After an unproductive second day, I was in need of some replenishment on the third day (29th September), despite a decent first day. It’s fair to say that my desire was met, in a pretty full on way.
The South seemed the best area to be, given the previous days’ difficulties in the North. We planned to start at Wester Quarff again, but news of a Dick’s Pipit and Common Rosefinch at Quendale scuppered those plans. With the latter being a passerine bogey of mine, I was keen to get there and have a butcher’s. Passing through Channerwick on the way down produced a Great Skua low over the car. Arriving at Quendale produced two more as we received gen on the whereabouts of both scarcities. A movement of Skylarks was also of interest, with at least 30 north early on. The Dick’s Pipit was closer to the mill, so naturally we had a look for this first. As we approached the mound it was favouring a lithe female Merlin zipped through, harrassed by a Hooded Crow, a sequence of events which was over in the blink of an eye. We joined a lone birder in admiring the Richard’s Pipit, which took a minute or two to connect with as it had initially disappeared over the brow of the mound. Eventually however it appeared, standing still briefly in diagnostic thrush-like stance in between erratic scuttles hither and tither along the edge of the mound. A harsh wind made viewing difficult as I found my eyes watering constantly, and given the distance of the bird it proved tricky to examine the finer features of this dapper pipit, though the buffy well streaked upper-breast, stout bill, creamy super and ill-defined pale lores were all clear. Battling against the wind, I managed to get an abysmal record shot, which can be seen below. A lovely bird and a fantastic start to the day; it was shame that it had picked such an exposed spot to favour though!
Regrettably, the twitcher syndrome had caught on. After 10 minutes we left this pipit, and I immediately set my sights on ‘cleaning up’ on ‘the’ Rosefinch, the lifer of the two species. The quarry it had been favouring was virtually just round the corner from the Richard’s Pipit, so we went from watching a Dick’s Pipit to a bizzare looking juvenile Common Rosefinch in a matter of a few minutes. A wave of intense relief swept over me as I alighted on this bird, given a succession of dipping this species elsewhere previously.
It was a downright strange experience watching this bird. Unlike all previous birds I’ve dipped, this bird was in no way a bog-standard looking juvenile, and it was riduclously tame. I found myself with views below 10ft of what was possibly the most drab yet utterly distinctive rare passerine I’ve ever seen, gorging on nettles and seeds on top of a heap of crap, in Sumburgh Little Bunting fashion. When I say gorging, I mean gorging. This bird just wouldn’t stop feeding. On the rare occasions it popped its head up, its bill was covered in little seeds and pieces of nettle. It was so famished that it barely moved from the spot it was sat, not responding as I got closer and closer for photos. Close views allowed for a decent inspection of its finer features. This was a uniquely indistinct grotfinch, entirely brown with the only exception being a more rosey-tinged alula. The median and greater coverts were noticeably worn and the diagnostic pair of white wing bars non-existent, perhaps implying the beginnings of its moult into adult plumage. The eyes were entirely black and large, giving the bird a beady-eyed look, and the bill was distinctly chunky. Other than this however, there was little to assess. A very strange bird, but of great joy and interest to see. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the day; two top draw scarces in the space of half an hour.
It turned out to be one of those days when the birding was so ridiculously good that it was too hard to digest in a one-er. We had barely left Quendale when RBA came in with news of the Olive-backed Pipit’s return at Hestingott. Having dipped this bird on the first day and feeling lucky after a great start, we were anxious to give this OBP a second go. On arrival many birders were wandering around the various gardens, clearly with no luck. 15 minutes passed with no sign. Even if we missed it that day would still be memorable, I told myself. However, the good times just kept on going.
