Archive for the ‘Birding in Shetland’ Category:

2016 Shetland Autumn Birding review, part one

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 25th November 2016 | Birding in Shetland, News

A review of our Autumn Birding season; part 1, in association with Birdwatch Magazine & Birguides

This season our core birding weeks, led by Rob Fray and Gary Bell, as usual ran over the last week of September and first week of October however we had itineraries running through to third week in October. It goes without saying this year that it has been The most epic of autumns and therefore by far our most exciting to date. We were delighted to welcome a good balance of both new and regular SN customers, some of which just can’t miss a single autumn for fear of what they might miss and this year that was a very, very wise decision!

Week one was for the most part frustratingly dominated with westerlies and Atlantic low pressure systems, bringing with it quite a lot of rain and not so many birds, at least compared to the following week! It’s not to say it was without highlights though, with birds already present and new ones arriving when the weather finally changed, there were plenty.

It’s crazy to say it but over a week that often saw very difficult birding conditions, with strong winds and lashing rain the list of birds on Shetland over the week was more than impressive, to name but a few of the rarities; Pallid Harrier, Olive-backed Pipit; Paddyfield, Arctic and Radde’s Warblers however probably the most enjoyable/obliging for our guests were Blyth’s Reed (s), Greenish and Dusky Warblers and best of all the Brown Shrike at Aith was certainly the rarest bird of the week.

Scarcities were not far from the limelight either with an equally impressive supporting cast throughout the isles. Rose Coloured Starling, Little Bunting, Hoopoe, Hawfinch and Red-breasted Flycatcher were all present whilst a pod of Pilot Whales in Lerwick harbour showed that there is can always be a cetacean surprise even in autumn.

Rolling into week two the pace certainly picked up.  Over night between 01-2/10/16 the weather brought an exciting change from the south east, which was to hold throughout the entire month. This was the beginnings of the most extraordinary October on record. The first of over five weeks of easterlies set a pretty high standard with top drawer tackle such as yet another Brown Shrike (with a third being discovered later!), the first of multiple Red-flanked Bluetail, Great Snipe Lanceolated Warbler followed by Swainson’s and multiple Whites and Black-throated Thrushes but the star of the ‘thrush fest’ was the superb 1st year male Siberian Thrush which was a joint, team effort find for our group and Dave Bradnum, Howard and Bob Vaughan. Another good find for our group was a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll, one of several which presumably arrived the previous week of NW winds. A Western Orphean Warbler was a real surprise and mega but proved to be frustratingly elusive after its initial discovery.

In addition to the outstanding cast of sizzling Sibes throughout the week there was   Paddyfield and Blyth’s Reed Warblers along with multiple Radde’s, Dusky and Pallas’s Warblers, Olive-backed and Richards Pipits, Bluethroat and Red-backed Shrike whilst in typical Shetland autumn standard Yellow-browed Warblers were pretty much everywhere throughout the islands as well as Little Buntings and Red-breasted Flycatchers here and there whilst interestingly Barred warbler and Common Rosefinch were much scarcer than our usual autumns however, it’s quite safe to say that low numbers of the latter would not have crossed anyone’s mind given the superb quality of birds on offer during the first half of our Shetland Autumn Birding season.

Part two to follow soon…

Siberian Thrush 6th October 2016, Uyeasound, Unst, Shetland

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 22nd November 2016 | Birding in Shetland

Siberian Thrush. Photo by Richard Somers Cocks.

A finders account by one of this year’s clients, Anthony Griffiths who had chosen this year to be his first year to experience Shetland in autumn…

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in natural history and Birding in particular. As the years have passed I have become more keen on seeing and even more so, in finding, rare birds.

I have long dreamed of visiting the fabled Shetland Isles, especially in October, to witness autumn migration at its best. This was the year that I managed it for the first time, but it certainly will not be the last.

I chose Shetland Nature to be my guides for this trip as I share the ethos of the company to group find birds by well organised searches of any suitable habitat across the islands rather than simply chasing after other peoples finds.

We had had an excellent start to our trip encountering several Shetland specialities including a fantastic  Lanceolated and Blyths Reed Warblers on our first day.

We then had a ‘Thrushtastic’ afternoon on Fetlar with an amazing White’s and a very confiding Swainson’s Thrushes within a mile of each other!!

On the 6th October we were on Unst all day. We  started at the valley of Norwick where there was a steady, significant movement of common thrushes and finches, (mostly Bramblings) streaming down the valley all morning along with Goldcrests in every bush, certainly a very promising start to the day!

We then spent an hour or so wading through the boggy fields below Norwick trying to flush the Great Snipe that had been present there for several days. We did flush a heavy bird with heavily marked underparts but had frustratingly brief views.

Sadly the day then went a little quiet, but only for a while! We dipped Common Rosefinch at Haroldswick and the long staying Hornemanns Arctic Redpoll at Clingera.

Looking for a bird to keep the day moving we headed to Uyeasound where a Barred Warbler had been reported as ‘showing well’, not  a comment you hear relating to this species very often! When we arrived we met a birder who was just leaving who told us where it was last seen, it was sunbathing on a bush in one of the few large gardens in the Hamlet. Sadly, however, by the time we got there, of course there was no sign!

The group spread out to search for it and we were soon joined by 2 other teams of birders and there were soon around 15 of us searching the gardens and fields of Uyeasound. After about 1/2 hour we were starting to feel that we had missed our chance. I had been chatting with Howard Vaughan and David Bradnum, 2 members of a team that we had already bumped into several times during the week. We had just started to spread out again when a moderate sized thrush shot past first Howard and then myself and we could immediately see the unmistakable black and white underwing of a thrush of Siberian origin which instantly set the adrenaline flowing as any member of this group would be a superb find on Shetland, or anywhere in the UK for that matter!

