9 Oct 2014

Shetland day 7. Locustella madness

The penultimate day of our trip. With gale force S & SE easterly winds for the last few days surely there was something big to find out there? With rain showers still  swirling around us and Sean & Al electing to stay in the warmth it was left to me, Mark & Chris to get togged up and go out looking for birds. First stop was Helendale, in Lerwick, where we searched the mature gardens for new migrants. It soon became obvious that there had been a major movement of Robins, Warblers and Thrushes during the night. They were everywhere! I commented to Chris & Mark that  I thought we were going to find something good today.............

With the weather improving though still very windy we returned to the apartment to pick up Al & Sean. Deciding  heading south was a good bet and checked areas in Hoswick, Scalloway and Channerwick adding yet more Yellow-browed Warblers and another Barred Warbler to the list.

Pinkfooted Geese, Qunedale

 I love Quendale and wading through the burn and iris beds. It typifies what Shetland birding is all about. Getting your wellies on and staggering through swampy iris beds looking for good birds. Anyway, that's where we ended up. Chris  & I amp;  elected for the hard slog up the burn whilst the others checked the lower burn and around the farm. Already it was obvious new birds had arrived - a juvenile Yellow Wagtail was fresh in as was a Garden Warbler and Whinchat. As we walked the iris beds and burn uphill good numbers of commoner migrants such as Blackcap, Chiffchaff,  Robins, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds and Redwings materialised in front of us.  With the two of us walking in parallel one each side of the burn we were about 2/3 way up towards the quarry when Chris yelled 'what the f**k was that, what the f**k was that'. All I could see was a Redwing that landed miles away on the edge of  a fence line but he was pointing further forward to an iris bed just out of my line of sight.

Walking slowly forward a small dark looking warbler flushed in front of us and flew low for another few metres before dropping into the iris beds again. This was looking good!!! I think at this stage both of us were fully adrenalined up and had our suspicions. Once again the bird was flushed and we both yelled out 'its a locustella'  - on Shetland that means its probably rare - either a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler or Lanceolated Warbler. Both birds are hard to connect with even on Shetland and in 8 years of coming every autumn I'd still not seen either Another move forward another flush - this time the bird streaked off low and into a rabbit burrow before heading back into the irises. By now we knew we needed help. Our suspicions were Palla's Grasshopper Warbler based on the dark tail but I had my nagging doubts about the size - it looked smaller than the Grasshopper Warblers I'm used to seeing on Hilbre! In reality there is only 1 cm difference between the two birds with Lanceolated being the smallest so trying to assess size was probably pointless. With 35-40 mile gusts of wind trying to pin this down was going to be a nightmare. My phone record shows it was 16.28 when I rang mark and told him to get the others up here as soon as they could as Chris & I'd found a locustella, possibly a PG Tips (the birders  acronym for Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler). Chris & I knew where the bird had last been seen to fly into an iris bed but we also knew locustella's run like little feathered mice. Frustratingly I looked through the binoculars down towards Quendale mill and could see the others dawdling along without a care in the world. With the light already fading what were they playing at? Another call to Mark had a comical affect as suddenly they started moving at twice the speed. Mark had misheard what I'd said and thought we'd found an Olive-backed Pipit. I think he needs to get his ears syringed! Once the Chinese whispers had been overcome and he got the full message there was a dramatic increase in urgency.

Spreading out we walked the iris birds each side of the burn and once again the bird flew off in front of us, keeping low and dropping either into the irises or into the long grass and scurrying away. This was going to be very hard work. Realising the best thing to do was try and get photo's and then establish the identification from those rather than the other way around Al told Chris to concentrate on  to get some shots. The bird perched up in view in the long grass briefly allowing us all to get binoculars on it for an instant and for Chris to rattle off a few shots. In that instant I thought it was a Lancelated Warbler and voiced that opinion but the combination of seemingly all dark tail and undertail coverts with no spots seemed to point towards Pallas's.  By now we'd rung RBA and the news had gone out so we waited for other birders to arrive in  the hope reinforcements would help clinch the identification. With a few more bodies and the light fading fast we saw the bird in flight several more times before it flew into the quarry. We then decided to leave it as it was almost dark and hopefully it would roost overnight. The general consensus from those that had seen it was Palla's Grasshopper Warbler..................

With Sean, Al and Mark going to the pub for s couple of pints with Fearn, who met us in Tesco's car park, Chris  & I returned to the Decca. After a shower I wrote three pages of notes on what I'd seen before we looked at the photo's. It was only when we reviewed the photos' Chris had managed to get with Fred Fearn that we realised we'd made a mistake. We'd made the mistake of trying to match the features to fit our preconceived ideas (and everyone else s) of what species we thought it was rather than looking at it with an open mind. Fred got us doing that...........In retrospect the head pattern screamed Lanceolated Warbler and we realised the dark tail was  due to the bird being extremely wet. Similarly the undertail coverts were also wet and even though the bird appeared 'capped'  with a supercillium the head pattern wasn't contrasting enough for Pallas's Grasshopper ! A late night ensued as we downed a few beers and put photo's up on bird forum and twitter for people to comment. My mobile phone was ringing with friends on Shetland wanting updates and directions. The general consensus was Lanceolated Warbler and an email conversation with local expert Paul Harvey confirmed it. Chris's final photo nailed it. Only Lancie has faint streaks on the throat. We'd found a Lanceolated Warbler!!!!! A bird I'd been waiting to see for years and we'd found it ourselves. I couldn't sleep that night at all. Tomorrow was a our last day....

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