Sykes’s Warbler

While the rest of Shetland south has gone quietly mad, here is just quiet. Spent yesterday tramping around the locale with just one (nice, bright, but still singular) Yellow-browed Warbler to show for my efforts. Meanwhile, the mobile went loopy. Brown Flycatcher, Fair Isle… eek.

The reason I was home and birding midweek was a Council strike that meant no ferries were running. No ferries running meant I had no way to get off the isle and into Fair Isle. Curses.

Today was unavoidably a work day, so took the precaution of stopping at Tingwall on the way in to the office to secure a place on tomorrow’s early Fair Isle plane. The Tingwall staff are lovely, lovely people, and too kind for words. By late morning, Fair Isle had got that little bit madder – an adult male Siberian Thrush. Hell hell hell… meanwhile the flycatcher had gone awol, and we all know that Siberian Thrushes never stick around… or at least, I do. Dipped the St Agnes bird; dipped the Foula bird. I fly tomorrow, and who knows what I’ll see.

Back to today – and my 4th lifer of the year. (This is unprecedented in recent years). Managed to get to Sumburgh and back in my lunchhour for a thoroughly tick-whorish visit to Sumburgh Farm and the newly discovered Sykes’s Warbler. I like warblers at the best of times, and this one was a beauty – a lovely pale, long-billed skulker. Got a crap record shot, and after all too brief a time watching it, I had to get back to work again. Grr.

What will tomorrow bring? Hopefully the Siberian Thrush (slim chance), a relocated Brown Flycatcher (slimmest of slim chances), and maybe a nice first for Britain (on Shetland’s current form, I’d not bet against it!). Returning on Saturday, so if the Thick-billed Warbler on Skerries would oblige and settle down somewhere, that would take care of Sunday…

Whatever happens, you’ll read it here first. Bitter Bonxie – all life is here.


What’s this got in common…

Picked up a text from JLI just as I was driving onto the 6.30pm ferry this evening – 3 Cranes at Vatshoull. I just lurve Cranes something chronic – such awesome birds. Felt dead tense all the way across – would they still be there? The text was a couple of hours old…

I needn’t have worried – even in the fading evening light, they were easily visible from the road, picking their way slowly up and down a spit in the freshwater loch. Hopefully they’ll still be there in the morning and I might manage a slightly better photo than the following:

Still, really pleased to have seen them – yet another excellent bird on the isle in the past fortnight. Apart from the Corncrake, it’s none of it been new to me, but that’s not really the point. This is pure birding – great numbers of common migrants, leavened with smaller numbers of scarcer species, and studded with the odd semi and full-blown rarity. You can keep twitching your Cretzshmar’s Buntings…

…with this?

Autumn begins here

In case I hadn’t already noticed, autumn officially began today. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen my first Yellow-browed Warblers of the year, so it must be autumn now.

At least 1 in the plantation, another calling but unseen (by me, though it showed well to JLI) in Roadside’s roses, and 1 more in the garden beside JLI. None of us had the time to get out properly today, so there will have been more for certain. Noticeably increased Whinchat numbers again, and a dead smart Wood Warbler in the plantation with the Willows and Yellow-browed(s). And in answer to Docmartin’s question – yes, I would too!

Short-toed Lark

Never got round to yesterday’s update, such as it would have been (Short-toed Lark still present, 9 Chaffinches, odds and sods of warblers, and my first Brambling of the autumn – and best of all, 20 minutes of watching a dog Otter feeding some 10 metres from me).

Minor update today, as going out on the lash tonight will be stopping all birding – Short-toed Lark still present as I left for work at 7.30am. Cute.

Citrine Wagtail

Have I said how much I love living and birding here? Well, I do. It’s great.

Take today – got up before first light to spend a couple of hours trying to get to grips with a shrike JLI found yesterday – a really furtive beast that eventually succumbed to BM’s mistnet later in the day and proved to be as JLI had initially called it, a Red-backed. Still, it was fun while it lasted trying to piece together an identification based upon split-second views of a shrike that dived into deep cover as soon as it sensed you were nearby, and resolutely refused to give itself up by sitting out on a fence like 99.9% of other Red-backed Shrikes do. Got some nice photos of Lesser Whitethroats massacring craneflies for their breakfast. Yum.

