Shetland Nature

Wildlife, Birding & Photography Holidays

Scottish Tourist Board 5 Star Wildlife Experience
Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence 2017
Call: +44 (0)1595 760 333

Archive for the ‘Birding in Shetland’ Category:

Snowy Owl on Unst

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Sunday 2nd May 2010 | Birding in Shetland

A very special discovery indeed! Since the dying off of the Snowy Owls, which bred on my home Island of Fetlar, between the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, I have longed for another encounter with these majestic birds of prey.

But it was the neighbouring island of Unst, some 14 years later that today; at last I was reacquainted! Reported yesterday by a walker, the bird was said to have been on the far side of a hill, barely a mile from and which overlooks my mother-in-laws house! I truly believe that in Shetland at certain times of year, you are never further than a mile or two from a rarity, only a tiny percentage of the time do we take the right turn though!

On receiving the news late last night, I set out making plans to get into Unst asap and called my good mate Robbie Brookes and arranged to meet at 0700am. To cut along story short, with in an hour of meeting Robbie, we were stood breathless (partly from the climb and partly from sheer elation!) gazing at what was indeed a Snowy Owl! On route we were half thinking, as you so often do in these cases; will it still be there, was it even definitely one etc.

An encounter with a bird as magnificent as this is exhilarating in any circumstance or situation but for me, having grown up with regular, often-daily sightings from my school class room window (yes – literally!) this was truly special. Snowy Owl was a bird that for me as I boy, dare I say it, I almost took for granted. I remember with great fondness as a young boy enjoying trips to the nest sight with legendary Shetland naturalist and my childhood hero, the late Bobby Tulloch.

After enjoying privileged views of this ‘Arctic Owl’ I arranged to meet my wife Vaila with our six month old son Casey to bring them up to the hill, with a scope on my back and Casey harnessed into my front – the hill left me even more breathless! But it certainly was worth it!  Casey is having quite a year, with Bearded seal, Killer Whale and now Snowy Owl, he is notching up quite a list!  Of course at six months he is oblivious to it all but birding parents will know that it matters not – ‘pram ticks’ all count some day, him there makes it all the more special!

Snowy Owl has a circumpolar breeding distribution. It is a very rare visitor to Britain and Ireland although the last few years has seen birds starting to appear far more regularly, especially in the Western Isles and West cost of Ireland.

This bird is only the second one in over ten years in Shetland, the last also being on Unst in 2005 (also on Fair Isle). I hope it is not another decade and a half till my next encounter and I hope that one will be on my home turf…

White-billed Divers

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Sunday 2nd May 2010 | Birding in Shetland

These images were of the same (or presumed to be) taken in the exact same stretch of water last spring.

Two White-billed’s in one day!

Undoubtedly one of the most distinctive and stunning species of bird to visit our waters, White-billed Divers (or Yellow-billed Loon as they are also known) in summer plumage are simply exquisite.

Almost to the day, an annually returning adult in summer plumage passes through Bluemul Sound, (between Unst and Fetlar) presumably on its way North to its Arctic breeding grounds each spring – and today there it was! Pretty much on queue and in the exact same stretch of water I found the ‘diver’ today. In recent years any day between 25th April and 2nd May is a safe bet.

What was even more exciting was for me to discover another bird, some 15-20 mile South off Vidlin, (off a ferry) a pristine adult in summer plumage, with its bright almost glowingly neon- ivory bill, inc black upper parts topped with gleaning white and rather sequential white chequers on mantle – a sight that equals its status, rare!

White-billed diver breed in the High Arctic but their wintering grounds are something of an enigma amongst ornithologists. They are very rare visitors to British waters but in recent years are becoming more regular, so much so in fact that their status was downgraded from a ‘National rarity’ to a ‘Regional one’. Like the large majority of rarities from the Arctic, the North of Scotland, in particular the Western and Northern Isles very much host the lion’s share of records of this species.

Little, or in fact pretty much nothing is known of where these birds spend the winter. In recent years sightings of birds, such as the two I found today use the North of Scotland as a staging post on their way North to breed and so are either recorded as ‘fly by’s’ or just off shore for a day or two then they are gone. In recent years searching of rarely visited stretches of deeper waters has rewarded birders with multiple records, one of the main factors contributing to the changing of its status in Britain.

