Lying 80 miles north of John O’Groats, the Shetland Islands are a magical place, far divorced from mainstream life. The fact that they are located closer to Bergen in Norway than Edinburgh, to the Arctic Circle than London or are on the same latitude (60º North) as the southern tip of Greenland emphasises their isolation. The archipelago is made of 117 islands of which 13 are inhabited. Long renowned for their special breeding birds (particularly sea birds), including Red-necked Phalarope, Leach’s Petrel and Snowy Owl in the 1970s, increased coverage has resulted in a notable passage of rarities in both autumn and spring. In recent years September and October on Shetland have out-performed even the Isles of Scilly with such “megas” as Veery, Yellow Warbler, Ballion’s Crake, Killdeer, American Coot, Buff-bellied Pipit, Siberian Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Thick-billed Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Taiga Flycatcher, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler and Isabelline Wheatear. There are also a number of other eastern species that, whilst they have been recorded up Britain up to 100 times, only really stand a chance of being connected with on Shetland or Fair Isle; these include Yellow-breasted Bunting, Great Snipe, Pechora Pipit, White’s Thrush, Pallas Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler. Bearing this is mind we abandoned our usual October week on Scilly for a northern adventure.
There is a variety of habitats offered by the Shetlands comprising:
Coast:- The jagged coastline is generally rocky, forming long peninsulars and sheltered inlets (locally called voes). Most of the coastline is cliffs (occasionally over 1,000 foot / 300 metres tall) but some sandy beaches occur in the more secluded voes.
Moorland:- Much of the interior of the islands are covered rolling peat-covered hills. These can form steep valleys (sometimes vegetated) which create ideal migrant traps.
Freshwater:- There are over 2,500 freshwater lochs throughout the islands
Woodland:- Given the climate, large scale vegetation is at a premium on Shetland. However there are several areas of planted woodland which can provide suitable shelter to windswept migrants.
Gardens:- With the general lack of cover on the islands, passerines will use whatever opportunities come their way and many are attracted to gardens on the islands, ranging from the grounds of large properties such as the Sumburgh Hotel or Busta House to the simple cultivated land of the crofters. It is essential when checking such habitats in close proximity to residential property that the concerns and privacy of local residents are considered.
South-easterly winds accompanied by rain or overcast weather are the most conducive conditions to produce falls of migrants, predominately from Scandinavia.
There are two ways to reach Shetland. Firstly one can fly from Aberdeen to Tingwall (just north of the main town, Lerwick). A vehicle is essential to fully cover the islands so care hire is a must; there are various local companies based around the airport and in Lerwick who can assist.
Alternatively one can take the ferry, operated by Northlink, from Aberdeen to Lerwick, either as a foot passenger or with your car (as we did). The journey (which varies between 12 and 16 hours depending on whether it sails via Orkney) is over-night which minimises lost birding time. Our ferry departed Aberdeen at 7:00pm on the Friday, arriving in Lerwick at 7:30am on the Saturday. The car plus four adults cost £232.50 each way (we chose to sleep in reclining seats in the lounge rather than hire sleeping berths).
There is also a ferry from Orkney for those wishing to combine a visit to both island groups.
The drive up to Aberdeen covered some 400 miles from Redditch and took approximately 7 hours.
Whilst the road system on Shetland is not extensive and the carriageways narrow, there is very little traffic and it is easy to traverse the island. Shetland Mainland is approximately 60 miles from north to south and it therefore takes some time to reach its extremities. There is an extensive range of buses to all corners of Shetland Mainland. The outlying islands can be reached by a series of boats from the Mainland with varying degrees of regularity – all are very reasonably priced (far cheaper to take a car and four people than to pay for four foot passengers on one of the inter-island ferries on Scilly for example). It is possible to book places although we had no problems in arriving unannounced. Details are as follows:
Bressay Located due east of Lerwick - 7 minute crossing; ferries every 30 minutes or so (£19.20 return for a car and four adults).
Yell Immediately north of Mainland - 20 minute crossing; ferries every 30 minutes in daylight hours Monday to Friday; less frequent outside these times (£19.20 return for a car and four adults).
Unst Further north again; reached via Yell – 10 minute crossing; ferries every 30 minutes between 9:00am and 7:00pm (no charge).
