Monday, 20 October 2014

SHETLAND! Part 1 Days 1-3

Shetland is quite simply THE best place in Britain to see rare birds. Every year on Birdforum there is a thread comparing its birds with those turning up on Scilly. Every year (almost) there is no contest. During the month of October, Scilly was the traditional holiday destination for birders in the eighties and nineties. Now numbers of visiting birders have dropped off, as the islands have priced themselves out of the market whilst delivering fewer good birds. It's a viscious circle, with fewer visitors resulting in fewer rare birds found, which in turn puts off more birders from visiting. Shetland however is becoming increasingly popular and a similar process applies in reverse.

I did Shetland in the spring of 1998 and had a week on Fair Isle in 2002. This was to be my first Autumn trip based on Shetland mainland. And so it came to pass that on the evening of 2nd October I was picked up at home by Andrew Lawson (hereafter known as Marcus just to piss him off) and in the company of George Kinnard (hereafter known as Young George or George the Younger) and celebrity birder Gary Bagnell (hereafter known as Baggers) we headed north in search of feathered waifs and strays that would hail from the far off land of Siberia - or so we hoped.

Day 1

The morning of 3rd saw us scouring the scoter flocks off Blackdog near Aberdeen. With no obvious surfers present we headed to the Ythan Estuary where a good variety of waders and wildfowl kept us entertained. Baggers found a Slav grebe and the stakes were upped further when we found a rather  elusive yellow-browed warbler on the north side on the edge of the Sands of Forvie nature reserve. A good start to the trip but we wanted those scoters so headed back South and tried again, this time off Murcar Golf Course. 

We scrutinised the distant bobbing dots on the water and after some time Marcus picked out a male SURF SCOTER. Nice! We closed down the distance and I eventually got some rather poor record shots. Well, it was about a third of a mile out! After prolonged observation it became apparent there was a female-type in attendance - an educational bird at that range, sporting a compact look when compared to the neighbouring velvet scoters, along with a squarer head shape and less concave head and bill profile. Job done. We left feeling satisfied and headed for the boat. Things were really looking up. Dan Pointon had just found a rubythroat about 3 miles from where we staying on Shetland. Thanks Dan, that would do nicely as a starter!

f/imm surf scoter

pair surf scoters
Day 2

It was an uneventful crossing on which for some reason I awoke at 3am and couldn't get back to sleep. On arrival we went straight to Levenwick for the SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT which was still present. Now to say this bird was a bastard to see would be an understatement. In fact it took me nearly 7 hours waiting to get a view and it rained the whole time. Luckily my waterproofs held out and we then had the luxury of a car ride as far as Tingwall Airport where a juv PALLID HARRIER was showing, often hunting around the runway. From there we returned to Levenwick and stuck it out until dusk by which time we must have been there about 9 hrs in total. All this for a bird I've seen twice before in Britain. But then a rubythroat isn't just any bird, now, is it?
Day 3

With a big storm approaching the wind started to get up on day 3 - a freshening SSW blow which gradually moved round to a southerly. We were becoming increasingly excited as the storm would bring SE gales, conditions sure to bring in good birds. The price we would pay for this would be a couple of days where the weather would be extreme enough so as to be 'unbirdable'; but for now we could get out into the field. We headed again to Levenwick where again we struggled to see the star bird. We were spread out around a garden with three vantage points that gave observers a chance of a glimpse. But when around lunch time we realised there had been no sightings for some two hours or so it was time to question whether it was even still in the same garden or not. We needed a break and repeated our move of the previous day, heading again for the PALLID HARRIER at Tingwall. This gave similar views to those of the previous day but this time there was an added bonus nearby - a HORNEMANN'S ARCTIC REDPOLL at Veensgarth.
Arctic redpoll race hornemanni (prob 1st wint f), Veensgarth
The redpoll was duly collected though it was considerably less 'classic' than the only other I'd seen, at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Some people leaving as we arrived remarked on this and I too initially had doubts. My first view of it came when I put it up with two mealies round the back of the willows - it looked the same size as them! But it did have the distinct contrasting golden-buff hood so characteristic of 1st winter Hornemann's and it seems likely it's just a small one after all, rather than an exilipes as some of us had started to consider.

We were still after that second rubythroat fix and when the news filtered through it had been refound in another garden half a mile or so from the original one, it was with renewed optimism we headed back South to Levenwick. Here, after a bit of a wait, we had slightly better views but birders were tightly packed in at the bottom of the drive and it was difficult to be in the best place for viewing.

We headed off and decided to check Boddam. We'd done enough twitching and it was time we started to find our own birds. We split up and I left the road, heading up a short track which came to an end just before some houses. What took me up that path I'm not sure but it was a good move. Near the end, a small bird came out of the long grass and circled round behind me. It didn't call but it looked like a small bunting!! Luckily it landed on the path 30 - 40 yards behind me and I raised my bins. A little chestnut face met my gaze and I thought I could even just make out an eye-ring. A LITTLE BUNTING!  A good find for so early in the trip, I knew the others would want to get a look at this. I'd left my radio in the car and found to my dismay my phone battery was dead. Luckily Young George was approaching along the road and I signalled to him there was something good on the path. Within minutes all 4 of us had converged and had good views. We put out the news and as a few birders (filthy twitchers!) started arriving, we headed south with a new-found confidence. What else was out there still to be found was anybody's guess. 
Little bunting, Boddam (photo Paul Hawkins)
Little bunting, Boddam (JH)

We spent the rest of the day working various sites near Sumburgh and seeing a few noteworthy birds including great northern diver, YBW, merlin, jack snipe, barnacle goose, arctic tern and brambling. Then it was back to our (somewhat cramped) digs at Sandwick for a relaxing evening and speculation on what the coming weather might bring in.

Would Premiereship twitcher Baggers be caught off-side for a rarity down south? If there was a fall to remember the next day would it be Scandanavian migrants or Baggers coming off worse after taking on a barbed wire fence? Or would the only productive winds here be those originating from Marcus? And would being with three ol' codgers talking about the good old days eventually drive George the Younger insane and cause him to give up birding for good? To be continued...


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