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Shetland Autumn Birding Trip Report 2013

Posted by Martin Garner on Friday 20th December 2013 | Birding in Shetland

A ‘systematic style’ round up of this year’s Shetland Autumn Birding trips in late September and early October by Martin Garner…

The extremities of Britain are the Shetland Islands to the north and the Scilly Isles to the South.  Both have been a magnet for birds and birders for many decades.  Something’s changing though.  Light-hearted banter goes on each year throughout the birding nation and amongst visitors to these exciting archipelago’s about which will see the greatest number of rarities.  Hands down. Autumn 2013 saw Shetland run away with all the prizes.  Whether it’s a shift in the jet stream, factors in the birds’ origins or reasons as yet unknown and once again the Shetland Nature team were well-positioned for a treasure trove of autumn birding.

An image gallery of some of the headline acts over the two weeks:

Row 1: Hudsonian Whimbrel - Dave Pullan; Baltimore Oriole - Ian Cowgill; Brown Shrike - Jim Nicolson; Eastern Olivaceous Warbler - Jim Nicolson; Pechora Pipit - George Petrie; Row 2: Subalpine Warbler - Martin Garner; Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll - Brydon Thomason; Arctic Warbler - Mike Pennington;  Blyth's Reed Warbler - Brydon Thomason;  Lesser Yellowlegs - George Petrie.

Row 1: Brown Shrike – Jim Nicolson; Lesser Yellowlegs – George Petrie; Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – Jim Nicolson.
Row 2: Hudsonian Whimbrel – Dave Pullan; Blyth’s Reed Warbler – Brydon Thomason.
Row 3: Eastern Subalpine Warbler – Martin Garner; Rustic Bunting – Andy Cook; Pechora Pipit – George Petrie.

Highlights and headlining events

Some of the notable events the Shetland Nature team got up to:

  • Re-identifying an Eastern Subalpine Warbler with ground-breaking ID features
  • Finding a Rustic Bunting
  • The unexpected excitement of identifying a Blyth’s Reed Warbler which had been put out as a Marsh Warbler
  • The surprise team ‘discovery’ of an Arctic Warbler
  • Helping identify an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
  • Mega rarities; Hudsonian Whimbrel, Thick-billed Warbler, Eastern Olivacious Warbler, Brown Shrike
  • Being first on sight to a just found Pechora Pipit (by Shetland Nature team member Roger Riddington)
  • Watching a flock of over 2,000 Snow Buntings with a Merlin flying among them
  • Finding the first Great Grey Shrike of autumn 2013 in Britain
  • Record breaking arrival of Yellow-browed Warbler and one in the hand

We love our lists!

We scored a 100 species in the first week and 115 in the second week.  Only 2 shy of our 2010 record of 117 species.  Keeping a list during the week adds to our variety, a little competition and lots of fun…

Swans to Herons

Dark bellied Brent Goose, Skaw, Autmn 2013. Photo by Martin Garner.It’s always lovely to see the Whooper Swans both birds that have bred on Shetland and migrants from Iceland.  Small flock of Pink Feet dropped in near the Lesser Yellowlegs.  A female Pintail (scarce in Shetland) felt wild on Lamba Ness.  A Dark-bellied Brent Goose found by a group member got an Unst local birder running.  Eider rafts always provided a spectacle.  Long-tailed Duck and Common Scoter were seen together several times.  Both Red-throated and Great Northern Divers added sparkle to the day in late summer plumage.

Gannets, whilst not rare, thoroughly entertained, plunge-diving and battling with Bonxies.

Grebes to Great Bustard

OK there were no Great Bustards :)  Slavonian Grebes were found on little patches of water.  Both Merlin and Peregrine encounters were special which likely included Icelandic Merlins.  But the Unst Crane had sadly died by the time we got there.

Oystercatcher to Glaucous Gull

Golden Plover flocks were not rare but always beautiful but the Hudsonian Whimbrel stole the show on the wader front, followed closely by a young Lesser Yellowlegs and moulting adult Wilson’s Phalarope.  Four types of three different species of cryptic snipe were enjoyed.  Jack Snipe, Woodcock and both Common and very rusty Icelandic (faeroeensis) Snipes.  Bonxies patrolled every day, Black Guillemots sported a variety of age and plumage types and scarcer Gulls included juvenile Little and adult Glaucous.

Rock Dove to Raven

Rock and Turtle Doves were studied for different reasons.  The first for criteria compared with Feral Rock Doves, the second due to its increasing rarity in Britain.  Migrant Long-eared and Short-eared Owls showed well and Shrikes were a highlight with a first winter Brown Shrike on the first morning, both Red-backed and Great Grey seen (the latter the first of the autumn in Britain).  Rooks and migrant Scandinavian Jackdaws added value to our week-long list.  Another northern speciality seen were Great-spotted Woodpeckers from Scandinavia.

Goldcrest to Wheatear

Here comes a group that never disappoints – warblers!  Both Siberian Chiffchaffs and Common Chiffchaffs were available for comparison – this being the best place in Britain to see the eastern sub-rarities and a single Short-toed Lark fell into this category too.  Overall warblers stole the show.  Yellow-browed’s were everywhere with an amazing total over 150 on one day seen by Shetland Nature leaders on Unst and West Mainland.  An Arctic Warbler was a great team find.  The finer points of Siberian Lesser Whitethroat were studied on a couple of birds.  New ID features were played out on an Eastern Subalpine Warbler and the biggest rarities attracting National attention were a Thick-billed and an Eastern Olivacious.  We had great opportunity to study the ‘acros’ by finding and identifying Blyth’s Reed, Marsh and Reed Warblers.  And to complete the set Brydon found a Paddyfield  Warbler just after the holidays had ended.  Early winter Thrushes, sparkling Scandinavian Robins, Red-breasted Flycatcher and two types of Wheatear filled out the chats.

