Dawn Marsh Harrier

Dawn Marsh Harrier

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Team on Tour in Shetland - Some highlights

At around 05.30ish on 26th September, a motley representation of Herts birders assembled at Luton Airport in the form of myself, Brendan Glynn, Dave Johnson, Chris Sharp, Ian Bennell, Steve Blake and Brendan Fagan. Destination Shetland, mission rare birds.

The flight left on schedule and anticipation was growing as the captain asked us to secure our seat belts as we were starting our descent into Aberdeen. To cut a long story short, some time later we completed our descent into Edinburgh. An engine fault had been detected meaning we couldn't land at Aberdeen as there was no engineer there. After much ado we eventually got in a cab to Aberdeen but had long since missed our connecting flight to Sumburgh and had to get the overnight ferry to Lerwick. Minke Whales and Puffins aplenty from the deck were some consolation but we had effectively lost a day of our trip.The day that the Lanceolated Warbler was last seen at that. Thanks for nothing Easyjet.

On finding the  accommodation that me,Brendan G, Dave and Chris would call home for the next 9 days, we all climbed out of the car only for Dave to shout something along the lines of "what the hell was that". Out of the corner of his eye he had seen an interesting looking passerine fly from the small clump of vegetation we had parked next to. He saw it land a little further up the track and on getting his bins on it called "Bluethroat". We hadn't unloaded a case yet but Dave had hit the ground running.

We soon got out birding proper and promptly failed to find the Eastern Subalpine Warbler in the Mossbank area but it wasn't long before I nailed my first lifer of the trip. A Blyths Reed Warbler gave brief but regular flight views as it flitted between nettle beds at Toab. The day also brought us the first of many (and I mean MANY) views of Yellow Browed Warblers. As it turned out, a Sycamore without resident YBWs was a rarity in itself.

If there was one bird I'd realistically  hoped to see more than any other on this trip it was Pallid Harrier. One had been regularly sighted over the valley at Northdale on Unst for some time.

Day break from our accomodation

 So as the sun rose on what should have been day 3 but thanks to Easyjet was in fact day 2, we took the ferry across to Yell and then a 2nd ferry to Unst. This sounds like a bit of a palarva but was actually simple,quick, efficient and cheap at £28.00 for the car and 4 passengers return. A tailless Arctic Warbler had been seen daily close to the port on Unst, so we made this our first stop. After a fair bit of searching by ourselves and others we concluded that the bird had moved on and set off for the North end of the island with dreams of that Pallid Harrier playing through my mind.

We parked up at the bottom of the valley and soon flushed a Barred Warbler from a small plantation. The first of 2 self found by the team with another at Dale of Walls on the Mainland.

But with no sign of the much coveted Harrier after a couple of hours, we were advised that the bird was unreliable during the day time but was guaranteed to come to roost in the valley. It made sense to go general birding for a couple of hours and return to Northdale late afternoon. We did, but the Harrier didn't. That's birding for you. You've just got to take it on the chin. Nice twilight views of 2 otters play-fighting in the ferry port at Yell soon put the smile back on my face.

We started the next day by dipping a Grey Cheeked Thrush but when fresh news broke of a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler at Quendale the adrenaline was soon surging again. It would be great to add this rare and elusive Shetland speciality to my life list. It was a fair old trudge up and down hill through boggy Iris beds to the birds location and with time being of the essence my lack of fitness was cruelly exposed as I gasped for breath and felt my legs filling up with lactic acid. And all to no avail as we arrived at the spot to be told that the bird was in fact just a Gropper.

We started a mercifully more leisurely stroll back towards the car when we were given a pre-mega alert tip off that a Pechora Pipit had been found at Loch of Norby. I summoned something from the reserve tank as we once again went into 'hot foot' mode. A real Shetland Mega this time and a bird that Dave in particular was desperate to catch up with. A crowd had already gathered when we arrived and were on the birds trail but it was really playing hard to get in the dense swathe of Iris. We soon managed fleeting flight views but this bird was right at the top of Dave's most wanted list and he wasn't prepared to tick it on what he'd seen. After much to-ing and fro-ing the bird flew across the corner of the loch and went down amongst vegetation on the bankside slope. Dave was off. As the rest of us tried and failed  to locate the bird in our bins, Dave was clambering fences to get round to the top of the bank. He approached the brow of the slope with the stealth of a cat and peered over the edge. His bins went up and so did his thumbs as a smile from ear to ear spread over his face. A minute or so later the bird took flight again, over our heads and down towards the stream. Dave indulged himself in some elated double fist pumping like a world cup winning captain as he'd just been looking straight down on one of his most prized targets sat in the open. It was a joy to see his joy if you know what I mean.

Eventually our Mega Pipit gave itself up to some extent, giving mostly views of its delightfully ornate back is it worked it's way away from us through some now trampled channels in the iris but a lot of jostling and hustling and bustling broke out as the crowd were all anxious to get into one of the limited view points. So it was a real bonus that this star bird stuck for a couple of days and we were able to return for some altogether more relaxed 2nd helpings.

Reports of an Arctic Warbler with no tail on Mainland Shetland meant I had a 2nd bite at this particular life tick cherry. It took several hours over 2 visits but we finally connected with the skulky little tease, when it gave a brief but reasonable showing low down in the plantation in front of us.

So we'd clawed back one of our dips but more importantly there had been further reports that the Pallid Harrier had been roosting again at Northdale, Unst. An early morning start as usual and the highly efficient ferry service soon had us on the Isle of Yell where an American Golden Plover had been hanging out with the Golden Plover flock. This had to be worth investigating en route. We soon located the 100+ strong flock and Brendan quickly picked out a prime candidate for it's Yankee guest. We just needed to get a bit closer to clinch the id. We managed to get quite a lot closer without putting the flock up and set about pointing our scopes in the right direction, when a Hooded Crow flew low over the top of them and the whole lot exploded into the air.

