22nd February 2018
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Striking shore lark draws birders to Lambaness

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The shore lark that continued to be seen at Lambaness, Unst, last week, seemed to cause some renewed interest among birders.

The most striking feature of its plumage is the characteristic black and yellow face pattern, with two rather thin black lines standing up from the top of the head, giving the separate North American sub-species the name of horned lark.

Shore larks breed in three distinct areas, that relevant to us stretching from Scandinavia through to the rocky mountain tops of the Siberian Arctic tundra. This northern population is migratory, moving mainly to the southern North Sea and western Baltic, while those breeding to the south are regarded as resident.

In northern Europe they winter almost exclusively on coastal sites, hence their name. About 300 individuals are thought to winter in Britain. However, Shetland individuals usually occur in spring and October, with overwintering individuals very unusual.

Gulls continued to feature during the week, with several large congregations coming in on the strong winds. In among them were two little gulls at Westing, Unst, with probably one of these later relocating across to Harolds­wick.

All individuals were first-winter birds – arguably their smartest plumage. With a prominent but slightly smudgy black V across the back and upper wings and a black band at the tip of the tail, they could momentarily be confused with first-winter kittiwakes. How­ever, not for nothing is it called little gull as it is the world’s smallest gull species, and therefore its diminutive size separates it from the kittiwake.

In addition, in this first-winter plumage, the top of the little gull’s head is diagnostically dark and the black collar is thicker than the kittiwake’s. Regarded here as very scarce passage migrants which have been recorded in all months, most are seen during August and September, and probably emanate from the small number that winter in the North Sea or off the Irish coast.

A micro-moth found moving around against a kitchen window at Baltasound, Unst, last July by Sylvia Priest is causing some discussion just now. With a scientific name far in excess of its size, Prochoreutis myllerana, at just a few millimetres, has just been identified as a new species for Shetland.

But intrigue surrounds how it came to be here. On the British mainland this moth is widespread and even locally common, and flies from May to early September. However, its food plants – Scutellaria species (skullcaps) – do not occur in Shetland. Was it transported to the isles in a bag of supplies for the nearby brewery, or indeed anywhere else in the vicinity? It seems unlikely. It also seems improbable that it arrived naturally. I have to confess to not knowing if Scutellarias are cultivated as garden plants, but that could also be a possibility.

A bar-tailed godwit feeding voraciously in a muddy area near the tip of Lambaness was a bit of a surprise last Monday. Slightly smaller than a curlew which, at this time of year they somewhat resemble, instead of a curved bill they have a long, straight (or slightly uptilted) one. Was it an early returning migrant to its breeding grounds up in the Arctic?

A report has also been received of an early shalder seen back at Baltasound last Monday. One or two are occasionally seen during the winter months, and while some oystercatchers winter around the Lerwick area, more will be returning to the North Isles shortly.

Wendy Dickson

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