Shetland Trip – Day 7 – 2/x/16

As I walked into the main room at the obs on day 7, the excitement was palpable! It was clear that the light easterly winds overnight had brought in new birds, as the early morning net rounds had produced a good number of new in Yellow-Browed Warblers and a Rosefinch. After breakfast everyone headed straight out, and it wasn’t long before some good birds were found…

I headed south, and was just behind another group of birders at Chalet when they located a Bluethroat, a new bird and this one a 1st-year male with a little bit of blue on the throat!

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It was a slightly more elusive bird, but still an excellent start! A quick scan of the chalet garden produced a ‘tristis’ Siberian Chiffchaff (my first of this subspecies) as well as a Garden Warbler and several nominate Chiffchaffs.

As I continued south, news came through of an Arctic Warbler and a Radde’s Warbler. I opted for the latter and joined the crowd around Midway for a short while but there was no sign. Seeing that good birds were being found all the time, I decided to try and locate some of my own. I trudged around Da Water and the ditches at Gilsetter but produced only a few Jack Snipe. Continuing back to the north I could see a crowd had gathered at the shop. On arrival I could see a large group heading up towards the junction, and joining them I found out that the Radde’s Warbler had been showing again. This time I did manage to see it, initially in flight only, then briefly in the school playground before it settled in the garden of Lower Stoneybrek. I spent about half an hour there but the bird was very skulking, though reasonable views were eventually had. A 1st-year Red-Breasted Flycatcher was also showing well in the area!

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I wandered over to Shop to catch a lift back to the obs, and was pleased to learn that a Red-Flanked Bluetail and a Blyth’s Reed Warbler had been found. However, the Bluetail was in the south, and the Warbler was close to the obs. Deciding that the Bluetail could wait, I boarded the taxi and was soon enjoying good views of my first Blyth’s Reed Warbler from a bedroom window in the obs! It showed well in good light and the plain, greyish plumage was seen well.

Lunch followed and was made all the sweeter by the news that the Red-Flanked Bluetail was still present. Another taxi run from Susannah meant that I was soon enjoying the bird feeding actively in Dog Geo. The blue tail and orange-red flanks were seen on this 1st-winter bird. Unfortunately I couldn’t spend long enjoying this bird, as while I watched news came through of a PECHORA PIPIT at Shirva!! A mad dash up the island followed and I joined the crowd gathering next to a grassy field. Kieran (the assistant warden) who had originally found the bird, went in to see if it was still there, but unfortunately there was no sign. However, it was quickly relocated in a nearby field but took flight before anyone could get there. Thankfully it landed in the garden itself and was seen on the deck by a lucky few before it again took flight and flew in front of me calling loudly. Following this, most of the crowd moved off, but several of us stayed in the area hoping for better views of the bird. Unfortunately there was no sign.

Whilst we waited, however, another pipit flew overhead and gave a single high pitched note which I recognised to be the call of a Red-Throated Pipit!!! I called it out to the others and followed it in the bins as it descended and landed some way off in a field. Fortunately I had my scope to hand, and managed to find it quickly. The white mantle stripes were visible, and as it turned I could see a red flush to the face and upper throat, aging it as an adult bird! My first self-found BBRC description species! Several others present had heard it and one other had seen it through my scope, and all were in agreement. Unfortunately, a number of birders had decided to try and get better views, and as we watched they walked straight towards the bird and flushed it. Sadly it wasn’t seen again!

As evening drew in things seemed to quieten down a little. However, there was one last surprise in store. As evening drew in, news came through that another mega had been found, a LANCEOLATED WARBLER! I headed down to midway and joined several others at the site were it had been seen. We waited for a short time while everyone arrived, and once everyone was present, Steve Arlow (the finder) approached the tussock where the bird had last been seen. Sure enough, out it flew and did a close flyby before pitching back into the dense grass. This happened several times before I managed a brief close range glimpse of the bird on the ground! It was then seen again briefly on the ground an was somewhat mouse-like in behaviour. It flew again and this time the decision was made to leave it alone, as all present had had satisfactory views of the small locustella warbler. I had seen the small size, streaky plumage and stubby bill well (though had not been able to photograph it). Thankfully, Steve had nailed it with the camera along with several other of the days highlights and these pictures can be seen on his website (follow the link below):

http://www.birdersplayground.co.uk/Recent%20Images.html

The sun set and everyone headed back to the obs for tea. It was a lively log, after one of the best days birding on the Isle in recent times!! It had been a privilege to be there on such a brilliant day, and I was sad to be leaving the following morning. Fair Isle really does have the best birding in Britain!

