Shetland 2016

9th-16th October

An awesome week with Sean Foote, Matt Phelps and Ed Stubbs. The conditions looked fantastic, and we were hyped having closely followed the previous week’s news. We had hoped the White’s thrush, lanceolated warbler and brown shrike, among other species would stay, but certainly no complains with what we saw instead!

Arriving in Aberdeen mid-afternoon on 9th,  an excellent half hour was spent wandering around the harbour where the highlight for me was a humpback whale that breeched a few times, fairly close in offshore! The first whale I’d ever seen in British waters. It was much easier to catch up with than we expected, as upon getting out of the car and looking through the binoculars I remarked, “Is that it?” and so it was. Then the pager went off “Siberian Accentor Mainland NE of Sousburgh…” – bloody hell; a first for Britain!! Amazingly, it stayed the night, so our first stop after disembarking was a quarry by Sousburgh. It was awesome to see and hear the Siberian accentor and the views were great; something I’ll never forget. Over an hour was well spent enjoying the bird. What a fantastic start to the week! 

The day continued with good fortune – Matt picked up a Richard’s Pipit flying over the cottage (sadly during the brief moment I was inside so I missed it) and a yellow-browed warbler passed through the garden. A walk around Papil, West Burra, where we were staying, was great too with a bluethroat in a nearby garden alongside many twite. Next stop was a buff-breasted sandpiper (a lifer for me) at Boddam, a trip to Tesco’s, Scalloway for a rose-coloured starling, followed by a mad dash to Bressa when news broke of a black-faced bunting at Gunnista! Relocating the bird wasn’t easy, and in the end the decision was taken for someone to try flushing it, so brief flight views were had as it flew over our heads calling. 2 ‘megas’ in a day can’t happen very often, surely?!

We tried to balance our time between covering the local area around Papil, exploring different sites and twitching other rarer birds. The walks around Papil have proved fruitful, with the Richard’s Pipit hanging about (yay, lifer for me!) and finding an olive-backed pipit on 11th. We also had a probable eastern yellow wagtail fly over calling on 11th, though sadly lost the bird so couldn’t confirm; just one of those that got away. The commoner species have been interesting too, with twite and brambling making a daily appearance. A pool viewable from our cottage contained a small number of wildfowl – mute swans, mallard, teal and wigeon, as well as redshank and plenty of snipe. The field surrounding our cottage were alive with greylag geesecurlew, golden plover, more snipe and many meadow pipits, while the coastal waters provided us with good views of black guillemot, razorbill, red-breasted mergansers and even otters. We were also rather chuffed to have a great skua flyover the cottage one morning – wouldn’t that be nice in standard suburbia!

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Papil, West Burra – the view from our cottage

Other trips on Shetland during 11th yielded a wheatear, red-breasted flycatcher and 2 little bunting at Dale of Walls, Ortolan bunting and 2 yellow-browed warblers at Hillwell, and fantastic views of short-eared owl as it flew over the car, among other species.   

After our daily wander around Papil, the first stop on 12th was the Loch of Spiggie for wildfowl, and we weren’t disappointed with highlights being whooper swans, scaup, 4 long-tailed duck, goldeneye, 2 Slavonian grebes and a single common scoter. Continuing to explore the area we wandered along Spiggie beach where 4 stunning summer plumage great northern divers were out in the bay. The original plan for the rest of the day was to head south, towards Sumburgh Head. Stopping at Virkie, a scan of the beach yielded large numbers of dunlin and bar-tailed godwits, and a red-throated diver offshore, while another of those probable eastern yellow wagtails flew over and was later relocated nearby. The pager then kindly informed us of an arctic warbler at Baltasound on Unst, a target species for all of us so the plan quickly changed.

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Arctic Warbler, Baltasound, 12th October

The journey up to Unst was worth it, for the bird showed very well (but was silent) and the scenery was lovely too. We only had a couple of hours to spend there so tried making the most of it. Merlin, Siberian & common chiffchaffs, yellow-browed warbler, blackcap, lesser whitethroat and our first fieldfare of autumn were the best we could do while searching for (and dipping) a Hornemann’s arctic redpoll not far from the arctic warbler.

Returning south towards Sumburgh Head the following day (13th), gave us a chance to explore it further. It was great to enjoy fulmars up close, something you don’t get much in the Solent, and also a pink-footed goose in a field at Grutness (again, not a species one would expect in the Solent!). Razorbills, black guillemot, eider and a red-throated diver were offshore – a seawatch I could only dream of on patch.

13th continued with a trip over to South Collafirth to connect with a rather showy (but hard to photograph) pallas‘s warbler flitting about in the trees with 3 yellow-browed warblers and a chaffinch. Travelling towards the south, we stopped at Kergord to check the plantations we’d spotted on the map. A nice spot which seemed worth exploring further, although our short check yielded only a few yellow-browed warblers, including a rather dull individual that may in fact be a Hume’s warbler but was sadly silent while we watched it.

