Archive for the ‘Birding in Shetland’ Category:
Western Bonelli’s Warbler – Fetlar, Shetland
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Sunday 11th December 2011 | Birding in Shetland
A family visit into my home land and beloved old ‘patch’, Fetlar on the 12th September to see my parent’s was perhaps rather ‘coincidently’ timed. I had enjoyed the morning with our two sons spending quality time with their grandparents. After lunch however and with the winds having been from the south-east I decided a quick look around some of my favourite birding sites after lunch was a good call.
I had seen little of great interest but had enjoyed my birding time nonetheless. Entering the Leagarth garden however a glimpse of a very pale headed phyllosc with an ‘open faced’ look certainly raised the pulse. The warbler then flew across the garden, allowing only seconds of a view when it landed before working its way out of sight into the sycamore leaves. This brief view was enough to note; clean silky-white underparts, lovely bright yellowy- lemon fringing to the wings and tail and again the distinct open faced and ‘beady eyed’ appearance, along with pale and cold toned head and mantle, this was clearly a Bonelli’s!
Although adrenalin surged through my body with excitement, there was also a feeling of fear as I knew only too well if it did not call it could only be recorded as a ‘Bonelli’s spp’. Thankfully about twenty minutes later whilst enjoying some lovely views as it moved around the garden it called! Not unlike the call of a Willow warbler with a similarity even to Common Rosefinch, I knew that this was the only way to separate the two extremely closely related species of Western and Eastern. From memory I was pretty certain the call was bang on for Western but having never actually heard one and having never seen Eastern I wanted confirmation before putting the news out.
A quick check of the calls confirmed this bird’s was indeed spot on for Western, bingo; the Bonelli’s was ‘in the bag’! I then legged it back to the car for my camera and having enjoyed good views for over half an hour now wanted to get some photographs, and I hoped before a front of rain settled over, which was moving in fast. Unfortunately the rain arrived right about the same time as I did with my camera! Although I did manage to get some photographs (and was delighted to do so), it was much less obliging than my first half an hour or so with it.
This bird was one of only two to reach Shetland this year and the first Bonelli’s to be assigned to species on Fetlar. An old record could not be accepted as either Western or Eastern as no calls were noted. This rather frustrating scenario of ‘silent’ individuals is actually not uncommon. Given how very rare Eastern is in Britain in comparison, it is presumed to be most likely that most ‘Bonelli’s spp’ records are probably Westerns. Even birds that are trapped and examined in the hand cannot be separated; if they fail to speak up they simply don’t count!
Two-barred Crossbills – Halligarth, Unst, Shetland
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Sunday 11th December 2011 | Birding in Shetland
Late July has never really been a time that I have the time to be inspired from a birding perspective. It is a very busy period for me as our holiday and tour season is in full swing and I tend to spend most of it tracking Otters with photographers working long hours. However July is a month that can certainly produce the goods.
The 29th was the first of a very welcome couple of days I had off from guiding as we had friends visiting. As I was up well before our son Casey I thought I’d treat myself to my morning circuit, which when possible during migration seasons is my daily pre breakfast routine but due to various commitments I hadn’t been in the Sycamores for over a week.
Not surprisingly, my circuit of the sycamores had produced nothing and I hadn’t really expected it to, even the summering Chaffinch and Redwing were not to be seen. But just as I was about to leave ‘the wood’ movement in the canopy of leaves above caught my eye. I lifted my bins to catch a glimpse of a bold clean white wing-bar, maybe even two, flash in view through the movement of leaves. For a split second I thought it must be the female Chaffinch, but even though I hadn’t even seen any more than a bit of a wing bar, something appeared very different.
I side stepped a few feet with my bins still raised to my eyes and looking at where the movement had been. Then suddenly the bird swung rather clumsily upside down, hanging from a branch and in full view, “Two-barred bill” I exclaimed! Yes, I spoke to myself! Just 20 feet or so from me was a female Two-barred Crossbill, rather lethargically feeding amongst the leaves. She flew a short distance and landed, again under the shade of the dense canopy of Sycamore leaves. In flight the double bold white wing bars were striking as was her bright lemon rump which contrasted with the rest of her otherwise dull greyish overall plumage. I watched her for a few more minutes before popping back next door to fetch my camera and put the news out.
