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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – The first for Shetland and Scotland

Posted by Rob Fray on Wednesday 14th November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Over the weekend of 13th/14th October 2012, Shetland was seemingly awash with Olive-backed Pipits; ten were found over the two days but, try as I might, I couldn’t rustle up one of my own. On Monday 15th October, I decided to branch out from my usual South Mainland haunts. Where would be a good place to find an OBP? I plumped for Scalloway.

After a couple of hours of searching the many trees and mature gardens of Shetland’s ancient capital, with just a few Bramblings and Siskins to show for my efforts, I was coming to the conclusion that I was going to fail in my Olive-backed Pipit mission. The final place to check was the area of sycamores around the Scalloway Health Centre. Whilst sitting in the car, pondering which direction to walk in, a small black and white bird bounded across in front of me and landed in the aforementioned sycamores. I initially assumed it was going to be a Great Spotted Woodpecker, as I knew one had been present in Scalloway for a few days previously, but something was seriously disturbing just from this brief flight view: the bird was tiny! A quick look through the bins – prominent black and white ‘laddering’ on the upperparts, no red on it anywhere, and only the size of a sycamore leaf  – was followed by a rather frantic session of waving the camera in its general direction.

I knew it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, being pretty familiar with them from my previous life ‘down south’ (although I’d not seen one for a few years), but couldn’t really comprehend what I was seeing. The bird moved away through the trees and was lost to view, at which time I tried to collect my thoughts. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker wasn’t on the Shetland List, and nobody had even seriously considered it as a realistic candidate to turn up here. I was faced with the prospect of a single-observer record of a completely unlikely addition to the Shetland List. Was I making some elementary mistake? The photos on the back of my camera told me otherwise. I rang fellow Shetland Nature guide Gary Bell for moral support: “Lesser Spot isn’t on the Shetland List is it?” “It’s not even on the Scottish List! Why do you ask?” “Because I’ve just found one in Scalloway”. Silence. Gary must have thought I’d lost the plot. I went through the events with him, and he was persuaded to drive to Scalloway to help with the search. The news was put out, and all of Shetland’s active birders descended on Scalloway to look for it. Many were somewhat incredulous, and several queried my sanity by text before arriving at Scalloway and seeing my photos! Fortunately, after a couple of hours, the bird was relocated in gardens not far from the Health Centre, and showed on and off during the evening and over the following few days; it was last reported on October 19th.

Although Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was not on anybody’s ‘radar’ as a potential addition to the Shetland List (indeed, one well-known Shetland birder declared it to be “the most bizarre thing he had ever seen in Shetland”, whilst another thought that the initial text releasing the news was a wind-up!), we now know that this species does occasionally ‘irrupt’ in small numbers from northern Europe in response to food shortages. Interestingly, one was trapped on the island of Utsira, off the western coast of Norway (only about 220 miles from Shetland), the day before the Scalloway bird was found, although photographs show that it was a different individual. Late autumn 2012 was notable in Shetland for the appearance of a number of other species that had ‘irrupted’ out of northern Europe, including Blue and Great Tits, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Waxwings, so if ever a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was going to make it here, this was the autumn that it was going to happen. What might come next from the forests of Scandinavia?

I never did find myself an Olive-backed Pipit (although birders looking for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker did unearth one in Scalloway, so my initial idea was not without merit!). However, bumbling into a first for Shetland was certainly ample compensation.

Rob Fray

Bobolink, Brake, South Mainland, Shetland – 28/10/2012

Posted by Roger Riddington on Wednesday 14th November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

In 2012, late October proved to be easily the best bit of the month in Shetland, although after Chestnut-eared Bunting, Siberian Rubythroat and Pied Wheatear, things looked to be settling down as November approached.

On Sunday 28th October, Paul Harvey and I were having a thrash round a few of our favourite spots at the south end of Shetland, focusing on weedy areas that might offer up a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Tree Sparrow, Lapland Bunting, Goldfinch were all nice birds for Shetland but not quite what we were looking for.

