Tuesday 18 October 2022

Superb Shetland- Lanceolated Warbler - 4th October 2022

At just after noon on Tuesday the 4th of October Mark and myself were heading towards Hillswick which lies thirty miles north of Lerwick.Our aim was to try and see a Great Grey Shrike that was being seen daily in the general area and where only two days ago we had seen a Pechora Pipit.

As we drove north Mark jokingly said.

I bet a mega is found in the south just as we are in the north of the island. 

I laughed and dismissed this as being highly unlikely.

Some twenty minutes from Hillswick our phone apps alerted us to the fact a possible mega had been found in the form of an unidentified locustella warbler. It had been discovered in a field of rough grass and yellow iris by birders searching for a Jack Snipe and after promptly putting the news out they watched and followed it for thirty minutes, along with others, trying to be certain of the identification before it flew across the road into a ditch and then into a similar field containing cows, on the other side.

The location was Wester Quarff which, you guessed, is in the south of the island

Unidentified meant it could be either a Grasshopper Warbler or something much much rarer in the form of a Lanceolated Warbler. The former would be more likely but this is Shetland and nothing should therefore be discounted or taken for granted.

I dared not speculate, although my heart was racing, as Lanceolated Warbler was very much on my most wanted list of birds to see in Britain along with White's Thrush. I have never seen a 'Lancy' here and have only seen this species once before, when I found a bedraggled pair on a track in Cambodia, more years ago than I can remember, forced out of the grass by a tropical rainstorm of biblical proportions. Worse still, I missed a very showy one at Sumburgh Head two years ago which turned up the day after we had left Shetland, having twitched a Tennessee Warbler on Yell. 

Three or four Lanceolated Warblers are discovered each year in Britain, more often than not creeping their way through and under rank grass. Here they are a bird found almost exclusively in Shetland and other northern isles of Scotland. They are normally found from southeast Finland, ranging eastwards and then discontinuously from the Central Urals to Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands, Hokkaido in Japan and northeast China.They migrate to winter in Nepal, ranging eastwards to northeast India, southeast Asia and The Phillipines

We drove on and our phones pinged again just as we were approaching Hillswick. It was confirmed the unidentified warbler was a Lanceolated Warbler.

Silence reigned for but seconds as we digested the news then Mark said 

We have to go back

I was certainly not going to argue having never seen one whereas Mark has seen at least one in Britain before.

The drive to Wester Quarff would take an hour and I would just have to try and control my anxiety and excitement until we got there. It felt as if it took forever but turning off the main road we drove down the narrow road leading to Wester Quarff until we were able to squeeze the car onto a narrow parking place off the road. Already there were many birders cars, that had arrived before us, crammed into every available space and we were very lucky to find a spot relatively close to where the bird was.

Mark urged me to run and he would follow. I ran down the narrow road and round a bend and my heart sank.The field which the Lanceolated Warbler was currently occupying was on my left, separated from the road by a deep ditch. Beyond the ditch was a narrow bank of grass and a barbed wire fence protecting the field. A row of birders, fifty or more, two deep, were hanging onto the fence and looking into the field. There was virtually nowhere for me to squeeze in to view the field, a field that consisted of a tangle of  rank grass and patches of strap like yellow iris leaves. How on earth would I see the mouse like warbler in there even if I could get to the fence?

By chance a birder vacated his spot by the fence and I cleared the ditch in one bound and occupied it, clinging to thc fence to stop myself falling back into the ditch. Others were not so fortunate. By various accounts coming from other birders along the line the warbler was creeping through the grass, mainly unseen but not too far in from the fence. That new essential piece of birding kit, the thermal imager was now being deployed by the more affluent amongst us and the warbler's progress was being tracked as it moved unseen below the grass. A couple of times it emerged and birders to my right confirmed they could see it but I failed to find it. Despair and anguish came in equal measure as it then went under cover again.

This carried on for twenty minutes, until Hugh Harrop and Jim Nicholson, two prominent Shetland birders took matters in hand after consulation with the farmer. They went into the field, moved the curious cows away from the fence and decided to flush the bird back over the road and into the original field as it was considered this would give everyone a better chance to see it.

All went well as the bird was slowly persuaded to move towards the fence before it suddenly flew up and out onto the road where it fluttered around low to the ground and even flew through my legs. As a former amateur footballer it was a novelty to be 'nutmegged' not by a ball but by a Lancy! The problem for the bird was there were so many anxious birders crowding around, it caused it to panic and instead of crossing the road to the other field, it circled back and dropped into the ditch parallel with the road.

More flushing ensued, this time in the ditch with now around a hundred birders crowding in hoping to get a sight of the warbler as it left the ditch. It was rather an unedifying sight and as the bird duly flew out of the ditch, because everyone was too close, it promptly sought refuge in the ditch again.

This could not go on and finally a few strong words from Hugh persuaded everyone to stand far enough back and away to give the bird a view of the field on the other side of the road. Flushed once again it flew across the road and this time pitched into the original field, quickly followed by a number of birders who stood around where it was seen to land.

Of course there was no sign of it but eventually it was re-located, characteristically creeping through the grass adjacent to a narrow wet channel and briefly giving a reasonably clear view of its tiny self before once more immersing itself in the grass

Its progress was tracked through the grass but it remained virtually invisible, every so often appearing as a grey brown, mouse like form moving slowly through the long grass as its admirers formed a semi circle of admiration. 

It was a nightmare to see it properly. It slowly worked its way back to the fence by the road  and I crossed back onto the road convinced I would get no better views than I had already managed. I now had no idea where it was but others told me it was right below me by the fence. I leant slightly forward to look over the fence and there it was, only a few feet below and right in the open or as much in the open as an arch skulker such as a Lanceolated Warbler can ever be.

I pressed the camera shutter as the warbler stood on the grass.It seemed forever but was only seconds before it slipped under the grass and was gone.

Time now to enjoy the experience and share my story with others.This encounter laid to rest years of hoping and took my list of bird species seen in Britain to 522

Little did I know what was to follow ..............................

1 comment:

  1. Love it & what a great final shot!!! (Not sure what I feel about the flushing though & I know you won't have liked it....) x