House Sparrow to Baltimore Oriole

The only Yellow Wagtail seen was an interesting grey-headed type (thunbergi).  The Shetland speciality, Pechora Pipit performed for us again and Finches brought colour every day with Chaffinch, Brambling, Crossbills, Common Rosefinch and Hawfinches.  The Redpolls as ever challenged and entertained with Lesser, Mealy, a brief Coue’s Arctic, a tricky Hornemann’s and possible Icelandic Redpolls.  Snow Buntings were simply spectacular, seemingly everywhere, everyday.  But a flock of over 2000 on Fetlar said “Once in a life time”.  A Rustic Bunting find for the team was a special moment.  Point blank views of a smart male Little Bunting were enjoyed with no other birders, though Bydon’s Baltimore Oriole didn’t wait for us this time.  Of course there’s always next year!  Will you be joining us?

Read more about our Shetland Autumn Birding holiday »

Shetland in Winter

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 4th December 2013 | News

Having been asked to write a feature on Shetland in winter for the exciting new digital travel magazine Go & See, we felt we really needed to share just how special Shetland is in winter and with this image gallery you can see why…

The Shetland Islands in winter is a classic example of the wonderful wildlife we have right here in Britain during the winter months. The unspoilt beauty of the Shetland landscapes is ever changing through the seasons but often in winter it is even more so. Although in the heart of winter there may be little more than six hours of daylight, on a clear day this light offers a purity and clarity that will take your breath away and often on such a crisp calm winters nights the skies can be brought to life with the aurora borealis…

From calm clear-skied frosty mornings to wild winter storms thundering waves onto dramatic sea cliffs, the weather is far from predictable. Throughout the isles wintering sea duck’s, wildfowl and waders arriving from the Arctic abound as does the highest density of Eurasian Otters in Britain, active by day along beautiful and remote coastlines. There is beautiful blend of adventure, excitement and tranquillity found in winter in Shetland whether you are a walker, naturalist or wildlife enthusiast that is totally unique.

Quotes from team members

For me there is no other species or subject that captures the atmosphere of the Shetland wilderness as authentically and magically as otters do. Throughout the seasons I am privileged to spend my days tracking and studying these captivating creatures and winter is my favourite for this. Getting to know the movements and behaviour, particularly of mothers with cubs is very special indeed, as you follow their daily routines along our beautiful and remote shorelines. With shorter days our diurnal Otters condense their foraging activity into the available hours of day light. It’s a challenging, busy and special season for our otters.Brydon Thomason

When the clouds break the low mid-winter sun bursts through, the light is exquisite. I have never experienced such beautiful light that can last all day creating an orange glow along some of the most dramatic seascapes in Britain. It is so much fun being out with the camera creating pictures in such awe inspiring light and scenery that you don’t want the day to end. Sometimes the skies remain clear into the night and the most amazing light show takes place, the aurora, always breath taking.Richard Shucksmith

Britain’s most Northerly town of Lerwick is full of mid-winter magic. The picturesque, vibrant & historic harbour town holds many hidden gems for the photographer& naturalist & what better time to visit than January when one can enjoy near-Arctic wildlife coupled with the spectacle which is ‘Up’Helly Aa’ the traditional Viking Festival. Shetlanders really celebrate in style, the men dress in full Viking regalia and parade proudly & whisky-fuelled through the old streets of Lerwick. Bearing large lit torches at night & following an ornate Viking Long-ship to a drum beat procession is great fun to capture on camera – a true highlight of the Shetland year& my own! I enjoy photographing birds around the harbour such as Black Guillemot, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider & White-winged Gulls in the low Northern light and in the evening a hearty traditional ‘Cullen Skink’ soup or a ‘Shetland Gin’ helps warm me by a roaring peaty fire.Rebecca Nason

If you would like more information on what we offer during the winter months, such as a self catered stay in our stunning Shetland Nature Lodge with bespoke itinerary of day tours, or perhaps a holiday option, please contact us for details.

Photo Diary of a Bespoke Photo-tour Itinerary in Shetland

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 28th November 2013 | News

Lenka Gondova and Stefan Kordos from Slovakia joined us for bespoke photo-tour in early July and share a photo diary of their week in Shetland…

Arrival- Puffins, puffins, puffins!

With no sign of any of the fog that had prevented us from landing on the Islands the previous day, we took advantage of the lovely weather and enjoyed our encounter with the puffins and the wonderful view from Sumburgh Head. The first pictures of these puffins made us very happy as we could not wait to see them again after having photographed them in Norway in 2009. After a pleasant drive through beautiful countryside and the city of Lerwick, Garry Bell took us to the ferry station, where we met Brydon Thomason, our host, guide and pleasant company for our week on Shetland.

Beautiful first morning

Photo by Lenka Gondova.