Mid afternoon, on a lovely day, we were ambling along the road at Brake, not really expecting anything exciting, but suddenly, Paul (who was ahead of me) turned and said: ‘get over here, quickly!’. I scuttled across to where he was standing and he said: ‘something yellow just dropped in with the sparrows…’. Whatever it was wasn’t showing; we stood there for a half a minute and then it popped up on the fence alongside a few sparrows, We could see it only through a big clump of dead grass but to be honest it was pretty clear that it was a Bobolink!

I got my camera out and fired off 20 or so shots, the bird still obscured by grass. The pics were not great but sufficient to get the record through. We hadn’t really moved at this point, and were just debating how best to approach it for less obscured views when it flew off, strongly, to the north and disappeared completely! That was something we hadn’t bargained for. I set off after it, Paul stayed put. After a good 20 minutes or more I got back to the farm with no sign of the bird. All we could do was hope it came back; remarkably, after another 20 minutes or so, it did just that, appearing on a five-bar gate 20 m from us, calling softly – an amazing call, that sounded like a distant coughing sheep!

It soon vanished again but reappeared ten minutes or so later when it was seen by most of the dozen or more people who turned up to twitch it, before disappearing again one last time.

Roger Riddington

Fair Isle – Classic Autumn Birding – Classic Timing!

Posted by Deryk Shaw on Friday 2nd November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Resident island birder, and former Fair Isle Bird Observatory warden of 12 years, Deryk Shaw rounds up this year’s run of island classics over the period spanning our holiday dates on the magical isle in 2013 (in association with Birdwatch magazine).

After 14 years of birding on Fair Isle (12 of them as Warden of the Obs), if there is one thing I have learnt it is that birds can turn up any time. In autumn, given the right weather conditions, I have witnessed spectacular falls of common migrants and seen marvellous birds on countless dates between late July and early November. However I would have to say that the two week period late September into early October has consistently been the best for numbers and variety of birds.

This year proved to be no exception and in fact I could almost go as far to say it was Fair Isle at its best and given the Magnolia Warbler just days earlier it probably was! The Last days of September produced an extremely approachable Paddyfield Warbler (feeding in vegetation at people’s feet), Lanceolated Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Buff-bellied Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit and multiple Little Buntings, Yellow-browed Warblers, Barred Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat and Red-backed Shrike as well as large numbers of common migrants, including the first autumn arrivals of Snow Buntings (100+) and Lapland Buntings (20+).

October was kicked off in typical FI style by a remarkably obliging Pechora Pipit strolling about on short grass, just yards from the group of 20 to 30 assembled observers (another great thing about birding Fair Isle, there are no crowds!!!) and, allowing even closer views, a Blyth’s Reed Warbler actually made its way into the Obs lounge!! Meanwhile, the confiding Paddyfield also continued to entertain all-comers. On the way to work the following morning (my post-Obs income is mainly provided by working on the Good Shepherd ferry) I was stopped by some birders to look at a photograph they had just taken of a bird nearby. They were ecstatic when I told them that they had just found the autumn’s second Lanceolated Warbler! This was another delightfully confiding bird, creeping along at the base of the stone wall near to one of the Obs heligoland traps, allowing some frame-filling photos!

However this was just a warm-up for the ultimate Locustella as mid-morning on the 3rd I was birding part of the east side when I got a call from Will Miles, FIBO Assistant Warden, informing me that there was “an almost certain PG Tips” (Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler to give it its full title) in the south, near Utra! My car was nearby and I drove there as fast as I could, stopping to pick up a few breathless birders on the way – I even went back to pick up some more before getting out the car to look at the photos! It looked like one to me!! Once everyone had arrived, a mist-net was erected and the bird quickly flushed from its hiding place – an overgrown ditch – into it. Exhilaration swept through the gathering when Will confirmed its identity as he extracted it from the net.