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Shetland Trip – Day 6 – 1/x/16

The first day of October dawned bright and windless, and I was ready for a full day of birding having caught up on sleep. I began by birding the observatory plantation, and was rewarded with better views of yesterdays’ redpolls, and confirming they were Lesser Redpolls albeit fairly pale ones. Slightly frustratingly these are much scarcer on the island than Mealy Redpolls, which would have been a lifer for me. A Yellow-Browed Warbler was also present and showing well on the fence above the plantation.

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I continued down, birding thoroughly around Setter and Pund, and being rewarded with a flyover Siskin, a Swallow and 5 Jack Snipe. A Garden Warbler and a Whinchat were at the Stackhoull Shop, and whilst there I heard that the Bluethroat had been seen again at Shirva. I headed up there quickly, and as I arrived the bird hopped into view in a gateway ahead of me. It showed well for several minutes feeding around a small shed, and even coughed up a pellet at one point! The head markings were bold, but with no evidence of blue or rufous in the breast this is likely to be a a 1st-winter female.

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The rest of the day was a little disappointing, with some hard birding producing relatively little. The afternoons highlights were: a showy Slavonian Grebe in North Haven, along with several waders, a few Lapland Buntings kicking about and a grey looking Whitethroat trying to look rare at Stackhoull.

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With the conditions looking very promising for new arrivals tomorrow, there was a bit of a buzz at log. Hopefully it would live up to expectations!

Shetland Trip – Day 5 – 30/ix/16

I left mainland at 11 in the morning, with no news of new birds in. Flying from Tingwall we followed the cliffs of south mainland in the small aircraft and then headed out over open water until we reached Fair Isle; probably the best birding site in the UK, and a place that I have dreamed of visiting ever since I started birding.

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And over the first few hours, the birding didn’t fail to deliver. As I got of the plain, a pair of Lapland Buntings flew over calling. My first birds on the island and my first self-found birds of this species. Not a bad start! I was greeted by the warden Dave Parnaby, and we set off down the hill in the car. We hadn’t got far though, when a medium sized, pale bird flew across the track in front of us. Dave stopped the van, and we quickly got onto the 1st-year Short-Toed Lark which had been present for a while previously. It showed well for a short time before flying off again, but it was a British tick for me and only my third bird on the island!

We headed down to the observatory where I was shown to my room and given a short introduction. After a quick look around I headed back out, this time armed with my camera, and quickly refound the lark showing well by the roadside. It was strikingly pale, with a sandy brown plumage, and a subtle peach wash to the unstreaked breast. The bill was short and deep, and the cap was darker and had a touch of rufous.

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The bird eventually flew up the hill towards the water tanks, just as Dave Steel arrived from the obs. We headed up together and after some time we relocated the bird near the airstrip where it continued to show well until we left. We returned for lunch at the obs, where I learned that the Bluethroat was still showing well at Shira. I headed in that direction, and as I went, I noted several Lesser Redpoll, 2 Merlin, 2 Yellow-Browed Warbler, 1 Black Redstart, 3 Whinchat, 1 Whitethroat, 1 Blackcap and good numbers of Twite. A further four Lapland Buntings were also seen, including one very showy individual not far from the obs at Gully.

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Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Bluethroat at Shirva, but there was plenty of other good birding to be had, with 50+ Golden Plover, 5 Dunlin, a Knot, over 100 Pink-Footed Geese, a Peregrine, Great Skua and Fulmar all seen. Not a bad first day by any means, though the general impression at the evening log was that it had been fairly quiet!