Our new home for the week was the luxurious cottage, The Shetland Nature Lodge with a breathtaking view of the fjord and sandy beach. Even though rain had been forecast the night before, we woke up to sunshine that lit the green meadows on the opposite hills under a dark dramatic sky. We quickly grabbed the camera and began shooting this fascinating landscape before it disappeared and the weather forecast came true.

More puffins

Lenka and Stefan.

Brydon took us to see more puffins, this time on Unst, the most northern island in the Shetlands archipelago. Slowly walking up the hill with all our equipment to where the cliffs of Hermaness, it was difficult to know what we were enjoying more: the lovely views of “our” house looking back from the reserve to the other side of the fjord or the nesting great skuas or the colorful grass and lichen under our feet next to the wooden path.

Our reward for this short walk was a fantastic vista from the top of the hill, full of puffin nests. Where the rocks met the ocean deep down under our feet, we could see flying gannets searching for fish. Many hours were spent here enjoying the beloved puffins then we moved just around the corner to behold an unbelievable colony of gannets.

After a successful day, we had a taste of the Shetland Islands cuisine and found it delicious. Everybody here was so kind to us; an unbelievable warm welcome from the local people eating at the restaurant in the Baltasound Hotel!

Skua Day

Today Brydon planned to be “skua” day. We had a wonderful experience seeing them at a special great skua habitat, where they were gathering in large flocks at close range. Interaction between the Great Skua birds was exciting entertainment and made great photo opportunities for half the day. The afternoon Brydon took us to work on bathing Arctic Skua from his purpose built blind/hide next to a fresh water loch, where arctic skuas and other birds usually land to have a bath, which again provided excellent opportunity to photograph exciting behavior.

On the way back to the accommodation, Brydon took us to Skaw beach, at the northeast of Unst Island. Arriving at the beach and when we got to there we could not believe our eyes, there were gannets fishing just next to the shore! We quickly climbed to some rocks on the beach to get a good view and enjoy this spectacular show.

The alchemy of Otter spotting

Photographing otters. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

What alchemy is to find the Otter! Today we were very happy to hear from Brydon that the conditions would be very good for viewing otters. The low tide would also be in our favor to allow us a really good chance to encounter some otters. Brydon took a detour to scan a couple of sites before he finally started pointing down to the bay saying, “Yes, there they are, a family – a mother and two cubs!”  We could hardly believe him because the only thing we could see through the binoculars was some tiny dots down in the water.  Down there in the water was the family of otters we would never had discovered without Brydon. Brydon’s top expertise allowed us to get very close to the three otters, enough to have the privilege to take some detailed pictures and videos of these lovely creatures and to watch them without disturbing them at all. They were playing in the kelp, marking their territory, fishing in the water and swimming back to the bank to eat the fish they had caught.  After a while, they left the water and headed toward the opposite side of the bay.

Later in the day on Unst we visited the recently opened Café by the Muness Castle, again receiving an unbelievable warm welcome, this time from Maxi saving our lives with hot tea, hot coffee and tasty sandwiches, as we usually forget to eat and drink while we are looking for animals to photograph.

Never enough Otters

Photo by Stefan Kardos (Slovakia)

Lenka and Stefan photographing Otters.

Lenka and Brydon.

“Would you like to see some more otters, guys?” Brydon asked us next morning. We naturally replied:  “Let’s go!” as there would never be too much otters for us. The flowering Flag Iris like Yellow daffodils move in the wind and old walls from Viking times emphasized the quiet, ancient atmosphere surrounding us while Brydon scanned… suddenly, he jumped and whispered excitedly to us that one of the otters had caught a fish. After spending a long time with its meal, the otter slipped back into the water and swam toward the middle of the bay. Now we could start breathing again.

Shark! Shark!

Brydon checks the bay to see if the family of otters from yesterday was still somewhere nearby. Stefan suddenly announced that he had seen two seals through his binoculars. Brydon checked the scene and suddenly shouted “It’s a basking shark!” What Stefan had observed was not two seals but the front and back parts of an enormous basking shark! On the way back, we saw the otter family again fishing in the middle of the bay. Taking a detour to avoid disturbing a tern colony we watched as they sat tight on their nests, while oystercatchers also screeched loudly the rocks and moor that belonged to them.

Before returning to the car, we once more enjoyed the otters by lying behind a rock that had a good view of the otter family. The mother was swimming closer toward us where she reached the rock just in front of where we were hiding and watching her. She called to her cubs and again the family were soon reunited. The cubs came out of the water to join their mother on the shore.  We were watching them playing and resting until a sudden splash from a seal made them jump back into the safety of water.  All the way back to the car we could not believe how lucky we had been today.

And puffins again

Lenka and puffins at Hermaness.

This was going to be our last full day for photography, even though the forecast did not look very favorable, with low clouds, thick fog and rain. We hiked once more toward where the great skua site, hoping the weather would perhaps clear up on the hill, but it did not. Thick fog with low visibility and no light still gave us a good opportunity, however, to photograph the skuas in flight, panning over their path in the sky. The quick movements exhibited by the skuas allowed us to pan them quite well. Heavy rain then forced us to return to the cottage so we could dry up a bit. We decided afterward to climb up to where the puffins once more at Hermaness in order to say at least goodbye to them despite the weather.

Lenka and Sefan at Hermaness.

