Friday 30 September 2011

Bird of the trip: mind-blowing Jack Snipe!

Almost immediately after getting out of the car this lunchtime at Voxter, near Brae, Howard called out: “Jack Snipe!” and we turned round, expected to see one fly a short distance away from us and drop straight into cover. Instead, it flew at waist level towards us, between us, and dropped into the short grass a few feet away!

For the next half hour or so, it wandered around on the edge of a shallow pool and the adjacent grass, utterly unconcerned by our presence – presumably a freshly arrived migrant that had never encountered people before? Many birders have stories about fantastically close views of this species, and indeed we’d all seen them pretty well before… but this was nothing short of astonishing. As it walked around, feeding intermittently throughout, it wandered up to us, past us, around us, and ultimately over us!

Despite having dipped the Great Snipe further south earlier in the morning, I think we all enjoyed this experience far more than the more distant, brief view we had expected of the much rarer variety.

Words simply can’t do justice to how stunning this little bird was: but I’ll have a go with some of the many pictures…









(Note that you can actually see my reflection in the bird’s eye in the final shot above!)

Videos to follow when we can upload them!

Assorted bits and bobs from the last couple of days

Apologies to anyone checking the blog daily for the lack of an update yesterday – we only got back from Unst at 10:30pm, after birding til dusk and then enjoying a great meal in the Baltasound Hotel with Martin G and his Shetland Nature group (feat. Nick Croft of Wanstead fame).

Our birding on Unst started immediately we drove off the ferry at Belmont, looking for the recently found Black-headed Bunting. This gave us the runaround for while, before Jono and I walked the perimeter of the stubble field, and found it down near the shore on its own. After a while, it moved back up to join the sparrows below the house, where it showed well.


Next stop was Uyeasound where, as well as checking a number of promising gardens and crop fields, we enjoyed a very striking Lesser Whitethroat, possibly of the eastern race halimodendri. Every time it popped up in front of us, one or other of us commented for the umpteenth time on just how strikingly sandy brown it was above (if anything, warmer toned than the photo suggests). The mask also appeared more diffuse than we’d expect on a regular curruca; there was very little contrast between the mantle and the nape, and Martin later pointed out that the bill appears rather fine and ‘spiky’. Finally, the primary projection is relatively short, with only six exposed primary tips beyond the tertials.

Certainly none of us had ever seen a LW looking like this before, so the comments above may be off the mark… if you have any thoughts on this bird, please leave a comment.


From here, we headed on north up the island through Haroldswick, where a juvenile Peregrine singled out a Lapwing from a flock and rather mercilessly appeared to play with it for the sheer hell of it!

peregrineOur final stops were Northdale (smart juvenile Hen Harrier, an elusive adult Bluethroat, Yellow-browed Warbler), and Norwick – one of my favourite birding site in the UK. We didn’t find or see anything particularly noteworthy, but it really didn’t matter: by this time, the wind had completely died, and over the sound of the surf it was still enough to hear Chiffchaffs’ bills snapping as they sallied out after insects. And we had the entire place to ourselves, not a soul there. Magic!


Today, we made a somewhat painfully early start to be down at South Voxter by 7am in the hope that yesterday evening’s Great Snipe would still be present. To cut a long (and tediously squelchy) story short, it wasn’t, so we returned to base for a spirit-lifting fry-up mid morning! Rather shockingly, we hadn’t seen a Barred Warbler all week, so news of a relatively showy bird at Busta House (thanks to Dave Acfield) persuaded us to go for a look. Happily, this didn’t take too long to find, unusually clambering around high up in the sycamore canopy, showing a lot of the strongly marked chevrons on the undertail coverts.

Having spotted a ‘new’ plantation on the map at Voxter (just east of Brae), we just had to have a look… and ended up speechless at one of the most extraordinary birding encounters I’ve ever experienced. It’s worth a whole blog post (and a lot of photos) on its own, so you’ll have to check back later to find out what it was!

We broke our return to Lerwick at Kergord, where in addition to the now-expected selection of Yellow-browed Warblers, I was delighted to find two male Hawfinch feeding discreetly in the leaf litter. Again, it was so quiet that you could them crunching seeds!