At the same time, Fair Isle’s sixth Arctic Warbler of the year, a couple of Richard’s Pipits and a Corncrake were also all new species for some of the crowd! I took a short break from birding on 5th as it was the annual round-up of the isle’s hill sheep, to take off the lambs. I was standing at the ‘cru’ (sheep pens), along with fellow SN team members Rebecca Nason, Phil Harris and Micky Maher who were staying with us at the time (everyone wants to be on Fair Isle at this time!) when we heard a familiar call overhead. I scoured the sky and spotted the culprit approaching from the north and declared “Citrine Wagtail!” as it flew high over us calling and continued south. Sheep safely rounded up and sorted, we all went back to birding this magic isle and the bird was re-found later that afternoon and showed well to all!

A strong cold easterly the following day brought in thousands of Redwings and a fine male Black-throated Thrush plus lots of Goldcrests. A quieter couple of days followed (apart from the gale force wind!) although the long-staying Lanceolated Warbler continued to scurry about in Field ditch.

A light NE’ly breeze on 11th saw a further large arrival of Redwings interspersed with a scattering of rarities and scarcities including another Blyth’s Reed Warbler, two Olive-backed Pipits, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Corncrake and a smart Great Grey Shrike. The next few days continued in the similar vein with large numbers of thrushes piling in, joined by hundreds of Bramblings and Goldcrests, another Olive-backed Pipit and a nice Woodlark with the Lanceolated Warbler and Great Grey Shrike lingering.

Now, as I write this at the end of the month, the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter but thrushes continue to arrive in numbers, I can hear the trill of Waxwings every time I step outside, the first Northern Bullfinches of the autumn have arrived and I have seen my third Siberian Rubythroat. Best of all though, I have added Blue Tit to my Fair Isle list!!! There’s nowhere I’d rather be, I hope you come and join me on our 2013 Fair Isle Autumn Birding holiday.

Deryk Shaw

Hume’s Warbler, Valyie, Unst – 16/10/12

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 1st November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

It had been many weeks since I had caught up with Paul Harvey and even longer since we had been birding together so with a day freed up to spend birding Unst on the 16th October, we set out full of optimism. With a generous scattering of October scarce and rare migrants over the past few days and conditions being favourable for more, we felt that our optimism was not misplaced.

But the reality is however, that the days where optimism is rewarded are greatly outnumbered by days of disappointment, but that’s what ‘the hunt’ is all about. This is of course one of the many advantages of birding as a team though; over and above the obvious advantage of an extra pair of eyes, company is good for morale.

At our first port of call our optimism was however rewarded with an Olive-Backed Pipit at Skaw, ‘that’ll do nicely’, we agreed although we couldn’t help hoping it would be our aperitif for something a little rarer. Barely an hour later we arrived at the rarity renowned hotspot of Valyie at the northern end of Unst. This mature wooded garden (by Shetland standards that is) is surprisingly difficult to work on your own but working together as a team you stand a much better chance of good coverage. With Paul on the outside I worked my way through the inside.

On nearing the bottom end of the garden, from just beyond a dense canopy of sycamore I could hear a faint and very intriguing call which sounded familiar enough to me to think it from a phyloscapus warbler but yet I couldn’t place which; a soft single ‘Siberian Chiffchaff’ like note (already heard earlier that morning), repeated three to four times followed by a more Siskin like disyllabic call. So momentarily perplexed was I that I even called Paul who I thought might be ‘at it’ with the iPod again, as he had been earlier in the day by playing calls off of ‘Eastern Vagrants’! But Paul was out of earshot. Just seconds later I heard the call again, prompting me to leave the trees and find Paul.

We discussed the call and I mentioned perhaps a Pallas’s warbler, more by associating the call with what I thought that species sounded like as apposed thinking it sounded like one (I have yet to actually hear one in Britain). Hume’s was also mentioned but these calls didn’t fit for what I was familiar with for that species. While waiting for the bird to show Paul played Pallas’ and Hume’s calls from the iPod, ever hopeful l (!), but there was no response. However although the Pallas’s call from the trusted iPod sounded similar, more importantly one of the three Hume’s calls was also a close fit and known to be similar.
Again the benefits of team work in these situations are invaluable both for the ID process and combined input and to piece together and process the identification. A brief glimpse of the bird fly catching as it flit between sycamore canopies was enough for us to see it was clearly a Yellow-browed type. After a brief glimpse of the bird we both enjoyed better views. Its dingy plumage, blackish bare parts and what looked like only one fairly broad buffy-white wing bar (with the second barely noticeable) was enough for us to be confident it was indeed a Hume’s.

