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Marsh Sandpiper at Virkie – The Second Shetland Record

Posted by Rob Fray on Saturday 14th July 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Finding rare birds is sometimes the result of hard work, skill and determination. On other occasions, it can be down to luck. The latter was the case with Shetland’s second ever Marsh Sandpiper

My brother Richard had arrived from Arizona in early July, bringing with him a group from Borderland Tours, and I had agreed to help out with guiding them for their trip to Shetland (don’t tell Brydon about this bit of ‘moonlighting’). Our plan for Saturday 7th July was to sail round Noss on the ‘Dunter’ to look at the gannetry, but the rather unseasonal weather (a north-easterly gale) scuppered that idea, with the pre-booked ferry trips being cancelled the previous night. Richard and I discussed what we could do instead. I had noticed a few waders outside my house on the Pool of Virkie early in the morning, including Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit (which, as the majority of the guests on the trip were from America, was of interest to them); that was our new plan for the morning sorted.

By about 09:30 we were all in situ, in the turning circle in front of my house, scanning the pool. A Knot and a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits were visible distantly at the east end of the pool, near the Ness Boating Club, so being ‘lead driver’ I took the first minibus up the road for a closer look. The short journey was rudely interrupted when a small group of Redshanks took to flight, accompanied by a smaller wader which, to the naked eye, appeared to have a white rump. This was clearly going to be something ‘different’. Minibus brought to an abrupt halt, I quickly scanned through the Redshanks, which had landed a little distance away. Imagine my surprise, as the saying goes, when I clapped eyes on what looked for all the world like a summer-plumaged Marsh Sandpiper! I couldn’t remember whether this was a first or a second for Shetland, but whichever it was, it was mightily important.

The next five or ten minutes were a combination of chaos and comedy. I leapt out of the minibus to get my ‘scope out of the boot, whilst trying to use a walky-talky to alert Richard in the other minibus about what I’d just seen. A few garbled messages later and I think he got the general gist of what I was trying to say. The leg fell off my tripod whilst I was trying to scope the bird, at which time I swore (politely) a lot and the guests in my minibus all started looking at me with a mixture of amusement and pity (whilst not really knowing what on earth was actually going on). The Marsh Sand flew, and I couldn’t see it any more. One of Richard’s group then refound it, and Richard got a look at it too, only for a low-flying helicopter to flush all the waders on the pool in all directions. I was getting more stressed and more incoherent by the minute, but thankfully the bird reappeared again, much closer and appearing a little more settled. Anybody with a camera was ordered to take a photo of the small boring grey wader in front of us, and ignore the nice brightly-coloured godwits and Knot for the time being. I was now a bit calmer, and managed to text out the news without any more mishaps.

The bird continued to be very flighty, and behaved as though it had only just arrived in Shetland. Marsh Sandpipers are not usually associated with tidal habitats such as the Pool of Virkie, being more of a freshwater species, so maybe its erratic behaviour reflected this. It only remained at Virkie for a few hours, before flying off over Toab and being relocated later in the day at the more suitable site of Loch of Hillwell. It was not seen on subsequent days.

This is only the second Marsh Sandpiper to be seen in Shetland; the first was way back in 1969, at Strand, so was a Shetland tick for almost everybody. There have been just eight previous Marsh Sandpipers recorded in Scotland, the last of these being in Highland in October 2000.

As mentioned in the opening lines of this write-up, luck can play a huge part in finding rare birds. Had it not been for a couple of cancelled boat trips, we would have been happily sailing round Noss and nowhere near the Pool of Virkie. For once, the sometimes nasty summer weather in Shetland was a bonus.

Finally, thanks to all on the Borderland Tours trip, who put up with their guide having a total meltdown in front of them! I think everybody enjoyed themselves.

Rob Fray