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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – The first for Shetland and Scotland

Posted by Rob Fray on Wednesday 14th November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Over the weekend of 13th/14th October 2012, Shetland was seemingly awash with Olive-backed Pipits; ten were found over the two days but, try as I might, I couldn’t rustle up one of my own. On Monday 15th October, I decided to branch out from my usual South Mainland haunts. Where would be a good place to find an OBP? I plumped for Scalloway.

After a couple of hours of searching the many trees and mature gardens of Shetland’s ancient capital, with just a few Bramblings and Siskins to show for my efforts, I was coming to the conclusion that I was going to fail in my Olive-backed Pipit mission. The final place to check was the area of sycamores around the Scalloway Health Centre. Whilst sitting in the car, pondering which direction to walk in, a small black and white bird bounded across in front of me and landed in the aforementioned sycamores. I initially assumed it was going to be a Great Spotted Woodpecker, as I knew one had been present in Scalloway for a few days previously, but something was seriously disturbing just from this brief flight view: the bird was tiny! A quick look through the bins – prominent black and white ‘laddering’ on the upperparts, no red on it anywhere, and only the size of a sycamore leaf  – was followed by a rather frantic session of waving the camera in its general direction.

I knew it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, being pretty familiar with them from my previous life ‘down south’ (although I’d not seen one for a few years), but couldn’t really comprehend what I was seeing. The bird moved away through the trees and was lost to view, at which time I tried to collect my thoughts. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker wasn’t on the Shetland List, and nobody had even seriously considered it as a realistic candidate to turn up here. I was faced with the prospect of a single-observer record of a completely unlikely addition to the Shetland List. Was I making some elementary mistake? The photos on the back of my camera told me otherwise. I rang fellow Shetland Nature guide Gary Bell for moral support: “Lesser Spot isn’t on the Shetland List is it?” “It’s not even on the Scottish List! Why do you ask?” “Because I’ve just found one in Scalloway”. Silence. Gary must have thought I’d lost the plot. I went through the events with him, and he was persuaded to drive to Scalloway to help with the search. The news was put out, and all of Shetland’s active birders descended on Scalloway to look for it. Many were somewhat incredulous, and several queried my sanity by text before arriving at Scalloway and seeing my photos! Fortunately, after a couple of hours, the bird was relocated in gardens not far from the Health Centre, and showed on and off during the evening and over the following few days; it was last reported on October 19th.

Although Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was not on anybody’s ‘radar’ as a potential addition to the Shetland List (indeed, one well-known Shetland birder declared it to be “the most bizarre thing he had ever seen in Shetland”, whilst another thought that the initial text releasing the news was a wind-up!), we now know that this species does occasionally ‘irrupt’ in small numbers from northern Europe in response to food shortages. Interestingly, one was trapped on the island of Utsira, off the western coast of Norway (only about 220 miles from Shetland), the day before the Scalloway bird was found, although photographs show that it was a different individual. Late autumn 2012 was notable in Shetland for the appearance of a number of other species that had ‘irrupted’ out of northern Europe, including Blue and Great Tits, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Waxwings, so if ever a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was going to make it here, this was the autumn that it was going to happen. What might come next from the forests of Scandinavia?

I never did find myself an Olive-backed Pipit (although birders looking for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker did unearth one in Scalloway, so my initial idea was not without merit!). However, bumbling into a first for Shetland was certainly ample compensation.

Rob Fray