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Archive for the ‘Birding in Shetland’ Category:

Sykes’s Warbler

Posted by Rory Tallack on Wednesday 25th August 2010 | Birding in Shetland

As any birder will tell you, there are always species which, no matter how many photos we have seen and how much literature we have read, we wonder whether we would be able to correctly identify in the field.  On the 16th August, Will Miles and I were faced with one such bird, perhaps one of the more difficult ‘in the field’ identifications in British birding: Sykes’s Warbler.

My house in Burrafirth, Unst, overlooks one of my favourite birding sites in Shetland, the Burrafirth Burn, previously a temporary home to rare species such as Pechora Pipit, Little Crake and Paddyfield Warbler.  After lunch on the 16th, I had a spare 10 minutes before a ferry to Yell, so we decided to give the burn a quick check en route.  Will stayed on the road while I walked through the bracken and meadowsweet surrounding the burn.  I soon flushed a bird onto the fence several metres in front of me.  “Get on this hippo“, I shouted to Will (birders have a habit of shortening every bird-related word and this one refers to the Hippolais family of warblers).  Incredibly, with Will around 20 metres away and neither of us having ever seen the species before, we turned to each other and simultaneously shouted, “It looks like a Sykes’s Warbler” (plus a few expletives were thrown in for good measure of course!).

Realising this could be a slightly hasty identification call (having seen the bird for only a few seconds!), we set about trying to convince ourselves we were right, by attempting to assess and quantify the features on show, as well as ruling out all other possible options.  Neither of us carry anything more technical than a compact digital camera so, other than perseverance in the field, a few lucky digiscoped shots were all we had to go on.  Despite our initial identification on first impressions, I’m not ashamed to say that it was over two hours later that both of us were confident enough to put the news out; and then handshakes, high fives and (manly) hugs could be enjoyed!  This was not just a very difficult bird to call but this record also represented only the 12th sighting of the species in Britain (3 of those 12 birds having been found by Shetland Nature guides!).

Appearance of the bird and summary of identification points

The initial impression was a sandy-coloured warbler with very uniform, warm-toned upperparts and plain white underparts, an obvious dark, beady eye, a very long bill, and an elongated and long-tailed body shape – unlike the rather spiky-billed and compact structure of Booted Warbler.

On closer examination, the outer tail feathers were white, the bill was indeed extremely long, the tertial centres did not show much contrast with the fringes (all relatively uniform, warm-toned and sandy), and the head structure was rather elongated and did not look dome-shaped. Up close, we could clearly see that the legs were pale grey, the upper mandible was dark blackish and the lower orange, and the iris was dark brown. The supercilium was relatively pale cream, and extended behind the eye, bordered above by a dark smudge which increased slightly in width and intensity towards the bill. The coverts, alula, scapulars and mantle were a uniform, warm, sandy brown, in keeping with the colour of the flight feathers, tail, crown and neck. Overall, the features all looked very good for identification of the bird as Sykes’s Warbler and we were happy to call the ID… eventually!

Rory Tallack and Will Miles

Greenish Warbler

Posted by Gary Bell on Wednesday 18th August 2010 | Birding in Shetland

While checking on my local patch of Sumburgh on 10/08/10, I was fortunate to discover a Greenish Warbler in the Sumburgh hotel garden, species no. 115 of the year and one you could far from guarantee in the area. It’s a species that requires a bit of thought to its identity, the white feathering at the base of the bill, shorter primary projection, pale lower mandible of the bill and slightly broader supercilium after the eye all help to identify it, although the latter can vary a bit on warblers depending on their head position. These features, which can be seen in the photos, separate it from the similar Arctic Warbler.

After 20 minutes of observation the bird called a rapid tzi-eet further aiding the identification.