Howard initially shouted “Whites!!!!’ as he had seen the spotted underparts but something didn’t feel right as the bird wasn’t big enough. It then flew directly over David and a few others where it briefly alighted on a tree and they could clearly see the very bold eye stripe and the shouts from the side of the house were very loud and very clear, ‘SIBERIAN, its definitely a  SIBERIAN!!!!’

The bird then rocketed back round the house, back over Howard and myself across a small field and dived into a large Rosa bush in a very small back garden of a terrace house by the harbour.

I had, fortunately, unclipped my Camera and managed to fire off a series of shots as it flew across the field, more in hope than expectation, that I would capture any usable shots but I was delighted to review them once the bird had taken refuge in the Rosa and see that, although they were never going win any prizes,  I had somehow managed to get a few shots that were able to confirm the identification. The black and white underwing pattern was clear, as was the very bold supercilium and it was also possible to see the dark blue upperparts indicating that the bird was a first winter male.

Once all the birders in our group and the other ‘teams’ had gathered, at a reasonable distance from the garden, our first aim was to get the news out to allow the other birders on Unst to connect with ‘our’ bird. As there was only about an hours light left it was going to be very difficult for anybody not already on Unst to connect that night. The main problem was that nobody had any mobile reception, fortunately though somebody managed to jump onto a local wifi connection and the news was out! The grape vine obviously went into full flow as it was only a few minutes before cars started to speed into the Hamlet with birders pouring out well before the wheels had stopped!

After a short while of staking out the garden it popped up onto the fence for just long enough for me to take a couple of shots before it flew out of the garden and out over the bay at, which time we thought it would carry on and be lost but it obviously thought better of it and did a turn and shot back into its new favourite garden, promptly vanishing back into the Rosa. It soon came out again and landed in view by the large warehouse where some of our group managed much better shots than I had managed of the bird on the ground in full view, these were the real ‘money’ shots showing all the salient identification features ( apart from ‘that’ underwing!)

It continued to show on and off in ‘its’ garden for all up until dusk.

We hung around for a while, getting more views of the bird and just generally soaking up the atmosphere of  being part of the finding of such rare bird. This (assuming it is accepted) was only be the 10th record for the British isles!

It is such a great feeling to be able to see the anxious faces of red faced birders running to the site turn into huge grins as they catch that first sight of a new bird.

What an incredible end to yet another magnificent day on Shetland, Gary Drove us back to our accommodation, the bus was a mix of stunned silence and euphoria.

Once back at the hotel we soon found ourselves in the bar, toasting the day with a pint or 2 of the local brew!

Sadly there was no sign the following morning, we reckoned that somewhere around 50 birders managed to see the Thrush on that Thursday evening.

Many thanks to the great organization of Shetland nature, our excellent guide ( Gary Bell) and to whoever managed to arrange for such productive Siberian Easterly airflow for the whole of our trip, continuing for the whole of October resulting it what must surely go down as one of the best Octobers for Eastern rarities on record. Not a bad year to pick for my first trip to Shetland, and to coin a phrase…….I’ll be back!

Anthony Griffiths

1st winter male Pine Bunting, Baltasound, Unst, Shetland 30/10/16

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 21st November 2016 | Birding in Shetland

The family stroll that produced a Pine Bunting

Birding life in Shetland can be intensely emotive. If ‘find listing’ is your thing it can be even more so and as clichéd as it is to say it, the latter is often a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, sometimes with unforgettable ‘purple patches’ but also those prefer-to-be forgotten pathetic ones. For myself and my usual bird finding buddies the October of all Octobers had yielded frustratingly little for us whilst absolutely  crippling vagrants were being found the length and breadth of Shetland. No matter how hard we worked It simply was not our time.

The finding of a superb Siberian Accentor on Fetlar with Micky Maher and Stef McElwee on the 26th was indeed quite the turning point. In fact several days before that a delightful Pallas’s Warbler was the beginnings of the change for us…

Sunday 30th October was a coolish overcast and dull day, which had followed a calm, slack-weather night changing to light  ESE winds. It was to be a day for the family, hanging up Halloween decorations, games and so on but after a nice relaxed family breakfast my usual morning circuit of the Halligarth trees had to be done! Finding a Dusky Warbler was a nice surprise, it even ended up in our garden too. My little bubble was soon to burst however when I went in to put the news out only to read; ‘Feas Petrel north past Lambaness’ on my mobile’s screen from Dave Cooper!!

After lunch I had made a plan with my wife Vaila that I’d take the bairn’s Casey (7), Corey (5) and Nula May (just four months old) in her pram for a circuit round central Baltasound.  Barely 15 minutes along the road as we crossed the small area of waste ground between the terrace, junction and play park a fairly large  bunting rose from the footpath. It was instantly recognisable as ‘hammer/pine’ by its long tailed and rusty rumped appearance. Even in this first flight view my attention was drawn to its contrasty/cold grey, dark and white head pattern. This looked VERY good!

Pine Bunting is on the radar in any Shetland autumn in late October/early November with easterlies but with it being a record year for them, none more so than this. It had flushed from our left, from about 20 yards away, across the road and landed atop of some alder branches about 50 to 60 yards away. Back on, I could see its head pattern well, again standing out was dark crown stripes, broad, cold greyish-white super (especially behind eye), dark ear covert surround with contrasting white oval shaped crescent to lower rear- my first view impulse ID was again concluded, a male PUNTING BUNTING!!

In normal ‘in the field’ circumstances the situation would be intense enough but here was I stood with our two sons and Nula in the pram! EE network, surprise-surprise was down so I had no signal but was literally in shouting distance from Mike Pennington’s house where I knew he and Micky Maher had just arrived. Choices: Stay watching the bird and try to nail it; leg it, pram and kids in tow along the road the 100 or so yards to get them risking losing the bird or hang on a minute- send Casey!

