Dipping and tripping

When I start a post saying I’m absolutely buggered, it’s usually an accurate barometer of how good the day was. It implies an awful lot of effort’s gone into the day, which me being the generally slothful and lazy slacker I am, must mean the weather was looking good and I’ve made the most of it. More than that though… as yesterday proved, you need some good birds early on in the day to keep the momentum up, or else you risk easing off and thinking of better things to be doing with your time. Like drinking beer. Having a little nap on the sofa in the sun in the afternoon. Not birding. But today…

…I’m absolutely buggered.

Day started with a Tree Pipit just along the road from the house – an absolute classic bird that flushed with the usual characteristic call. They’re such obliging beasts, Tree Pipits. A call that does (well, to my ear anyway) precisely what it says on the tin – tSee! sounds a bit like tree! so they’re a complete doddle when they lift and shout their name. Shamefully, I did my best to encourage it towards the field behind the house, but it was like herding cats – it wasn’t going where I wanted it to, so I left it be and moved on to the loch behind the house. Common Sandpiper here on the shore, annoyingly flushing to the shore nearest the house where a bedroom window scoping wouldn’t pick it up. I dithered for a moment… flush it back, then hoof back to the house to scope it? Or leave it be, and press on? Common sense and the bird’s welfare won out, and I went on to walk around the golf course. South easterlies, drizzle… surely good for something? A nice rare wheatear maybe…

Of all the things I imagined I’d find, Dipper certainly wasn’t high on the list. In fact, it was right off the radar. So when I went to jump a ditch, clocked it crouched beneath me, and then watched it fling itself into flight along the shoreline I was… more than a little surprised. Dipper? Bizarre. I then spent a joyless couple of hours walking the coast as far as Vevoe checking the shore and every ditch that fed into it in minute and tedious detail trying to relocate it.

Birds meanwhile were clearly arriving. I had Swallows and House Martins hawking along the cliffs, and Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Warbler in the geos. JLI meanwhile, checking the shore behind me a little later scored Icterine Warbler and Cuckoo. By the time I was walking back along the road to check out West Loch on my fruitless Dipper hunt, I was beginning to feel the pain of unaccustomed exercise. JLI’s phone call, and the news it contained, couldn’t have been worse timed: 4 Dotterel on the hillside behind my house.

Oh shit.

An island tick. A year tick. A house tick. Shit shit shit.

I ran like a chequebook birder fresh off a charter – pounding along the road at a good clip. By the time I’d covered the mile to the plantation, I was gasping for breath. JLI’s car was parked beside the road. He’d left the keys in the ignition, so I tried to phone him and ask if I could borrow it, but went straight to answerphone… so I did what any good friend would do under the circumstances.

I stole his car.

Straight up to the house, charged upstairs, scope to the south-east window, picked out JLI and his son on the far side of the loch, followed the direction they were looking in, and found the birds. Yay. And then back to his car, along to the end of the road, and time to ‘fess up. JLI mercifully sanguine about the whole thing. The Dotterels meanwhile were oblivious to the drama, and were beauties. 2 males, and 2 females.

090517 Dotterel 042websize

090517 Dotterel 032websize

Hey! I can see my house from here...

Pressed on and added Knot to the house yearlist before linking back up with JLI to cover some other bits of the isle. Gave Brough a good thrashing, then into Symbister and more of the same. A couple of Sparrowhawks spooking the local Starlings were notable; also Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, Redpoll; reasonable amounts of Willow Warblers; and a couple of Garden Warblers.

Back to the north end of the isle, and another good going over for the plantation and the shoreline. Gave up eventually after 10 straight hours in the field (with a welcome 20 minute drying-out and bacon-rolling break at JLI’s house). But only to spend 30 minutes scouring the shore with the scope from upstairs until I’d finally nailed the Common Sandpiper for the house yearlist. Result.

Sexy beast



A good day, but not as good as we’d anticipated it might be. JLI and I spent the morning scouring the island and becoming increasingly despondent – there were migrants, but not the deluge we’d been hoping for. A smattering of species around the isle – Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Redstarts, a few Willow Warblers, a couple of Whitethroats, and the most noticeable arrival from the previous day – reasonable numbers of Lesser Whitethroats.