We were in the right place at the right time when someone called the OBP. We heard a distinctive, somewhat mournful, metallic ‘ziip’ call above us and looked up to see the Olive-backed Pipit fly from the plantation into one of the gardens on Ninian’s Drive. Exhilirated, everyone converged on the garden it had landed in. It proved to be flightly and difficult to track down, with brief views being the best we could managed as it kept largely out of sight behind a shed. After some time it eventually obliged and performed well briefly out in the open, where I managed to admire it and get a few photos before it disappeared. This rates amongst one of the most attractive rare passerines I’ve ever seen. A stonking adult with outstandingly olivey upperparts (easily noticeable even in flight), it was unmistakable. The facial pattern had a subtle but intense beauty, with a whopping and extensive white supercilium contrasting with single black and white spots on the ear coverts and black-bordered lateral crown stripes. The mantle and scapulars were very faintly streaked – appearing almost plain – whilst the tertials were very fresh with dark centres and strong olivey fringes. Surprisngly, it wasn’t very heavily streaked on the underparts, with very little streaking whatsoever on the posterior flanks. With views down to 25ft, this was bird was a delight to watch. It’s a pity that it was so flighty; within 10 minutes of its re-discovery it had disappeared. A very nice bonus bird indeed was Hawfinch. A few of us had this stocky finch pelting out the plantation in an easterly direction, disappearing rapidly into the distance.
We were buzzing after this; 2 rare pipits and a Common Rosefinch in under 3 hours was not something we had imagined at the beginning of the day. After the hype of a superb morning’s birding, things calmed down somewhat as we visited a few quieter sites. We started at the Boddam garden which two days earlier had given us a nice sprinkling of warblers. The YBW and Lesser Whitethroat were no longer present, but it was nice to see the female Redstart again and at least 2 Song Thrush. A flock of 50 Golden Plovers were scattered by a female Merlin, which could well have been the same bird as at Quendale. It was then onwards to Burn of Geosetter, somwhere I’d been very keen to check. The habitat was fantastic here, amongst the most promising I had seen; a lengthy creek lined with decent cover and crevices for migs. The best we could dig out was a female Redstart and 2 Bramblings, but its ability to produce cracking stuff was obvious; the mind can only wonder how many Lanceys and PG Tips have moved through there unnoticed. In true Shetland style, I watched one of 8 Blackbirds scuttling along the ground at the bottom of the creek. It’s these sort of moments that remind you just how uniquely exciting Shetland is…
Lunch was enjoyed at Pool Of Virkie, where 2 Black-tailed Godwits, 7 Bar-tailed Godwits, 22 Dunlin, 30 Redshank and 30 Ringed Plover provided a nice change of scene. Before heading to Scatness, we popped into the Little Bunt quarry at Sumburgh, where a female Merlin was seen again. Whether this was the Quendale and Boddam bird having done a tour of the south we could only wonder. The pool at Scatness held 8 Wigeon, 6 Tufted Duck, 4 Teal and 2 Whooper Swan. We planned to cover the peninsula here, but the discovery of an American Golden Plover at Veensgarth near Lerwick had us in two minds. After such a decent day, we couldn’t resist, so piled our way northwards. We arrived at about 4pm, initially struggling to locate a Golden Plover flock and getting lost. While lost I had a look round a promising little plantation and discovered this little fella walking around by my feet…
After a while we finally located the Golden Plover flock. There was no-one else present, so at this stage it was ours to re-find. It wasn’t tricky either, as I quickly picked out the American Golden Plover roosting at the front of the flock. The light was rubbish, yet this cracker was easy to pick out. An adult in a transitional phase between summer and winter plumage, this AGP was a very dark individual with its defining feature as it roosted being a white supercilium extending beyond the ear coverts to the nape; sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the posse of 150 winter plumaged Golden Plovers. Its transitional plumage gave it a black and white chequered look on the underparts which was vastly unlike any of the golden plovers, whilst the entire upperparts were notched blackish-grey. Others soon arrived and we directed them onto the bird. It wasn’t moving much in the harsh wind, staying rooted to its spot at the front of the flock as it roosted. After half an hour it eventually started moving about, though light was fading at this point. Somehow I got some digiscoped shots displaying the diagnostics in the nasty conditions. A sharp rain shower then passed through, at which point we made a hasty retreat.
With what light there was left, we popped into Loch of Tingwall and Wester Quarff. 2 Whooper Swan and 10 Tufties were present at the former, whilst the latter held on to its Redstart and a Brambling. As we headed back to Lerwick a Snipe flew over Loch of Brindister.
What a day. 2 rare pipits, a Common Rosefinch and a Nearctic AGP in the space of 8 hours, with Hawfinch and a scattering of other things to boot. Retrospectively, this day is up there with 16th October 2010 on Fair Isle as one of the best day’s birding I’ve ever had. The trip was well and truly worth £800 now; anything else from now on was a bonus. On our final day, there was more to come…
Thanks for reading,