Monday, 18 October 2021

Shetland Sketches - Gulberwick -11th October 2021

Our last day on Shetland and a controversial wagtail was the target at Gulberwick just outside Lerwick. The wagtail had been found feeding in fields with sheep yesterday but we had not been able to get there before the rain set in with a vengeance and it became impractical to look for it.

Today it was clear and sunny with just the occasional shower and when we returned to the site the wagtail was immediately on show, feeding in a field beside a small side road near the church. It was considered at the time to be an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, recently split into a new species and therefore eminently desirable and many birders had come to view it yesterday.

It was, as wagtails usually are, flighty and hyperactive wandering around the grass, picking off insects and would take flights to other nearby fields but always returned to its favaoured field by the road.

Superficially it looked almost like a juvenile Pied or White Wagtail, being overall dark grey and white.However its undertail coverts showed as distinctly pale yellow. I have seen two first year Eastern Yellow Wagtails and the grey on its body looked rather too dark to me but not being expert on wagtail identification I left it there.

It's flight call was recorded and later analyzed by sonogram and it was declared to be an ordinary Yellow Wagtail and not as everyone thought an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, although there is still some lingering doubt about its true identity. We spent two hours with this wagtail and then moved on to Loch of Spiggie to see a Ring necked Duck and a Slavonian Grebe with a bonus of three juvenile Long tailed Ducks diving with some Tufted Ducks and Scaup.

It was then time to head for the ferry terminal for the overnight crossing to Aberdeen and a long drive home via the Long toed Stint in Yorkshire.

Some said Shetland was not particularly good this year from a birding aspect but I  disagree. As can be seen from the list below there were good birds to be seen that would never occur where I currently reside in Oxfordshire. Who could believe I would see not one but two Red eyed Vireo's in one day and stand inches from a Monarch Butterfly that had just crossed the Atlantic? For me Shetland is not just about birds although this is the main focus. Shetland in its own unique way has much more to offer if you are receptive. Travelling there is a huge adventure, the land possesses a raw, beguiling beauty and there is the daily opportunity to enjoy birds and indulge in the thrill of seeking out your own discoveries.These are but three aspects of an overall pleasurable experience that spring to mind. There are a host of cultural facets too. Attending and supporting the first talk to be held by The Shetland Bird Club for a year and half due to covid restrictions was thoroughly enjoyable as all their talks invariably are.Visiting the museum in Lerwick is also to be recommended.Even watching the filming of 'Shetland' in Lerwick's Main Street was a pleasant diversion for a few minutes one morning!

Bird List

Red throated Diver; Black throated Diver; Great Northern Diver; White billed Diver; Slavonian Grebe; Northern Fulmar;Northern Gannet; Great Cormorant; European Shag; Great White Egret; Grey Heron; Mute Swan; Whooper Swan; Pink footed Goose; Greylag Goose; Eurasian  Wigeon; Gadwall; Eurasian Teal; Mallard; Garganey; Northern Shoveler; Ring necked Duck (2); Tufted Duck; Greater Scaup; Common Eider; King Eider (2); Long tailed Duck; Common Goldeneye; Red breasted Merganser; Common Kestrel; Merlin; Red Grouse; Oystercatcher; Ringed Plover; European Golden Plover; Northern Lapwing; Sanderling; Semi palmated Sandpiper; Little Stint; Purple Sandpiper; Dunlin; Jack Snipe; Common Snipe; Eurasian Curlew; Common Redshank; Turnstone; Black headed Gull; Common Gull; Herring Gull; Great Black backed Gull; Kittiwake; Common Guillemot; Razorbill; Black Guillemot; Rock Dove; Wood Pigeon; Collared Dove; Skylark; Shore Lark; Olive backed Pipit (2); Meadow Pipit; Rock Pipit; Yellow Wagtail; White Wagtail; Wren; European Robin; Bluethroat (2); Common Redstart; Northern Wheatear; Blackbird; Song Thrush; Redwing; Marsh Warbler; Barred Warbler; Blackcap; Yellow browed Warbler (2); Radde's Warbler; Western Bonelli's Warbler; Common Chiffchaff; Goldcrest; Red breasted Flycatcher; Red backed Shrike; Woodchat Shrike; Hooded Crow; Common Raven; Common Starling; House Sparrow; Red eyed Vireo (2); Chaffinch; Brambling; Goldfinch; Siskin; Twite; Mealy Redpoll; Common Rosefinch; Rustic Bunting; Reed Bunting.

