Wednesday 30 October 2019

Moments from Shetland Part Seven September/October 2019

A Shetland Legend

Standing on the back of the Aberdeen to Lerwick ferry on Sunday evening, watching the Granite City become ever more distant as we sailed out into the North Sea to Shetland I got talking to another birder who introduced himself as Dennis Coutts.

I immediately knew who he was and was delighted to speak to him.

Dennis Coutts is a living legend in Shetland, as even now in his eighties he, above all others, is famed for his photographic skills and the images he has taken over the years of just about every major bird rarity that has been found on Shetland. The Hawk Owl at Frakkafield in September 1983 is perhaps one of his most iconic photos and Dennis is also the only person to have seen seven species of owl on Shetland, namely Long-eared, Short-eared, Little, Hawk, Scops, Snowy and Tengmalm's Owl

The photo taken by Dennis of the famous Hawk Owl  that visited Shetland in September 1983 and hangs on the wall of his home.
I can recall earlier in my life seeing his name in just about every birding magazine below mouth watering photographs of Scottish birds.

Dennis is a self taught professional photographer who had his first published photo in The Shetland Times in 1950 at the tender age of sixteen. After two years working for the Falkirk Journal he moved to Aberdeen Journals as a press photographer before returning to Lerwick in 1959 to continue working for the newspaper there. He also did work for the Daily Express and Daily Mail. He opened his own photographic studio in Lerwick which is still there to this day and all his photographs were taken before the digital age using rolls of film, dark rooms to develop his photos and old fashioned cameras. Dennis no longer takes photos as he does not care for digital cameras  but his reputation lives on as his photos, taken when few had a camera, are virtually unique as no one else was attempting anything similar

Apart from birds he also has a great interest in Shetland life in general and his photos of its inhabitants and their daily lives have been given their own exhibitions which are  always highly popular and a sell out.

Like many native Shetlanders he possesses a beguiling openness and easy charm so that after a few minutes talking to him you feel utterly relaxed and you have been friends forever. As the sun set we retired inside to the ship's cafe and over a dram continued our conversation about birds and Shetland.

We got on famously and, parting to retire for the night, exchanged phone numbers and Dennis asked me to contact him later in the week so we could go birding together for a day. I could hardly believe my good fortune. To be taken around Shetland by the legendary Dennis Coutts was indeed a great honour and privilege that I never dreamed would happen to me and speaking to others about this on Shetland they were very envious and one person, in all seriousness even enquired how much was Dennis going to charge to guide me.

I called Dennis later in the week and we agreed to go out on Thursday.

The day came and I went to Dennis' house. which is easy to recognise in Lerwick as it has an upturned boat on the shed roof and is also a stone's throw from the house that is shown as detective Jimmy Perez's  home in the TV series 'Shetland', based on the novels by Ann Cleeves.

After tea and biscuits in his conservatory which has an unrivalled panoramic view over Bressay Sound, literally feet from the window and from which he told me he had seen  countless rare seabirds including no less than four Ivory Gulls over the years, we set off in Dennis's  car to bird various areas of Mainland to the south of Lerwick. We did not initially see much but it did not matter as Dennis regaled me with tales of his many and various encounters with mega rarities and photographing them. It was a role call like no other and I will just re-tell one of his many stories.

Dennis in his conservatory watching the first Long tailed
Ducks of the winter flying down Bressay Sound
Dennis in his capacity as a photographer was attending a wedding at Hillwell Church. Waiting for the nuptials to be completed in the church he stepped outside to find a White throated Needletail zooming around the church. 'What did you do? I enquired. 'There was nothing I could do but call a colleague and ask him to come and photograph it as the cameras and lenses I had to photograph the wedding were of no use'. he told me The needletail was successfully recorded on film by his colleague and another legend of Shetland birding was born. And so it went on, story after story of encounters with legendary rare birds.

Eventually we stopped the car and walked down a road birding the gardens, finding a lot of Northern Wheatears which from their size and strong colours looked to be of the Greenland race as well as one or two Whinchats.

