Humpback Whales off Shetland, December 2016
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 15th December 2016 | Sea Mammals in Shetland
How often do we travel to far flung and exotic locations and continents in search of wildlife? I know this is something I personally used to do and enjoyed immensely. But to see species that otherwise may lure us overseas, right on our home turf takes some beating. If planning a trip for example for the best encounters with Humpback Whales, exotic locations such as Antarctica, Baja Calafornia, Hawaii or closer to home Iceland would all feature on the list but Shetland in mid winter?
This set of images were all taken just last week on the 2nd December off Yell, Shetland. Over the past three weeks there has been up to four Humpbacks inshore between Yell, Fetlar and Unst. They have especially favoured the stretch of water south of Hascosay off Vatster and further south along east side of Yell. We’ve enjoyed sightings of Humpbacks moving north through this area into Bluemull Sound several times now in recent winters, (with mid to late winter appearing to be peak time) but this year they have hung around.
What we were amazed to find on the day we took a boat trip with Peter Hunter out to look for them was that in the area they are favouring most the sea was literally solid with Mackerel shoals, often reading on the sonar down to a depth of 30m, a mass of mackerel from surface to bottom! We could not say however whether they were actually feeding although it looked as though they were. In total we spent about two hours with them before needing to head home as the mid winter sun started to set. I feel really lucky to have seen ‘Humpies’ many times in Shetland and in some truly awesome locations such as Antarctica and Hawaii but this was an encounter I will never forget.
They appeared completely at ease with the boat and our presence, obviously taking a responsible approach we would cut the engine and drift, with them repeatedly working a circuit they’d come right to us, often surfacing as close as 10 metres from the boat, when their blows sprayed our very faces. They passed many times right under us, the ghostly form of the white pectoral fins clearly visible just a few metres bellow.
Seeing any cetacean at close quarters is a true privilege but this day they took the show to another level and really did perform. It was as if they wanted to show us everything they had; spyhopping, pectoral fin and tail surface slapping, the characteristic and iconic tail flukes but the best of all was the positively epic full breach.
I was particularly intrigued by the tail slapping; far from being any sort of cetacean expert I assumed that like Killer Whales, which I often see tail slapping that it would be in some way related to feeding technique or just for fun but it appears it is also thought to be a way of communication. This would make sense as the four whales, paired off in two’s (but seen together on other days) kept quite some distance from each other, usually at least half a mile or more while we were there but always in the vicinity.
It is clear that Humpback whales in British waters is certainly becoming increasingly more regular. Over the past decade sightings have increased particularly off of North East Scotland, western Isles and indeed Northern Isles and we are seeing them annually here. With population recovering well in North Atlantic it is quite probable that occurrences will continue to rise. It is not yet clear however whether British sightings involve western or eastern Atlantic populations although the latter, including Norway and Iceland seems more likely. These areas have seen significant increase in Herring and Mackerel population especially so may tie in with why they are here too. Who knows, perhaps they are now present inshore year round, which would explain the sightings throughout the seasons.
I have sent images for ID purposes to the Sea Watch Foundation and North Norwegian Humpback Whale Catalogue project and very much look forward to see if they come back with any matches…
View Follow-up Post: A Humpback ID match UK first: Caribbean/Shetland Islands
2016 Shetland Autumn Birding review, part one
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 25th November 2016 | Birding in Shetland, News
A review of our Autumn Birding season; part 1, in association with Birdwatch Magazine & Birguides
This season our core birding weeks, led by Rob Fray and Gary Bell, as usual ran over the last week of September and first week of October however we had itineraries running through to third week in October. It goes without saying this year that it has been The most epic of autumns and therefore by far our most exciting to date. We were delighted to welcome a good balance of both new and regular SN customers, some of which just can’t miss a single autumn for fear of what they might miss and this year that was a very, very wise decision!
Week one was for the most part frustratingly dominated with westerlies and Atlantic low pressure systems, bringing with it quite a lot of rain and not so many birds, at least compared to the following week! It’s not to say it was without highlights though, with birds already present and new ones arriving when the weather finally changed, there were plenty.
