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.

From Siberia

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.

Local Highlights

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.

Team Effort

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?

Martin Garner

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