It was frustratingly difficult to get views of the bird, so realising it was working a circuit of the garden, and only showing at certain parts we decided to stay close to what appeared to be its favourite feeding area. On our next view we confirmed the features above and then heard it calling several times and I also managed to photograph it. There was no doubt it was a Hume’s Warbler. What was very interesting about this Hume’s was the set of calls it gave and how much they varied. The typical and diagnostic disyllabic call most associated with the species was only given twice that day and not until much later. The other two calls were a single note of an even pitch and a more Siskin-like call with some downward inflexion. All three call-types are actually given on the Eastern vagrants CD. Despite playing these calls, however, the bird never really responded. Initially locating this bird up on call is quite typical of how many good birds are found. It is perhaps not easy to familiarise yourself with all the calls of everything you hope to find but knowing that something is different to the norm is extremely helpful!

Funnily enough, the following day when I returned to see if it was still present, and before I even saw it, it gave the classic and typically disyllabic Hume’s call which I am more familiar with several times. After not being seen for a week it reappeared on the 24th.

This was only the second for Unst following the one we found in back in 2008 (on a more typical date in early November). This is by far the earliest record for the species in Shetland and only the fourth year it has been recorded here.

Read about last year’s team found Hume’s warblers;

A purple patch of good finds for the team

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 11th October 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Following relentless strong westerly winds towards the latter part of September, it seemed as if the winds would never change. Accompanying the Red-Eyed Vireo (which at the time of writing is in second place for bird of the year in Shetland, pipped to the post by the mega Magnolia Warbler on Fair Isle!), was a scattering of Pectoral Sandpipers which rewarded many hours in the field for a couple of the team. But often in Shetland during the rarity renowned last week of September, all it takes is a break in the weather, when the wind drops off completely and all is calm and you just know its game on! This was exactly how the weather systems appeared to fall into place from the 21st September…

As is so often the case, birding, or perhaps more so rarity hunting, is much more enjoyable and indeed productive as part of a team. This was certainly the case for myself and birding comrade Micky Maher over that week which saw us enjoy a nice run of good finds together including two Blyth’s Reed Warblers, a Booted Warbler as well as the Greenish Warbler at Norwick we found with our good friend Mr P, AKA Mike Pennington. However the Great-Reed Warbler they found at Norwick was a much rarer bird in autumn in Shetland, being only the third ever recorded in the isles in this season. They are normally more ‘on the radar’ in spring here. A good haul of at least five Little buntings were a nice little supporting cast throughout the week with Roger and Gary turning up two in the South Mainland. Funnily enough two of the three Micky and I found together were at the same sites of both the Booted Warbler and one of the Blyth’s Reeds!

With the finding of the Booted Warbler as we were pieceing together our first adrenalin fueled views, we could hear a buntings ‘tick’ call continually – we almost didn’t know where to look! But that is autumn in Shetland and just how it can often be. Crazy to think that a bird as gorgeous as a Little Bunting, (after landing on the fence to confirm it was not a species that might eclipse the Booted) can be so quickly dismissed! It was almost the exact same scenario a few days earlier when we were cautiously trying to ID the Blyths Reed at Halligarth next door to my house; a Little Bunting and a Hawfinch were both in the Sycamores above the roses it favoured!

On this same day as our Booted and just ahead of leading our Autumn Birding holidays, Martin Garner got into the grove of the Shetland action with Roger Riddington scoring with an Olive-Backed Pipit while Rory Tallack proved once again that birds can turn up any where in the isles by finding a Lanceoleted Warbler way out on the West side of Shetland’s Mainland. This was indeed quite a discovery for such a sought after North Isles speciality normally associated with smaller islands such as Fair Isle where it is renowned.