It’s crazy to say it but over a week that often saw very difficult birding conditions, with strong winds and lashing rain the list of birds on Shetland over the week was more than impressive, to name but a few of the rarities; Pallid Harrier, Olive-backed Pipit; Paddyfield, Arctic and Radde’s Warblers however probably the most enjoyable/obliging for our guests were Blyth’s Reed (s), Greenish and Dusky Warblers and best of all the Brown Shrike at Aith was certainly the rarest bird of the week.
Scarcities were not far from the limelight either with an equally impressive supporting cast throughout the isles. Rose Coloured Starling, Little Bunting, Hoopoe, Hawfinch and Red-breasted Flycatcher were all present whilst a pod of Pilot Whales in Lerwick harbour showed that there is can always be a cetacean surprise even in autumn.
Rolling into week two the pace certainly picked up. Over night between 01-2/10/16 the weather brought an exciting change from the south east, which was to hold throughout the entire month. This was the beginnings of the most extraordinary October on record. The first of over five weeks of easterlies set a pretty high standard with top drawer tackle such as yet another Brown Shrike (with a third being discovered later!), the first of multiple Red-flanked Bluetail, Great Snipe Lanceolated Warbler followed by Swainson’s and multiple Whites and Black-throated Thrushes but the star of the ‘thrush fest’ was the superb 1st year male Siberian Thrush which was a joint, team effort find for our group and Dave Bradnum, Howard and Bob Vaughan. Another good find for our group was a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll, one of several which presumably arrived the previous week of NW winds. A Western Orphean Warbler was a real surprise and mega but proved to be frustratingly elusive after its initial discovery.
In addition to the outstanding cast of sizzling Sibes throughout the week there was Paddyfield and Blyth’s Reed Warblers along with multiple Radde’s, Dusky and Pallas’s Warblers, Olive-backed and Richards Pipits, Bluethroat and Red-backed Shrike whilst in typical Shetland autumn standard Yellow-browed Warblers were pretty much everywhere throughout the islands as well as Little Buntings and Red-breasted Flycatchers here and there whilst interestingly Barred warbler and Common Rosefinch were much scarcer than our usual autumns however, it’s quite safe to say that low numbers of the latter would not have crossed anyone’s mind given the superb quality of birds on offer during the first half of our Shetland Autumn Birding season.
Part two to follow soon…
Siberian Thrush 6th October 2016, Uyeasound, Unst, Shetland
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 22nd November 2016 | Birding in Shetland
A finders account by one of this year’s clients, Anthony Griffiths who had chosen this year to be his first year to experience Shetland in autumn…
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in natural history and Birding in particular. As the years have passed I have become more keen on seeing and even more so, in finding, rare birds.
I have long dreamed of visiting the fabled Shetland Isles, especially in October, to witness autumn migration at its best. This was the year that I managed it for the first time, but it certainly will not be the last.
I chose Shetland Nature to be my guides for this trip as I share the ethos of the company to group find birds by well organised searches of any suitable habitat across the islands rather than simply chasing after other peoples finds.
We had had an excellent start to our trip encountering several Shetland specialities including a fantastic Lanceolated and Blyths Reed Warblers on our first day.
We then had a ‘Thrushtastic’ afternoon on Fetlar with an amazing White’s and a very confiding Swainson’s Thrushes within a mile of each other!!
On the 6th October we were on Unst all day. We started at the valley of Norwick where there was a steady, significant movement of common thrushes and finches, (mostly Bramblings) streaming down the valley all morning along with Goldcrests in every bush, certainly a very promising start to the day!
We then spent an hour or so wading through the boggy fields below Norwick trying to flush the Great Snipe that had been present there for several days. We did flush a heavy bird with heavily marked underparts but had frustratingly brief views.
Sadly the day then went a little quiet, but only for a while! We dipped Common Rosefinch at Haroldswick and the long staying Hornemanns Arctic Redpoll at Clingera.
Looking for a bird to keep the day moving we headed to Uyeasound where a Barred Warbler had been reported as ‘showing well’, not a comment you hear relating to this species very often! When we arrived we met a birder who was just leaving who told us where it was last seen, it was sunbathing on a bush in one of the few large gardens in the Hamlet. Sadly, however, by the time we got there, of course there was no sign!