But we had not even reached the middle of the hill before the clouds were blown away by the wind and the sky in front of us was again clear. So in the end we got to enjoy a hot, sunny evening with the puffins! The conditions were so good that Brydon suggested he would call the restaurant to cancel our dinner – we agreed with excitement, we stayed with the puffins until late in the evening :)

The following day we had to wake up early to catch the plane back to Edinburgh. What a week we had and what joys of nature we experienced! In Edinburgh we spent another day at its famous zoo, though in really hot weather – 28°C compared to the pleasant 14°C temperature we had enjoyed in the Shetlands.  Yet this turned out to be good practice for the hot summer we were going to return home to – 39°C.

“What a wonderful week we have had. The wildlife photography here is an excellent experience that was beyond any of our dreams! The expertise of Brydon’s guiding made us easy reach all of our targeted species to encounter, enjoy and photograph. On top of this wonderful experience was this marvellous house- The Shetland Nature Lodge where we felt at home from the first night.
Thank you so much for a great holiday above all our expectations :)
Lenka Gondova & Stefan Kordos– Slovakia

Find out about bespoke one-to-one photo assignments with Shetland Nature.

2013 Otter Photography Client Gallery

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 22nd November 2013 | Otters

2013 season has been our busiest so far and my unrivalled Otter Photography opportunities were no exception. It was yet another fantastic year of Otter photography encounters.

What was also really quite remarkable was just how far photographers are travelling for the opportunity to work on Otters here in Shetland and this shone through with the many nationalities of photographers I helped capture images of these marvellous mammals. I was thrilled and proud to host guests from as far and wide as Canada, Slovakia, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, France, Germany and of course UK.

It was particular exciting to see demand continue to grow and not surprisingly the months of May, June, July and August were all fully booked well in advance whilst the shoulder seasons were also busier than usual with itineraries in February and March and also September, October, November and even looking ahead to December.

Amongst these photographers I was delighted to host well known British Pro Photographer, columnist in Birdwatch and Outdoor Photography magazines Steve Young. You can read Steve’s testimonial along with my portfolio of leading professionals who I have hosted over the past few years.

For more information on my Otter Photography one-to-one itineraries visit these pages. For anyone interested in working on otters as part of a small group we are also launching an actual Otter Photography photo assignment/workshop ‘Focus on Otters – photography, ecology & field craft‘ in 2014, which is for just four photographers, which I am co-leading with Richard Shucksmith. We will split off to work with two guests and rotate over the workshop.

Steve Young’s April in Shetland itinerary

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 1st November 2013 | News, Otters

Steve is one of the UK’s best known bird photographers and is a monthly columnist in both Birdwatch and Outdoor Photography magazines. Returning to photograph Shetland for the first time since the days of Snowy Owl on Fetlar and Black-browed Albatross on Hermaness, he reviews his one to one itinerary with me back in April…

19th April

Aye, it’s only a peerie breeze Stevie; we’ll stroll to Hermaness and see some Maalie and Soalan Gus“. It was dawn at the Shetland Nature Lodge, a howling gale raged outside with rain showers driving against the windows, and Brydon Thomason had just arrived for breakfast…speaking a foreign language…I staggered up Hermaness a couple of paces behind as the wind billowed around my face; the rain had relented, but had been replaced by snow and sleet showers…but then we reached the cliffs…and everything was forgotten at the scene that unfolded before me. Crashing waves, calling birds and Gannets (Soalan Gus) and Fulmars (Maalie) hung in the wind at point blank range for my camera. It was a fantastic morning’s photography and the weather actually made it even better than it would have been on a sunny day. (Peerie means small or tiny and the breeze wasn’t!)

After lunch I was promised Otters…and an hour or so later I was indeed photographing three of them, a mum and two cubs eating a Lumpsucker, so can’t really complain about the guide not delivering, but his late afternoon tea making wasn’t up to scratch although I think it was just a cunning plan to make sure I made the rest.

20th April

Off to Yell today and it wasn’t too long before we had even better views than yesterdays of Otters. A prolonged photographic session followed, that took up most of the day, of three individuals that stayed around the same area for a couple of hours; Black Guillemots also showed well in one of the harbours and the day ended back on Unst with great views of flocks of Long-tailed Ducks flying along the sea.

21st April

Time for a prolonged tour of Unst with the morning spent at a Bonxie colony that was yet to start actual breeding, but up to thirty birds present with a bit of display action and lots of flight photography opportunities. We found the first Whimbrel of the spring and I also managed a few pics of Rock Dove, Oystercatcher and a few more on the Long-tailed Ducks.

22nd April

There are some days when you have to accept that you just cannot take photos and today was one of them with driving rain and gales for most of the day. We spent it sorting through photos and generally messing around with Photoshop and re-charging after a hectic few days.

Late afternoon brightness saw us looking for early migrants, but failing to find anything more interesting than a Chiffchaff….

23rd April

Much brighter for my last day and off to a bay to photograph Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper; good photos of both and of Common Gull over stormy seas, but then an Otter ran out of the waves, started feeding on crabs and everything else was forgotten!

Last afternoon and heading towards the airport, but still time to stop at various sites and photo Eider, Black Guillemot and Guillemot.

My short visit was at an end, but I took home with me some fantastic memories of a truly memorable trip and I also had over five thousand images to sort through… April in Shetland, a great time to visit.

