2015 Season’s Summary So Far

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 19th June 2015 | News

Well what a start to our 2015 core holiday season it has been, barely half way through and it has already been truly remarkable.

We have holidays running each week from late May through to mid August and each one has been full, which is something we are really thankful for and indeed excited by. In fact the only holidays left with spaces on, both outside the ‘core season’ and they too are limited, is one of two Late Summer Experience (an additional August date due to first one selling out) and Shetland Autumn Birding. It’s actually been a busy year all round with one or two bespoke itineraries, particularly Otter Photography through winter into to spring, as well as day tours too. Each week we have day tours running too, along with holidays this can often see us with as many as five guides out in any one week- a huge thank you to each and every one, as we always say, we couldn’t run to the scale we do without the help and collaboration we are so lucky to have.

So, what have we/our guests been seeing? What haven’t we been seeing is maybe a better question to ask! With Killer Whale’s, Risso’s Dolphin, Harbour Porpoise and Minke Whale all having already been seen on trips, cetaceans have already been very well represented. On the birding front it has already been remarkable with rare and exotic spring visitors, scarce migrants, iconic breeding species and superb spectacles. The rare and exotic; Rustic Bunting, Subalpine Warbler, Golden Oriole, Hoopoe, Greenish Warbler (actually found by group), Great Reed Warbler, Bee-eater, both the Unst ‘small race’ Canada Geese not to mention multiple Icterine Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Marsh Warbler. On one day alone one of our groups found two Icterine Warbler’s and four Red-backed Shrike! Where else but in Shetland!

And the otters, oh the otters! True to form we deliver a truly unique educational encounters with Shetlands otters. Over the range of experiences for guests we run, from one-to-one specialist photo assignments, day tours and bespoke Otter watching holidays and on all of these so we/the otters have certainly not disappointed. These images from Otter photography guests so far this season showcases the kind of encounters we deliver to our guests. We are also launching a new holiday dedicated to Otter’s in 2016 The Shetland Otter Watching Experience.

2016 holiday dates and departures

Shetland Nature Experience GuestsWith so many superb highlights already logged for guests this season and Shetland featuring on screen on BBC Springwatch its worth pointing out that our 2016 dates were uploaded to our website recently and are already starting to fill.

Other news

Visit our blog for our latest news posts and what we have been up to. In particular we have enjoyed working with and being involved with two film crews. It was particularly exciting working with BBC Springwatch helping out in the field with local knowledge and also having our hides used for filming. Also we were delighted to work on another program, due to air later this year with BBC Scotland’s Grand Tour of The Scottish Islands who we worked on otters with and got some superb encounters with one of the families we are working on, more on that nearer the time…

So if you are due to travel with us, we very much look forward to welcoming you and making your visit as exciting and memorable as everyone’s so far has been- and if you are one of those guests, we thank you again for your company and custom!

Bonxie club site bathing hide

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 10th June 2015 | Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog, News

Following on from the success and popularity with photographers in working from my one-man Bonxie bathing hide last year I set up a new larger hide at a much better location. Thanks to Josh Jaggard and the use of a quad and trailer from Duncan, it was not as back breaking a project as it would have been on my own.

The behavioural action at these loch-shore club sites offers some superb opportunities to photograph these superb skuas. Often there can be as many as 50, 60 or even more birds at any one time and often down to 5 to 10m from the hide. It is of course especially good for bathing birds but also there is frequent squabbles break out so plenty of action.

We were really pleased to have BBC Springwatch use both this and the Arctic Skua bathing hides whilst they were filming on Shetland. Wildlife cameraman Raymond Besant was particularly pleased with the footage he shot from it;

We were able to get fantastic footage with the help of Brydon Thomason and Josh Jaggard from Shetland Nature who showed us their best locations. The purpose built hide where Bonxies gather at bathing club site was especially great. I was barely in the hide when they started landing in front of me, just 5 meters away! I’m used to working in small cramped cold hides, so to sit in a chair in a warm dry comfortable hide was a real pleasure. Even more so as a group of 50 Bonxies displayed, washed and fought with each other allowing me all the shots I needed.Raymond Besantwww.raymondbesant.com
Wildlife cameraman
BBC Springwatch presenter

There is arguably nowhere better to photograph a portfolio of these awesome skuas than Unst. The island is home to the third largest colony in the world, set in some of the wildest and most breathtaking backdrops. Hermaness especially offers outstanding opportunities for photographers. Just on the outskirts of the colony on the National Nature Reserve is situated one of Britains most important and impressive seabird cliffs and colonies which provide the Bonxies with the larder they so desperately need for their own circle of life, to feed themselves and their chicks.

