Autumn’s stirring

Some variable wind today that spent the morning havering between a southerly and a south easterly, before settling down this afternoon to a briskish south easterly. Went around the patch 3 times in the course of the day – a couple of Willows and a Garden Warbler in the morning (the Garden being an especially elusive and frustrating bird to identify with certainty, as it gave me the runaround for an hour in the plantation, never showing settled, but instead flushing from the depths of bushes and flying the length of the plantation before diving into cover. I was 95% sure it was going to be Garden, but the remaining 5% demanded certainty and a perched view).

Garden Warbler settled, I went down the isle to get some Herring from JLI, and check out the meadows. Looking good, with 4 White Wagtail and a half dozen Dunlin vaguely notable. No stints though.

JLI came along in the afternoon and we gave the patch a 2nd go. Definitely some new birds in during the intervening hours. 3 Black-tailed Godwit below my house, a Whinchat, 3 Garden Warblers, and 7 Willow Warblers.

Final walk in the evening uneventful, as patch smothered with fog.

Tomorrow’s forecast looks promising…


Set the alarm for 5.30 this morning, and by midday was beginning to rue my early start. I’d forgotten how sapping and depressing seawatching can be. Endless streams of Gannets and Fulmars, occasional Great and Arctic Skuas, a very few Kittiwakes, and odd handfuls of Shag and Black Guillemot.

Wind was blowing south/south-westerly, at about force 8, so not a particularly comfortable environment to be sat watching standard Shetland seabirds in, let alone with some meaningful rain showers thrown in for good measure. JLI’s text about summed it up: “Seawatching? Hard man!”. Just after midday, I finally got my just rewards – out of nowhere, a Sooty Shearwater cutting south in front of the Skerries in bright sunshine. Completely delighted with this, I expected more of the same. And of course, got nothing for 40 minutes, just same old same. Then a large concentration of Gannets massed offshore, diving repeatedly again and again. Estimated at least 50 birds in the flock, which eventually spent some 15 minutes sat on the heaving waves.

Before too long there were Storm Petrels amongst them – impossible to stay on them with the scope, as no sooner had I locked onto one than it would be obscured by the waves, and lost to sight. Hard therefore to gauge numbers, but am guessing it was approaching double figures.

Final icing on the cake came in a frantic (well, by the standards of the proceeding hours) 5 minutes, when first 3 and then a further single Manx Shearwater came past. The 3 went straight south, but the single bird circled the dispersing Gannet flock in a broad arc before going south too.

Gave it another hour, but in the end hunger and the cold drove me home. A good morning’s work, and in the shearwaters I’ve added 2 more species to my patch list. Thought treacherously to myself that I wouldn’t have to hurry to seawatch from here again…

Other interesting stuff today. Fat bastard Rock Doves stealing from unprotected stooks in the fields; and Harbour Porpoises feeding just offshore this evening. You start to take them for granted – look up from washing up in sink, see dorsal fins breaking the surface of the sea outside the kitchen window – “neesiks are back again…”. >yawn< Just another everyday occurence!

Rebecca Nason

It’s dark outside, there’s a brisk south-westerly blowing and it’s starting to rain. I really should be asleep, as I’m planning on going seawatching early tomorrow morning (why, I couldn’t exactly say. Everyone else I know is doing it at the moment, in Scilly and Bridges of Ross. So I feel obliged to try from the Taing here. I think I know who’s going to do best out of this deal…)

Instead of sleeping, I’ve been looking at photos in Rebecca Nason’s image library. They’re ever so good, and make me ashamed of my feeble attempts to take rarity pictures… Check it out, it’s terrific.

