Wednesday 18 October 2017

Parrots and Snowballs in Shetland Part Five 8th-9th October 2017

Day 8  

This morning we awoke to glorious sunshine and not a breath of wind so naturally we could hardly wait to get out and about. For once Unst was, this morning at least, benign and welcoming.

First stop as always was at nearby Easter Loch for the traditional check on the female Ring necked Duck. She was still there and in the sunshine and calm conditions we could now appreciate some of the finer plumage features. We watched as she deliberately dived near to the Whooper Swans, taking advantage of their submerged long necks disturbing weed and other matter from the bottom of the shallow loch. In the company of a Tufted Duck she swam to a rock and hopped up onto the rock's flat surface for a gentle preen in the sun before going back into the water for more diving.

Ring necked Duck-female
We moved on to Northdale and on exiting the car Donald spied a distant Barred Warbler at the far edge of a field but it soon flew across more fields and away to some distant bushes by two houses. We walked to the place where it had appeared to alight but we could not find it again. 

Barred Warbler
A somewhat scary and enormous ram surveyed us from his resting place high above us and a Redwing, our first of the trip, flew off from the bushes whilst the inevitable Common Chiffchaff put in an appearance.

'I looked in the mirror and what did I see
I saw the Devil he was looking at me'

Sad Cafe 1980
Next stop was Ungirsta, where a conifer plantation  caught our attention and looked very inviting.We knocked on the farmer's door to ask permission to go up to it and Jim, the farmer, was happy to allow us onto his land. We stood for a while chatting to him and a Raven, usually very wary, came relatively close for once. 

Common Raven
A male Brambling posed nicely on an isolated Sycamore but it flew before I could get the camera out. Ominously I noticed that a pall of cloud was slowly moving towards us from over the hillside, pressaging that more rain was on its way. The Scots have a word for it, smirrr, which describes a rain that is like a fine wet mist and soaks you just as efficiently as a heavy downpour. This smirrr issues from low cloud that today hung like a malignant shroud over the island for most of the day, moving back and fore, so that at one time you would be in sun and under blue sky and the next in opaque fine wet mist. It was all very strange and weather like this never occurs in Oxfordshire.

We walked across some very boggy ground to the conifer plantation situated half way up the hillside and found very little apart from some Chaffinches and a couple of Common Chiffchaffs. Perhaps we should have gone into the plantation but it looked fairly impenetrable. 

Back in the car and we next stopped at the local Community Centre where there were some more attractive looking bushes but there was little to see here either - just a Wren. This is the reality of birding in Shetland, you just have to keep trying and hope eventually to find something.

Tired of finding nothing we went back to Skaw as we knew that here we would at least encounter the Red throated Pipit which we duly found and this time we got reasonably close to it and managed some half decent photos but it was still a bit of a nightmare following its course through the long grass. 

Red-throated Pipit
Walking back down the slope to the car we flushed a Lesser Whitethroat from the grass. I still find it strange to see migrating warblers on the ground and in open grassland, something that is almost unheard of in Oxfordshire but then if there is little tree or bush cover where else can they go? 

Now this Lesser Whitethroat and most of the others I saw on Shetland looked to me a lot darker than the greyer and whiter ones I see in early autumn back on my local reserve at Otmoor in Oxfordshire. Their upperparts are very brown and the brown extends up over their neck well onto the crown obscuring much of the grey. The late Martin Garner dealt with this subject in his book Birding Frontiers Challenge Series (Autumn) pointing out that these browner Lesser Whitehroats encountered in Britain are probably what he calls Siberian Lesser Whitethroats Sylvia curruca blythi as opposed to those that breed in Britain S.c.curruca and that blythi could in future be treated as a separate species. That birds from central Asia and possibly further East regularly occur in Shetland and northern Britain has been well established now but, morphologically, the identification of these 'Asian Lesser Whitethroats' is a bit of a mess and only birds examined in the hand can safely be assigned to a particular race.

The bird pictured above and below, that we saw on the hillside at Skaw, certainly seemed to fit some of the criteria for blythi or possibly one of the other races from the East such as halimodendri but I did not hear it call or manage to see the outer tail feathers, both essential criteria for claiming a possible identification of  S.c.blythi. 

Lesser Whitethroat - possibly S.c blythi
Our next stop was Burrafirth and we looked out at the awesome cliffs and the attendant Fulmars currently in sunshine as the smirrr had moved off  for the time being - but it would be back!

There are some attractive gardens here for birds but little birdlife was evident today apart from some Twite, a flyover Brambling and two more Great Skuas, high in the blue sky, flying out to sea.