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A dull Yellow-browed/Hume’s Warbler that was sadly silent (from Sean Foote’s video)

Our next target, pallid harrier, wasn’t quite so cooperative. We made to attempts to see the pallid harrier by the Loch of Hillwell, neither of which were successful (except for Ed, who managed to catch a glimpse of it one morning). However, our evening by the loch wasn’t all that fruitless with 4 shoveler, a lesser black-backed gull and a reed bunting by the loch, and a very interesting flycatcher in the fields by one house in Ringasta. As soon as Ed and Matt called us over, it was clear the bird wasn’t a red-breasted flycatcher – very striking, with a clear white throat and darker dusky underparts. Taiga flycatcher came to mind, but we realised just how rare that is. Other birders soon helped us watch and photograph it and noted other key features. It was interesting to hear the views of birders far more experienced than myself discuss it’s identification.

By 14th, the wind had picked up quite considerably, making birding harder but the perseverance was well worth it. Sadly, the flycatcher wasn’t refound so it’ll be up to the rarities committee to decide if the evidence gained is enough for taiga flycatcher. The morning was spit between Papil, where numerous kittiwake were flying around the bay and a hawfinch passed overhead, and the plantations at Kergord.

The plantations were fantastic, an area we wish we’d discovered earlier in the trip. Wandering through each one yielded the expected species such as chiffchaff, blackcap, redwing, many brambling and yellow-browed warblers. The highlight has to be the arctic warbler Sean found, great to see a second, although not as showy as the first!

The afternoon began around West Voe beach for another spot of seawatching while trying to shelter from the wind. It was a great session (to me anyway) with a decent number of long-tailed ducks, great northern diver, many gannets and kittiwake and large numbers of barnacle geese heading inland. News then broke of a pied wheatear nearby at Scatness found by Steve Minton. It showed brilliantly in front of us on the dry stone wall, while flying low over our heads from time to time. We also heard about the northern long-tailed tits Dan Houghton had found also around the same area, which sadly didn’t stay long enough to twitch.

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Pied Wheatear, Scatness, 14th October 2016

With more hours of daylight remaining, Quendale was our next stop with the hope of Lapland bunting and anything else that would be lurking. Whilst the bunting was a no show, it was nice to visit a new area and see the large number of brambling in the fields close by. Finally, we returned to the loch of Spiggie partly hoping the pallid harrier would roost there (though we failed in that sense). However, the large number of barnacle geese was lovely to see, as was a coot which briefly got us all excited!

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Small sample of the 100+ Brambling at Quendale

Our final day on Shetland sadly dawned (15th) but it was another excellent day. We were greeted to large numbers of fieldfare and a ring ouzel at Papil, amongst others. The rest of the morning was spent in the plantations at Kergord. Plenty of thrushes there too as well as many finches, a few yellow-browed warblers, chiffchaffs, blackcaps, hawfinch, and brief appearance of a sparrowhawk followed by peregrine! The highlight was an olive-backed pipit that appeared in a tree next to me and provided us with very good views indeed.

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Olive-backed Pipit, Kergord, 15th October 2016

Returning to the south, we stopped at Toab in the hope of seeing the Siberian stonechat though sadly couldn’t relocate it. On the plus side, we did catch up with a Lapland bunting while searching, and enjoyed watching many more barnacle geese arrive over Scatness. Time was running out, but we managed to squeeze in a return to Kergord to catch up with a red-flanked bluetail Dan Pointon had just found. It was a species we’d all hoped to see during the trip, so a perfect end. Brief views, but a lovely bird nonetheless.

The ferry journey back was very rough, but I suppose that was a small price to pay for the fantastic trip! One thing I love about Shetland is how different it is to the Solent, and the potential for stumbling across rarities especially at this time of year. It was great to explore and attempt to find (and succeed) birds, while also enjoying the species others had found and enjoying the commoner species that aren’t so common down south. Even seeing the numbers of goldcrests was impressive – amazing to think how far they’d travelled, especially given their tiny size! The other birders (and locals in general) we met while on Shetland were friendly and helpful too, which added to the lovely atmosphere. Definitely a place I’d love to return to and explore more.