Casey, already excited enough to have seen it in the first place was briefed about the importance of getting Micky and Mike and he was to tell them “Dad’s found a rare bird!” To my shock as Casey was nearing Mikes driveway, Mikes car pulled out and turned the opposite way before Casey could reach them!! I had no choice really, I watched the bird for a short while till it moved further into the Post Office garden before legging it along the road to Mikes.

I couldn’t pursue the bird where it appeared to have gone (due to pram and bairn’s) and I obviously didn’t have a camera, nor could I say with 100% certainty that there was no trace of yellow on underparts. I’m lucky enough to have found Pine Bunting before, a cracking female (with Mike in November 2011) and remembered well the importance of ruling out potential hybrids. Where easternmost Yellowhammers meet with the westernmost Pine Buntings, hybridization is renowned and more importantly, such birds have been recorded in Britain. Even 2nd or 3rd generation birds can show traces of yellow such as fringing to tertials, primaries or underwing coverts- basically if it shows any of these it’s game over, you’ve found an intergrade.

Thankfully Margaret, Mikes wife was home and was an absolute star as always, she took the bairn’s in whilst I got Mike and Micky as well as calling Vaila to come with my camera. Soon after, now armed with camera, we relocated the bird in a sycamore next to Mikes house and together were able to nail it, getting good views (despite the showers!) and eliminate any possible sign of Yellowhammer genes and help nail it- he was as I first thought, 100% Pine!

Fellow Unst Birders Robbie Brookes, Dave Cooper and Brenda Kay were soon with us, although light was fading and showers were moving in we enjoyed superb views as it fed along roadsides, occasionally dropping into rank grassy fields for short periods. Finding good birds is always all the more memorable with your mates but finding them when you are out with the family is particularly special, some even might say spawny! We had great banter as we all congratulated Dave on his Fea’s and I jested how crazy but typical of this epic an autumn it was that the Pine Bunting wasn’t even bird of the day!

Fetlar’s Siberian Accentor finders account

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 8th November 2016 | Birding in Shetland

Brydon Thomason, Micky Maher & Stef McElwee

1) Taken from the yard it ended up and looking out over the field we found it in, showing the ditch it came out of and the area to left where it foraged around in marshy area of rank grass. 2) The all important and only image we got of ours and; 3) the very obliging Lund Siberian Accentor, which stayed another two days longer than ours.

“Just wait till our one on Fetlar- maybe Weds/Thursday??” These were BHT’s exact words in an email to MAM on the evening of 23rd October about the Lund Siberian Accentor. Both had been genuinely thrilled for Dave Cooper for such a superb and well deserved find and had enjoyed a good old bit of congratulatory banter with him. As it was on Unst however there was the inevitable, all be it fleeting thoughts of ‘if only’ and that their chance to cash in on the Accentor extravaganza had been missed.

Fast forward to 26th when BHT and MAM teamed up with SJM, for a day’s birding on Fetlar. On the ferry over there was at least some effort made to  manage our expectations to a realistic level. Ten minutes on the island however, having started at South Dale, off-the-wall predictions from the far east were already flying out thick and fast.

As we approached the main croft and yard of South Dale, SJM enthusiastically hit us with “Lads, do you know the one ‘Sibe’ we haven’t actually mentioned today but should be thinking? Siberian Accentor!” To which BHT replied “You know what, after seeing the Lund bird I actually had a feeling for that very species at the very croft we are approaching, thinking Fetlar could easily have one and that’s where it could be”!

As we laughed it off two buntings rose from the roadside verge and flew a short way into an ungrazed field. One landed on the fence, clearly a Reed but the second bird had not been seen, having landed in the rank grasses. We detoured into and across the field- alas a second Reed rose from cover and landed on the fence. We continued through the small field, following a shallow ditch towards the intended cover of the yard where nettles, reed canary grass and dockings awaited…

Seconds later and barely three or four minutes after the ‘Sibe Acc’ banter, from our feet rose a small passerine that was bizarrely familiar to us. It landed in the grass no more than 20 metres away but due to length of grass, we could see no more than its head- baring the crippling crown streaks and ear coverts of a species that this October has become so very familiar to us and fellow birders and rarity hunters all over Europe. It was a brief and tantalising view before it scurried out of sight between tussocks of grass- this was it, mega time- we were most definitely in!!!

We attempted to counsel each other as we stalked cautiously to one side in order to get a better view- and there it was, creeping around between tussocks of grass, in the middle of a random marshy field- a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR!! It was a surreal and overwhelmingly knee trembling moment as the three of us stood side by side totally stunned, almost in disbelief that there right in front of us in the field we had just walked through because of two Reed Buntings- was ‘our’ very own Sibe Acc!!!

The immediate expletives and outbursts are, as one might expect under the circumstances, perhaps best left unpublished! MAM was the first to think quickly and keep it together enough to mention to rule out Black-throated.

Further shimmying to get that final 100% certainty view culminated in a joint feeling of adrenalin fuelled euphoria that If we could have bottled up to sell we would be very rich men! We punched the air, struck high fives and lost control in a celebratory huddle-group jump around; for a brief moment completely unaware of how our outbursts might affect our newly found Siberian Prunella or look to passersby!

We tried so desperately to keep it together though not one of us able to curb the frenzied state we felt. We were only a few hundred yards from the car, where sat all three of our cameras! BHT sprinted across the fields, returning with even more haste.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the commotion, we worked the area but to no avail. A wider search saw BHT discover it just 50 or so yards away in the more likely habitat of lush nettles and dockings grown up around an old midden of the yard. It flicked up posing nicely on a docking stem, more or less in full view but in typical docking stem/stand style, the auto focus jumped from stem to stem for a brief second before picking up the Acc- one in-focus frame and it flit back down into cover. This single photograph of the bird was to prove to be priceless- no other images were taken.