Moving into the end of the month the good fortune continued with Micky finding a superb Hornemann’s Redpoll with Pierre-Andre Crochet on Unst which along with a Pechora Pipit in the same area proved to be two extremely popular birds for visiting birders. Another popular and obliging rarity was the Spotted Sandpiper, initially found by Ryan Irvine and co-identified by Micky. Probably most popular of all and indeed rarest find was the Buff-Bellied Pipit found by Roger and perhaps best of all was that it was found by carrying out the once a month voluntary beached bird survey with his wife Agnes, a memorable Sunday outing indeed!!

For more of Shetland’s latest bird news (and to see all the other highlights from this amazing week) we recommend following our close friends at Nature in Shetland on facebook where you will also find link to their sightings page and website.

There is plenty of the autumn still to come, we hope our team finding purple patch continues!

Buff-Bellied Pipit, Rerwick beach, Scousbourgh

Posted by Roger Riddington on Sunday 30th September 2012 | Birding in Shetland

In 15 years of helping out on the monthly beached bird surveys in Shetland, my highlights so far have both been dead ones – a Brunnich’s Guillemot and a Great Shearwater (both in 2007) – but I have long hoped to find a decent live bird while trogging round my three Shetland beaches. On 30th September 2012, the miles walked eventually paid off.

The day was bright, sunny and pleasantly mild, with a moderate to fresh SW wind, There was not much in the way of new birds being reported that weekend and my plan was to do beaches before a big breakfast. My wife Agnes came out with me, and we covered Scousburgh and Peerie Voe before heading to Rerwick, the beach on the north side of the Bay of Scousburgh. We were almost at the easternmost end of the beach, and I was scanning through half a dozen Alba Wagtails and 10+ Rock Pipits, when one particular pipit jumped out at me with strongly and pretty uniformly buff-washed underparts. Almost immediately it took off and flew down the beach with a call that sounded to me just like a Meadow Pipit! I was confused but still thought that it was probably a Buff-bellied Pipit – but one that was clearly not nailed. I left Agnes holding my coat and bins and ran up the cliff to get my camera. Back down on the beach ten minutes later, I approached the west end of the beach, where the bird had flown off to. Eventually, I refound it, on its own, near the stream – it was indeed a BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT! Fantastic! It called several times more – most of the calls sounded exactly like the previous Buff-bellied Pipits I’d heard in Shetland, but one other set of calls also sounded – to me – just like a Meadow Pipit.

This is the 10th BBP for Shetland, following four on Fair Isle (one found a few days before this one), three on Foula and two others on Mainland, all bar one of the Fair Isle ones since 2007. Interestingly, I think it is the first to be found (and primarily seen) on a beach – in contrast, most of the ones seen in Iceland are on beaches.

That same weekend, Mike Pennington found a Pechora Pipit in Unst while doing his beached bird surveys. If you live in Shetland and you don’t contribute to the survey – maybe you should!

Roger Riddington


Be sure to check out last year’s sighting of a Buff-Bellied Pipit by Martin Garner.

Great Reed Warbler, Norwick Unst

Posted by Micky Maher on Saturday 22nd September 2012 | Birding in Shetland

On the 22/09/12 of September Mike Pennington and I set out to the Northern sites in Unst, as we had so many times before. Migration at Skaw, so often the birding barometer of the isle appeared scant, so we trudged off to Valyie, Norwick. On walking alongside the tatties, oats and grasses, we saw a couple of Barred Warblers and a Yellow-browed Warbler.

A large warbler was flushed from the crop and flew over a trailer at the bottom of the incline. It looked tawny with a long, floppy tail. As I walked towards where it had landed the bird flew, up on to a fence and showed really nicely, heart racing thoughts of Thick-billed Warbler were soon replaced by, sorrow and defeat, as we saw the dark lores long bill and wings of a beautiful Great-Reed Warbler, the third record in autumn for Shetland. We then showed the bird to Tony Davidson and friends who were walking along the Norwick road towards our position, before legging it back to Mike’s for literature, to try and ‘rule in’ Oriental Reed Warbler. Another fantastic day team birding, spent with an excellent bird in Shetland.