(I bet if Rebecca sees a Fea’s Petrel off of Scilly, you’ll be able to count the feather mites in it’s coverts in the photos she takes. Whereas if I see a Sooty tomorrow, you’ll just have to take my word for it…)


Go naked in Shetland

Am slowly getting used to this WordPress blog manager thingy, and in the past week I’ve discovered the statistics page, that tells you precisely how people have found your blog. It’s all usually very uninspiring, as 99% of people coming here come via a link on other, superior birding blogs (see blog roll opposite). The remaining 1% come here by accident, usually after searching for the likes of “Shetland + bitter + sarcastic”. Imagine therefore my surprise to see this today:

O-kay… this begs the question what sort of lunatic would even consider going walking in the nude in Shetland. I can’t imagine a worse place in the world to go tackle out. Granted, in Antarctica there’s a good chance your bits will freeze solid and snap off, but at least your only witness is likely to be a somewhat puzzled penguin. Here it’s usually unflatteringly cold, often raining, always with a shrivelling wind-chill, and unfailingly someone is watching you through a pair of binoculars. Every house has a pair, usually on the kitchen windowsill for easy access. It’s hard to imagine that someone out there in the ether is daft enough to be seriously considering a nude Shetland walking holiday. And yet people really do come to the islands woefully underprepared and unaware of the risks… Take this recent hilarious story on the front page of the Orcadian:

Sadly the reporter doesn’t say if they were nude or not. I imagine they almost certainly were.

Never get bored of Barred

Tense day at work today, as I’d left my mobile on the kitchen windowsill, where it could do me no good at all. Of course, the penny dropped about a mile from home and the prospect of returning for it and missing my ferry was too awful to contemplate. So the day was spent blissfully (ha!) unaware of what I was missing at home.

Back this evening, driving past the plantation (JA ensconsed with scope and camera), onwards towards the heligoland, and caught sight of a passerine dropping out of the sky towards the bushes in the trap. Braked hard, and as it dived in I saw enough to know it was hefty and greyish. Abandoned the car on the road, dodged the ponies in the field, and into the trap. Something grey thundered up the ramp of the trap… and in. Barred Warbler. Gotcha.

Back down the isle to interrupt BM’s dinner with it, and then back home to get out and spend a couple of hours seeing what the others had missed. Not a lot, in fairness! Good views of a Red-backed Shrike as it snuck into a bush to roost, a really snazzy and showy Pied Flycatcher, the usual suspects of Willow Warblers and a Garden Warbler, and a family party of Swallow.

Tomorrow am on strike, and fancy my chances of a Common Rosefinch. Watch this space.

Shetland autumn birding

What with all these migrants deluging us so early in the season, and reading Blurredforum and seeing how many folk are planning on coming here this autumn for a week or two, some thoughts that may help those that do:

1. Thou shall not claim to have put any of the Shetland archipelago on the birding map. Nor shall you act as if you in some way pioneering the art of finding migrants here in Shetland. We’re all of us just following in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before here. Want to be in the vanguard of Western Palearctic pioneer birding? Go to Faroe. In the meantime, show respect where it’s due to the figures of the distant and not so distant past. On the subject of respect…

2. …Thou shall not trample through any crop you happen to stumble across hoping to flush a Pechora from its depths. Nobody here is growing those crops for the benefit of birders. They’re growing them to feed either stock, or people. They don’t want you trashing them. Similarly…

3. …Thou shall not climb over drystone walls. They collapse easily under the weight of a lardy birder. And they cost a fortune to get someone to come and repair.

4. And on the same vein, thou shalt not climb over wire fences putting all of your not inconsiderable weight on the wire. Some farmer or crofter paid good money putting a stockproof fence there – they don’t appreciate you knackering the tension scrambling over it. Use the gates provided (and cut down on your pork life, take some exercise)…

5. Thou shall not just wander into people’s gardens. Most folk here are more than happy for you to do so, but it’s good manners to ask first if you’re a visitor. Think how you’d like it if it were your garden that filled with random trainspotters wanting to photograph some rare piece of rolling stock that happened to be in a siding nearby.

6. Thou shall not beat hell out of any small trees or shrubs you find in order to flush that skulking migrant. This applies to trees and shrubs outside of gardens too. This is Shetland, and the wind, sheep and rabbits being what they are, chances are even those trees were put there deliberately by someone. They take a painfully long time to establish and grow. Don’t set them back by thrashing them to splinters.

