I’m back from a 10-day trip to Shetland with Gareth Richards in search of rare birds. We knew when we planned this trip several months ago that we were taking a gamble on the weather. The prevailing autumn winds from the western sector make for pretty dull birding but to be on Shetland in one of the magic periods when the winds go southeasterly is the stuff of dreams. Birders on Shetland were living that dream in the week before we went with Foula alone turning up Sykes’ Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, Blyth’s Pipit, 2 Blyth’s Reed Warblers, Olive-backed Pipit, 24 Yellow-browed Warblers, etc! But alas, we knew even as we packed that we were in for 10 days of westerlies.
First stop on day one (Friday 28th Sept) was the Swinister Burn, to relive day one of my trip in 2010 when Juan Brown found a White’s Thrush here. Would our trip get off to a similar start?
Our plan was to stay on Bressay, a grossly underwatched island. It doesn’t seem that many rare birds have been found on Bressay in the past but surely that’s down to lack of coverage? Check out this map of the island annotated with some rarities of the past. On our first evening, we checked the garden of our accommodation and two adjacent gardens. We saw a Pied Flycatcher (one of only three reported on Shetland during our stay), a Common Redstart and heard a Tree/Olive-backed Pipit. Promising … birds that arrived in the south-easterlies earlier in the week may still be lingering.
Next morning, we headed to Gorie. It is the remotest croft on Bressay, down about a mile of rough track with our hire car’s underparts clunking along the ridge. Gareth found a Barred Warbler in the plantation straight away – an overdue self-found tick for him. It already had blackberry juice all over its face and had clearly been feeding up at Gorie for a few days already, and was still there on our last visit on 5th Oct. There was a Chiff-chaff in the garden which also stayed throughout.
If birds like Barred Warbler are still around, what else might have stayed on Bressay from earlier in the week? By late afternoon we’d worked a lot of gardens and found just one more Chiff-chaff and 3 north-western Redpolls. We found a flock of perhaps 800 Golden Plover and scoped them at long range in buffeting wind. Almost inevitably, there was one bird that looked quite good for a moulting adult American Goldie but by the time we got our scopes set up in a more sheltered spot, it had gone out of view. We decided to come back to it another day but we never saw the flock again, and a moulting adult American Goldie was found on mainland that afternoon.
Juan had recommended we keep an eye on Gunnista at the north end of the island so there we were at about 4.45 when a warbler flushed out of the Holmview garden. We didn’t quite see where it went but Gareth checked one way and I the other. I guessed right, and the bird was sitting out on top of a stone wall … a Booted Warbler! For the brief while it was in view, hopping away along the wall, I was trying to call and wave to Gareth without scaring it off. But he arrived in time only to see it flit round the corner.
Now Gareth and I have history with Booted Warbler. Within an hour of arriving on Scilly for my first visit in 1985, I had gripped Gareth off on Booted Warbler while he went off to pay our camping fees – read the story here. I’ve seen three more since whereas Gareth has dipped three. There is no bird I would rather find for him. But that wet and windy evening at Gunnista with the clock ticking and the light fading, it was starting to look bad. I could hardly submit a rarity description saying “I instinctively knew it was a Booted Warbler … err, that’s it” and Gareth’s long wait to see this species could go on for another 27 years …
Then at 5.35 it flushed again from the Holmview garden, I saw where it went and ran round to view the back of the other garden, turning my camera on. It was there, and I blasted off a load of shots. They’re not great photos by any means but enough to nail the identification, and Gareth was there on my shoulder finally to put away a long-standing bogey.
Phew! We didn’t see it again before dusk and sadly could not find it the next morning with a few carloads of twitchers to help the search (in very wet and windy conditions) nor the following afternoon when the weather had improved. Spreading out, we put up a couple of Jack Snipe, found another two Redstarts, 3 Redwings, a couple of Mealy Redpolls, a Yellow-browed Warbler, a Willow Warbler and a Chiff-chaff. In the evening, with news of a Pechora Pipit at Norwick on Unst, we decided to get the first ferry off Bressay on Monday morning and head north. I saw a Pechora on Fair Isle in September 2006 and it was brilliant – well worth seeing again.
Monday at Norwick gave us the best and the worst of Shetland twitching. Access to the Pechora Pipit’s fields had been withdrawn by the landowner. But eventually a few flushers went in, and those of us standing on the road got flight views. With the owner looking on, attended to by a few placatory birders, we left. There was more mob trespass later and had we stuck around we’d have seen it much better but it is hard to feel too regretful. The Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll at Norwick was a cracker though, and quite fearless feeding on mayweed seed-heads.
