After the day previous’s trip-making display from the South Mainland, I must confess I was a bit nonchalant about getting ready that morning. Nothing new had come in from RBA, so we made the most of a hearty breakfast before embarking to unknown territory. That day we had taken the bold decision to defy RBA – albeit messages that came through from the south – instead succumbing to the self-finding lure of the largely unwatched North Mainland.
However, we were at first cautious of the possibility of big news coming through from the south early on. We thus started at Wester Quarff just south of Lerwick, which notionally stood us in good stead to go for anything decent in either direction if need be. Wester Quarff was another site I had been to on my day in Shetland back in October 2010, but we hadn’t really manage to clarify which were the best gardens and bushes to check in that time round. This time we allowed time to familarise ourselves properly with the area, quite quickly happening upon a fantastic looking plantation. It became clear that this was the place where most of the birds were seen in the area, given that we immediately found two Yellow-browed Warblers, hearing them both calling to each other as soon as we got out the car. They stayed at the opposite ends of the plantation from one another so we never saw them together as such. The individual closest to the car showed fantastically on a fencepost very briefly, but just that bit too fleetingly for me to get the camera out and take a photo.
There was plenty more activity in this small plantation. As I wandered round to check the other end of the plantation, a fabulous male Redstart presented itself kindly onto a fencepost by the road, before giving a tantalizing flash of its red tail and dipping back into the coniferous expanse. Whilst all this was happening I could hear the discordant cheeping of what I presumed just to be a couple of Bramblings, so I was a little surprised when a flock of 20 erupted from the conifers on approaching the plantation from the other end. Tailgating this group were 6 Siskins, calling as they went. A few of the Bramblings returned to the conifers, but the majority flew southwards until they became mere specks in the distance. I decided to work a small burn I could see from the field I was standing in, on the off chance something had found its way in there. I was pretty invigorated to discover both a male Blackcap and a Willow Warbler within short distance of one another along it, each drinking and feeding desperately. This was an evocative moment in that not only is seeing migrants in burns almost uniquely something you’ll encounter on Shetland, but it allowed me to make a connection with the basic instincts of these diminutive migrants; drinking and eating whatever was possibly available after an exhausting and bewildering journey over hundreds of miles of sea… Certainly something that makes you think.
There had not been any RBA messages by 10am, so we headed northwards as planned. No sooner were we north of Lerwick was I struck by the domination of moorland and the comparative lack of ‘civilization’ here in comparison with the south of the island. Whilst Shetland as a whole isn’t exactly civilized away from Lerwick, the dearth of cottages and ‘huts’ to the north seemed immediately more obvious. Nothing seemed to redress the predominance of the heathland expanse, the road being the only evidence of civilization for a good 15 miles. This stretch was bleak and birdless needless to say, but we eventually emerged out the other side, arriving at Lower Voe, where we had given in to the lure of a reported Olive-backed Pipit.
Lower Voe seemed to be one of the more civilized places in Shetland, with B&B and quaint houses based along its attractive bay and giving it a pretty touch that few other places in Shetland we’d been to had matched. There was also a fantastic area bushes around the B&B here, and a decent burn. We could see a birder from the road doing endless rounds of the latter, and soon found out this was the finder. He explained the bird had disappeared, and despite extensive searching we were unable to locate it. Once we had given up the ghost we headed back onwards, checking an ideal little plantation by Loch Voe on the way through. Dad managed a male Blackcap here, whilst collectively we had 8+ Goldcrests. Certainly a picturesque area, with an untouched feeling to it whilst being so close to the road, and a plantation which must get tons of good birds.
As we had originally planned, we made the bold move of leaving the mainland in order to work Whalsay. We were aware that the chances of very little here were high, but we did not do too badly considering. The half an hour crossing was reasonably productive, holding at least 10 Black Guillemots, 2 Guillemots and a few Razorbills, and 3 Great Skuas flying over some magnificent, obscurely shaped cliffs.
On arriving in Whalsay, it became clear that it wasn’t much different from Shetland Mainland, an unforgiving moorland expanse with just a few tiny communities strewn across it, but screaming good birding. Within 10 minutes of arriving at Symbister Harbour we were at Skaw, the northern edge of the island, the road terminating by an eerily abandoned golf course and a loch. Much to my interest, the loch held both a Whooper Swan anda female Goldeneye, which I tried to convince myself were fresh in but were probably winter visitors which had been around for a while. A Rock Pipit was around the golf course, but no migs as hoped for. We moved back southwards towards our destination of choice, the Skaw plantation. This was a tiny, lowly fenced off area of miniature conifers which looked really hard to work. We found a way to walk through the plantation, but everything was keeping extremely low down to the point that they were impossible to flush. At least 4 Goldcrests were present, each of which I nearly stepped on due to how low they were keeping. I had a robin-sized brownish passerine flit into one of the conifers for a split second at first, but to my astonishment I was not able to relocate this bird despite walking up and down the plantation time and time again. We eventually proceeded to do a tour round the island, managing a party of 9 Golden Plover and 3 Redshank at Challister. Loch of Isbister held nothing apart from a few common Larus, and checks of several random gardens and burns were entirely unproductive. We took the 2:40 ferry back to the Mainland a bit peeved, but glad we had given it a go despite it being underwhelming for migrants.
I became concerned as we returned to the Mainland that my signal had completely gone, cutting us off from any news from RBA. There would be no signal until we got back to Lerwick, which kept us on our toes but kept the day pure. We headed to Vidlin, which had some absolutely superb cover but on this occasion held no more than a Willow Warbler and 2 Goldcrests. A while pondering on what to do next eventually resulted in us making the big drive all the way to the North-Western tip of the Mainland at Eshaness. On the way, we witnessed an evocative landscape transformation as the seemingly never ending unremorseful moorland gave way to steep, dramatic cliffs and obscure looking rocks, oversized stalagmite like structures standing imposingly amongst the Atlantic expanse.
Esha Ness was the furthest north I had ever been. Its extreme north-westerly location gives its own unique but foreboding landacape; an expanse of flat, rocky ground which looked ideal for Buff-breasted Sandpiper and newly arrived Nearctic vagrants, encompassed by cliffs and marked by a lonely lighthouse; quite a contrast from the endless moorland of the rest of the island, even though heathland was never fair away. It was windy and characteristically bird free despite much walking, the best we could dig out being a posse of 2 Turnstones, a Reshank, 5 Lapwing and a Golden Plover. Unsurprisingly, a strong North-westerly had enough force to push me in directions that I didn’t want to go in, and a rain-shower quickly became hard-hitting hail. It wasn’t entirely pleasant as an experience, but certainly one to remember due to the characteristic weather conditions and its location. We moved down to Tangwick a few miles east of Esha Ness, coming across an attractive looking bay. Much to surprise I flushed Snipe from all around me as I walked down the track; eventually we counted a fully congregated group of 15, sitting on a group of rocks looking utterly out of place. A Wheatear was also here. Light was starting to go by this point, so we headed back towards civilization (Lerwick). On the way back, we scanned a loch near Brae which interestingly held a posse of 9 Red-breasted Merganser.
After a productive morning it had been an extremely hard graft day in the North. There’s no doubt this is the hardest area to work birdwise, and after a certain amount of time its bleakness could easily become depressing. Despite the lack of birds though, it had been a lastingly memorable day in which I had been exposed to the harsh reality of the Shetland environment and personally further north than I had been before. Luckily we found out we hadn’t missed that much when I finally got signal back in Lerwick. I lay down to rest that night bird hungry, hoping that suitable replenishment would follow the next day. Boy, did that happen…
Thanks for reading,