Shetland Sketches - Kergord - 7th-8th October 2021

Having diverted from Kergord to go and see the Monarch Butterfly yesterday, on learning that the Rustic Bunting was still there we decided on giving it another try. Kergord is not that far north of Lerwick and the bunting was frequenting a tree and bush lined wet ditch running down between two sheep fields. Parking the car we made our way down the field to join a group of twenty or so birders standing well back from the ditch and hoping to see the bunting. There were more birders standing the other side of the ditch in the opposite field. Depressingly we learned that the bunting had only been twice, briefly in flight, in the last two hours.

This was not unexpected news as Rustic Buntings are notoriously hard to see  preferring as they do to skulk and feed on the ground while hidden in deep vegetation and rarely come out into the open especially when there is a group of birders in attendance. The current location of the bunting was known as it had been followed as it flew from one part of the ditch to the other but it was impossible to see it. For half an hour we stood around with not a lot happening and hope fading fast

Then a birder asked if anyone objected to the bunting being flushed and with the consent of us all he and a colleague climbed the wire fences guarding the ditch and proceeded to cautiously  walk either side of the ditch.Not a lot happened for a minute or so but then the bunting flew up and perched in a tree for thirty seconds. I did my best to record the moment but as you can see not very successfully.

However we had seen it which was a minor miracle in itself.

The bunting flew further down the ditch and as before disappeared into its depths.There was no point in waiting any longer unless someone again decided to flush it which was not going to happen as everyone was happy with the view they had got and departed the field.

The next day the weather had changed markedly from sunshine and clear skies to rain and low cloud. There was no sign of the Rustic Bunting but a Bluethroat had arrived in the very same ditch. We returned on a very wet and miserable morning and parked our car as before, under the dripping trees by the farm entrance. 

We went through the gate to the sheep field and descended the gently sloping wet field almost to the bottom, to join around ten or so birders waiting for the Bluethroat to show itself. We were told it was showing intermittently but generally being elusive.

We stood in the field, becoming increasingly damp as a soft rain fell. The Bluethroat eventually came out of the bushes a couple of times to seize prey from the grass but would immediately fly back into deep cover. There was then a long period of where nothing happened and most of our fellow birders conceded to the weather and left, deciding to be content with the limited views of the bluethroat. We stuck it out hoping for one more view that would be more than just seconds only. I was not optimistic.

For a while there was still no sign of the Bluethroat until finally it flew out and to our amazement perched on the wires of the fence guarding the ditch. It remained here scanning the grass on the field we were standing in and then proceeded to feed just like a Robin, perching on the wire and hopping down onto the grass to seize whatever had caught its eye. It found a small green caterpillar and proceeded to deal with it in the grass before returning to the fence. It must have been on show for 3 or 4 minutes at least and we could only congratulate ourselves on our good fortune and decision to stick it out in the rain.

We waited for an encore from the Bluethroat but it never came, for as more and more birders came down the field to join us it remained resolutely hidden and never ventured out into the open. I can only surmise that the bird felt emboldened when there was only the three of us stood in the field but when more birders arrived and 'a crowd' formed it reverted to its former bhaviour of remaining for the most part hidden deep in the ditch.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

Shetland Sketches - Sandness - Sumburgh Hotel - 6th October 2021

A benign day by Shetland standards brought sun and light wind and we decided on a return trip to The Pool of Virkie in the south of Mainland to try and photograph the Semi palmated Sandpiper that we had viewed in gale force winds earlier in the week.

That day had seen us cowering behind a wall from the wind as we viewed the distant stint running around a sheltered pool with a Little Stint and a handful of Dunlins. The sea was spectacular with huge waves crashing on the shore where a remarkably eclectic gathering of Turnstones, Starlings, Rock Pipits and one Purple Sandpiper dodged the surf as it crashed onto the stones of the beach.

