25 Oct 2019

Fetlar, October 2019

With the sad destruction of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory earlier this year we decided to take the opportunity to visit one of the remoter Shetland Islands and made plans to stay at The Lodge in Houbie on Fetlar. Unfortunately Fred couldn't make and had to pull out at the last minute so there was only Jason, Mark & myself.

Unfortunately Loganair changed our flight so rather than flying directly from Manchester to Sumburgh were were rerouted via Inverness. When we arrived at Inverness we were told our flight was delayed until the next morning due to air traffic control restrictions at Sumburgh! The airline staff quickly sorted out accommodation for us and taxis to a nearby hotel. This meant we arrived at Sumburgh almost 15 hours alter than we should have done so didn't have any time to do any birding before having to head north to Lerwick and a big shop at Tesco's before heading for the ferry to Yell and then ultimately to Fetlar. We also brought a 25 kg bag of bird seed intending to seed the area in front of our accommodation hoping to attract in a rare bunting or migrant finches.

What a great place and a great view! With an enclosed walled garden we hoped to be able to do some ringing so I took a mist net, some rings and borrowed some mist net poles from Phil Harris & Rebecca Nason, calling in to their fabulous B & B in Lerwick on our way north.

The trip started well when, as we were waiting for a ferry from Toft, A Hoopoe flew over the car pursued by 2 Rock Pipits. Whilst waiting for the ferry we also got to meet Fetlar based birder Paul Macklin and exchanged phone numbers so we could keep in contact.

There are only a few birding hotspots on Fetlar and our first afternoon was spent exploring these areas and familiarising ourselves with the terrain. Feal Burn was within walking distance and we got into the routine of checking it early morning, lunchtime and evening!

Another hot spot was the remote farm of Peter Coutt's at Everland. We found some good birds around this area including an eastern looking Lesser Whitethroat, Redstart, Ring Ouzel and numerous thrushes including 2 Ring Ouzels.

 Above: Mark checking the dockens at Everland.
 Below: ruined house and crofts at Everland. I can't get over the straightness of that block work on a building probably 2-300 years old
Below: Eastern type Lesser Whitethroat, Everland
Below: Redstart, Everland

The weather was incredible. With heavy rain back home in Cheshire we were blessed with sunshine - apart from one day when, to use the local dialect, it was 'dreich'
Above: view from top of Feal Burn on a dreich day.

Birds arrived during the day and quite often we'd check an area in the morning to find nothing but on checking again later birds had arrived. At certain times birds were literally dropping out of the sky. On one memorable occasion we had a rare shower whilst checking Feal Burn and 8 Goldcrests spiralled down in to the shelter of the plantation.

An area near Aith known locally as the piggeries hosted up to 2 Black Redstarts for a few days - see below. Every small bit of 'habitat' attracts birds and they can be found in the least inspiring places. This was a small field churned into mud by pigs but in attracting insects the Black Redstarts found it irresistible. Drivng along the lane leading to Velzie one day a Water Rail ran out of a roadside ditch in front of the car for a few metres before dashing back in again and promptly disappeared.

On our first day we found a Hawfinch in the plantation along Feal Burn. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me and next morning it had disappeared. Luckily it reappeared in a garden at Velzie feeding on rose hips. THis ws our afternoon route. After the lunch time trip up Feal Burn and a quick bite to eat we'd head towards South Dale and Velzie, check the gardens, walk the burn and then head towards The Manse and the gardens at Tresta where the bird of the trip turned up - see here
 Below: Hooded Crow.
 Below: lichen covered fence post showing how clean the air is up here.
 Below: view across the bay to our accommodation at Houbie
 Below: Fetlar interpretive centre. We were first here in 2007 twitching a Swainsons Thrush!
We visited again a few years later for a Taiga Flycatcher.
 Below: the team from 2007. Left to right. Me, Jase, Al & Malc.

 Below: Ragged Robin, Funzie.