Steve Young

The Cape May Warbler at Baltasound – 23/10/13

Posted by Mike Pennington on Sunday 27th October 2013 | Birding in Shetland, News

(Intro by Brydon Thomason)

In a week that had already produced a sterling crop of rarities including Siberian Rubythroat, Isabelline Shrike, Lanceolated Warbler and Red-flanked Bluetail, it was clear that Shetland’s epic autumn was far from over…

Having enjoyed a ‘once in a blue moon’ meal with friends and overnight stay in town, Vaila and I had made it as far as Toft ferry, just over an hour away from home to Unst when I picked up a voicemail, it was Margaret Pennington; “Brydon, Mike wants you to come straight to the old Manse and to bring an American field guide…” To say my heart skipped a beat would be a massive understatement. For a birder of Mike’s calibre to ask for assistance and field guide was unusual to say the least, but an American one – this was huge, clearly this was going to be a day never to be forgotten!

I was just over an hour from arriving on Unst when Mike got through on the phone, informing me of his discovery, an American Wood warbler, the features he had (and hadn’t) seen and the species that were at that point in the short list. But one of the names mentioned especially urged my foot to press harder on the accelarator as I drove north – Cape May Warbler!

Mike shares his account of the epic discovery of the Cape May warbler, which had only reached Europe once before…


Cape May Warbler. Photo by Brydon Thomason.

The biggest element in finding a rare bird is surely luck. Perseverance, local knowledge, experience, identification skills – they all play a part – but at the end of the day you have to be in the right spot at the right time when the bird’s showing. On 23rd October, after being away for a few days, I decided to walk round Baltasound rather than drive to the north end of Unst; I decided to head towards the school, instead of heading to Halligarth first as I would usually do; and after checking the lone tree in the Manse garden I stopped for a chat and glanced across to the lone tree again, and noticed a strange-looking bird which definitely required a closer look. Such was the chain of fortune that led to the discovery of a second for the Western Palearctic.

I was chatting to another local birder Dick Foyster, discussing the day’s obvious arrival of thrushes and Blackcaps, when I first saw the bird. From a distance the bird looked vaguely Phylloscopus-like, but it had a big pale patch on the wing. I suggested to Dick that we needed to have a closer look, so we strolled along the road towards the corner of the garden. The bird appeared again on the outside of the sycamore. Incredulously, I realised that this was something extremely interesting: “that’s an American wood warbler!” The bird was on view for a good 20 seconds or so, long enough to realise what we were looking at and take in the most obvious features. This was, however, my best view of the bird for the next four hours!

Over the next hour the bird showed fleetingly in the lone sycamore. Dick had to leave as he had people coming to do work at the house. My phone had no signal. My only attempts at taking a photo had captured some out of focus leaves. I could get very little more on the bird. Then it left the sycamore and headed to a small patch of nettles. By the time I got there, there was no sign of it. I returned to the sycamore – no sign. A bird flew past and I chased it – it was a Blackcap. Two more Blackcaps were chased down. It looked as though it had gone and I still had no photos and only a cursory description.

I’ve never been in this situation before, but faced with a Setophaga (they’re not Dendroica any more, remember), and one without obvious bright colours on it, my thoughts have always been start with Blackpoll Warbler and work from there. Some of the features seemed good for Blackpoll: streaked underparts, fairly plain face, two wing bars, pale tertial fringes, white undertail coverts, some white in the tail. But the wing bars seemed odd – from a distance they looked more like a pale wing patch, and only close up was it obvious that there were two bars. And wasn’t Blackpoll a brighter bird? This was a very dull greyish-olive bird. There was something of Yellow-rumped Warbler in the plain face and streakiness, but there seemed to be no obvious yellow in the plumage (I hadn’t seen the greenish rump or yellowish primary fringes at this stage). The bird did remind me of Cape May Warbler,which I had seen in Cuba. But surely not – I knew that there was only one British record and that was in spring. It seemed that I might have something really, really good, but I still didn’t have enough to be sure.

I decided to check the lone sycamore in the Manse garden once more before widening my search, and to my relief the bird had returned. This time I was determined to get photos as most views so far had been too brief to get any more detail than I already had. Eventually I grabbed a few poor photos in the worsening weather – it was definitely getting foggier all the time – before the bird left the sycamore and headed determinedly towards the old church at Hillside. The photos revealed one feature I had not yet seen in the field: a bright green neck patch.

At this point my wife Margaret arrived after Dick Foyster had phoned her. She brought two vital items – a copy of Sibley and a mobile phone on another network. I looked through the field guide. Could it be a really dull Blackpoll with dark legs? Check the other species. Nothing fits – except my long shot of Cape May Warbler – there was that greenish neck patch on a dull greyish-olive bird! This was a big, big call and I really, really wanted someone else to see it. I was pretty sure it had to be a Cape May Warbler, but it was massive leap of faith to actually believe it!

I phoned Brydon Thomason who was on his way back home to Unst but would not be back for over an hour. Then I phoned Paul Harvey and told him I had a Dendroica (yes, I know I should have said Setophaga). As Paul was Shetland year-listing I knew he’d come even if it was ‘only’ a Blackpoll, but I asked him how I would separate Blackpoll from Cape May Warbler. Mantle and leg colour were suggested. Dark legs and plain mantle pointed towards Cape May Warbler again! We decided to put out news on the local grapevine, without a definitive identification for the moment, to give people the chance to come for it. I decided to try and relocate the bird and stay with it until help arrived.

