Despite being almost a non-birder for about 50 weeks of the year, there is something irresistible about the autumn bird migration period, not least the chance to discover mega-rarities. This year after dusting off my bins and scope, Jo and I went to Shetland with Dave Gibbs.
The MV Hrossey from Aberdeen to Lerwick was pitching heavily on our northward voyage and I was seasick for the first time in several years. For Jo it was the first time in her life she’d been seasick despite numerous rough crossings to Scilly and northern Spain. There was some compensation in the form of a Sooty Shearwater and some Seabows. So by the time we’d made it to Lerwick on Sunday morning, we were very glad of the hospitality of my old mate Juan Brown in Sandwick. After coffees at Juan and Jane’s, Juan took Dave and I into the field to work part of his local patch at Hoswick. It was a fine day with SE-erlies – classic conditions in which to find rares on Shetland.
Dave and I had both been to Shetland in previous autumns but only once in my case (to Fair Isle) and not for 28 years (!) in Dave’s case. So we both admitted to a certain naivety about where and how to find migrants on Shetland. With Juan as our guide, we looked round some gardens in Hoswick and saw Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Robin, Chaffinch, White Wagtail and flava Wagtail (all migrants here) and I could definitely see their potential for rarities. But as we started walking up the Swinister Burn, an unassuming stretch of irises and rough grassland with a few shrubs, I thought “This is rubbish. We’ll never see anything in here.” Higher up the burn, the scrub closes over the top so Juan waded up the tunnel in his wellies while Dave and I skirted round the edge of the scrub.
I heard a convulsion from Juan, as though he’d twisted an ankle or something, but then heard him say to himself “White’s Thrush??!” 13.15: It had flushed from very close, showing (to Juan only) golden-spangled upperparts and white tail-corners but no view of the underwing. With a more conclusive view still needed, we formed a cordon and at 14.00 it broke cover again flying close past Dave and leaving no doubt as to its identity. We put the news out and then finally, about an hour and a half after Juan’s initial sighting I got to see it myself, flying down towards Juan and I, passing within a couple of feet of our heads and then banking left into cover. An awesome sight! As the crowds gathered, we left to grab some lunch, graciously accepting the congratulations of birding friends as we departed!
Later that afternoon, we birded Channerwick, which apart from a single Sycamore, also looked rubbish to my untrained eye. However, Juan had found a Booted Warbler in the willowherb beds here some years earlier and assured me it was a good site. Dave flushed a pale warbler but we only got onto Blackcaps.
With the last of the light we twitched an Arctic Warbler in a tiny patch of cover at Sumburgh lighthouse, and then worked the southernmost quarry on Sumburgh Head where in failing light we spotted a Spotted Fly. Could this be the bird that caught out the punkbirders?
An amazingly successful start to our trip. With southeasterlies forecast to continue for at least the next 5 days what more rarities would we find? Prophetically, Juan said we’d probably already peaked.
Monday was a beautiful bright and breezy day. Dave and I worked Quendale Mill and the crop fields up to Loch of Hillwell, allowing Dave to reminisce about the Pallas’s Sandgrouse in ’90 (I’d had exams). Meanwhile Jo looked around the Bay of Quendale and gripped us off on Orca (though I’d rather see one like this). Our best finds were just a Hawfinch and a Yellow-browed Warbler (though we later learned that the YBW had been present the previous day). After birding Spiggie, Geosetter and Bigton with little to show for our efforts, we ended the day back at Quendale to twitch a Paddyfield Warbler. The bird we actually saw was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler though, calling and showing in flight.
That night there was an almost full moon shining through very thin ice-clouds over Juan and Jane’s, and for the first time in my life I saw a 22° halo around the moon with a pair of diffuse moondogs!
Tuesday started pretty well with a Barred Warbler and a YBW both new birds in the Swinister Burn but the rest of the day dragged a bit and our only find was another Hawfinch flying through Wester Quarff.
On Wednesday we were due to fly to Fair Isle for our last 7 nights on Shetland but the day dawned with poor visibility and strong wind. We spent much of Wednesday and Thursday hanging around Tingwall airport, surely the dreariest place on Shetland, with occasional forays to bird the Loch of Tingwall or the Scalloway gardens, before finally abandoning hope, rebooking for the Saturday and driving to north Unst. With the last hour of daylight at Norwick, Unst, we could see we’d arrived at a birdy place, with several bedraggled Goldcrests in the rain-lashed bushes.
Restored after a night billeted at the Saxa Vord Resort, we were in the field at first light on Friday and birding hard. But weather conditions were atrocious. Our highlights were the 6 Greenland Redpolls Carduelis flammea rostrata and our first Lapland Bunting of the trip, plus a YBW at Lower Voe on our way back south.
Finally, on Saturday 2nd October, we were able to fly to Fair Isle, squeezed into one of Directflight’s 7-seater twin-prop planes. It was immediately obvious that Fair Isle was a lot more birdy than the mainland with several migrants just around the observatory building. And within minutes, the red flag was flying from the minibus and Carrie was ferrying us down to the Meadow Burn to see a Lancy. Most of the island birders had been and gone leaving just five of us to dig it out. But miraculously we flushed it into the Quoy chicken-coop where it sat out in the open just a few metres away, looking over its shoulder at us showing its neatly-fringed tertials, before sprinting off across the ground and burrowing into the grass.