The group spread out to search for it and we were soon joined by 2 other teams of birders and there were soon around 15 of us searching the gardens and fields of Uyeasound. After about 1/2 hour we were starting to feel that we had missed our chance. I had been chatting with Howard Vaughan and David Bradnum, 2 members of a team that we had already bumped into several times during the week. We had just started to spread out again when a moderate sized thrush shot past first Howard and then myself and we could immediately see the unmistakable black and white underwing of a thrush of Siberian origin which instantly set the adrenaline flowing as any member of this group would be a superb find on Shetland, or anywhere in the UK for that matter!
Howard initially shouted “Whites!!!!’ as he had seen the spotted underparts but something didn’t feel right as the bird wasn’t big enough. It then flew directly over David and a few others where it briefly alighted on a tree and they could clearly see the very bold eye stripe and the shouts from the side of the house were very loud and very clear, ‘SIBERIAN, its definitely a SIBERIAN!!!!’
The bird then rocketed back round the house, back over Howard and myself across a small field and dived into a large Rosa bush in a very small back garden of a terrace house by the harbour.
I had, fortunately, unclipped my Camera and managed to fire off a series of shots as it flew across the field, more in hope than expectation, that I would capture any usable shots but I was delighted to review them once the bird had taken refuge in the Rosa and see that, although they were never going win any prizes, I had somehow managed to get a few shots that were able to confirm the identification. The black and white underwing pattern was clear, as was the very bold supercilium and it was also possible to see the dark blue upperparts indicating that the bird was a first winter male.
Once all the birders in our group and the other ‘teams’ had gathered, at a reasonable distance from the garden, our first aim was to get the news out to allow the other birders on Unst to connect with ‘our’ bird. As there was only about an hours light left it was going to be very difficult for anybody not already on Unst to connect that night. The main problem was that nobody had any mobile reception, fortunately though somebody managed to jump onto a local wifi connection and the news was out! The grape vine obviously went into full flow as it was only a few minutes before cars started to speed into the Hamlet with birders pouring out well before the wheels had stopped!
After a short while of staking out the garden it popped up onto the fence for just long enough for me to take a couple of shots before it flew out of the garden and out over the bay at, which time we thought it would carry on and be lost but it obviously thought better of it and did a turn and shot back into its new favourite garden, promptly vanishing back into the Rosa. It soon came out again and landed in view by the large warehouse where some of our group managed much better shots than I had managed of the bird on the ground in full view, these were the real ‘money’ shots showing all the salient identification features ( apart from ‘that’ underwing!)
It continued to show on and off in ‘its’ garden for all up until dusk.
We hung around for a while, getting more views of the bird and just generally soaking up the atmosphere of being part of the finding of such rare bird. This (assuming it is accepted) was only be the 10th record for the British isles!
It is such a great feeling to be able to see the anxious faces of red faced birders running to the site turn into huge grins as they catch that first sight of a new bird.
What an incredible end to yet another magnificent day on Shetland, Gary Drove us back to our accommodation, the bus was a mix of stunned silence and euphoria.
Once back at the hotel we soon found ourselves in the bar, toasting the day with a pint or 2 of the local brew!
Sadly there was no sign the following morning, we reckoned that somewhere around 50 birders managed to see the Thrush on that Thursday evening.
Many thanks to the great organization of Shetland nature, our excellent guide ( Gary Bell) and to whoever managed to arrange for such productive Siberian Easterly airflow for the whole of our trip, continuing for the whole of October resulting it what must surely go down as one of the best Octobers for Eastern rarities on record. Not a bad year to pick for my first trip to Shetland, and to coin a phrase…….I’ll be back!
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!
Fetlar’s Siberian Accentor finders account
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 8th November 2016 | Birding in Shetland
Brydon Thomason, Micky Maher & Stef McElwee
1) Taken from the yard it ended up and looking out over the field we found it in, showing the ditch it came out of and the area to left where it foraged around in marshy area of rank grass. 2) The all important and only image we got of ours and; 3) the very obliging Lund Siberian Accentor, which stayed another two days longer than ours.