Wednesday 28 September 2011

Arctic Redpoll, North Mainland

A rather twitchy day today, initially on Whalsay in the morning with cracking views of the Little Bunting at Vaivoe (though we also found a brief Rosefinch there, too). Prompted by news from the mainland, we headed up to the Urafirth area again, first for a stunning adult drake Surf Scoter in Ronas Voe and then the reported Coue’s Arctic Redpoll.

At the time, I wasn’t absolutely convinced about the ID as a pure Arctic, and I suspect we may see something on Martin Garner’s blog on this in due course. However, having looked back through the photos, I’m tending to be more positive again… but rather than comment in detail myself without having done my reading properly, I’ll simply post a selection of shots showing various features.

Please leave a comment or drop me a line if you have any constructive suggestions regarding identification!

arctic_redpoll3img_0477_arctic redpoll, shetland copyimg_0500_arctic redpoll, shetland copyarctic_redpoll4arctic_redpoll5

Tuesday 27 September 2011

He’ll be baaaaack to see ewe you soon…

First, click here, for some suitable background music.

Take one bird photographer.


Place on remote chain of islands.


Add strong non-migrant-friendly winds, subtract any birds of note.

Observe many more farmyard animals than birds.


Cue amusing conversation.

JL: “Hang on guys, stop! Wait!”

DB: “Eh?” [assume rare bird has just appeared]

JL: “That’s a really attractive sheep.”


DB: “WTF?”

JL: “No, really… it’s cute.” [motor drive fires] “I wonder if it will let me stroke it?” [not sure if the word was actually “stroke” – it was very windy, so I may have misheard.]

jono sheep

Apparently not: access denied.

(By the way, we haven’t seen much today – three Yellow-brows in Kergord, Slav on some random voe, a single Knot, 8 Whooper Swan, that sort of thing).

But Jono continues to have a distant, wistful look in his eye…

Monday 26 September 2011

Nearly, but not quite…

Just a quick update today, since I’m pretty tired… obviously too much birding Winking smile

We headed up to North Mainland this morning, starting off at a new, and rather promising, site near Urafirth. A small shelter belt near a garden had held a Coue’s Arctic Redpoll yesterday… but although it was still present, I only got untickable views of what was presumably the bird in flight! Some excitement was provided for quite some time by a rather pale looking acro that skulked around in low bushes, and tended to hold its tail cocked (somewhat banana-like, perhaps)… but when it eventually gave itself up for photos was shown to be ‘just’ a Reed Warbler. Shame!

From here, we moved north to Isbister, where a big Common Redpoll of some sort of north-western persuasion was feeding with House Sparrows. Note the typical backdrop to a Shetland bird:


After popping back into the previous site (no Arctic Redpoll, and couldn’t be bothered to wait around for a Barred Warbler in very windy conditions), we headed out to Esha Ness, where a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been roaming around for a few days. Unfortunately, it appeared to have done a bunk, with several birders failing to find it. Some of them hadn’t seen any Snow Buntings either, but we managed to find a fantastic flock of just over 100 wheeling around and feeding on the short cropped turf. Brilliant birds, and presumably newly arrived on westerlies.


We had a brief look around the Sullom Plantation with nothing better than a Sparrowhawk and a Chaffinch, before moving down to the Busta House Hotel garden in Brae. Again, I’d not looked here before, but really liked the sheltered sycamores and long grass underneath – feels good for a rarity. We didn’t manage that, but I quickly picked up a very smart Wood Warbler – always nice to see, and not a common bird on passage.

Final stop was the plantation at Eswick, where we clearly heard the reported Red-breasted Flycatcher, but failed to see it. Just about sums up the day – a case of nearly, but not quite!

Sunday 25 September 2011

Blue & Grey

Better day today, with some decent views of good birds. Oh, and Jono arrived this morning, but I guess you never get everything to go your way…

Having collected the filthy crane twitcher from the ferry terminal, we swiftly headed out the door in a southerly direction. First stop was Brake, determined to see the Pallid Harrier at our third attempt. Birding here started pretty well in relatively still and sunny conditions, with a couple of Tree Pipit calling overhead, a very close Yellow-browed Warbler in long grass by the road, and I found another Rosefinch which circled overhead calling. The single Whinchat from a couple of days ago had found a couple of friends, and a Garden Warbler briefly had me going near the farm… but all this perhaps suggested that a few new birds had arrived. Howard and Dad had brief views of the harrier as it moved up the valley from Loch of Hilwell, and after waiting a while for it to emerge back into view, it showed fairly well perched up on a post across the valley.