Anyhow, drove home to start work at 9am, and found another Red-backed Shrike flying over the road in front of me – this time a nice easy rufousy-orange one. Heading back into Symbister at lunchtime, I nearly ran over a wagtail on the road between Skaw and Vatshoull. It bombed off north onto the moor, leaving me thinking shit that looked pale…, and hurriedly reversing off the road and setting off on foot in hot pursuit.

Ran in the general direction it had gone, and flushed it from a small boggy bit of moor, this time just a short distance before it landed and I could finally get binoculars on it. Citrine Wagtail! Superb, but one small problem – phone and camera both back in the car… Legged it back, collected them, ran back to where I’d last seen the bird, phoning JLI en route, and promptly flushed it again. Should say that “flushed it” does not mean “ran right up to it and booted it” – this was a bird that flew the moment you broke the skyline. It led me a merry chase across the moor, me sprinting along trying to not lose sight of it in flight, and then trying to stalk up to where I thought it had landed to get a photo without it sensing me and buggering off again. The happy outcome of this was the pair of us passing the Vevoe junction at one point, thus bringing it within my self-determined patch boundaries.

Eventually ended up right back where I began, within a few feet of my abandoned car, it feeding in the roadside ditch, and me finally able to get a few photos. Eventually being a long chase, but a very short time… in which JLI had arrived, and gave me a thumbs up as he stood beside his car and the wagtail fed briefly in the ditch beside him, before it flew yet again, this time high and down the hill towards Vatshoull. Despite searching, we couldn’t relocate it.

And so back to work for the afternoon. This week just goes on getting better and better. And there’s still half of September, and the whole of October to come…

Scooby snacks

Back to work today, a complete anticlimax after the past 48 hours. A little nervous about what JLI might turn up, but the texts from him were mercifully uneventful – the Short-toed Lark still around and being harrassed by a Yellow Wagtail; a Common Sandpiper on the shore; and a Pochard at Vatshoull.

I felt faintly foolish about the latter, as I noted this drake was there on Saturday, but never mentioned it to anyone. After all, it’s just a Pochard, yes? Ah, well, no… Turns out Pochard is something of an island rarity on here, and JLI reckoned this was his first on the isle for some 30 years. Oops. Maybe I should have said something!

Stopped off at the quarry on the way home, but the bunting appears to be gone. A further stop at the plantation to take some photos of something I noticed yesterday – a Red-backed Shrike larder. Have never seen one before, so this was kind of intriguing.

Crouching bunting, leaping lark

Somebody shoot me. Am absolutely fucked with exhaustion. It’s been a long, long weekend of more or less dawn-to-dusk tramping around birding, and it’s been so worth it. Kicked off today with the usual circuit of Skaw, before decamping to the quarry to try for some Yellow-breasted Bunting record shots (am under no illusions about how shite the camera lens is…) and more importantly, to take some detailed field notes. Someone had to!

Got the obligatory shite record shots, before heading over to Isbister for some hot migrant action. (A Chaffinch, one of several new in on the isle today – Isbister back on form of promising much, and delivering so very little in return for so very much effort.

From there back to the quarry to try and help some visiting birders connect with the now elusive bunting. Russ Heywood managed to briefly relocate it, but by the time we’d found the others birding elsewhere on the isle, it had vanished into thin air again. It’s strange – some of the Yellow-breasted Buntings I’ve seen have been spooky beasts that won’t let you anywhere near them (a couple on Fair Isle between ’92 and ’95 spring readily to mind), whilst this one and the Portland bird (’93?) are bombproof – the Portland bird ran between my feet at one point, and this one sits tight like a locustella until you step on it, and then flies a short distance before settling again to feed on fallen grass seeds and allow a close approach again.

