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Finding – a Team Effort

Posted by Martin Garner on Saturday 8th October 2011 | Birding in Shetland

Buff-bellied pipit, Quendale, Shetland, 08/10/11

I had finished two great weeks of guided birding SN groups and was set to enjoy a full (and more restful) day out with Roger Riddington. Roger and I had already enjoyed an excellent morning headlined by Citrine Wagtail, Isabelline Shrike and Pallid Harrier. The plan for us was to meet Paul Harvey and Brian Small around lunch time for a relaxed amble up the Quendale Burn.

Starting at Quendale Mill, some socialising with Andy Mackay and Mark Reeder meant I was lagging behind the other three and as I caught them up, laughter ensued as they pointed out I had no binoculars with me. Some birder! I ran back to the car, collected binoculars and caught up first with PVH. I had previously favoured the look of the Turnip/Kale field and suggested I would do it while the others continued working the iris-filled Burn. I asked his advice on how he thought the field could best be worked, and headed off. Nearing the top edge of the field, I noticed plenty of bird activity ahead: Twite, a Brambling, Redwings….I decided the fence line was the key zone and committed myself to work it carefully. Only taking a few more steps I noticed a movement amongst the cattle-chewed vegetables, put my binoculars onto it to see a bird that looked just like a Buff-bellied Pipit! It’s hard to say why it seemed rather obvious, the bird was in full view and not far away. I think partly I was fully genned up having made daily checks of numerous Meadow and regular Rock pipits for this very species. I had even made an excursion out onto the wild west side of Unst with Brydon T and our Shetland Nature group little more than a week earlier, specifically looking for Buff-bellied Pipit. Thus I had a high level of current familiarity with the common species.

Having made the initial shock assessment, I looked again and ticked off ‘big open face’, ‘rich apricot buff underparts’, ‘broad diffuse buffy wingbars’ and crucially the clinching feature for me; incredibly plain upperparts. I turned and none of the other three, now a field away, were looking in my direction. I didn’t dare shout, so I looked back at the bird, it was still there and it still looked just like a Buff-bellied Pipit. I turned around, praying now that someone would be looking my way, and thankfully Paul was. I waved frantically and all three were soon up and straight onto the bird. It took a moment for their shock to subside but all quickly concurring around a common thought- it really was one!

During the next 15 minutes it took a couple of shorts flights when we twice heard it give the rather distinctive call (again against the backdrop of multiple daily encounters with Meadow and Rock pipit) sort of Meadow Pipit x Grey wagtail. We watched and rehearsed the key features though bins and my shared ‘scope, occasionally losing it in the difficult vegetation, as Roger went to get more ‘scopes. Shortly after, news was put out, and within 25 mins of the first sighting, the initial vanguard of some 50-70 birders appeared. By now we had lost it in a denser weedy patch. Ten minutes later Brian picked it up, but it quickly took flight, landing over a third of a mile away in a grassy field on the edge of the Burn. Roger and Brian agreed to organise a flush line and eventually the bird was pinned down in the quarry area and all present got reasonable looks. Somewhat regrettably the pressure to release news and subsequent stampede meant I had little further chance to study, record plumage in greater detail and record the call. Modern birding! I gather it was last seen on 13th October and a number of excellent photos were taken. I suspect the Quendale regulars have much better set of notes on the bird!

Martin Garner