… commenced a week ago on Friday, when John, Jono, Nick and I got the tedious bit of the drive north out of the way before midnight with a remarkably fuss-free 5 hours up to a cheap stop in Carlisle. Pulling into the carpark there, it dawned on me that we’d barely scratched the surface – still another chunky drive to Aberdeen, then a 12 hour ferry crossing, and then a bit more driving to do. Oh well… at least the Grosbeak was still there!
Saturday was far and away the quietest day of the trip birdwise, featuring some great scenery around Glen Quaiche (near Amulree) and Glen Shee – but both sites failed to give up their grouse. Well, their interesting grouse, anyway – there was certainly no shortage of Red ones. “Bird of the Day” for me wasn’t even a bird, it was the excellent number of rather cute and fluffy white Mountain Hares around Glen Shee! Oh, and breakfast near Cumbernauld was pretty awesome, too.
And so to the mighty MV Hrossey (the boat, for the uninitiated). I’ve never taken this route onto Shetland, having always flown up in the autumn to maximise birding time. However, I may be converted… it’s actually really comfortable, and given a group of four, the additional cost of a cabin is minimal (diesel fumes a no-cost option, it would appear). And of course, there were other birders to chat to, and beer that needed drinking – so it was good to meet Stef McElwee for the first time and hear about Shetland in the spring, while Justin L and Andy W were familiar faces from Norfolk, though they only showed briefly before collapsing exhausted after the monster drive north!
After a pretty sound sleep, we arrived in Lerwick in the half-light at 7.30am, and hit the road straightaway. We’d opted to take our own car across to avoid faffing about with luggage and paperwork so were first on site at North Collafirth, starting at Forsa Farm where the previous day’s grozzer report had come from. After about half an hour, and the rest of the 20-strong crowd arriving, things weren’t looking too promising so Justin took one of our CB’s back down to Greenbrae, the next plantation along. Once he’d realised that you have to press the button on the radio, and that just talking to it isn’t enough to contact people on the other end, we soon got a happy message, and very shortly afterwards Pine Grosbeak was sitting happily on my list.
Undoubtedly a pretty awesome bird, it never posed fantastically well for photos in the two hours or so that we watched it, refusing to come down low enough to get a nice angle. But who cares?! The target was safely in the bag after less than an hour’s birding, and as the weather improved steadily, first one, then another two Otters appeared down in the voe below us, apparently play-fighting on the far shoreline – brilliant!
Now we had plenty of time to enjoy some regular birding, initially with a tour around South Nesting Bay looking for divers. One Great Northern had us going for a while with a somewhat upward-pointing bill, and sunshine bleaching out the colour, but our stringing skills weren’t up to the task. We ended up with at last 15 Great Northerns and a couple of Red-throats, as well as a heard-only Shetland tick in the form of Red Grouse.
Much of the rest of the day was focussed on rare gulls, first with a 1st-winter Ring-billed at Scalloway, and then 3 Glaucous and a single Iceland at the Shetland Catch factory in Lerwick.
The range of regular Shetland birds up here was also great to watch under bright blue skies and glorious sunshine, featuring lovely Long-tailed Ducks, plenty of Black Guillemots (or Tysties, as we should call them on Shetland), Ravens and a couple of Kittiwakes.
All excellent stuff, and just before darkness started falling, we even had time to dip a Blue Tit as well… surely an impressive achievement in a UK context, and certainly a first for all of us!