Lesser Grey Shrike

Sometimes fate loves me. I was already at work in the North Mainland this morning when news broke of a Lesser Grey Shrike a couple of miles away from me. By the time I was back at the car it was lunchtime, and it seemed churlish not to go see it. I’m glad I did.

grave for the unknown bumblebee

An absolute peach of a bird, and reasonably confiding – as shrikes go, anyway. It spent its time hunting bumblebees and large flies in and around a kirkyard, using the headstones and kirkyard wall as vantage points to launch flycatching sallies – mostly fast horizontal dashes, but occasionally down onto the mown grass, and once or twice towering high up into the air above the graves.

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Finally, to cap it all it started singing  – a surprisingly sweet, jangly kind of song. I always expect shrikes to croak, or be harsh. I don’t know why… 

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Many thanks to JN for the loan of his camera – as usual, my battery failed at a critical juncture. Note to self… a spare battery and a new lens…

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Love those sweet and sour grapes

Generally speaking, I’m not one for regrets. Since leaving the south-east in 2003, there have been a few birds down there that have caused a little wince, a momentary shudder, a “bloody hell, I could have got there in time to see that…” – and then the moment passes – Trumpeter Finch; Green Heron; Black-winged Pratincole; Crested Lark… (actually, I lie about the latter species. They’re rare, but that’s about as far as their appeal goes for me). Oh, and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. I tried to tell myself “oh, they’re not that special…“, and then… then I saw the photos of the Bockhill Blue-cheeked, and oh! it hurts.

You know what? I could have got there in time to see that…

Heyho. The last few years have been more than good to me up here, and I’m not complaining. (Just feeling wistful, and not a little jealous!) And just when I needed some sour grapes to make the bee-eater easier to swallow, along to my rescue comes the good old BOU with a press release. Our 2004 Brown Shrike has been upgraded from “race undetermined” to “nominate cristatus” – which is what we thought it was at the time, so it’s nice to be right. And even nicer to be reminded, just when I was feeling a little blue (cheeked), that I’ve had some truly remarkable birds right on my doorstep here. In some cases, literally!

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Rarities like this are the icing on the cake – and lest I forget it, rarities notwithstanding, I’m lucky to live where I do. Autumn isn’t far away now… and who knows what it may bring. 😉

Cheap Collins Flower Guide

Am coming over all public-spirited here – having just got myself a copy of the Collins Flower Guide for a bargain price from Amazon, I thought I should make a bit of a fuss about it on two fronts. For starters, it’s bloody good, and am looking forward to getting out and about this weekend and coming to terms with some flowers I’ve not yet learnt. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more of a fanfare for this field guide. It’s terrific.

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And secondly, the current price on Amazon of £19.50 is good value for such a well-illustrated and comprehensive book. Especially one that’s meant to be thirty quid. So while I’m all for people supporting their local bookshops (ha! if you can find a natural history section in them…), I’m even more for encouraging people to buy an affordable book, get out there in the field, and look at some plants.

And on the subject of getting out in the  field, I did just that last night. A scan from the house revealed a wader picking around on the far shore of North Loch, so I took the dingos for a walk to get a closer look. Result – my first non-flyover Greenshank for the area. Suitably inspired, I took some dingy photos of it. And then some golfers came over the hill behind it and started firing balls at the 18th green, so it opted for the lesser of disturbance evils and went to hang out with the mob of Oystercatchers on the side of the loch furthest from the golf course. Personally, I’d have stuck with the golfers. The sound of Oystercatchers en masse is right up there with massed fiddles for me.

Q – what’s the best thing you can do with some fiddles?

Greenshank doing standing

Greenshank doing being flushed

A – use them as kindling for an accordion fire.

Also a Dunlin there – completely fearless, and actually flew across the loch to get a better look at me. They’re mad little fellas, Dunlins; they seem so sure of themselves.


come and have a go if you think you're hard enough

Otter spotter

Finished a thoroughly enjoyable 3 day tour yesterday – building on the spectacular start of Killer Whales at sea, we found 5 (yes, five… count ’em!) Otters the following day – and particularly enjoyed sitting in the sunshine eating our lunch while these 2 characters fished for their lunch a few metres offshore, and watched us watching them:

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Other highlights included several encounters with Crossbills, including a flock of 20 birds we found on roadside wires, and then feeding in amongst the thistles beneath. No wing-barred individuals in amongst them, just to prove my speculative theory entirely wrong.

More underwhelming from a visitor’s perspective, but of note as a midsummer record were a pair of Woodpigeons in Nesting. Migrants?

Hunting with the Killer Whales

Another utterly mindblowing encounter today with Killer Whales… leading a Shetland Wildlife group, we’d no sooner got on our first boat trip of the weekend than we were watching a pod of 4 Killer Whales hunting slowly along the Bressay coast. With some excellent fieldcraft from the Seabirds & Seals crew, our boat was soon positioned up ahead of them, and we watched them as they came towards us (and some nearby seals hauled out on the rocks). Oblivious to us, they passed us by.



We repeated the flanking manoeuvre over and over again, giving them a wide berth before waiting quietly for them to come to us. Fabulous views every time.


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Two particularly stunning moments amongst all this – firstly when we could see a Grey Seal in the water watching us, oblivious to the whales coming around the corner a little way away. They dived, surfaced right next to the seal, which promptly dived in turn, closely followed by them. No evidence of a kill though came to the surface.