 Above: curious rams.
 Below: Jase inspecting the bacon

Below: one of two baby hedgehogs we found wandering around 

Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Yellow-browed Warblers were the commonest warblers we saw but on the last day Jason found a skulking 'acro' round an old croft which eventually gave itself up in the smallest of nettle patches and revealed itself to be a Reed Warbler.

We ended up with a trip list of 81 species  for Fetlar. We did twitch off island once and visited Unst to try (unsuccessfully) to catch up with a possible Stegjeners Stonechat and wit hDougie Preston who was making the trip up from Yell. We also caught up with Wirral birder Allan Conlin who was staying at his house at Haroldswick. Al & Paula have a fabulous property that they rent out, or, at certain times, run as a B & B. See Bordnanoost Lodge here

Al had found a Lapland Bunting near the house so we met him there before retiring to his comfortable conservatory for tea and biscuits whilst taking in the view across the bay which hosted both Red-throated and Black-throated Dive!

 Nearby a Coue's Arctic Redpoll had been seen wit ha small flock of Common Redpolls so we took the opportunity to catch up with it and refresh our collective memories on the current state of Redpoll taxinomony
 Above: Common Redpoll.
Below: Coue's Arctic Redpoll

 We reckon there were two different bird and I think Dougie is submitting as such.

With an early morning flight o nthe Saturday we had to leave Fetlar Friday afternoon intending to return the mist net poles to Phil & Rebecca and stay at their B & B - see Ortolan House here. Before that though we took the opportunity to do a bit of twitching and drove south towards Sumburgh to catch up with a nice male Eastern Subalpine Warbler and a Red-breasted Flycatcher!

Checking in at our accommodation we had a quick change of clothes before heading out ot the local Thai  restaurant to meet up with Al again who was heading home the Wirral on the same early morning flight we were.

A great trip and we'll certainly be back to Fetlar. After walking 10 -12 miles each day in wellies and waterproofs I was certainly fitter than when I left home.

20 Oct 2019

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

Tuesday the 10th of October 2019 will remain forever in my mind as ‘Ruby Tuesday’ – for those to young to remember it’s the title of a song by the venerable Rolling Stones. I’ve been going to Shetland every autumn since 2007 except last year when the trip was cancelled due to the combination of my father’s funeral and bad weather. For the past few years we’ve been going to Fair Isle and had booked to go again this year. The devastating fire meant we had to change our plans and as we’d always fancied going somewhere a bit more remote and had discussed Fetlar previously it appeared to fit the bill.

Arriving Friday the 10th with forecasts looking promising we were filled with enthusiasm. Our team consisted of me, Jason Atkinson and Mark Payne. The first afternoon we explored the island familiarising ourselves with the best birding spots. We go into a routine of getting up early, walking Feal Burn before breakfast then heading up to Everland and working our way back to our accommodation in Houbie and walking the burn again before lunch. In the afternoons we went the other way – working the areas around Velzie, before moving on to ‘The Manse’ (apparently now called Glebe House) and Tresta.

We’d found a few good birds – an eastern looking Lesser Whitethroat, Siberian Chiffchaff, Ring Ouzels and with lots of commoner species moving and winter thrushes piling in our expectations continued to soar that we’d find something a bit rarer.

On the day in question we’d done our usual routes and ended up at Tresta early afternoon. Just before Christmas last year I herniated a disc in my back and the recovery has been long and slow.  A few weeks before we were due to travel to Fetlar I was taken to hospital in an ambulance in the early hours as my back gave out and I couldn’t stand. Intensive physio three times a week and a first aid kit filled with anti- inflammatory’s and painkillers meant I was able to make the trip but was generally slower than the other two traipsing round in waterproofs and wellies.  As I kept reminding them, I’ve got a good few years on them both as well!  Jason had already looked in the garden of one cottage as I was still walking from the parked car. As I approached the garden of  ‘Tresta 1’  I saw a brief movement on a broken fence beneath some fuchsia bushes. Expecting a Wren I lifted my binoculars and was stunned to see a red black and white head pattern as the bird turned towards me. A male Siberian Rubythroat! Panic mode then set in as I simultaneously tried to get that all- important record shot and phone the other two at the same time. I was worried the bird would disappear before the other two saw it as they were nowhere to be seen.

