Friday 27 October 2017

Shetland day 10: leaving Shetland

Having repeatedly referred to our 'nine-day trip' to Shetland in recent posts, I got to the end and realised it was actually ten. Well it's a long time since I got that 'A' in my Maths O-level in 1985. So apologies to those who thought this torture had come to an end, this really is the last one, probably.
Male Parrot Crossbill, eyeing up a crop of cones
The bulky head and muscular jaw can be seen here
A pair sat quietly feeding in the tree just above our heads
The tree was on a steep slope so they were not far above eye level
Day 10 started as had Day 1 - wet and windy in Lerwick. The Parrot Crossbill invasion had continued all week, and small numbers of these impressive cone-crushers had been seen on the outskirts of the town. Our first session kerb-crawling around the suburbs was only partially successful: we located a couple of Crossbills, but only as they flew from a tree just over our heads and were lost to view. Otherwise a flyover Hawfinch was the best we could manage, so we made for Sumburgh Head one last time. News filtered through of a White's Thrush on Fair Isle - there was no chance of getting there, but we could at least see the island from Sumburgh!
In recent days the Parrot Crossbills had been photographed eating cones on the pavement. I have heard of photographers baiting sites for rare birds with mealworms, but baiting the pavement with cones?
Female Parrot Crossbill
Female Parrot Crossbill
A brighter rump compared to the rest of the body
Energy levels and spirits were pretty low by this point: it had been a great week and it was a wrench to be leaving, knowing that autumn migration was still in full flow, and that more rarities would inevitably be found after our departure. We could not, and did not, complain, however, having seen at least one good rarity on each of the previous six days. Time was running out before our evening ferry so we headed back towards the port.
Fulmar, Sumburgh Head
Hooded Crow
Redpoll, Sumburgh Lighthouse Garden
Starling, Cunningsburgh
Before boarding the ferry, our final look around Lerwick was more successful: returning to the same tree from which the Crossbills had flushed earlier, a male and a female had returned and gave intimate and extended views. A fitting end to an enjoyable and rewarding week. Shetlanders were every bit as welcoming as I had been led to believe, and the birding was every bit as good. My thanks to David, Howard and Bob for their excellent company, sharp eyesight and good humour throughout.
Fair Isle from Sumburgh Head
The prehistoric settlement of Jarlshof viewed from Sumburgh Head
Budget branding at RSPB Sumburgh Head
The sun starts to set for the last time on our Shetland adventure

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Shetland day 9: Bluetails and Snowballs

Our last full day on Shetland, October 6th, saw us heading back to the north Mainland and Isbister, where a Red-flanked Bluetail had been discovered the day before. Occurrences of this species have taken an up-turn in recent years but it is still an exquisite bird to see in Britain. We arrived in what had become familiar conditions - dull and windy - and checked out the gardens where the bird had been seen. There was precious little in the way of cover, and no sign of the bird.
Red-flanked Bluetail, Isbister
The blue tail on display here... orangey flanks and a white chin patch
Red-flanked Bluetail
To make matters worse, at this point news filtered through of a Siberian Rubythroat on Bressay the previous day. This, one of the ultimate 'Sibes', was the bird we had all agreed was at the top of our 'most wanted' list on the journey north. Reports suggested that it had been elusive on the Thursday, and that there was no sign of it that morning (Friday). The part we couldn't understand was how it had taken until late morning the following day for news of the sighting to come out at all.
The local Rock Doves look pretty pure compared to our feral pigeons
Highland Cow
Starling on the right end of a sheep this time
One thing I had already come to understand about Shetland was the importance of news being shared promptly, with such a large area to cover, such a relatively small number of birders on the archipelago, and the complexities of travelling between the islands to be overcome. Of course, we didn't know the full circumstances of the find, and there may have been a good explanation, but it was a bit frustrating as we certainly would have wanted to check out Bressay that morning had we known sooner, even if there was only a slim chance of seeing the bird.
The island of Foula seen from Eshaness
Fungi at Eshaness
Yellow-browed Warbler from earlier in the day at Hoswick in morning sunshine
The team stopped to photograph this cloth sheep sculpture placed randomly on a junction: who needs the Angel of the North?
We drifted our separate ways muttering darkly, but the black mood was soon broken when a message crackled over the CBs - Howard's razor sharp eyes had re-located the Red-flanked Bluetail. We headed in his direction and were soon enjoying intimate views of a stunning bird, all thoughts of the Siberian Rubythroat forgotten.
The wild cliffs of Eshaness. A land of...
...dramatic seascapes...
...towering stacks...
...and impossible arches
After some quality time with the Bluetail, we made the pilgrimage to Eshaness. There was a chance of an American Golden Plover or a Buff-breasted Sandpiper on the short sward of the fields there, but the real attraction was the landscape - dramatic cliffs, stacks and geos being pounded by Atlantic rollers with nothing to stop their advance between us and Newfoundland.
I had my best opportunity of the trip to study and photograph the Shetland sub-species of Wren at Ollaberry
An alert and perky individual
The light was low...
...but the views were exceptional
On the way back south we checked out Ollaberry, where a mystery brown and white bird had been reported by a local resident, but to no avail. A couple of hours later we were back, following up a report of a Coues's Arctic Redpoll. Could this have been the mystery bird? On arrival there was no sign of it - we had a good look around and were on the verge of giving up when a 'snowball' Redpoll flew up from a chicken pen and perched on a wire right in front of Bob and I - it was the Arctic Redpoll. It dropped to some vegetation close to where we stood enabling me to rattle off a few shots. After just a glance at my back-of-the-camera shot, David and Howard expertly re-identified it as a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll. We watched it with another carload of late-comers until dusk - a great way to end our last evening on Shetland.
Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll - note the warm buff face...
...large white rump...
...long wings, long tail and narrow flank streaking
A large bird compared to the other Redpoll species
A relatively small red patch on the forehead is characteristic... are the long white 'trousers'

