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!

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