Hi all, I am now back from my 4 day trip to the Shetland Mainland. A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the hope that I’d get my passerine desires catered for, and needless to say this happened during the trip. Leaving at the end of it was very painful, and two weeks later I’m already thinking back on it fondly as one of the best birding trips I’ve ever had, almost matching my trip to Fair Isle in 2010. The top quality birding will of course remain the ultimate nostalgic component of the trip, but the island’s geography, landscape and atmosphere will remain with me very strongly. These things will also be alluded to in the trip report, and hopefully those who haven’t already experienced it for themselves will get a sense of this through my pictures, which will feature throughout.
The trip report will be divided into 4 different posts, the first featuring in this post. Each post will appear on the homepage and thus end up being interspersed with other non-trip related posts. To read the trip report as a whole, click on Trip Reports under categories on the right hand side of the page. At the end of the trip report, the overall trip list will be displayed along with some other statistics. Click on any photo to make it LARGER, refer to map if unaware of where locations referred to are, and be aware that ACCOUNTS ARE LONG.
Any comments would be much appreciated; I hope you enjoy and that it is of use to anyone planning to bird Shetland in future autumns.
Day 1 (27/9/12):
A screeching, disyllabic beep sounds, followed by a broad Shetland accent: ‘Ladies and gentleman, we are now in Lerwick, all passengers may now leave via da walkway’. I snap out of my deep slumber. My head was a bit fuzzy as I awoke, but a preternatural desire to get out into Shetland overrode any wish to stay in bed. After a hearty breakfast and buying a map, we ventured out into the moorland wilderness that is the Shetland Mainland, stepping into the trusty Kia that we’d booked for a hire a few days previously. Just before heading off, it was lovely to see a minimum of 25 winter plumaged Black Guillemots in Lerwick Harbour, my first of the year.
I’d signed up to RBA text alert for news of all the island rares. This had leapt into action before we had got off the ferry, alerting us of a certain Emberiza pusilla at Sumburgh Head at the southern tip of the mainland. We made the drive down here, one of the most southerly points on the island. On the way, memories of the geography of the island down the main road from Lerwick to Sumburgh flooded back to me; lochs, bays and simple houses/huts with ideal looking gardens for migs, all strewn across a bleak, unforgiving moorland expanse. At its southern edge, the mainland somewhat loses its moorland element and opens out into more fertile grassland.
It was going to be a very productive day for us in the South, with an important decision being made later on in the morning to make this possible. Our first concern was our target bird, which was located in the second of the two quarries on the road to Sumburgh Head itself. We arrived to find a twitch already taking place, joining a smallish group scoping a heap of crap. Enjoying these dungy environs was a cracking juvenile Little Bunting, which scuttled and fed busily along the heap with a handful of Goldcrests that it had clearly arrived with.
I always forget how gorgeous these birds are until seeing them in the field, and this one was no exception in its beatuy, showing for the majority of the time at around 15ft. My experience of Little Bunting has been of individuals that give really obliging views; this bird was giving better views than my first on Fair Isle in 2010. Once again I was able to indulge in the intricate beauty of this species; the chesnut ear-coverts, face and median crown stripe contrasting with the blackish lateral crown stripes, the white-sub moustachial stripe and a creamy eyestripe behind the pale ringed eyes is a stunning patterning and combination of colours in my eyes. It often spent its time at the top of the dung heap, but on a few occasions came lower and closer, allowing for cracking views. A beautiful bird and an invigorating way to start off the holiday. We spent at least half an hour at the quarry, meeting with some familiar faces from Fair Isle and trying to search out an extremely skulky Sylvia that I’d glimpsed early on to no avail. No less than 10 migrant Blackbirds and Goldcrests and 2 Robins accompanied thia stunning Emberzia, though it was clear that the resident Fulmars owned the place most of the time; noisly calling as they rested on the quarry rocks.
