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The Shetland Nature Autumn Adventure – 2010 Report

Posted by Martin Garner on Sunday 19th December 2010 | Birding in Shetland

This was my first birding tour, and it’s hard to see how it could be bettered – good weather brought good birds to be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings, expert leading and each hard day’s birding was finished off with a terrific meal and lots of laughs.Paul-Bright Thomas

With the terrific team effort involved in Britain’s 3rd Taiga Flycatcher (read full finder’s story) as well as self found Marsh Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler and Barred Warbler our promotion weekend in autumn 2009 had set a rather high standard! Would we be able to maintain it the following year?

You decide. Here’s a flavour of our outstanding 2010 autumn birding adventure – from team effort finds such as Blyth’s Read Warbler, White-billed Diver and Lanceolated Warbler to quality mega’s such as Sykes’s Warbler (s!) and Buff-bellied Pipit…

Brydon, I just wanted to say thank you to yourself and Martin for a great autumn birding break. I had looked forward to the trip for some time and had high expectations, which were more than exceeded in all respects!Andrew Dodd

Day One: Friday 1st October

Having collected our group from the airport and hotel at Sumburgh we made for nearby Quendale to get a few scarce species under the belt. Bluethroat, Red-breasted Flycatcher and team-found Yellow-browed Warbler were a good introduction to Shetland birding, and the appearance of a Goldcrest from behind a single thistle illustrated well how the smallest piece of habitat might hold something special.

In very blustery NW wind we headed to the beautifully rugged and exposed Eashaness. On arrival several groups of birders had failed to locate the Buff-bellied Pipit that day. Applying ourselves, we managed to pick the bird out of the flock of pipits in its favoured field within 20 minutes and eventually got everyone onto this striking individual. The first new bird for all our visitors’ too and not even lunchtime on day one! Nearby 2 juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper and a party of Snow Buntings performed well. Then off to our accommodation and base for the week, Saxa Vord resort in Unst via stunning landscape and 2 ferry journeys.

Buff-bellied Pipit, Eshaness, October 2010. Photo by Larry Dalziel.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Eshaness, October 2010. Photo by Larry Dalziel.

Day Two: Saturday 2nd October

A full English breakfast and ready to roll. Rare-bird hunting began in earnest on Unst. Straight in for the team with a double! Just down the road from our resort at Saxa Vord we found the first of 2 Little Buntings! Also superb point blank range views of Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll, up to 20 Greenland Redpolls (‘rostratas’), a couple of Reed Warblers to spice things up and Common Rosefinch at day’s end – plus a splendid supporting cast of commoner species encountered in the isles including 70 Brambling (new in) and a juvenile Glaucous Gull on Lamba Ness.

Team begins hunting. Soon after this photo taken, the first of our 2 Little Bunting finds flew into a crop field. 70 Brambling heralded new birds in.

Little Bunting, Norwick, Unst. 2nd October 2010. A nice taste of the team self-finding flavour that continued throughout the week.

A big thank you for organising such a great week – I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it! A big thanks too, for putting up with such a comparative ‘rookie’ in your midst – you couldn’t have been more helpful and patient.Chris Kirby

First full day on Unst also included great Redpoll action, with up to 20 superb Greenland Redpolls. Some sat in the same bush adjacent to Brambling and appearing almost the same size.

Hornemann’s Redpoll, Norwick, Unst, October 2010. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

The accommodation at Saxa Vord was very comfortable, and the meals provided were excellent. Having done a few tours to Shetland, I can honestly say that this was the most enjoyable trip that I have experienced.Andrew Dodd

Day Three: Sunday 3rd October

With good migrant weather we felt the chunk of our day should be spent on Fetlar. Imagine our utter surprise when during the voyage whilst enjoying Northern specialities such as Black Guillemot and Long-tailed Duck to see a magnificent sub adult White-billed Diver not far off the ferry! At first we enjoyed ‘on the water’ views then taking to the wing, making a jaw-dropping close fly past. One group member was so delighted, he was happy to call it a day, and it was only mid-morning! A very unexpected find, and rather unseasonal too (a good three-four weeks earlier than normal).

Arriving at Aith on Fetlar having already seen Yellow-browed Warbler and Reed Warbler the team then engaged in a classic Shetland situation. With less than an hour before our return ferry to Unst we got involved in a jigsaw identification by finding an acrocephalus warbler which was clearly not ‘just a Reed’.  Unfortunately the bird remained hidden for most of the time.  We left it as an unidentified acrocephalus, showing features of Blyth’s Reed but Marsh was far from ruled out. Thankfully that was not the end of the story…

Back on Unst up to 5 Siberian Chiffchaff were an education in plumage and calls and there was time for more views of Little Bunting and Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll before settling down to dinner.

