Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Shetland day 1: a warm, wet and windy welcome

After a lively twelve hour journey from Aberdeen, MV Hjaltland deposited us in a wet and windy Lerwick at 0700 on the morning of Wednesday 28th September for nine days of non-stop, full-on birding. But you can't do that on an empty stomach so it was straight to the excellent Fjara cafĂ© bar first for a full Shetland breakfast. Rain lashed the window as Gannets plunged into the harbour just beyond, and sated with saucermeat (more on that later) we were all keen to get going despite the conditions. The strong winds had been from the south east which boded well for migrant birds.
Red-breasted Flycatcher, Sumburgh quarry, 28th September 2017

Fly-catching at our feet in a tiny patch of nettles
As the new boy in the group on my first autumn trip to Shetland, the rest of the team decided to break it to me gently by checking out a sheltered Sumburgh quarry. At first glance the bleak wall of hewn stone before us with a few nettle patches at the base looked unpromising territory for finding anything but sheep turds. But a few steps in and birds started to appear. First a Wren - common enough, but still special as Shetland is home to the zetlandicus sub-species, darker and longer-billed than the familiar mainland form. Then a couple of Twite - also common enough in Shetland, but still a treat to southern eyes. And then a flash of white which, on settling, materialised into the tail-sides of a Red-breasted Flycatcher - our first rare migrant of the trip.
While more sheltered than outside the quarry, there was still a stiff breeze to ruffle the Flycatcher's feathers
Red-breasted Flycatchers typically cock their tails at a sharp angle - this is as close as our slightly water-logged bird came to doing so
Conditions had deteriorated since breakfast and both we and the Flycatcher were caught in a blustery shower which made short work of my 'waterproof' trousers. Despite the onslaught the Flycatcher continued to feed almost at our feet, catching insects in the grass and retreating occasionally to the shelter of an over-hang on the quarry face. I was struck by the resilience of this diminutive visitor from the east fly-catching in the face of the storm: a beautifully brutal introduction to autumn in Shetland.
The RB Fly shelters under an over-hang on the quarry wall
The first of four we would see in our nine-day stay