Rare winter visitors
Common snipe generally remain hidden in cover, their striped head and heavily streaked plumage providing excellent camouflage. During periods of snow, they become conspicuous in the open, so they forage along burns, in ditches and along the shoreline.
When the ground is frozen, they also come into gardens seeking food, even settling down in scrapes dug into the snow. This behaviour makes them vulnerable to predation and I found myself hastily capturing a rather indignant snipe brought in by a cat. It was later released, unharmed. They have a characteristic escape flight; when walking along the coastline I flushed several from the ditches, each flying up with a harsh call and then zigzagging away over the snow-covered landscape.
Snipe are common breeding summer visitors, very common passage migrants and fairly common winter visitors in Shetland. There is some evidence that several Scandinavian and Northern European snipe winter in Scotland. In Shetland, it is not clear whether the wintering snipe are immigrants or locally-bred individuals, or a mixture of both. There are three sub-species of the common snipe, and the race breeding in Shetland also breeds in Orkney, Faroe and Iceland. The highest winter counts are usually in December with records of up to 500 at some localities, such as the Loch of Hillwell.
Jack snipe have also been recorded in the last couple of weeks; there is often an increase in reports of this wintering species during frosty and snowy weather. Jack snipe are scarce winter visitors, breeding in Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia. Considerably smaller than a common snipe, the Jack snipe has a different pattern of head stripes and the creamy stripes on its back are more prominent. When disturbed, a Jack snipe usually flies up silently, low and straight, soon dropping back down again, showing a weaker flight action than common snipe.
Several woodcock, also scarce winter visitors, have also been recorded recently. Woodcock are larger than snipe, about pigeon-sized, and have a rich, brown, barred and mottled plumage. The flight is slower and straighter than that of a common snipe and, as a woodcock flies upwards, the wings make a whirring noise. These birds are also distinguished in flight by the bulky, barrel-shaped body, broad wings, and long bill, held angled downwards.
Following last week’s information on red grouse, I received a report last week of a flock of 25 red grouse in the West Mainland. During periods of severe frost and snow-cover, the grouse band into flocks seeking sheltered spots to feed. Survival and finding sufficient food becomes more important than defending territories.
I also mentioned the record flock of 220 chaffinches at Veensgarth, and last week there were widespread reports of chaffinches coming into garden seeking food. Written accounts from the 20th century suggest that chaffinches regularly over-wintered in Shetland and it was probably a decline in the growing of grain crops which caused a decrease in wintering populations, as stubble fields became scarcer. During the 1970s, the largest flock was 120 at Kergord in February 1977 and in subsequent years flocks of 50 were considered exceptional. Consulting the Shetland Bird Reports over the last five years, it is interesting to see the variability in numbers. In 2003 the largest wintering chaffinch flock was 112 at Veensgarth, in 2004 there were 27 at Veensgarth, in 2005 only small flocks of up to six were noted, and in 2007 there were 150 at Bixter.
This week there were also records of a pink-footed goose and two barnacle geese at Scatness, three pintails at Boddam and 200 wigeon on the Loch of Spiggie. With the Clickimin Loch frozen there were 115 tufted duck and two scaup recorded in Breiwick Bay. Oystercatchers have been returning to the islands and there have been records of knot and bar-tailed godwit. Red-throated divers have also been observed in inshore waters and there was a goosander at Bigton.
Joyce J M Garden
By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS Shetland Amenity Trust has been granted national funding to clear and close 11 illegal fly-tip sites throughout Shetland from Scousburgh in the South Mainland to Mid Yell in the North Isles.The funding, accessed from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s (Sepa) Clean Up Fund, will enable the amenity trust to target some of what it considers to be the worst fly-tip sites in Shetland. According to the amenity trust, the sites not only look unsightly, but also present a hazard to public health.Four are in Yell – at Mid Yell, Vatster, Greypit in Burravoe and Mugdale in Hamnavoe. Others on the Mainland are on the Sullom road, on Scousburgh Hill, in a disused quarry at Bigton, at Cunningsburgh industrial estate, at East Voe in Scalloway, in a field in Gulberwick and near Hollanders Knowe on the old Lerwick to Scalloway road.Most of the 11 sites are “historic” and are still active and of considerable size, while some have only just recently appeared.The trust’s environment project officer Mick Clifton said: “We have been working very closely with SIC and Sepa to identify, inspect and catalogue these illegal dumps so that we can attract funding. It is essential, in this day and age, that we close these sites down and ensure that they do not re-open.“Thankfully, most sites are very well hidden and some are very small, but there are one or two that are of a considerable size. By clearing these illegal dumps, we will be making a significant improvement to our local environment. Thousands of visitors come to Shetland every year expecting to see a pristine environment and we should do all we can to ensure that happens.”Although some of the illegal fly-tip sites merely contain abandoned materials such as steel tanks, girders, vehicles, cranes and building and crofting material, others are more serious and pose a danger to wildlife and public health.SIC environmental health manager Maggie Dunne said: “Some of these sites pose no risk but look unsightly while others contain massive amounts of plastics, crofting waste and possible contaminates. In all cases though, dumping waste like this is illegal and can attract a large fine. Our environmental health offices will be monitoring these sites to ensure dumping does not take place again.”Manager of Sepa’s Shetland office Dave Okill said: “We have very good provision for waste disposal in Shetland so there is no reason for anyone to dump waste in this way.“These illegal dumps have an extremely negative impact on our communities and Sepa are very pleased to be working with the amenity trust on a programme of remediation. The benefits to the local community and the local environment will be considerable. If evidence is forthcoming of anyone fly-tipping, legal action will be taken against them.”All the 11 sites will be cleared and closed by mid-March and the amenity trust will be contracting in waste disposal experts 60 North Recycling and Victor Jamieson of Yell to undertake most of the work along with the trust’s environmental improvement squads.? Rubbish can be disposed of free at Rova Head and anyone with items to dump should contact the SIC.