Monday, 24 October 2016

Shetland, 9th-16th October 2016

 Any regular readers of this blog will know I mainly post updates of my local birding around Shalford Water Meadows along with occasional forays to Leith Hill and elsewhere in Surrey and the south of England. Well, I've just recently been on a fantastic birding trip rather further north, or 771 miles north to be more precise, to Shetland, and I thought it only fitting I do a little trip report on here. This is just my own perspective on an incredible week, for the full trip list and her own take on the trip see Amy's blog or watch Sean's great videos here and here.

 9th October

Our epic journey began at 5am when Sean Foote, Amy Robjohns, Ed Stubbs and I set off from my house in Chilworth. We'd all been eagerly following the bird news from Shetland in the run up to our trip and on the drive up we excitedly discussed some of the species we might see. It was worth the early start as the Sunday morning traffic was favourable and we made good time, arriving in Aberdeen a little after lunchtime, giving us over an hour before we needed to check in for our ferry. 
Aberdeen Harbour
We headed to Girdle Ness on the southern side of the harbour where Sean and Amy almost immediately caught sight of a large cetacean as we got out of the car. The animal in question revealed itself a couple more times, enough to confirm its identity as the Humpback Whale that had been lingering in the area for a while. A first for all four of us in UK waters, and what a start to the holiday! We also enjoyed good views of Harbour Porpoise here and brief views of Bottlenose Dolphin further out. A scan of the allotments and vegetation near the harbour produced a few Chiffchaff and Goldcrest while out on the water there were a couple of Goosander plus a nice selection of common waders on the shoreline.

As we strolled leisurely back to the car the news broke of the Siberian Accentor on Shetland Mainland. That ferry couldn't go quick enough. The crossing was remarkably calm and we had enough daylight for an hour or so's birding from the top deck. Guillemots and Razorbills were all over the place, often sitting on the sea until the last moment when the ship passed right by them. Gannets were equally numerous, as were Kittiwakes, and we also had fly-pasts from Manx Shearwater, Puffin and two Great Skuas, the latter typically terrorising the gulls. As the sun set we watched as huge skeins of geese, presumably Pink-footed, flew across Aberdeenshire in the distance.

10th October

We awoke to similarly calm and fine weather as we approached Lerwick and, after racking up a few early Shetland ticks from the upper deck of the ferry including Black Guillemot, Hooded Crow and Kittiwake, we hit the A970 with only one bird in our sights. Sean expertly navigated us to the quarry near Scousburgh where, less than half an hour after making shore, we were watching the first recorded Siberian Accentor on British soil. Madness!
 The bird put on a great show, seemingly utterly oblivious as a constant stream of taxis and hire cars brought ever more birders from the airport to gather around the edges of this remote little quarry.
After we'd all had our fill of the Accentor we decided to check out our accommodation for the week: Braeview in Papil, West Burra. Not an area of Shetland many birders venture to, it seems, but it turned out to be a fantastic choice by Amy as the first half hour or so of birding from the cottage garden yielded Richard's Pipit and the first of many Yellow-browed Warbler we'd see during the week, the former lingering in the area for several days.
Braeview, our home for the week
Exploring what would become our own little local patch away from home for the week we stopped by a promisingly well-vegetated garden just a few houses down from our cottage. One of the first birds to appear from the undergrowth was a Bluethroat! 'Can this place get any better?' I thought to myself.
After stocking up on a few essentials for the week in Lerwick we headed to nearby Scalloway to catch up with the juvenile Rose-coloured Starling which showed very well in gardens although never quite well enough for me to get a photo! From there we headed back down the A970 to see the Buff-breasted Sandpiper that had been reported in fields by the roadside. It duly showed very well among the Golden Plover and Mipits, along with our first Wheatear of the trip.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
 Next stop was Hillwell where an Ortolan Bunting had been reported, but before we could even get out of the car Amy's pager went off: Black-faced Bunting on Bressay! Without hesitation we headed straight back to Lerwick and onto the next ferry which appeared to be almost exclusively occupied by birders, and we disembarked in a convoy of vehicles all headed for the farm at Gunnista where the bird had been reported. There were already lots of birders present and right from the start it was clear this was going to be a harder twitch than the day's run of luck thus far had led us to expect. Eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing the bird was flushed from near a manure heap and gave brief flight views, thankfully just in time as the light was fading. What an amazing first day on Shetland!