So where to next? The old favourite Norwick and Vaylie seemed a good choice but really there was little to excite us here either, just four Mealy Redpolls in the crop fields plus the usual small flock of Twite. Half a dozen House Martins hawking flies over Northwick Beach were new however.

By chance we met up with John and Wee George but they had little to report either, just a couple of Jack Snipe.

It was turning into a day of not very much at all. It was bound to happen and we were philosophical about the situation as we walked the roads around Baltasound, looking in the conifer belt by the school that had harboured some Parrot Crossbills and Arctic Redpolls earlier, and in every likely bush and collection of wind blasted trees but there was precious little anywhere.

On the school playing field there were some migrant Blackbirds and a single Redwing. Hardly exciting. The highlight for me here, was revisiting the exact spot, just down the road from the school, where I saw a Cape May Warbler four years ago on October 28th. I stood and looked at the same stunted Sycamores, in the same corner of the same walled garden and wished lightening might strike twice but of course it didn't. 

Cape May Corner
We walked quite a long way  down the road, stopping to talk to a lady and her dog, Tango, outside her small house as it was obvious she wanted to chat.She was not that old but her face showed what a hard life she led. At the end of the day we returned to Uyeasound to look for Otters as they have their holt in the rocks of the pier and can often be seen there but they were not about this evening.

A report came on the internet, which we managed to access back at the hostel, of an adult male Siberian Blue Robin caught on North Ronaldsay, late today and a White throated Sparrow had also been found on Foula. Both are absolute megas, especially the Siberian Robin but as far as we were concerned they were logistically and financially inaccessible. There was talk that evening of charters and large sums of money being offered to charter boats and planes but nothing came of it. Some twitchers from as far distant as Sussex set off for North Ronaldsay that evening.This was madness in our opinion and it turned out the Siberian Robin was never seen again after being released in the evening.Those twitchers who drove from Sussex got as far as Aberdeen before turning back.

It was just one of those days where we covered an awful lot of ground and after a reasonable start it slowly went downhill and we never really connected with anything but it was still good to be out birding. Hope springs eternal and there is always tomorrow.

Day 9

Our disappointment at our fruitless searches yesterday resulted in my suggesting to Donald that we head for Mainland today as there was a report of a Thrush Nightingale in a garden at Sandgarth near Voe and also a confiding Red flanked Bluetail, in a farmyard almost on the northernmost tip of Mainland, at a place called Isbister. Donald was sceptical at first and said our chances were slim but I reasoned that if we were playing the averages then surely we should go as we would at least then have a chance of seeing two really good birds but would not have any chance at all if we remained on Unst. My cause was not helped by the fact that the smirrr had returned with a vengeance but in the end Donald relented and we set off once again, island hopping via the ferries and finally arrived on Mainland in a very wet and gloomy morning.

It was agreed that we would head to Isbister first,  located at the very top of Mainland and work our way back to Sandgarth. We duly set off north on the A970, the prime road of communication on Mainland, with no sign of the rain abating. We got lost in the hu
ge Sullom Voe Oil complex but retraced our way,  found the correct turning and continued north. Progressively the landscape became ever more inhibiting, barren, wild and devoid of human life and habitation. Miles of moorland, lochs and sea inlets surrounded us as we drove northwards. A sign saying North Collafirth jogged my memory back to the time when I made another epic twitch to Shetland in February 2013 to see a Pine Grosbeak in a back garden at North Collafirth.We actually went right past the house and garden minutes later. Happy days.

We got to Isbister and the road quite  literally ran out, finishing in a derelict looking farmyard consisting of what looked like a neglected house and a couple of more modern metal barns, these surrounded by further crumbling buildings, a little copse comprised of the standard conifers and sycamores and copious iris beds. There was obviously someone living or working here as evidenced by a couple of vehicles but to all extents it was deserted and we were on our own if we wanted to find the Red flanked Bluetail. 

Where the A970 ends in a farmyard

Where we first found the Red flanked Bluetail
We split up and after five minutes Donald found the bluetail keeping out of the wind and rain, feeding low down by a fallen down outbuilding. I went over but the bluetail had slipped into the deep cover of tangled stems and leaves. Two tense minutes passed and then it popped out again, very close and flew to a nearby iris bed where it fed amongst the strap like leaves of the iris, now turning to brown and yellow.