Day Four: Monday 4th October

With news of a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler in the South Mainland along with the possibility of Raddes Warbler and Booted Warbler a day trip to Mainland was planned. Arriving at the site and teaming up with Rob Fray, (a fellow SN lour leader) for the day some excellent photos had just been obtained, the streaky undertail coverts of a (Common) Grasshopper Warbler instantly ruled out Pallas’s. However as we stood chatting news broke that the nearby Booted Warbler at Channerwick had just been re-identified by a Shetland Nature Guide as a Sykes’s Warbler!

Sykes’s Warbler. Channerwick, Mainland, Shetland 4th October 2010. Photo by Roger Riddington.

By now the Shetland Nature team were becoming well-trained in flight identification of locustella, acrocephalus and phylloscopus Warblers.

A Radde’s Warbler at Sumburgh showed superbly. Hacking back north we jammed a Redstart at the Toft Ferry and juvenile Black Tern (rare bird in Shetland) at the Gutcher ferry. All agreed, the birding was outstanding and the scenery stunning, another great day.

Radde’s Warbler, Sumburgh Farm, 4th October 2010. Photo by Gary Bell.

Day Five: Tuesday 5th October

Strong S/SE winds on 5th October made for tough birding. Opting to stay on Unst, we nevertheless saw good new birds and revisited old friends. 2 Little Buntings, loads of Lapland Buntings, a few Snow Buntings, a male Ring Ouzel , Greenland Redpolls in several spots, Hornemann’s Redpoll (still looking amazing!) 2 Yellow-browed Warblers (one new) and best for the group 2 adult Greenland White-fronts. This was a new species (depending on your taxonomy!) for most of the group. One member was on a new tick every day so far, so he challenged us to keep it up. Thank goodness for taxonomic shift!

Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose. Baltasound, Unst 5th October 2010. Photo by Martin Garner.

Day Six: Wednesday 6th October 2010

Discussing the day ahead over breakfast we opted to spend the day on Unst, with MG informing the group perhaps not to expect too much today in the way of new arrivals as the winds were coming from a South Westerly direction. How wrong could we have been? By the end of the day we had seen our second Sykes’s Warbler (read finder’s story) of the week, identified a Lanceolated Warbler (read finder’s story) and had our Fetlar acrocephalus Warbler of 3 days earlier confirmed as a Blyth’s Reed (read finder’s story). Shetland at its best!

Stunning scenery and amazing birds make for an unforgettable experience.

After 110 Snow Buntings at Lamba Ness, Unst, Brydon rang to tell us to get to Fetlar and see this, the groups second Sykes’s Warbler in just two days courtesy of himself and James McCallum:

Team Shetland Nature after watching the very obliging Fetlar Sykes’s Warbler.

Rather remarkably this was the third Sykes’s of the year to be found or identified by a member of the Shetland Nature team!

Skaw, Unst. The most Northerly house in Britain. The last BB rarity here was Moltoni’s Warbler in June 2009. The team’s top highlight was identifying a Lanceloted Warbler here, despite standing out in 2 hours of pouring rain. A real team effort!

End of day 6th October 2010. Brydon rings me. “Any news from Unst?”. Yea Brydon –“IT’S A LANCY!!” Various near-expletives from Brydon and congrats. We had left Brydon and James McCallum on Fetlar to try and nail our so far unidentified pallid acro with the groovy supercilium once and for all.

As the sun set, the rain stopped and the last rays of sunshine produced a massive double rainbow. Pretty confident ‘team lancy’ began to celebrate. Despite sodden clothing and some literally shivering bodies, this was the moment which all members of the Shetland Nature tour rated as the best. Left to right: Graham, Paul, Chris and Andrew.

Lanceolated Warbler, Skaw, Unst. 7th October 2010. Martin Garner The next morning (7th October) the bird looked much better; dried out, in sunshine and often in the open, all overnight nerves were dispelled and the bird was enjoyed by many visiting birders.

Lanceolated Warbler, Skaw, Unst. 7th October 2010. Photo by Mike Pennington.

Lanceolated Warbler, Skaw, Unst. 7th October 2010. Photo by Mike Pennington. Streaks in lines – on the crown, mantle and breast are good Lanceolated characters.

Lanceolated Warbler Skaw, Unst 7th October 2010. Photo by Robbie Brookes.

Brydon re-joined- “and do you want even more good news for the team? It IS a BLYTH’S REED WARBLER!!” So ends a remarkable day.