“Just wait till our one on Fetlar- maybe Weds/Thursday??” These were BHT’s exact words in an email to MAM on the evening of 23rd October about the Lund Siberian Accentor. Both had been genuinely thrilled for Dave Cooper for such a superb and well deserved find and had enjoyed a good old bit of congratulatory banter with him. As it was on Unst however there was the inevitable, all be it fleeting thoughts of ‘if only’ and that their chance to cash in on the Accentor extravaganza had been missed.
Fast forward to 26th when BHT and MAM teamed up with SJM, for a day’s birding on Fetlar. On the ferry over there was at least some effort made to manage our expectations to a realistic level. Ten minutes on the island however, having started at South Dale, off-the-wall predictions from the far east were already flying out thick and fast.
As we approached the main croft and yard of South Dale, SJM enthusiastically hit us with “Lads, do you know the one ‘Sibe’ we haven’t actually mentioned today but should be thinking? Siberian Accentor!” To which BHT replied “You know what, after seeing the Lund bird I actually had a feeling for that very species at the very croft we are approaching, thinking Fetlar could easily have one and that’s where it could be”!
As we laughed it off two buntings rose from the roadside verge and flew a short way into an ungrazed field. One landed on the fence, clearly a Reed but the second bird had not been seen, having landed in the rank grasses. We detoured into and across the field- alas a second Reed rose from cover and landed on the fence. We continued through the small field, following a shallow ditch towards the intended cover of the yard where nettles, reed canary grass and dockings awaited…
Seconds later and barely three or four minutes after the ‘Sibe Acc’ banter, from our feet rose a small passerine that was bizarrely familiar to us. It landed in the grass no more than 20 metres away but due to length of grass, we could see no more than its head- baring the crippling crown streaks and ear coverts of a species that this October has become so very familiar to us and fellow birders and rarity hunters all over Europe. It was a brief and tantalising view before it scurried out of sight between tussocks of grass- this was it, mega time- we were most definitely in!!!
We attempted to counsel each other as we stalked cautiously to one side in order to get a better view- and there it was, creeping around between tussocks of grass, in the middle of a random marshy field- a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR!! It was a surreal and overwhelmingly knee trembling moment as the three of us stood side by side totally stunned, almost in disbelief that there right in front of us in the field we had just walked through because of two Reed Buntings- was ‘our’ very own Sibe Acc!!!
The immediate expletives and outbursts are, as one might expect under the circumstances, perhaps best left unpublished! MAM was the first to think quickly and keep it together enough to mention to rule out Black-throated.
Further shimmying to get that final 100% certainty view culminated in a joint feeling of adrenalin fuelled euphoria that If we could have bottled up to sell we would be very rich men! We punched the air, struck high fives and lost control in a celebratory huddle-group jump around; for a brief moment completely unaware of how our outbursts might affect our newly found Siberian Prunella or look to passersby!
We tried so desperately to keep it together though not one of us able to curb the frenzied state we felt. We were only a few hundred yards from the car, where sat all three of our cameras! BHT sprinted across the fields, returning with even more haste.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the commotion, we worked the area but to no avail. A wider search saw BHT discover it just 50 or so yards away in the more likely habitat of lush nettles and dockings grown up around an old midden of the yard. It flicked up posing nicely on a docking stem, more or less in full view but in typical docking stem/stand style, the auto focus jumped from stem to stem for a brief second before picking up the Acc- one in-focus frame and it flit back down into cover. This single photograph of the bird was to prove to be priceless- no other images were taken.
As we gathered around the area of cover in the yard by the old midden, we briefly ogled the single image nailed, again celebrated with gratuitous high fiving and back slaps, then moved cautiously closer. We presumed that like the other four Sibe Acc’s we’d seen between us already in the previous days/weeks that it would show intermittently as it scurried around amongst cover and show well at times- to our shock however, this was not to be the case! It flew out from the nettles but instead of darting into adjacent cover or perching, it flew off strongly and quite high northwards towards the next croft. It continued several hundred yards before seemingly descending towards it. That, unfortunately was the last we were to see of it despite pretty intense searching of any suitable nearby habitat.