Margaret and I headed down to the old church at Hillside, where there is a small garden holding two or three sycamores. We saw the bird almost immediately, but it was as furtive as ever, mainly revealing itself when chasing off a Chiffchaff and a Blackcap that dared to enter the trees. Just before Brydon Thomason arrived, though, it started feeding off the walls around the small garden. This meant that Brydon got good views and more photos almost as soon as he got there. The bird even started calling in flight – a sharp tsip, almost reminiscent of Song Thrush or a rare bunting. Brydon had also brought a copy of Kaufman (which depicts a very dull Cape May Warbler) and he too went through the process of elimination via the field guides. Conclusion, it had to be a Cape May Warbler.

Now that it was conclusively identified the bird suddenly decided to stop hiding and started feeding along the wall behind the sycamores. Whereas I had never seen it perched in one place for more than a few seconds before, it now sat in full view on the wall. It was only now that I finally saw the bright greenish rump and the yellowish fringes to the remiges, but we could also see the greenish neck-patch, which was only visible at some angles, and the broad fringes to the greater coverts that produced the wing-panel that was so obvious at distance. Paul Harvey and a few other observers arrived soon afterwards, and about 20 or so people made it up from Mainland Shetland before dark. The next day more than 60 people saw the bird, with the highly novel sight of five aircraft parked on the apron at Baltasound airstrip.

It was only after it went dark on the first evening that the enormity of the find sank in. This was not just a second for Britain, but it was only the second for the whole of the Western Palearctic. This is a species that has not even turned up in the Azores. This is a species that has never been found in autumn anywhere on this side of the Atlantic, the previous British record involving a singing male in spring, found by Tom Byars and Iain McDonald in Paisley Glen, near Glasgow, on 17th June 1977. It may not be a first for Britain, surely every rarity-finders Holy Grail, but this was just as good in my eyes.

Finally, a thank you for the good-natured manner of the visiting birders and for following the advice put out via the Nature in Shetland website. Unst has not seen anything like this before and most residents actually enjoyed the novelty of the occasion. But there is a way of further showing your gratitude for the hospitality enjoyed by many birders in Shetland in recent years. We may not go around rattling a donations tin, but there is a modern alternative, and Shetland Bird Club has set up a Just Giving page to raise money for MacMillan Cancer Support at So, if you twitched the Cape May Warbler, or the Pine Grosbeak, or the Thick-billed Warbler, if you came for a birding holiday, if you enjoyed a warm welcome, exemplified by the friendly sign at the Mid Yell Subalpine Warbler, please consider showing your gratitude by supporting this charity, which does sterling work in Shetland.

Mike Pennington

The Baltimore Oriole – Baltasound, Unst, Shetland Islands – 19/09/13

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 25th October 2013 | Birding in Shetland, Otters

Baltimore Oriole at Baltasound, Unst. Photo by Ian Cowgill.

As working days go it had already been good; an early start with photographer Simon Hawkins (who had booked a bespoke one-to-one itinerary with me) to work on the sun rising over Muness had not only rewarded us with beautiful light and clear blue skies but also a fine Arctic Warbler, (the second one I’d found in under two weeks!) which had found shelter along a coastal patch of nettles and iris.
As is often the case when leading such trips I split the day and do a dawn start, finish up and meet again to stay out into sunset, when making this decision for this day however, I could never have imagined what good fortune it would bring. Dropping Simon off at our accommodation, The Shetland Nature Lodge and inspired by the Arctic Warbler I was keen to check my local patch Halligarth (one of Shetland’s largest Sycamore stands), right next door to our house and so hurried home to do so after arranging to meet again at 14:00hrs.

A few minutes later my thoughts of scoring another BB rarity had given way to hunger for bacon butties and caffeine. Walking the over grown lane, (dominated by Rosa Rugosa, Fucia and Hawthorn) towards the main garden it felt almost as if I was on auto pilot and simply going through the motions of my daily circuit when ‘SHIZAM!!’ – a large passerine flew out from cover just a meter or two from in front of me. The bird was completely unfamiliar as it flew from me but did perhaps give the impression of large a shrike, quite rufous and long tailed. It landed about 40-50 feet from me on the outside lower edge of the Sycomore canopy and as it did, quick as a flash- my Swarovski 10 x 42’s revealed what has to be one of the most glaringly gorgeous and ‘trouser-tearingly tremendous’ rarities I have had the fortune to find and I heard myself saying the words “IT’S A ‘FLIPPING’ NORTHERN ORIOLE!!!” – (note that there is a word in that quote I may have swapped for publishing purposes!).

Perhaps over and above its stunning flame orange plumage, blazing white wing bars and blue-grey legs and bill it was its loud and explosive tirade of chattered alarm which was a sound I will never forget! The first two or three seconds viewing felt as if it wasn’t real but as the words I had just said registered into reality and I came out of that slow motion ‘this cannot be’ moment , I began to shake and yes- that’s right, adrenalin took over! Gazing at it perched for what was only around seven to ten seconds, I realised I was without camera or phone but managed to marginally compose myself enough to just watch it, my heart pounding like an Olympic sprinter though I daren’t move a muscle!