Brydon was unstoppable, lining up sites and recounting their past rarity glories, finding birds from the driver’s seat, quartering the cover to make sure no find went unfound and bringing us the latest news from across Shetland. At the same time, our appreciation of the islands was enhanced by the feeling that he knew and cared an enormous amount about their wider ecology. Martin made a birding team out of us, giving us insights into the origins of the birds we were seeing and their identifications, switching us on to the audio dimension, and getting genuinely excited at the odd tick or two! We had a terrific range of birds, found some cracking scarcities, and were in on the finding and identification of challenging Shetland classics like Lanceolated and Blyth’s Reed Warbler.Paul-Bright Thomas

Day seven: Thursday 7th October

Up the next morning we all agree we wanted to see the Aith Acro again, and properly, for ourselves. We had a little time before the ferry, so headed to Skaw and enjoyed the Lanceolated Warbler in sunshine alongside the delighted ‘twitchers’. We then headed for the ferry. On route, driving through Baltasound MG noticed the large form and slightly undulating flight of ‘big finch’ flying past the minibus. Pulling over into a lay-by we saw it dive into some garden Rosa rugosa. All jumped out just in time as a HAWFINCH exited from the garden and carried on north. One of the group in view of our island of choice gave us our own team moniker: ‘UNSToppable!’ (Do you see what he did with the word?!)

Arriving on Fetlar we were delighted to find our Blyths Reed was still present and thankfully this time was considerably more obliging. First perched out on wall and fence line and then at closer range among the docks, like so many tricky ID’s it’s so much easier with prolonged views and images to pour over!

Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Aith, Fetlar 7th October 2010. Photo by Martin Garner.

The favoured weeds of the young Blyth’s Reed Warbler on Fetlar- oops and the birders!

We then worked a few island hotspots notching up young Turtle Dove, several Whinchat and Yellow-browed Warbler. A late Sand Martin was a surprise.

Juvenile-1st winter Turtle Dove. Tresta, Fetlar, 7th October 2010. Photo by Martin Garner.

Winchat. Photo by Martin Garner.

Back on Unst we picked up a Yellow-browed Warbler in flight from the minibus – spicing up the birding! The 2 Little Buntings, Hornemann’s Redpoll and a bunch of Greenland Redpoll at Norwick.

As the sun began to set, Paul picked up a calling Richard’s Pipit coming up from Norwick beach. Does it ever end?!

Day Eight, Friday 8th October

The last day of our Shetland Nature autumn birding tour for 2010 and with winds coming from the South East we had a feeling there was a treat or two still to come… We couldn’t resist a pre-dawn assault on Skaw and Norwick- checking for visible (and audible) migration. Clearly Brambling, Siskins and Redwings were on the move and ‘new in’.

Just offshore the educational duo of juvenile terns: 1 Common and 1 Arctic Tern showed well plus 2 1st winter Little Gulls. An apparent Black Duck hybrid which we had glimpsed earlier in the week flew over Norwick where BT managed to capture a couple of record shots. Heading south we had another ‘from the van’ find. Graham picked up a Barred Warbler along a stone dyke at Haroldswick- just before a phone call with news that a Dusky Warbler had been found at Halligarth.

Typically brief initial views of the Dusky Warbler, constantly luring us in with its distinct call, eventually lead to an enjoyable encounter, plus 2 Yellow-broweds and several Swallows over. While Otter searching, news broke of Red-flanked Bluetail on south Mainland, we waited no time in heading for the ferry.

As yet unidentified dabbling duck. Suspected of being Black Duck X Mallard hybrid- but unresolved (its double white barred speculum immediately ruled out the real deal), Norwick, Unst 8th October 2010. Our currently favoured option- a Black Duck X Mallard hybrid. The presence of a drake Black Duck on the Faeroes in recent years, producing a number of hybrid offspring may explain our Unst sighting.

By the time we had reached the North Mainland there was a choice. 2 Bluetails. One at Geosetter and one at Tresta. We opted for the Tresta bird (found by Punkbirders) after quick thinking and best option viewing discussion by the team. The latter bird being found a couple of hours later would surely have attracted a minimal crowd- a brilliant choice, we had the bird to ourselves!

Siskin, Norwick Unst 8th October 2010. Migrating Siskins, Bramblings and Redwing heralded ‘news birds’.

Barred warbler, Horoldswick, Unst, 8th October. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

Another ‘from the van’ find. Noticed by Graham – a Barred Warbler on stone dyke at Haroldswick. Pink-footed Goose was new for the week here also.

Barred Warbler at Haroldswick.

Lapland Buntings continued to be seemingly ‘everywhere’. We must have seen or heard some hundreds of birds over the week.

Red-flanked Bluetail. Tresta, West Mainland 8th October 2010. Photo by Dan Brown.

Not a bad species to finish our 2010 Shetland Autumn Birding trip on and a new bird for most!

