Shetland Spring Birding May – June 2013
“Quick – grab your bags” was how the spring 2013 holiday began. No time for gentle introductions – a pod of Killer Whales had just been spotted off Sumburgh Head by Brydon, who was leading a photo-tour. Once disbelief had been quelled, it was all aboard the bus for the dash to try and see them! With a little help from friends and team effort, we got everyone up just in time- the week could not have got off to a better start! Our first seabirds such as Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbill offered a fine supporting cast. Pumped up with adrenaline, all guests were happy to press on for a couple of hours birding before dinner. We left the Orca pod to try to see a beautiful female Red-necked Phalarope at nearby Spiggie with a bathing ‘club’ of about 40 Great Skuas (Bonxies) as a backdrop. While watching the phalarope some of the group turned around only to find an Icterine Warbler on the fence-line; the first record of the spring for the isles (away from Fair Isles). Superb! We were already finding our own good birds. The 1st summer Ring-billed Gull was still present on Loch of Hillwell plus a host of fresh water birds and a Glaucous Gull. It’s fair to say the first couple of hours of this holiday had more than met expectations!
The next morning heralded our next ‘find’. A quick scan around Sumburgh farm revealed not one but 2 Red-backed Shrikes; a male recently present plus a new female with striking rich brown plumage. While watching the shrikes we also picked up Iceland Gull, Long-tailed Duck, Black Guillemot and Great Northern Diver.
Lerwick harbour was our mid-morning destination. A migrant male Pied Flycatcher in towns gardens proved birds can be found anywhere in Shetland but a Canada Goose at Clickimin Loch drew much more attantion. While the same size as 2 accompanying Canada’s, its darker, browner plumage with no white neck collar indicated its identity as a possible Todd’s Canada Goose – a vagrant bird form North America (and potential first for Shetland). Intrigued (and with sequence of images nailed) but somewhat distracted by our sailing time commitment for our boat trip to Noss, we only just made the pier in time for the spectacular trip on board the Dunter out to the seabird colony at Noss.
Another Glaucous Gull in the harbour plus summer plumaged Red-throated and Great Northern Divers bejewelled our journey.
Once there, the seabird cliffs provide a breath-taking spectacle yielding the kind of point blank views not usually possible with Gannets, Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots plus lunch stealing Bonxies alongside the boat. Afternoon was spent taking spectacular scenery of east side of the South Ness including the tombolo at St Ninian’s Isle. We also found (another!) male Red-backed Shrike at Spiggie.
A rest around teatime prepared us for the late night outing to the magic of the Island of Mousa and the Storm Petrels. Famously described as the ‘sound of a fairy being sick’, the enchanting purring song of the petrels in the majestic and mysterious ancient broch created an unforgettable memory.
Bound for Unst we began Sunday morning with a Short-toed Lark on Sumburgh Head with awesome views of Puffins nearby. Britain’s most Northerly Island was a place of exploration and discovery for the next few days.
It was here on Unst that we had what was to stand out as one of the most favoured memories (among many) of the week’s holiday. So let’s fast forward:
Team effort is a key element for Shetland Nature holidays, both within our groups, amongst fellow team members and residents around the isles. Tuesday afternoon was the perfect example…. Unst resident Robbie Brookes contacted us to say he’d seen an acrocephalus Warbler at Skaw that he thought was probably a Marsh. We knew this was worth checking and arrived at Skaw to banks of mist rolling in on NE breeze; oow, special conditions indeed. We soon located a Garden Warbler, a Spotted Flycatcher and another bird ‘flew’ in’ to join them but remained obscured. With a little effort we were soon having great views of a spring Marsh Warbler and discussing the key ID features.
Just beyond up popped a female Red-backed Shrike. Fantastic! 2 minutes later another Red-backed Shrike, both on view at the same time.
Hold on – fog, north-east winds… now we’re cookin’. In the next half hour we found 6 Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitehroat. Then the icing on the cake: 2 of our guest returning from the beach said a couple of birds had been flitting about on the stream. Any bird that’s perhaps not familiar or appeared unusual is not to be left in Shetland and in these conditions…a quick stroll down and BOOM! a Little Bunting; regular but still a good find in autumn but very rare in spring. What a stunning bird and a life tick for most of the group.
Against this peak birding moment in Unst we savoured the majestic Hermaness with oodles of Bonxies, singing and displaying Dunlin and Golden Plover, another majestic seabird cliff, stunning spring Snow Buntings on Hermaness and Lamba Ness, Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns.
Haroldswick scored for us too with migrant Wood Warbler, Greenland and Mealy Redpoll with a Quail in the same ‘ditch’, and the injured 1st summer Common Crane. Baltasound yielded migrants too including Long-eared Owl and Cuckoo and Otters on an early morning safari.
Our day trip to Fetlar always seems to produce something special. This time a Blyth’s Reed Warbler no less, found by SN team member Andy Cook – only the 7th May record for Britain! Redstart, Short-eared Owl and Siskin were all migrants and we found another Red-backed Shrike!
Like book ends, the last day of the holiday was marked by surprises which included rare birds and cetaceans. We got to be in on the identification wrestle with a typically and frustratingly elusive Thrush Nightingale at Virkie, another SN team member find, this time by Rob Fray and finished before dinner by finding 2 Minke Whales passing north off Sumburgh Head.
Space and words in a report like this make it impossible to shoehorn in, all of the wonderful experiences and discoveries we had. Suffice to say it was such a starlight holiday – we are already planning next spring’s gig, with a special guest guide Tim Appleton a ‘new addition’ to the Shetland Nature team.
And if you can’t wait that long, there are still places for this autumn birding holiday adventures!