Archive for the ‘Birding in Shetland’ Category:
Shetland Autumn Birding 2011
Posted by Martin Garner on Monday 19th December 2011 | Birding in Shetland
A round up of our highlights from this year’s two week-long Autumn Birding holidays.
Arrivals from all points of the Compass
What would this year bring? The question buzzed around my mind in the days and weeks prior to one of the most exciting events of my birding year. Every year is different. This year was dominated by westerly winds with scarcely a sniff of any weather from the East. I needn’t have worried though; over our two week-long Shetland Autumn Birding itineraries, a stellar cast of birds appeared from all points of the compass.
From North America
Vagrants from the North American vector (especially passerines) have a tendency to be less expected than Siberian vagrants in Shetland, never the less, an awesome cast of birds from the west arrived. With a beautiful ochre-faced Swainson’s Thrush on day one and a missed-by-many Grey-cheeked Thrush saw week one off to a superb start with two American passerines. A stunning adult drake Surf Scoter added colour and excitement in week one. Week two headlined the American theme with American Golden Plover and self-found Pectoral Sandpiper, in the same field as a Dotterel.
A couple of lingering reported ‘orange-bellied’ Hen harriers that we finally caught up with, although far from the real deal, provided the opportunity to look at the exciting and challenging possibility of a Northern Harrier.
The cherry on the icing of the cake for me personally, a self found American Buff-bellied Pipit on my last day, around Britain’s 25th record.
From Greenland and Iceland
Moving clockwise around the North Atlantic, redpolls featured from the North West. In particular, a white-rumped dazzler of a bird. Initially suspected of being an exilipes Arctic Redpoll its plumage, structure and calls indicated Icelandic origin and provided our team with an excellent example of identification challenges, new criteria and little known bird forms. A few more typical Greenland-type birds were also seen. Icelandic Snipe of the subspecies faeroeensis provided more fringe lessons in identification.
North East Europe
More predictably, birds arrived from the near continent. Several Barred Warblers provided an exciting example of self-found birds for a number of our guests, whilst other scarcities (but Shetland regulars) came in the forms of Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch, Red-backed Shrike, and very obliging Little Bunting. But these were headlined by stunningly orange Pallid Harriers with one or two seen in the South Mainland. On the last day of our second week, a first winter Citrine Wagtail had come from slightly further East.
One of the daily birding highlights was the greater than average number of Yellow-browed Warblers. Always a delight and a typical Shetland autumn treat to be able to find several of these eastern gems and real migration marvels for ourselves. To see small flocks interacting was a first for me. A rarer ‘Sibe’ in the form of a remarkably confiding Olive-backed Pipit entertained over several visits during our second week.
From Central Asia
The Steppe and Desert habitats of this enigmatic region brought us not one but two Daurian (Isabelline) Shrikes, another excellent opportunity to learn emerging identification tips for a taxon (form) of Isabelline Shrike) not even officially established on the British list. A rather pallid brown Lesser White throat was a team find that again had come rare from somewhere in the East and sparked some excitement for visiting birders who came to see it and another opportunity to discuss the challenging issues of identification, taxonomy and emerging species.
From South East Europe
It’s remarkable that a place so far north and so isolated as Shetland should receive rare birds from the South-Eastern corner of Europe. An adult Lesser Grey Shrike was stunning with its pink underparts, thick black face mask and chunky bill. It gave us a little run around before we finally caught up with it, but was a part of a most memorable day which also included the Surf Scoter, the white redpoll from Iceland, and newly arrived Black-headed Bunting. The latter also from South-Eastern Europe, brought another challenging identification, and a chance to showcase state of the art sound recording and its importance in tricky identification challenges.
Besides the birds, the rugged and beautiful Shetland scenery was a daily pleasure and on both weeks we managed to see the elusive Otters. One special treat was a 3 o’clock in the morning Aurora Borealis watch for one group, never guaranteed but always a possibility.
While the list of birds was once again a top drawer collection, it was the team atmosphere each day that kept putting wind in the sails of our birding adventures. Plenty of laughs, a willingness to learn together, and a constant effort to find our own birds as well as go and see the star finds of others. Accommodation was top notch and gave us the opportunity for the very keenest to go birding even before my bowl of porridge or the full English (Scottish!) breakfast of others. Snacks continuously available around a filling mid-day lunch, and an evening beginning at the bar followed by a three course dinner and lots of laughs made every day memorable.
So ends another excellent autumn of guiding on Shetland for me with a bunch of folk who were a blessing to be with. They kindly gave some feedback of their experiences. What will 2012 bring?
