Wildernews: Review of 2008
A LESSER scaup, a very rare vagrant from North America, was found in Fetlar in January, subsequently re-locating to Yell where it remained into February.
The two male ring-necked ducks were still on Tingwall and there was a goosander at Scalloway, with a further three at Sandgarth, Voe. A hundred and twenty jackdaws were at the Virkie roost.
In Lerwick there were reports of a few glaucous and Iceland gulls whilst a drake king eider was in Mousa Sound, a white-billed diver off South Nesting, a red head smew on the Loch of Hillwell and a male American wigeon in the South Mainland.
There were small numbers of common and velvet scoters, along with Slavonian grebes, at Catfirth. A bittern was observed near Channerwick and a hen harrier was also in the vicinity. A great tit was over-wintering in the Westerloch area of Lerwick, a stonechat was at Sumburgh, a song thrush at Quendale, small numbers of greenfinches were at Sandwick and Lerwick, and a goldfinch appeared at Brae on the 29th.
In late January into February, flocks of kittiwakes were feeding on the rich pickings around the Shetland Catch fish factory. Small numbers of these oceanic gulls remain around Scottish coasts, and prolonged gales, or food availability at sea, bring flocks inshore.
A blue phase fulmar was also observed. The blue phase has a grey head and underparts and is a darker morph which occurs in the most northerly fulmar populations in the high Arctic. A drake green-winged teal, a local rarity and rare vagrant from North America, was reported from the Loch of Tingwall.
Melby beach produced high wader and wildfowl counts, with 80 wigeon, 70 teal, 61 ringed plovers and 70 purple sandpipers. There were three white-billed divers in Bluemull Sound. Towards the end of the month, small numbers of siskins were recorded at various locations, with a total of 19 at Cunningsburgh. These birds were probably migrants en route to Scandinavia, but it is unusual to see siskins in February and exceptional for more than one or two to be recorded. My wildlife highlight of the month was seeing two humpback whales off the north of Bressay on the 24th.
March brought the earliest Shetland record for a sandwich tern at Grutness on the 11th. Recorded almost annually, it is very scarce passage migrant in Shetland, but a common summer breeder and migrant in Scotland, with several colonies in Orkney.
The killdeer, a very rare vagrant wader from North America, which was recorded in 2007, returned to the Pool of Virkie. There were still 120 jackdaws at Virkie and the grey heron roost at the Loch of Vatster, Tingwall, reached a record number of 71.
Migrants passing through included sparrowhawk, kestrel, siskin, dunnock, song thrush, robin, goldcrest, firecrest, redwing, fieldfare, pied wagtail and stonechat. Towards the end of the month there was a sharp taste of winter, with the lowest daytime temperatures for over 15 years and significant snowfalls. The first male frog returned to my pond on the 5th.
During April, migrants included hawfinch, willow warbler, chiffchaff, chaffinch, bullfinch, greenfinch, brambling, robin, goldcrest, grey wagtail, song thrush, black redstart, siskin, blackcap, redwing, fieldfare, Lapland bunting, sparrowhawk, woodcock and swallow
On the 22nd there was the earliest record for a turtle dove at Virkie. Two common cranes, rare migrants, were observed, probably on passage to Scandinavia. In Unst a great white egret, a very rare vagrant, remained for about a week.
A white-billed diver, the largest of the diver family and a rare vagrant from Arctic Russia, was in Mousa Sound. Slightly larger and bulkier than a great northern diver, it can be distinguished by its large yellowish-white bill, the lower mandible of which is distinctively angled upward.
A small population of white-billed divers winter along the coasts of northern Norway and, more rarely, in the North Sea and Baltic.
There was an early sighting of killer whales on the 21st when a pod was seen moving from Mousa Sound, down the east coast and past Sumburgh Head.
A diversity of migrants continued to pass through the islands during May with a great grey shrike, a wryneck and a male yellow wagtail on Noss. Golden orioles were at Voe and Unst, and there were nightjars in Whalsay and Fetlar. A juvenile little gull was at Spiggie, an American green-winged teal at Melby and sub-alpine warblers at Foula and Hoswick.