7. Thou shall give your “crew” a funny and/or cool and/or self-deprecating name. It wouldn’t be the same without one.

8. Thou shall not sit in the South Mainland waiting for someone putting the legwork in to find a bird for you to twitch. You’ve come all this way – at least make an effort.

9. Thou shall know your common birds. Not everything here in the autumn is a rarity. (Sorry, a rare). It’s a truism, but rare birds are just that – rare. Even here. Sometimes a Siskin is just a Siskin.

10. Thou shall put at least the required amount in the tick box at Fair Isle bird observatory in the happy event that you go there and see a new bird. Why? a) it’s good manners, particularly when the sums in question are small, and b) Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust are fundraising to build a new observatory, and every donation counts towards something important for the community there, the Trust’s work itself, and us smelly masses of birders having a focal point and a warm bed and a decent meal at the end of the day.

The Shetland Bird Club have some guidelines available via the always excellent Nature in Shetland website >here<

Meanwhile, here are some other useful life-lessons that may also prove helpful:

More warbler stuff

Blimey, it’s all go here. A text from BM this afternoon to say he’d got a Wood Warbler in his garden. Then this evening I refound JLI’s hitherto absent Barred Warbler in the plantation (am assuming it’s a re-find and not new in), and spent some time watching the still-present Paddyfield Warbler in the field, and making some notes. (How quaint! I used an actual pen and paper, and observed the bird closely from a discreet distance. What is it the youngsters do these days? Ah yes! I did not “digiwaste” it, nor “murder” it).

Actually, that wasn’t through want of trying. I did have the camera, but the damn thing was prepared to sit out and show well in between stuffing its face with flies, just so long as you didn’t go anywhere near it, move suddenly, or breathe in a funny way. It was easily scared. That said, I did manage a record shot (note the clinching field-mark – the ring!). Striking how pale it was in flight, and BM is easily excused for thinking Booted at first on a flight view. Even in the warm evening sunlight it looked kind of milky-tea brown.

Sky’s clear outside. Bet it’s gone in the morning.

Paddyfield Warbler

Great start to the day – yesterday’s south-easterlies continued through the night, with a couple of rain showers. Yesterday JLI found a Barred Warbler in the plantation, so today’s action wasn’t altogether unexpected, though of course not a given, and a good surprise for all that.

Phone call from BM just as I was leaving the house. He’d found an interesting warbler, and thought maybe it was Booted… A bit of a mad panic from me, trying to find the right lenses for the camera and my car keys. Yes, I know the plantation’s just half a mile from home, but this would be a new bird for the patch…

Met BM, and chatted while we waited for JLI to arrive. From BM’s description of the head pattern, Paddyfield sounded more likely, albeit with the caveat that this was seemingly a very pale bird. JLI pitched up, and we held back while BM set up a mist net. Reasonable warbler activity, with a few Willows lobbing around, and all of a sudden a pale job streaked past us. Clearly the bird, and strikingly pale. Ooer.

A couple more flight views, and a brief moment with it perched in some scrub willow – a suggestion of a sandy ginger rump in flight, and a pale supercilium with something of a dark line above it. Paddyfield now looking more certain than ever.

JA arrived, and we drove the plantation. The bird pitched down in front of the net, and I walked it in. Up to the net, and all I could see was a Willow Warbler – but there in the bottom corner was another bird. BM extracted it – Paddyfield!

Processed it back at the road – a strikingly different bird to the last Paddyfield we caught here, with none of the warm gingery tones on the upperparts that bird had, this bird being a very pale sandy brown with just a hint of rufous on the rump. A less obvious head pattern too. Nevertheless, a smart Paddyfield. Better still *, while I scribed and BM measured a wader flew over calling – a Greenshank. First one I’ve heard here in 5 years, so I did get a patch tick this morning after all.