As we gathered around the area of cover in the yard by the old midden, we briefly ogled the single image nailed, again celebrated with gratuitous high fiving and back slaps, then moved cautiously closer. We presumed that like the other four Sibe Acc’s we’d seen between us already in the previous days/weeks that it would show intermittently as it scurried around amongst cover and show well at times- to our shock however, this was not to be the case! It flew out from the nettles but instead of darting into adjacent cover or perching, it flew off strongly and quite high northwards towards the next croft. It continued several hundred yards before seemingly descending towards it. That, unfortunately was the last we were to see of it despite pretty intense searching of any suitable nearby habitat.

There are so many elements that come together and make the discovery of rare birds so special and for none more so than the finders. It may be how rare the bird actually is; the chain of events or circumstances which led to it; how hard it was worked for or any number of others- maybe even the location or who you are with and the team spirited effort involved. For us and in this instance it was all these and especially the latter. We couldn’t have picked a better crew nor island to find it on.

Up to the date this was posted a staggering 212 Siberian Accentors had been recorded in Europe, 12 of which in Britain, ours being the 10th. It is widely expected that more will be added to this monumental figure. Quite a winter target bird for your local patch perhaps?

An interesting extract from Dutch Birding; Siberian Accentor breeds on both sides of the Ural mountains and beyond in Siberia, mostly north of the Arctic Circle. Its winter grounds are in eastern Asia: from southern Manchuria, Korea and Japan to central China. In autumn, it is also frequently recorded as a straggler in Alaska, USA. In Europe, there were c 32 records up to 2015, of which more than half in Finland and Sweden.

Shetland 2015: Autumn Birding Review – In association with Birdwatch Magazine

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 16th November 2015 | Birding in Shetland, News

As Shetland becomes ever more popular in autumn, high expectations hang over the magical Northern Isles for what the winds may bring. So well placed is the archipelago that even without favourable wind and weather the isles will usually still manage to deliver. This year’s prime-time weeks in late September and early October were a classic example of this.

These migrant birding holidays always begin with optimism and anticipation and indeed with the Quendale Thick-Billed Warbler (successfully twitched with a guest from a previous tour) and then finding a nice Blyth’s Reed Warbler the day before the trips began, leader Chris Rodger knew anything was possible, despite a not-so-promising long-term forecast.

In a systematic ‘trip-list style summary’ he rounds up the highlights.

Highlights

  • National rarities: Swainson’s Thrush, Pechora Pipit, Pallid Harrier and Arctic Warbler.
  • Regional rarities: Blyth’s Reed Warbler, American Golden Plover.
  • Scarcities: Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes, Little Bunting, Common Rosefinch and Bluethroat.
  • Self-found by the group: Richard’s Pipit, Bluethroat and numerous Yellow-browed Warblers.

Wildfowl

The evocative sight and sound of Whooper Swans arriving from Iceland was a regular feature, along with migratory movement of many Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese overhead on their journey south. On the sea, Long-tailed Duck numbers seemed to swell by the day, with Velvet Scoter and Slavonian Grebe also enjoyed. In addition to the many Red-throated Divers, some Great Northern Divers still retained stunning summer plumage. A fine drake Greater Scaup was seen at Loch of Norby.

Raptors (and owls)

Undoubtedly the star bird of prey was the juvenile Pallid Harrier, seen coming to roost at Northdale, Unst. Hen Harrier, Peregrine and Short-eared Owl were less frequent than the many migrant Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and Merlins, which were particularly numerous this autumn.

Waders to doves

As is true to form on previous Shetland autumn birding trips, Nearctic waders were sure to feature and this year came in the form of a  ‘classic’ juvenile American Golden Plover, which really stood out  among the European ‘Goldies’ at Sandwick. Many Jack Snipe were seen – mostly rising from marshes and often almost from underfoot, but some particularly obliging birds at Lambaness froze to the spot to show at close range their beautiful cryptic plumage. A smattering of migrant waders included Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Knot, a late Eurasian Whimbrel and the always ubiquitous and subtly different ‘Icelandic’ (faeroeensis) Snipe. White-winged gulls were incredibly scarce this year on Shetland, though Arctic Terns and one Common Tern lingered for the group to see. An adult European Turtle Dove at Haroldswick was well scrutinised to eliminate meena Oriental Turtle Dove.

Pipits to thrushes

A self-found Richard’s Pipit at Lambaness was a highlight for the group, schreeping for Scotland as it bounded across Lambaness and a good example of quality scarce migrants that feature as team self-finds to add that extra gratification. This was the first of several seen. A ‘tiger-striped’ Pechora Pipit, twitched at Norby, eventually yielded to give excellent views as it crept through the irises. A combination of its genuine rarity value, Shetland speciality status and confiding nature ensured this was a firm favourite of the week. Braving gale force wind and rain on Unst, a female Yellow Wagtail was found by the group as was a Bluethroat, discovered hunkered down in a ditch at Burrafirth – if ever proving that ‘you have to be in it to win it’, no matter what the weather! Another fine Bluethroat was enjoyed feeding at close quarters at Quendale.

Undoubtedly a highlight came in the form of a Swainson’s Thrush on Unst – a superb end to the first full day of the trip. After a mad dash from literally the opposite end of Shetland, the group had to endure perhaps the most suspenseful wait in fading light for the bird to hop out from under some fishery crates in the yard of a shop! Hop out it did, revealing the lovely buff face and eyering and subtle underparts spotting, and it even gave a close fly-by to show off its underwing stripe. This was a tick for all bar one of the group, who also saw one with our Shetland Nature autumn birding group on Unst last year!

