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The Baltimore Oriole – Baltasound, Unst, Shetland Islands – 19/09/13

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 25th October 2013 | Birding in Shetland, Otters

Baltimore Oriole at Baltasound, Unst. Photo by Ian Cowgill.

As working days go it had already been good; an early start with photographer Simon Hawkins (who had booked a bespoke one-to-one itinerary with me) to work on the sun rising over Muness had not only rewarded us with beautiful light and clear blue skies but also a fine Arctic Warbler, (the second one I’d found in under two weeks!) which had found shelter along a coastal patch of nettles and iris.
As is often the case when leading such trips I split the day and do a dawn start, finish up and meet again to stay out into sunset, when making this decision for this day however, I could never have imagined what good fortune it would bring. Dropping Simon off at our accommodation, The Shetland Nature Lodge and inspired by the Arctic Warbler I was keen to check my local patch Halligarth (one of Shetland’s largest Sycamore stands), right next door to our house and so hurried home to do so after arranging to meet again at 14:00hrs.

A few minutes later my thoughts of scoring another BB rarity had given way to hunger for bacon butties and caffeine. Walking the over grown lane, (dominated by Rosa Rugosa, Fucia and Hawthorn) towards the main garden it felt almost as if I was on auto pilot and simply going through the motions of my daily circuit when ‘SHIZAM!!’ – a large passerine flew out from cover just a meter or two from in front of me. The bird was completely unfamiliar as it flew from me but did perhaps give the impression of large a shrike, quite rufous and long tailed. It landed about 40-50 feet from me on the outside lower edge of the Sycomore canopy and as it did, quick as a flash- my Swarovski 10 x 42’s revealed what has to be one of the most glaringly gorgeous and ‘trouser-tearingly tremendous’ rarities I have had the fortune to find and I heard myself saying the words “IT’S A ‘FLIPPING’ NORTHERN ORIOLE!!!” – (note that there is a word in that quote I may have swapped for publishing purposes!).

Perhaps over and above its stunning flame orange plumage, blazing white wing bars and blue-grey legs and bill it was its loud and explosive tirade of chattered alarm which was a sound I will never forget! The first two or three seconds viewing felt as if it wasn’t real but as the words I had just said registered into reality and I came out of that slow motion ‘this cannot be’ moment , I began to shake and yes- that’s right, adrenalin took over! Gazing at it perched for what was only around seven to ten seconds, I realised I was without camera or phone but managed to marginally compose myself enough to just watch it, my heart pounding like an Olympic sprinter though I daren’t move a muscle!

Without warning it hopped onto another branch and then worked its way into the cover of the canopy and that was it- totally thunderstruck, I said the words again but this time almost shouting them through adrenalin fuelled jaws- “It’s a BALTIMORE ORIOLE!!” As by now I was composed enough to think of which was which. I ran to the house to phone the news out with my heart pounding.
The distance from the scene to our drive way is a mere 50 yards or so, which needless to say I did in Usain Bolt style but by the time I reached the phone my composure had gone, it was almost a struggle to breathe! A few phone calls later and within ten minutes, Robbie Brookes and Mike Pennington had joined me, during which time I didn’t dare make a move. Bizarrely, we worked the gardens without even as much as a glimpse- two hours later the first of the Shetland birders started to arrive but the extended coverage yielded nothing- it seemed as if my ten second glimpse was it until Paul ‘Duracell’ Harvey relocated it about half a mile away where once again – it wasn’t letting up easily and only four other observers scored, one of which was Ian Cowgill, to whom I will be forever thankful for nailing theses shots – nice work Ian!

Surprisingly the Baltasound Baltimore story did not end there however as it reappeared four days later on the 23rd when at last, it was seen by most birders who could make it, it was however still extremely elusive.

This was the 24th record of this North American species for Britain and third for Shetland but first since 1974 (which also arrived on the same date) and one on 26th September 1890, which was the first record for Britain.

After collecting Simon to resume our Photography workshop one to one for the afternoon, we headed off to work on Otters and enjoyed a wonderful two hour encounter with a mother and her two cubs (photographed below). All in all a pretty fine day indeed!

Photo by Brydon Thomason.