Shetland Trip – Day 4 – 29/ix/16

After an excellent 24 hours, day 4 dawned with strong wind from the NW and persistent drizzle. Things got worse when I discovered that my phone had broken, meaning that I now had to rely fully on the less than adequate pager which I had rented.

I decided to head to Laxo, Mainland, for the Bluethroat which had been reported for several days. It seemed like it would be easy, but unfortunately it wasn’t, the weather meant that the bird had gone into cover and refused to come out during the couple of hours that I was there. A distant Merlin was meager consolation.

With the forecast supposedly better in the north, I decided to try my luck on Unst again. A Blyth’s Reed Warbler had been in a small garden at Uyeasound for the best part of a week. However, the wind once again put paid to my plans, and in a couple of hours the only bird I saw was a Yellow-Browed Warbler. Meager consolation once again.

I headed back to mainland where I discovered that the Greenish Warbler at Aith (which I had dipped on my first day) had reappeared. Convinced I couldn’t dip a third bird within the same day, I headed to the site, arriving early in the evening. I remained in the area until dark but unfortunately I failed once again! And once again the only consolation was offered by a Yellow-Browed Warbler.

All in all a very tough day, and one which proves that birding on Shetland is not always easy!

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Shetland Trip – Day 3 – 28/ix/16

As  promised, day three dawned bright and with only a gentle breeze, much more birdable conditions. I’d spent the night in the car at Skaw (the most northerly occupied settlement in the UK), and began at dawn by walking some distance up the burn where a Paddyfield Warbler had been seen the previous day. Unfortunately there was no sign of the bird there over several hours of searching. Several Wheatear and Snipe where seen, and a Whinchat. Eventually, large numbers of birders arrived, but unfortunately the bird still couldn’t be relocated. However, consolation came when a Little Bunting was located on the fence line above the burn and was seen briefly by a few. Unfortunately the bird did not show particularly well. An Osprey was also seen over the car park later, being mobbed by a pair of Ravens.

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Moving on from here I drove south, hoping to find some good birds of my own. As I came towards Baltasound, I noticed a promising looking plantation which turned out to be at Halligarth. As I entered I passed two birders who were leaving, and they told me that they had just relocated the Icterine Warbler which had been seen recently at the nearby Setters Hill Estate. They also told me that a Dusky Warbler had just been found up the road at Burrafirth! Unfortunately, I spent the the next half hour failing to see the Icterine, though I did see a Wood Warbler (which appeared to have an injured wing but gave excellent views), two Yellow-Browed Warblers (one of which was self-found), a Brambling, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap and a Garden Warbler.

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I decided to return later, and made the ten minute drive up to Burrafirth where a fair crowd had assembled. I was informed that the Dusky Warbler was still present but had gone into cover. Fortunately, it soon decided to fly up into the open, and spent several minutes feeding along the edge of the stream giving reasonable ‘bin views’ though it was slightly distant. The generally plain plumage, fine bill, neat supercillium and dark lores were all seen and just about captured in the appalling record shot below (the bird is in the center with facing away from the camera with its head turned to the left showing the dark lores):

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I arrived back at Halligarth at midday, and spent another half hour, adding only a third (second self-found) Yellow-Browed Warbler to the tally. This time, several other birders were present too, but were also having no luck. As they were about to head off, I decided to try some gardens just to the south of the plantation, and almost immediately located the Icterine Warbler feeding in the open along a hedgerow and fenceline I quickly called the other birders back and a small crowd enjoyed excellent views of the bird, a well marked and bright individual, as it performed well. The lemon wash to the breast and face was striking, as was the pale secondary panel, thick blue-grey legs and long primary projection. This was a particularly satisfying British tick, after I missed a bird during a quiet week on the Scillies in 2013.

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After some time watching the bird and a quick bite to eat, I decided to head for Norwick (to the north), where some good birds were being found. Unfortunately when I arrived neither the RB Fly or the Rosefinch, but my second Little Bunting of the day was appreciated, showing a little better than the earlier bird, sitting in a sycamore in the afternoon having been flushed from a crop field.

