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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!