Sunday, 22 October 2017

Shetland Day 7: far from the madding crowd

We decided on an off-island excursion on our 7th day on Shetland - to Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in the UK, where we could get away from the hordes of literally, er, tens of birders on the Mainland. The forecast, and a report of an Olive-backed Pipit, suggested that we should stop at the Kergord Plantation en route before leaving the Mainland, one of the largest areas of woodland on Shetland.
Otter on Yell while waiting for the ferry to Unst
The Otter surfaced with a fish then vanished
Seeing trees on both sides of the road is a rarity on Shetland: this is Kergord
Although Howard got a brief view of the OBP, the rest of us didn't see it, but compensation came when we each independently heard, and subsequently saw, another small group of Parrot Crossbills in the plantation. These attracted another massive crowd of at least three birders, so we set off again on the quest to get as far from the madding crowd as possible.
A female Parrot Crossbill to go with the males from the previous day
Stoat with Starling as we waited for the ferry to Yell
And this is the ferry to Yell
Speaking of Thomas Hardy, Rustic Bunting may sound like something the townsfolk hang out on May Day in one of his novels, but it is in fact an attractive vagrant from the east. News of one at Lower Voe persuaded us to make a short detour before heading for the ferry. Time was short, but the Bunting was feeding on the roadside as we arrived and was soon flushed by a passing car, assuaging our guilt at ticking-and-running.

Rustic Bunting at Lower Voe
Strikingly white underparts
Thus Ruff was feeding near the Otter
We then hit a lucky streak with Shetland mammals - first a Stoat surprised us by running across the road with a Starling in its mouth as we waited for the ferry to Yell, then an Otter surfaced holding a fish as we waited for the ferry to Unst.
A couple of Bonxies at Skaw on Unst
Curlew on Unst
The cliffs and sea at Skaw were carpeted with Shag. No pun intended.
The main target on Unst was a Red-throated Pipit which had been present for several days. We arrived as another carload of birders was leaving, and they advised us to comb the grassland above the beach at Skaw to search for the elusive pipit. A short distance from the car, a Pipit flushed out of the grass in font of us and sat up on a post.
An attractive graveyard on Unst
Well at least it's an anagram of 'Starling on sheep's ears' 
We stalked this Pipit at Skaw hoping it was the Red-throated, but photos revealed it to be a Tree Pipit
We instinctively raised our binoculars, expecting a Meadow Pipit, and had a good view at close range before it flew again. Then we all looked at each other: 'That had bright mantle stripes'. 'Yeah, and a yellow base to the bill'. 'Well that was it then!' Too easy! I kicked myself for not grabbing a photograph of the bird at point blank range, and though we attempted to refind it, it had flown beyond a wall into a private garden, and did not look like reappearing.
After burying itself in the grass the Red-throated Pipit eventually came out on the beach 
Clean whitish underparts
A better view of the pale mantle stripes and fine bill with yellow base
The weather had taken a turn for the worse by this point, and we turned to leave - no sooner had we done so than the Pipit reappeared. It was flighty but after sweeping the area with another group of visiting birders we eventually pinned it down for some photos on the beach and in the long grass beyond. 
A rear view of the pale mantle stripes
The best of a bad lot of Red-throated Pipit flight shots
Yet another Redstart - this the most obliging of the lot

The rest of the day was spent birding Unst, the highlight being a White-tailed Eagle which an observant soul had picked up perched on a distant hillside. A great excursion and a welcome bit of peace and quiet before returning to the seething metropolis of Hoswick.
The Popemobile: they pushed the boat out when His Eminence visited Shetland

Record shot of a very distant White-tailed Eagle
The long road home to Mainland Shetland

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Shetland day 6: of pies and pines

