Tuesday 18 October 2022

Superb Shetland - Myrtle Warblers - 5th & 7th October 2022

The next day, after the Lanceolated Warbler excitement, we decided to go back to Toab to try and see more of the engaging Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll.Mark had not got the images he wanted although I  was more than satisfied with my modest efforts. 

We again used the car as a hide but there was no sign of the redpoll. As we were debating whether to call it a day, both our phones pinged with a rare bird alert from the various Shetland WhatsApp groups we were on.

Checking, we saw that yet another very rare bird had been found in a sycamore plantation at Ellister  near the village of Bigton. It was a Myrtle Warbler, a displaced North American migrant, doubtless a product of the almost continuous gale force westerly winds that had been prevailing in Shetland since our arrival.With only twenty four having been seen in Britain before and with the last being seen on Shetland in 2014 this bird was bound to attract a huge amount of attention.

There was no delay on our part in making the inevitable and obvious decision to head for Bigton about thirty minutes drive away. The instructions about parking were to park at Bigton Community Centre where there was ample parking and then walk half a mile along a narrow road signposted to Maywick until we came to the sycamores at Ellister.  

When we arrived we could see that the parking instructions had been ignored and cars were parked in all the available passing places along the narrow road.This was not good as the general acceptance in all situations like this is not to upset the locals. It's basic common sense and courtesy but some seem to think it does not apply to them.

There was no mistaking the plantation as it was flanked on one side by up to fifty birders standing in the wet and rain at the beginning of a driveway that led up to a small house overlooking the plantation. 

We joined the throng and once my eyes adjusted to the constant motion of wind tossed leaves, I saw the tiny movements of the transatlantic waif as it flitted through the leaves. It was immensely difficult to follow as its movement mimicked the motion of the leaves At least I could say I had seen it but it was hardly satisfactory and I wanted more.

Can you see the bird?

As the news spread more and more birders arrived and the narrow road was filled with them, crammed elbow to elbow, looking into the area of plantation that flanked the road.The yard of the adjacent farm had also been commandeered by birder's cars and soon an angry owner came out to remonstrate with anyone who had parked in his yard and told the offenders, in no uncertain terms, to get them off his property. A classic example of thoughtless behaviour by a minority of our fellow birders.

The cars were removed and further mild confrontations followed as the farmer deliberately drove various vehicles, including a huge truck up and then down the narrow road to clear it of the birders anxiously scanning the plantation from the road. It was a bit like Canute holding back the waves and just about as effective, for as soon as the farmer's vehicle passed, the road was swarmed across by birders and became once more impassable.

It was not a happy situation with the farmer, compounded by other birders ignoring further instructions not to view the bird from the drive of the house on the other side of the road and when told to move chose to argue rather than acquiesce.

Trying to ignore all this I continued to get fleeting views of the warbler and Mark did too but it was not a pleasant environment to contend with, both socially and weatherwise and to my relief we left, promising ourselves a return tomorrow if the bird remained.

Overnight Hugh Harrop, a well known Shetland birder and who unofficially represents us visiting birders to the locals, spoke to the farmer and the lady in the house above the plantation and an understanding was arrived at whereby all visiting birders would park at the Bigton Community Centre and walk in, respect the farmer's property and likewise not encroach on the lady's drive.

With this in mind we returned the next day in the mid afternoon with now pleasant sunshine to ameliorate the cold wind and were pleasantly surprised to find that most birders having seen the warbler yesterday or this morning had gone and there was a much more manageable twenty or so birders ranged along the only truly accessible edge of the plantation.

The Sycamore plantation

We were told the warbler had been showing exceptionally well and at times had been feeding on the ground under the sycamores.This I found out later is a known trait of the Myrtle Warbler in their native North America.

For a while we stood and waited, getting brief glimpses of the warbler flitting around at the back of the plantation and calling regularly, a hard sharp tchek tchek. I was watching it  zipping around in a tree at the far side of the plantation when I lost it. Then it suddenly appeared right in front of me, hopping around on the ground and at the bases of the tree trunks. It came closer and closer until it was only a few metres from me. Unbelievable! 

