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

A rare day on Unst

Day 5

We awoke to silence which was a good sign. It meant the storm had passed and the winds had dropped. Was today the day for rarities? Feeling hopeful, we checked the North part of the island. It was clear there had been a fall of birds as Goldcrests were everywhere but not much else.

Goldcrests everywhere! This one was right by our feet hopping around on the ground, before flying off.

Goldcrests everywhere! This one was right by our feet hopping around on the ground, before flying off.

You can’t fault us for trying though, and we did get some rewards for the effort. First we went looking for locustella warblers, but no such luck so we tried one garden for a Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been around for a while but couldn’t see it. We did, however, have a Blue Tit (surprisingly rare bird on Shetland) and a Long-eared Owl that was roosting in a tree by a path. We must’ve walked right past it earlier!

Long-eared Owl roosting in someone's garden

Long-eared Owl roosting in someone’s garden

We then moved on to try other places. In Shetland a lot of birding and looking for passerines seems to be around people’s gardens as this is where most of the taller vegetation like shrubs and trees are found. Fields are also checked as well as the more wild parts of Shetland so almost all of the land is covered. Through checking various fields, gardens and the more wild areas, we found Twite, Bramblings, Meadow & Tree Pipits and other common migrants, but still no rarities!

Brambling

Brambling

While Brydon had lunch, David and I checked the small wooded area by his house. As with everywhere else it was full of Goldcrests which are great so see. There were also Blackcaps, Blackbirds, Robins and Chiffchaffs – all migrants in Shetland. A Barred Warbler also sang at one point but I didn’t see it. It had been found earlier by some other birders. I impressed myself that I could ID it on call though! Another wooded area lead us to finding a Yellow-browed Warbler, more Goldcrests and a Ring Ouzel. Lovely birds, and yet another lifer for me!

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Another garden, this time by an old abandoned house, had a second Blue Tit and a Yellowhanmer. Two unusual birds for Unst.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer

Blue Tit - unusual bird for Shetland

Blue Tit – unusual bird for Shetland

Finally we tried one last field and picked out a pipit. Was it ‘just’ a Tree Pipit it something rarer? Although it wasn’t as marked as some Olive-backed Pipits, we were thinking that’s what it might be due to the coloration and the streaking… However, not being 100% sure because we’d had distant and brief views, we left it as an unknown pipit for the time being, and planned to return the next day as it was starting to get late. We’ve now seen 83 species on the islands, and it’s only Wednesday.

Travelling North again

Day 2

It was still dark when we awoke at 4am, but a few hours later the sun slowly started to rise and we could see land appearing in the distance – Shetland. It was exiting to think we were almost there! As the sun rose we noticed more birds too. Flocks of Eiders and Common Scoter drifted past the ship as we edged ever closer to the islands.

Sun slowly rising as we arrived in Shetland

Sun slowly rising as we arrived in Shetland

Time went quickly and before we knew it we’d arrived in Lerwick itself. In the harbour we spotted our 4th Auk species in 24 hours – Black Guillemots. There were also a couple of Grey Seals that swam close to the ship which was nice.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

We met Phil and Rebecca who were going to take us to Unst at the ferry port, and within half an hour we were watching a Siberian Rubythroat. What a great day! When I say day, I mean morning and 0830 at that! What a great welcome to Shetland!

Siberian Rubythroat

Siberian Rubythroat

With that being the 11th British record it’ll be a hard bird to beat but we’ve got a week of searching ahead. After the excitement of that we were taking back to Lerwick we were saw a Yellow-browed Warbler, Goldcrest, Blackcap, Blackbird, Starlings and a Chaffinch all in the same tree. To add to that a Hooded Crow was chasing a Merlin metres away and a Twite flew over as well. Not bad start to the morning at all and it wasn’t even 9am!

By the time we’d reached Tescos, we’d also stopped off to see White Wagtails and a small loch where 6 Whooper Swans, a Moorhen, Wigeon, Mallards and a few waders were present. There were Redshank and Turnstones by the side of the road and feeding in people’s gardens too.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans

Upon leaving Tescos we stopped again to admire the local wildlife. This time, opposite the supermarket, 2 Common and 2 Grey Seals were lying on the rocky shore watching the cars drive by. They were joined by a couple of Purple Sandpipers. I was amazed to see so much, especially in the main town! So very different even compared to rural Hampshire.

Grey (right) and Common (left) Seals

Grey (right) and Common (left) Seals

It was time to head North once again so we could unpack. The lodge we’re staying in is on Unst, making it the most northerly self catered accommodation in the UK. It to was rather crazy to think we could go much further north but we could so that’s what we did! Our journey was long mainly because we stopped off regularly to do some birding. We got to see the only Rookery in Shetland, and check gardens for passerines. More Yellow-browed Warblers and Goldcrests were found but not much else.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler

By lunchtime we arrived at the ferry port and waited for the next ferry to Yell. While we waited an Otter swam past – how lovely! There were also 10 or more Kittiwakes too and Oystercatchers with Ringed Plovers on the beach. The ferry crossing was quick and provided us with another change to see an Arctic Skua and more Gannets.

It took about half an hour to drive from one end of Yell to the other and then it was time for the third ferry crossing of the day. It was also quick and during the brief time we were on it we watched Great Skuas chase Gannets.

At last were on Unst, our home for the next week, but before we were taken to the lodge it was time for more birding. First stop was a beach were a Wryneck was showing brilliantly! Then a wander around the local gardens to check for passerines. This time we saw Brambling, Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks.

Wryneck

Wryneck

The lodge is lovely and looks out onto a sandy beach and cliffs so there’s plenty to see. It’s got everything you need after a long day of birding. We arrived just before the rain set in. There we met Brydon who runs Shetland Nature and is our guide for the week so he showed us around and then left us for the evening to relax. More birding would begin tomorrow.