Whalsay East of Mainland - 30 minute crossing; ferries every 45 minutes (£19.20 return for a car and four adults).
Fetlar East of Yell - 25 minute ferry crossing from Yell or Unst; one out/inbound sailing on Monday; four on Tuesday to Friday; three on Saturday and two on Sunday (no charge).
Papa Stour Small island west of Mainland - 40 minute ferry crossing; return journeys only possible on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (£14.40 each way for a car and four adults but little need to take a car; otherwise £3.40 each way for foot passengers).
Out Skerries Small group of islands east of Whalsay - 90 minute ferry crossing from Mainland (Vidlin); day trips only possible on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Given the scale of the islands there is no need to take a car – foot passengers are charged £3.40 each way).
Foula Far west of Mainland - two routes, the shortest of which is 2 hours 15 minutes; sailings on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday but day trips not possible (£26.00 each way for a car and four adults).
Fair Isle Located between Shetland and Orkney - two routes, the shortest of which is 2 hours 40 minutes; sailings only on Tuesday and Thursday (very prone to adverse weather) - foot passenger £3.40 each (single).
Both the latter islands can also reached by plane from Tingwall airport (just north of Lerwick) should a mega prove too tempting.
There is a variety of accommodation offered on the islands. Accommodation varies from plush hotels through to guest houses, B&B and self catering apartments / houses. For those hardy enough there are even campsites or basic stone outbuildings called bods that can be hired at a very cheap rate. It is advisable to book early as the oil companies and other large operators often make bulk bookings.
Whilst there is a wide spread of accommodation across the islands the greatest concentration is in and around Lerwick. Contact Shetland Island Tourism on (01595) 693434.
We had a very well appointed cottage on the east coast of South Mainland, just south of Lerwick. A week’s accommodation for the premises (two twin rooms, both en suite) cost £320, including all utilities.
Lerwick is both geographically and economically at the centre of the island and offers the greatest range of shops, pubs, takeaways and restaurants. There is even a small Co-op and a larger Tescos supermarket! We were disappointed by the range of options to eat out and chose to each in most nights. Many of the smaller settlements also have their own pubs and village shops but it can be a gamble to base yourself too far out if the local support facilities are not up to scratch.
Shetland is in stark contrast to the birding experienced by the group in recent years. Gone are several hundred birders trapped within a few square miles. Instead we were faced with a group of islands some 100 miles from top to toe with only a few dedicated locals and several visiting birding “crews” in the field; the onus is very much on reading the weather conditions, identifying suitable locations for migrants and then finding your own birds. We took both a pager and an internet-enabled mobile phone to overcome some of the reception issues faced in such a remote location. The excellent Shetland nature website (www.shetlandnature.co.uk) is regularly kept up to date and has a wealth of information and photographs of previous years’ records. What we did note was that much of the bird news didn’t reach the pager service and the best way to stay abreast of developments was to talk to birders (particularly locals) in the field.
South Mainland: Sumburgh Head, Sumburgh Farm, Grutness, Quendale, Loch of Spiggie, Noss, North Voxter, Fladdabister, Exnaboe, Geosetter, Wester Quarff, Levenwick, Channerwick, Pool of Virkie, Sandwick, Loch of Hillwell, Aithsetter
North Mainland: Esha Ness, Busta House (Brae), Kergord
East Mainland: Vidlin
Central Mainland: Loch of Clickimin, Frakkafield, Lerwick harbour
West Mainland: Westerfield
Unst: Lamba Ness, Norwick, Skaw, Northdale, Baltasound
Please note that not all the birds listed below were seen by the entire party. All the sites referred to are on Shetland Mainland unless otherwise stated.
MUTE SWAN Cygnus olor
Small numbers (up to 20) were present at Loch of Spiggie on the 4th, 6th and 9th.
WHOOPER SWAN Cygnus cygnus
One was present on Loch of Clickimin whenever we drove by. Two were at Loch of Spiggie on the 4th, 6th and 9th.
GREYLAG GOOSE Anser anser
Common throughout the islands, the largest flocks were encountered on Unst.
BARNACLE GOOSE Branta leucopsis
A small flock of seven were present close to the ferry terminal at Toft, Unst on the 5th.