We took a lengthy walk from the mill at Quendale, initially out onto Garths Ness (of Yellow Warbler fame), then around into the burn to the west, and up and over into the iris beds above Quendale. Despite much iris bashing (and an annoying pipit that determinedly stuck to the bottom of the burn gully, didn’t call, and took a while to be definitively ID’d as a Meadow), we didn’t find much until reaching the main iris bed with a dense nettle patch above. Here, we found the now-predictable Yellow-browed Warbler with a Willow Warbler mate, and then Howard called out “what’s the bird on the fence?”. “Bluethroat!” was my happy answer from a higher vantage point – a smart bird, though it promptly buried itself in kale crop when the big lenses were primed… These shots are from Howard’s point-and-shoot, but you get the idea!

P1000487 (1024x713)P1000488 (1024x651)

Moving on from Quendale, we worked at a few patches along the east coast of south Mainland: the quarry at Levenwick, Channerwick, the Swinister Burn at Sandwick, and the trees around Hoswick village. Sum total from all of these was not a lot, and by about 4pm we caved in and drove north to look for the Lesser Grey Shrike near Laxo! This showed very well in the sunshine, a full adult with large black mask extending onto the forehead, and a rich salmony wash on the underparts. Superb!


Saturday 24 September 2011

Slow going in southerlies and sunshine

Lovely day today, but not setting the world on fire in terms of birds!

We headed north from Lerwick to check out a few patches around the Vidlin area. Lunna and Swining both had single Yellow-browed Warblers, and a redpoll of some flavour flew south calling, while at Vidlin yet another Merlin perched up in front of us briefly – we’ve seen at least one of these daily so far.

Down at Kergord, we found at least four more Yellow-broweds, and a noisy Pied Flycatcher at Upper Kergord. Other less scarce birds making it onto the trip list for the first time included 21 Woodpigeon, 3 Chaffinch, 2 Siskin and a Song Thrush! Exciting times…

Jono joins us tomorrow, having filthily twitched a certain large North American bird near Aberdeen en route. I guess you’ve heard of a swear box… well, we’ve decided we’re going to have a ‘crane box’, so he has to fork out a pound each every time he mentions it.

In the absence of any bird photos of note, here’s some nice scenery from Lunna and Vidlin. Note the general lack of passerine migrant habitat!


Friday 23 September 2011

Another day, another Catharus thrush…

Following news of a possible Hermit Thrush on Fetlar yesterday afternoon, it was a straightforward decision to head up north today. Dad and I hadn’t visited Fetlar last year, so at the very least we’d get an island tick! After much confusion with baffling ferry timetables and vague booking office communication, we eventually ended up on Fetlar around 1030, having seen a couple of Great Northern Diver, a few Common Dolphin and innumerable Black Guillemots en route.

The bird had been reported from the West Manse at Tresta – a fantastic looking little copse of sycamores, representing easily the biggest area of cover on the island, and the site of the Taiga Flycatcher a couple of years ago. Immediately on arrival, a Yellow-browed announced its presence loudly, before flicking around above us nicely. Surprisingly, there was only one other birder present, and the four of us split up to view into the garden over the wall from various angles. Quite early on, a ‘very interesting’ bird flew rapidly along the top of the inner wall, too fast to get any real detail, but looking good for a small dark thrush. Frustratingly, though, we couldn’t find it again in getting on for two hours. However, we did get a few similarly brief views of an elusive male Redstart, making us wonder about reports of birds with a rufous tail! The only other birds present were a couple of Blackcap and a Willow Warbler, besides the Yellow-browed.

Needing a change, we wandered across to another nearby leafy garden, to find another Yellow-browed, then headed up the road to Houbie. Plenty of Blackcaps in evidence around here, and I was pleased to find a couple of Common Rosefinches feeding in weedy vegetation with sparrows along the beach near the community centre. I went exploring up the burn – no surprise to find yet another vocal Yellow-browed and a Lesser Whitethroat here. A pale warbler near the post office disappeared without trace, and in deteriorating weather we headed back to Tresta.

After a bit more time here, and less than an hour to our ferry departure, we were about to give up when something popped up out of dense vegetation and onto the wall around ten yards in front of us: cue some gibbering and pointing… “Grey-cheeked Thrush!” It sat there unmoving for at least a minute, giving us time to take in all the features, then realise that both cameras had been left in the car due to the rain… Doh! I’ll save the description for BBRC, but suffice to say our views didn’t leave any room for doubt.

