22 Oct 2020

In praise of rosa rugosa

Rosa rugosa is native to eastern asia and is growing wild all over Shetland. Its dense thorny cover makes ideal cover for tired migrants and the large hips are a good food source for a number of species of warbler and finch. The fact that it has pretty flowers and large ornamental red hips makes it a commonly planted hedging plant that'll withstand all kinds of weather conditions. Its so attractive to birds that I'm planting a hedge of it in our back garden! 

A rosa bed on shetland has the same attraction to birds and birders as an iris bed. Its always worth checking and most gardens have patches or hedges of it and occasional rogue patches that have grown up in field corners - such as the patch favoured by the recent pallas's Grasshopper Warbler on Whalsay we saw recently.

Whilst waiting for the rarer warbler to make an appearance we watched numerous Blackcaps coming to feed on the large rosa hips. At one point there were probably 8-10 Blackcaps feeding in this small patch.

Elsewhere, on Yell, we watched a Hawfinch chewing its way through the hip to get to the seeds.

It's known as an invasive plant in some areas but on Shetland its role in providing food and cover for migrant birds shouldnt be underestimated.

16 Oct 2020

The disappearing Tennessee Warbler - the highs and lows

Following on from my previous post and the excitement of seeing the Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler this post is about the polar opposite feeling. 

We'd arrived on Shetland knowing there was no sign of the Tennessee Warbler but seeing one of the target birds was adequate compensation. To be honest if someone had given me the choice I'd have chosen the pallas's Grasshopper Warbler over the American wood warbler. 

After staying at the excellent Brae Hotel for the night we decided we'd go to Yell in the vain hope the Tennessee could be re-found. Whist enjoying a 'full Scottish' breakfast (like a full English but with square sausage we got news that there was an Arctic Warbler about five minutes from our hotel and on the way to the ferry terminal. With Steve still needing Arctic Warbler in the UK and refusing to travel for one as he'd ringed them in Hong Kong we called in and had great views of this little phylosc

Arriving on Yell decided to give the site at Burravoe a go for a couple of hours the day after we'd seen the locustella. No joy but it was nice to meet up with the finder, Dougie Preston, again and have a chat with him. 

Deciding to go back to Whalsay and revisit Jason's old patch we got the ferry across knowing that John had found a Red-flanked Bluetail - another formerly scarce Siberian vagrant that has now become more regular. As we arrived and drove up towards Skaw we saw John with has camera and stopped to find the Bluetail was in the Skaw plantation. Within minutes we saw it and then watched it for the next hour whilst if flitted back and to from the plantation to the quarry on the opposite side of the road.

I've seen a few of these beautiful little chats in the UK  - all have been 1st winter birds and the inly males I've seen was whilst working in Finland for a few months after leaving university. Still probably the best encounter with hte species was with the one we found and subsequently ringed on Hilbre. See here.

With Jason and Steve deciding to go and look round Jasons old patch I decided to go for another look at the Pallas's Grasshopper warbler so set off on foot. I hadn't got very far before I got a frantic call to say that, unbelievably, the Tennesee Warbler (or another) had been relocated right at the northern tip of Yell and was showing well in a thistle bed!

It would be almost dark before we'd got there and the journey involved getting the ferry off Whalsay and ten driving to the ferry terminal to get across to Yell but it was worth a try. Imagine the frustration to receive news that the bird had flown off high just as we were about to disembark on Yell. We drove to the site anyway and met up with Al, Malc & John who'd got there just in time and see the bird for around 30 seconds before it flew! 

Deciding there was a good chance  it had gone to roost we decided to come back the next morning and had an early night to ensure we got the first ferry back to Yell. Driving through Cullivoe we saw Bill Aspin pointing into a garden and stopped to hear the news that he'd seen the Tennesee Warbler five minutes ago in the garden but taken his eye off it and couldn't relocate it! Aghhhh. Despite searching the original site in the thistle bed three times in case it had flown back there and spending the remainder of our time on Shetland searching all the gardens and suitable habitat around it was never seen again. 

Our search was enlivened by a Merlin seen chasing a Lapland Bunting as I was walking the mile between the two sites and searching every garden a, ditch and  bush and a Hawfinch devouring the hips of rosa rugosa in one of the gardens in the same terrace that Bill had seen the Tennesee Warbler.

There had been an obvious influx of these large Finches overt he last couple of days with quite a few being reported. There had also been a major influx of Blue & Great Tits as well with a flock of six Blue Tits and a Great Tit in Cullivoe and several more being seen at other locations on the islands.

We were understandably despondent at having to leave but had time to call in quickly at Sumburgh head before we handed the hire car back to see a Shore Lark that had ben hanging around the lower carpark.

Even though we missed the Tennessee Warblemasde it very successful.r it was a great trip and for me personally the opportunity to finally see Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler 

8 Oct 2020

Rusty-rumped Warbler?