Here is an image gallery/profile of this brutal but very beautiful bird, the Bonxie:

Please contact us for tailored photo assignments and tours.

BBC Springwatch on Shetland

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 9th June 2015 | News

What a treat for the nation to see BBC Springwatch back in Shetland. I’m sure I speak for all here in the Isles and also fans of the show both old and new, when I say what a great job they have done to showcase some of our very best wildlife spectacles. Of course this must also be said for their journey throughout this whole current series and what they brought to our screens from Caithness and Orkney especially. Huge praise to the crew and all involved in the show throughout, especially Malcie Smith and John Campbell here on Shetland.

Hi Brydon, Thanks very much for such an enjoyable time on Unst. The wildlife and people are memorable and really made my time up there special. You know you’ve had a good day when icterine warbler, great reed warbler, red-backed shrike, otter and frog orchids are finished off with a pint of real ale from the Valhalla brewery! All the bestIolo Williamswww.iolowilliams.co.uk
BBC Springwatch presenter

It was a real pleasure to meet the crew and help out with some ground work, local knowledge and to have some of our purpose built hides used. It was especially good for our newest team member, Josh Jaggard (working with us this summer), who worked as an assistant to wildlife cameraman Raymond Besant for a few days on Unst while he worked on Bonxie’s, aka Great Skua.

We wanted to film the fantastic Bonxies on Unst, the third largest colony of the species in the world, whilst filming for Springwatch. They are brilliant to film, said to be the apex predator amongst the islands birds, displaying lots of different behaviour. But doing it well means getting close to them and shooting at a range of different locations.
We were able to get fantastic footage with the help of Brydon Thomason and Josh Jaggard from Shetland Nature who showed us their best locations. The purpose built hide where Bonxies gather at bathing club site was especially great. I was barely in the hide when they started landing in front of me, just 5 meters away! I’m used to working in small cramped cold hides, so to sit in a chair in a warm dry comfortable hide was a real pleasure. Even more so as a group of 50 Bonxies displayed, washed and fought with each other allowing me all the shots I needed.Raymond Besantwww.raymondbesant.com
Wildlife cameraman
BBC Springwatch presenter

A great time had by all; a picture of the crew, myself and Josh as well as the staff at the Baltasound Hotel all together celebrating their time on the isles and the last night of them being together on Unst.

2014 Otter Photography Guest Gallery

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Monday 8th June 2015 | Otters

A selection of some of my favourite images from guests on Otter Photography assignment with me in 2014. As per previous years, I lead itineraries for photographers from all over the world including America, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Norway to name but a few.

More details about Otter Photography with Brydon Thomason  – already taking bookings for 2016.

Shetland Autumn Birding 2014

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 7th January 2015 | Birding in Shetland

Reviews from our 2014 autumn itineraries by leader, Chris Rodger

Some superb and very exciting birding for all our guests on the Shetland Autumn Birding itineraries which sold out all spaces, highlighting just how special, popular and widely known Shetland in autumn is now known to be. It’s fantastic to see that each year these itineraries become more popular and each year – the birds continue to deliver through the megas that turn up.

Over this period there were some superb quality headliners such as Swainson’s and Whites Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat and Yellow-rumpeded Warbler along with a fantastic supporting cast of rare, scarce and common migrants. As well as these and as we hope and aim for in these itineraries there was also some exiting team effort discoveries along the way such as Olive-backed Pipit, Pectoral Sandpiper and not to mention the Firecrest- which in a local context was a mega- a first for Unst! Great birds, great guests and great fun- here’s a review from Chris Rodger….