Gary Bell

Leach’s Storm-petrels in Shetland – New discoveries

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 16th August 2010 | Birding in Shetland

Since the discovery of Leach’s Storm-petrel breeding colonies in Shetland in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, on Foula and Ramna Stacks, surveys of the species have been infrequent. Although additional breeding colonies have long been suspected, no attempts had been made recently to survey ‘potential’ sites (most relatively inaccessible), nor had time been dedicated to attempt to tape-lure the species for ringing in the north of Shetland, away from the known breeding sites. This summer, however, Will Miles, fellow Shetland Nature team member Rory Tallack, and I set out on what was to become a pioneering discovery.

Prior to this summer, Will had worked on Leach’s Storm-petrels on St Kilda for four consecutive years. Although there are few better places than St Kilda to undertake work on the species, Shetland had the distinct appeal of ‘the unknown’, and we hoped that our belief in finding Leach’s in the north would ring true. Specifically, we planned to try new sites for tape-luring birds for ringing (under BTO license); also, to visit some of the more remote islands and stacks around Unst and Yell in the hope of discovering new breeding colonies (under SNH schedule 1 species license).

With Shetland Nature’s local knowledge and contacts, I was thrilled to help lead the adventure and to organise our visits to the off-shore sites, where, in many cases, only a mere handful of people had ever set foot before – a thought which had tantalised me for many years! Birders like me, by nature, are driven and inspired by the prospect of discovery, by thoughts of ‘pushing the boundaries’ and by any possibilities for pioneering study. In the end, it was a mixture of these motivations, our adventurous spirit, and our unerring enthusiasm that fuelled an exhilarating week, ultimately rewarded by the discovery of Leach’s Storm-petrels nesting at a new site in Shetland…

Tape-luring and mist-netting Leach’s Storm-petrels for ringing

Previously in Shetland, Leach’s Storm-petrels had been trapped for ringing mostly on Foula and indeed Fair Isle, where individuals are caught and ringed almost annually by the bird observatory staff. Peak time for catching the species using tape-lures is mid-July to the first week of August. To my knowledge, no successful attempt had ever been made to tape-lure Leach’s Storm-petrels on Unst or Fetlar; therefore, it was with great optimism and enthusiasm that we set out to do what had never been done before on these islands.

Over the course of the week, to our great surprise, we successfully caught and ringed Leach’s Storm-petrels on every night that mist-netting was attempted (five in total). Ten birds were trapped in all: one on Fetlar and nine on Unst. On Fetlar, we attempted mist-netting on only one night and, remarkably, a Leach’s Storm-petrel was the first bird caught – the first ever record of the species for the island! An additional 22 European Storm-petrels were also trapped that evening.

What was very interesting was that many of the Leach’s on Unst and Fetlar, which were trapped or heard calling around the nets, came in to the tape-lure relatively early in the night, well before midnight. This was in contrast to the situation on Fair Isle and St Kilda, where birds have rarely ever been seen so early, and the vast majority have been caught much later, between 1am and 3am. One possibility to explain this may be that in the far north of Shetland, for some reason, in the early evening more birds occur within relatively close proximity to land than do elsewhere.

In a sense, we had begun to re-write the mist-netting status of the species in Shetland: our preliminary results suggested the far north to be a much more lucrative and reliable area for catching birds than any other area or island previously tried. With this idea in mind, we set out on our first excursion to try to find a new breeding colony on one of the unexplored offshore islands and stacks in the North… a find that would be the ‘icing on the ornithological cake’ for us!

Pioneering discoveries

During the course of the week we landed on several off-shore stacks and islands, one of which Dave Okill (regional BTO officer) joined us on. This in itself was an exhilarating experience, especially landing on Muckle Flugga, where we found European Storm-petrel to be present and calling from suitable nesting habitat underground.

There was something very special about just getting onto these normally inaccessible Isle’s, knowing that in many cases only a very few people had ever been on the land before. It was on one of these landings that we made the most momentous and to us epic discovery of all though – a previously undiscovered colony of Leach’s Storm-petrels! After all our self-motivated efforts, this truly was a just and gratifying reward. More on this breeding discovery soon…

Paddyfield warbler – a ‘jammy’ start to the autumn!