I made the most of this unexpected opportunity and took as many images as I could while watching it picking invisible invertebrates from the base of the trees and pecking at the moss that grew up the trunks.It examined each tree trunk minutely as well as the small branches lying around on the ground and would stretch to pick invertebrates from the undersides of leaves both on the ground and in the trees. I saw a Tennessee Warbler on Yell two years ago that fed in precisely the same manner amongst the leaves of another sycamore.

Ten minutes of sheer birding bliss passed all too soon and the bird flew back up into the trees but after a while returned to repeat the performance.

It was a sparrow brown colour, paler underneath, slightly streaky above and more heavily streaked below on its flanks, each wing displaying two prominent white wing bars.There was a noticeable broken white ring around each eye. The only splash of colour on its drab plumage was the lemon yellow rump, exposed when its wings were displaced. Often they have a dash of yellow on the fore flanks but this was absent on this bird.When spread or seen from below the extensive white panels in the outer tail feathers were distinctive.The overall drabness of this particular individual suggested it was a first winter female.

Officially this warbler is one of two subspecies that comprise the Yellow rumped Warbler although I have chosen to apply the colloquial name Myrtle Warbler to this bird, which applies to the subspecies that breeds in eastern and northern North America. Audubon's Warbler is the name given to the other subspecies that breeds in western North America and is very unlikely to reach our shores.

Myrtle Warblers are one of the most abundant warblers in North America, breeding from Alaska southeast across Canada and northern USA and wintering in south eastern parts of the USA, eastern Central America and the West Indies

We waited, as anyone would, to see if there would be one final show but it was not to be and in a lot better frame of mind than yesterday we returned to our car at Bigton Community Centre and headed for our house at Scalloway.

Two days later....................

There is a well known saying that buses come along in twos but Myrtle Warblers?

Almost beyond belief the finder of the Myrtle Warbler at Bigton found another, two days later and only a quarter of a mile away from the original one which was still frequenting the sycamores at Ellister. This second bird had chosen as a temporary refuge an isolated stand of small conifers that were fringed by iris beds in some wet fields.

Fortunately, this time there was no chance of upsetting anyone and permission had been granted to walk across the swampy fields to the conifers which were well away from any habitation.

Mark and myself, once more followed the instruction to park in Bigton Community Centre and walked down the road for half a mile, then to go through a gate, follow a muddy track,  climb a wire fence and yomp our way out over a field to the pines.

Due to one Myrtle Warbler already having been seen there were no more than a dozen birders looking at this second one. The novelty had quickly worn off for some. We met Andy who was leaving and he told us the bird was showing really well and with patience it would come very close although it was very mobile and rarely still for anything more than seconds.

We reached a small bank adjacent to the pines and stood there waiting for the warbler to appear.It did not take long before it flew up and perched briefly on a clump of pine needles but was gone almost immediately. 

Another wait ensued and then it re-appeared, low down in the strap like leaves of yellow iris right in front of me and showed itself beautifully.This was a much brighter individual than the other one. It had prominent yellow flank patches and two small dashes of yellow on its forehead.Not unreasonably I  reckoned it was a first winter male.

During its periodic absences I mulled over the circumstance that brought it here. Undoubtedly it had been blown over the Atlantic Ocean by the gale force westerly storms of previous days and its arrival on the west coast of Shetland was, for this bird, life saving. That such a small bird weighing no more than a few grammes can find the stamina and endurance to survive being blown at high speed across thousands of miles of hostile sea beggars belief but it happens time and again, every year.

I pondered whether it had  arrived with the other Myrtle Warbler still patrolling the syacamores at Ellister. only a quarter of a mile away across the fields? I will never know but it is not implausible they both arrived together, calling to each other to maintain contact as they were blown way off course by gale force winds.

The warbler appeared at fairly regular intervals and then was absent for a long period before putting in one more appearance.I stayed where I was throughout but others chased after it through the pines.

I knew that warblers instinctively develop a feeding circuit, even in strange surroundings and I felt with patience it would appear before me at regular intervals which it duly did.

Then it happened and the world turned upside down and became a little crazy .......................................


1 comment:

  1. Excellent! That second bird was well worth the extra time/trouble for anyone who wanted to do more than tick a box!