the same value as on the British mainland!

Chris R popped to the airport to pick up Mark Washington, the last member of our group, who had been delayed by fog at Manchester airport. As soon as they were back, news came through of a Swainson's Thrush on Unst. A bone fide mega, and a lifer for me. We were heading for Unst anyway, so we just set off there and then, with Chris's contacts aloowing us to get booked on the necessary ferries to Yell then Unst. Twitch on!

Ferry to Yell - light already fading and we still had another ferry to catch...

The cloud cover increased and the light was fading fast, and a few nerves set in amongst the listers in the group. While waiting for the ferry I took advantage of the phone signal and bought some Man City tickets, which helped pass the time ;-)

As we travelled, Chris R told us the circumstances around the find. The finder had been birding around the north of the island during the morning, and the going had been slow. They'd stopped at the Final Checkout, north of Baltasound and the most northerly shop in the UK, for a cheese toastie. He thought maybe he'd had a quick look around the buildings after lunch, and stumbled across a small thrush, which turned out to be a bit rare... As we arrived, the bird had hidden under some crates, and the light was fading some more...

There's a Swainson's Thrush under there, somewhere...

The light was getting worse, and after a while a flush was arranged. This isn't my preferred way of seeing a rarity, but I have to say the guys who organised the flush (Phil Harris and Micky Maher) did a great job. Very gently the bird was teased towards the edge where the birders were watching. Well, very nearly. I could see a shape moving in the shadows underneath the crates, possibly getting the bast view of everyone, but it was just a shape...

Then, it popped out and stood out in full view! A lovely bird, and got a great view. Then, it was back under the crates, moving left, while I fumbled with my camera and got the terrible photo below (the best of several!).

  Swainson's Thrush (honest), Baltasound, Unst, Shetland - Sunday, 4th October 2015

Our Canadian companion, Donna, was bemused by our excitement at seeing one of her "backyard birds", but seemed to enjoy the twitch all the same. A great end to an enjoyable day. We checked into the great Baltasound Hotel - a fabulous hotel, highly recommended.

Monday 5th October

Skaw, Unst, Shetland - Monday 5th October 2015

Raven and Great Skua, Skaw, Unst, Shetland - Monday 5th October 2015

The day started at Skaw, on the northeast tip of Unst on a clear and sunny morning. Here I learnt how to properly bird a burn, irises, and thistle/nettle beds, in true Shetland style. There were plenty of migrants fresh in, which was a good sign. Redwings were everywhere, plus Goldcrests and Whinchat. These would have arrived overnight, and would be filtering down through the burns looking for cover, or continuing on south after feeding up.

Always time for some botanizing too...

  Juncus squarosus, Skaw, Unst, Shetland - Monday, 5th October 2015

  Sphagnum palustre, Skaw, Unst, Shetland - Monday, 5th October 2015

Reed Bunting and a White Wagtail with Pied Wagtail were the best at Norwick, with four Goldcrests at Valyie.

 Haroldswick, Unst, Shetland - Monday, 5th October 2015

 Ophiolite and continent meet at Northwick, Unst, Shetland - Monday, 5th October 2015

False Oat Grass (Arrhenatherum elatius), Norwick, Unst, Shetland - Monday, 5th October 2015

At nearby Valhalla Brewery, one of the multitude of Hedgehogs pottered across the road in front of us. We took the opportunity for a photoshoot and a quick bash of the thistle beds.

Hedgehog, "Hedgehog Corner", Saxa Vord, Unst - Monday, 5th October 2015

Back at Skaw (after chasing a fake Booted Warbler) we had a Garden Warbler and a Siberian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita tristis). Seven Barnacle Geese at Lamba Ness, and Yellow-browed Warbler and Blackcap at Hermaness visitor centre.

Lamba Ness, Unst, Shetland - Monday 5th October 2015

We got good views of a Red-backed Shrike at Burrafirth, and a quick view into the sun of a Pallid Harrier. The harrier was silhouetted, but the jizz at the time looked good, and later Andy's photos made it clear it was a Pallid, thanks to the body and wing shape, slim, long tail, and clearly only four primary "fingers".

Red-backed Shrike, Burrafirth, Unst - Monday, 5th October 2015

We ended the day at Halligarth in Baltasound, formerly the family home of botanist Thomas Edmondston. The wind had picked up considerably - we knew there was storm on the way for Tuesday and Wednesday - making birding difficult.

Edmondston's grave, Halligarth, Baltasound, Unst - Monday, 5th October 2015

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