There are so many elements that come together and make the discovery of rare birds so special and for none more so than the finders. It may be how rare the bird actually is; the chain of events or circumstances which led to it; how hard it was worked for or any number of others- maybe even the location or who you are with and the team spirited effort involved. For us and in this instance it was all these and especially the latter. We couldn’t have picked a better crew nor island to find it on.
Up to the date this was posted a staggering 212 Siberian Accentors had been recorded in Europe, 12 of which in Britain, ours being the 10th. It is widely expected that more will be added to this monumental figure. Quite a winter target bird for your local patch perhaps?
An interesting extract from Dutch Birding; Siberian Accentor breeds on both sides of the Ural mountains and beyond in Siberia, mostly north of the Arctic Circle. Its winter grounds are in eastern Asia: from southern Manchuria, Korea and Japan to central China. In autumn, it is also frequently recorded as a straggler in Alaska, USA. In Europe, there were c 32 records up to 2015, of which more than half in Finland and Sweden.
Book launch: Otters in Shetland – The tale of the draatsi
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 1st December 2015 | News, Otters
At last – after years of planning and the inevitable blood sweat and tears endured with such a huge project, it is finally here and the story of Shetlands otters is communicated through our book Otters in Shetland – The tale of the draatsi.
As it is for anyone who puts their heart and soul into writing a book, especially one on a subject so special and emotive to them, we are immensely pleased and equally proud of this project.
With a gap of over 20 years since anything was published on Shetlands otters it was really important to us to tell their full story and bridge a gap between a science-based reference book and a photographic story-telling book.
From beginning to end the story flows with each and every page and chapter leading into the next; from the Islands and geography; the foundations of the food chain; how they live on the coast through to family life and so on. We also bring in fascinating interviews with Shetlanders who many years ago once hunted them for the fur trade which offers a unique insight into mans relationship in the isles both past and present.
Through our time photographing otters we have captured and documented many, in fact most aspects of their lives and in doing so have created a unique portfolio of images. Incorporated into the informative captions, which accompany these images we bring in the fascinating scientific research from Dr Hans Kruuk, a world leading authority on otters, who we were truly privileged to have write the foreword and to receive such praise from him is a hugely gratifying commendation to us.
Our publisher, The Shetland Times said in their recent press release: “The book has been gaining plaudits from experts in the field of wildlife and photography weeks even before its release date” and then went on to quote Hans Kruuk and wildlife cameraman Doug Allan.
Here’s a couple of extracts from the foreword by DR Hans Kruuk:
“…With all this, the authors make a large contribution to conservation, not just of otters but of the entire coastal ecosystem. Conservation is served by the simple statement of the beauty of the animals in the context of science and natural history, as well as by the detailed explanation of exactly what otters need to survive.
“The reader is made aware of the otters’ hardships in terms of exposure to cold waters, of the need to catch prey quickly as well as keeping their fur clean to keep out the cold – for which they need the many small sources of fresh water along the Shetland coast (which, incidentally, are almost absent in places where otters are few, such as Orkney or the Scottish east coast).
“The book is a thoughtful object of beauty, of otters, and of the Shetland coasts. The authors should be immensely proud of this great effort”.
Wildlife cameraman Doug Allan:
“This is a lovely book that deserves to be on the shelf of any Shetland visitor, or anyone who loves the wild outdoors. Sensitively but informatively written, illustrated by images that could only have been taken by photographers who clearly love, respect and understand their subject and the location. “Shetland should be grateful that there are people with the passion, tenacity and skills of Brydon and Richard, who’ve truly captured the wonder of Shetland’s best loved mammal”.
TV wildlife presenter Iolo Williams:
“Brydon Thomason and Richard Shucksmith have produced a gem of a book which brings the story of otters on Shetland right up to date. Visually, it is stunning, but it is also packed full of information on the ecology and history of this most charismatic of British mammals. Whether you are a fan of otters, a follower of British wildlife or a lover of beautiful books, this is a must for your reading list”.
Details of the book
The book, in hardback only costs £28.00 and is available to order through our publisher here or through us following the official launch date of 12th December.