Northern Wheatear

We went to various places and saw quite a number of commoner migrants,such as Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart and even briefly a Red breasted Flycatcher but finally news came through about a scarcer bird, a Greenish Warbler, at a place called Southpunds and we went to see it. We agreed it would round the day off nicely. The crowd of birders, at least the older ones, greeted Dennis like the Shetland celebrity he is and after a long wait we eventually saw the Greenish Warbler which sadly from an aesthetic point of view had no tail. But it was a Greenish Warbler and we were certainly not complaining.

Greenish Warbler
We returned to Dennis's home and before parting he told me to get in touch when I got back from Unst and he would show me his case of three stuffed birds from Shetland, all with a great story attached. I certainly would. There would be no hesitation on my part you could be sure of that.

On returning to Lerwick, after my stay on Unst, I first made a visit to the Harbour to renew my acquaintance with the Black Guillemots that always seem to be there. They come very close and you can even watch them swimming underwater. At this time of year they belied their name and were in winter plumage of grey and white.

Adult Black Guillemot in winter plumage
Then I made my way to Dennis's home nearby and we spent a fascinating afternoon talking birds in his conservatory overlooking Bressay Sound and Dennis casually told me he was celebrating his 61st wedding anniversay with his wife this very day! 

Before looking at the case of birds Dennis took me on a tour of the many photos and pictures hanging on his walls. It was like walking through a birding and social history of Shetland as he recounted the event that prompted each photo and picture.

Finally he took me to see the case of birds - three in all and what birds they were. Each one a major rarity found on Shetland. Dominating the display was a Snowy Owl which had flown into a window and broken its wing but such was the seriousness of the fracture it had to be put down by a vet. Second was a Brunnich's Guillemot which he found floating freshly dead in the sea. Last and probably the best of all was a male Siberian Rubythroat which he found dead on the road at Bixter, presumably killed by a car. It had no tail but no matter, the taxidermist used a Robin's tail as a substitute!

The case containing a Snowy Owl, Brunnich's Guillemot and
a Siberian Rubythroat
There they were preserved forever and providing three more stories to go with all the others. This excursion back in time to the glory days of Shetland birding seemed the perfect end to my time in this wonderful part of the world.

So thank you Dennis.

Birds seen on Shetland

Slavonian Grebe
Northern Fulmar
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
European Shag
Grey Heron
Mute Swan
Whooper Swan
Greylag Goose
Barnacle Goose
Pale bellied Brent Goose
Eurasian Wigeon
Eurasian Teal
Northern Pintail
Tufted  Duck
Greater Scaup
Common Eider
Common Goldeneye
Red breasted Merganser
Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Common Kestrel
Common Pheasant
Common Coot
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Ringed Plover
American Golden Plover (2)
European Golden Plover
Northern Lapwing
Semi-palmated Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
Jack Snipe
Common Snipe
Black tailed Godwit
Bar tailed Godwit
Eurasian Curlew
Common Redshank
Black headed Gull
Common Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Black legged Kittiwake
Common Guillemot
Black Guillemot
Rock Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
European Bee-eater
Greater Short-toed Lark
Sky Lark
Barn Swallow
Tree Pipit
Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
White/Pied Wagtail
Wren (T.t.zetlandicus)
European Robin
Red flanked Bluetail
Common Redstart
European Stonechat
Northern Wheatear
Common Blackbird
Song Thrush
Melodious Warbler
Barred Warbler
Lesser Whitethroat
Common Whitethroat
Greenish Warbler (2)
Yellow browed Warbler (29)
Dusky Warbler
Common & Siberian Chiffchaff (P.c.collybita & tristis)
Willow Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Red breasted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Turkestan Shrike
Red backed Shrike
Eurasian Jackdaw
Hooded Crow
Common Raven
Common Starling
House Sparrow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
European Goldfinch
Eurasian Siskin
Common Linnet
Mealy Redpoll
Arctic Redpoll ( A.h.exilipes Coue's Arctic Redpoll)
Lapland Bunting
Snow Bunting
Little Bunting (4)

Total 106 species

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