Monday 4 October 2010

A manic end to the trip!

Wow! What a couple of days birding!

Since I last updated the blog, I've seen A LOT! On a remarkably calm Saturday morning, after the mother of all storms overnight, we went to Kergord first thing, hoping for some exotic storm driven waif. A Hawfinch was an enjoyable find early on, and then several yellow-broweds and a Pied Fly flitted around us, but the Big One is probably still in there somewhere.

From here, we headed to Channerwick. Keen students of bird news services may guess what happened next... I found a small, pale hippolais warbler. Clearly a Booted or Sykes, I rang a couple of people to help try and sort out which one we'd got. But for the following four hours, it steadfastly refused to play ball, never perching up to give decent views or photo opps to Dad and I, nor a couple of local birders. I didn't ever get a clear nor prolonged view of the head to form an opinion on the specific id. According to some others who arrived as we gave up, it had been there since Wednesday! Yesterday it was reported again as a Booted, but today it's been MEGA -alerted as a Sykes! No idea who by or why, but I'd love to see some pics...

After that, we headed down towards Sumburgh to use the last hour's daylight on a Radde's Warbler... We were just passing Levenwick when Jono started flashing his lights in the bar behind, and the phone rang: "Swainsons at Levenwick". Bloody hell... Time for a swift U turn! The thrush had departed the small quarry where it had been found, but with daylight fading, surely it couldn't have gone far? I wandered up the hillside to do my bit for the search, until it got relocated in a densely vegetated garden. After a nerve wracking wait (while all the rest of the guys told me about their views and I inwardly cursed), it reappeared, first on the deck, then giving fantastic flight views showing the Catharus underwing as it hovered. Superb!

Next day, we took a bit of a punt, and went over to Skerries, lures by a good list of rare and scarce birds. Our 'want' lists varied, but there was at least one new bird in the offing for most of us. Personally I was hoping for two birds to stick : a Black-headed Bunting, and the unmentionable pipit.

The 90s minute crossing was relatively uneventful, in terms of birds and seasickness, but within 10 minutes of getting onto the island, we were watching a Citrine Wagtail. As pictures will hopefully reveal in a day or two, this was a remarkably dark individual, appearing almost black and white with a dark mantle. The wraparound ear coverts, clear wing bars and entirely dark bill were as expected though, while the call was also interesting to hear... Barely distinguishable from Yellow Wag, perhaps just slightly more buzzy or frothy?

From here, a short walk over the bridge and onto the western island took us to the graveyard, where the bunting was present and showing well - my fourth new bird for the trip. Continuing on towards the marsh, I quickly found the reported Red-breasted Flycatcher, but we were disappointed to see it appeared to have a damaged right wing. It seemed to be feeding ok, picking insects from tussocky grass, but clearly couldn't get more than a foot off the ground. At the end of the runway, the Short-toed Lark showed fairly well though it remained rather flighty throughout. Certainly better than the appalling views Dad and I got on Blakeney Point a month or so ago, though!

Just as we thought we'd run out of the reported birds (no sign of the pipit!), the pager pinged into action. I literally read the message twice before it sank in. Lanceolated Warbler by the graveyard at 3pm! It was 20 past, and we were booked on the return ferry departing at 4! A VERY swift march back across the bridge and up the hill, and we saw the bird in flight and then briefly perched- many thanks to the resident birders for thinking of us, and putting the news out! It had clearly not got much obvious streaking on the throat and it didn't strike me as particularly small, which seemed a bit odd, but the finders had more experience than me (having seen none!), and apparently had some photos. We couldn't determine if there was a later sailing off the island, so had to race back to the harbour after only 15 minutes with the bird.

On arrival there (with time to spare, thanks to a very kind lift from a local gent) we discovered that there WAS a 7pm return crossing, and since PH hadn't seen the Lancy, and I wanted better views, we stayed on with my Dad. The bird showed a bit better, perching on a wall for a few moments, and I got even more confused... Although our photos were poor, in grey and rainy conditions, the flanks appeared pretty clean, and my impression of the bird's size didn't change. I wanted to believe it was a Lancy, but it felt wrong (while the Fair Isle Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler had felt pretty much spot on in similarly brief views). We got halfway back to the harbour with time to spare, before I went back for a third look! On this occasion, I couldn't find it, so would just have to wait for photos to study.

This morning, a message announced that it was indeed a Grasshopper Warbler after all. I guess this illustrates two things. First, obviously these can be tricky birds to identify, being both elusive and variable in plumage. Second, it shows that you shouldn't just assume what's been reported is correct... Without wishing to sound smug, i'm really pleased that I voiced doubts although I've lost a lifer!

Finally, our birding marathon ended this morning with the pleasingly uncontroversial Radde's at Sumburgh. Meanwhile, apparently the Mainland PG Tips might not be one after all! Shetland birding: always interesting and engaging, but rarely easy!

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