The sunny and clear weather was less than perfect for delivering a fall, but was clearly getting some of the newcomers’ sap rising – lots of singing Lesser Whitethroats, and yesterday’s male Bluethroat in the plantation even managed a brief burst of song. No sign of yesterday’s Icterine Warbler, though that’s not terribly surprising given that species’ ability to dissolve never to be seen again in a matter of moments, let alone overnight. (Take last year when we gave JA a call to come and see one we’d pinned down in the plantation – he turned up within 5 minutes, and not a sniff of the Icterine could we find. Whitethroat, Willow Warbler… but no sign of the lifer JA was hoping for. Icterines are uncanny and mysterious creatures).

I came home at lunchtime half meaning to get on with planting tatties, but the lure of boosting my feeble house yearlist proved too strong, so some serious scope work ensued. Managed to add Spotted Flycatcher, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, and in the evening a Whinchat at serious range.

I did venture out though after a report of a small bird with a blue throat at Vevoe – and perhaps unsurprisingly, that turned out to be a male Bluethroat. Suitably inspired, back to the plantation and in a nearby garden yesterday’s Bluethroat fed on the the lawn like a common or garden Robin. Absolutely stunning. Finally, back home and a female Bluethroat on the compost heap – again, probably a leftover from yesterday. A good addition to the yearlist though.

And now lots of Bluethroat porn… mmm….

090516 Bluethroat 010websize

090516 Bluethroat 040websize

090516 Bluethroat 037websize

090516 Bluethroat 031websize

090516 Bluethroat 039websize

090516 Bluethroat 015websize2

Lesser Scaup joy (and more besides)

After being teased all day by JLI’s texts of migrant goodies at home, there was only one thing I could possibly do after work. Hurry home and catch up on what I was missing? Obviously not. I had a score to settle with the Loch of Benston Lesser Scaup.

The wretched thing was still on the far side of the loch, so it was a case of some good old-fashioned fieldcraft to get myself close enough to get satisfying views, take a few notes (untrendy, I know, but I’m quaint like that) and try my hand at some photos too. It took an hour and a half of stalking around the side of the loch to get within reasonable range of the drake Lesser Scaup as it fed with a couple of Tufted Duck, and to have the sun behind me. I used every available bit of contour in the surrounding fields; moved only when all the ducks had dived; and ended up on my belly amongst the sheep shit by the shore. Glamorous stuff. Worth it though…

090515 Lesser Scaup 014for web

090515 Lesser Scaup 004for web

090515 Lesser Scaup 009for web

I felt and smelt pretty sheepy by the time I got to the evening ferry, to meet my tormentor (JLI) in the ferry queue. We were both back too late to see the Rustic Bunting BM had found at Brough, but worked the plantation in the last of the evening light to score Icterine Warbler and brief views of a cracking male Bluethroat. Tomorrow could well be a good day…

Scaup woe

Dropped into Loch of Benston twice yesterday, once on my way to work, and once on the way home looking for the drake Lesser Scaup. On both occasions I didn’t have much time available to me, and after seeing nothing in the morning turning up in the afternoon to discover what was presumably the bird on the distant shore of the loch was disappointing.

To be perfectly honest, it could just as easily have been a bog-standard Scaup instead of a Lesser Scaup at that range. The pale back was about all that it had going for it to suggest something of a scaupish persuasion, nevermind the precise species. So no way of picking out anything else on the wing pattern or head shape / colour etc. Rather than be stringy, for now Lesser Scaup stays off my (metaphorical) Shetland list. May try for it again this afternoon, and make the effort to walk around the lochside to get a little closer if it’s still playing hard to get.

Finished rabbit-wiring the the new yard yesterday evening, and just need to pull my finger out now with the higher level chicken-proofing and wind-meshing. Ideally I need to get my tatties planted in the next few days, which will conflict somewhat with the current south-easterlies and the welcome promise of some accompanying rain showers. We may finally get some fresh migrants.