At Dalsetter, a Temminck’s stint, a rare migrant from North Eastern Europe, and a tawny pipit, a rare vagrant from southern Europe, were found by Mick Mellor. Several trips (small flocks) of dotterel were discovered on both Ronas and Sandness Hills.
The end of the month brought a black stork, a very rare vagrant from southern and eastern parts of Europe, and only the second Shetland record. There was also a thrush nightingale, another rare vagrant, at Grutness. A first summer male surf scoter, a very rare vagrant from North America, appeared at Catfirth and was still there in early June.
The big birding story in June was at Fair Isle where the first citril finch to be recorded in the UK was found on the 6th by Tommy Hyndman. The citril finch is a sedentary species, breeding in high mountain habitats around the Alpine region and only migrating locally to lower levels during winter.
A rare black-headed bunting was in Fetlar, a white stork was seen in Yell and there was a red-rumped swallow in Whalsay. Local rarities included a greenish warbler on Noss, a rustic bunting in the South Mainland and a red-footed Ffalcon near Bixter.
There were several more sightings of killer whales, good news for researchers Andy Foote and Volker Deeke who were studying the populations around Shetland. It was estimated that there are around 148 around the islands, with slightly over 50 per cent seen around Shetland during the summer months, returning each year.
The first Shetland Nature Festival took place in early July. It opened with an excellent evening’s entertainment with Simon King, a superb wildlife cameraman and TV presenter, preceded by Jonathan Swale, from SNH who provided an interesting lecture on Shetland geology. A fascinating, educational exhibition, Seas Around Us, was at the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway.
The week-long festival continued with excursions, events and lectures, culminating in a memorable tribute to that great Shetland naturalist, Bobby Tulloch.
On a more sombre note, the RSPB reported a serious decline in the seabird populations of Orkney and Shetland. As food supplies around the islands are becoming patchier, related to higher sea temperatures, seabird breeding success is decreasing.
Up to nine great northern divers summered at Quendale Bay and waders, returning from more northerly breeding grounds were moving through by the end of the month.
A female two-barred crossbill, a rare vagrant from north-east Europe, was at Sandgarth, Voe on the 28th. Slighter in build, and more elegant in appearance than the common crossbill, the two-barred is identified by two bold, white wing bars.
Two-barred crossbills breed mostly in the taiga forests of Asia and North America, and also in Finland and Sweden in some years. The influx of two-barred crossbills continued into August, with records coming from a further 15 sites, and a flock of up to 18 in the Sumburgh area. The first dark spectacle moth for Shetland was trapped at Scatness by Steve Minton.
During August there were various records of migrants such as cuckoo, sand martin, tree pipit, red-backed shrike, pied and spotted flycatchers, grey wagtail, stock dove, robin, common redstart, stonechat, siskin, chaffinch, greenfinch, common and two-barred crossbill, willow warbler, garden warbler, reed warbler, barred warbler, icterine warbler, and both common and lesser whitethroat. There was a great spotted woodpecker at Cunningsburgh.
A melodious warbler, a rare vagrant from southern Europe, was at Sumburgh Head while a booted warbler, a rare vagrant from Eastern Europe, was found by Roger Riddington at Sumburgh Farm. There was also a paddyfield warbler at Whalsay and both a marsh and an aquatic warbler in Unst.
Sea watches produced records of pomarine skuas and shearwater species, with seven sooty shearwaters off Sumburgh Head. On the 26th, a great shearwater, a rare migrant from the south Atlantic, was observed off Eshaness.
Terry Rogers trapped a bordered sallow moth, a first Shetland record, and Steve Minton caught the first reed dagger, a few days before I trapped the second one. There were several records of bedstraw hawkmoths and Vivian Clark found a death’s head hawkmoth at Brae. There were also reports of peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies at various localities.