Warblers and crests

Perhaps the group that forms the major attraction for rarity-hunters on Shetland, warblers – a common and rare alike – were relatively thin on the ground this autumn. Despite this, the group did see a Blyth’s Reed Warbler (which had been found by Chris the day before the trip started) and several Barred Warblers. An Arctic Warbler was a rarer highlight; the group missed this bird on Unst, when it disappeared on the day it lost its tail. However, we caught up with what must surely have been the same bird several days later when a tail-less Arctic Warbler was found in central Mainland. To be fair, Yellow-browed Warblers didn’t disappoint this autumn – amazingly by far the most frequent warbler, but very much still a joy to see. As ever, the Shetland autumn trip allowed the comparison of side-by-side Common and Siberian Chiffchaffs. A personal favourite were the mornings when Shetland is seemingly awash with tiny Goldcrests – mass landfall of these wee 5-gram waifs signal ‘birds in!’.

Flycatchers to buntings

Both groups enjoyed three species of flycatcher, including some very confiding, and always photogenic, Red-breasted Flycatchers. Both Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes were seen on Unst. Of the finches, Bramblings added colour while redpolls, although surprisingly scarce in the islands this autumn, encouraged ID discussion. A most impressive sight was a flock of 200 very confiding Snow Buntings, swirling all around us like an avian snowstorm on the wild windswept headland of Lambaness. A scarcity that we can usually look forward to throughout the Shetland is Common Rosefinch, which this year was hard won but eventually added to the trip list, unlike a Lapland Bunting which fed virtually at our feet. Of the scarcer buntings, a nice bright Little Bunting on Fetlar was timed well, found by fellow SN team members Micky and Brydon on the same day we were all on the isle. Perhaps a commoner example of the many Shetland scarcities to end on, but it does leave tantalising thoughts for what the review might start with for next year’s Shetland Autumn Birding trips!

Chris Rodger

Shetland Autumn Birding 2014

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 7th January 2015 | Birding in Shetland

Reviews from our 2014 autumn itineraries by leader, Chris Rodger

Some superb and very exciting birding for all our guests on the Shetland Autumn Birding itineraries which sold out all spaces, highlighting just how special, popular and widely known Shetland in autumn is now known to be. It’s fantastic to see that each year these itineraries become more popular and each year – the birds continue to deliver through the megas that turn up.

Over this period there were some superb quality headliners such as Swainson’s and Whites Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat and Yellow-rumpeded Warbler along with a fantastic supporting cast of rare, scarce and common migrants. As well as these and as we hope and aim for in these itineraries there was also some exiting team effort discoveries along the way such as Olive-backed Pipit, Pectoral Sandpiper and not to mention the Firecrest- which in a local context was a mega- a first for Unst! Great birds, great guests and great fun- here’s a review from Chris Rodger….

Guest Quote

Hi Brydon – just a quick email to say a massive thank you for an awesome birding holiday. I thoroughly enjoyed working lots of habitat trying to and finding our own birds. Chris was a fantastic guide and as you know put us onto all the ‘long stayers’ . His knowledge and field skills were superb and he constantly worked to keep everyone happy – no easy task at any time but especially more difficult as we had a broad range of birders with wide ranging knowledge and skills. I certainly hope to return for more of the same… I’ll be trying to plan next year’s work in order to get back up with Shetland nature.Andy Williams

An amazing day….the Whites Thrush alone was worth the cost of the entire trip and then there was the Yellow-rumped Warbler! Two mega rarities within an hour! What more could a birder want?!Andrew Riley

Week One 26 September – 3 October 2014 – in association with Birdwatch magazine

Day One

The first morning’s birding on South Mainland provided opportunity to introduce the group to the ‘art’ of team birding on Shetland. The tactics adopted when checking suitable crops, iris beds, nettles, thistles, ditches and gardens were practised and a wide variety of ‘pishes and clicks’ were experimented with. Several skulking common migrants were manoeuvred into revealing themselves and it was clear that the team were ready to throw themselves into a week of migrant birding on Shetland!

A highlight of the day was a Hornemann’s arctic redpoll at Veensgarth. Although not a classic ‘snowball’, the bird displayed the key arctic redpoll i.d. features well for the group. It was accompanied by 3 indeterminate ‘mealy-type’ redpolls, allowing the group to enjoy the inevitable discussion on the intricacies’ of redpoll identification. Nearby, red-breasted and pied flycatcher were also seen. A couple of stops on the journey through to Unst provided another each of red-breasted and pied flycatcher, barred warbler and brambling.

Day Two

Following breakfast, a barred warbler put on a fine display, hopping along the Hotel wall as the group boarded the minibus. A grand start to the day, but little did we know that things would only get better, as today we were to experience the best Autumn birding Shetland can offer. The morning in Baltasound produced two quality birds, with excellent views of a smart male Eastern subalpine warbler followed by a long-staying but often elusive rustic bunting at Halligarth, which Brydon ensured was tracked down for the group to see at close quarters. Moving northwards through the island, a stop at Haroldswick allowed the group to enjoy a Temminck’s stint, before settling down to a peaceful lunch whilst watching a wryneck feeding on the seaweed-strewn beach at Norwick. However, this tranquil scene was quickly shattered with news that a Swainson’s thrush had been found just 500m away! Sandwiches discarded, a farcical few minutes followed as the bird fed behind a fence rail, above which only the two tallest members of the group were able to see. Attempts at piggy-backs and climbing onto the minibus to obtain views proved fruitless! Thankfully, the bird flew on to the garden wall and everyone managed crippling views of the nearctic mega – a lifer for the whole team. The remainder of the day had the team find a common rosefinch and a further two barred warblers amongst a selection of commoner migrants such a lesser whitethroat and whinchat.

Day Three

Today the team again birded around Baltasound in the morning, returning to see the subalp and rustic again, because they were so good! A pleasant mornings birding included a very obliging bluethroat, three more barred warblers, yellow-browed warbler and jack snipe. Fine views of otter feeding rounded the morning off nicely.

In the morning the north end of the Unst appeared to be well covered by other crews, so we decided to explore the lesser-known birding spots in the south of the island. Working these sites produced a few common migrants including yellow-browed warbler and lesser whitethroat, as well as some classic Shetland scenes, such as large flocks of linties (twite) in the neep fields and an amazingly confiding otter on a secluded beach.