I had read reports about how confiding the bluetail was and this was no exaggeration as this little bird, many miles off course, came as close as five feet. We watched as it fed on invertebrates it gleaned from the leaves and then flew to a muddy patch to look for worms. Its plumage was somewhat dulled by the rain and sadly the glorious cobalt blue rump and tail were not very evident due to the feathers being saturated by the rain. Robin like, it hopped and jumped around on the ground, its olive brown upperparts and paler buff underparts separated by a splash of pale orange on its flanks. A stunner if ever there was one.

The fine rain continued to fall relentlessly. Donald got chatting to a man he  met putting out rubbish, an Englishman who told Donald he had come to live in this remote spot seeking solitude. He certainly was not short of that here.

The wet farmyard and buildings, mud and general air of neglect around the place seemed hardly fitting for such a star bird but here it was, perfectly happy, feeding in the iris beds and farmyard, so we made the most of it.

An hour later it stopped raining and as the bluetail had temporarily disappeared, we decided to set off south for Sandgarth in an attempt to see the Thrush Nightingale. Donald was still pessimistic about our chances but I reminded him that we had at least seen the bluetail despite his doubts and part one of my master plan had come to a successful conclusion.

The Thrush Nightingale would be a new bird for my British list if we saw it. Donald could hardly complain as he had already got two lifers in the form of  the Arctic Redpolls and Parrot Crossbills - not that we were competitive in any way!

After a little uncertainty about the exact location of the Thrush Nightingale, via an app on my phone, we found the Sandgarth Burn which we presumed would lead to Sandgarth and followed the on screen directions. There was no mistaking the location when we saw, after driving some miles down the road, a line of cars drawn up on the verge by a driveway leading up to a small house surrounded by trees and bushes. The friendly owner of the house, himself a birder, was there to meet us, waved us in and told us where to go to look for the nightingale. We were told it was very elusive and we would have to stand quietly for quite some time to see it. The viewing was very cramped, no room for more than a half a dozen birders at one time but we found a clear sight of the hallowed spot, which was a little clearing under some trees and bushes by a telegraph pole at the far end of the garden.We waited and waited and waited. Then, suddenly, there it was, dark brown above and facing us showing a grey speckled breast. With tail cocked it hopped around for maybe thirty seconds and then was gone. Number 487 on my British List was safely secured and I was very pleased.We waited a while for it to appear again and eventually it came back for a second time.That was enough for us and we relinquished our places to other birders standing behind us.

We returned to Voe and stopped for Donald's essential tea break at a little store just outside of Voe and then headed for a place called Sandwick to look for a reported Blyth's Reed Warbler. After having some difficulty finding the exact location, we stood looking over a wall at some Sycamores in a garden with strictly no access, but failed to see the warbler, just a lot of House Sparrows, a Brambling or two and a couple of Blackcaps. After about an hour we left, which probably was just as well as two birders were particularly annoying Donald and kept talking loudly about a supposed Siberian Rubythroat at a place called Burravoe, one mile south of Isbister, where we had seen the Red flanked Bluetail earlier.

We then learned that John and Wee George had found a Bluethroat on Haroldswick Beach on Unst. Philosophically I told myself that you cannot be in two places at the same time and things like this are bound to happen. Nevertheless Donald and myself resolved to go there first thing the next morning

Wee George
We tried to find the so called Siberian Oystercatcher that was with other Oystercatchers on Sandwick Beach, but as it was high tide found them roosting on some rocks further away. They all, initially looked very similar to me, but one was paler brown on its upperparts and showed more white on its closed wing, two of the features meant to be indicative of the Oystercatcher race H.o.longipes  although I was not sure at the time  exactly what other features to look for on a Siberian Oystercatcher.

Possible Siberian Oystercatcher
The Oystercatchers settled the issue by flying off and, giving up, we decided to finish the day by going to the nearby Loch of Brow to look for a Common Crane which we found fairly easily although it was rather distant.We got closer to it by driving down a side road near where it was feeding. It was, of course, good to see it but Common Cranes are now becoming relatively easy to see with the various captive breeding programmes in place in Britain. They even breed in my home county of Oxfordshire on the RSPB's Otmoor Reserve.

So another fruitful day's birding came to its conclusion and we began a long and wet drive back to Unst, stopping at Tesco's in Lerwick for more provisions and some dubious fish and chips by the harbour. Climbing out of Lerwick, a Merlin flashed across the road in the falling dusk and then it was night and we alternated between the complete darkness of the moors around us as we drove north and the brightly lit ferries carrying us from island to island.

We saw an Otter on the road  after landing from the ferry at Unst but unfortunately it was dead. Freshly killed by a vehicle. It was the only Otter we were to see.

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

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