22nd February 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Rare laughing gull stops off at south end

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The summer-plumaged laughing gull was still in the South Mainland this week, moving between the Boddam and Virkie/Scord area.

This is a very rare vagrant from America, first recorded in Shetland in Fair Isle in 1975. About the size of a black-headed gull, the laughing gull has a similar plumage pattern, with grey upperparts, black hood and red bill, legs and feet. The mantle is dark grey, and the black hood contrasts with white crescent-shaped markings above and below the eye.

This species is usually seen in adult plumage, with over 20 Scottish records. Laughing gulls breed along the eastern coasts of North America down to the Caribbean. Northern populations are migratory, wintering in South America.

Another American rarity, the lesser scaup, was at the Loch of Benston in South Nesting. Local rarities recorded this week were hobby, subalpine warbler, nightjar, little egret and honey buzzard.

The buzzard flew over Virkie on the afternoon of the 21st and was seen the next day at Sumburgh Head, where it was observed eating shag chicks. It was still in the area on the 24th.

Honey buzzards are about the size of a common buzzard and have very variable plumage. However, adults all have a broad black trailing edge on the underwing and the typical colouration is grey-brown above, with three bands on the tail. They are very scarce passage migrants. There have been over 80 sightings since 1970 but over a third of these were in Fair Isle.

Honey buzzards breed over much of Europe and in West Asia, with small numbers breeding in Britain, including Scotland. These buzzards are summer visitors, migrating to spend the winter in Africa. Birds reaching Shetland are probably from Scandinavia. The name honey buzzard refers to their diet as they eat the larvae and honeycombs of bees. They also feed on wasp larvae, ants, other invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, eggs and young birds.

At the beginning of last week there were widespread records of commoner migrants, but numbers have decreased as the birds have moved on. Species have included chaffinch, common redstart, black­cap, crossbill, quail, bluethroat, icterine warbler, reed warbler, garden warbler, wood warbler, pied and spotted flycatcher, lesser white­throat, common whitethroat, wax­wing, goldfinch, house martin, swallow, cuckoo, turtle dove, stone­chat and common redpoll.

The common redpoll is a small finch with a black bib, red forehead and white wing bars, hence the name. Their distinctive call note brought a pair of them in our garden to our attention, and we watched them for several minutes as they pecked at seeding dandelions, mak­ing a thorough demolition job of each flower head before moving on to the next. Redpolls feed on very small seeds, especially the seeds of birch, and breed in deciduous wood­land in Scandinavia. They fly with a fast, undulating, dancing action which was accentuated by the gusty wind.

A painted lady butterfly was seen at Twatt on the 21st and 22nd. These large, orange-brown butterflies, with black markings and white wing spots, are also migratory. The BBC Springwatch programme reported hundreds of them appearing in gardens on the south coast of Britain this week.

Painted ladies are strong fliers, migrating annually from North Africa to southern parts of Europe, because the vegetation in their home range becomes scarce due to drought. The first wave of immi­grants breeds around the Mediter­ranean regions and then migrates north, sometimes reaching as far as Iceland. The adults feed on rich sources of nectar, so are attracted to gardens with abundant nectar-bearing flowers. Some of the painted ladies arriving in Britain breed, seeking out thistles and stinging nettles on which to lay their eggs.

Other notable records this week were of large red damselflies at Sand­garth, Voe, and three killer whales moving through Noss Sound on the 19th.

Joyce JM Garden

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