It is very likely that Britain hosts a much higher wintering number of these enigmatic seabirds than we may ever know, owing to their preference to much deeper off shore habitats than their commoner counterparts, Great-northern Divers.

Earlier in the month my close friend and ‘Shetland nature’ tourleader Micky Maher along with coleauges  found three of these stunning White-billed Divers, all in summer plumage in Argyll, Scotland. Micky also wrote the species account of White-billed Diver (during his time as Shetland Bird Club County Recorder) in the superb and highly acclaimed Birds of Scotland 3 which was published by the SOC  in 2007.

Along with the two records described above, two others have been found in Shetland waters in the past week, how many more are out there, the search continues…

High as a Kite

Posted by Rob Fray on Friday 30th April 2010 | Birding in Shetland

My ‘day job’ is as RSPB Assistant Warden in South Mainland Shetland, with responsibility for the RSPB reserves at Sumburgh Head, Loch of Spiggie and Mousa. Working with and helping to conserve birds and other wildlife is a very rewarding way to earn a living, and occasionally there are other little bonuses thrown in for good measure. One such bonus occurred during the afternoon of Monday 26th April, a rather grotty day of low cloud and mist that had confined me to office duties. I took a phone call from a resident of Levenwick, a small village about five miles north of Sumburgh; he described a big raptor that was currently sitting in a field viewable from his living room window. The majority of Shetlanders know a thing or two about birds as they live and work alongside them, so reports such as these are always worth following up. As a White-tailed Eagle had been seen the previous day at nearby Sandwick by fellow Shetland Nature guide Roger Riddington, I thought there was a good chance the “big raptor” at Levenwick was going to be this bird. The best way to find out was to go and have a look for myself.

I summoned my RSPB colleague Pete Ellis from his office, who needed little persuasion to come with me as at the time he was having a major disagreement with the photocopier, printer and just about everything else involving technology. On arrival at Levenwick the bird was still sitting around in fields on the edge of the village. It was certainly a big raptor, but it wasn’t the expected White-tailed Eagle: it was a Red Kite. In most places in Britain this would have been something of a disappointment, but here in Shetland Red Kites are a major rarity. This was only the 15th Shetland record, and the first since 1999. The bird was untagged, and given the weather over the previous couple of days (sunny with light south-easterly winds) it seems likely to have been a continental bird heading for Scandinavia rather than a wanderer from the reintroduced populations in mainland Scotland.

The bird stayed around for much of the afternoon before disappearing into the low cloud and hill fog. The next day it was at Cunningsburgh (about ten miles to the north), but returned to Levenwick on the morning of the 28th. It then went on a big wander around south mainland that afternoon, and rather gloriously appeared just north of my house at Virkie, where I watched it from my garden!

It wouldn’t be right not to give thanks to the people of Levenwick, who not only alerted us to the presence of this splendid bird but also put up with some rather haphazard parking when Pete and me first saw the bird!

Rob Fray

Northern (borealis) Eiders

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 29th April 2010 | Birding in Shetland

Taken in February 2008, in this photograph the ‘fairy cake wing’ scapular sails and the striking orangey yellow bill tones are quite obvious.

For the third consecutive winter I have been seeing birds ‘presumed to be’ of the form borealis also known as ‘Northern Eider’ amongst flocks of Common Eider in Bluemull Sound, the channel of sea which separates Yell, Unst and Fetlar. These really are stunning Eiders and with a keen eye are quite easily recognised amongst the ‘commoners’. My first experience of birds showing features of this form was in November 2007, since then there has been at least two wintering drakes returning, with up to four birds together in March 2009. This past winter (‘09/’10) two drakes wintered again, with at least one still present into mid April.

In this image, also taken in February 2008, the difference in bill colour (front right two drakes) to the accompanying Common Eiders is quite distinct.

Knowing that Martin Garner (who we are extremely fortunate to have leading tours with us) was probably the most informed Eider enthusiast in the nation, I emailed him images and so started my interest in the rarer forms of Common Eider.