Catching up over the phone with some of the lads later in the morning I was surprised to hear of the movements of TBC’s westward across northern Europe and that a prospective ‘invasion’ looked to be well on the cards.
She was enjoyed by a handful of birders that day and next (including our guests Dave, Jenny and Rory Suddaby). To my surprise on the evening of the 30th I was delighted to find she had been joined by another, a first year male!
Having been totally silent for nearly two days, only now did there appear to be any calls. I had been vexed for her not to have called as I had fond memories of the 2008 invasion and one of the Fetlar birds I had found and how vocal it had been amongst Common Crossbills. Once heard, their diagnostic and rather nasal and metallic mewing call note is unlikely to be forgotten.
Apparently rather typical of the species, whilst feeding amongst and essentially below the canopy they were rather laboured in their movements and often without any calls until they flew and often appeared to prefer to keep at a fairly low level in the trees. This behaviour did not appear to be associated with an elusive nature however as it was often possible to view them down to just a few feet, totally oblivious to their admirers.
Interestingly the predicted movement across northern Europe did not appear continue to reach British shores. Two others however were found in Shetland later in the month, one of which found by SN team member Rob Fray on Sumburgh Head.
This was of course I hope and assume a good thing as it surely meant they found the food they favour in evergreen larch forests without crossing the North sea.
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!
King Eider update
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 6th April 2011 | Birding in Shetland
Only a matter of weeks after discovering the 1st winter drake on Bluemull Sound, this resplendent drake arrives off Uyeasound, Unst. As pleased as I was with the young King back in February, this magnificent looking chap really did raise the pulse. You can tell of course from my last King Eider posting I do indeed have something of an Eider afliction/addiction but with very, very good reason. They are all stunning seaducks and always a joy to watch, photograph or indeed in this case scan through large flocks in search of the rarer forms.
Any how, they are way too handsome for my words to do anywhere near justice, here are some images of the King from over the past few days.
The King of Eiders
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Sunday 27th February 2011 | Birding in Shetland
A memorable day indeed and a very welcome find back in March 2006. A pristine drake in his full and exquisite breeding attire.
There can be few species of bird (let alone sea duck) as exquisite in appearance as a drake King Eider. It is hard to find a word that describes just how strikingly ornate the head and bill pattern is on a fully mature adult but I guess with the title of King enough is said. It is indeed rather apt that their Latin name, spectabillis means remarkable!
King Eiders have a largely circumpolar breeding range and are quite common throughout various regions of the high Arctic. In Britain they are regarded as a ‘national rarity’ with their having been somewhere in the region of 200 plus records of the species in the whole country. It was first added to the British list in 1832. Perhaps not surprisingly and like so many other species of Arctic vagrant to reach Britain, Shetland alone has hosted at least half of these.
Eiders in action, the tightly bunched flock race across the water’s surface as a small boat cruises past.
Historically Kings have regularly occurred throughout the isles and typically found associating with the local Eider flocks as singles and even occasionally multiples. Their beautiful pale, frosty- blue crowns, clown like eye make-up and bulbous orangey-yellow bill shield atop of the red bill are usually easily picked out amidst even a large flock of our local Dunters (the Shetland name for Eider). Structurally they are usually obviously smaller and a little more compact too by comparison.
Female King Eider. A much more subtle bird indeed, this ‘Queen’ spent just a couple days amongst the Bluemull Sound winter flock in November 2008.
Immature drakes and females are however quite a different matter. To the untrained eye any of these plumages will very often blend in amongst a Dunter flock without a second glance. Females are what could be compared and referred to as ‘little brown jobs’, although that is really a descriptive term for small featureless brown warblers, pipits, buntings and so on.
