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 from the wind behind a wall as we viewed the distant stint running around a sheltered pool with a Little Stint and a handful of Dunlins for company. The sea was spectacular with huge waves crashing on the shore where a remarkably eclectic gathering of birds was feeding. Turnstones, Starlings, Rock Pipits and one Purple Sandpiper were flying up as each wave crashed with a noise like thunder onto the stones of the beach then skittering down the stones as the surf retreated, to seize what  they could before the next wave arrived.

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 attracting too many birders for comfort and proved very flighty as a result. In complete contrast was a Jack Snipe, hunkered down amongst 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 out 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 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 to 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 thorax 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 informed this was only the fourth record of a Monarch Butterfly for Shetland. Amazingly the third was found yesterday in another garden! 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, perhaps the most memorable being when we shared an Orca experience at Wester Quarff. 

All in all a nice end to the day.

1 comment:

  1. What stunners monarchs (& shorelarks) are - we were lucky enough to be at Pismo Beach in California as the monarchs were migrating just over 10 years ago!