A team challenge was set when we arrived at the thistles at Lund. Here, the team were presented with an ‘unstreaked acro sp.’, which they were tasked with identifying amongst themselves (mainly for educational reasons, but partly out of mischief on the part of the group leader). Through careful observation and assimilation of the key features, the group did extremely well at arriving to the correct conclusion that they were observing a first-year marsh warbler. An impressive identification of a very tricky species.

Meanwhile, in the south of Shetland, the big news was the double-header finding of two mega’s; yellow-rumped warbler (relocated after a frustrating brief appearance) and White’s thrush; a classic Shetland ‘East meets West’ scenario.

Day Four

Despite the presence of two Mega’s at the opposite end of Shetland, it is a credit to the team that after a group discussion the decision was to stick with the plan to visit Fetlar, rather than twitch the length of the archipelago- with the plan to go on news next day. The philosophy of ‘if those birds are turning up down there, imagine what we could find up here?’ is indeed admirable. However, despite scouring virtually every iris bed, ditch and willow on the island, we could only reply with a couple of yellow-browed’s amongst the commoner migrants. The team’s efforts were gallant indeed, and a reminder that, despite how it may appear to birders from afar, rarity finding on Shetland involves considerable hard graft, sometimes with scant rewards.

Day Five

With news that both the White’s thrush and yellow-rumped warbler had remained on South mainland, coupled with being shown endless photos and video of the birds by the ecstatic birders who had made the journey – relief, optimism and excitement levels peaked: the twitch was on!

Anticipation rose with every one of the 77 miles and two-ferry journeys down the Shetland chain and the excitement was at fever pitch when we arrived outside the garden where the White’s thrush had settled. From a personal point of view, seeing this iconic ‘sibe’ for the first time exceeded already sky-high expectations; it was simply stunning and one of the most overwhelming birds I have ever seen. Judging by the reaction of the team, the bird elicited similar emotions!

Next stop was for the YRWarbler, which gave fantastic views as it busily fed amongst the attractive flowerbeds of the Grutness garden. Cracking views of a yank and a sibe in a morning; as a certain well-known birder would say – BOOM!

Day Six

The final day was spent stopping at various sites on Yell and mainland on our way to the hotel at Spiggie. A good selection of common migrants were seen, with a few new birds for the trip to bring the total to 92 species. Whilst a relatively modest in terms of species diversity, the total included five BB’s and a whopping 46 lifers between the seven experienced birders on the trip. Not bad for a week of westerlies, and the team were all ecstatic with week’s haul.

News breaking of the Siberian rubythroat at Levenwick was however well beyond the possibilities to connect as guests were already on route to destinations south (all but one – a certain Mr Andrew Dodd who was staying with us for week two!). On the bright side, it arrived just in time to give Shetland Nature’s next cohort of Autumn birders the dream start to their Shetland adventure.

Week Two – 4th to 11th October

Day One

Could you wish for a better start to the week?- perhaps the most iconic and sought-after of all Eastern vagrants, a fine male Siberian rubythroat! Not surprisingly we strted the tour started ahead of the scheduled 6p.m. start to ensure that our guests had the dream start to their trip.

The group were met as they arrived by plane and boat throughout the day and expediently transported to the garden at Levenwick where this ‘sibe’ beauty was hopefully present for its second day. Oh were it so simple! With no sightings of the bird since 8 a.m., as the hours passed we became increasingly resigned to the prospect of a crushing dip. At around 4p.m. we were literally conceding defeat and heading back to the minibus when suddenly there came a shout from a nearby garden! After a mad dash and a wait that felt much longer than it really was, the bird hopped across the driveway for all the group to see! Ecstatic gasps came from the admiring crowd when the rubythroat turned full-front and revealed it’s brilliant the scarlet throat and black and white face mask. Stunning!

Siberian Rubythroat at Levenwick. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Siberian Rubythroat at Levenwick. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Day Two

The team this week possessed extensive experience of Autumn birding on Shetland, including several Shetland Nature regulars, so we threw ourselves into ‘working’ Geosetter, a challenging ‘forest’ of cover by Shetland standards. Here we found our first two yellow-browed warblers of the trip and a fine pied flycatcher. There was plenty of wildfowl to be seen on Loch of Spiggie, including splendid views of slavonian grebe and scaup, with an evocative soundtrack provided by the excited trumpeting of many newly-arrived whooper swans. Next stop was Quendale, where there were good numbers of thrushes, goldcrest and blackcap along with a whinchat and a good ol’ scrap between a kestrel and merlin.

As we headed northwards towards our destination of Unst, a stop at Helendale provided another yellow-browed warbler.

Day Three
Although today didn’t provide any major rarities, it was a classic example of the excitement of seeing migrants making a massed landfall, literally all around us, as we birded the northern half of Unst. The drama was provided by a Force 10 southeasterly gale and heavy rain; whilst not the most comfortable of conditions, the weather conspired to produce a very tangible migration event, which makes migrant birding on Shetland so special.

‘Northern’ treecreeper, Halligarth, Unst. Photo by Robbie Brookes.

‘Northern’ treecreeper, Halligarth, Unst. Photo by Robbie Brookes.

After a brief stop for a grasshopper warbler, our first destination was Skaw, Britains most northerly beach. On arrival, there were relatively modest numbers of migrants, mainly goldcrest and redwing. However, as soon as the rain started, it became clear that goldcrest were falling out of the sky all around us, so much so that they were flying up from under our feet. As the morning went on, we continued to experience this mass arrival, including large numbers of song thrush, redwing and chiffchaff. A memorable sight was a newly-arrived yellow-browed warbler feeding among seaweed next to a long-staying wryneck.