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The second moment was especially good – and the hairs go up on the back of my neck as I recall this and put it on screen. The four of them came straight at us, dived at the last possible moment, and stayed down for a while. Up on the top of boat, I could see them moving beneath the water – circling the boat, and in turn rolling onto their sides underwater to look up at us. They then surfaced on the other side of the boat to their initial dive, and carried on down the coast, their curiosity seemingly satisfied.

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My party were, needless to say, blown away. 😉

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Wing-barred Crossbills

Have been meaning to sift through my photos of last week’s Crossbills for a few days now, and only got around to it last night, spurred on after reading the Loxia Fantastica blog – well worth a read for some informed comment on crossbills in general, and the current wing-barred Crossbills that are cropping up amongst the irruptive hordes here and there at the moment in particular: http://pinemuncher.blogspot.com/

So without further ado, here are some grainy photos of 3 birds that showed faint wing-bars from my flock of 27 Crossbills:

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Not pulse-quickening stuff, I grant you – there have been individuals here in Shetland in recent days with much more extensive markings – check out DS’s picture of a male on the Fair Isle Bird Observatory site: http://www.fairislebirdobs.co.uk/Sightings/2009/Deryk_Shaw/DSCN2648edit.jpg Is it just me or are there more wing-barred individuals amongst this year’s irruption than usual?

On a not entirely unrelated tangent, I’m now kitted out with a super-posh shotgun microphone and digital recording thingy, courtesy of a work colleague who normally uses such things in his recording studio. Inevitably, of my flock of  Crossbills there has been no sign ever since he lent me the equipment. Still, will be out and about in the isles this weekend, so I may yet get a chance to record some and see what call they’re giving. I hear that cat casualties are being collected for deuterium level analysis, so for the sake of the bigger picture we may get some clues in due course where this lot came from.

Some more recent Killer Whale photos

Am making no apologies for posting more photos of our recent Killer Whales – can you ever have enough cetaceans? I think not. These ones courtesy of DB – thank you, David.

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Another day, some more White-sided Dolphins

How many people can watch White-sided Dolphins from the comfort of their desk at work? I can. Or at least, this morning I could. It’s not an everyday occurence, even up here where the usual rules about sea mammal sightings being few and far between don’t really apply.

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Got a phone call just as I was getting to grips with the first coffee of the day to say there was a pod of White-sided Dolphins heading north through Lerwick harbour. A quick look out of the window and there they were, breaching with the usual White-sided Dolphin energy and vigour. Visible for about 5 minutes before moving south and away from us, heading right up to the shore of Bressay.

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Managed some record shots, but can’t wait to see the photos coming off Dunter III – the Seabirds and Seals tour boat had the pod pass right beside them, to the evident delight of their passengers. I’ll be out with them again this Saturday, so fingers crossed for reasonable weather and some cetaceans.

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Killer Whale photo update

A very quiet weekend – Crossbills still lobbing around the place, and settling in to roost in the plantation yesterday evening as I drove past on my way to play pool with JLI. Apart from them, not much of note occuring. Lapwings now forming loose flocks of a dozen or so birds, and young Oystercatchers now feeding on the lawn outside the kitchen window. I got some crofty stuff done, most important task being the systematic squishing of Large White eggs and caterpillars on those of my cabbages that aren’t under Enviromesh. The last thing I want are those being reduced to skeletons before the autumn.

A couple of Killer Whale photos from a fortnight ago, courtesy of GH – thanks, Gary.


In case you’re wondering, the guy standing in the cage at the front of the rib is not some mentalist trying to catch 7 tons of bull Killer Whale in a shrimp net. Though it does look that way. The truth is far more proasic – he’s waiting to net some Killer Whale droppings. Yes dear reader, Shetland cares so much about it’s marine environment that responsible Killer Whale owners are required to clean up after their pets. What at first glance appears to be a rockpooling net is in fact a state of the art pooper scooper.

we need a bigger boat

There I was thinking that the life of a Killer Whale researcher looked pretty damn glamorous – fast boats, close encounters with large marine predators… and all the meantime the poor sods are charging around collecting Killer Whale shit to analyse what the big dolphins have been eating. In the case of this particular pod, I’m guessing seals mainly. With the occasional duck appetiser – we watched the pod cruise around a voe that afternoon, leaving a pair of distressed adult Shelducks on the sea with a couple of young, where before they’d had nearly ten.

If you’re bored of Crossbills, you’re bored of life

Walked the dingos down to the plantation yesterday evening, and took the camera with me this time expecting lots of hot loxia action. Nothing doing. Carried on to Vevoe, and then back again. Still no loxia. Sat there for a while, and then thought of the million and one things I could be doing on the croft, and with a pang of conscience started back to the road and home.

Cue the sound of multiple Crossbills chip-chipping as they came in off the hill and landed behind me in the plantation. Sneaky. Back I went, and got a few photos. On reflection, I think I may have a cunning business plan involving irruptive Crossbills – see how they look so pretty all perched there in a conifer?

Crossbills doing bauble

Almost like Christmas tree decorations… mwahaha! You could stuff them and use wire through the legs to attach them to branches. Goldcrests in flight could dangle from thread as baubles. Hehe. The profit-making possibilities of Siberian vagrants would be substantial.


Just as I was loading my trusty shotgun with bird powder, a Great Black-backed Gull came low over the plantation, scaring my early retirement plans into panicked flight. Woe.


There were 27 of them, though they’re not all in the above photo. You’ll have to trust me on this. I have no stuffed Crossbills in the decoration box. Yet… 😉