Seems like an age since I was on Shetland, so apologies for the time it's taking to wade through the old news and pictures - only four days to go...Day 6 began as had the previous couple with a twirl around Hoswick - best birds of that session were a pair of Red-throated Divers in the bay which I picked up out of the kitchen window while we were having breakfast. The incessant wind continued so we sought out sheltered spots in Scalloway, finding nothing more exciting than Brambling, before heading for the pie shop.
Parrot Crosssbill
Scissoring a cone from the tree with its powerful bill
A darker red male fed just below the more orangey bird above
Calls in flight were very different to our familiar Crossbills
Bird of the day on day 6
English convenience stores have a lot to learn from their Shetland counterparts: for £1.95 we could get a delicious, compact pie with a choice of fillings and heat it up in the shop's microwave - many days this was enough to tide us over until the mid-afternoon snack pangs kicked in. I fear my constant grazing was a bad influence on the rest of the team, and by the end of the week they were troughing in to an ever expanding snack bag like troopers. At least that meant I wasn't the only one...
Red-breasted Flycatcher, Dale of Walls
Looking a bit perkier than the one we saw in the rain on our first day
A very vocal bird which frequently cocked its tail
A good view of the white patches at the base of the tail
Separated at birth from Orville the Duck
Soon after we had all pied-up, news broke of a small flock of Parrot Crossbills in a conifer plantation near Sand - a major rarity on Shetland and a bird I had seen only once before in the UK. A consensus decision saw us heading there where we got excellent views of three male birds which were following our lead by chowing down on pine cones which they had ripped from the trees - a characteristic behaviour of the species.
The RB Fly flicks from a branch over Howard's shoulder
After giving us the run-around, the Great Grey Shrike at Dale of Walls had the decency to hover over-head
Hedgehog was an addition to the mammal list for the trip
We continued to bump into good numbers of Redstarts - here a male...
...and here a female
From Sand, we headed to Dale of Walls where a very obliging Red-breasted Flycatcher and a slightly less obliging Great Grey Shrike were the highlights, before ending the day with a selection of finches at Veensgarth. So another good day, of which the Crossbills were the undoubted highlight.
Mealy Redpoll, Veensgarth
Pied Flycatcher at Sand earlier in the day
Siskin at Veensgarth
Offshore waters continued to boil in the strong winds
A calmer image to end with of the Red-breasted Flycatcher

Friday, 20 October 2017

Spoilt for choice?

The choices facing intrepid twitchers as the third weekend of October approaches have perhaps been more enticing: a dead Black and White Warbler in Merseyside, a nearly dead Yellow-billed Cuckoo on Scilly, or the ghostly apparition of a possible Lanceolated Warbler in North Norfolk being the headliners as the sun set tonight. As well as autumn migration, the Purbeck Film Festival is now in full flow, and with my wife up to her neck in organising it, and my bargaining position at an all time low after a recent trip to Shetland, leaving home is not really an option anyway, so I may just have a duvet day as Hurricane Brian approaches and reflect on the rare bird event of the week which took place just a few miles from home in Dorset.
At least three Firecrest were in the quarry near St Aldhelm's Head - this one was photographed on Portland on Sunday
I wrote last month about how three new birds seemed certain to be added to the Dorset list when the 2017 record books come to be written - that number has now risen to five. Following September's Least Sandpiper, the crème-de-la-crème of a scrumptious crop of American waders to turn up along the Jurassic Coast over the past few weeks, the latest addition was even rarer - a Two-barred Greenish Warbler near St Aldhelm's Head.
Firecrest
The bird had first been reported as a probable Arctic Warbler on Sunday evening - that would have been an excellent bird in Dorset (only the third record), but some uncertainty around the identification prompted Dorset Bird Club guvnor Marcus Lawson to urge any local birder with time on their hands to check it out. Fortunately, one of the sharpest, Brett Spencer, did so on Tuesday, and re-identified it as a Two-barred Greenish - the first record for Dorset, and only the fifth for Britain.
Firecrest - 68 were ringed at Portland Bill on Sunday, including this one
All very well then, but would I get to see it? It was cutting it very fine for me to get to St Aldhelm's after work and before dark - but I managed it thanks to some speed walking, a tense train journey and slinging my bike in the boot to save time between parking the car at Renscombe Farm and getting to the quarry where the bird was to be found.
Pale underparts helped pick out the Two-barred Greenish Warbler
The combination of heavy rain and a hyper-active bird made getting conclusive views difficult at first, but eventually it showed reasonably well and, in view of the conditions, I was delighted to get any kind of photograph. After August's Yellow Warbler from the Americas, this beast from the far east will hopefully not be the last surprise my adopted county has in store for 2017.
A thick wingbar on the greater coverts and a shorter, narrower wingbar on the median coverts can just about be seen here