Guest Quote

Hi Brydon – just a quick email to say a massive thank you for an awesome birding holiday. I thoroughly enjoyed working lots of habitat trying to and finding our own birds. Chris was a fantastic guide and as you know put us onto all the ‘long stayers’ . His knowledge and field skills were superb and he constantly worked to keep everyone happy – no easy task at any time but especially more difficult as we had a broad range of birders with wide ranging knowledge and skills. I certainly hope to return for more of the same… I’ll be trying to plan next year’s work in order to get back up with Shetland nature.Andy Williams

An amazing day….the Whites Thrush alone was worth the cost of the entire trip and then there was the Yellow-rumped Warbler! Two mega rarities within an hour! What more could a birder want?!Andrew Riley

Week One 26 September – 3 October 2014 – in association with Birdwatch magazine

Day One

The first morning’s birding on South Mainland provided opportunity to introduce the group to the ‘art’ of team birding on Shetland. The tactics adopted when checking suitable crops, iris beds, nettles, thistles, ditches and gardens were practised and a wide variety of ‘pishes and clicks’ were experimented with. Several skulking common migrants were manoeuvred into revealing themselves and it was clear that the team were ready to throw themselves into a week of migrant birding on Shetland!

A highlight of the day was a Hornemann’s arctic redpoll at Veensgarth. Although not a classic ‘snowball’, the bird displayed the key arctic redpoll i.d. features well for the group. It was accompanied by 3 indeterminate ‘mealy-type’ redpolls, allowing the group to enjoy the inevitable discussion on the intricacies’ of redpoll identification. Nearby, red-breasted and pied flycatcher were also seen. A couple of stops on the journey through to Unst provided another each of red-breasted and pied flycatcher, barred warbler and brambling.

Day Two

Following breakfast, a barred warbler put on a fine display, hopping along the Hotel wall as the group boarded the minibus. A grand start to the day, but little did we know that things would only get better, as today we were to experience the best Autumn birding Shetland can offer. The morning in Baltasound produced two quality birds, with excellent views of a smart male Eastern subalpine warbler followed by a long-staying but often elusive rustic bunting at Halligarth, which Brydon ensured was tracked down for the group to see at close quarters. Moving northwards through the island, a stop at Haroldswick allowed the group to enjoy a Temminck’s stint, before settling down to a peaceful lunch whilst watching a wryneck feeding on the seaweed-strewn beach at Norwick. However, this tranquil scene was quickly shattered with news that a Swainson’s thrush had been found just 500m away! Sandwiches discarded, a farcical few minutes followed as the bird fed behind a fence rail, above which only the two tallest members of the group were able to see. Attempts at piggy-backs and climbing onto the minibus to obtain views proved fruitless! Thankfully, the bird flew on to the garden wall and everyone managed crippling views of the nearctic mega – a lifer for the whole team. The remainder of the day had the team find a common rosefinch and a further two barred warblers amongst a selection of commoner migrants such a lesser whitethroat and whinchat.

Day Three

Today the team again birded around Baltasound in the morning, returning to see the subalp and rustic again, because they were so good! A pleasant mornings birding included a very obliging bluethroat, three more barred warblers, yellow-browed warbler and jack snipe. Fine views of otter feeding rounded the morning off nicely.

In the morning the north end of the Unst appeared to be well covered by other crews, so we decided to explore the lesser-known birding spots in the south of the island. Working these sites produced a few common migrants including yellow-browed warbler and lesser whitethroat, as well as some classic Shetland scenes, such as large flocks of linties (twite) in the neep fields and an amazingly confiding otter on a secluded beach.

A team challenge was set when we arrived at the thistles at Lund. Here, the team were presented with an ‘unstreaked acro sp.’, which they were tasked with identifying amongst themselves (mainly for educational reasons, but partly out of mischief on the part of the group leader). Through careful observation and assimilation of the key features, the group did extremely well at arriving to the correct conclusion that they were observing a first-year marsh warbler. An impressive identification of a very tricky species.