Back home, and immediately found a Great Spotted Woodpecker digging in my compost heap. It flew a short way off, before discovering some nice woodwormy rotten timber on one of my outbuildings, and spent much of the afternoon ripping that apart. Possibly more fruitful than whatever it was finding in the chicken shit and kitchen scraps… Other notables were 6 Lesser Whitethroats around the house.

JLI and BM came along and we gave the plantation the once over before JLI had to leave for a prior commitment. No sooner had he driven away than he phoned us – he’d found a Short-toed Lark in the middle of the road! It flew into the fields alongside my house, so we walked up to it and got a few photos before it returned to the road, and then flew away in the direction of the airstrip.

Finished the day with the nets up in the plantation. Got a good double-figure haul of Goldcrests, but still no rare phylloscs this autumn. Yet…

Final scores for the past 48 hours:

Wryneck (2)
Red-breasted Flycatcher
Yellow-breasted Bunting
Short-toed Lark.

Plus good numbers of Redstart, Whinchat, Lesser Whitethroat, Reed Warbler, Yellow Wagtail, Tree Pipit etc etc. And a Great Spotted Woodpecker!

Yellow-breasted Bunting etc

This should be subtitled “epic day”. It really has been.

Kicked off with a quick circuit of the home patch, and caught BM a juicy Fieldfare in the heligoland. Onwards quickly to see if there was any joy with yesterday’s lost locustella – no – so on to check if the Bluethroat was still around – yes – and then linked up with JLI for an hour before he had to catch the ferry. Some common odds and sods, and then I was going solo. Back to Skaw for a really proper circuit. Masses more Redstart than on any previous day this week, and a noticeable fall of Song Thrush, Whinchat and to a lesser degree Reed Warbler. First good bird of the day (Bluethroat notwithstanding) was a Wryneck that flew past me, and then pitched down onto a drystone dyke. Before leaving Skaw, notched up a Sparrowhawk, and then on to Vevoe for more common migrants and 2 flyover Black-tailed Godwit.

Stopped at every garden and crop on my way to Isbister, gradually adding more Lesser Whitethroats, Robins etc. First migrant in Isbister was a Red-backed Shrike beside the road, and shortly afterwards got excellent views of a Grasshopper Warbler as it scurried across short turf and into a cabbage patch. So far, so good, but the rest of Isbister was a bit of a struggle. I went through every iris bed, walked every crop, checked every bush… but really, it was still too exposed to the brisk south-easterly wind and migrants, if there, were mainly keeping their heads well down.

Picked up more good indicator species as the day progressed – Goldcrest, Tree Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers… Meanwhile JA found a Common Rosefinch and a Red-breasted Flycatcher. JLI returned to the isle, so we hooked up again and twitched JA’s flycatcher. A smart beast, and shortly afterwards we stumbled across another Wryneck – sporting an enormous shiny silver ring on its right leg. Wary, it soon vanished from sight. Shortly before JA’s arrival to see it, we refound it (or another) nearby – never could see the ring on this one, so not sure if it was the same bird. Have to assume it was for accuracy’s sake, though I have my doubts.

On again, and shortly after we’d left JLI got a phone call – a Corncrake in a walled garden at Vatshoull! We were a minute away from a long-overdue lifer for me… I’ve never been to the Western Isles to see the breeding ones, have never got lucky on migration, and have never been privy to any “undisclosed site” breeders… so this was a big deal. JLI phoned JA to tell him the news – JA meanwhile had found a bunting, which had promptly vanished from right beside him leaving him unable to give it a name. Ooer!

Presently JA and BM arrived, and before long we’d all had good views of the crake scurrying to and fro amongst the bushes that lined the wall. Enormously relieved, we then moved on to the quarry where JA had seen his mystery bunting. He’d seen a chunky bunting bill, and a pale-toned back, and was confident it wasn’t a Lapland – but that was all we could go on at this point. We walked into the scrubby area he’d first seen it in, and promptly flushed a bunting. A flash of pale primrose yellow, a hint of wingbars… JLI called it immediately – “I think that’s a Yellow-breasted!”.

