Sunday, 15 October 2017

Shetland day 4: the tipping point?

During our first 3 days on Shetland we had worked hard in challenging conditions for relatively little reward: there had been plenty of birds, and a couple of good ones, but nothing to justify breaking out the cigars. After another morning grilling the gardens of Hoswick and finding yet more Yellow-browed Warblers, we felt we had earned the right to go and look at other people's birds for the rest of the day. Specifically, a Rustic Bunting at Melby, back on the western mainland, in an area which, frustratingly, we had checked thoroughly a couple of days previously.
Rustic Bunting, Melby
Rustic Bunting, Melby
The Rustic Bunting showed soon after our arrival, feeding on the verge but before I could get a decent record shot a car approached and flushed the bird. Fortunately, it landed much closer, enabling a couple of half-decent pictures to be obtained. A few minutes later, and we were bundling back into the car to head north for the first 'mega-alert' of the trip: a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler had been found at Barnafield, a good 40 miles drive away in north Mainland.
This Black Guillemot moulting to winter plumage was just offshore at Melby
One of my favourite birds, known in these parts as the Tystie
Having been quick off the mark, and not seeing too many birders on our travels over the previous few days, we thought we might be among the first on site - a bit of a miscalculation as the major rarity had brought all the birders on Shetland out of the woodwork. We joined an expectant group of about 50 in an orderly assemblage around a small iris bed with a stream at its base. Within a few minutes we had seen the 'PG Tips' - named for the white tail tips - fly from an iris bed to some nettles, revealing a long, dark tail with the eponymous tips in the process. It was partially obscured and characteristically skulking when on the ground, but was on view just long enough to grab some record shots and piece together the key features.
Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Barnafield
A new species for my British list, it crept stealthily down through the nettles, revealing yellow underparts
One of this species had been seen a few weeks previously in Norfolk, but reports of bad behaviour at the twitch meant I had no desire to go searching for that particular individual, so it was great to see one with a small and orderly crowd. Some of them, including fellow Dorset birder Roger Howell, had waited several decades to catch up with this species so it was a special experience for all of us. Well done to the finders for checking out the iris bed, of which there must be thousands on Shetland which look equally if not more promising.
On the ground the PG Tips showed a dark, streaky crown, dark tail and hint of a rusty brown rump...
... and a prominent supercilium compared to other locustella warblers
We left the PG Tips just as the weather turned foul again, and the route home provided an opportunity to cruise the Aith-Vementry road where a Short-toed Lark had been seen earlier in the day. It was bucketing down and we didn't hold out much hope, especially as no-one fancied getting out of the car when we arrived at the site.
Earlier in the day we caught up with a putative Siberian Oystercatcher of the sub-species longipes at Sandwick - picked out from the regular Oycs by its browner upperparts - as Howard pointed out, if it is one, it was probably the rarest bird on Shetland that day.
Our home for the week (bottom left) near the beach in Hoswick
Miraculously though, the Lark was still there, grovelling in the gutter and looking about as water-logged as a passerine can look - another reminder of the trials which migrant birds are subjected to. Heart-warmingly, it survived the night and was still present the following morning, though we became quite concerned for its welfare a second time as the weather closed in again that afternoon.
The barely recognisable Short-toed Lark near Aith looking pretty sorry for itself in horizontal rain
Birders looking for the PG Tips - the largest crowd we saw in our nine days on Shetland


  1. Impressed with those PG pics. - good memories

    1. Thanks Bob - seems like a long time ago already