Meanwhile, in the south of Shetland, the big news was the double-header finding of two mega’s; yellow-rumped warbler (relocated after a frustrating brief appearance) and White’s thrush; a classic Shetland ‘East meets West’ scenario.

Day Four

Despite the presence of two Mega’s at the opposite end of Shetland, it is a credit to the team that after a group discussion the decision was to stick with the plan to visit Fetlar, rather than twitch the length of the archipelago- with the plan to go on news next day. The philosophy of ‘if those birds are turning up down there, imagine what we could find up here?’ is indeed admirable. However, despite scouring virtually every iris bed, ditch and willow on the island, we could only reply with a couple of yellow-browed’s amongst the commoner migrants. The team’s efforts were gallant indeed, and a reminder that, despite how it may appear to birders from afar, rarity finding on Shetland involves considerable hard graft, sometimes with scant rewards.

Day Five

With news that both the White’s thrush and yellow-rumped warbler had remained on South mainland, coupled with being shown endless photos and video of the birds by the ecstatic birders who had made the journey – relief, optimism and excitement levels peaked: the twitch was on!

Anticipation rose with every one of the 77 miles and two-ferry journeys down the Shetland chain and the excitement was at fever pitch when we arrived outside the garden where the White’s thrush had settled. From a personal point of view, seeing this iconic ‘sibe’ for the first time exceeded already sky-high expectations; it was simply stunning and one of the most overwhelming birds I have ever seen. Judging by the reaction of the team, the bird elicited similar emotions!

Next stop was for the YRWarbler, which gave fantastic views as it busily fed amongst the attractive flowerbeds of the Grutness garden. Cracking views of a yank and a sibe in a morning; as a certain well-known birder would say – BOOM!

Day Six

The final day was spent stopping at various sites on Yell and mainland on our way to the hotel at Spiggie. A good selection of common migrants were seen, with a few new birds for the trip to bring the total to 92 species. Whilst a relatively modest in terms of species diversity, the total included five BB’s and a whopping 46 lifers between the seven experienced birders on the trip. Not bad for a week of westerlies, and the team were all ecstatic with week’s haul.

News breaking of the Siberian rubythroat at Levenwick was however well beyond the possibilities to connect as guests were already on route to destinations south (all but one – a certain Mr Andrew Dodd who was staying with us for week two!). On the bright side, it arrived just in time to give Shetland Nature’s next cohort of Autumn birders the dream start to their Shetland adventure.

Week Two – 4th to 11th October

Day One

Could you wish for a better start to the week?- perhaps the most iconic and sought-after of all Eastern vagrants, a fine male Siberian rubythroat! Not surprisingly we strted the tour started ahead of the scheduled 6p.m. start to ensure that our guests had the dream start to their trip.

The group were met as they arrived by plane and boat throughout the day and expediently transported to the garden at Levenwick where this ‘sibe’ beauty was hopefully present for its second day. Oh were it so simple! With no sightings of the bird since 8 a.m., as the hours passed we became increasingly resigned to the prospect of a crushing dip. At around 4p.m. we were literally conceding defeat and heading back to the minibus when suddenly there came a shout from a nearby garden! After a mad dash and a wait that felt much longer than it really was, the bird hopped across the driveway for all the group to see! Ecstatic gasps came from the admiring crowd when the rubythroat turned full-front and revealed it’s brilliant the scarlet throat and black and white face mask. Stunning!

Siberian Rubythroat at Levenwick. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Siberian Rubythroat at Levenwick. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Day Two

The team this week possessed extensive experience of Autumn birding on Shetland, including several Shetland Nature regulars, so we threw ourselves into ‘working’ Geosetter, a challenging ‘forest’ of cover by Shetland standards. Here we found our first two yellow-browed warblers of the trip and a fine pied flycatcher. There was plenty of wildfowl to be seen on Loch of Spiggie, including splendid views of slavonian grebe and scaup, with an evocative soundtrack provided by the excited trumpeting of many newly-arrived whooper swans. Next stop was Quendale, where there were good numbers of thrushes, goldcrest and blackcap along with a whinchat and a good ol’ scrap between a kestrel and merlin.