They are of course every bit as adorable to me, so cute and compact in appearance with such subtle features. With experience though these subtleties can become quite striking and are the very reason they stand out, if that makes sense! A small brown, seemingly featureless duck may seem challenging to pick out amongst the very similarly plumaged local females.
‘Queen’ Eiders have been known to spend as long as six days on the nest without leaving and will scarcely feed during the 22-24 day incubation period.
A combination of these features do however create a surprisingly distinct appearance; smaller and more compact overall size and structure, shorter and neater black bill which runs up onto a much less angular head profile, a ‘teddy bear’ like eye which shows a slight ‘tear drop’ line falling away behind and also a ‘grinning’ line which runs back a little from the closed gape. These latter two features especially combine to show a very cute but actually rather sad facial expression. The feathering also runs further down from the forehead onto the bill than on our Eiders.
In addition to these features are two others which can sometimes be just that little bit harder to see; the black flank barring forms arrow head like chevrons as opposed to the straighter and more vertical bars on a female Eiders flanks, they also have feather formations that appear on their back which are often raised creating tiny ‘sails’ which occasionally stand up like little dorsal fins but these are never as prominent as on a drake.
Interestingly for a sea duck, King Eiders are known to migrate overland in some populations and have been known to reach altitudes of up to 1,000m. I wonder where this young fellow was hatched?
Immature and sub-adult plumages of King Eider can be just as subtle, especially on a first winter bird. This is exactly the plumage I found one in in mid-February amongst the Eiders on Bluemull Sound, my favourite and premier winter birding site. The ‘young Elvis’ (“ah- hu hu”) was amongst a flock of around 150-200 Dunters, (less than quarter of the wintering flock there) and is actually the second of this age to be seen in Shetland this winter. Similar to the structural differences described in females, to me he was quite easy to pick out but it was his orangey yellow bill tones and compact shape that made him immediately identifiable.
Some have described this plumage of King as grotty or drab but although I can see why, I couldn’t disagree more, finding the little fellow made my day! This young King was actually the ninth King Eider I have ever found in Shetland, having previously found two females, two first winter drakes and four adult drakes (all were single birds amongst Eider flocks). And indeed a couple of these were known to be annual returnees for a couple of winters. I have also been fortunate to enjoy many others over the years in Shetland.
The first winter plumaged King huddles together amongst the melee of Dunters, the adult drake behind the two centre females is presumed to be of the ‘Northern’ form borealis. A novelty shot to have them both in the frame (note his tiny pert white ‘sails’ on his back and brightly coloured bill).
Searching for this and indeed other rare forms of Eider is undoubtedly one of my main winter birding motivations. One of these forms, regarded as subspecies or race, is Borealis or ‘Northern Eider’ (as they are also known) which are thought to hail from Nearctic regions. Several of these have also brought me much joy in their discoveries amongst their local cousins but as is the case with so many subspecies their identity, taxonomy and origin are still under discussion. And finally there is the one that all birders dream of finding (yes that’s right and quite often too), Steller’s Eider! Oh how I hope I can write a finders account for one of those, someday…
1st winter King Eider, Bluemull Sound, 3rd March 2011.
*Update* What a difference a bit of light makes! A more recent image taken on 3rd March…
Rough-legged Buzzard(s) – a double whammy!
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 5th January 2011 | Birding in Shetland
With 2010’s influx of Rough-legged’s in Britain in late autumn/winter my enthusiasm to find one for myself (having never found one) was peaking and given there had already been a few, I was fairly sure I could be in with a chance. I had made several trips up the very rough track to Valla Field (a distinct advantage of driving a Freelander!) and Saxavord and other similar sites on Unst since late October as I figured they were fairly likely RLB sites although Snowy Owl and Gyr are also on my radar for these sites.
Persistence at last paid off when on the 29th of December my luck was in and soaring along the very wild and rugged West facing rocky hill side of Valla Field was a stunning Rough-legged Buzzard. How perfectly placed it looked in such a beautifully remote and dramatic landscape. Two days later I took my wife Vaila and one year old son Casey along and enjoyed good but distant views, all except wee Casey of course who slept through the whole encounter!