In total we tell the story of Otters in Shetland through 35,931 words, 276 pages and just over 220 photographs.
We hope you like it!
Brydon Thomason and Richard Shucksmith
Book review: Discover Shetland’s Birds
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 27th November 2015 | Reviews
There are few years that pass without exciting new publications being written about Shetland. We are so very fortunate here to have such an fantastically rich, renowned and fascinating cultural as well as natural heritage. It might be surprising then that since the late Bobby Tulloch published A Guide to Shetland’s Breeding Birds in 1992, such a sought after guide hadn’t been updated for over two decades. Of course The Birds of Shetland, published in 2004 was an outstanding but very different book.
Clearly a photographic guide was well over due and the recently published Discover Shetland’s Birds: A Photographic Guide to Shetland’s Breeding, Wintering and Migrant Birds has gone way beyond expectations to bridge that gap. Published by ‘Shetland Heritage Publications’ the guide concentrates on about 180 of the 450 species recorded in Shetland. With this the authors Paul Harvey and Rebecca Nason target the species visitors are most likely to see throughout the seasons in the Isles.
Few are better placed to write such a book. Both authors are widely respected ornithologists but the collaboration of Paul’s outstanding in-depth knowledge of the islands birds and Rebecca’s gifted artistic approach to her photography has come together to achieve much more than a field guide. Indeed its physical size and shape wouldn’t really be practical to have in the car or in your rucksack but so engaging and beautifully put together it is that you simply wouldn’t want to take it out the house!
What they have achieved with this book is a modern and simple approach to a bird ID guide that anyone from a garden birdwatcher, lover of wildlife or even the experienced birder can enjoy and learn from. The book begins by introducing the islands birds through from the breeding; wintering and migration season. The focus is then systematically on over 150 main species that are most likely to be seen. Each of these is covered in depth, from how to identify and key features to look for, with images covering different plumages, through to an eye catching and easy to use colour-coded calendar bar to show the months to see them. There are even a few of the scarcer and rarer species to look for, compared alongside the common counterparts.
Following the systematic species guide, which is obviously the main body of the book, they cover a very useful insight and guide into Shetlands birding hotspots and where to watch birds.
Without reservation this is a book that I am thrilled to recommend and to own a copy of myself, which several weeks after receiving I am still lifting off the shelf to enjoy or show friends!
The book is £19.99 in paperback and also available in hardback at £24.99 and can be ordered through Rebecca’s website or the Shetland Heritage Shop.
Shetland 2015: Autumn Birding Review – In association with Birdwatch Magazine
Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 16th November 2015 | Birding in Shetland, News
As Shetland becomes ever more popular in autumn, high expectations hang over the magical Northern Isles for what the winds may bring. So well placed is the archipelago that even without favourable wind and weather the isles will usually still manage to deliver. This year’s prime-time weeks in late September and early October were a classic example of this.
These migrant birding holidays always begin with optimism and anticipation and indeed with the Quendale Thick-Billed Warbler (successfully twitched with a guest from a previous tour) and then finding a nice Blyth’s Reed Warbler the day before the trips began, leader Chris Rodger knew anything was possible, despite a not-so-promising long-term forecast.
In a systematic ‘trip-list style summary’ he rounds up the highlights.
- National rarities: Swainson’s Thrush, Pechora Pipit, Pallid Harrier and Arctic Warbler.
- Regional rarities: Blyth’s Reed Warbler, American Golden Plover.
- Scarcities: Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes, Little Bunting, Common Rosefinch and Bluethroat.
- Self-found by the group: Richard’s Pipit, Bluethroat and numerous Yellow-browed Warblers.
The evocative sight and sound of Whooper Swans arriving from Iceland was a regular feature, along with migratory movement of many Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese overhead on their journey south. On the sea, Long-tailed Duck numbers seemed to swell by the day, with Velvet Scoter and Slavonian Grebe also enjoyed. In addition to the many Red-throated Divers, some Great Northern Divers still retained stunning summer plumage. A fine drake Greater Scaup was seen at Loch of Norby.
