Buntings and geese join in the great winter migration

A QUIETER week for species diversity up north last week, but still a lot of birds around and always the potential to find something really rare in among the more expected migrants.

Yet another Hornemann’s Arctic redpoll turned up at Norwick – what an amazing year for them. Five Lapland buntings were located on Lambaness, Unst, on the 14th, while a couple of little buntings were also found last week; one at Isbister, Whalsay, last Thursday, and the second found by Rory Tallack at Skaw, Unst, last Saturday.

They really are “little”; this latter one was feeding in among the dead stems of mugwort but occasionally offered good views of its rusty-coloured cheeks. Following a west­erly range expansion, the nearest breeding birds these days are in northern Norway, from where they stretch right across to Siberia. Snow buntings may have featured in the previous week’s round up but there seemed to be even more around the North Isles last week. Seventy were at Loch of Cliff on the 13th, with at least a hundred in one small area just to the north of Baltasound last Thursday. In addition, several smaller flocks were gracing the landscape – no wonder they are often known as snowflakes.

A lot of geese were arriving at the beginning of last week. While the majority of them were greylags, in among them were a few pinkfeet, and also some barnacle geese. Both the greylags and pinkfeet will have come down from Iceland, and will largely be moving through to spend the winter on mainland Britain. Many of the greylags, for instance, winter in the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve in Northumberland. But the barnacles breed much further north and have probably come down from Svalbard, one of three distinct breeding populations, the others being east Greenland and coastal arctic Russia. They are likely to be on their way to Caerlaverock in south-west Scotland.

There have also been a lot of golden plover around, though they are as able at showing themselves as they are of disappearing, though many will be moving through. Golden plovers do, of course, breed in the North Isles, but further afield the species has a wide distribution right across north-west Europe. While some of our breeding birds may move further south during the inclement part of the year, those staying will be joined by migrants to make up the large flocks that have been around lately.

In summer plumage, those breed­ing in more northerly areas have blacker faces and underparts, but in non-breeding plumage it is not possible to tell them apart. Plovers typically have short bills and therefore feed by sight rather than by probing deep into the mud, and for this reason have large eyes to help them to spot prey.

And now for something comp­letely different. When Arthur Spence went to look for something in his garage last week, he found more than he was expecting. Trapped inside a glass jar under the bench was a large spider which turned out to be Tegenaria gigantea, not a species that normally occurs in Shetland though it is found in mainland Britain. The suggestion was that it may have come in from south with salmon feed. Whatever, it was a handsome specimen with beautiful paler scalloped markings on its dark brown abdomen with a light coloured band behind the head.

Wendy Dickson


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