With the evening fast approaching, a began the journey back to the mainland. Another pleasant surprise awaited there, when I checked the local bird news and discovered that an Arctic Warbler had been found at Frakkafield near Lerwick. I raced the fading light and incoming weather front, arriving on site at quarter to six, in already heavy rain. The first bird seen in the plantation was another self-found Yellow-Browed Warbler. A nice bird, but not the one that I was after. As I headed around, I noticed a pair of Warblers flying down to some nettles. Looking through the bins, I could see that the first was a Blackcap, onto the second and there it was! It showed well for some time, though the downpour made viewing very difficult. The single wing-bar, dirty off-white underside and thin, bold supercillium which stopped before the forehead, were noted.

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My third British tick of the day, and a quality bird!

Shetland Trip – Day 2 – 27/ix/16

Day 2 of the trip was my first day on Shetland. The forecast was for strong south westerly winds and plenty of rain, not ideal birding weather on Shetland and so it proved. After grabbing some breakfast and a coffee in Lerwick, I headed for the plantation at Aith where a Greenish Warbler had been found the previous day. Unfortunately several hours of searching failed to turn up the bird, or anything else for that matter.

Other birds seen during a tough morning on the mainland were; White Wagtail, Wheatear (2), Kestrel, Pink-Footed Goose (110+), Raven, Hooded Crow, Red-Breasted Merganser, Lesser Whitethroat and Rock Dove – slim pickings.

My spirits somewhat dampened, I decided to cut my losses and head north taking two ferries and arriving on the most northerly island in the UK, Unst, at about 4. A few birds had been reported here throughout the day, and I decided to try for the Radde’s Warbler in the garden at Valyie, Norwick. After a short wait (and a brief glimpse of a Yellow-Browed Warbler) the bird showed, though was incredibly elusive! Brief glimpses showed all of the salient features; short stout bill, bold supercillium (rufous at the front and pale at the back), compact Wren-like build and apricot undertail coverts. Unfortunately I didn’t manage any record shots of the bird, but you can follow the link below to see one on the Shetland Nature website:

http://www.nature-shetland.co.uk/naturelatest/pics16/raddes-ac.jpg

It had been a slightly disappointing start to the trip, saved slightly by the Radde’s, but I was optimistic for the next 24 hours which were forecast for much better birding conditions!

Shetland Trip – Day 1 – 26/ix/16

This weekend I returned from a two week trip to Shetland, where the birding was some of the best I have ever experienced in Britain! Over the next week I’ll write a day by day account of the trip, beginning with some birding I did on the journey north.

My first bird of the trip was a pretty good one. During the drive, news had broken of a rare Arctic seabird in the harbour at Anstruther, Fife, and it was still present when I arrived at 12:30. It was a BRUNNICH’S GUILLEMOT, a new species for me and a mega-rarity in a british context. While I was there it dived regularly but was never seen feeding, it also spent a lot of time preening but appeared to be in a bit of a mess with the flight feathers from both wings in heavy moult. However, the black feathers of the upper body, moulting white chin patch, short deep bill and white line at the bill base were all seen as it showed well coming within a few metres at times.

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Sadly this bird was found dead in the harbour on the 30th September, and was clearly in a malnourished state. There has been some doubt about the identity of this bird, with some suggesting it may be a hybrid Brunnich’s x Common Guillemot. The corpse has been retained and will be subject to DNA analysis, the results of which are eagerly anticipated!

I reached the Aberdeen area with several hours to kill before my ferry, so decided to have a go for the Semipalmated Sandpiper which had been present at the Ythan estuary to the north. Unfortunately there was no sign of the bird which had last been seen, fluched by a Peregrine the previous afternoon according to Birdguides. However, a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper and a wealth of other more common waders were pleasant consolation.

With a little time still remaining, I payed a quick visit to the nearby Forvie NNR where a 1st-winter Red-Backed Shrike showed well next to the visitor centre, though remained deep in cover. I did manage the record shot below.

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Following this was a quick drive down to the ferry where I boarded successfully and spent a somewhat sleepless night looking forwards to the quality birding which awaited.