Despite the wind I got some close views of two Otters in the harbour at nearby Grutness and judging from the way they were interacting they looked like a mother and her full grown cub. The wind was ferocious and blowing straight off the sea into my face but managing to crouch down behind the rocks of the seawall, I could just about watch them.The Otters were close enough for me to be able to hear the cub whistling even above the roar of surf and wind.

Later we went out to Scatness looking for a Shore Lark which, sadly was being attended by too many birders and proved very flighty as a result. In complete contrast was a Jack Snipe, hunkered down on some rocks and seaweed, obviously tired after migrating. As they often do it allowed close approach, relying on its cryptic plumage to camouflage it and we duly stood and admired it.

Jack Snipe c Mark

But back to today and we made another attempt to see the Shorelarks which had now increased in number to five and moved to nearby Sandness  an open exposed area of machair surrounded by sea on three sides.

It required a bit of a walk to find them but it was made easy by the fact we could see a small group of birders in the distance obviously looking at them. These birders left as we arrived and we were on our own with the larks. They were however, flighty as they were associating with some Skylarks which regularly took alarm due to a Merlin patrolling the area and of course the shorelarks followed them.

By dint of crouching low and every so often moving slowly towards them we got closer and then remaining immobile, the shorelarks slowly worked their way towards us. My knees and back ached awfully but I was not about to stand up and flush them. I would not be popular.

Eventually we got all the images we desired of these attractively patterned birds, one in particular showing a boldly marked yellow and black masked head and presumably was a male. We retreated without disturbing them and made our way back to the car discovering a couple of 'Greenland' Wheatears on the way.

c Mark

A report of a Rustic Bunting, always a good bird to see, determined our next destination and we set off for Kergord which is some way north of Lerwick and required a reasonably long drive from where we were in the south of Mainland. We had almost got there when, as sometimes happens we received a mega alert which changed everything but it was not for a bird but for a butterfly.

Almost unbelievably a Monarch Butterfly, a North American species had been found clinging to a rosa bush in the sunken garden of The Sumburgh Hotel. This had to be seen, no question, and without further ado I turned the car round and made full speed back to Sumburgh.

Driving into the hotel car park we could see a crowd of admirers clustered around the circular stone wall that guarded the sunken garden, everyone's attention focused on the butterfly that was looking a little battered and who could blame it after its presumably phenomenal crossing of the Atlantic. 

It was clinging stoically onto a rosa stem and being repeatedly buffeted by the wind. The sun by now had become intermittent and the wind was strengthening, regularly shaking the bushes as the butterfly swayed one way and then the other as the wind caught its closed wings but  nevertheless clung on to its stem. The sun returned and briefly it opened its wings to reveal the rich orange and black veined upper surfaces, the fringes nattily bordered with white dots. The underwings were even more striking, being white but crossed by black veins and its head and body polka dotted white on black.

What a magnificent insect and I felt it such a shame that by tomorrow it would probably be dead, succumbing to the predicted arrival of heavy rain and cold wind. However, for now, it was very much alive if immmobile. A truly spectacular sight that made an unexceptional day quite the opposite.

We were later informed this was only the fourth record of a Monarch Butterfly for Shetland and I looked at it and pondered its remarkable journey across thousands of miles of hostile sea to finally make landfall on Shetland. 

As often happens at such events, it becomes a social affair as one catches up with friends made from previous visits to Shetland or casual meetings at various twitches. I had a nice chat with Vicky and Ryan who I first met six years ago in New Brighton at a Laughing Gull twitch and have since bumped into a number of times since, perhaps the most memorable being when we shared an Orca experience. 

All in all a nice end to the day.

Shetland Sketches - Sullom - 5th October 2021

After our close encounter with the Red eyed Vireo at Sandwick yesterday we returned in the early morning hoping that it would still be there.After an hour standing looking at the sycamores and rosa bushes it was obvious it had departed overnight.

A lovely sunrise over the island of Mousa heralded a day of sunshine with little wind. A hundred plus flock of Golden Plover stood in the sunshine on a hillside slope, curlews called in the clear air and a very grey looking Mealy Redpoll perched for a few seconds on a nearby bush.

The sun rising over Mousa

News then came through of yet another Lanceolated Warbler being found on Unst and we decided to make another two ferry journey to distant Unst. Frustratingly when we got there it turned out to have been a misidentified Grasshopper Warbler.