As we headed northwards towards our destination of Unst, a stop at Helendale provided another yellow-browed warbler.

Day Three
Although today didn’t provide any major rarities, it was a classic example of the excitement of seeing migrants making a massed landfall, literally all around us, as we birded the northern half of Unst. The drama was provided by a Force 10 southeasterly gale and heavy rain; whilst not the most comfortable of conditions, the weather conspired to produce a very tangible migration event, which makes migrant birding on Shetland so special.

‘Northern’ treecreeper, Halligarth, Unst. Photo by Robbie Brookes.

‘Northern’ treecreeper, Halligarth, Unst. Photo by Robbie Brookes.

After a brief stop for a grasshopper warbler, our first destination was Skaw, Britains most northerly beach. On arrival, there were relatively modest numbers of migrants, mainly goldcrest and redwing. However, as soon as the rain started, it became clear that goldcrest were falling out of the sky all around us, so much so that they were flying up from under our feet. As the morning went on, we continued to experience this mass arrival, including large numbers of song thrush, redwing and chiffchaff. A memorable sight was a newly-arrived yellow-browed warbler feeding among seaweed next to a long-staying wryneck.

After a mid-morning break, to dry off a bit, we went back out to sift through migrants as they moved ‘down-island’ to the more substantial areas of cover around Baltasound. A treecreeper had been reported from the mature sycamores of Halligarth, but not seen subsequently, despite much searching. It was Jim from our group who managed to relocate the bird, and the impression of a treecreeper he adopted to signal his find was truly memorable! The treecreeper, of the nominate ‘Northern’ form (C.f. familiaris), was strikingly different to our UK birds (C.f. britannica), with gleaming white underparts and flaring supercilium that positively glowed in the gloom of the plantation. The first record of treecreeper on Shetland was in 1859, which was killed by a cat in the very same plantation as today’s bird, so this second record for Unst was a mere 155 years in the waiting! The plantation was brimming with migrant passerines seeking refuge from the storm, mainly redwing, song thrush, goldcrest and chiffchaff, but also included two redstart and a yellow-browed warbler.

Day Four

Today’s birding throughout Unst involved sifting through the large numbers of migrants deposited by yesterday’s storm. The bulk of birds were of those species encountered yesterday, but also included a number of warblers that were probably hunkered down under Rosa bushes yesterday, such as garden warbler, lesser whitethroat, willow warbler and blackcap. Through the day, it also became clear that a number of blue tit and and great tit had been blown on to the islands by yesterday’s storm – both scarce species on Shetland. We were watching a great tit at Clingera (Baltasound) when Sam casually mentioned he had just seen a firecrest, not realising that these little gems are very rare on Shetland and this was a first for Unst! The firecrest fed busily with around 20 goldcrest for a wee while before the flock began to clump together to roost. By the time the local birders had arrived to twitch this island mega, it was lost somewhere within the feathery knot of roosting crests. Fortunately for the locals, the firecrest performed well for all the following day.

Day Five

Fetlar was the destination for today’s birding and a fine day’s bird-finding it was, with olive-backed pipit and pectoral sandpiper both found by the group! The ‘pec’ was rather unobliging, giving only flight views, but was easily identifiable by its distinctive trilling call. The pipit, on the other hand, eventually gave excellent views when it settled in a garden at Houbie. Other quality birds seen were a very nice but rather shy Siberian stonechat and a fine male black redstart.

Olive-backed pipit: Houbie, Fetlar – found by the group. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Olive-backed pipit: Houbie, Fetlar – found by the group. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Day Six

Today’s birding on Unst offered a good selection of migrants including fine views of a bluethroat in Balatasound, and two long-eared owls roosting in the conifers at Valyie. Highlight of the day was probably a fine great grey shrike – a mobile bird that had been giving us the run-around over the last few days. The group managed excellent views after the bird was finally ‘pinned down’ by Brydon at Northdale. The day provided plenty of other migrants of interest including tree pipit, black redstart and redstart and the first ruff of the trip.