11th October

Another beautiful morning and, as would become our daily routine, we headed out for a quick post-breakfast look around Papil which produced a single Yellow-browed Warbler, four Brambling, two flyover Whooper Swans plus the friendly local Richard's Pipit again. As we tried to pin the Richard's down we flushed another Pipit a couple of times with a distinctive 'spizz!' flight call. After listening to some recordings we realised it was surely an Olive-backed Pipit! We unfortunately didn't get more than brief flight views to confirm the ID 100% but thankfully we enjoyed superb views of another individual later in the week. It was a bit of a day of frustrations as we also had just brief views of an Otter out in the voe at Papil plus a probable Eastern Yellow Wagtail over the village later in the day.
A view across Papil
 Based on pager reports of Red-flanked Bluetail and two Little Buntings we decided to make Dale of Walls our first destination of the day. En route we added new species to the trip list in the form of four Scaup on a loch by the Bridge of Walls and a Short-eared Owl which almost flew right over my car a little further down the road! At Dale of Walls itself we quickly connected with the two Little Buntings by the farm buildings but unfortunately couldn't find the reported Bluetail along the track to the beach, although it was nice to get our first raptor of the trip - a Kestrel.
 Back at the farm a couple of other birders tipped us off about a Red-breasted Flycatcher at a plantation just up the road so we headed straight there and easily found the bird among the Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests and Robins. I was consistently amazed during our trip how many birds one area of bushes or trees harboured; clearly the ratio of birds to vegetation is heavily weighted in birders' favour!
Red-breasted Flycatcher - rubbish at Hide and Seek
 In the afternoon we headed south again back to the Hillwell area to try and catch up with the Ortolan Bunting but also the Short-toed Lark which had been seen earlier in the day. We soon caught up with the Ortolan at nearby Brake, along with a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers but unfortunately the Lark was nowhere to be seen.
Ortolan Bunting

 12th October

Just a quick look round the Papil 'patch' this morning as we had a busy day ahead, and one that would only get busier! The Richard's Pipit was still present in the field immediately adjacent to our cottage and as we headed down the road a Bonxie flew over. Down at 'Sean's Shrubbery' (the name given by one of the locals to the most densely vegetated garden in the village, and which of course stuck for the rest of the week) we found another four Brambling but not a great deal else so we hit the road. En route I had to chuckle at the thought of Dick's Pipit, Bonxie and Brambling being a quiet patch day anywhere other than Shetland!
Richard's Pipit
 First stop of the day was Hoswick where we dipped Red-flanked Bluetail for the second time. Undeterred, we headed south to check out the Loch of Spiggie which we found to be chock-full of waterbirds including several new species for the trip list: two Slavonian Grebe, Little Grebe, Common Scoter, Goldeneye and three Long-tailed Ducks plus a Scaup and plenty of Whooper Swans. Wandering across the dunes to the beach we also added Great Northern Diver to the trip list with four very fine summer plumage individuals on the sea here.
My homage to Amy's classic 'red arrow' record shots
Whooper Swan and Goldeneye, Loch of Spiggie

The beach at Spiggie
 We then headed down to the Pool of Virkie near Sumburgh Airport, hoping to add some more waders to our trip list. Sure enough, we found plenty of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, a few Bar-tailed Godwits plus a group of Shelduck. A call overhead caught our attention and we looked up to see a Wagtail flying north, sounding very much like the bird we'd had over Papil the day before - presumably the probable Eastern Yellow Wagtail reported in a field just up the road a little while later.
Our first visit to Sumburgh Head of the week was a fairly brief affair - just long enough to enjoy a bit of lunch and very close views of Fulmars on the cliffs and tired Goldcrests looking very out of place foraging among the grass and buildings.

Before long news came through of an Arctic Warbler up on Unst. It was already early afternoon at this point so we knew we had to act fast. A couple of hours and a couple of ferry rides later though and we were in Baltasound and, after initially parking up at the wrong location, we soon joined a small crowd of birders in a walled garden behind the health centre enjoying superb views of the Arctic Warbler in perfect light.
Arctic Warbler, Baltasound
 We decided to make use of the remaining daylight and headed right up to Skaw, the most northerly settlement in Britain, to look for the reported Waxwing. No joy but we did add Merlin to the trip list.
Chiffchaff and Wheatear, Skaw
  Our last stop on Unst was Clingera near the old airport where a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll had been reported. Unfortunately we dipped this bird as well but did see yet another YBW plus our first and only Lesser Whitethroat of the week.
Clingera, Unst