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 10th August 2010 | Birding in Shetland

A jammy start indeed! I simply couldn’t believe my eyes as I stood at the kitchen window of my mother-in-laws, enjoying my early morning caffeine hit (and toasted muffin of course) at 06:30 in the morning. Flitting through the tops of the willow tree’s I saw a warbler- rubbing the sleep out of my eyes I thought to myself something was immediately interesting about it and scarpered across the room for my bins. To my astonishment, head on to me it showed an aggressive looking facial pattern, with dark black eye stripe, cracking white supercilium with a dark border above (a sub-coronal mark) and also a distinctly dark tipped bill…this all added up to equal Paddyfield to me! With the adrenalin surging (helped by the coffee no doubt!) I began to think, what else- leg colour- check, pale, almost fleshy coloured. Primary projection- check, short and stubby…. Blimey, it is one!

All this excitement took place over about a minute and a half. Part of the mayhem was that I knew I had only a few minutes before I had to leave the house for the 0705 ferry to meet clients to take Otter watching. I ran out to the car and grabbed my camera, straight back into the garden, where luckily it still showed and managed half a dozen record shots. I had another minute or two and I was off for the ferry, my day and indeed autumn had gotten off to a fine start! The most incredible thing was that it was the first migrant passerine of the autumn I had seen.

Paddyfield is still very much a national rarity. It is the second one in Shetland this year, the other being in June.

Just in time, I caught the ferry. After meeting our clients I went on to find them five otters, a mother and two cubs, a dog and a sub adult female. The mother and cubs performed a treat!

Red-necked phalaropes return!

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Saturday 22nd May 2010 | Birding in Shetland

Last but by no means least, the phalaropes arrived back today!! Undoubtedly one of our most charasmatic of breeding bird species here in Shetland and a true Fetlar speciality- the Red-necked phalarope. Typically the ‘phals’ are the last breeding species to return to breed in spring. Mid May, usually between the 15th- 20th used to be the typical arrival dates but in resent years birds have been slightly later.

In the British Isles Fetlar still holds the lions share of this essentially Arctic breeding wader. With rarely more than 15 pairs in recent years, the breeding population is of great national importance. Typical of many Northern breeding species, phalaropes have a very intense breeding season, they are the last to arrive back and the first to leave, adult birds have usually all left with in the first few days of August and by the end of the first week most of the juvenisles have followed.

For the phalaropes it is very much a womans world indeed, once she has laid her eggs- her work is done! The male is left to incubate and rear the chicks all by himself! Females will often repeat this more than once in a season and often go off and find another mate!

It is not just their breeding roles that are reversed, it is the females that are the ‘lookers’, which can be seen by this bird I managed to photograph today, all be it a poor image but their beauty is hard to hide!

What an absolute privilege to have grown up on Fetlar with these bird literally on our doorstep.

Red-rumped Swallow

Posted by Rory Tallack on Wednesday 19th May 2010 | Birding in Shetland

Tuesday evening was one of those incredible Shetland summer evenings, when there’s hardly a breath of wind and not a cloud in the sky. I was sat at home, exhausted after 3 fantastic days away with a group of local school kids on a geology trip. I had little enthusiasm for anything which involved movement until my girlfriend asked, “should we go out birding seeing it’s such a lovely evening”. Believe me, this is not a sentence which passes her lips very often!

Earlier that day I learned that I had missed a White-tailed Eagle in Unst yet again, so it took little persuasion to get me outside. In the same way that there is always enough room for pudding, I find that there is always just enough energy for a bit more birding! Twenty minutes later we were being treated to a spectacular aerobatic display in the north of the island, as a group of Swallows careered up and down the burn in front of us. In my opinion there are few better sights in the bird world. “I would love to find a Red-rumped Swallow”, I said as we watched.

Arriving back into Norwick some ten minutes later, another group of hawking Swallows caught my eye a couple of fields away. I was still driving but as the closest of the birds changed direction I caught sight of a pale orange rump. I parked up, grabbed my scope and video camera and we made our way closer to the flock for a better view…A Red-rumped Swallow, unbelievable! This was the first I had ever seen in Shetland, making the find that little bit more special.