In September there was the biggest fall of autumn migrants for over 10 years. National rarities included an eastern olivaceous warbler, a Blyth’s reed warbler, a bobolink and a red-flanked bluetail on Foula; a yellow-breasted bunting and a pechora pipit on Fetlar; a thick-billed warbler on Out Skerries; an Arctic warbler at Exnaboe; paddyfield warblers at Virkie and Unst; a thrush nightingale at Virkie; a citrine wagtail at Quarff; a great snipe at Quendale and a lanceolated warbler at Sumburgh Head.
The lanceolated warbler, a rare migrant from Siberia, has heavily streaked pipit-like plumage and skulks mouse-like in long grass. It is often considered as a Fair Isle specialty, as around 76 per cent of records are from Fair Isle.
Common migrants were also widespread this month with high numbers in some localities, such as 120 chaffinches, 35 common redstarts, 30 willow warblers, 11 pied flycatchers, 21 whinchats, 11 song thrushes, 12 spotted flycatchers and 10 tree pipits. Two ospreys were at Sandwater and a kingfisher was at Cunningsburgh.
September ended with more warbler rarities. A Syke’s warbler was identified at Sumburgh on the 25th by Roger Riddington and Paul Harvey. There are only a handful of Scottish records of this very rare vagrant from south-west Asia which was only recognised as a separate species in 2002, being previously regarded as a race of the booted warbler. A western Bonelli’s warbler, a very rare vagrant from parts of south-west Europe and the north-west regions of Africa, was found at Lunna on the 27th.
At the beginning of October, the wintry weather and northerly winds brought Arctic visitors – barnacle geese, Iceland gulls, a juvenile Sabine’s gull (a rare Arctic vagrant), little auks, a king eider, snow buntings and Hornemann’s Arctic redpolls. This large, pale race of the Arctic redpoll breeds in Greenland and was recorded in Foula and Unst.
The rarest October arrival was the vagrant White’s thrush which appeared at Kergord on the 13th. Other rare migrants were a pechora pipit at North Roe, a lanceolated warbler on Foula and Siberian stonechats at North Collafirth and Skerries.
Storms blew unprecedented numbers of grey phalarope close inshore, involving an estimated 30 individuals. The migration routes of grey phalaropes to and from their breeding grounds in the high Arctic are well away from land, and they also winter far out to sea. Local rarities included a red-throated pipit, and both a long-tailed tit and a coal tit at Sumburgh. A further two coal tits were found at Sandgarth, Voe on
the 24th by Beth Gerrard, and one remained there until the end of the year.
In November there was a late fall of migrants with records of Hume’s warbler, a late autumn vagrant from central Asia, on Unst, Whalsay and Bressay. This species was formerly considered a sub-species of yellow-browed warbler. Single olive-backed pipits, rare migrants from Siberia, were at Toab and Bressay.
There was also an influx of waxwings with a flock of 15 in Lerwick and 17 at Sandgarth, Voe. Flocks of this size are not commonly recorded in Shetland.
Other notable November records included a red-breasted vlycatcher, chaffinches, greenfinches, brambling, a stonechat, blackcaps, common crossbills, a very late willow warbler and several records of chiffchaffs. On the 22nd, a first winter ivory gull, a rare Arctic vagrant, was at Seafield in Lerwick with another being found on Fetlar in mid-December.
Arctic visitors dominated in the last month of the year, with up to nine Iceland gulls at the Shetland Catch factory in Lerwick and other scattered reports of both Iceland and glaucous gulls. In the last week of December there were still a few migrants around at various localities such as, greenfinches, common redpolls, a skylark, a black redstart, robins and a shore lark on Unst.
I would like to acknowledge the following sources of information in compiling this review: the Shetland Nature Website; Shetland Bird Club; The Birds of Shetland (Mike Pennington et al Helm Press 2004); and The Birds of Scotland Vol I and II (Scottish Ornithologist’s Club 2007, and everyone who has contacted me in 2008 and shared their wildernews.
Joyce J M Garden