Rusty rumped Warbler? Never heard of it. Take a look at the digital edition of the Collins Bird Guide. They’ve replaced the splendidly evocatively named Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler with Rusty-rumped Warbler. It just doesn’t sound right. For years this rare Siberian locustella has been right up there on the radar of birders visiting Shetland where it’s a rare but just about bi-annual visitor in recent years with just 58 records up to 2018. Ultra skulking with a penchant for running rather than flying it evokes iris beds & dry stone walls on Shetland in autumn. With 58 accepted records until the end of 2018 it’s still a major rarity & many are seen for a few hours then vanish. Most of the UK records have been on Shetland with Fair isle boasting the majority.

After 13 years of spending a week birding on autumn I’d not seen one. We found an equally skulking Siberian rare locustella a few years ago in the form of a Lanceolated Warbler but never a sniff of its rarer cousin. Every locustella Warbler in autumn in Shetland is scrutinised with high intensity just incase its one of the rarer ones. The number of times we’ve had a locustella give us the run around on Fair Isle or Shetland just to find it’s just a Grasshopper Warbler! 

It was beginning to get personal. A nemesis bird. They’d either show up days before we arrived or after we’d left. This autumn there’s been at least two on Shetland. One on Unst & one on Whalsay.

A friend, Dougie Preston, found the 5th UK record of Tennessee Warbler on his local patch days after we’d returned from Bressay. After staying almost a week I cracked and used up a spare flight I’d already had booked with Loganair as not only was there a chance of the rarer Tennessee but my nemesis had made an unprecedented continued appearance in its favoured small patch of Rosa rugosa on Whalsay! 

Driving to Glasgow airport we made the decision to go straight to Whalsay if there was negative news on the Tennessee. Which is how we found ourselves getting the 3.30 ferry from Laxo......luckily we met the birds finder who told us the best places to check for the bird. Jason knew John from his time living on Whalsay and they regaled us with past birding glories whilst waiting for the ferry.

Arriving at the site we found two other birders just leaving who told us the bird was still present and showing occasionally running through the grass then disappearing in to the Rosa. John has also told us it liked getting below the dry stone wall at the top of the field

Jason waiting for the Pallas's to appear from its thorny hiding place.

After 20 minutes staring at the Rosa patch & jumping every time one of the numerous blackcaps present moved Jason decided to walk the wall whilst Steve & I watched. Suddenly Jase whistles and we saw the Pallas’s fly up in front of him and drop below the wall where it sat in the open long enough for a couple of photos before flying back over & running into the Rosa. That pattern was repeated for the next 2. 5 hrs. It would suddenly appear & run through the grass before vanishing!

Look at those tertial tips! One of the diagnostic features of Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler is the white spots on the inside web of the tertial tips. Rarely did we get a complete view of the bird like this and it was just a case of piecing the identifying features together like a jigsaw. 

Finally, after all these years, I’d seen one of the birds I used to read about as a kid. Some people have been lucky enough to see most of the Shetland ‘big five’ on a single visit - it’s taken me many years but I’ve enjoyed everyone of my trips & I still need Siberian Thrush! A nice adult male in a geo on Fair Isle before I’m 70 would do very nicely!

2 Oct 2020

Shetland trip 2020

 With our planned trip t oShetland cancelled because of Covid-19 restrictions we had to make a quick change of plans and Jase managed to find a croft for us to stay on Bressay for the week - an island I'd only visited a couple of times before but appeared to have good potential for finding stuff! 

An uneventful drive up to Glasgow from Cheshire saw us entering the surreal world of todays airline travel where masks had to be worn in the terminal unless you were eating or drinking and then on the plane until we exited the terminal to pick up our hire car at Sumburgh.

Stopping at Lerwick only to pick up some rings from Phil Harris and fill the car with provisions from the local Tesco's we soon found ourselves at the terminal for the short ferry crossing to Bressay.

Keen to stretch our legs after the long journey north we quickly unpacked the car and set off for a short exploration of the island on foot. We quickly found the first of several Yellow-browed Warblers beore heading back for some dinner.

As we did on Fetlar last year we'd bought a large bag of bird seed and spread it around the drive and gardens of the croft to try and attract a rare bunting or some migrant finches! Unfortunatley the wind direction and weather were against us this time and we mainly attracted the resident House Sparrows and Starlings with the occasional visit by some Twite and Rock Doves.

The Starlings are of the zetlandicus race and are generally a bit larger with spikier bills than the ones we see at home.

However, one morning we briefly attracted A Tree Sparrow which only hung around for less than 30 seconds before flying off up the hill towards Uphouse where we saw it again later in the morning and probably the same bird again over at Gorie.

We had mixed weather with some days virtually un-birdable because of high winds and rain but we got into a routine of heading over towards Gorie in the mornings and working our way back to the croft for lunch before searching the areas to the south and north in the afternoons. A lot of footwork for very little return! on our best day we found 5 Yellow-browed Warblers and these were by far the commonest warbler. We managed single figures of Chifchaff, Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Blackcap and Lesser Whitethoat whilst a solitary Reed Warbler was the only 'acro' we saw.  Some areas had no birds at all! 

We also found a single Redstart and Whinchat but Wheatears were still relatively common as they breed on the islands. We also had singles of Brambling and Redwing during the week to show for our efforts.