Long-eared Owl at Unst. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Long-eared Owl at Unst. Photo by Chris Rodger.

Day Seven

Today the group left the North Isles behind and headed south for our final day birding the mainland. A stop at Sandgarth yielded a yellow-browed warbler, and Hoswick produced a tree sparrow, common sandpiper and black redstart. Whilst we were at Hoswick news broke of a Western Bonelli’s warbler at Scalloway, so off we went! Unfortunately, the bird was not relocated despite a fair crowd having gathered, although two yellow browed warbler and finally catching up with blue tit provided some entertainment whilst we waited. By late afternoon, the group decided to bird a couple of sites on the south mainland which, whilst enjoyable, was slightly marred by the late news that the Bonelli’s had been relocated. Oh well, at least it was ‘just’ a Western…

Day Eight

Most of the group had a wee bit of time in the morning before making their departures south, so it was decided to take advantage and enjoy some leisurely birding near Sumburgh airport. Shortly after watching another olive backed pipit at Pool of Virkie, we were informed that the Scalloway Bonelli’s warbler had been heard to give a monosyllabic ‘chip’ call, by sharp eared and eyed SN colleagues Phil Haris and Rebecca Nason (amongst others) and was thus believed to be the considerably rarer Eastern Bonelli’s. Once again, the decision was made to extend the trip beyond the allocated duration, so that the week could be bookended by megas! However, at this end of the week time was against us, and a ‘smash and grab’ twitch was required if we were to see the bird before our guests had to check-in for homeward flights. Frustratingly, the bird was rather ponderous by Phylloscopus warbler standards, moving slowly at the top of the canopy and giving only fleeting views before melting into the foliage. Thankfully, minutes before the absolute deadline for getting back to the airport, the bird obligingly fed in the sunshine at the edge of the canopy for all to enjoy – a great way to end the trip (and yes, we all made our flights in time)!

Eastern Bonelli's Warbler at Scalloway. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler at Scalloway. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

Chris Rodger

Christmas 2014 Newsletter

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 23rd December 2014 | News

Seasons' greetings and happy New Year, From all at Shetland Nature

Dear friends,

HermanessHollieOtter familyIt’s hard to believe that the festive season is upon us once again and with it another year draws to an end. There is never a time that we take for granted just how lucky we are to do what we do in the place that we love and along the way meet and work with so many interesting and exciting people. Perhaps even over and above this sentiment is our huge thanks and gratitude to the continued and growing support from guests on our holidays and tours. Without this we could not do what we do so thank you sincerely from us all! I’d also like to say a personal thank you to everyone involved in the team at Shetland Nature and to our associates, sponsors and providers.

Whilst wishing you season’s greetings we wanted to share some of this year’s highlight’s and update availability on our holidays and photo tours for 2015, which is already looking to be a very busy season – many holidays have already sold out.

I also wanted to take this opportunity to introduce and welcome Hollie Shaw, who is taking over the bookings and admin role from Karen Hannay, who we are sad to see moving on to pastures new. Some will know Hollie from her many years running the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, which she ran along with her husband and warden Deryk, already a valued member of the SN team.

It is worth mentioning here that we are currently going through this ‘hand over period’ and so updating and familiarising new systems and procedures.

2015 Holiday Ideas & Availability

We are very excited to see how busy a season 2015 is already filling in to be. Several holidays have already sold out and we have even had to add on new dates to our ‘flagship’ Shetland Nature Experience itinerary due to popular demand.

If Shetland is on the wish list for 2015, we hope you may find something of interest in our program and here are some of the most popular suggestions –


Photo Tours


Day Tours

Here also are links to some of our recent news highlights –

Proud to become Shetland’s first Tourist board awarded Five Star wildlife experience (one of only four in Scotland) by Visit Scotland

Promoting opportunities for young birders and conservationists
Onscreen appearance on ITV’s Alison Steadman’s Shetland Our continued support to conservation bodies, helping those who help our wildlife

And finally here is a link to some of my personal favourites, that have been some of the many highlights from this season’s photography assignments. Also and of course, otter encounters (which I am blessed that my life essentially revolves around) –

Shetland Otter Watching Blog – Sharing my passion for otters with one of the world’s most experienced and well-known wildlife camera men, Doug Allan was a particular personal highlight. Brydon’s Nature Blog
Read about Brydon’s recent photo assignments and projects along with images and stories from them.

