Whales, birds and moths – a real cornucopia

WOW! For once I was on the right ferry when, thanks to being alerted by the crew of the Bigga, several of us got the chance of fantastic views of a lone male killer whale close by as it made its way through Bluemull Sound last Monday.

Surfacing several times just ahead of us, it then began breaching in amazing fashion. Imagine the speed and power it must generate to launch such bulk out of the water.

Reports of basking sharks seem to have been scarce this year so it was good to hear of one off Whalsay on the 22nd.

It’s always exciting when wading birds that breed further north and east start moving through again as they head south. Last weekend, quite a few turnstones were present, many still in their summer plumage finery. Ten sanderlings also graced the beach at Easting, Unst. The red knot always seems to be a misnomer for what, to us, is mostly a grey-coloured bird of passage. But see one in breeding plumage, as I did briefly at Norwick, and there is no doubt how correctly it is named.

A red-necked phalarope was feeding on a pool on Hermaness on the 22nd while single green sandpipers were at Burravoe, Yell, on the 20th and Hermaness on the 25th. Finally a greenshank was frequenting pools above Skaw, Unst, last Saturday.

Somewhat unexpected was a black-throated diver in Haroldswick last Saturday. A pintail was seen flying through Burra Firth on the 22nd, with probably the same bird flushed from a flood pool nearby two days later. A swift at Burrafirth on the 23rd was probably the same one seen on Hermaness two days later. Meanwhile, a fine male red-backed shrike was showing well in Baltasound at the end of the week.

Wheatears continued to dominate the landscape last week, but one particular individual had me puzzled for a while. Driving down from Burrafirth, a bird flew up ahead with apparently white flight feathers. It disappeared before I could stop, but then took off again, and this time landed in full view. It was a wheatear, almost certainly a young one, with almost white primary or flight feathers, and the rest of the body was a kind of milky coffee colour. This leucisic colouration sets it at a disadvantage as, on migration in particular, it will be much more obvious to predators than normally-coloured birds.

The number of moths in the Burrafirth trap increased as last week progressed, but is still below usual numbers for this time of year. The majority are the usual suspects – dark arches, engrailed clay, antler and still a few late silver-ground carpets, but the first red curiously named northern spinach made an appearance. The scarcest one last week was a small square-spot which is at best infrequent, while a migrant green lacewing was found in the trap on the 27th.

Wendy Dickson


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