Red-rumped Swallows breed across southern Europe and although they are becoming more regular in the UK, there are fewer than 25 records in Shetland, half of those occurring in the last decade.

The above photo was taken (digi scoped) ‘at the scene of the find’, also attached is one from our good friend Robbie Brookes.

Rory Tallack

Black-tailed Godwits

Posted by Roger Riddington on Sunday 16th May 2010 | Birding in Shetland

A few pairs of Black-tailed Godwits breed in Shetland in most years, but this species is more commonly seen passing through the islands on migration, especially in autumn. Two races of Black-tailed Godwits occur in the UK, but most (or all) of those seen in Shetland are Limosa l. islandica, which breeds mainly in Iceland (with a few in northern Britain and the Faeroes). These differ from nominate limosa, which breeds in northern Europe and further east, by having shorter legs and bill, and (in breeding plumage) by darker red underparts, with coarser black bars, that extend further down the belly than on limosa. This migrant bird, photographed at Quendale in mid May, is probably a female islandica, given that the bill is rather longer than many males, and also because the red is less extensive than a typical male – although it is hard to be sure since there is a fair degree of individual variation.

Roger Riddington

World-class encounters!

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 7th May 2010 | Birding in Shetland, News, Sea Mammals in Shetland

What a fantastic day! After an extremely successful (and very enjoyable) three days of Otter Photography – 23 Otters on three Islands with a Dutch client (Wim Konninghurst) we decided to spend a day on Unst.

The day got off to a fantastic start with a pod of over 20 Risso’s Dolphins off the early morning ferry. The dolphins were spread widely across Bluemull Sound between Yell and Fetlar. This stretch of water is one of the best in the Isles for seeing these burly dolphins.

Although you cant quite make out much detail from my cropped record shots, Risso’s are characteristically covered in scars. With blunt- bow headed appearance and these often rather prominent markings, Risso’s can look quite coarse and rather rough looking and with this be very distinct, given decent views. They are often quite deep water predators, with squid being a favourite food source and cause of much of the scarring! Feeding dives can often last up to an impressive 15-20 minutes and Squid in the stomach contents of Risso’s have been found to measure an amazing 12 feet! Lets hope we manage to locate them during our Seamamal Search on the 29th of May!

Barely an hour later, on arrival to Burrafirth Shore Station at the North end of Unst (where the Scottish Natural Heritage reserve’s visitor centre is based) we found a Hoopoe, literally seconds after getting out of the car and kitted up! Quite increadable given that fellow members of the ‘Shetland Nature’ team Garry Bell and Rob Fray had been called out to identify a bird the previous day – which turned out to be a Hoopoe! Which incidentally is the one photographed, by Gary.

But the day was not yet done. Just as we were about to make our way down off the reserve, whilst sitting gazing out over the Atlantic Ocean, simply awe struck by the ‘seabird city’, my good mate Robbie Brooks rang to inform me he had just had a Sea Eagle heading North over his house. Trying not to expect too much more out of what had already been an incredible outing, I thought to myself ‘that could very probably head our way…’

I then also passed on the exciting news by calling the reserve warden Alister Wilson, who I knew was out on the reserve, not too far away.

Sure enough about an hour later we were alerted to the birds presence by the hundreds of Great Skuas which took to the air across the reserve as the bird drifted low over the moorland. A truly awesome sight indeed watching how this fantastic bird of prey simply dwarfed the swarming Skuas. Not wanting Alister to miss out I called him again literally minutes later it soared over his head, when he got this cracking shot- note the wing tag.

The bird was an immature which was first seen a few weeks earlier on Fair Isle and again by good friend and Shetland nature tour leader Roger Riddington soon after. It is one from a release program on the east coast of Scotland. This bird had a green wing tag on with a No.8 on and is known to be a one year old male. We later enjoyed yet another encounter with the bird during an evening visit to the reserve cliff tops.

Oh if only these masterful raptors would return to the Isles to breed some day…