Without warning it hopped onto another branch and then worked its way into the cover of the canopy and that was it- totally thunderstruck, I said the words again but this time almost shouting them through adrenalin fuelled jaws- “It’s a BALTIMORE ORIOLE!!” As by now I was composed enough to think of which was which. I ran to the house to phone the news out with my heart pounding.
The distance from the scene to our drive way is a mere 50 yards or so, which needless to say I did in Usain Bolt style but by the time I reached the phone my composure had gone, it was almost a struggle to breathe! A few phone calls later and within ten minutes, Robbie Brookes and Mike Pennington had joined me, during which time I didn’t dare make a move. Bizarrely, we worked the gardens without even as much as a glimpse- two hours later the first of the Shetland birders started to arrive but the extended coverage yielded nothing- it seemed as if my ten second glimpse was it until Paul ‘Duracell’ Harvey relocated it about half a mile away where once again – it wasn’t letting up easily and only four other observers scored, one of which was Ian Cowgill, to whom I will be forever thankful for nailing theses shots – nice work Ian!

Surprisingly the Baltasound Baltimore story did not end there however as it reappeared four days later on the 23rd when at last, it was seen by most birders who could make it, it was however still extremely elusive.

This was the 24th record of this North American species for Britain and third for Shetland but first since 1974 (which also arrived on the same date) and one on 26th September 1890, which was the first record for Britain.

After collecting Simon to resume our Photography workshop one to one for the afternoon, we headed off to work on Otters and enjoyed a wonderful two hour encounter with a mother and her two cubs (photographed below). All in all a pretty fine day indeed!

Photo by Brydon Thomason.

Photography Workshop review; Autumn on Shetland – Nature, light & land

Posted by Molly Michelin on Wednesday 18th September 2013 | News

Returning to gain work experience for her second time this year, Molly Michelin (studying Marine & Natural history at Falmouth University) summarizes our debut landscape and nature photography workshop collaboration with Richard Shucksmith of Earth in Focus. Although not completely full, the workshop went very well, providing some wonderful opportunities for our guests to capture exciting images of Shetland in this special season.

A big thank you to guests Lauren Cooney and Ruth Asher for sharing their wonderful images from their week with us…

Collaster panoramic. Photo by Ruth Asher.

With its endless photographic opportunities, Shetland is a dream location for wildlife and landscape photographers. A remote archipelago at the mercy of the North Sea & the Atlantic, the islands are alive with wild, untamed landscapes that are molded by the ever-changing weather and light. With light forming the base of photography, working with it to create some outstanding imagery was the aim of the week for the workshop guests.

Designed to explore both the landscapes and wildlife of Shetland the workshop is led by Richard Shucksmith & Brydon Thomason. This collaboration gave the guests guidance in both fields of photography, Richard’s experience and knowledge of landscapes allows him to capture the raw untamed landscapes coupled with dramatics skies in the most breathtaking ways, meanwhile Brydon’s natural affinity with the wildlife and the islands leads to some of the most intimate and personal wildlife encounters.

A rather wet start to the week did little to dampen the enthusiastic spirits of the guests; kicking of the week with a trip to Yell to collect camera trap footage from an active otter site gave the guests an early glimpse into the lives of Shetlands illusive otters. Brydon and Richard regularly make use of the Bushnell camera traps to help them identify patterns in movement and activity of the otters. Rain never lasts that long on Shetland and landscape photography was at the forefront of our agenda; dark clouds and high levels of water movement made for some dramatic moody imagery. Once darkness had fallen and a hearty meal back at the lodge there was time to work on photographic workflows and post processing using software such as Lightroom. Essential elements to help bring out the best in any photographers work.

The third day brought the group a wildlife encounter to remember, news quickly spread about a pod of 30+ long-finned pilot whales that had been sighted in Firth’s Voe, Mainland. This was not to be missed; we headed of hoping we would reach the whales before they left the voe. Driving from the lodge in on Unst, one of the most northerly points on the islands, we headed south knowing it was a good hour and two ferry journeys before we would get to where the whales were. A quick chat with Mark Chapman who had originally sighted the pod at around 10.30am confirmed they were still there. Excitement was brimming as we drove across Yell. On reaching the yell ferry a call from Gary Bell also confirmed they were still there, it looked like we might make it. By midday we were on the shoreline alongside a growing crowd of photographers, ecologists and local wildlife lovers. This encounter gave us the opportunity to photograph and witness cetaceans in close proximity, with the whales only 30metres off shore, at times you could hear vocalization within the pod. It was an amazing the experience but concerns were being voiced due to their behavior that the pilot whales may strand themselves as they headed right into the shallow end of the voe. Pilot whales have been known to strand in the past for various reasons. With this risk in mind, a boat was deployed to help drive them out into deeper water which was successful. Photographing, filming and just observing these whales is something I’m sure none of the group will forget.

As well as the amazing wildlife encounter this day also brought us to mighty the cliffs of Eshaness, a place brimming with photographic opportunities. The ever-changing weather tested the photographers, who worked with filters and long exposures to create atmospheric images of the rugged cliffs and Eshaness lighthouse that have stood the test of the raw power of the sea crashing upon them. Working into the evening meant we were shooting with fading light moving along to different points on the cliff tops allowed us to capture the lighthouse in a variety of compositions before a late return to lodge.

The next day back on Unst saw a trip to a beautiful beach to photograph seascapes and waders. I had spent some time photographing the waders on the beach earlier on in my trip, and after achieving some success it was decided that as a group we would go and work on photographing the sanderling and dunlin that flock to the tide line to forage. This week really benefited from the small number of individuals on the workshop. Time could be spent thoroughly working on helping them to achieve the shots they were aiming for, slowing down the process, looking at capturing interesting behavior and minimalistic portraits.

