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Pine Bunting – Clibberswick, Unst, Shetland

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 23rd December 2011 | Birding in Shetland

In birding and especially for a rarity hunter, there are months (and obviously locations) that offer much more potential than others. Indeed there are also months where the target species are reduced to a mere handful, which in turn are all the more desirable. In Shetland, November is one such a month and Pine Bunting such a species. It was with this in mind and following several days of south easterlies myself and Mike Pennington targeted what remained of the harvested crop fields round north Unst on Saturday 5th November (as well as sandy beaches for Desert wheatear!).

The morning’s birding had produced little more than a couple of ‘sibe’ type Chiffchaffs, Woodcock, a couple of Northern Wheatears and a female type Yellowhammer. But that’s November, we were not perturbed by this, thoughts of Pine Bunting and Desert Wheatear kept the optimism up. This very same spirit has served us well in previous Novembers with finds such as Hume’s and an unseasonal Arctic Warbler amongst other rarities.

We arrived at Clibberswick in the early afternoon and began to walk the recently harvested ‘crop field’, where a fairly narrow strip of stubble and empty potato patch were all that remained. From the crop a Jackdaw, two Twite and a single Brambling appeared to be our lot but, nearing the end of the small crop, half a dozen Skylarks took to the wing and were joined by the Brambling. As they all broke the skyline, however, another passerine had joined them, a bunting. It took us just a second or two to train focus on the bunting, now giving a distinct Yellowhammer like ‘tsik’ as it descended towards a fence where it landed facing us about 30 yards away.

We found ourselves looking at a distinctly grey and white bunting, with a very white belly and submoustachial stripe, pale whitish supercilium, gorget of fine thin grey streaks, which appeared to show just a hint of a faint ‘reddish’ hue (which in some lights could not be seen), across the breast and no yellow in the plumage. It was obviously very different to the corresponding female/immature plumage of the Yellowhammer we had seen earlier. “It’s a Pine Bunting” was immediately and rather excitedly blurted out (along with a word best left unpublished!). The bunting dropped from the fence down onto the bare soil of the potato crop briefly before flying further towards the far end of the crop.

Exhilarated and rather stunned by what we had just seen and said and following a moment to at least try to gain composure, we agreed that photographs should probably be conclusive documentation, especially as this was clearly a female. We ran to the car for our cameras! Yes, one of us should have stayed with it but common sense is rarely a commodity in such adrenalin-fuelled occasions!

Luckily, minutes later, on our breathless return, we found the bird where we had last seen it. Our initial first impressions and observations all checked out. We also confirmed the absence of any yellow fringing in the primaries; instead they were thinly and frostily fringed with white, as our photographs also confirmed. To further dispel any doubt or worries about potential hybridisation (a well-known pit fall), chance images of the underwing showed the axillaries and underwing coverts to be totally white, lacking any suggestion of Yellow. And although totally confident in our identification (and without having any literature to hand), I made a quick call to Roger Riddington for a second opinion/confirmation on our thoughts of PB’s call being synonymous with that of Yellowhammer.

She was the real deal and all things assessed in front of us surely as pure Pine as you could hope for!