Unfortunately, we’d none of us seen enough to be absolutely sure. And the bird had flown out of the quarry grounds, and was nowhere to be seen. We tried to relocate it in the surrounding fields for some half an hour, before returning to the quarry, understandably a little tense by now! We walked in more slowly and cautiously than before – and flushed it again, but this time it flew just a few feet before landing on the ground. We took one look, and yes! It was definitely a Yellow-breasted Bunting.

Congratulations all round, and a dram afterwards to celebrate. Tomorrow will have to raise its game considerably to better this for a day’s local birding in Shetland!

photo c/o L Paton


Spent a very nervous day sat in a windfarm meeting with half an eye on the mobile as the grapevine reported what was being found elsewhere on Shetland: Yellow-breasted Bunting, Great Snipe, Lanceolated Warbler, Citrine Wagtail… and for a mercy, none of them from our island.

News from PVH – another birder has bought a place on the isle. PVH vouches he’s a proper birder, which is good. Other news… BM had a locustella late this afternoon, and after flushing it twice lost it, and moved on to check my patch. Argh. Forced into an unexpected u-turn upon meeting JLI on the road and learning this welcome / unwelcome news, and we went it alone to try and relocate it in some pretty unpleasant conditions. Needless to say, we had no joy, and I finally made it home with work shoes wringing wet. Will be up and at ’em at first light – warblers were flying up into the gloom from the verge of the drive as I came home, and a Redstart has been trying to get in the kitchen window in the past half hour, presumably lured by the ridiculously bright halogen kitchen lights Mrs Bonxie insisted upon. I’d not have resisted so strongly had I realised their light-attraction potential!

JLI off the isle for much of the day tomorrow; BM working; I’ll have the island to myself, to all intents and purposes. I like those odds.

More fall (for) you

Took a day’s holiday to make the most of the weather – deliciously south-easterly and rainy. Birders are the only people (with the possible exception of lunatic naked ramblers from London) who enjoy these conditions, but even I was struggling to find the love this morning as the wind made holding binoculars steady almost impossible at times, and the drizzle came in semi-solid lumps and columns across the hills at you.

First migrant I clapped eyes on was when I opened the back door to go and feed the hens – a bedraggled Redstart (yawn…) sheltering amongst the hosta pots beside the door. That was about it though until JLI arrived and we set to working our way around the patch. Initially not very successful, or at least not compared to yesterday when every fence and wall seemed adorned with a Redstart. Dribs and drabs of Redstarts (10), a Chiffchaff, a couple of Whinchats, and a few Willow Warbler, Blackcap and Garden Warbler. One of the latter necessitated JLI lying on the road to clinch, as it appeared in possibly the most exposed area, where standing to use binoculars was simply impossible.

On to Vevoe, and the first of many Spotted Flycatchers of the day. Also Tree Pipit, and various common warblery stuff. Vatshoull was notable for a significantly increased Wigeon flock, up from single figures yesterday to a respectable 43 today. On into Symbister, and a pitstop for chocolate and fizzy stuff. Took our spoils to the meadows to peer into the drizzle and look for Citrine Wagtails. No luck. 8 albas, and one flava notable – also a single Sanderling, and 2 Ruff.

Back into the gardens, and in their shelter with an easing wind, began to rack up reasonable numbers of the usual warbler suspects, Redstarts, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats, and a single Reed Warbler and our second Tree Pipit of the day. We finally hit the jackpot for the day with an elusive but occasionally showy Bluethroat near the shop. BM and JA came along, so we made our excuses and moved onwards to more gardens, and finally back to Skaw, where the easing conditions had allowed more birds to come out of the woodwork – Spotted Flycatchers most obviously, but also a brace of Lesser Whitethroat in the plantation.

A good day in the end – a shame there was no BB to really seal it, but good numbers of migrants, and a hard slog in trying conditions to earn a Bluethroat. It feels good to be tired like this.