Sunday 20 October 2019

Moments from Shetland Part Four September/October 2019

Valyie  Unst

In the northern part of Unst lies Norwick and a road runs inland from there, just a short way, to turn at a right angle and run up a steep hill to a dead end and a house called Valyie (pronounced Veely). To the side of this road is a steep sided burn with a few stunted sycamores marking its course down the hillside. To the other side of both the road and burn is a set aside strip running up the hillside, sown with flowering and seeding native plants to attract wild birds. The area is designated as an unofficial nature reserve and is well known to resident and visiting birders alike as a great area to watch birds, for virtually anything can turn up here and does.

The main ongoing attraction in autumn are the finches which come in numbers to the weedy strip to feed on the plants that are deliberately left in the ground. 

I visited Valyie three times during my ten day stay on Unst this year, primarily to see a flock of Mealy Redpolls accompanied by Twite and latterly Bramblings, all three species having begun to arrive in increasing numbers in the first week of October. The respective flocks were very confiding and one could stand on the road and watch the finches at very close quarters indeed as they fed in the set aside or perched on the  fence by the road or overhead telephone wires.

The redpoll flock, as far as I could see, consisted solely of Mealy Redpolls (now often called Common Redpolls) and numbered around twenty to thirty. Redpolls can pose many questions as to their true identity because they can vary so much in size, colouration and markings and it was instructive to be able to stand on the road and study them at such close range. Some were very pale with little streaking on their flanks or undertail coverts suggesting they possibly might be an Arctic Redpoll but close study of such individuals always failed to confirm the diagnostic characteristics of that much rarer species. A few also showed rose pink breasts and sometimes similar coloured rumps but they were still Mealy Redpolls. Others were darker and greyer and with no pink suffusion whatsoever, whilst yet others showed prominent bold streaks on their flanks and smaller browner individuals could well have been Lesser Redpolls but probably were not.

The redpolls were feeding on the yellow flowers of a common weed, Sow Thistle,  the small finches often completely hidden and almost at ground level amongst the leaves as they tore at the flower heads, whilst at other times hanging acrobatically from the plants, sometimes completely upside down to get at the flowers.

Below is a selection of images showing the variation in plumage exhibited by this flock of Mealy Redpolls. Flocks like these in Shetland are always worth examining thoroughly, just in case they hold a much rarer Arctic Redpoll Acanthis hornemanni of either of the two subspecies: Coue's Arctic Redpoll Acanthis h. exilipes from the tundra of North America and Eurasia or Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll A. h hornemanni from  Greenland and Arctic Canada.

They are delightful birds, small and sociable and seemingly always happiest when in association with others of their kind. 

On 5th October there was a genuine Arctic Redpoll of the subspecies A.h. exilipes Coue's Arctic Redpoll, feeding with two Mealy Redpolls, not far from Valyie, by the road to Skaw and near to the track leading down to Lamba Ness. On seeing how white it was compared to even a pale Mealy Redpoll there was no mistaking its identity. Its large size, tiny, tack like yellow bill, buff suffusion around the face, pure white rump and lack of any dark streaks on the undertail coverts confirmed its identity through my telescope 

Coue's Arctic Redpoll

Bak at Valyie, mixed with the redpolls in the weeds but always tending to keep in a separate group were twenty or so Twite. They look drab compared to the redpolls, the males at least showing caramel coloured faces, throats and upper breasts as a diversion from the rest of their plumage which is an unremarkable streaky brown. Females and juveniles are similarly streaked brown all over but both sexes can be told from the superficially similar Linnet by their yellow bills and calls. In their behaviour they are like the redpolls in being sociable, confiding and showing little aggression to the other finches in the fields.

First year or female Twite

Female Twite

Male Twite
Bramblings were in the minority and not so much in evidence but periodically when the finches took alarm and flew in a twittering flock to the nearby trees the Brambling's conspicuous white rumps identified them amongst the birdstorm of finches. These Scandinavian cousins of our native Chaffinch with their orange, grey, black and white plumage seem so much more attractively patterned and coloured and somehow much more pleasing to the eye than the more familiar Chaffinches.

Female Brambling

Male Brambling
All the finches  made good use of the burn, visiting it to wash and drink, flying over the road to perch in the sycamores, then drop down to the burn before returning to the trees to preen their feathers or just sit for a while before resuming  their feeding in the field on the other side of the road.

Although the finches are probably the most regular species at Valyie anything can and does turn up and on my visits this autumn I saw Tree Sparrow, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Yellow browed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap, Common Redstart and even a juvenile Glaucous Gull flying over nearby Norwick beach. 

Much rarer birds also find their way here and it was on 1st October that such a bird, a Red flanked Bluetail, was found in the sycamores by the burn. They breed from Finland east through Siberia and south to Japan and spend the winter in southeast Asia, the Indian sub continent and Indo China. They used to be a major rarity but are slowly expanding their breeding range westward through Finland and although still rare, records from Europe are increasing, probably as a result of this expansion and the appearance of one or two on Shetland each year is virtually guaranteed.

The first I knew of the bird at Valyie was when I was driving towards Baltasound and Donald passed me in his car, travelling at speed, heading north. I knew something was up and following him checked the Shetland WhatsApp for Rare Birds and saw the news 'Red flanked Bluetail at Valyie'. We sped north in tandem and parking our cars by Norwick beach ran up the short stretch of road to join about ten other birders looking at the bluetail perched in one of the sycamores. It then promptly disappeared down into the bottom of the ditch where the burn ran. We kept our eyes on the location but it never re-appeared. After ten minutes it was obvious it had given us the slip and we had lost it but after some frantic searching it re-appeared on a stone wall across a field from the road and gave some good views before flying off again to perch on fence wires higher up the hillside.

To say it was flighty would be an understatement as each time it flew it was for some distance up the hillside, tiny and hard to follow, it zipped from one distant perch to another. Its actions were a combination of both flycatcher and robin as the sunlight illuminated its orange upperflanks and cobalt blue tail.

Red flanked Bluetail
It was last seen by us on a fence at the very top of the hillside above Norwick beach before disappearing from our sight. For a couple of days it was not seen again but then was re-found back where we had first seen it near the sycamores and I decided to go and see it once more. Before I could  it was seen to collide with the still intact window of a ruined house on the hillside it favoured and was instantly killed. Such a sad ending for a lovely bird and very disappointing for those still wanting to see it.

The northernmost croft in Britain - at Skaw on Unst

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

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