Otters were also on the agenda for today, with SE winds, it was decided that we would visit an active shoreline but before we had even left Unst we came across an individual fishing. After spending time with this individual we then continued to the next site where we were lucky enough to spend time with six different otters, with a mother and her two cubs being the highlight of the day. Brydon’s deep love and understanding of the islands otters enabled us to have some outstanding close encounters without the otters ever knowing we were there. Utilizing local knowledge, the wind direction and tides, the guests were able to enjoy photographing and observing the family as they fished, played and slept along the shoreline. At times you just didn’t know which way to look!

Hermaness is a location that offers opportunities for all different aspects of photography, whether that is landscapes or wildlife, spending a day on the cliffs hardly scratches the surfaces of the endless images you could capture. After spending several days working on photographing the puffins & gannets on the cliffs during my visit in June, and after coming away from those sessions, I had to started work on ideas for new shots that I wanted to produce. I think of one the strongest emotions I felt upon Hermaness was the sheer power of the sea below you, peering over the edge towards dark platforms crowded with hundreds of white specs, these two elements brought together were key to the shots I was hoping to achieve this time around. Today was also yet another great day for cetaceans with Rissos dolphins being spotted from the cliffs (while we were shooting Muckle Flugga Lighthouse) as well as Minke whale passing through. There is an immense amount of landscape opportunities on Hermaness and it was great to be able work on some many different elements of photography, including mixing gannets with landscapes, thus creating a striking landscape images showing the gannets in their environment. Having two tour leaders allowed for the group to split as one half headed back to the lodge while the other half stayed till dark to capture the famous Muckle Flugga lighthouse light coming on and to add that extra element to the image.

After 5 days of exploring the landscapes and wildlife of Shetland, the last full day was upon us, with amazing light, rolling sunshine amidst soft fluffy clouds we decided to split the day, continuing with landscape work as well as working with otters again. Both aspects brought great success, another ‘otterly’ brilliant day, spending time with 5 otters, giving the guests another fantastic opportunity to take away some amazing images of these signature species of Shetland. The evening’s landscape location was the breathtaking view across the ness of Collaster along the west coast of Unst. This location gave the photographers the chance to use the derelict old croft buildings as a subject within their images, experimenting with a range of lenses enabled them to capture these ruins in a variety of ways, the vast expanses lend themselves to the wide angle lenses, meanwhile, focusing in on the crofts beneath the towering hills of Valla field create a striking size comparison image.

With a week of outstanding photography, learning and a lot of laughs coming to an end, it was time to head back down south to Sumburgh. Along the way visiting a variety of different locations to take in more of the breathtaking landscapes Shetland has to offer- finishing up with an amazing close encounter with a Minke whale off Sumburgh Head. What an incredible week!

To find out more about this unique Landscape and Nature photography collaboration workshop see dates and details in our holiday program.

Guest recommendations

I had never been to the Shetland Isles before until I joined this “Autumn on Shetland” workshop. As a keen amateur landscape photographer I was really looking forward to new places to capture and I wasn’t disappointed by the amazing seascapes we were presented with. But it wasn’t just the striking landscapes that made this holiday, there was an abundance of wildlife which we had the opportunity to capture too. One day we were watching a pod of Pilot whales and the next we were tracking otters not to forget the amazing Gannet colonies at Hermaness. Brydon, Richard and Molly made for a fantastic team with their amazing ability to locate wildlife particularly the sea otters getting us into close proximity to capture these endearing creatures. After long days out in the field we were returned to the comfort of the Shetland Nature Lodge (our accommodation for the week), a modern, spacious and newly renovated crofters cottage which offered fantastic views out onto the bay where we could watch, from the comfort of our armchairs, Gannets diving for food. This was a fantastic experience and one which I will never forget, I made some great friends and returned home with a fantastic set of pictures. A very big thank you to Brydon, Richard and Molly for making this such an amazing experience.

Ruth Asher

I have had the good fortune to travel in a lot of places in this amazing world we live in, and can easily say that time with Shetland Nature is one of the best holidays I have ever had!  It is not only the stunning scenery, amazing wildlife and wild spaces of Shetland that made this holiday so special. The commitment, passion and knowledge of Brydon Thomason and Richard Shucksmith, as well as their true desire to share this passion and knowledge with their guests, in a patient, fun, natural, easy-going way, make the experience unbeatable. Also in this case we were lucky enough to have the equally friendly and helpful Molly Michelin with us, a university student on internship with Shetland Nature.

I was very much a ‘beginner’ with my photography, and had a great time learning new techniques and about the amazing places and wildlife Shetland has to offer. Having both Richard and Brydon as guides was great, both ever willing to provide support and useful tips, as was Molly and my fellow guest, Ruth! I never thought I would come away with the sort of shots I managed to take, and yet I did! I am even more excited and interested in photography now that I see what I can do!

Brydon and Richard enlightened me to the world of otters too. On the two days we went out ‘ottering’ we saw many otters.  We managed to watch them in their natural habitat for quite a few hours each time, with Brydon, Richard and Molly ensuring that we did so in a way that was not disturbing to the otters, a commitment they take very seriously. Such a special experience that I feel privileged to have experienced.

Finally, what has to be said is these guys are all just great fun, – a lot of laughs and hilarity throughout the week, but seriously, these guys know their stuff. I will definitely be going back, and am pushing all my friends to do the same!

Lauren Cooney