After a mid-morning break, to dry off a bit, we went back out to sift through migrants as they moved ‘down-island’ to the more substantial areas of cover around Baltasound. A treecreeper had been reported from the mature sycamores of Halligarth, but not seen subsequently, despite much searching. It was Jim from our group who managed to relocate the bird, and the impression of a treecreeper he adopted to signal his find was truly memorable! The treecreeper, of the nominate ‘Northern’ form (C.f. familiaris), was strikingly different to our UK birds (C.f. britannica), with gleaming white underparts and flaring supercilium that positively glowed in the gloom of the plantation. The first record of treecreeper on Shetland was in 1859, which was killed by a cat in the very same plantation as today’s bird, so this second record for Unst was a mere 155 years in the waiting! The plantation was brimming with migrant passerines seeking refuge from the storm, mainly redwing, song thrush, goldcrest and chiffchaff, but also included two redstart and a yellow-browed warbler.

Day Four

Today’s birding throughout Unst involved sifting through the large numbers of migrants deposited by yesterday’s storm. The bulk of birds were of those species encountered yesterday, but also included a number of warblers that were probably hunkered down under Rosa bushes yesterday, such as garden warbler, lesser whitethroat, willow warbler and blackcap. Through the day, it also became clear that a number of blue tit and and great tit had been blown on to the islands by yesterday’s storm – both scarce species on Shetland. We were watching a great tit at Clingera (Baltasound) when Sam casually mentioned he had just seen a firecrest, not realising that these little gems are very rare on Shetland and this was a first for Unst! The firecrest fed busily with around 20 goldcrest for a wee while before the flock began to clump together to roost. By the time the local birders had arrived to twitch this island mega, it was lost somewhere within the feathery knot of roosting crests. Fortunately for the locals, the firecrest performed well for all the following day.

Day Five

Fetlar was the destination for today’s birding and a fine day’s bird-finding it was, with olive-backed pipit and pectoral sandpiper both found by the group! The ‘pec’ was rather unobliging, giving only flight views, but was easily identifiable by its distinctive trilling call. The pipit, on the other hand, eventually gave excellent views when it settled in a garden at Houbie. Other quality birds seen were a very nice but rather shy Siberian stonechat and a fine male black redstart.

Olive-backed pipit: Houbie, Fetlar – found by the group. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Olive-backed pipit: Houbie, Fetlar – found by the group. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Day Six

Today’s birding on Unst offered a good selection of migrants including fine views of a bluethroat in Balatasound, and two long-eared owls roosting in the conifers at Valyie. Highlight of the day was probably a fine great grey shrike – a mobile bird that had been giving us the run-around over the last few days. The group managed excellent views after the bird was finally ‘pinned down’ by Brydon at Northdale. The day provided plenty of other migrants of interest including tree pipit, black redstart and redstart and the first ruff of the trip.

Long-eared Owl at Unst. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Long-eared Owl at Unst. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Day Seven

Today the group left the North Isles behind and headed south for our final day birding the mainland. A stop at Sandgarth yielded a yellow-browed warbler, and Hoswick produced a tree sparrow, common sandpiper and black redstart. Whilst we were at Hoswick news broke of a Western Bonelli’s warbler at Scalloway, so off we went! Unfortunately, the bird was not relocated despite a fair crowd having gathered, although two yellow browed warbler and finally catching up with blue tit provided some entertainment whilst we waited. By late afternoon, the group decided to bird a couple of sites on the south mainland which, whilst enjoyable, was slightly marred by the late news that the Bonelli’s had been relocated. Oh well, at least it was ‘just’ a Western…

Day Eight

Most of the group had a wee bit of time in the morning before making their departures south, so it was decided to take advantage and enjoy some leisurely birding near Sumburgh airport. Shortly after watching another olive backed pipit at Pool of Virkie, we were informed that the Scalloway Bonelli’s warbler had been heard to give a monosyllabic ‘chip’ call, by sharp eared and eyed SN colleagues Phil Haris and Rebecca Nason (amongst others) and was thus believed to be the considerably rarer Eastern Bonelli’s. Once again, the decision was made to extend the trip beyond the allocated duration, so that the week could be bookended by megas! However, at this end of the week time was against us, and a ‘smash and grab’ twitch was required if we were to see the bird before our guests had to check-in for homeward flights. Frustratingly, the bird was rather ponderous by Phylloscopus warbler standards, moving slowly at the top of the canopy and giving only fleeting views before melting into the foliage. Thankfully, minutes before the absolute deadline for getting back to the airport, the bird obligingly fed in the sunshine at the edge of the canopy for all to enjoy – a great way to end the trip (and yes, we all made our flights in time)!

Eastern Bonelli's Warbler at Scalloway. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler at Scalloway. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Chris Rodger

Red-flanked Bluetail(s), finders accounts – one each in the bag! Rebecca Nason/Phil Harris

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 16th December 2014 | Birding in Shetland

This year Autumn birding seemed to last favourably into November with strong easterly winds, gales at times, but still with a great sense that it wasn’t yet over and there were still potential rares to be found. On 3rd November, I had an excited call from Phil who had gone to Geosetter just ahead of me to check for migrants and do some bird ringing in the calm conditions before heading to work – he had found a Red-flanked Bluetail, a cracking 1st year bird which had graced his only just opened net! A superb find and a bonus surprise bird to ring along with more usual Goldcrests, Blackcap and Robins. This bird was to stay for over a week and prove popular with birders and photographers alike as it fed around Geosetter burn.

Fast forward one week, to the 8th November, after a few days of birdless gales and bad weather, the 8th saw calmer, milder ESE conditions and Phil and I had set it aside to bird all day, our route firmly planned with headed off with a certain degree of optimism. North of Lerwick, our first port of call was Kergord where we saw 3 Great Tit and a Blue Tit. A brief stop at Loch of Voe and Goldcrests could be heard in the low pines, 12 were seen in total. We headed down into Voe, stopping to view a couple of favoured spots near the harbour. A solitary Waxwing was a welcome sight and raised the game slightly in a relatively uneventful morning. Another Blue Tit was also noted, it’s been an exceptional year for Blue and Great Tits on Shetland.

