Friday 13 October 2017

Parrots and Snowballs in Shetland Part One 1st-2nd October 2017

Days 1 & 2

A long standing arrangement came to pass on 1st October as I prepared to head as far north as it is possible to go in Britain. 

Some months ago Donald, a birding colleague who lives just south of Glasgow, contacted me to ask if I wished to go to Shetland with him and another birder, Colin, who was from Northumberland. The plan was to stay at the Guardisfauld Hostel on Unst, the northernmost island in Shetland and bird the island from 2nd-15th October but with the option of visiting the other islands in Shetland should anything really rare or that took our fancy arrive while we were there.

Shetland has become, over the last ten or so years, an increasingly popular place with birders seeking rare and unusual birds.The most propitious time to visit is September and October when, with the right winds, vagrants from both America and Asia can be discovered sheltering in Shetland.The various rarities that have been discovered over the years are too many to list here but Cape May Warbler and Swainson's Thrush from America and Siberian Thrush and Thick billed Warbler from Asia are recent prime examples. 

So it was that I found myself leaving home at 5am on a wet and drear Sunday morning to drive north to Glasgow where I would meet my daughter who now lives there, have a meal with her before driving to Donald's house the next morning, transferring all my gear to his car and we would then drive to Aberdeen to get the overnight ferry to Lerwick in Shetland.

I left home deliberately early, as on the way north there was the chance of seeing two really good birds on the way, namely a Scops Owl at a place called Ryhope in Co. Durham and then further north, almost on the England/Scotland border, a juvenile Long-tailed Skua, featuring on a golf course near Goswick in Northumberland.

The A1 Motorway was its usual monotonous and tedious self but this early on a Sunday was almost bereft of traffic so driving only required my staying on the road rather than dodging any huge spray spewing lorries and fellow motorway users. In Yorkshire I passed by the huge cooling towers of Drax power station, dominating the road and countryside for miles, their sheer size intimidating when seen so close. I carried onwards past Scotch Corner which, contrary to its name is nowhere near Scotland, then shortly after, stopped at some Services for my customary skinny latte and suitably revived set a course for Ryhope. The rain continued to fall as it had done since leaving home. An autumn Sunday on a bleak, grey and wet motorway drained all enthusiasm from me but the prospect of seeing my daughter and two weeks birding in Shetland more than compensated for any feelings of pessimism and gloom.

I arrived in Ryhope, a small and unremarkable industrial village of red brick houses on the northeast coast of England, its drab prospect and general air of decay and decline enhanced by the persistent rain. I parked the car, walked across the road and through a litter strewn tunnel below a railway, following a tarmac path that ran away downhill towards a cold and unwelcoming grey North Sea. It was not hard to know where the owl had been seen as a number of birders were just standing on the path looking at an Elder bush that from all accounts was the favourite roosting place for the Scops Owl. Not today it wasn't. There was no sign of it but I did think there seemed to be an awful lot of birders not putting much effort into looking for the owl but just standing about hoping someone else would find it. 

Birders not trying very hard to find a Scops Owl!
I gave it almost an hour, managing to see a Spotted Flycatcher and a Common Chiffchaff and then quit at just after 11am and headed back to the car. Maybe I would have more luck with the Long tailed Skua.

I passed through the Tyne Tunnel and headed steadily north on the A1, driving through pleasant and now rain free and sunny, rural countryside, passing the impressive Bamburgh Castle and eventually, turning down a lane to Goswick, finding I was not that far from the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

After a few twists and turns I arrived at a closed level crossing, stopping to watch one of Mr Branson's high speed trains hurtle past before the gates opened and there was the Golf Course and Clubhouse immediately in front of me. Now, from my experience golf courses and golfers fall into two categories, either they are unbelievably pompous and self righteous, beholden to ridiculous rules and regulations and with a distinct apathy towards anyone who is not interested in hitting a white ball endlessly around a carefully manicured area of land or, they are welcoming and understanding and prepared to share their facilities and show an interest in other things apart from golf. The further north you go, in general the more reasonable are the golfers.This thankfully was the case at Goswick and one could feel a distinct welcoming atmosphere.

Goswick Golf Clubhouse

Today the Long tailed Skua was to be found on the seventh fairway which lay towards the northern end of the golf course and after walking through the rough grass of the golf course I came to where it was parading fearlessly around the close cropped grass of the fairway.

It was totally confiding and allowed  the closest of approaches and thankfully was well away from any golfers, so I was able to virtually walk up to it. It was feeding on worms which it caught by searching methodically in the mown grass, moving position every so often by means of a brief flight.

