Monday 7 November 2022

An Oktoberfest of birding

October was always going to be a challenging month for the non-motorised yearlist as the first ten days of the month were earmarked for the near annual birding holiday on Shetland with Bradders Birding Tours (Proprietor: D. Bradnum; Vice-President (Finds): H. Vaughan). This year's crew was a man down on last year's as Team Sommelier Jono Lethbridge was otherwise engaged, galivanting even further afield. So it came to be that we found ourselves in smaller but classier than usual accommodation - a little croft way out west on Mainland Shetland in a place called Riskaness.

Goosander, Musselburgh, 2nd October

Redshank, Musselburgh, 2nd October

Pink-footed Goose, 2nd October

Curlew, Musselburgh, 2nd October
Howard has already chronicled the trip more extensively and poetically than I could hope to in his excellent Blue-eyed Birding blog - so my digested read is as follows. Apart from yomping through the vast iris beds of Quendale - which is every bit the 'Lord of the Rings' scene that it sounds - and sprinting down the road from Loch Spiggie to Scousburgh beach for the Least Bittern - during which time my fitness training on the bike really paid off as I left several birders for dust en route - physical exertion was limited to sitting in the back of Bradders' car and lifting my arm to add mega-tick after mega-tick to my bulging notebook.
Velvet Scoter, Musselburgh, 2nd October - we called in on the way north to Shetland to see the long-staying King Eider

Methil power station, 2nd October

Black Scoter (lower centre), Cocklawburn, Northumbs, 1st October - we stopped over nearby on the way north to look for this bird - terrible photos but a photo 'tick' for me

The bright yellow knob of the Black Scoter's bill was visible from distance - better scope views than these poor photos suggest!
It was an extraordinary trip during which I saw: 4 species new to my British list (Pechora Pipit, Lanceolated Warbler, Least Bittern and White's Thrush); 1, potentially 2, firsts for Britain (the Least Bittern and the Great Grey Shrike showing features of the race homeyeri); 2 American wood warblers (both Myrtle Warblers - almost the most numerous Warbler on Shetland this year); and a second for Shetland (Magpie). Plus they all showed pretty well except for the White's Thrush, of which I had to settle for flight views in the pouring rain of our last day.
Pechora Pipit, Hillswick, 3rd October

Pechora Pipit - the first I had seen on our first day on Shetland

Lanceolated Warbler, Wester Quarff, 4th October - found by our good friends Nick and Claire Oliver
The Lancy was my second lifer in 2 days on Shetland
We may not have achieved much in the way of finding birds - a Grey Phalarope at Melby being our most notable discovery - but we enhanced our reputation as the best fed birders on Shetland with some sumptuous home-made meals and a selection of shop-bought, pie-based luncheons.
Olive-backed Pipit, Aith, 3rd October

Possible Homeyer's Great Grey Shrike, Hillswick, 3rd October

Possible Homeyer's Great Grey Shrike, Hillswick, 3rd October

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Sullom
Whilst away from home, the only possible additions to the non-motorised year list which I missed were a couple of distant Grey Phalaropes at Charmouth and Chesil which may in any case have been out of reach, even if I'd been at home. I really needed a good workout on the bike by now but the rarities had other ideas, and news of a Blackburnian Warbler on the Isles of Scilly proved too much to resist. I returned the favour of Bradders driving me to Shetland by driving him, plus Phil Saunders and Paul Welling, to Penzance, where we boarded Scillonian III and, long story short, after a couple of bouncy boat rides were watching one of the brightest and most exquisite birds any of us had ever seen in Britain.
The Waddle - our accommodation on Shetland


Glaucous Gull, Lerwick Harbour

King Eider, Scalloway, 5th October
So by the weekend after my return, there was some serious catching up to do both in terms of my fitness and getting back to focusing on the non-motorised yearlist. I recounted in an earlier post how the Barred Warbler at West Bay provided the opportunity to do both. A patch Barnacle Goose the following day required much less effort but kept the list ticking along nicely. But with the dark nights drawing in, there were no further opportunities to get out after work mid-week so my ability to add any more to the yearlist would depend on the final weekend of the month. 