Trip list

  1.  Mute Swan
  2. Whooper Swan
  3. Greylag Goose
  4. Pink-footed Goose
  5. Barnacle Goose
  6. Shelduck
  7. Wigeon
  8. Shoveler
  9. Teal
  10. Mallard
  11. Tufted Duck
  12. Scaup
  13. Eider
  14. Common Scoter
  15. Long-tailed Duck
  16. Goldeneye
  17. Red-breasted Merganser
  18. Goosander
  19. Red-throated Diver
  20. Great Northern Diver
  21. Slavonian Grebe
  22. Little Grebe
  23. Fulmar
  24. Gannet
  25. Cormorant
  26. Shag
  27. Grey Heron
  28. Coot
  29. Moorhen
  30. Oystercatcher
  31. Golden Plover
  32. Ringed Plover
  33. Lapwing
  34. Purple Sandpiper
  35. Curlew
  36. Turnstone
  37. Dunlin
  38. Buff-breasted Sandpiper
  39. Redshank
  40. Bar-tailed Godwit
  41. Snipe
  42. Great Skua
  43. Black Guillemot
  44. Razorbill
  45. Kittiwake
  46. Black-headed Gull
  47. Common Gull
  48. Herring Gull
  49. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  50. Great Black-backed Gull
  51. Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon
  52. Woodpigeon
  53. Collared Dove
  54. Short-eared Owl
  55. Pallid Harrier (well, only Ed saw that!)
  56. Merlin
  57. Peregrine
  58. Kestrel
  59. Sparrowhawk
  60. Rook
  61. Hooded Crow
  62. Raven
  63. Goldcrest
  64. Skylark
  65. Arctic Warbler
  66. Pallas’s Warbler
  67. Yellow-browed Warbler
  68. Chiffchaff
  69. Blackcap
  70. Lesser Whitethroat
  71. Wren
  72. Starling
  73. Rose-coloured Starling
  74. Blackbird
  75. Fieldfare
  76. Song Thrush
  77. Ring Ouzel
  78. Redwing
  79. Robin
  80. Bluethroat
  81. Red-flanked Bluetail
  82. Red-breasted Flycatcher
  83. Taiga Flycatcher (probable, see what BBRC decide!)
  84. Redstart
  85. Wheatear
  86. Pied Wheatear
  87. Siberian Accentor
  88. Dunnock
  89. House Sparrow
  90. Yellow Wagtail (probable Eastern)
  91. Grey Wagtail
  92. Pied Wagtail
  93. Richard’s Pipit
  94. Olive-backed Pipit
  95. Meadow Pipit
  96. Rock Pipit
  97. Chaffinch
  98. Brambling
  99. Twite
  100. Redpoll sp (always flyovers for us)
  101. Hawfinch
  102. Ortolan Bunting
  103. Little Bunting
  104. Lapland Bunting
  105. Black-faced Bunting
  106. Reed Bunting

Portland Bird Observatory: Expect the unexpected

I have just returned from a 3 night stay at Portland Bird Observatory. My main purpose of the trip was for bird ringing, and that certainly didn’t disappoint with an average of 60 or so birds ringed each day. I also did a little bit of birding, mostly from the Observatory or Portland Bill, so I’ll briefly summarise that here.

I arrived on Tuesday 7th April with hopes of seeing the Bonaparte’s gull that had been at Radipole Lakes for the past few weeks. It seems as if the gull disappeared some time in the afternoon as the last reported sighting was midday. I arrived mid afternoon and after waiting for half an hour or so, knowing it hadn’t been seen for hours, I headed back to Portland. I did however have a willow warbler, tufted ducks, pochard and a hooded merganser, among other species.

hooded merganser, Radipole Lakes, 7th April 2015

hooded merganser, Radipole Lakes, 7th April 2015

Back on Portland I went to visit the little owl in the quarry next to the Observatory, and then headed to Portland Bill where I enjoyed my first “Mr Whippy” of the year. There were plenty of meadow pipits and linnets coming in off the sea, and a white wagtail on the grass close by. 

Wednesday 8th started well with plenty of chiffchaffs and willow warblers to ring. By the afternoon it has died down with few new birds in the nets. However, one highlight was a young ring ouzel – a bird I’d only ever seen once and never in the hand. Sadly for Josie who was arriving on the Wednesday, we ringed and released the birds an hour before she arrived. It would’ve been a lifer for her…

My lifer for the day was a puffin. I discovered that down at Portland Bill by the other lighthouse and the cliffs was a colony of auks, and at this time of year you can also see puffins in the sea with the guillemots and razorbills. I had brief views of 2 puffins which was pleasing although I still plan to visit the Farne Isles to get better views!

Thursday 9th started well too before the fog arrived and put a halt to the migration. Again, plenty of birds to ring including 2 redstarts and a sedge warbler – the first of the year for both species. We ringed over 70 birds by the end of the day. Most of these were chiffchaffs and willow warblers again, with a bit of variety. The day got more exciting when Martin found a stone curlew. Great views were had until some photographers flushed it. Thankfully it settled in the Crown Estate field and remained there until the fog lifted late at night. The views became more challenging throughout the day as the fog worsened.

Friday 10th was quieter as the mist and cloud seemed to put a halt to movement again, so far fewer birds were ringed. However we did see a male black redstart, although distant. Further up the path was a male redstart, which was helpful for comparisons.

All in all, it was a fantastic week especially on the ringing front as I got plenty of practise, especially of willow warblers and chiffchaffs and a few species I’m less familiar with. I’ll finish with some pictures of the birds Josie and I ringed.