Rough-legged Buzzard, montage, December 29th 2010.
The sheer rocky ridge along the west facing hill (not at all dissimilar to the Arctic landscapes they are so at home in) which drops down to a flat and fairly green plateau called Collister which is scattered with small lochens and old ruined crofts which overlook the oceanic Atlantic horizon to the West. It is undoubtedly one of my favourite places in Shetland with its stark beauty well out of view of any main roads.
It was here that I was drawn to for my New Year’s Day walk (which is something of a personal tradition). Having walked the hills which lead to the North I had been slightly disappointed not to have seen the Rough-legged and continued down to Collister. To my surprise I met the Buzzard drifting north as I continued south along the cliff-tops.
I hurried across to the foot of the hills where I watched it gain height and begin to soar and glide in the up-drafts. But hold on a second I thought to myself as watched on in disbelief through my trusty Zeiss 10×42’s, a second bird drifted into my field of view, there was two of them!! I couldn’t and for a second didn’t believe my own eyes, two Rough-legged Buzzards together. I had ended the year by finding one only days before in 2010 and I began the year of 2011 by finding another, an RLB double whammy- happy New Year indeed!
The Shetland Nature Autumn Adventure – 2010 Report
Posted by Martin Garner on Sunday 19th December 2010 | Birding in Shetland
This was my first birding tour, and it’s hard to see how it could be bettered – good weather brought good birds to be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings, expert leading and each hard day’s birding was finished off with a terrific meal and lots of laughs.Paul-Bright Thomas
With the terrific team effort involved in Britain’s 3rd Taiga Flycatcher (read full finder’s story) as well as self found Marsh Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler and Barred Warbler our promotion weekend in autumn 2009 had set a rather high standard! Would we be able to maintain it the following year?
You decide. Here’s a flavour of our outstanding 2010 autumn birding adventure – from team effort finds such as Blyth’s Read Warbler, White-billed Diver and Lanceolated Warbler to quality mega’s such as Sykes’s Warbler (s!) and Buff-bellied Pipit…
» Read the full eight-day round up …
Posted by Rory Tallack on Friday 15th October 2010 | Birding in Shetland
As a relative newcomer to birding, this autumn has challenged my ability more than any other. The Skyes’s Warbler in August was closely followed by some particularly problematic identifications in the forms of Blyth’s Reed and Paddyfield Warblers.
A few weeks later and I was beginning to feel as though I was not far from being ‘all birded out!’ However with Will Miles back in Shetland after three weeks on Fair Isle and October only half way through, I knew my autumn wasn’t over just yet…
After a quick ‘Izzy Shrike’ twitch we arrived at Troswick where Will’s girlfriend was staying temporarily. It was getting close to dark so birding was far from my mind and with Sarah only 20m away, it was even further from Will’s. As I turned off the engine I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. “Was that a warbler?” I asked. “Not sure, but it’s just landed on the fence there”. About 5m from the car a bird was sat on a wire fence. In this light, even at such close range, ‘bird’ was about as much as we could work out. We both lifted our bins. It was facing us, clearly showing off pale underparts, orangey flanks and a pale eye-ring. “Good gosh, Will, I do believe it’s a Bluetail”, I exclaimed (or words to that effect). The look of disbelief on Will’s face suggested he had come to the same conclusion but he was unable to get anything resembling a word out. Twenty minutes later it was dark and despite shaking hands and next to no light I managed to get some identifiable footage of the bird (video grab above). Fifteen minutes later it was dark and the bird was never seen again.
I used to believe that the most satisfying finds are those which require thought or those which have been hard-earned after hours in the field. This one, however, has made me think again – no effort, easily identified and perhaps my favourite find to date.
Although ‘Bluetail’ has in recent years become much more regular in Britain, any birder will surely agree that it still retains an element of that near mythical status it once had as a vagrant. This bird was one of up to a record breaking nine individuals in Shetland this autumn.