Superficially the drakes are very similar to the dapper black and white plumage of our Common Eider but it is the small but rather elaborate ‘scapular sails’, which are often pert up like the little wings on a fairy cake and also the bright yellow tones of the bill that really set them apart.

Taken in March 2009, this photo shows three fine drakes (and an apparent female too) which appear to be classic examples of Northern Eider, exhibiting all the key features and has been said to be potentially the best photographic record of them in British waters.

They are perhaps what you might say to be ‘birders birds’- birds that only really keen birders will look for and find interesting, even travel to see. This ‘Northern’ form also known as ‘Borealis’, (which is also the Latin name somateria mollissima borealis) is basically the name given to the subspecies in the Arctic regions of the North Atlantic, from North East Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. It is possible and indeed quite likely that birds have been over looked in Britain in the passed.

It is currently very much regarded as a rarity in Britain and is a subspecies that is soon to be looked at in detail by the British Birds Rarities Committee in order for criteria to be put together on how to reliably identify and asses records of these vagrants amongst our Eider flocks and hopefully build a picture of their status, both here and where they originate from.

This image shows how in really good contenders for borealis Eider, the leg and feet colour should match the bright yellowish orange tones of the bill.

Through out the British Isles (and indeed many parts of Europe) when it comes to potential rare Eiders amongst our winter flocks, most birders are tuned into that oh so familiar and oh so delightful features of a resplendent drake King Eider, surely one of the Worlds most exquisite sea ducks. Some keener eyed and enthusiastic birders may also be on the look out for a female, ‘Queen’ Eider. Stellers Eider would of course be a dream find for any rarity hunter, as it remains a true Mega, surely we are long over due the next one? But now, with increasing knowledge and awareness of the rarer subspecies of Common Eider that could turn out to be much more sought after amongst birders in Britain.

Taken more recently, this image as well as the one below from last year shows how the bill shape tends to differ structurally as well as by colour, tending to be more elongated and drooping towards tip. The shape of the lobes (the extremity of bill that runs up towards forehead) tends to be different as does the black that borders it.

There are several subspecies in the ‘Common Eider’ group, four of which we should (and many are) on the look out for as they could potentially turn up as vagrants in our flocks in Britain. ‘Northern’ Eider is by far the most likely target for the avid rarity hunter in Britain, as the form is known to occur in Scotland, the Northern Isles and Northern Ireland. The separation, identity and indeed taxonomy involving these forms is still a complex subject to say the least. Another subspecies from the group ‘Dreser’s Eider’ also known as ‘American Eider’ was recently recorded in Ireland, its first appearance in Europe! This is a revolutionary example of what might reach our British waters some day…

Scandinavians and Americans

Posted by Roger Riddington on Tuesday 20th April 2010 | Birding in Shetland

In the early part of the Shetland spring, Rock Pipits are always worth a closer look. Perhaps surprisingly, Scandinavian Rock Pipits (a different subspecies from the ones that breed in Britain) are relatively rarely recorded in Shetland, and claims are still assessed by the local rarities committee. However, this may well be a function of the fact that the two races are so similar that many cannot be separated reliably. Happily, a few birds are distinctive, and this one, photographed at Scord, near Sumburgh, on 15th April is one of those.

The key features of this one that distinguish it from the local breeders include: the predominantly grey tones to the upperparts, in a particular a strikingly grey head, with little or no streaking; the striking whitish supercilium, broad and well-marked behind the eye; and the rather clean underparts, with a lack of yellow or buff tones to the ground colour but, more importantly, an obvious orangey-pink wash to the lower throat and upper breast. The pink wash in particular is a good feature since British birds rarely, if ever, show an obvious pink flush like this. The lack of the typical deep, saturated olive or yellow tones of a fresh-plumaged British bird are striking – although note that by April, many birds are heavily worn, as this bird is, and this may contribute to a duller, greyer appearance. (Many British birds and at least some Scandinavians appear not to have a pre-breeding moult at all, so their feathers are unchanged from the main, complete, moult carried out after the breeding season). This bird shows very worn wing feathers for example, and little in the way of wingbars. Notwithstanding, the combination of grey head and striking supercilia would not disgrace many summer-plumaged Water Pipits – although the heavy streaking on the underparts is a quick reminder that it is not a Water Pipit. Birders in Shetland are still waiting to find the first Water Pipit for the islands!