Wheatear above & below.

Red Grouse near Gorie
Redpoll in Gorie plantation

Butterwort, a carniverous plant, Gorie

Gorie plantation 

View towards Ward Hill from our croft on a typical claggy morning
Bressay marina - a good spot for otters 

Our final day saw us packing early and getting the ferry across to Lerwick and then down towards Mousa sound where we managed to see the humpback whales that had been performing to crowds most of the week. 

A great trip and really good to be out looking for stuff even though we didn't find much! 

10 Sep 2020

Wader ringing in N Wales with SCAN

Due to lockdown restrictions we haven't been able to get out much this year but special permission was obtained to attempt a catch of Ringed Plover with the purpose of colour flagging them to help monitor their movements. The permission stipulated a number of precautions including wearing of face masks when social distancing wasn't possible, using hand sanitiser every fifteen minutes and a restriction on the number of people taking part in the session.

Despite the tide not coming a far up the beach as expected we got a pretty good catch of Ringed Plover with 70+ being colour flogged. This year the flags are lime green above the knee with a red marker ring below the knee. 

The ringing team were split into two wit hone concentrating on the Ringed Plover and the other ringing and processing the Dunlin and Sanderling also caught.

Sanderling are lovely little birds close up and the juveniles are a beautiful spangled combination of monochrome with golden brown.

Sanderling are unusual in that they don't have a hind toe and only have three forward facing ones - a characteristic they share with Kittiwakes! most birds have four toes. I found out recently that the Dutch name for Sanderling translates as 'three toed sandpiper.'

All the Sanderling and Dunlin we caught were juveniles.

A successful trip and hopefully we'll be able to get out more in the autumn / winter if regualtions allow.

2 Sep 2020

Yellowhammer on Hilbre

I can't remember the exact date I last saw a Yellowhammer 'in the hand' and it's certainly a rare bird on Hilbre. Growing up in rural Suffolk in the 70's they were still a common birds wintering flocks numbering several hundred birds feeding on winter stubble. Changes in farming practices and the grubbing out of hedgerows and an obsession with keeping them 'neat' has meant numbers have reduced dramatically in many areas. The last time I handled one was at Wicken Fen on 3rd June 1978 when I ringed 3!

We are lucky to have a small number of pairs still breeding around the village where we live and we occasionally get them flying over the garden. We've yet to have one feeding in the garden but I'm hopeful it'll happen one day.

The third record for Hilbre since 2004 was found several weeks ago but proved to be very elusive. I'd had good views in the field but after going absent for several days it was caught in one of the heligoland traps. 

It was a male in heavy moult which probably explains why it has been hanging around for awhile. based on the wear on the tail feathers and un-moulted primaries it was aged as a second calendar year bird (Euring 5).

17 Aug 2020

Surprise Little Owls

 On a return trip to a local farm to ring more broods of Swallow chicks recently we decided to check one of the regularly used Little Owl boxes. This box was installed late 2013 and wasn't used in 2014 but was first used in 2015. We'd checked it earlier in the season several times but even though a Little Owl flew out of the tree on both occasions they didn't appear to have nested. The tree has a natural cavity which is open both sides so isn't predator proof and they weren't using that either. 

The landowner photographed fledged young Little Owls around 400 m away standing outside a rabbit burrow beneath a solitary oak in the middle of a field of oats in May so we assumed this was the nest box pair relocating.

Recently a Little Owl was seen flying into the nest box so we decided to check again to see if there was a late breeding attempt. At the very least we may  be able to catch the bird in the box and check to see if it was ringed as this would provide valuable re-trap data. Last year we found that the adult female nesting in the box was ringed as a youngster in the same box in 2015. See here.

Amazingly we found not one but two Little Owls roosting inside the box. One was an adult female wit ha brood patch beginning to feather over and in full primary moult and the second was a recently fledged juvenile. The adult was unringed so wasn't the same bird that nested in the box last year. Both birds were duly ringed and it'll be interesting to see what happens next year. I've already made another box to go on the solitary oak.

Above: adult female Little Owl moulting it’s primaries

This raises several intriguing questions:

Are there two territories with one pair nesting in the rabbit burrow and one somewhere near the nest box that we couldn't find? 

Or,  is there only one territory and the birds decided on a different nest location.

What happened to last years adult female? 

Since the box was first used we've ringed 15 different Little Owls - 12 young and 3 adults.

Before the box was installed we ringed 1 adult and 1 youngster in the natural nest cavity - see here

The data shows they seem to miss a year between each successful breeding attempt. 

20.06.13 1 young & 1 adult ringed in natural nest cavity in same tree

25.05.15 5 young & 1 adult ringed.

26.05.17 3 young ringed.

05.06.19 3 young & 1 adult ringed. The adult was one of the chicks ringed in 2015

10.08.20 1 young & 1 adult ringed.

In total we've ringed 13 juv and 4 adult females, either in the box or the natural cavity in the same tree, since 2013. Each time they've nested its a different female. is the male the same bird or has there been a turnover here as well?