Shrugging off the disappointment we spent some time revisiting Norwick Beach and Valyie but news of a very showy Radde's Warbler at Sullom on Mainland persuaded Mark to get onto Shetland Inter Island Ferries to book us onto the earliest ferry possible back to Yell and then onwards  to Mainland. Two birding colleagues who were with us, Chris and Gary, were also keen to go especially as the Radde's Warbler would be a lifer for Chris.They also had precise directions where to find the Radde's so we arranged to follow them.

We did not hang about as time was moving on and we only had a few hours of daylight left and 'The Yell Dash' was possibly covered in record time.Sullom is reasonably  near where the Yell to Mainland ferry docks at Toft but required another fast but very cirquitous drive around Sullom Voe and then up a side road to Sullom. We came to a halt in a deserted farmyard where we left the vehicles and prepared to follow a metalled track a quarter of a mile out across moorland to where the Radde's had been found.

The discovery of the Radde's Warbler was by accident when a birder looking for a reported Red Grouse flushed it from a largish nettle patch. This kind of thing often happens on Shetland as birds can be found in all sorts of unlikely places wherever there is cover, even if it is minimal and not obviously suitable. Iris beds and nettle patches should therfore never be ignored.

We took the narrow track from the farmyard and half way along met three returning birders 

'Is it showing'? we enquired.

'Yes but good luck, we have only seen it flying and then the views were brief.''

Not really the answer we wanted but we pressed on regardless.

The discouraging news was worrying as earlier reports had said the warbler was showing well. Radde's Warblers are arch skulkers and along with the closely similar Dusky Warbler are the devils own job to see well and for relatively extended periods in the open (i.e seconds). The fact this bird was so showy was one of the  reasons for us going to see it. It looked like we might be disappointed.

The nettle patch, located on a small mound just off the track was about the only cover on the surrounding moorland with the adjacent Sullom Voe shining grey and blue in the late afternoon sun and the oil terminal a distant eyesore at the head of the voe.

We were surprised to find only one other birder, a local, when we got to the nettle patch. Although Radde's Warbler is no longer considered very rare and is now classed by the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee) as a scarce migrant with around fourteen discovered each year in Britain, mainly in autumn. In my opinion it was still well worth the effort to see as I have only ever seen one before in Britain, at Kilminning in Fife in October 2012 and that was just for a brief few seconds.

They are well off course when found in Britain. Their breeding areas are in the taiga and steppe forest zones of central and eastern Siberia extending east to Korea and Manchuria where they inhabit thickets in open deciduous woods and forest edges, often near water and migrate to spend the winter in the south eastern Asian countries of Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand. Maybe the fact it is not a 'big' rarity anymore, the comparative remoteness of Sullom and the fact it was relatively far north on Mainland acted as a deterrent to others

The local birder told us he had seen the Radde's but only very briefly and it was proving very difficult to pin down its precise location in the nettles 

Oh dear. It looked like we too would have to settle for brief views of it but first we had to locate it in the nettles. Locating a small brown and buff bird that likes nothing better than to spend most of its time on the ground, hidden in this  case in a fairly extensive patch of nettles would prove no easy task.The local birder directed us to the far side of the nettle patch as that is where he had last seen it.

A narrow divide ran through the nettle patch and making sure we did not trample the nettles we took this to the far side which persuaded the warbler to fly out of the nettles and around us, before diving back into the nettles, where for a few seconds we could see it on the ground before it scuttled off. My initial impression was of a large headed, brown and buff warbler about the size of a Willow Warbler with noticeably orange buff undertail coverts and a long and broad, buff supercilium.

Then our luck changed, as walking around the outside of the patch we again flushed the warbler which rather than diving into another part of the nettles flew a few metres and perched openly on some dead thistles and grass adjacent to the nettle patch. Even more fortuitously it remained perched there, flicking its tail and wings with nervous tension, for at least a couple of minutes before hopping to another dead thistle and then flying off further.

c Mark

It was a heaven sent opportunity for all of us to get really full on images of this elusive and skulking species.Finally it flew back into the nettles and we decided that it was time to leave it in peace.