WIGEON Anas penelope
Noted at Loch of Hillwell and Loch of Spiggie, with the largest numbers at Loch of Clickimin in Lerwick
TEAL Anas crecca
Only seen at Loch of Hillwell where several were present on the 4th and again on the 6th.
MALLARD Anas platyrhynchos
Small numbers were encountered on the larger bodies of freshwater.
POCHARD Aythya ferina
At least three were present on Loch of Brow on the 6th.
TUFTED DUCK Aythya marila
Small numbers were present on most freshwater bodies with the largest flock on Loch of Clickimin.
EIDER Somateria mollissima
Rafts were regularly encountered at sea, particularly in and around the harbours.
LONG-TAILED DUCK Clangula hyemalis
A female was at Loch of Spiggie on the 6th.
GOLDENEYE Bucephala clangula
A female and a first winter male were at Loch of Spiggie on the 6th. Two juvenile males were with Tufted Ducks at Loch of Clickimin on the 7th.
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER Mergus serrator
Small numbers were seen on both freshwater lochs and at sea.
RED-THROATED DIVER Gavia stellata
A winter plumage bird was seen off Grutness on the 4th and again on the 9th.
SLAVONIAN GREBE Podiceps auritus
Seven winter-plumage birds were at Loch of Spiggie on the 6th with one there on the 9th.
FULMAR Fulmaris glacialis
Noted in small numbers around the coast, particularly from the various ferries.
GANNET Morus bassanus
Very common off-shore.
CORMORANT Phalacrocorax carbo
Present in small numbers around the coast.
SHAG Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Generally more common than Cormorant around the coastline. Rafts of up to 200 birds were noted off South Mainland.
GREY HERON Ardea cinerea
Individual birds were noted in a variety of locations across the islands.
SPARROWHAWK Accipiter nisus
One was noted grappling with a Merlin over Channerwick on the 4th.
KESTREL Falco tinnunculus
Single birds were seen near Quendale on the 4th, Norwick, Unst on the 7th and on the Out Skerries on the 8th.
MERLIN Falco columbarius
Single birds were seen on a near daily basis, chasing small passerines over the moorland.
PEREGRINE FALCON Falco peregrinus
One was at Esha Ness near Tangwick on the 2nd.
MOORHEN Gallinula chloropus
Two were at Loch of Hillwell on the 6th with one later the same day at Loch of Spiggie.
COOT Fulica atra
One was at Loch of Hillwell on the ?th.
OYSTERCATCHER Haematopus ostralegus
Common on all rocky shores.
RINGED PLOVER Charadrius hiaticula
Common on both rocky and sandy coastlines. The largest flocks were encountered around Grutness and Pool of Virkie.
GOLDEN PLOVER Pluvialis apricaria
Seen on a daily basis in moorland and grassland habitats. Flocks of up to 200 were seen in South Mainland..
LAPWING Vanellus vanellus
Noted in small numbers on a near daily basis.
SANDERLING Calidris alba
A winter plumage bird was with Dunlin at Grutness on the 9th.
PURPLE SANDPIPER Calidris maritime
Two were on the rocky shore below Sumburgh Hotel on the 3rd.
DUNLIN Calidris alpina
Small numbers were present on the sandy beaches.
BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER Philomachus pugnax
One of three long-staying birds showed well on short grassland close to the lighthouse at Esha Ness on the 2nd.
SNIPE Gallinago gallinago
Small numbers were seen in most damp grassland areas.
BAR-TAILED GODWIT Limosa lapponica
One was at Pool of Virkie on the 3rd.
CURLEW Numenius arquata
Probably the commonest wader on the islands, more frequently seen inland than on the coast. Small flocks would group together at dusk.
REDSHANK Tringa totanus
Generally encountered in wet fields away from the shore.
TURNSTONE Arenaria interpres
Probably the commonest wader on the rocky shorelines.
GREAT SKUA Catharacta skua
No visit to Shetland would be complete without encountering a Bonxie. Most had now left their summer breeding grounds but we did encounter four birds - one flew inland over Wester Quarff on the 4th, one flew over Baltasound, Unst on the 5th and two were seen from the ferry back from the Out Skerries to Vidlin on the 8th.
LITTLE GULL Hydrocoloeus minutus
Two first winter birds were off the beach at Norwick, Unst on the 7th
BLACK-HEADED GULL Larus ridibundus
Small numbers were noted daily in fields and around the coast.
