Birdwatching circus hits Unst to catch sight of rare warbler
A vast flock of birdwatchers descended on Unst this week in search of one of the tiniest birds to have ever flown across the Atlantic.
The Cape May warbler, the first ever seen in Shetland, is more commonly found in northern North America and is believed to have been blown off course during its seasonal migration to the West Indies.
Over 200 twitchers meanwhile headed north by ferry, scheduled and chartered flight, with 11 planes carrying birdwatchers landing in Unst alone.
The Cape May warbler is a first for Shetland, and only the second ever to have been recorded in Scotland, the UK and indeed Europe – the other sighting having been in Paisley on 17th June 1977.
Baltasound Junior High School teacher Mike Pennington first spotted the diminutive songbird during the school holidays last Wednesday and was “utterly stunned” when he realised what it was. Luckily, Mr Pennington is also a keen birder and said he had a “pretty good idea” it was an American warbler.
He made repeated calls to fellow north isles birder Brydon Thomason to try to confirm the identity of the passerine, which is in its drab winter plumage, rather than bright yellow summer colours.
He added: “It is one of those things where you need someone to come up and tell you you are not hallucinating.
“It’s a sort of grey coloured thing. American warblers are famous for being very colourful and that is about the dullest one that could have turned up.”
The warbler seemed to have an “ecclesiastical bent” being first spotted in the manse garden beside the school. Since then it has fluttered between the old manse at Hillside, the surgery and the Baliasta kirkyard with the Hillside manse garden being its favourite roost.
According to Mr Pennington, most of the dwellings it has favoured are luckily unoccupied, so people are not getting bothered by a horde of twitchers gawping over their garden dyke, with up to 40 or 50 people on scene at a time. Unst airport has returned to its busiest in 15 years, with five charter flights arriving at one time and two coming in on Tuesday this week.
Local birders were first to the punch with binocular-bearing enthusiasts flocking to see the warbler as soon as word was out on Wednesday night. Mainland twitchers then caught on and transport links with the south were soon unseasonably busy.
Mr Pennington had hoped the bird would continue on its way on Tuesday night, when skies were calm and clear, but it was still hopping around on Wednesday, finding insects among falling leaves. The warbler will need to score an alternative food source over winter as it normally uses its specially adapted tongue to feed on nectar during its stay in the Caribbean.
The bird, known in Latin as (Setophaga tigrina), is commonly named for Cape May, in New Jersey, but it breeds throughout southern Canada, the Great Lakes area and New England. It is insectivorous and lays larger clutches in years when the spruce budworm is abundant.