Our first Otter of the trip was at Toft, as we returned to mainland Shetland, a tick for Gareth. We then got good views of the drake Surf Scoter at Foula Wick, good views of the Spotted Sandpiper at Lower Voe, flight views of probably the Buff-bellied Pipit as it flushed off Rerwick Beach, and good views of the Siberian Stonechat at the Swinister Burn in the last of the daylight. Back on Bressay at 11 pm I heard a flock of Whoopers come in from the east over the house. At dawn next morning they were on the loch and took off, three pairs with three young, to carry on over to the mainland.
On Tuesday we were back to working Bressay. After drawing a blank with a flight-only warbler sp. at Kirkabister (one of several that got away), we then located a robin-like bird in our garden. It was silent and mega-skulking, mostly glimpsed in deep shade, and kept us going in circles. Eventually, after well over an hour of stealthy pursuit, Gareth stationed himself looking at a slim gap, while I commando-crawled through the shrubbery. It showed in the gap – a Robin! The rest of the day yielded a new abietinus Chiff-chaff, a Blackcap, 10 Wigeon, a Grey Heron and two Otters. A bit of a dull day but the wind turned south-easterly for a while during the night – would this be enough to bring in some new birds?
We had perfectly still weather from dawn on Wednesday – a rare treat on Shetland. At Gorie, we could hear the bill-snapping of the Goldcrests in the plantation and the distant calls of Red Grouse on the moors above. But the only new bird was a call-only Lapland Bunting going over. Other new birds for the day were 3 Blackcaps, 2 Willow Warblers, 14 Red-breasted Mergansers, a Red-throated Diver, our fourth Bressay Redstart, 4 Dunlin and 13 Knot. Steve Blain and friends came over to Bressay for the day and also noted an increase in Blackcaps but nothing else new for their efforts. Gareth got an afternoon flight to Fair Isle but wasn’t able to relocate the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler in South Harbour before dark.
With a day to myself on Thursday, I decided to bird Gorie and then walk the cliffs of the east coast down to Bard Head at the south-east tip. It wasn’t a decision likely to yield many good birds but I wanted a change of scene and a day off from driving from one garden to another. The scenery was spectacular and there were lots of good sheltered geos to peer into, though Rock Pipits, Meadow Pipits and a Skylark were the only passerines to be seen.
A Whinchat on stone walls near Gorie was my only new bird of the day and one of only two on Shetland during our stay. Although I neglected the crofts, Dave Bradnum and a mate were over on Bressay for the day and worked it hard, finding the abietinus Chiff, one of our Redstarts and a few Blackcaps.
Friday was another calm and sunny day which at least made the birding easy but the only contenders for new birds were a Bar-tailed Godwit and a flock of 7 redpolls which only touched down briefly. Gareth returned from Fair Isle with Lanceolated Warbler on his list.
For our last full day we went off to the mainland twitching again and dipped absolutely everything we went for. A miserable experience which we basically repeated on Sunday morning before catching our flight south in the afternoon. ‘Nuff said.
Thoughts: Is Bressay any good? I reckon it’s got a lot of potential if you want an island to yourself to find some rare birds, given that Unst, Foula, Fair Isle and the Ness are all well covered. But having spent 10 days there in westerlies, we haven’t really proved it one way or the other. But one day someone will do Bressay during a good spell of south-easterlies and then we’ll see. Everyone we met was really friendly and interested, and generously allowed us to walk through their fields or even into their gardens. I recommend the Crofthouse self-catering: sleeps two (a double bed and a good sofa-bed) and is in one of the best gardens in the south of the island. And there’s a regular 7-minute ferry journey into Lerwick if you want to bird elsewhere.
Was it a good trip? Yes, but if it hadn’t been for finding the Booted Warbler, I’d be disappointed. And we could so easily have missed that bird, or never clinched it. I still think that it would be much better to go for two weeks. I know there are people who’ve endured two weeks of continuous westerlies but you’re at least giving yourself much better odds of some easterly winds.
Why is birding Shetland so hard? A lot of the birds we saw were ridiculously shy! Every bird needs to make a judgement when it detects someone approaching whether to carry on foraging, or to burn energy in flying away. How close they let you get (their ‘flight distance’) is an expression of their judgement of the risk you pose versus the time and energy expenditure of flying away. Most of the warblers, redstarts, thrushes, robins, finches, etc that we saw were insanely frightened of us, like you’d glimpse them flying out of the back corner of the garden when you were still 100m away, bombing off across open fields. Why so obviously maladapted? Does the lack of cover make them paranoid? Why can’t they all be like Horny Redpolls? It’s just so not fair, etc., etc.