13th October

We awoke today to rather more the kind of weather we'd expected from Shetland - grey and drizzly with a brisk south-easterly wind. While we waited for news on what the weather had brought down with it we decided to head to the Loch of Hillwell following reports of a Pallid Harrier showing well there the previous evening - a lifer for Amy and I. In fact, after trying unsuccessfully to see the species in Sussex, Essex and Surrey in the past, I think it would be fair to say it's my most-dipped bird! Sadly this morning's vigil in the cold wind would prove equally fruitless although Ed managed to jam a sneaky glimpse of it from a different angle, but sadly it never showed for the rest of us.
Undeterred, we made our way back down towards Sumburgh to explore this area a bit more. A walk along the shoreline at Grutness saw us add Pink-footed Goose to the Shetland list with one individual looking rather lost in a field here - surprisingly the only one we saw on Shetland all week. Out on the sea there were plenty of Black Guillemots, a few Goldeneye and a Red-throated Diver.
Pink-footed Goose
Rock Pipit
 Walking back to the car Amy's pager sounded again - Pallas's Warbler at South Collafirth! An hour or so later and we were enjoying lovely views of the bird which was associating with at least three YBWs in a little plantation, although always rather too mobile and distant for photos. Here we also added Chaffinch to the trip list; surprisingly one of only a handful we would see all week.
Heading south again Sean suggested we have a look at some plantations in the Weisdale area which had caught his eye on the OS maps he'd bought on the ferry. Parking up at Kergord we were amazed to see actual fully-grown trees. Surely there had to be some goodies lurking in here?!
Kergord. Photo: Amy Robjohns
 The first new bird for the trip here was a Grey Wagtail lurking in the garden of the main house, while the various other plantations in the locality were teeming with thrushes, a Brambling and at least three Yellow-broweds including a very dull-looking one which we unfortunately never heard call - possible Hume's? This place looked really good and we vowed to revisit.
With a couple of hours of daylight remaining we voted to head back to Hillwell to try and see the Pallid before it flew to roost. As we pulled up on the sharp bend at Ringasta overlooking the Loch of Hillwell we found the wind still howling. It didn't look overly promising. Ed and I stayed put while Sean and Amy drove a little further down the road to get a different vantage point. After a few minutes Ed drew my attention to something nearby - a small, dusky bird scuttling around on the fence in a way we'd seen several Chiffchaffs do during the week, but it was clear this was no Chiff. It flicked its tail and revealed white underneath. RB Fly? It just didn't look right. We called Sean and Amy back over but by the time they arrived the bird had vanished. Luckily, Ed got some record shots and as various other birders passed and asked about the Pallid we showed them. All seemed a little puzzled but one group in particular seemed very interested and joined us trying to relocate the bird. Before last light we managed a few more fleeting glimpses and some of the guys got some more photos which they subsequently told Ed 'supported Taiga Flycatcher ID'. Wow. Stuff the Pallid Harrier, that really would be a mega! We spent the evening pondering over field guides and ID videos. The general consensus from all who've seen the pics seems to be Taiga so we shall have to wait and see if the evidence is enough to convince BBRC.
Flycatcher sp (probable Taiga), Ringasta. Photo: Ed Stubbs