COMMON GULL Larus canus
Probably the commonest gull inland with flocks of up to 100 in the fields.
HERRING GULL Larus argentatus
Very common around the coast. Several birds of the Scandinavian race argentatus were noted around Lerwick harbour.
GLAUCOUS GULL Larus hyperboreus
A juvenile was with other large gulls in Bressay Sound, viewed from the ferry as it entered Lerwick Harbour on the 2nd.
GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL Larus marinus
Common around the coast.
KITTIWAKE Rissa tridactyla
Several were noted along the shore and at sea from the ferry journeys.
COMMON TERN Sterna hirundo
A winter plumage adult was in the bay at Sandwick on the 3rd.
ARCTIC TERN Sterna paradisaea
One was seen from the beach at Norwick, Unst on the 5th, with two there on the 7th.
GUILLEMOT Uria aalge
Common around the coast but not as plentiful as Black Guillemot.
RAZORBILL Alca torda
At least four were off the beach at Norwick, Unst on the 7th.
BLACK GUILLEMOT Cepphus grille
Very common in the coastal waters, with excellent views of “Tysties” obtained from the ferries, to which the birds seemed quite tolerant. Most birds were in full winter plumage but we did note several that still had remnants of the black summer plumage.
PUFFIN Fratercula arctica
A winter plumage bird was seen from the ferry to the Out Skerries on the 8th.
ROCK DOVE Columba livia
Common in fields around the islands; several impure birds with hints of hybridisation were noted.
WOOD PIGEON Columba palumbus
Uncommon. One was at Grutness on the 3rd whilst another was at Geosetter on the 9th.
COLLARED DOVE Streptopelia decaocto
Common around habitation.
TURTLE DOVE Streptopelia turtur
One was in gardens at Grutness on the 3rd.
SKYLARK Alauda arvensis
Common in grassland and cultivated fields.
SWALLOW Hirundo rustica
Small numbers were encountered across the islands.
MEADOW PIPIT Anthus pratensis
Very common on farmland and open moorland; a flock of over 50 birds was present at Tangwick near Esha Ness on the 2nd.
ROCK PIPIT Anthus petrosus
Very common around the rocky shores with birds also often joining Meadow Pipit flocks inland.
BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT Anthus rubescens
A long-staying bird of the North American subspecies rubescens was at Tangwick near Esha Ness on the 2nd. Once located amongst all the Meadow Pipits the bird was observed well feeding amongst the ruins of a cottage.
CITRINE WAGTAIL Motacilla citreola
A first winter bird was amongst a large Meadow Pipit flock in a sheep field at Sandwick on the 3rd. Another first winter bird was on a small pool behind a bay at Bruray, Out Skerries on the 8th.
GREY WAGTAIL Motacilla cinerea
Only encountered late on the final day (9th) on the roof of Quendale Mill.
PIED WAGTAIL Motacilla alba
Small numbers were encountered around habitation and water.
WREN Troglodytes troglodytes
Birds of the darker, longer billed zetlandicus race (endemic to Shetland) were regularly encountered, particularly along the dry stone walls.
DUNNOCK Prunella modularis
Only encountered on the final day (9th) with one at the higher Sumburgh quarry and later another up Quendale Burn at the rifle range.
ROBIN Erithacus rubecula
Frequently observed in all vegetated habitats.
BLUETHROAT Luscinia svecica
A first winter male feeding in fields and around a slurry tank at the farm at Noss, just west of Loch of Spiggie, on the 9th.
REDSTART Phoenicurus phoenicurus
A number of females / first winter males were encountered during the week. One was on the road to Sumburgh Head on the 3rd; one was at Norwick, Unst on the 5th and 7th and finally one was on Out Skerries on the 8th.
WHINCHAT Saxicola rubetra
Surprisingly given the time of year several were seen - in crop fields at Exnaboe on the 3rd, at Fladdabister on the 4th, one by the roadside between Spiggie and the main road on the 6th, one at Skaw, Unst on the 7th and finally two on Out Skerries (one of Bruray and one on Housay) on the 8th. These were probably passage birds from Scandinavia rather than long-staying local breeders.