Buzzing with instant success, we headed off to do our thing. Our plan was to work the southern mainland, taking in places such as Quendale and Pool of Virkie before working villages around Loch of Spiggie. Our first port of call was the nearby Sumburgh Farm, which yielded 2 Goldcrests and a nice Garden Warbler. It was clear early that there had been a fall, with Goldcrests being the predominant species. As we left Sumburgh Farm, RBA buzzed in with news of a Lanceolated Warbler at Sandness, the very western peninsula of the mainland. A painful dilemma ensued. In the end it was decided that we’d go for this bird later on in the day and stick around in the South just in case stuff came through nearby.
It would do, but beforehand we did Quendale and worked the villages around Loch of Spiggie. I had visited Quendale briefly in my one day on the Shetland mainland in 2010. This is certainly one of the top places on the island, with some good bushes by the mill, suitable burns and a quarry for passing migs to shelter in. On this occasion it held 2 Spotted Flycatchers, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Sisikin, 2 Wheatears and 6 Goldcrest, most of which were in and around the bushes by the mill. We then proceeded to work a few villages around the Loch of Spiggie, starting to the west of the loch and moving our way eastwards. Every garden we checked seemed to have migs that day. A few gardens around Noss held 2 Wheatears, 1 Song Thrush, 1 Willow Warbler and 2 Goldcrests, whilst Scousborough held another Wheatear and a posse of waders in a field near the hotel with 2 Whimbrels noted amongst 30 Curlew and 8 Turnstone, the latter curiously out of place. Loch Spiggie itself held a few commoner duck species.
We moved on to Boddam, deciding that we’d head up for the Lancey if no news came through from the South after this. On taking the first turn off we noticed two amazing looking gardens with sycamore bushes and a few small conifers, both seemingly uninhabited. No sooner had we stepped out the car was it clear that the first garden was full of migs. I quickly connected with a smart Lesser Whitethroat which showed very well for this species as it hopped around at the top of the conifers, shortly followed by a smart female Redstart perching on the dry stone wall. The highlight came from Dad when he picked out a Yellow-browed Warbler amongst two Chiffchaffs and two Goldcrests in the sycamores, our first of the year. We were both treated to reasonable views of this very smart warbler with its whacking great supercilium, but on trying to get a photo it was flushed and dipped down into the grass behind the house, where we were unable to relocate it. In the surrounding fields no less than 60 Golden Plover were present. Invigorated by this flurry of activity, we debated whether we should continue looking at gardens to try and find more of our own stuff, but RBA decided what we should do for us.
As we were watching the YBW I could hear loads of messages coming through from RBA. I read the following message: ‘Isabelline Shrike and Olive-backed Pipit at Hestingott near Toab’. Adrenaline levels soared; these were dream holiday birds. We had soon abandoned this fruitful garden, hurtling down the A970 and making the three mile drive to the aforementioned location.
Arriving in a strangely suburban style Hestingott, we noticed gangs of birders traipsing around the semi-orderly looking gardens, which minus the amount of birders was a bit of a contrast from what I was expecting. Gen predicatbly filtered out that both birds had not been seen for half an hour. Nevertheless we wandered round to where this OBP had last been seen, in some gardens by a childless play park with a few sycamore bushes. We were directed to a Yellow-browed Warbler amongst two Spotted Flycatchers here, which showed very well and provided early compensation. Wandering further afield, I found another showy Yellow-browed Warbler hopping about on a garden lawn. Finding 2 YBWs and seeing 3 within half an hour would on a normal day be plenty enough to satisfy us, but we were hoping that at least one of the target birds here would be the icing on the cake.
An hour later word of mouth revealed that the Isabelline Shrike had relocated to a field beyond the post office at Toab, so we zoomed down there. Adrenaline at an all time high, we found ourselves running at pace down the road to an already assembled twitch and setting up the scopes with preternatural speed. And there it was; an absolutely stonking first winter ISABELLINE SHRIKE.