Some evidence of that last night, as besides a freshly arrived Swallow hawking around the hen-yard, there was another new bird for the house yearlist. In the gloom after 10pm I couldn’t be sure what I was seeing when I found something small and dark flittering around my byre – my initial thought was that it was a bat! Closer to, the ‘bat’ resolved itself into a small chat-shaped bird silhouetted against the darkening sky as it perched on a wire fence. It felt kind of redstartish… This morning, the mystery resolved itself with a fine male Black Redstart outside the byre.


In the abscence of any new American vagrants to go see (this is getting like Scilly in the good old days when if a day passed without a new Yank you felt hard done by…) I was reduced yesterday evening to walking around near home and trying my luck there. How quaint.

I gave it my own spin though, as having seen JLI’s car parked above the plantation I figured the right way to go about birding on a warm sunny evening would be with beer. We stood by the Wirlie drinking lager and putting the birding world to rights, until JLI picked out an owl flying over the brow of the hill above us – a Short-eared. Shameless house-lister that I am, I dragooned poor JLI to drive me the quarter mile back home, and from the top of the drive set to scanning over the fields. No sign at first, but a couple of minutes later it came out from behind the hill and carried on floating down over the golf course. A bona fide house tick, as well as being an unexpected addition to the house yearlist.

What with this, a pair of Eider and the first Bonxie of the year from the house (well, my first… P’s been seeing them for some time now) the house yearlist advanced to another minor landmark – 60 species. With light south-easterlies forecast from today into the weekend, I’d hope for some common migrant action to boost that a little more.

Edit#1 – Razorbill, Common Tern and Dunlin added this morning.

Franklin’s Gull

The American flavour continued up here this evening with the discovery of an adult Franklin’s Gull. Even I can feel a faint stirring for one of them… particularly when I’ve missed my usual ferry home, and have a couple of hours to kill before the next one.  So off I went to Scatsta, and there the bird was. Ridiculously easy, and an absolute beauty.

Bitter Bonxie’s Rule of Rare Gulls – the more you care about whether you see a rare gull, the more you must suffer for it

  • Ross’s Gull, Devon – bitterly cold, and dumped by girlfriend the night before.
  • Ivory Gull, Suffolk – bitterly cold (with snow showers). Got nicked for speeding on the way there.
  • Franklin’s Gull, Gloucestershire – wet and cold. Lost car keys, and needed to be recovered back home by AA.
  • “Great Black-headed Gull”, R.Humber – got tick, but of the biting kind. Somewhere you really don’t want a tick. And bird was a load of old toss too.
  • Slender-billed Gull, Kent – hot hot hot. Got sunburn, comically bad hayfever, and eaten alive by mozzies.
  • Audouin’s Gull, Kent – blazing row with wife for driving too fast to get there. And nicked for speeding again, just to prove her point.
  • Laughing Gull, Suffolk – can’t think of anything bad that happened for this one. I can’t have cared much by then.
  • Glaucous-winged Gull, a shitty estuary in Wales – 6 hours in torrential rain, no waterproofs. Didn’t see the bird. Teach me to want to see a rare gull again.

So… the Franklin’s this evening was a cakewalk – I didn’t care either way whether I saw it or not, so of course I did see it, and with no trouble at all.

090511 Franklins Gull 001

090511 Franklins Gull 003

090511 Franklins Gull 005

Wild West

Nobody likes a smart-arse, do they? But it’s hard not to say I told you so when 2 Black Ducks were found yesterday evening. Am a little surprised nothing else American was found, though it’s certainly not been for want of trying.

I decamped off-isle today and headed west to spend a few hours walking around one of my favourite “looks good for American waders and wildfowl” areas on the west side of Shetland. A massive headland, it’s studded with myriad small pools and marshy areas, and bigger lochans too – it just oozes potential. On a fine day like today, with the wind still blowing at a reasonable clip off the Atlantic, and following what has been seen recently in Shetland, I felt I was in the right place. Seeing Foula clearly on the horizon helped!

In the event, nothing doing on the rare bird front, but that didn’t really matter. It felt good to be out and looking, and every time I came across new pools or marshy bits there were scores of waders to sift through. Countless summer-plumaged Turnstones, and good numbers of Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Lapwing, Curlew, Whimbrel, Ringed Plover and Snipe, and beside one pool set back a little from the clifftop, 5 Purple Sandpipers.

Also plenty of Arctic Skuas and Terns…

Arctic Tern