Monday 23 October 2017

Shetland day 8: Buffy & The Damp Pie Slayer

While we were on Unst on 4th October, news had broken of an American Buff-bellied Pipit back at Grutness on the Mainland. On the morning of the 5th, after a mooch around Hoswick, we headed there for probably the closest and most extended views of any of the rare birds seen during our nine day stay. All the while Shetland entertained us with its unfamiliar place names, and we amused ourselves with word play around them when the birding was quiet. We checked out gardens at Gardins, got Parrot Crossbills at Gott, an Otter at Gutcher and nothing at Noness.
Here's Buffy: the American Buff-bellied Pipit at Grutness...
...and here's the Damp Pie Slayer: Howard at Gott. If the marketing folks at Swarovski Optic, or indeed the Scalloway Meat Company, would like to feature this guy modelling their wares, please contact me to discuss my commission.
The Pipit was sheltering from the strong winds in the lee of a low wall against which we were leaning
'Dark legs my arse' said a gruff voice beside me. It was Bob, passing a caustic comment on the Collins Guide description of Buff-bellied Pipit in winter plumage
We enjoyed amazing views down to about six feet
The settlement of Gord, of which there were two, provided particularly good value: every time we approached we had found Gord; every time we left we had forsaken Gord. When we stumbled across the second one we concluded that Gord moved in mysterious ways, and wondered how we would break the news to the devout that there was more than one true Gord. The pun-making threatened to get out of hand at times, and the less said about the anagram competition based on the 'Cunningsburgh Rustic Bunting', the better (we failed to see that bird on three occasions).
For those who like that sort of thing, the next few photos highlight some identification features as per Van Duivendijk: grey-brown upperparts with only faint streaking...
...complete pale eye-ring, pale lore and distinct supercilium
Centre of tertials and tail-feathers very dark and contrasting with rest of upperparts
Slender, Meadow Pipit-like bill

Breast well-marked with short, well-defined streaks
At a more culturally sensitive level, evocative names like Veensgarth and Halligarth were a reminder of Shetland's Old Norse heritage, while from more recent history, other road signs conjured up images of famous rarities which had graced the islands: the Levenwick Siberian Rubythroat, the Baltasound Cape May Warbler and of course the Uyaesound Siberian Thrush, co-found by my travelling companions the previous year.

One of the best birds seen in our nine day stay on Shetland

Snow Bunting at Sumburgh Head

Like the Pipit, the Bunting was being buffeted by strong winds

Snow Bunting against the dry stone walls of Sumburgh Head
After a couple of sessions watching the Buff-bellied Pipit at point blank range, we headed up to Sumburgh Head again where a Snow Bunting had been reported. A gale was seriously ruffling the feathers of this skittish bird, but we managed to photograph it from the car window. After a scan of the waders at Pool of Virkie, we ended another rewarding day with a trio of Slavonian Grebes at Boddam, home of the Pink Panther (Boddam. Boddam. Boddam, Boddam, Boddam, Boddam, Bodd-aaaaaaam-diddle-diddle-dam...).
Curlew at Sumburgh Head
Shag at Grutness
Slavonian Grebe - one of three at Boddam
The famous Sumburgh Head lighthouse