During the last Covid lockdown Mark and myself decided we needed something to look forward to in order to keep the dark times at bay and so we decided to plan a trip to Shetland at the beginning of October
I found a superb Airbnb accommodation available in Scalloway and booked it, months in advance, from 2nd-11th October. We would travel in my car, driving to Aberdeen and taking it across on the Northlink ferry to Shetland.
It was but a matter of minutes to book and finalise everything and then all we had to do was wait for six months until the time came to leave for Shetland.
Collecting Mark in the early hours of Friday the 1st of October, we just about crammed all his gear on top of mine into the car and set off north. The fuel crisis was at its peak but we managed to keep the tank topped up and on getting to Scotland found there was no fuel shortage at all, so any anxiety on that front was rapidly dispelled. We boarded the huge Northlink ferry, MV Hjaltland at 7pm and revived ourselves with a couple of whiskies and a meal in the Magnus Lounge before retiring to our cabin for the night. It soon became apparent the ship was full of birders, much more so than usual and many had obviously had the same thoughts as us about birding Shetland.
Some exciting bird news had come through, whilst we were driving to Aberdeen, about a Lanceolated Warbler (Lancy) that had been discovered at Halligarth near Baltasound on Unst, the northernmost of the three main islands in Shetland. I have never seen a Lancy in Britain so we planned to leave Lerwick as soon as we docked the next morning and drive, via two more smaller ferries, to Unst as quickly as possible.
We managed to get bookings on the two ferries from Mainland to Yell and then Yell to Unst but only by the skin of our teeth as the large number of birders meant that the smaller inter island vessels were overbooked. Everyone wanted to try and see the Lancy.
Arriving on Unst, the news was disappointing about the Lancy. It could not be found. Rather than waste time standing about we resolved to bird the island and wait to see if there was any further news on the warbler. Unst is not a large island and we could easily get to the warbler if it was re-found. (It never was)
First we tried Setters Hill Estate, just outside Baltasound, where there is a strip of conifers alongside the row of houses that always manages to come up with something and today it was two very elusive Olive backed Pipits. They never really showed themselves fully and only gave the briefest of views, slipping up into the trees from the ground below. A Yellow browed Warbler, calling loudly and seen once in the pines, was an added bonus as this year they are uncommonly scarce on Shetland.
We then moved north to Norwick Beach (pronounced Norrick) where a Citrine Wagtail had been present for a few days but sadly not today. Just four White Wagtails were skittering after the abundant flies amongst rotting bladderwrack, uprooted and driven by previous storms high up the beach to form slippery brown strips and mounds, randomly cast about on the sand and rocks.
Norwick Beach is very beautiful, as indeed is any such bay on Unst. The sweep of open sand, embraced at each end by the enfolding arms of green topped rocky promontories imparts a sense of loneliness and isolation that is addictive and when the sun shines, the sand turns almost white and the sea shines blue. One could say it is idyllic.
A little way offshore a male Long tailed Duck was feeding. It was just beyond the breaking waves and provided you crouched down on the sand to lower your profile seemed content to remain close but stand up and it would immediately paddle out to sea to what it considered a safe distance.
Its plumage had almost transitioned from summer to winter and on the blue sea, when the sun shone, it looked quite superb as it swam on the swell, its body held low in the water, a mixture of browns, greys and white with a prominent pink and black bill.
Whilst crouched on the sand, the sound of sea rhythmically breaking on the sand, I became aware of Sanderlings patrolling along the edge of the waves, only feet in front of me. An alternative tide of white and grey birds chasing after each retreating wave then running back as the next arrived.They were all juveniles, sporting chequered black and white upperparts that will soon be moulted into a plainer grey. Some were still young enough to show the faintest of peachy buff suffusions around their necks and upper breasts. I could not help but reflect on how perfectly they complemented their current habitat compared to the migrant Sanderlings I see at my local reservoir in Oxfordshire each year.That place seemed so distant at this moment. Another world of unnatural concrete..
Sanderlings are birds that are in virtually perpetual motion, forever running, forever restless as if the constant motion of wind and sea is encapsulated in their fragile bodies. Very occasionally they stop and form a little cluster high up the beach amongst the seaweed, content to take the briefest of time for rest and sleep but never for long.
They will not remain here for long but head further south, this beach a first landfall maybe, a brief stop to feed after a long flight from their birthplace in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic
I spent a long time with the Sanderlings and Long tailed Duck. Another world to slip into and lay to rest the long, tiring and tedious journey that had commenced over a day ago. There were many birders here but they were concentrating on the fields behind the beach where a large finch flock of mainly Chaffinches and Bramblings were feeding in fields especially sowed with wild plants to attract them. I was loath to leave the beach to join the crowd of birders, much preferring my own company but one has to accept that there are times when there is no choice but to join the crowd. This was one of them
The unspoken hope of scanning these flocks is of finding something more unusual and today there was a Common Rosefinch, a nondescript bird of grey unremarkable plumage notable only by way of its scarcity and capacity to remain hidden. The finch flock regularly took alarm and a couple of hundred birds, feeding unseen in the tangle of vegetation, would surge upwards and fly hither and thither before settling once more. Some settled in nearby trees and others on fence lines or phone wires but they soon flew back to feed, many no doubt having just migrated from Scandinavia and in desperate need of sustenance.
It soon became apparent that there were more Bramblings than Chaffinches, the white rumps of the former distinctive as the flock flew. On settling the birds would perch openly, their orange and white plumage thrillingly bright in the sunshine, before dropping lower to feed on the seeding plants.
This area is known as Valyie (pronounced Veely) and is deliberately kept as an unoffical reserve for birds and is well known to birders, hence the large numbers of people that can and do congregate here.
The weedy fields extend either side of a tiny dead end road that runs gently uphill by a burn to a house at the top and the finch flocks alternate their feeding between the fields on either side of the road.When alarmed they would often fly into some low sycamores by the burn before lining up on a wire fence preparatory to flying down into the field.
Other bird species would appear from time to time. Blackcaps would perch in the open on the wire fences bordering the road. A shock to someone only used to seeing them in woodland trees and hidden by leaves but here they fed almost fearlessly in the rank grass of ditches at ground level.
I missed a brief sighting of a Bluethroat but did see a Marsh Warbler that obligingly emerged to perch on a fence wire for a few seconds before retreating into some distant bushes.
And so our first full day on Shetland came to an end and it was time for the return journey from Unst to Yell and then the fast drive across Yell, known as The Yell Dash, to catch the ferry to Mainland and our accommodation in Scalloway. It had been a long day with little time to rest and I would sleep well tonight.