WHEATEAR Oenanthe oenanthe
Several were noted around the islands, particularly in the cultivated onion and turnip fields. Up to four birds were present at Sumburgh and Exnaboe on the 3rd.
SWAINSON’S THRUSH Catharus ustulatus
We were idly wandering the “high street” of Lerwick late on the afternoon of the 2nd gaining the lie of the land when the “mega alert” went off on the pager – Swainson’s Thrush at Levenwick! Conscious of the impending nightfall we raced to the south of Mainland where the Swainson’s was keeping to cover in a well-vegetated garden. Eventually good views were obtained as it worked its way along the garden paths and perched on low walls. It briefly flew across the road before flying back again to its favoured garden, perching for a few seconds on the garden fence. It was also seen briefly on the 3rd in a quarry close to the house before returning to its favoured garden. Shetland’s reputation of delivering Yanks as well as eastern specialities was sealed in our minds!
RING OUZEL Turdus merula
One flew from the school plantation at Baltasound, Unst on the 5th whilst another was on Out Skerries on the 8th. The 9th saw a day of thrush movement - two flew over Burn of Geosetter early morning with three there later in the morning, perching briefly on fences, whilst one was also in the higher quarry at Sumburgh.
BLACKBIRD Turdus merula
Common around gardens and vegetated areas.
FIELDFARE Turdus pilaris
One was at Sumburgh lighthouse on the 3rd and at least ten were in fields adjacent to Quendale Mill on the 9th
SONG THRUSH Turdus philomelos
Present in small numbers in suitable habitat.
REDWING Turdus iliacus
Became increasingly common as the week progressed with an obvious movement - several hundred passed over Quendale Burn on the morning of the 9th with large flocks also seen the same day over Burn of Geosetter.
PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER Locustella certhiola
As well as seeing a range of new birds, one of the reasons for going to Shetland was to also find our own birds. At the start of the holiday I had confidently predicted that we would find a BB rarity. And so it happened …… We travelled to Out Skerries on the 8th with the principal aim of connecting with the Black-headed Bunting; having seen the bird we then loitered around a pool behind the beach on Bruray favoured by a Citrine Wagtail. To pass the time away Mike walked through an area of long grass above the nearby bay, flushing a Meadow Pipit and a slightly smaller locustella type bird with a rounded tail and yellowish, unstreaked underparts. Signalling to other birds in the area that he had found something interesting we flushed the bird on several occasions – almost immediately someone was brave enough to call the bird as a PG Tips. The bird remained elusive however, even when it flew down onto the beach, until it eventually came to rest in an open area for at least a minute where it was possible to study the bird’s features in detail in an unhurried manner (and for Des to fire off those all important photographs that would be key in any formal submission). Conscious not to stress the bird and that the birders staying on Out Skerries had yet to see the bird having decided to explore elsewhere, we left the bird in peace.
LANCEOLATED WARBLER Locustella lanceolata
“Lancy” was one of the target species for the holiday, being a Shetland speciality. One was discovered at the north end of Unst late on the 7th and we were determined to go for it if it was still there the following day. At 09:30 on the 8th the pager confirmed the bird was still present and we set off on the trip up through Mainland, through Yell and then on Unst and up to Skaw, the most northerly settlement in Britain. The sight of the small Shetland ferries packed full of car-loads of twitchers was a slightly surreal experience! A lot is written about Lanceolated Warbler’s near mythical ability to slip between observers on the ground and the casual arm-chair birder could easily question how this is possible. Having flushed the bird once or twice in flight, the assembled 20 or so birders were amazed to find on several occasions that a tightening circle did not produce views of the bird, only for it to be relocated a minute or so later some ten metres away having moved totally undetected. However the bird then moved into an area of shorter grass by a stock fence and gave excellent views on the ground where its small size, heavily black streaked back and spotted throat were obvious. Scarcely able to believe the close, clear views we had had of this skulking species we left after 15 minutes to give the bird some space.
GRASSHOPPER WARBLER Locustella naevia
We gathered in the early morning on the 4th at Levenwick to search for a bird in iris beds that had been seen the night before and tentatively identified as a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. The bird was soon located and after 12 or so flight views we left the site to give the bird some peace, confident we had seen a range of features to support this identification (seemingly pale tips to the tail feathers, a warmer rump etc). Luckily a number of photographers remained on site and the shots of the bird on the ground confirmed it as just a Grasshopper Warbler. Whilst we all felt deflated at the time this didn’t last too many days (see above) and we all agreed that any locustella warbler on October on Shetland is well worth investigating thoroughly.
