Pied Wheatear at Haroldswick, Unst – 1st to 9th November 2014
In flight, the wheatear in the first few seconds of first views. The following morning it showed down to just a few feet when the other images were taken.
When you look at recent form from previous autumns it might seem quite surprising that an island as geographically well positioned as Unst and as well covered as it is- there had been a drought of nearly five weeks since the last BB rarity. Nevertheless this was certainly the case for us for the second half of the autumn; there had been not a single national rarity since the Swainson’s on the 28th September.
The suggestion that myself and birding comrades Micky Maher and Mike Pennington, were perhaps ever so slightly starting to wane by the first day of November, might not be all together inaccurate. However November is a month never underestimated by us in Shetland. In fact the early part particularly has produced some quality finds for us in previous years including Pine Bunting and Hume’s Warbler and has come to be one of our favourite periods of late autumn. Plus of course the banter is always good and the reality always is that you simply have to be in it to win it- sure we’d had a quiet run but you just keep on digging in.
But our luck was about to change; we were rounding off a circuit of what was to be the last site of the morning for me before heading home to spend the rest of the day with the family. My last trickle of optimism came as it was just approaching 14:45pm as we were just about to go our separate ways in our cars, I shared my intention to detour round the ring road through Haroldswick and thankfully MAM and MGP agreed and followed on convoy style.
Just minutes later driving up onto the side road, a stunningly unfamiliar tail pattern of a pale vagrant wheatear caught my eye as it dashed across a field to my right, causing me to grind to an instant haut. I couldn’t believe it- finally we were back in the game! As I focussed my bins on it perched face on about 40 yards from the road, I glanced over my shoulder to the lads behind and waved my arm out the window like a lunatic in the direction of the bird. Right or wrong my impulse reaction after a reasonable few seconds view was to grab my camera from the passenger seat and fire off a couple of frames, which was all I managed out the window as it flew.
Thankfully as we scrambled out of our cars I could immediately tell from MAM’s expression I was not alone in my excitement- the frantic pointing had worked! Although however there was most certainly just cause for a moment of euphoria as first thoughts were for Pied- we knew that Eastern Black-eared needed eliminated and the couple of shots I had taken in the heat of the moment only showed underparts. We called Robbie Brookes with the news who joined us straight away.
Fear slowly set in over the fifteen to twenty minutes or so that ensued while we tried to relocate it. It had only appeared to dip over the rise of a hill, but it had disappeared. Fortunately however I managed to pick it up along a fence of an adjacent field where we could all start to get distant scope views.
Eventually it gave better but brief views before disappearing again along a network of dry stone walled fields. It was now approaching 15:45pm and we had lost it completely and barely shared more than a few minutes viewing of the bird between us. Thankfully Robbie had nailed a set of images that we hoped, along with what we had seen, could confirm its ID after consulting literature. Later that evening when we got together and we reassured ourselves of Pied, as well as opinion of a couple of others with relevant experience, we could eventually rule out EBE. Thankfully the following morning it was very obliging, showing down to just a few metres. Now the subtleties that had confirmed its ID the day before, (such as the faint scaly fringing to scapular feathers) were much easier to see.
Although aware of the potential difficulties with these two species, this was the first time for us to be faced with this ID separation and so we were rightly cautious. Further reading later revealed just how difficult poorly marked first winter/female plumages can be and how much overlap there appeared to be in features between them. The fact that some authors state some individuals to be inseparable without seeing base colour to mantle feathers made us all the more careful.
Perhaps surprisingly this was Unst’s first ever rare wheatear. It was the 8th record for Shetland.