* joking. Well, I think I am…

More Shetland Two-barred Crossbill action

Went down to Sumburgh after work this afternoon and spent a happy 3 hours wandering around looking for (and eventually at) Two-barred Crossbills. Numbers of them there have been climbing steadily over the past couple of days, and were up to 9 by this morning. Needless to say, I maintained my usual Two-barred Crossbill record of not having it easy to begin with, and spent over an hour without seeing any at all, just heaps of Twite buzzing around the place. Eventually cracked and phoned PVH for some more specific directions.

Spent half an hour wandering thrift fields he’d seen them on the evening before. Still no crossbills. Back up to the lighthouse, and finally some joy. A juvenile bird loosely associating with some Twite, and feeding on the turf right beside the lighthouse. Fabulously confiding, and 10 minutes later I was just a few feet away from it as it fed unconcerned beside me. Even I was able to manage a reasonable photo or two.

Wandered back down towards the car, and went for a speculative walk up the hillside opposite the lighthouse. It was still sunny, and reasonably sheltered from the fresh wind. I’d been there no time at all when I heard crossbills calling, and picked up 6 Common Crossbill flying over the brow of the hill and past me. Closely followed by a larger flock of 10 birds – all Two-barred Crossbills! They were pretty spooky and hard to approach, nowhere near as tame as the first bird, so once I’d counted and recounted them, I concentrated on stalking the only adult male amongst them for photos.

Got a few, but at fairly long range, and with my shit lens they’re not great. If only I’d got the new lens I keep promising myself… Still, not as bad as they might be either.

CF card filled, I settled back to watching them all feeding on thrift, plucking the flowerheads and rapidly grinding them in their bills, shaking their heads to dislodge the chaff. I stayed sitting in the sun watching them for a while before they flew, straight towards me. For one brief moment I was in the middle of a flock of flying Two-barred Crossbills – I could even hear the sound of their wings whirring as they shot past only a foot or two away. An absolutely spellbinding experience. Only one thing left to do – I hoofed it back up to the lighthouse, and found the first juvenile bird still where I’d left it, roosting on the metalwork beneath a water tank.

11 birds in all – 2 more than previously reported. I don’t know which ones ‘mine’ were, but frankly couldn’t care less. They were stunning. I don’t think the autumn is going to be able to better that for an awesome birding moment.

Boulmer Birder

A recommendation from the small hours when I really should be a-bed and dreaming of what birding the autumn has in store for me (strange to relate, this is not flowery prose for prose sake – I really did dream this last night: JLI and I were out birding on the isle, which had remarkably added some olive groves and sun-drenched mountainsides to its landscape. Depressingly the dream did not deliver a nice Orphean Warbler or similar, but instead I recall us looking at 3 Kestrels perched on an electricity pylon. A great anticlimax, and hopefully not an omen).

Anyway! A recommendation. This week I shall mainly be reading Boulmer Birder – a great blog with some fabulous photos of various dragonflies, darters and demoiselles. And rats, if they’re your thing. I once spent ages knee-deep at the edge of Radipole trying to fish out a kitten tied up in a Tesco carrier bag and thrown into the water to drown. You could hear the poor little mite mewing in distress as the bag sank lower and lower into the water. As I used my fully extended tripod as a boat hook to snag the bag and bring it to shore, I felt the warm glow of compassionate virtue. It mattered not that I could no longer feel my legs below the knees as the cold January water cut off my circulation. Nor that the Scaup I had been watching had long since buggered off. No! I was the saviour of a tiny ickle kitten.

I got the bag to shore, climbed up to the pavement, and realised the bag was not tied shut, merely badly tangled. I gently pulled it open on the pavement, my hands ready to catch the terrified catling lest it bolt in fear into the busy main road. Instead a soaked and pissed off brown rat tumbled out, lunged to bite my hand, swore viciously at me in rat, and then hunched it’s way straight back down the bank and into the water. Bastard.

Boulmer Birder spares them. He is a better man than I. Since Radipole, I have killed dozens of the filthy brutes. They used to terrorise my chickens, and gnaw holes in my shed. Boulmer Birder is kinder, clearly not troubled with chickens or holes in his shed, and he takes a mean photograph. Enjoy!