Over the next half hour, we saw it three more times: once perched slightly further away on the same wall (along the north west side, close to the house), and then a great view in flight across the garden showing the classic black and white striped underwing. We still couldn’t get a photo, but left for our ferry more than happy!

Thursday 22 September 2011

Shetland 2011 starts here

Here we go then! Hopefully this will be the first of a series of daily blog posts from Shetland, where I’m spending 12 days birding with my Dad and Howard, based just outside Lerwick.

After arriving in Sumburgh yesterday lunchtime in driving rain, and a few bits of birding in the afternoon (highlight two Merlin at Wester Quarff), we made a proper start to birding in south Mainland today – an obvious destination, given the news of a Swainson’s Thrush being found late in the day in a  birder’s garden in Boddam. Although we’d seen last year’s bird at Levenwick, it’ll be a sad day (or possibly an astonishingly good day for megas!) when I don’t go to see a Catharus thrush just down the road!

We arrived on site (a housing estate!) around 8am to negative news and a gradual drift of birders away from the site over the next hour. Fortunately, though, the bird was relocated in a particularly densely vegetated garden, and eventually popped out onto next door’s lawn giving great views, but only time for a poor photo:


From here, we moved down to the Quendale area, initially taking a look for the Pallid Harrier near Brake. No joy here, but a Whinchat was rather smart and showy, and two Ruff briefly raised our hopes. We arrived at the water mill to find at least two Yellow-browed Warblers and a Willow Warbler, while a Green Sand flew over – shame about the white rump… A pretty lengthy thrash up the valley through the iris beds produced nothing more than a couple more Willow Warblers and a couple more Whinchat, while the first few Twite of the trip buzzed around overhead.


After a brief stop at Mainlands to pick up lunch (HV gave top marks to a Chicken & White Sauce Pie), noting a massive juvenile Peregrine scaring the hell out of everything within a mile or two, we headed down to a rather breezy Sumburgh. Nothing much on the head itself, and it was sufficiently quiet for some members of the party to resort to photographing ‘golden rabbits’!


Back to birding, we found a rapidly disappearing Redstart in the second quarry, then a Garden Warbler and several Blackcap in the thistles down towards the farm. Grutness had a single Goldcrest, and a bunch of Twite showed really well:


Return to Quendale late in the afternoon gave us only a very brief view of what might have been the harrier, and a drive round Spiggie produced 7 Whooper Swans, 2 Goosanders, 80 wild Greylags and 4 Pink-feet. Not bad for a start…

Monday 12 September 2011

More of the South Fambridge Wryneck

Couldn’t resist posting more of this cracking bird – I’ve spent a bit more time post-processing these, so hopefully they have a bit more impact than the previous couple, which were basically straight out of the camera. Let me know what you think!


Saturday 10 September 2011

Distant and elusive… I don’t think so!

Bit of a long day today, starting rather badly when I set off for yesterday’s Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Cleveland, only to receive the dreaded ‘no sign’ message at 7.30 (though many thanks to whoever put this out early – it helped me at least!). By this time I’d reached Newark – about 140 miles from home – so was basically in the middle of nowhere. After spinning out a McDonalds breakfast for far longer than it deserved, in the hope that the Sharpie might be relocated, I headed over to Collingham pits near the River Trent. For a landlocked county, 2 Pectoral Sandpiper, 4 Curlew Sandpiper and a Little Stint in Notts is probably an excellent haul… but it wasn’t really much consolation!

In the absence of any positive news from up north, I bailed out and headed back home, with a slight diversion to look for a Wryneck near Southend. Good choice! After a bit of stealthy creeping about, I ended up lying on a concrete path with an unconcerned Wryneck feeding no more than 6 feet in front of me… brilliant! wryneck1wryneck2

I’ve not had time to work on many of the images yet, so there will definitely be more of these to come!

As if that wasn’t good enough, I’d had a couple of calls about an adult Sabine’s Gull on the KGV Reservoir, where I’m fortunately a keyholder. Would’ve been rude not to go for a look, I thought. It was a long 45 minute walk right up to the far NW corner of the north basin to see the bird, but once again, it was wonderfully obliging.


Again, more pics to come in the next day or two… but right now, I’m exhausted!