Interestingly, until the Norwick bird, there had been three autumn Thick-billed Warblers in Shetland. Mike Pennington had also found one of the previous two Great-Reed Warblers!

Micky Maher

Marsh Sandpiper at Virkie – The Second Shetland Record

Posted by Rob Fray on Saturday 14th July 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Finding rare birds is sometimes the result of hard work, skill and determination. On other occasions, it can be down to luck. The latter was the case with Shetland’s second ever Marsh Sandpiper

My brother Richard had arrived from Arizona in early July, bringing with him a group from Borderland Tours, and I had agreed to help out with guiding them for their trip to Shetland (don’t tell Brydon about this bit of ‘moonlighting’). Our plan for Saturday 7th July was to sail round Noss on the ‘Dunter’ to look at the gannetry, but the rather unseasonal weather (a north-easterly gale) scuppered that idea, with the pre-booked ferry trips being cancelled the previous night. Richard and I discussed what we could do instead. I had noticed a few waders outside my house on the Pool of Virkie early in the morning, including Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit (which, as the majority of the guests on the trip were from America, was of interest to them); that was our new plan for the morning sorted.

By about 09:30 we were all in situ, in the turning circle in front of my house, scanning the pool. A Knot and a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits were visible distantly at the east end of the pool, near the Ness Boating Club, so being ‘lead driver’ I took the first minibus up the road for a closer look. The short journey was rudely interrupted when a small group of Redshanks took to flight, accompanied by a smaller wader which, to the naked eye, appeared to have a white rump. This was clearly going to be something ‘different’. Minibus brought to an abrupt halt, I quickly scanned through the Redshanks, which had landed a little distance away. Imagine my surprise, as the saying goes, when I clapped eyes on what looked for all the world like a summer-plumaged Marsh Sandpiper! I couldn’t remember whether this was a first or a second for Shetland, but whichever it was, it was mightily important.

The next five or ten minutes were a combination of chaos and comedy. I leapt out of the minibus to get my ‘scope out of the boot, whilst trying to use a walky-talky to alert Richard in the other minibus about what I’d just seen. A few garbled messages later and I think he got the general gist of what I was trying to say. The leg fell off my tripod whilst I was trying to scope the bird, at which time I swore (politely) a lot and the guests in my minibus all started looking at me with a mixture of amusement and pity (whilst not really knowing what on earth was actually going on). The Marsh Sand flew, and I couldn’t see it any more. One of Richard’s group then refound it, and Richard got a look at it too, only for a low-flying helicopter to flush all the waders on the pool in all directions. I was getting more stressed and more incoherent by the minute, but thankfully the bird reappeared again, much closer and appearing a little more settled. Anybody with a camera was ordered to take a photo of the small boring grey wader in front of us, and ignore the nice brightly-coloured godwits and Knot for the time being. I was now a bit calmer, and managed to text out the news without any more mishaps.

The bird continued to be very flighty, and behaved as though it had only just arrived in Shetland. Marsh Sandpipers are not usually associated with tidal habitats such as the Pool of Virkie, being more of a freshwater species, so maybe its erratic behaviour reflected this. It only remained at Virkie for a few hours, before flying off over Toab and being relocated later in the day at the more suitable site of Loch of Hillwell. It was not seen on subsequent days.

This is only the second Marsh Sandpiper to be seen in Shetland; the first was way back in 1969, at Strand, so was a Shetland tick for almost everybody. There have been just eight previous Marsh Sandpipers recorded in Scotland, the last of these being in Highland in October 2000.

As mentioned in the opening lines of this write-up, luck can play a huge part in finding rare birds. Had it not been for a couple of cancelled boat trips, we would have been happily sailing round Noss and nowhere near the Pool of Virkie. For once, the sometimes nasty summer weather in Shetland was a bonus.

Finally, thanks to all on the Borderland Tours trip, who put up with their guide having a total meltdown in front of them! I think everybody enjoyed themselves.

Rob Fray