Surprisingly, 15th April was set to get even better in a birding context. After work that day, the cold north-westerly didn’t encourage me to get out on foot, birding from the car was much more appealing. Parked up overlooking Loch of Hillwell, there was no sign of any fresh migrants, but then a gull flying over the loch caught my eye. It was somehow ‘different’, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Luckily, I managed to get my scope on it for a few seconds before it went out of view, and what stood out immediately was the well-defined black ring near the tip of the bill! I set off after it, hoping it was heading for a group or 100–200 gulls feeding in a newly ploughed rig. Happily, after few minutes I found it again; and it was indeed a Ring-billed Gull. This American species, closely related to our own Common Gull, is an annual visitor to Britain, but is more regular to the south of Shetland; there is fewer than 20 records in Shetland. At first, I assumed it must be an adult bird, given the distinctive bill pattern (the photos were taken after it had been digging in the newly turned earth, hence it appears to have an all-dark tip) and lack of any obvious sign of immaturity in the wings. However, after examining the photos, it seems more likely to have been a third-summer bird (in other words hatched in 2007), which would explain the dull leg colour, the rather extensive black in the wingtips, the noticeably small ‘mirror’ (white spot) on the outermost primary, and also some faint dark markings in the primary coverts. Anyway, it was a good bird to find, and this is probably the last of my bird-finding posts for this spring…

Common Crane over Virkie

Posted by Roger Riddington on Wednesday 14th April 2010 | Birding in Shetland

Spring comes late in the far north, and April often flatters to deceive. Although the rapidly lengthening days are a joy, and the weather can often be very pleasant, settled anticyclonic conditions are often not particularly good for migrants. Mid April 2010 fell slap-bang into that category and, while resident breeders were hard at work advertising territories, migrant hunting was thin. After work on the evening of the 13th I had set out for ‘no more than an hour’ but within five minutes of the back door, I spied fellow Shetland Nature guide Gary Bell, and we fell into idle chat. He’d seen nothing either, although within moments of standing there a Peregrine flew low overhead – my first of the year! Ten minutes later, I was about to move on when an unfamiliar, slow-but-purposeful silhouette came into view on the far side of the Pool of Virkie. It was a Common Crane! A scarce but near-annual visitor to Shetland, these majestic creatures are always a welcome sight, en route to Scandinavian breeding grounds. This one circled low a couple of times over the Pool, giving us some fine views and Gary the chance of some long-distance photos, before heading off over Toab and towards Quendale. All too brief, and too quick for us to get any other local birders onto it, it just shows that, even when things look unpromising, the unexpected is always just round the corner in a Shetland migration season!

Leading the field for the ‘Birding media’

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Saturday 30th January 2010 | Birding in Shetland, News

(From left) Brydon Thomason, Roger Ridington, Fiona Barclay (Birdguides), Mike Weedon (Birdwatching Magaziene) Martin Garner and Dominic Mitchell (Birdwatch Magaziene) minutes after identifying Britains third ever Taiga Flycatcher - the smiles say it all!

The birds were far from the only focus, we took time out to show the team our other speciality with some gripping otter watching...

In a bid to introduce some of the leading names from the nations Birding media to Shetlands legendary autumn migration, we put together a thrilling long weekend birding trip, with the vision being to showcase our innovative 2010 Autumn Birding holidays.

Lead by Brydon Thomason, Roger Ridington and Martin Garner, the top team of publicists (consisting of Fiona Barclay of Birdguides, Dominic Mitchell of Birdwatch and Mike Weedon of Birdwatching magazine) new that they could not have wished for better hosts as they each made their Island autumn debut.

Taiga Flycatcher

The weekend excelled beyond all our expectations and simply could not have been scripted better. With the incredible discovery of a Taiga flycatcher, (a third for Britain!!) by the team, the whole ethos of what our birding trips are about and much of our key aims and objectives were wonderfully illustrated; team work, sharing knowledge, inspiring others and the thrill of finding, identifying and enjoying your own ‘rares’ in a remote and crowdless environment.