REED WARBLER Acrocephalus scirpaceus
One was in an iris bed at Housay, Out Skerries on the 8th (incidentally a Blyth’s Reed Warbler was in the same spot, together with this Reed Warbler, the next day!)
SYKES’S WARBLER Hippolais rama
This bird was first observed on the 3rd when it was still being described as a “probable Booted”. It was re-identified over-night and we returned to have another look the next day. It was amazing what a change of conditions did to our perception of the bird, looking now far more like an acro warbler and less like a phyllosc. Further views were obtained on the 4th and 9th
BLACKCAP Sylvia atricapilla
Common in all well-vegetated gardens, woods and valleys.
GARDEN WARBLER Sylvia borin
Considered an early departee on mainland Britain, several were noted. Up to four were in the gardens of Busta House near Brae on the 2nd whilst one was in the Burn of Geosetter on the 9th.
BARRED WARBLER Sylvia nisoria
A juvenile bird was seen in thick cover at Vidlin plantation on the 2nd with better views obtained of another juvenile in gardens on Bruray, Out Skerries on the 8th.
LESSER WHITETHROAT Sylvia curruca
One was at Burn of Geosetter on the 9th.
COMMON WHITETHROAT Sylvia communis
One was at Fladdabister on the 7th.
PALLAS’S WARBLER Phylloscopus proregulus
A very obliging individual was with a roving Goldcrest flock at Sumburgh farm on the 9th. An even showier bird was a surprise encounter later the same morning when arriving at the farm at Noss to see the Bluethroat.
YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER Phylloscopus inornatus
One was at Vidlin plantation on the 2nd with single birds later the same day at Kergord and Frakkafield. On the 6th singles birds were seen at Quendale and Channerwick. Another fed in crop fields at Northdale, Unst on the 5th. One was in gardens south of Fladdabister on the 7th. Two were at Geosetter on the 9th with one later the same day at the Bluethroat site at Noss. A bird showing characteristics of a Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler was at Fladdabister on the 6th and 7th but frustrating never called; a careful review of a wide range of Yellow-browed photographs on the internet suggested that perhaps this was just an unusually marked bird of the commoner species. Another Yellow-browed was seen just south of Fladdabister on the 7th.
RADDE’S WARBLER Phylloscopus schwarzi
One showed well at Sumburgh between the farm and higher quarry on the 3rd and 4th, favouring vegetation close to the complex of dry stone walls.
DUSKY WARBLER Phylloscopus fuscatus
Unconvincing views were obtained of a mobile bird in Quendale burn on the 9th; the bird was also heard to call.
CHIFFCHAFF Phylloscopus collybita
Regularly encountered, often in amongst the roving Goldcrest flocks.
WILLOW WARBLER Phylloscopus trochilus
Single birds were seen at Frakkafield on the 2nd and Sumburgh on the 3rd. At Fladdabister one bird was present on the 6th with two there the following day.
GOLDCREST Regulus regulus
Numerous throughout the week with notable influxes on a daily basis. Birds were very tame and fearless of the presence of humans, often feeding on the ground only a few feet away.
SPOTTED FLYCATCHER Muscicapac striata
Several were encountered in the first half of the week but not in the second. Single birds were at Sumburgh and Levenwick on the 3rd with up to three in the Burn of Geosetter on the 4th.
RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER Ficedula parva
One was seen at Frakkafield on the 2nd, one at the Sykes’s Warbler site at Channerwick on the 9th and a third later the same day at Quendale Burn.
PIED FLYCATCHER Ficedula hypoleuca
The early part of the week saw three female / first winter birds encountered - one at Kergord on the 2nd with two at Frakkafield later the same day.
GREAT GREY SHRIKE Lanius excubitor
We happened to stumble across a newly discovered bird on wires on the north-western shore of the Pool of Virkie on the 3rd. The bird lingered in the area for some 20 minutes, also coming to perch on roadside willows and fences adjoining Sumburgh airport.
HOODED CROW Corvus cornix
Widespread across all the islands in the absence of Magpie and Jackdaw.