Testimonials from autumn 2011:
Brydon & Martin’s professionalism was remarkable; their combined local knowledge, birding & all things avian was truly outstanding. Martin’s boundless enthusiasm and dogged determination were amazing in finding & educating us about the birds. We would recommend this holiday unequivocally. Judy and Peter Farren
I just wanted to thank you for a fantastic week’s birding. In particular Martin Garner was a completely inspirational guide. His knowledge surpassed that of any birder I have spent time with by far and his enthusiasm was limitless. In my late forties I believed my approach to birding was immovable but Martin has made me question my principles and my methodology. Positively life-changing! We saw great birds on the trip, but more importantly, I learned how to get greater value from birding. I look forward to future trips. Alan Matthews
Pallid Harriers in Shetland in 2011
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Saturday 17th December 2011 | Birding in Shetland
The year’s unprecedented invasion will undoubtedly stand as one of the most monumental highlights of the birding year. Fortunately three of us were individually in on the ‘finding’ action but just how many were there? Here Bird Report editor Mike Pennington trawls through the report database to summarise the Shetland part of the story of this year’s record-breaking Pallid Harrier influx.
In September 2001, a juvenile Pallid Harrier spent a week coming in to roost at the Brig of Bakkasetter (‘Brow marsh’) in Dunrossness. It was just the 11th for Britain, so it was a well-twitched bird. It was also just the third for Shetland: the previous records involved a bird, eventually shot, on Fair Isle in April and May 1931, and an elusive two-day bird around Exnaboe in September 1993.
Perhaps surprisingly, the species was recorded in four of the next five years and it had established itself as an almost expected early autumn vagrant, even though this flurry of records was followed by three blank years in 2008-10. Favourable weather conditions, with south-easterlies in August 2011, therefore, had many birders hoping for an appearance, perhaps even a chance to add the species to their find-lists, but no-one was prepared for the deluge of records that followed.
The first to arrive was a ‘probable’ photographed very distantly on Foula on 11th August. A juvenile on Fair Isle the following day, 12th-15th August could conceivably have been the same individual. Then a juvenile was seen on Noss on 24th August and on Bressay on 26th. A third juvenile turned up on Unst on 25th August, remaining on the island until 14th September.
Unst; These stunning images of one of the first birds to arrive are far and way the most evocative images of Pallid harrier taken in Shetland. Photos: Robbie Brookes.
A ringtail harrier believed to have been a Pallid was seen in poor weather on Out Skerries on 28th, quite possibly the Noss bird. Then what seems to have been a new juvenile was seen at Sandgarth, near Voe and later the same day at Sand Water in central Mainland on 31st August. This bird was quite a distinctive individual, with an unusually indistinct ‘boa’ (the diagnostic neck collar pattern of Pallids), hence the fact that it was believed to be a new bird (unless photos or descriptions of the Noss bird suggest similarities to connect the records). A ‘probable’, presumably the same bird, was reported at Stromfirth just two days later on 2nd September.
Spiggie / Hillwell; Although its plumage was heavily contaminated, presumably by Fulmar oil, this was a very popular and often obliging bird throughout its long stay. Photos: Jim Wood.
Next to be located was another distinctive bird, a juvenile with its plumage contaminated by Fulmar oil, which was first seen around Spiggie on 3rd September. This bird was usually seen around Spiggie and Hillwell, but wandered widely, being seen as far away as Sandwick. This bird was also distinctive, as it showed some features that could have suggested that it was a Pallid x Hen Harrier hybrid (see http://birdingfrontiers.com/2011/10/19/identification-update-pallid-harrier/), although current opinion is that it is a Pallid, albeit a less than typical bird. Being easily recognisable this bird’s movements illustrated just how far an individual could range, even with contaminated plumage.
Another juvenile in south Mainland from at least 10th September (on which day it was tracked from Virkie to Hillwell) was unoiled and therefore different to the oiled bird in the same area. The Fulmar-oiled bird was last seen on 17th October, and there was an unoiled bird until 6th October; there are claims of more than one unoiled bird in the south Mainland, but these appear to be unsubstantiated so far.
Two more new birds then appeared: a new juvenile was on Fair Isle on 11th-14th September and another juvenile visited three sites in south Yell on 12th-16th September. This meant that on 12th-14th September there were five birds in the islands: Unst, Yell, Fair Isle and 2 in south Mainland. The earlier Fair Isle bird presumably moved south and the distinctive Sandgarth/Sand Water bird was apparently also different, giving a minimum of seven individuals. But the Noss bird could have been one or other of the two south Mainland birds (even the oiled bird could have become oiled after leaving Noss) or even Fair Isle.
Yell; With images of all three birds recorded in the north isles it was reasonably easy to retrospectively separate individuals from each other. Hopefully images not yet submitted of other sightings on Mainland may help distinguish any further relocation/duplication as with the Fetlar bird.
Photos: Dougie Preston
Fairly clear so far, but then on 17th September there was one between Voe and Aith (not very far from Sandgarth/Sand Water and so conceivably the same bird). Another sighting on the same day on Bressay, followed by one at Gulberwick on 18th were both possible Pallids.
