20th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Signs of spring start to appear

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Twite are attractive, restless finches, usually seen in small flocks feeding on seeds on arable and cultivated land. Closely related to the common linnet, the twite is known as the “lintie” in Shetland.

The warm tawny-brown, strong­ly-streaked plumage and longer, strongly-forked tail disting­uishes it from the linnet. Male twite also have pink rumps, but this feature is not always noticeable in the field.

The nasal drawn-out call sounds like “twite”, hence the common name of the species. The stout bill is designed for seed-eating and twite depend on seeds throughout the year. This has made the species vulnerable to any changes in agricultural practice which affect the availability of seeds. The reduction in the abundance of flower-rich meadows, in areas of arable cultivation and in fields with annual weeds, has decreased the amount of foraging habitat for twite.

Twite are now on the UK Red List, which means that the species is under threat. Ninety-four per cent of the British population breed in Scotland and there has been a sharp decline in the population over the last two centuries. The breeding range has contracted to the north and west of Scotland, with the highest densities of breeding twite being found in Orkney and on the north coasts of Sutherland and Caithness.

In Shetland, written records show that twite were formerly very common. By the end of the 19th century they were considered an agricultural pest and are described as “abundant” in the mid 20th century. Changes in agriculture, particularly the decrease in growing crops, have resulted in a corre­sponding decrease in the Shetland population.

Today, the twite is classified as “a fairly common breeding resident” but breeding is very local and is mainly on sea cliffs. From late August, autumn flocks begin to form as the twite leave their breeding sites and congregate together. Weedy turnip fields or similar crop fields are favourite wintering areas. Most flocks are under 50 but there are records of winter twite flocks of 300-500 in recent decades.

There are increasing signs of spring this week – bulbs blooming, lesser celandine in flower, skylarks singing, snipe “chippering”, curlews displaying and frog spawn in the ponds.

Winter visitors were still around, such as the 46 great northern divers between West Burrafirth and Papa Stour, and the nine Iceland gulls in Lerwick. Waders are on the move, like the 29 knot at the Sletts in Lerwick and there have been a few small migrants recorded, such as robin and dunnock. A tundra bean goose was still at Sandwick, along with a pink-footed goose, and there were four goosanders at Strand Loch.

A dotted border moth was recorded at Scatsta on 9th March. The males have brownish forewings (16-20mm) with a row of black dots along the edges of both the forewings and hind wings, hence the common name. Females are smaller and flightless with stumpy wings. This moth is found as far north as Orkney. Overwintering as an underground pupa, the males are on the wing from February to April.

A brindled ochre moth came to our lighted front door on 17th March. This is a stout, furry moth with greenish-brown forewings, marked with ochre and grey. Brind­led ochres are on the wing from late summer through to October. How­ever, the fertilised females over­winter in crevices or outbuild­ings. They are attracted to light but do not feed. In the spring these females lay their eggs on the larval food plants, mainly hogweed and wild angelica.

Joyce J M Garden