29 Oct 2020

Colour ring sightings off Hilbre

 A pretty grim day, weather wise, saw me driving across to Hilbre for a couple of hours as the tide ebbed. There'd been a notable increase in winter wader numbers and several Grey Plover were feeding along the edge of the gutter fairly close to the vehicle track.

Checking them, as I always do, for colour flags or colour rings, I came across a bird we'd ringed at Altcar in march 2019 with the SCAN ringing group! See here for a report on that trip. 

Littler is known about Grey Plover and the catch we made on that day was the biggest for many years. They breed in the arctic and may winter in Africa or Southern Europe. Remarkably we've had a number of sightings from the birds we marked that day which all helps towards our understanding of their movements and helps towards future conservation efforts. Although I didn't get a photo of the bird in the hand I did have a photo, on my phone, of AL still on the string of flags to be used! 

Brent Goose numbers are building up and we get a number of colour ringed birds most winters so I checked the flock and found this bird that was ringed on the breeding grounds in Arctic Canada and first seen off Hilbre in December 2019. Its amazing to think this bird has flown the best part of 7,000 miles since it was last on Hilbre! 3,500 miles to its Arctic breeding grounds and 3,500 miles back to Hilbre.

Most winters we get a couple of Dark-bellied Brent Geese and I found a group of three among the Pale-bellied. It was only when I checked the photos later I realised one had a metal ring! It'll be an interesting winter project to try and read this ring and find out the history of this bird.

So, no birds ringed but an interesting and worthwhile trip. 

Below: Storm brewing over the north of Hilbre looking towards the old lifeboat station.

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!