Shetland Wren, 5th October

Red Grouse, Walls, 5th October

The first Myrtle Warbler of the week on Shetland at Ellister

Myrtle Warbler, Ellister, 5th October
I had no particular plan but fortunately Phil Saunders was again on hand to provide one, locating a Pallas's Warbler at St Aldhelm's Head on the morning of Saturday 29th. I had some work to do and headed down as soon as I could and, although only 9 miles away, it was tough going into the wind, especially the last few miles up and over the Purbeck ridge. Unfortunately, on arrival I could find nothing but Chiffchaffs in the spot where Phil had seen the Pallas's and although I heard what I thought was the Pallas's call once, it wasn't enough to add it to the yearlist. 

Willow Warbler, Dale of Walls, 6th October

Red-throated Diver, Melby, 6th October

Otter, Melby, 6th October

Ruff, 6th October
On the way back to the road I passed a group of trees by the Weston Farm Coastguard building which held a tit flock, and despite catching a glimpse of what looked like a silky white underside within the flock, the owner of said underside didn't reappear for the next 15 mins. My eldest son was home from Uni for the weekend and I had promised to make dinner for him and his girlfriend, plus my other son and his girlfriend, so I reluctantly gave up and headed home to put a venison casserole in the slow cooker. 

The second Myrtle Warbler of the week - less than a mile from the first - at Bigton, 7th October 

Showing a flash of yellow rump

Both Myrtle Warblers fed at ground level

A very charming bird
As I was doing so, news came through that the Pallas's Warbler had been relocated - with a tit flock very close to the spot where I thought I might have seen it! Going back would have been unreasonable, especially as it was even wetter and windier by now than it had been in the morning. But the relationship between my birding by bike decisions and reason is tenuous at the best of times, so back I went, despite a warning from Phil that, although he had seen the bird again, it was a brief and difficult view as it was now in and out of gardens opposite the Coastguard where lines of sight were obscured.

My 'in the field' view of Britain's first Least Bittern - about 20 ft away but hidden in marram grass, it was hunkered down but facing me. The yellow around the eye can just be seen

We were close by when news broke and among the first dozen or so people to see the Least Bittern which was picked up and taken into care shortly afterwards

A tragic sight to see this tiny heron which had just crossed the Atlantic too weak to resist when picked up to be taken into care

It looked a bit feisty when first picked up but didn't survive the night
It seemed like a long shot for such a tricky bird and in deteriorating weather, but I knew Jol Mitchell was on the way there and we agreed that if I dipped I could at least sling the bike of the back of his car for a lift home. Arriving shortly before 1600 in rapidly fading light, I joined Jol sheltering from the rain by the Coastguard building. 
Magpie at Sandness - a Shetland mega, only the second record - 8th October
Goldcrest, 8th October

Fulmar, 8th October

Grey Phalarope - shamefully, our best team find of the week on Shetland!
Eventually I walked around to the other side of the building, and no sooner had I done so than the Pallas's Warbler dropped down in front of my face calling! I shouted to Jol but he didn't hear me, and despite the bird heading his way he didn't see it either. Bad news for both of us in that he had dipped and I would now have to reject the offer of a lift and complete the journey home by bike to add the bird to the yearlist!
The Pallas's Warbler was too quick to photograph - so here are some of the Blackburnian Warbler on Bryher, 15th October

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler
Fortunately the strong wind was now behind me so it was no great hardship. Topping 32mph down the precipitous Kingston Hill, after two trips to the coast and 36 miles cycled in total, I was still home with plenty of time to complete dinner for the lovebirds and reflect on the tally for October. 152 miles were cycled in total and 3 new birds were added during what was left of the month after the Shetland trip, bringing the non-motorised yearlist to 214, compared to 209 at the end of October last year. 10 more species would see me match last year's total of 224 - but time is running out!

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler