25th May 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

A look back at the busy year’s birdlife

, by , in

January began with snow and ice, the wintry conditions persisting into mid-month. A few species of garden birds such as greenfinch, chaffinch, brambling, robin, song thrush and common redpoll remain­ed in the islands, surviving mainly on food put out in bird feeders. There were also several records of jack snipe, woodcock and water rail, but many of the resident waders moved out of Shetland due to the harsh weather conditions.Two tundra bean geese, a locally rare species, were in the South Mainland along with a white-fronted goose, a pink footed goose and a little grebe. In Bressay, there was a winter roost of 27 grey herons. Redwings and field­fares arrived, with a flock of 70 fieldfares at the Staney Hill in Ler­wick. There was an Iceland gull at Virkie and 16 little auks off Sum­burgh Head. On the 24th a black-bellied dipper, a scarce visitor to Britain, was at the Burn of Uradale, near Scalloway.

At the beginning of February there was a flock of 170 fieldfares at Kergord. A great crested grebe was in Scousburgh bay and there was a male gadwall at Grutness. Goosanders were in the Central Mainland and a flock of 102 wigeon were at Lochend, North Roe, with 138 at Sandness later in the month. A flock of 10 pale-bellied brent geese, scarce passage migrants from Svalbard or Greenland, joined a lone Canada goose at Spiggie, while seven taiga bean geese were at Sandwick. There were a few fur­ther records of great crested grebes, and a winter boat count found 76 Slavonian grebes between White­ness and Seli Voe, and 31 in Sullom Voe. A Mediterranean gull was found at Firth. There was a small influx of mistle thrushes, and the flock of greenfinches in Lerwick were joined by a hawfinch. Jack­daws were at Sandwick and Weis­dale. Towards the end of February, there were some heavy snowfalls, smothering the emerging bulbs.

The first week of March was dominated by extreme wintry con­ditions. A feral Egyptian goose, the first record for Shetland, was at the Ness of Sound. The nearest feral populations of this African species are in East Anglia, Denmark and Holland. A black-throated diver, a local rarity, was at the Bay of Quendale on the 6th. Black-throated divers are usually recorded annually in Shetland, but are considered as very scarce passage migrants with only a handful of records each year. A small flock of skylark were at Grutness and a singing skylark was heard at Brow, while blackbird song was reported from Twatt also on the 6th. In the last week of March there were several reports of siskins. The Mediterranean gull, recorded at Firth in early February, returned to the area. Resident waders started to take up territories on moorland, and increasing signs of spring appeared such as frogspawn in ponds. My highlight of the month was watching a pod of 4-5 killer whales in Brei­wick Bay and Lerwick Harbour.

April brought an influx of commoner migrants. The most frequently reported species were chaffinches, bramblings, goldcrests, siskins, chiffchaffs and robins. There were also several records of haw­finches, greenfinches, black red­starts, dunnocks, blackcaps and reed buntings. There was a report of a very early garden warbler at Scousburgh on the 5th, and the earliest Shetland record of a wood warbler from Yell on the 7th. Both swallows and house martin were reported. A black-bellied dipper was in Bressay and another black-throated diver appeared in Whalsay. By the third week of the month, Shetland experienced volcanic ash from the eruption in Iceland fol­lowed by a return to cold temper­atures and wet snow. There was a ring-billed gull at Hillwell and a common crane was observed flying over Virkie. A large number of pink-footed geese passed through the South Mainland with peak numbers of nearly 600 on the 20th. Fair Isle also recorded at least 1,225 on that date. Other notable April migrants included white-billed diver, smew, garganey, gadwall, white-tailed eagle, red kite, grass­hopper warbler and tree sparrow. One hundred and fifty seven Heb­rew character moths were trapped in one night at Burrafirth, Unst.

May started very cold – the coldest temperatures in parts of Britain for 10 years. Rather fittingly, a snowy owl was in Unst. A first summer male king eider, another national rarity, was at Leebitton, Sandwick. A sea eagle and a com­mon crane were seen flying over the South Mainland and a little egret was in Fetlar. Other migrants included wryneck, brambling, hoop­oe (Exnaboe, Northmavine and Unst), chiffchaff, blackcap, redstart, willow warbler, garden warbler, sedge warbler, grasshopper warbler, swallow, common redpoll and several reports of pied flycatchers. Seventeen long-tailed skuas, rare passage migrants, were observed flying past Eshaness and one frequented an area in the Central Mainland. The long-tailed skua has a slim build with long, slender wings and the flight is graceful and tern-like. In adult summer breeding plumage, it is readily identified by its very long central tail feathers which can measure up to 20cm. On the Spring Bird Course on the 16th, led by Paul Harvey from the Shetland Biologi­cal Records Centre, we recorded 69 species. A white-throated sparrow, a very rare vagrant from North America, was at Spiggie and a red-rumped swallow, a rare vagrant from southern Europe or Asia, was in Unst. Other notable migrants included a little ringed plover, a white-tailed eagle and an osprey. Marine mammal sightings included killer whales, minke whales, Risso’s dolphins and a basking shark. Wild flowers brightened up fields and roadsides and there were records of large white and red admiral butterflies.

In the first week of June an Iberian chiffchaff was discovered at Halligarth. Very similar in appear­ance to a common chiffchaff, this species is identified by its different calls and song. Also in Unst was a black stork, a very rare vagrant from southern and eastern Europe. This bird was ringed in Hungary in 2007, subsequently being recorded again in Hungary in 2008, and then in the Netherlands in 2009. Local rarities included a pectoral sand­piper and a sub-alpine warbler in Foula, a rustic bunting in Fetlar, a white-rumped sandpiper at Scatness and a short-toed lark on Papa Stour. There was also a bar-headed goose which appeared at several locations but all UK records originate from escapees. Later in the month, there were also some national rarities – a paddyfield warbler at Grutness, a great reed warbler in Unst and a surf scoter off Burra.

In July there was a small influx of common crossbills, with wide­spread reports of swallows, swifts, sand martins, house martins and siskins also. A drake king eider was at the Burra bridge. King eiders are rare Arctic vagrants to Shetland, although they do occur regularly. Local rarities included a roseate tern at Sandness, and a honey buzzard which flew over Brae. Passage migration of waders such as knot and bar-tailed godwit was noted, including a one-legged bar-tailed godwit at the Pool of Virkie which was first recorded there in 2007. There were two first summer black-throated divers in Quendale Bay. A greenfinch with a recently fledged juvenile was seen at Girlsta. Several species of sea mammals were recorded including killer whales, minke whales, Risso’s dol­phins, white-beaked dolphins, pilot whales and basking sharks. There were some notable moth records including a brown rustic, a first for Shetland, trapped by Steve Minton at Scatness. Magpie moths were seen in the South Mainland where several dotted buffs, a garden tiger, a burnished brass and a bright-line brown-eye were also caught. A greater horntail wasp was identified, the third Shetland record of this species. Humming bird hawk-moths were found in Whalsay and Out Skerries and one also landed on a fishing boat 10 miles west of Muckle Flugga.

Another paddyfield warbler was found in Unst at the start of August, followed by a Syke’s warbler, a very rare vagrant from south-west Asia and then an Arctic warbler. A greenish warbler, a rare migrant from north east Europe, was at the Sumburgh Hotel. Migrant warbler species passing through the islands included willow, icterine, garden, reed, barred and wood warblers. Other August passerine records were of crossbills, common rose­finch, common redpoll, swift, cuckoo, blackcap, common white­throat, spotted and pied flycatchers, fieldfare, chiffchaff, wryneck and whinchat. Wader migration con­tinued through the month, with a flock of over 40 sanderling at Quen­dale, eight spotted redshanks on Whalsay, and 26 bar-tailed godwits at Virkie; also recorded were ruff, green sandpiper, wood sandpiper and greenshank. A male surf scoter was off Wester Quarff and a velvet scoter was in Bluemull Sound while there was a little gull in Unst. There was a pod of 20 Risso’s dolphins in Mousa Sound and an interesting record of 30 snouts, a migrant moth, in nettles at Quendale.

September brought an increasing list of migrants. National rarities were Arctic warbler, citrine wagtail, western Bonelli’s warbler, paddy­field warbler, thrush nightingale, eastern olivaceous warbler, river warbler, Hornemann’s Arctic red­poll, great snipe, white’s thrush and Siberian stonechat. There were three buff-breasted sandpipers which remained at Eshaness for several days. This North American wader is usually recorded in autumn (most records being of juveniles), and is regarded as a rare, but annual, vagrant to Scotland. A long distance migrant from North America and Canada to South America, some birds head out over the ocean to reach eastern South America and these are the source of the vagrants reaching Britain. The long list of September migrants also included other local rarities such as American golden plover, pectoral sandpiper, black tern, ortolan bunting, hobby, black-throated, tundra bean goose, Sabine’s gull and melodious warb­ler as well as an impressive number of scarce and common migrants. On the 3rd there were up to 30 sightings of minke whales between Fetlar and Unst. I caught a convolvulus hawk moth on the 6th and, on the 10th, there were two records of a rare migrant moth – a Clifden non-pareil. One was caught at a window in Exnaboe and the other was found at Whalsay Primary School. This large moth (wingspan 80-96 mm) is a rare migrant to Britain, with only a few Shetland records.

During October, Shetland be­came a birding mecca with 15 national rarities and nine local rarities occurring in the first week. A Swainson’s thrush, a very rare vagrant from North America, attracted over 60 birders to Leven­wick. Another very rare American vagrant was the buff-bellied pipit at Eshaness. Closely related to the rock and water pipit, it breeds from Siberia, through Alaska and Can­ada, into western parts of Greenland and winters in the southern USA and Central America. Another river warbler was found at Fladdabister and a Syke’s warbler at Channer­wick. Lanceolated warblers, rare migrants from Siberia, turned up in Foula and in Out Skerries. There were also records of citrine wag­tails, paddyfield warblers, Horne-mann’s Arctic redpolls, a Blyth’s reed warbler, booted warblers, a Pallas grasshopper warbler, an olive-backed pipit, a black-headed bunt-ing, a western Bonelli’s warbler, a black-throated thrush, an isabelline shrike and a spotted sandpiper. The isabelline shrike, a very rare vagrant from Asia, was formerly regarded as a sub-species of the red-backed shrike. The name “isabelline” refers to the sandy colour of the plumage. A Radde’s warbler, another very rare vagrant, was at Sumburgh. This species breeds in the taiga of Siberia and winters in south-east Asia. There was also an influx of lapland buntings, scarce passage migrants, with a flock of 105 in Foula, 83 in Fetlar and 80 at Eshaness. The Octo­ber migration also saw a wide variety of locally rare, scarce and common migrants arriving in the islands. Birds were not the only migrants making landfall in Shet­land. There were a couple of records of pipistrelle bats and several reports of red admirals.

An adult white phase snow goose, probably the same individual which was in East Burra, relocated to the South Mainland in early November. These geese are com­monly kept in captivity in Europe, and feral breeding populations have become established in Finland, Sweden and Britain. During the Shetland Bird Club annual swan census, there were 43 mute swans on the Loch of Benston in South Nesting. The flock consisted of 26 adults, 10 second winter birds and seven juveniles The only national rarities this month were a Horne­mann’s Arctic redpoll and a female king eider. A serin which appeared in Out Skerries was later observed to carry an avicultural ring so was not a wild bird. The most exciting migrant was a water pipit which arrived in Unst on the 21st – the first Shetland record for this species which breeds in mountainous areas in Europe. It is a regular winter visitor in small numbers to England and a rare winter visitor to Scotland. A handful of other local rarities were recorded such as grey phala­rope, short-toed lark, American golden plover, white-billed diver and grey phalarope. Waxwings were still around but in smaller numbers. There were also sizeable flocks of finches, with up to 50 brambling and 40 chaffinches, and an influx of common redpolls including a flock of 125 at Virkie. Other migrants and overwintering visitors this month included bull-finch, greenfinch, rose-coloured starling, chiffchaff, blackcap, sis-kin, lapland bunting and jack snipe. Several species of birds of prey were observed – peregrine, hen harrier, kestrel, long-eared owl and rough-legged buzzard. The weather grew colder by the end of November.

The severe conditions persisted into the second week of December, then returned on the 16th providing a beautiful, calm and sunny white Christmas. Feeding the garden birds became increasingly important for their survival when foraging time was short, due to the decreasing hours of daylight, and the ground remained frozen and covered in a blanket of snow. The female king eider at the West Voe of Sumburgh was joined by a first-winter male and there was a Greenland white-fronted goose among the greylag flock at Bigton. The serin remained in Out Skerries. Winter visitors in December also included common redpoll, bramb-ling, chaffinch, stonechat, green-finch, bullfinch, waxwing, fieldfare, redwing, robin, dunnock, blackcap, peregrine, kestrel, hen harrier and long-eared owl. A colour-ringed starling from Fair Isle was seen in Out Skerries. This was unusual, as the Fair Isle starling population is usually sedentary.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has provided me with wildlife information during 2010, including Mike Pennington and the Shetland Nature website at www.shetland-nature.co.uk.

Joyce J M Garden