1st winter male Pine Bunting, Baltasound, Unst, Shetland 30/10/16

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 21st November 2016 | Birding in Shetland

The family stroll that produced a Pine Bunting

Birding life in Shetland can be intensely emotive. If ‘find listing’ is your thing it can be even more so and as clichéd as it is to say it, the latter is often a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, sometimes with unforgettable ‘purple patches’ but also those prefer-to-be forgotten pathetic ones. For myself and my usual bird finding buddies the October of all Octobers had yielded frustratingly little for us whilst absolutely  crippling vagrants were being found the length and breadth of Shetland. No matter how hard we worked It simply was not our time.

The finding of a superb Siberian Accentor on Fetlar with Micky Maher and Stef McElwee on the 26th was indeed quite the turning point. In fact several days before that a delightful Pallas’s Warbler was the beginnings of the change for us…

Sunday 30th October was a coolish overcast and dull day, which had followed a calm, slack-weather night changing to light  ESE winds. It was to be a day for the family, hanging up Halloween decorations, games and so on but after a nice relaxed family breakfast my usual morning circuit of the Halligarth trees had to be done! Finding a Dusky Warbler was a nice surprise, it even ended up in our garden too. My little bubble was soon to burst however when I went in to put the news out only to read; ‘Feas Petrel north past Lambaness’ on my mobile’s screen from Dave Cooper!!

After lunch I had made a plan with my wife Vaila that I’d take the bairn’s Casey (7), Corey (5) and Nula May (just four months old) in her pram for a circuit round central Baltasound.  Barely 15 minutes along the road as we crossed the small area of waste ground between the terrace, junction and play park a fairly large  bunting rose from the footpath. It was instantly recognisable as ‘hammer/pine’ by its long tailed and rusty rumped appearance. Even in this first flight view my attention was drawn to its contrasty/cold grey, dark and white head pattern. This looked VERY good!

Pine Bunting is on the radar in any Shetland autumn in late October/early November with easterlies but with it being a record year for them, none more so than this. It had flushed from our left, from about 20 yards away, across the road and landed atop of some alder branches about 50 to 60 yards away. Back on, I could see its head pattern well, again standing out was dark crown stripes, broad, cold greyish-white super (especially behind eye), dark ear covert surround with contrasting white oval shaped crescent to lower rear- my first view impulse ID was again concluded, a male PUNTING BUNTING!!

In normal ‘in the field’ circumstances the situation would be intense enough but here was I stood with our two sons and Nula in the pram! EE network, surprise-surprise was down so I had no signal but was literally in shouting distance from Mike Pennington’s house where I knew he and Micky Maher had just arrived. Choices: Stay watching the bird and try to nail it; leg it, pram and kids in tow along the road the 100 or so yards to get them risking losing the bird or hang on a minute- send Casey!

Casey, already excited enough to have seen it in the first place was briefed about the importance of getting Micky and Mike and he was to tell them “Dad’s found a rare bird!” To my shock as Casey was nearing Mikes driveway, Mikes car pulled out and turned the opposite way before Casey could reach them!! I had no choice really, I watched the bird for a short while till it moved further into the Post Office garden before legging it along the road to Mikes.

I couldn’t pursue the bird where it appeared to have gone (due to pram and bairn’s) and I obviously didn’t have a camera, nor could I say with 100% certainty that there was no trace of yellow on underparts. I’m lucky enough to have found Pine Bunting before, a cracking female (with Mike in November 2011) and remembered well the importance of ruling out potential hybrids. Where easternmost Yellowhammers meet with the westernmost Pine Buntings, hybridization is renowned and more importantly, such birds have been recorded in Britain. Even 2nd or 3rd generation birds can show traces of yellow such as fringing to tertials, primaries or underwing coverts- basically if it shows any of these it’s game over, you’ve found an intergrade.

Thankfully Margaret, Mikes wife was home and was an absolute star as always, she took the bairn’s in whilst I got Mike and Micky as well as calling Vaila to come with my camera. Soon after, now armed with camera, we relocated the bird in a sycamore next to Mikes house and together were able to nail it, getting good views (despite the showers!) and eliminate any possible sign of Yellowhammer genes and help nail it- he was as I first thought, 100% Pine!

Fellow Unst Birders Robbie Brookes, Dave Cooper and Brenda Kay were soon with us, although light was fading and showers were moving in we enjoyed superb views as it fed along roadsides, occasionally dropping into rank grassy fields for short periods. Finding good birds is always all the more memorable with your mates but finding them when you are out with the family is particularly special, some even might say spawny! We had great banter as we all congratulated Dave on his Fea’s and I jested how crazy but typical of this epic an autumn it was that the Pine Bunting wasn’t even bird of the day!