The rest of the day’s birding was excellent with loads of trip ticks including Little Bunting in a ditch on the north side of Boini Mire and a Short-eared Owl, plus loads of Laps. Stayed up for the bird-log that evening. As on my previous visit in 2006 it was an uncomfortable ritual in which fresh-faced initiates eagerly call out their counts of common migrants in a spirit of birding camaraderie. A long pause is allowed in which the veterans present either sneer at them in silence or cringe in pity, before the staffers inevitably trump them humiliatingly with their transect counts.
Not much in the way of new arrivals on the Sunday other than a Barnacle Goose at South Light but we caught up with the Bluethroat in the Setter crop, and added Ring Ouzel, Fieldfare and Jack Snipe to the trip list. The highlight of the day was seeing the Lancy in the hand, with Derek pointing out all the ID features – considerably better than the views I had at Sheringham on 29th September 1993 (the only occasion when I have forgotten to take my bins on a twitch!)
A Hen Harrier had been around, though not seen on the Saturday. Jo and I bumped into one at Gilsetter on our way back to the obs on Sunday evening. I was immediately struck in flight by the extensive ginger underparts and underwing-coverts, and by the strongly contrasting face-pattern. I wasn’t able to rule out a possible Marsh-hawk (a.k.a. Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius, the North American subspecies of Hen Harrier) but I expect others have seen it better.
I was a bit late getting into the field on Monday (08.10) but was soon greeted by a new bird. Single, well-spaced ‘c-lip’ calls over Gilsetter and then I got onto a red male Crossbill. The call was much more disyllabic than any I can remember hearing from a Crossbill before and when that evening I listened to The Sound Approach recordings was clearly a match for their Glip Crossbill Loxia curvirostra type C. Added Dunnock and Tree Pipit to my Fair Isle trip list in the crofting area but nothing more exciting. After lunch Jo and I headed north and there was a delicious heart-stopping moment at the crumbling walkway between the lighthouse and the foghorn as a swift shot past … but which one? It soon showed again and was just an extremely late Common Swift (damn!) With a Redstart at the foghorn, 3-6 Ring Ouzels, a brief view of the harrier again, loads of Snow Buntings, and a Pied Flycatcher incongruously sitting on a concrete block on top of Ward Hill, it was a good afternoon. I really lost my nerve birding the geos in 2006 with a gusting gale at my back. This time I just belly-crawled to the edge of the really fearsome ones. Got back to the obs raring to do it all over again tomorrow.
Tuesday 5th October, our last full day in the field, was a bit too windy and birding was hampered. Dave and I had two streaky Locustella warblers in the Meadow Burn Phalaris bed but these strangely failed to elicit any interest from the ringers. A House Martin on the north cliffs in late afternoon was new but dissatisfying. But as I trudged back for dinner, there was an unmistakeable omen of good luck … a White Rabbit!
Will Miles gave an absolutely brilliant talk in the evening about St Kilda: how to get there, its history of human presence, his research on interactions between Bonxies and Leach’s Petrels, and the rares he found while he was there. It’s now a lot higher on my list of places I must see.
Wednesday 6th October and the journey home begins. It looked like it would be touch and go for the flight but we got away with only a slight delay. With five hours on mainland Shetland, Dave and I tried for the “mobile and elusive” Sykes’s Warbler at Channerwick. I was fully expecting this to be Shetland birding at its worst: a crowd of twitchers booting a poor beleaguered bird around and getting nothing but untickable flight views and glimpses. And for the first hour or so it lived up miserably to my expectations, with added rain. I wished I’d gone shopping in Lerwick with Jo! But it did keep returning to an area which could be viewed from the opposite bank of the burn from a less intrusive distance. Dave fetched the scopes from the car and we ended up scoping it for over an hour in which it was static and showy, frequently zooming up to 60× on it; possibly the best views anyone has had of it so far? My photo is dreadful but a better one here. Excellent: a British tick (and lifer) for both of us, the only one of the trip and a good way to end. Hmmm … we never did nail that pale warbler here the Sunday before last.
So would I do an autumn birding trip to Shetland again? On the one hand, it was a lot of hard work, travel and expense for just one tick and a paltry self-found haul of 1 Barred Warbler and 3 YBWs. And there were times when the weather, flight delays and logistical hassles were such that it really wasn’t enjoyable. But we were in on Juan’s discovery of one of the classic British rarities, and all around us mega-rarities were being found every day. Yes, we could have been strolling the picturesque bulb fields of Scilly in our shirt sleeves, but we’d have been wishing we were on Shetland! I’ve learnt that even the most unpromising habitat can harbour rare migrants, and that (although it is still anathema to me) flushing birds is probably a better way of finding rarities on Shetland than politely waiting for them to show.