After almost two weeks with no new claims, a bird on Fetlar from 30th September to 5th October would appear to be good candidate to be a new bird. But hold on – photos showed this bird to have an indistinct boa and so it was very similar to the Sandgarth/Sand Water, last seen for certain four weeks earlier. But if it was the same, where had it been hiding for the best part of a month (unless it was the Voe/Aith bird or some of the other probables/possibles).
Fetlar; This bird turned out to be a very interesting individual in that it appeared to offer a very useful insight into the influx and illustrate the probability of birds lingering and in turn reappearing at new locations. Photos: Brydon Thomason.
Further October records all just muddy the waters, at least until such time as photos and descriptions are available. A bird was reported at Baltasound on 3rd, more than two weeks after the last report on Unst. Singles at Channerwick on 4th-6th October, then Trondra on 7th and Wester Quarff on 13th were presumably further records of the unoiled bird from south Mainland wandering further afield and drifting north. One reported at Bardister in north Mainland on 9th was even further from any previous sighting. Was this a new bird? Who knows?
By October, however, observers were tending to be a bit ‘Pallid-happy’. Pallids were suddenly ‘not that big a deal’, they had been seen virtually daily in Shetland for two months, so they were definitely being reported without considering whether they were new birds. In addition, there were several orange-tinged Hen Harriers around (singles on Unst, Fetlar and in South Mainland, at least) and it is known that these birds were sometimes being reported wrongly as Pallids.
Overall, it seems that there were definitely a minimum of seven birds, as described above, but whether any new birds arrived after mid-September is unclear. The upper limit for the autumn will depend on what gets submitted and what the photos and descriptions tell us.
Hume’s Warbler at Kergord – the first for mainland Shetland
Posted by Roger Riddington on Sunday 11th December 2011 | Birding in Shetland
Sometimes, teamwork is the key aspect of finding a rare bird. And, even though I was birding on my own on Tuesday 8th November 2011, a key reason for me finding a Hume’s Warbler was down to the input of Will Miles.
Will had been staying with us the previous evening, when he had teed up a lift to go and look for the Pine Bunting in Unst. That involved him being picked up from our house in south mainland Shetland at a quarter to seven in the morning. So he was up a bit earlier than that and I was woken soon after 6.00 am that morning by his elephantine clomping at the other end of the house. Unable to go back to sleep, I got up and went to the office. The previous night, the internet had been down and this morning there was no change. Damn… That was it, enough of an excuse to go birding instead, at least for a couple of hours.
Will had a hand here too. The previous day he’d had good views of the Treecreeper at Kergord. Having seen only one Treecreeper before in Shetland, the bird on Fetlar in 2006, I was keen to go and look at another nominate familiaris. I arrived at Kergord about 8.00 on a gloomy, grey and breezy morning. After about 20 minutes wandering slowly around the main plantation, I had seen no sign of the Treecreeper (and nor did I) – but an unfamiliar call immediately had me on edge. The bird – it was surely a small passerine – was staying high in the treetops, but the call was distinctive, and although not immediately familiar I was sure I’d heard it somewhere before. My initial thought was Pallas’s Warbler, but after the second or third batch of calls, I began to believe that it was more likely a Hume’s.
Two hours later, I reckoned I’d heard 60 or 70 calls, but I’d barely seen the bird at all! It was a Goldcrest-sized passerine, and I was reasonably sure that it was a wing-barred phyllosc, but that was about it. I also needed to check the call. Back in the car, the ipod battery was as flat as a pancake and my Hannu Jannes CD was back at home. Damn… The field-guide transcriptions of the call of Hume’s sounded good, but I wasn’t convinced I had quite enough on it to be sure. Weighing up the options, I decided to go back home and check.
Having listened to some recordings back in the office, I was now fully convinced – now I just wanted to go back and SEE the bird! I headed north again, with half an hour’s charge in the ipod, and was soon back at Kergord, back in the areas that the bird had favoured. The wind had freshened a touch and it was cold. I played the tape but there was no response – the scent seemed to have gone cold. I was still debating in my head whether to text out the news when I heard it call again, just southwest of the big house. I moved towards the sound, whereupon it fell silent again. This time though, when I played the tape I was suddenly aware of the bird in a bush right in front of me, within 10 m of the ground! The first time in all that time that I had seen it out of the treetops! For a minute or two I had really good views, and there was absolutely no doubt now, it was definitely a Hume’s Warbler! Like a Yellow-browed seen through a fug of cigarette smoke, a dingy little phyllosc but a great bird to find. Thanks Will!
Remarkably the following week another four arrived in Shetland including this bird (another one for the team) found by Gary Bell at Grutness, Sumburgh. These records represent only the third year the species has ever been recorded in Shetland, with the last being in 2008.
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…