Our week came to an end with warm handshakes, smiles on faces and time to reminisce with delight on the 118 species on the trip list and the places we had enjoyed them. New ‘life’ birds for everyone and some top-notch scare and rare bird finds. The conversation then quickly turned to, when can we book for next year?!

We predicted that the Sumburgh area was a likely spot for an hour or two’s birding before flights home the next morning and hopefully a chance of a Pallas’s Warbler, having heard of one on Unst as we left– and that’s exactly what happened. Before catching flights everyone enjoyed the ‘carpet of Goldcrests’ around Sumburgh hotel, indicating a mini-fall amongst which was the predicted Pallas’s Warbler.

Pallas’s Warbler, Sumburgh Farm. 9th October 2010. Gary Bell. The one species our tour group thought they had missed. Not so, all members present the next morning – short walk from their hotel rooms. Nice finale before flights home.

Meanwhile the tour leaders managed a couple of last day finds for themselves. Martin joined Roger Riddington and Paul Harvey around in South Mainland where they notched up not one but 2 Olive-backed Pipits as well as enjoying another Dusky Warbler, 2 Yellow-browed and a Red-breasted Flycatcher in the area. Meanwhile Brydon and James McCallum teamed up again and found a fantastic Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler on Brydon’s home island of Fetlar.

So the question is who will be part of our group next year?

Make 2011 your year of birding adventure and discovery (and if recent years are anything to go by, be part of a rarity finding team!) and join us for ‘Shetland Autumn Birding’ (view the 2011 itinerary and dates).

We would love you to join us… will you be there?!

I enjoyed being part of a team that goes out and finds rare birds – not just turns-up on a ‘twitch’ which is easy to do – that’s the difference with Shetland Nature.Chris Kirby

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel burn. 9 October 2010. Photo by Roger Riddington.

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Northdale, Fetlar 9th October. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

‘Team Shetland Nature- Autumn Birding 2010’ outside the Community Centre on Fetlar.

Read what the team said:

If you have ever visited Norfolk in early autumn and spent ages searching through acres of scrub, trees and bushes for those reported but elusive Yellow Browed Warblers and Barred Warblers, then you should visit Shetland where both species can be found for yourself, often sat on walls or perched on wires. I spent 8 days with a small group from Shetland Nature and it was the most eye-opening birding I have ever experienced. I saw eight new species; we found our own Lanceolated and Blyth’s Reed Warbler’s and White-Billed Diver; there was a Sykes’s Warbler in the garden of one of the tour leaders’ families! But what I can’t convey in words is the sheer birding enthusiasm of our tour leaders Brydon Thomason and Martin Garner, an enthusiasm which at times bordered on the (pleasantly) insane! You need to see it for yourself. Highly recommended but you will never be the same again: “It’s birding Jim, but not as we know it!”Graham Croney

This was my first birding tour, and it’s hard to see how it could be bettered – good weather brought good birds to be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings, expert leading and each hard day’s birding was finished off with a terrific meal and lots of laughs. Brydon was unstoppable, lining up sites and recounting their past rarity glories, finding birds from the driver’s seat, quartering the cover to make sure no find went unfound and bringing us the latest news from across Shetland. At the same time, our appreciation of the islands was enhanced by the feeling that he knew and cared an enormous amount about their wider ecology. The “team” saw seventeen species of warbler – SEVENTEEN! And that’s not counting several Siberian Chiffchaffs, or the Goldcrests that were approachable to within inches. The weeks tally was 118 species! Unst was a fantastic base, giving a wide range of birding sites of fantastic pedigree, and making the equally appealing island of Fetlar easily accessible – both delivered hugely on intimate encounters with waves of common migrants and rarities alike, and also magnificent settings in which to enjoy them. The journeys up and down Shetland were not wasted, and we mopped up the best birds available – culminating in a superb Red-flanked Bluetail, shared by around 10 birders! The days were arranged flexibly to get the best from the conditions, thoroughly searching each site as a team, with always more sites available, yet with time to go back and re-view superb birds like Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll.Paul-Bright Thomas

Brydon, I just wanted to say thank you to yourself and Martin for a great autumn birding break. I had looked forward to the trip for some time and had high expectations, which were more than exceeded in all respects. The accommodation at Saxa Vord was very comfortable, and the meals provided were excellent. Having done a few tours to Shetland, I can honestly say that this was the most enjoyable trip that I have experienced.Andrew Dodd

A big thank you for organising such a great week – I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it! A big thanks too, for putting up with such a comparative ‘rookie’ in your midst – you couldn’t have been more helpful and patient. I enjoyed being part of a team that goes out and finds rare birds – not just turns-up on a ‘twitch’ which is easy to do – that’s the difference with Shetland Nature.Chris Kirby

Article by Martin Garner and Brydon Thomason