We returned to the car and headed up out of the back of Voe, stopping at one of my favourite spots, Burn of Kirkhouse, a small bridge over a trickling burn, a small crop and sheltered small woodland copse. Our immediate impression was of how quiet it was as we started birding the site, moods slightly lowered at the distinct lack of migrants. A couple of Robins were all we could muster. Deflated, Phil walked up the road towards some roadside gardens and I headed along a track and fence line towards the small woodland patch with a sparse understorey just up from the burn.

A minute or two later I glimpsed into the darkened, shaded wood. I heard a Robin tick and I didn’t even raise my bins as a similar bird moved quickly from right to left and landed on a sycamore branch in half darkness within. The same bird then flicked up and towards me, landing again in half light but closer to the woodland edge, maybe only 10 metres from me.

I raised my bins, expecting to see a Robin – OH MY GOD!!! I’d found a Bluetail – was my instant thought as my eyes focused on a full head on view of a very distinct 1st year Red-flanked Bluetail . I couldn’t see any blue as it was facing me straight on, but the beige breast shone out where I had been expecting to see Robin red, the paler white throat patch was clear to see, the burnt orange flanks erupted from it’s rotund little chat form on dark stick like legs, all puffed up in the cold, a white fringed beady eye stared back at me.

Red-flanked Bluetail. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

The adrenalin kicked in as it disappeared back into the woodland shadows and out of view. I ran to the road and called Phil over, shouting that I had a bluetail! Wow, one each in the same week and one of three we’d seen in a month, after the strikingly tame Sumburgh bird back in October.

A frustrating 10 minutes went by until the bird showed again, it really was a skulking individual and very hard to even glimpse at times in the woodland canopy and denser scrub along the burn. Moments of dread thinking it may have vanished up the burn without being noticed were soon alleviated as it appeared suddenly right out in the open on a fence post near the bridge, vibrating it’s vivid blue tail as I nailed a couple of record shots. We then headed off to find a spot with a phone signal to put news out and continue our birding afternoon North. The bird was seen again that afternoon and the next day only.

Rebecca Nason / Phil Harris

Pied Wheatear at Haroldswick, Unst – 1st to 9th November 2014

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 11th December 2014 | Birding in Shetland

In flight, the wheatear in the first few seconds of first views. The following morning it showed down to just a few feet when the other images were taken.

When you look at recent form from previous autumns it might seem quite surprising that an island as geographically well positioned as Unst and as well covered as it is- there had been a drought of nearly five weeks since the last BB rarity. Nevertheless this was certainly the case for us for the second half of the autumn; there had been not a single national rarity since the Swainson’s on the 28th September.

The suggestion that myself and birding comrades Micky Maher and Mike Pennington, were perhaps ever so slightly starting to wane by the first day of November, might not be all together inaccurate. However November is a month never underestimated by us in Shetland. In fact the early part particularly has produced some quality finds for us in previous years including Pine Bunting and Hume’s Warbler and has come to be one of our favourite periods of late autumn. Plus of course the banter is always good and the reality always is that you simply have to be in it to win it- sure we’d had a quiet run but you just keep on digging in.

But our luck was about to change; we were rounding off a circuit of what was to be the last site of the morning for me before heading home to spend the rest of the day with the family. My last trickle of optimism came as it was just approaching 14:45pm as we were just about to go our separate ways in our cars, I shared my intention to detour round the ring road through Haroldswick and thankfully MAM and MGP agreed and followed on convoy style.

Just minutes later driving up onto the side road, a stunningly unfamiliar tail pattern of a pale vagrant wheatear caught my eye as it dashed across a field to my right, causing me to grind to an instant haut. I couldn’t believe it- finally we were back in the game! As I focussed my bins on it perched face on about 40 yards from the road, I glanced over my shoulder to the lads behind and waved my arm out the window like a lunatic in the direction of the bird. Right or wrong my impulse reaction after a reasonable few seconds view was to grab my camera from the passenger seat and fire off a couple of frames, which was all I managed out the window as it flew.

Thankfully as we scrambled out of our cars I could immediately tell from MAM’s expression I was not alone in my excitement- the frantic pointing had worked! Although however there was most certainly just cause for a moment of euphoria as first thoughts were for Pied- we knew that Eastern Black-eared needed eliminated and the couple of shots I had taken in the heat of the moment only showed underparts. We called Robbie Brookes with the news who joined us straight away.

Fear slowly set in over the fifteen to twenty minutes or so that ensued while we tried to relocate it. It had only appeared to dip over the rise of a hill, but it had disappeared. Fortunately however I managed to pick it up along a fence of an adjacent field where we could all start to get distant scope views.

Eventually it gave better but brief views before disappearing again along a network of dry stone walled fields. It was now approaching 15:45pm and we had lost it completely and barely shared more than a few minutes viewing of the bird between us. Thankfully Robbie had nailed a set of images that we hoped, along with what we had seen, could confirm its ID after consulting literature. Later that evening when we got together and we reassured ourselves of Pied, as well as opinion of a couple of others with relevant experience, we could eventually rule out EBE. Thankfully the following morning it was very obliging, showing down to just a few metres. Now the subtleties that had confirmed its ID the day before, (such as the faint scaly fringing to scapular feathers) were much easier to see.

Although aware of the potential difficulties with these two species, this was the first time for us to be faced with this ID separation and so we were rightly cautious. Further reading later revealed just how difficult poorly marked first winter/female plumages can be and how much overlap there appeared to be in features between them. The fact that some authors state some individuals to be inseparable without seeing base colour to mantle feathers made us all the more careful.

Perhaps surprisingly this was Unst’s first ever rare wheatear. It was the 8th record for Shetland.