When first connecting I can remember saying aloud something along the lines of ‘Oh you absolute beauty!’ . This has to be one of my favourite vagrant species to Britain, one of timeless beauty. It was a noticeably advanced for a 1w, with a strongly rufous tail and the primaries and tertials much fresher than expected. The mask was typically diffuse behind the eye, but far more evident than on the Dunwich bird (Suffolk) that I had seen the year before, and in general it was not as pale as the Dunwich bird. At Dunwich we chased around an Izzy Shrike in the last half an hour of light. This time it was gloriously sunny and this individual was not so mobile, affording superb views as it was perched up on fenceposts and devouring any insects that came into its path, including a large bee at one point. At this point I really wished that my camera was at hand, which had typically run out of battery! Those that wanted a photo were a bit too intent on getting one, and needless to say they dampened the fun after 15 mins, chasing it along the fenceposts until it disappeared completely. What a superb bird though. I have linked a pic of the bird from the Nature Shetland website below which should whet the appetite…
Not just our day, but the holiday, had been made in one. Whatever happened now, we would be happy with how we had done. We had a good look for the OBP back at Hestingott, but this did not materialse and did not fuss us as we were bowled over by what we had experienced. Some wader watching at Pool of Virkie felt almost meditative after the previous two hours’ insanity. It was reasonably productive too, holding 20 Dunlin, 40 Redshanks, 30 Curlew, 10 Turnstone, 6 Sanderling, 1 Black-tailed Godwit and x2 Bar-tailed Godwits, as well a Chiffchaff in the willows.
It was now late afternoon As we meandered back northwards, a Siberian Stonechat was reported at Swinster Burn between Sandwick and Hoswick. No-one was present and surprisingly despite half an hour’s meticulous searching the bird in question did not materialise. However we were not fussed, noting the ideal habitat here for future reference. Before retiring to Lerwick for dinner, we stopped in at Fladdabister and Ocraquoy, with gardens here holding a Wheatear and a Chiffchaff respectively.
Our first day had already settled that our Shetland trip was worth it, with Isabelline Shrike, Little Bunting and 3 Yellow-browed Warblers being the highlights. We had missed out on a Lancey, but you win some and you lose some. I fell asleep delighted that night, and eargely awaiting the day ahead.
Thanks for reading,
Excellent account of your first day on Shetland and great shots of the Little Bunting , looking forward to the rest of your trip report .
Nice blog Joseph, bit of a babbler myself so enjoy the lengthy writing style, however unorthodox …. who cares……… you have a new follower! Often thought of taking off for Shetland some time – any tips on best time of year, inside knowledge of good spots?
All the best and keep up with the posts!
Thanks both of you. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog Tim and can sympathize with my lengthy writing style; see the blog as a bit of a platform for creative writing to be honest, and for reflection on birding experiences which I think a lot of birding blogs lack.
Shetland is fantastic all year round, but if you want to see migration at its best then autumn is defintely the prime time to go; particularly late September/early Octboer I would say. From a self-finding perspective the North is more difficult to work and is less well watched, but places in that area such as Vidlin, Lower Voe, Brae, Busta House and Collafirth all have great potential for decent passerines. The South is far better watched, with Sumburgh Head, Quendale, Scatness, Pool of Virkie and Wester Quarff being the main sites, where decent birding is virtually guaranteed at that time of year. There’s also some other spots with prime gardens and habitat in that area such as Exnaboe, Eastshore, Boddam, Noss, Rerwick and Burn of Geosetter which are all equally fantastic but far less well watched. Then of course there is the islands; Whalsay, Unst, Fair Isle, Foula etc. Whalsay is a decent option in my eyes, sticks out far to the east, only 30 minutes ferry ride from mainland, and has plenty of prime habitat. Or even easier to access is Bressay, the island opposite Lerwick, which has had a mouth-watering list of rares in the past…
Hope that helps, any other queries feel free to give me a bell,