With festive cheer and best wishes from all at Shetland Nature,

Yours sincerely,
Brydon Thomason

Red-flanked Bluetail(s), finders accounts – one each in the bag! Rebecca Nason/Phil Harris

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Tuesday 16th December 2014 | Birding in Shetland

This year Autumn birding seemed to last favourably into November with strong easterly winds, gales at times, but still with a great sense that it wasn’t yet over and there were still potential rares to be found. On 3rd November, I had an excited call from Phil who had gone to Geosetter just ahead of me to check for migrants and do some bird ringing in the calm conditions before heading to work – he had found a Red-flanked Bluetail, a cracking 1st year bird which had graced his only just opened net! A superb find and a bonus surprise bird to ring along with more usual Goldcrests, Blackcap and Robins. This bird was to stay for over a week and prove popular with birders and photographers alike as it fed around Geosetter burn.

Fast forward one week, to the 8th November, after a few days of birdless gales and bad weather, the 8th saw calmer, milder ESE conditions and Phil and I had set it aside to bird all day, our route firmly planned with headed off with a certain degree of optimism. North of Lerwick, our first port of call was Kergord where we saw 3 Great Tit and a Blue Tit. A brief stop at Loch of Voe and Goldcrests could be heard in the low pines, 12 were seen in total. We headed down into Voe, stopping to view a couple of favoured spots near the harbour. A solitary Waxwing was a welcome sight and raised the game slightly in a relatively uneventful morning. Another Blue Tit was also noted, it’s been an exceptional year for Blue and Great Tits on Shetland.

We returned to the car and headed up out of the back of Voe, stopping at one of my favourite spots, Burn of Kirkhouse, a small bridge over a trickling burn, a small crop and sheltered small woodland copse. Our immediate impression was of how quiet it was as we started birding the site, moods slightly lowered at the distinct lack of migrants. A couple of Robins were all we could muster. Deflated, Phil walked up the road towards some roadside gardens and I headed along a track and fence line towards the small woodland patch with a sparse understorey just up from the burn.

A minute or two later I glimpsed into the darkened, shaded wood. I heard a Robin tick and I didn’t even raise my bins as a similar bird moved quickly from right to left and landed on a sycamore branch in half darkness within. The same bird then flicked up and towards me, landing again in half light but closer to the woodland edge, maybe only 10 metres from me.

I raised my bins, expecting to see a Robin – OH MY GOD!!! I’d found a Bluetail – was my instant thought as my eyes focused on a full head on view of a very distinct 1st year Red-flanked Bluetail . I couldn’t see any blue as it was facing me straight on, but the beige breast shone out where I had been expecting to see Robin red, the paler white throat patch was clear to see, the burnt orange flanks erupted from it’s rotund little chat form on dark stick like legs, all puffed up in the cold, a white fringed beady eye stared back at me.

Red-flanked Bluetail. Photo by Rebecca Nason.

The adrenalin kicked in as it disappeared back into the woodland shadows and out of view. I ran to the road and called Phil over, shouting that I had a bluetail! Wow, one each in the same week and one of three we’d seen in a month, after the strikingly tame Sumburgh bird back in October.

A frustrating 10 minutes went by until the bird showed again, it really was a skulking individual and very hard to even glimpse at times in the woodland canopy and denser scrub along the burn. Moments of dread thinking it may have vanished up the burn without being noticed were soon alleviated as it appeared suddenly right out in the open on a fence post near the bridge, vibrating it’s vivid blue tail as I nailed a couple of record shots. We then headed off to find a spot with a phone signal to put news out and continue our birding afternoon North. The bird was seen again that afternoon and the next day only.

Rebecca Nason / Phil Harris

Pied Wheatear at Haroldswick, Unst – 1st to 9th November 2014

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 11th December 2014 | Birding in Shetland

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.