I managed the record shot and blew it up on the back of my camera just to be sure I wasn’t seeing things. There it was – a male Siberian Rubythroat, although it was like playing spot the bird as the un-cropped image below shows

Mark was the first to answer his phone and came running over. I showed him the photo on the back of the camera followed by the inevitable expletive and we waited until we could get hold of Jason before slowly moving forward to check the garden. Jason still wasn’t answering his phone but I could see him and frantically started waving my arms and gesturing to come over. Eventually he saw me and came running over. ‘Whats up bud?’ he asked, followed by some good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon swear words when I told him, followed by even more when I showed him the photo on the back of my camera.  I also put the news out on the Shetland Rare Bird WhatsApp group. A tense few minutes ensued but luckily the bird was re-found and Jason could celebrate his ‘lifer’. 

Local birder, Paul Macklam was the first to arrive closely followed by Brydon Thomason of ‘Shetland Nature’ who, incredibly, had been helping his father with their sheep on the family croft nearby! The RSPB’s Martha Thomson arrived a few minutes later

The Rubythroat was getting chased out of the garden by a Robin and at one point ended up in a nettle patch by the road before flying into the back garden. It always returned to the same dark cover of the front garden and with patience gave good views as the photo’s by Jason, Brydon and Paul attest. It was calling regularly even when it wasn’t on view that gave us an indication as to where it was. 

In the excitement I’d lost my reading glasses and with my phone going ballistic I returned to the car to try and find them as  I  hadn’t a hope of reading or replying to messages without them. A bad move from a photographic point of view as the belligerent Robin chased the Rubythroat right into the path of the waiting lenses resulting in some stunning photos.

 Copyright Paul Macklam
 Copyright Brydon Thomason
Copyright Jason Atkinson

In total only seven people got to see the bird and the last I saw of it was it getting chased out of the garden of  ‘Tresta 1’ and into the garden of  ‘Tresta 3’ so we left it in peace to find somewhere to roost as dusk was now falling and the light was rapidly failing.

That night the weather changed and a front moved through. We set our alarms for 06.30 but with pouring rain and poor visibility we didn’t leave the house until gone 8.00 with the intention of going to look for the bird as we knew people were coming over for it.  At that point Paul Macklam had already texted the news out that the bird was still present, albeit briefly so we decided to leave it and check later in the day. Unfortunately the bird wasn’t seen again that day and there was no sign on subsequent days.

Unbelievably this was my third Siberain Rubythroat in the UK. All on Shetland and all males. See here and here although I seem fated not to get any descent photographs myself. The first was the Gulberswick bird in 2011, that I twitched from Cheshire, followed by the bird found by Dan Pointon in Levenwick in 2014 when we were already on Shetland.  I’m still waiting to find a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler as in 12 Shetland Autumns I’ve not had a sniff of one. In the meantime a self found Siberian Rubythroat is a nice consolation.

7 Oct 2019

Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail is a relatively recent split and there have been very few confirmed records in the UK. Shetland and the Scillies seem to be the favoured locations for this vagrant wagtail although there was one trapped and ringed at a sewage works in Colyton Devon in 2010. I was going to see it whilst staying with my parents in Somerset but the weather closed in and heavy snow meant I raced north to get home!

We missed one on Shetland by a day and another potential candidate was ruled out on the sonogram of its call - it also had a number of plumage anomalies and was eventually assigned as a far eastern race of one of the western races of Yellow Wagtail. Confused? We were.

When news broke of a possible being found at Cemlyn it ignited a spark of interest. Here was a bird that was only a few miles away on Anglesey. The next day it was re-found and heard to call with the call matching the call of Eastern Yellow Wagtail. A sound recording was needed to 100% confirm the identity but with Fred offering to pick me up we decided to go after lunch on Thursday 26th September.

High winds hampered us but we eventually got distant views of the bird as at flew up from a field and landed on a fence post. Most importantly Mark Sutton got a good sound recording that he sent off to Magnus Robb who confirmed it was a match for Eastern Yellow Wagtail.