RAVEN Corvus corax
Very common throughout the islands in the absence of Buzzard.
STARLING Sturnus vulgaris
Common across the islands.
HOUSE SPARROW Passer domesticus
Plentiful around habitation and on farmland.
CHAFFINCH Fringilla coelebs
Small numbers were present in gardens and other sheltered areas.
BRAMBLING Fringilla montifringilla
Noted on a daily basis with several influxes overnight. The greatest numbers were encountered around the gardens of Busta House, Brae on the 2nd.
SISKIN Carduelis spinus
Very common throughout the islands with obvious movement noted on several days. Found in a far wider range of habitats than usually encountered elsewhere in Britain.
TWITE Carduelis flavirostris
Extremely common on open moorland and agricultural land alike.
MEALY REDPOLL Carduelis flammea
One was in the upper quarry at Sumburgh on the 3rd. At least five Greenland Redpolls (of the larger, darker subspecies rostrata) were with the Arctic Redpoll in Valsgarth, Unst on the 5th whilst one was with the Arctic in gardens in Norwick, Unst on the 7th.
LESSER REPOLL Carduelis cabaret
One was in the upper quarry at Sumburgh on the 4th.
HORNEMANN’S ARCTIC REDPOLL Carduelis hornemanni
The long-staying Unst bird was discovered by chance along the road at Valsgath on the 5th in the company of a small party of Greenland Redpolls. Closer views of the “snow-ball” were obtained on the 7th on feeders in gardens at Norwick.
LAPLAND BUNTING Calcarius lapponicus
Encountered on an almost daily basis – so many times we count really make a proper count. Sightings included two on a fence at Braewick close to Esha Ness on the 2nd, four over Sumburgh quarry on the 3rd, one at the same location the following day, one at Lamba Ness, Unst on the 5th, one at Norwick and another at Baltasound, Unst on the 7th. The largest group was a flock of 12 which flew over Sumburgh on the 9th whilst two flew over Quendale Burn the same day.
SNOW BUNTING Plectrophenax nivalis
A flock of up to 80 birds showed well on the exposed headland at Lamba Ness on Unst on the 5th.
LITTLE BUNTING Emberiza pusilla
Two were in a crop field at Norwick, Unst on the 5th. These birds were seen again in the same location on the 7th.
REED BUNTING Emberiza schoeniclus
Four were in the upper quarry at Sumburgh on the 3rd with several noted on other visits later in the week to the same location. Several were noted on the Out Skerries on the 8th.
BLACK-HEADED BUNTING Emberiza melanocephala
A first winter male showed well in gardens at Housay, Out Skerries on the 8th.
Other rare birds noted on the islands during the week but not seen by any member of the party included White-billed Diver, Olive-backed Pipit, Red-backed Shrike, Red-flanked Bluetail, Common Rosefinch, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, Icterine Warbler, Hoopoe, Marsh Warbler, Pectoral Sandpiper, Richard’s Pipit and Booted Warbler
Other rare birds recorded on the islands this autumn outside the week we were present included Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Isabelline Shrike, Rose-coloured Starling, Snow Goose, Shorelark, Spotted Sandpiper, River Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Black-throated Thrush, Rustic Bunting, Paddyfield Warbler, Wryneck, Corncrake, White’s Thrush, Melodious Warbler, Ring-necked Duck, Great Snipe, American Golden Plover, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Bean Goose, Greenish Warbler, King Eider and Thrush Nightingale.
In addition, Friday 1st October was spent travelling up to Aberdeen. Sites visited included Auchmithie (where we dipped on an Icterine Warbler seen the day before) and Girdle Ness where we saw Wheatear on the headland, Purple Sandpipers on the rocks and Eider, Common Scoter and Red-throated Divers off-shore. The return journey on Sunday 10th October saw us call at Cumbernauld where we had distant views of over 100 Taiga Bean Geese, part of the regular wintering flock, just west of Slamannan.
In total we managed 114 species for the week on the islands, with many good views of rare birds, uncluttered by the hoards of birders that exist on the Isles of Scilly at every rarity. This total included four UK lifers for myself, six each for Mike and Dave, and an incredible eleven for Des. We will certainly be returning in Autumn 2011 for more quality birds in a fabulous location.