 They didn't settle for some time and when they eventually did they had split into 3 or 4 flocks, none of which were very viewable from where we were. But then Sharpy called "Ring Tailed Harrier" We all quickly got on his bird as it seemed to drop into a field behind a church. "That was bloody orange" Bren exclaimed. "That could be the Pallid". We all agreed that this bird looked very orange but we'd have to rule out Monty's. We had to get better views. Myself and Bren set off towards the church hoping to pick up the Harrier on the deck in the field. As we approached so it got up and began to fly quite leisurely. As Brendan signaled to Dave and Chris I locked my camera on the bird and just kept firing away. The resulting shots certainly won't win any prizes but show enough detail to confirm that this bird was indeed my Holy Grail. Prominent black boa, pale collar and pale trailing edge to the outer primaries. A stunning, staggering, stupendous Pallid Harrier. Que unbridled joy!!!!!

We lost the bird to view over a hilltop but nothing was going to spoil my day now. We felt that this was probably the Unst bird as we were only 8 miles as the Harrier flies from it's roost site, albeit on another island. A mere drop in the ocean for a Harrier. We all agreed that it was worth continuing to Unst in the hope of an encore at Northdale. Our bird didn't turn up to roost and to the best of our knowledge wasn't seen again. Sometimes you've gotta thank your lucky stars.

On our drive across Yell to the Unst ferry we had another stroke of luck when Dave spotted what turned out to be a very confiding Red Backed Shrike on a fence post by the road. I just had to poke my lens out of the car window.

And to cap a good day off nicely we had the privilege of watching 6 otters slithering in and out of the water within 50ft or so of us back at the Yell ferry port. Not enough light for photos but enough for a heart warming experience.

We finally caught up with the Eastern Subalpine Warbler at Mossbank but twice managed to dip an Olive Backed Pipit at Lerwick and a Richards Pipit on Unst.

On our last full day we took an early morning visit to Esherness. A remote, wild and rugged corner of Shetland. The weather was certainly wild as well as the gusting gale did it's damnedest to knock us off our feet, but this is a dramatic and spectacular bit of coastline.

We were rewarded for braving the conditions when we stumbled across a flock of 21 Snow Buntings, clearly not agreeing with us Southern softies that the weather was rough. Well 'ard

The afternoon brought news of a Lapland Bunting at Sumburgh Head. We parked in the lower car park where a few people were clearly photographing a close range bird but more people were looking out to sea from the cliff top. The close range bird was of course the Bunting and the interest out to sea was a close in Minke Whale breaching occasionally. After a glimpse of Minke fin I decided to get some shots of this ridiculously confiding Lapland Bunting. It seriously couldn't care less about the human attention it was attracting.

I suppose it would get boring if all birds were this easy but it's a nice treat from time to time. Anyway, as I was merrily snapping away, there was an outbreak of loud excitement from the sea watchers. Someone called "Orcas". I instantly attempted to leap up the 3ft high wall in front of me, losing my balance as I did so but there were Orcas and I had to get there... now. In my urgency I failed to regain my balance and ended up flat on my face with people jumping over me. Oh where did that youthful agility go. Same place as my youthful stamina I guess, but I was straight back on my feet and on the cliff top in a jiffy. Orcas they weren't but 3 Risso's Dolphins right below us was still well worth the pain and self humiliation.

Although we had all bemoaned some of the birds we'd missed on this trip, there were certainly a couple of occasions we'd been bang in the right place at the right time.

It was late in the day when the pager brought news of a Swainsons Thrush on Unst. Too late to get there and we only had the morning next day as it was sadly home time and there was a plane to catch. But we did a bit of calculation and reckoned if we got the first boat in the morning we could just about do it. Finish the trip with a real biggy. Not to be though. The diminutive thrush had taken full advantage of the clear night and done a moonlit flit. So we still had plenty of time left to dip a Dusky Warbler at Sumburgh and check in at the airport in good time.

So it was a trip of mixed fortunes but personally I loved every minute of it. The constant due westerly wind had done us no favours in terms of bringing the birds to us and we managed to miss out on some of what was available but I came away with 4 lifers including that longed for Pallid Harrier.

Shetland is a whole different ball game to birding at home, with its largely baron, treeless mountainous landscape, interspersed with small plantations and iris beds which the migrant birds take cover in. We saw no Tit species and the only common finches were Twite which I usually have to rely on North Norfolk for.

Even the Starlings and wrens are an endemic race.

Rooks and Carrion Crows are scarce and we didn't see a single Jackdaw, yet Ravens and Hooded Crows are everywhere.

Merlin are by far the commonest raptor and in the absence of large predators like Buzzards, the skies are ruled by Bonxies. Loads of them. We had up to 10 soaring above us at one time.

Golden Plover were by far the commonest Wader.

Pied and Red Breasted Flycatchers were easy enough to catch up with and there were more Yellow Browed Warblers than you could shake a Sycamore branch at.

Aside from the birds, Shetland's scenery is breathtaking. Everywhere you look. And the natives are really friendly. The vast majority are more than happy for you to stare into their gardens with your optics and often come out to talk to you with a genuine interest in any birds you may have unearthed in their grounds. We even passed a sign on a garden gate saying 'Birdwatchers Welcome'.

This definitely won't be my last visit to Shetland. If you haven't been I'd recommend giving it a go.