14th October

As usual we hit our Papil patch again first thing which proved productive as a few Kittiwakes feeding out in the voe were a patch tick while a Hawfinch which Sean picked up flying low over the rooftops was a new species for the trip!
Hooded Crow
 Our first stop today was a return visit to the Weisdale/Kergord area to check those plantations again. The wind had really got up now so we figured birds could well be sheltering inside. We started in the southernmost plantation which was clearly teeming with birds again. Lots of Chiffchaffs were flitting about including some Siberian types. Sean and Amy went into the plantation while Ed and I kept watch from the outside. After a few minutes Sean shouted something from inside: 'Arctic Warbler!' Ed and I dived over the fence but unfortunately the bird wasn't seen again. Amazing though that we'd driven all the way up to Unst to see one the day before, possibly even the same bird. That's birding! The other plantations were rather quiet aside from another Hawfinch, a single YBW and a mixed flock of Brambling and Redpoll, the latter a rather frustrating one for us as we knew Mealy, Arctic and Hornemann's Arctic had all been seen on Shetland recently, but all we got all week were flyovers and fleeting glimpses!
From here we headed back down to Ringasta to have a look for 'our' Flycatcher. No sign although we did see another Merlin and also added Lesser Black-backed Gull to the trip list. It later transpired that several birders including Hugh Harrop had been present at first light but had also had no joy locating the probable Taiga Fly. Heading further down the A970 we decided to check out a beach between the airport and the hotel. Right away we saw a group of Long-tailed Ducks flying around close in. Our first Barnacle Geese of the week came in off the sea while another Great Northern Diver was out on the sea. Sean and Ed briefly thought they'd heard Long-tailed Tit as we approached a garden near the end of the beach but quickly dismissed it. Clearly they weren't imagining it though as a little while later news of two Northern Long-tailed Tits in the exact same area came through on the pager!
Barnacle Geese
Beach at Scatness
 Heading back up the road to Quendale we paused to take in the impressive sight of over a hundred Brambling on the fence by the roadside before continuing down to the mill where a Lapland Bunting had been reported. We found a group of birders down here all hastily heading for their vehicles who informed us of a Pied Wheatear at Scatness. Back in the car and a short while later we were enjoying great views of the bird which was remarkably confiding as it hopped to and from the sea wall, occasionally to within a few metres of us.
Pied Wheatear
 As we watched the Wheatear, more Barnacle Geese came in off the sea while close in I noticed a female Common Scoter. A little later on a scour of the rocks on the beach yielded a single Purple Sandpiper. We tried Quendale again for the Lapland but without any luck so decided to try Loch of Spiggie at dusk as we'd heard the Pallid Harrier sometimes roosts there. Surprise surprise, no luck, although we did find our only Coot of the whole trip - silver linings and all that!
Whooper Swans at Spiggie

15th October

Our final day on Shetland and the weather had by now deteriorated considerably since the start of the week. A quick last look around our patch produced the usual suspects again plus a trip tick Ring Ouzel in Sean's Shrubbery and at least three Kittiwakes over the voe.
 Weisdale was calling us again so we headed up there for a final rummage through the plantations, the first couple of which yielded little of note on the inside but Sean and Ed picked up first a Sparrowhawk circling a little way off, closely followed by a Peregrine which was hounding the local Starlings. The third plantation always looked the most promising when we first 'discovered' this area earlier in the week. Today it produced first a Hawfinch which flew off towards another plantation and then a Pipit which appeared in a tree right on the edge in front of where Ed and I were stood. One of those moments in birding where you mentally flick through all the pages of all the field guides you've ever read. 'I think that's an OBP', I said, or words to that effect. The bird then led us a merry dance for a couple of minutes, darting from bush to bush, from cover to full view, eventually showing very well for Sean and Amy who were in the middle of the plantation. Our second self-found OBP of the week, and nice to get some decent views of one at last.
Olive-backed Pipit, Weisdale. Photo: Amy Robjohns
 We were checking out the trees and garden by the main house at Kergord when another birder informed us of a Dusky Warbler down at Quendale. As we deliberated whether to go for it news came through of a Siberian Stonechat down at Toab near Sumburgh so we decided to go for that instead, only to find that, not for the first time, the directions were not terribly clear. Frustrating, although Sean did find a Lapland Bunting which was a nice consolation!
At this point we were wondering what to do with our last couple of hours on Shetland when the pager beeped again - Red-flanked Bluetail at Kergord. We'd just been there this morning! A bird we'd dipped a couple of times already this week - we had to end on a high, didn't we? We arrived back on familiar territory to find a number of birders present, mixed in with some rather confused-looking locals/non-birding tourists wondering what was going on. Evidently the bird had been seen near the big house but then disappeared into the largest plantation. It was raining steadily now and we were glad of the cover beneath the trees, although the light was pretty shocking. After a while the bird did show, on a brash pile next to a Robin for comparison, although hardly what you'd call crippling views. Still, a very welcome addition to mine and others' life lists and a pretty decent way to end a brilliant week!

16th October

After a very uncomfortable twelve hour return ferry - I did joke we'd used up all our luck with the mill pond conditions on the outward journey! - we docked in Aberdeen at 7am and headed for home. Not a huge amount to report from the drive home really aside from a drake Goosander low over the car as we drove through Aberdeen and good numbers of Pink-footed Geese from the motorway (so that's where they all were!) but to be honest not much could top the seven days' birding we'd just had. A fantastic, memory-filled trip - thanks Sean, Ed and Amy for the company and Shetland for the birds and the scenery. I cannot wait to go back.
Four very happy birders!