17th February 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Rare wood sandpipers turn up in Quarff

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There were fewer migrants around this week, but two wood sandpipers appeared at Henry’s Loch in Quarff.

Wood sandpipers are scarce passage migrants. Their breeding range extends from Scandinavia to Russia, the birds which are recorded in Shetland in spring and autumn probably originating from Scandinavia. These sandpipers are long distance migrants, wintering in Africa, Asia and Australia. The highest number of migrants is recorded from Orkney and Shetland, with more of the records occurring in spring, mostly in May and early June. Wood sandpipers have been seen throughout Shetland, but most of the spring records are from the south and central Mainland, and are usually of one or two individuals. There is a small breeding population of around 20 pairs in northern Scotland.

A wood sandpiper has a similar shape to a redshank but is smaller. The upperparts are grey-brown with large pale markings, the lower parts grey-buff and white, the tail is barred and the rump white. There is a pale stripe above the eye and the long legs are yellowish-green. When I was watching the bird, it was wading in the weedy shallows and feeding. Their diet is mainly terrestrial and aquatic insects and migrants are usually seen by lochs, pools or burns. The wood sandpiper was added to the Shetland list in 1908 and has been recorded annually since 1970.

The lesser scaup was still around this week, travelling between the Loch of Houlland and the Loch of Benston, the little egret was seen on the 2nd and the wood duck was at Hillwell. Other migrants recorded included marsh warbler, quail, common redpoll, whitethroat, a male common rosefinch, chiffchaff, brent goose, Canada goose, common scoter and Iceland gull.

In Fair Isle on the 9th there was a record of a corn bunting, a bird which was once common in Shetland but is now a very rare vagrant. Corn buntings were first recorded in Shetland in 1769 and it was known that they were abundant and widespread at the beginning of the 20th century. In Scotland, they were even known as common buntings. Corn bunting populations began to decline through the 20th century and, in Shetland, breeding pairs started to decrease during the 1950s. The last confirmed breeding record was in 1978. Since 1980 there have only been around 10 records of this species. Corn buntings are now only localised breeders in lowland Scotland and are generally sedentary.

From the 1970s to the 1980s, there was a 35 per cent decrease in the corn bunting population in Britain. Their decline has been attributed to agricultural intensification.

Young starlings are fledging just now. After around 21 days in the nest, they leave the nest hole and form noisy groups, while continuing to be fed by their parents. Although some fledge earlier, most starlings in Shetland fledge from early to mid-June. These young birds face a steep learning curve in discovering feeding strategies, avoiding predators and perfecting their flying skills, and are very vulnerable to danger. During the breeding season, starlings mainly eat insects, especially leather jackets which are the larvae of daddy long-legs. In summer, the ground becomes drier and harder so that foraging becomes more difficult for these inexperienced birds. Juvenile starlings have a high mortality rate of 60-70 per cent in their first year. Starlings are the commonest passerine in Shetland and most people think of them as a very common species. However the starling is on the red list, which means that it is listed as a bird of high conservation concern in the UK. The vulnerability of our bird populations should be of concern to us all.

Joyce JM Garden

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