Raptors (and owls)
Undoubtedly the star bird of prey was the juvenile Pallid Harrier, seen coming to roost at Northdale, Unst. Hen Harrier, Peregrine and Short-eared Owl were less frequent than the many migrant Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and Merlins, which were particularly numerous this autumn.
Waders to doves
As is true to form on previous Shetland autumn birding trips, Nearctic waders were sure to feature and this year came in the form of a ‘classic’ juvenile American Golden Plover, which really stood out among the European ‘Goldies’ at Sandwick. Many Jack Snipe were seen – mostly rising from marshes and often almost from underfoot, but some particularly obliging birds at Lambaness froze to the spot to show at close range their beautiful cryptic plumage. A smattering of migrant waders included Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Knot, a late Eurasian Whimbrel and the always ubiquitous and subtly different ‘Icelandic’ (faeroeensis) Snipe. White-winged gulls were incredibly scarce this year on Shetland, though Arctic Terns and one Common Tern lingered for the group to see. An adult European Turtle Dove at Haroldswick was well scrutinised to eliminate meena Oriental Turtle Dove.
Pipits to thrushes
A self-found Richard’s Pipit at Lambaness was a highlight for the group, schreeping for Scotland as it bounded across Lambaness and a good example of quality scarce migrants that feature as team self-finds to add that extra gratification. This was the first of several seen. A ‘tiger-striped’ Pechora Pipit, twitched at Norby, eventually yielded to give excellent views as it crept through the irises. A combination of its genuine rarity value, Shetland speciality status and confiding nature ensured this was a firm favourite of the week. Braving gale force wind and rain on Unst, a female Yellow Wagtail was found by the group as was a Bluethroat, discovered hunkered down in a ditch at Burrafirth – if ever proving that ‘you have to be in it to win it’, no matter what the weather! Another fine Bluethroat was enjoyed feeding at close quarters at Quendale.
Undoubtedly a highlight came in the form of a Swainson’s Thrush on Unst – a superb end to the first full day of the trip. After a mad dash from literally the opposite end of Shetland, the group had to endure perhaps the most suspenseful wait in fading light for the bird to hop out from under some fishery crates in the yard of a shop! Hop out it did, revealing the lovely buff face and eyering and subtle underparts spotting, and it even gave a close fly-by to show off its underwing stripe. This was a tick for all bar one of the group, who also saw one with our Shetland Nature autumn birding group on Unst last year!
Warblers and crests
Perhaps the group that forms the major attraction for rarity-hunters on Shetland, warblers – a common and rare alike – were relatively thin on the ground this autumn. Despite this, the group did see a Blyth’s Reed Warbler (which had been found by Chris the day before the trip started) and several Barred Warblers. An Arctic Warbler was a rarer highlight; the group missed this bird on Unst, when it disappeared on the day it lost its tail. However, we caught up with what must surely have been the same bird several days later when a tail-less Arctic Warbler was found in central Mainland. To be fair, Yellow-browed Warblers didn’t disappoint this autumn – amazingly by far the most frequent warbler, but very much still a joy to see. As ever, the Shetland autumn trip allowed the comparison of side-by-side Common and Siberian Chiffchaffs. A personal favourite were the mornings when Shetland is seemingly awash with tiny Goldcrests – mass landfall of these wee 5-gram waifs signal ‘birds in!’.
Flycatchers to buntings
Both groups enjoyed three species of flycatcher, including some very confiding, and always photogenic, Red-breasted Flycatchers. Both Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes were seen on Unst. Of the finches, Bramblings added colour while redpolls, although surprisingly scarce in the islands this autumn, encouraged ID discussion. A most impressive sight was a flock of 200 very confiding Snow Buntings, swirling all around us like an avian snowstorm on the wild windswept headland of Lambaness. A scarcity that we can usually look forward to throughout the Shetland is Common Rosefinch, which this year was hard won but eventually added to the trip list, unlike a Lapland Bunting which fed virtually at our feet. Of the scarcer buntings, a nice bright Little Bunting on Fetlar was timed well, found by fellow SN team members Micky and Brydon on the same day we were all on the isle. Perhaps a commoner example of the many Shetland scarcities to end on, but it does leave tantalising thoughts for what the review might start with for next year’s Shetland Autumn Birding trips!