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Shetland day 5: momentum

Success with the PG Tips, and a full Sunday roast with all the trimmings prepared by yours truly, sent us out into the field with a spring in our step on Monday 2 October. Part of the appeal of Shetland in autumn is that, due to the relatively high proportion of rarities to common birds on the islands at this time of year, and the relative paucity of observers, the visitor has a reasonable chance of finding their own good birds. Even a duffer like me could understand this, and that very morning I found my first Red-breasted Flycatcher in Swinister Burn, a short walk from our accommodation.
Little Bunting, Grutness
An attractive bird with a neat crown stripe
The Little Bunting showed during a welcome spell of sunshine...
...and provided brief but excellent opportunities for photographs
Red-breasted Flycatcher, Swinister Burn - my best 'find' of the week
Twite, Grutness
Splitting up to cover more ground whilst maintaining contact was an important part of our game plan, and in this we were greatly aided by the loan of a set of CB radios from Jonathan Lethbridge, better known on the interweb as the Wanstead Birder - thanks Jonathan. These marvellous bits of kit saved a lot of faffing with mobile phones and hedged against the risks of an often intermittent mobile phone signal on Shetland (in saying that, I'm not having a go Shetland, it's still better than my house in Wareham!).
Only on Shetland - I couldn't work out why the lens wouldn't focus on the RB Fly - it was being photo-bombed by a Yellow-browed Warbler!
Spotted Flycatcher, Swinister Burn

Several Redstarts were near the Sumburgh Quarries - this a male...

...and this a female
Twite at Grutness
Twite at Grutness
Not only did the CBs enable us to stay in constant contact, they proved a useful means of holding a verbal referendum on whether to keep thrashing the adopted patch, or knock it on the head and go look at other people's birds! So it was that when the Red-breasted Flyatcher refused to show for the rest of the team we quickly agreed to move on to pastures new. Specifically, to Grutness near Sumburgh Airport, where a Little Bunting had been seen. This sat out superbly for us in the sunshine on a lichen covered wall - a photographic highlight of the trip.
Chiffchaff, Grutness - one of several tired migrants which appeared to have just arrived, making them easier to approach
A nettle patch at Grutness was bouncing with migrants - including this female Blackcap...
...a male Blackcap...
and several Goldcrest
Taking the idea of the 'tyred migrant' too literally perhaps?

A House Martin was battling in the strong wind at Grutness
The wind was still whistling past nearby Sumburgh Head: too breezy and explosed for a seawatch but we still managed three Long-tailed Ducks and a pod of dolphin. Howard called them initially as Rissos's but revised the identification to Bottle-nosed as the characteristic body scarring of Risso's was not visible. I grabbed some record shots and while pretty convinced they were not Bottle-nosed, they didn't look like Risso's either - I expected that species to have a flatter front end rather than the stubby snout revealed by the pictures.
This Common Seal was just off the beach at Pool of Virkie...
...as was this much larger Grey Seal
Grey Plover, Pool of Virkie. Compare to...
Golden Plover, seen in roadside fields later in the day
Ringed Plover, Grutness
The spray here illustrates the strength of the wind
Posting the sighting as Bottle-nosed Dolphin that evening, Howard was contacted by Hugh Harrop who advised that this species would be a rare sighting in these waters. After an exchange of photos he confirmed they were indeed Risso's, a fact we could now see for ourselves when looking at pictures online of younger Risso's which show a stubby nose and a lack of body scarring, which is acquired by battling adults later in life. I had never seen Risso's Dolphin before, so with a new mammal to add to the new bird of the previous day it felt like we were on a roll. 
Turnstones, Pool of Virkie
Dunlin in the seaweed at Pool of Virkie
Ringed Plover, Poole of Virkie
A couple of Goosander were just offshore at Pool of Virkie
Risso's Dolphin, Sumburgh Head
The first Risso's Dolphins I have seen
The weather had taken a turn for the worse by this time, so we returned to birding from the car: Loch of Spiggie held a flock of elegant Whooper Swan; Loch of Hillwell an even more elegant and long-staying Common Crane; and a good selection of waders at Pool of Virkie included singles of Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover and Sanderling. Best wader of the day though was a Little Stint, discovered in the improbable location of a puddle in a farm entrance at Noss. An eventful day then, with a good find, a new mammal and an excellent supporting cast. The morning would see us chasing another Shetland rarity - come back soon to find out what.
Whooper Swans, Loch of Spiggie
Common Crane, Loch of Hillwell
Little Stint, Noss
Little Stint, Noss
These rusty rods became famous this time last year when Britain's first Siberian Accentor chose to perch on them in a Scousburgh Quarry
The runway at Sumburgh Airport - traffic lights stop cars on the main road when the runway is in use
A dramatic Shetland landscape
One more of the Little Bunting with a halo reflected from a passing plane at Sumburgh Airport