Its head and breast were a pale fawn colour, palest around the neck, almost as if a shawl had been thrown over it and the rest of its plumage was dark greyish brown, the feathers tipped white creating a series of uneven horizontal lines across its upperparts whilst the flanks were barred. Its legs were blue grey and the webbed feet pink but predominantly tipped with black as if it had stepped in tar or spilt ink.

Note the pink and black webbed feet in the above two images
I watched it for a full hour relishing this opportunity to see such an unusual bird at close quarters and now feeling that at last my birding holiday had finally got going after the earlier disappointment with the owl.

I walked back to the car park as other birders arrived, doubtless making the same short journey north to see the skua after missing out on the owl.

Stowing camera and optics in the car I ate a couple of rolls I had made the night before and then I drove back to the A1 and headed north on the coast road, crossing the border into Scotland at precisely 1.43pm. I caught glimpses of the North Sea off to my right and the mighty bulk of the Bass Rock, summer home to over a hundred thousand Gannets. After many hold ups on the ring roads around Edinburgh I headed west to Glasgow and checked into my hotel, The Ambassador at Kelvingrove and called my daughter. I had two hours to relax before meeting her and just lay on the bed with a cup of tea and let the miles and long hours of driving fall away from my body. Glasgow was sunny and it felt good to be in the city once more. I met Polly, my daughter, at six in The Park Bar and we went on to have a convivial evening and a fine curry at Mother India, catching up on news and discussing anything and everything.

Day 2

After purchasing some Scotch Pies from my favourite butcher in the Byres Road, I drove the twenty or so miles to Donald's house and we loaded his car with everything we needed for the trip to Shetland. Between us we had an enormous amount of food, most of it courtesy of Donald who had prepared a number of frozen meals that we could cook when at the hostel. Such staples as Mince and Tatties and Chillie con Carne would sustain us and more, after a hard days birding on Unst. Two bottles of red wine and some whisky would also cheer the spirits.

As on the day before, we made a plan to stop at a couple of points on the road north to Aberdeen to try and see two more good birds.This time it was a Barred Warbler at Kilminning Castle on the Fife coast and a Red backed Shrike at Torry which is part of Aberdeen.

We whiled away the drive to Kilminning with the usual birding talk and banter, crossing into Fife across the huge and splendid new road bridge over the Forth Estuary and soon we were in territory made recently familiar to me from a holiday visit in May this year with my wife. I also realised that the particular area we stopped at to find the Barred Warbler was where, quite some years ago, I had come to see an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and also seen a Radde's Warbler and a Red breasted Flycatcher there on the same day. We did not have much to go on with regard to a specific location except that the warbler was frequenting some bushes around the bottom car park. The area was completely deserted, so there was no other birder to ask and although it was sunny there was a very strong northwest wind blowing.We split up and after fifteen or so minutes Donald gave a whistle to alert me to the fact he had located the warbler. I joined him and we got some brief views of it skulking in some elders and wild rose bushes but probably because of the strong wind it kept very much in cover and soon was lost to view. Never mind, we had seen its bulky grey form to reasonably good effect but now it was time to move on to Aberdeen which was some hours away and we needed to bear in mind that we had to check in by 6pm, at the latest, as the ferry sailed at 7pm sharp. I checked for the second time about whether the ferry would be sailing as the winds were by now quite fearsome but was assured everything was fine and departure from Aberdeen would be on time although there might be a delay getting into Lerwick due to heavy seas.

We arrived in Aberdeen and took a brief tour of Torry trying to find the Red backed Shrike but without specific directions it was difficult to find the precise location and we were now running out of time, so we left it and made for the ferry terminal. The check in was simple and efficient and soon the car was safely on the huge Northlink vessel MV Hrossey and we made our way up to the central reception area. Donald suffers badly from sea sickness so we thought it a good idea to upgrade to a cabin and duly managed this without any fuss. Donald took his seasickness pills and I thanked the gods I did not suffer from the same affliction. Donald was averse to tempting fate with food of any sort so we did not venture up to the cafe or bar and, after I had a cup of tea, we got our heads down for a night's sleep or at least rest.

At seven sharp the huge ferry slowly manoeuvred out of Aberdeen harbour, the whole vessel vibrating gently as we slipped slowly past the equally huge and strange looking oil support vessels moored along the dockside. We reached the outer reaches of the harbour, passing the lonely lighthouse at the very end of the stone pier and headed out into the wild North Sea.

The adventure had begun.

to be continued .........

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