18th November 2018
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Bird conglomeration in Skuda Sound

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AS 2008 rolled into 2009, the North Isles wildlife scene got off to a rather quiet start.

A very large greyish falcon that flew past Malcie Smith and Martha Devine towards dusk as they were driving between Gloup and Breckon in north Yell on the 4th, was probably a gyr falcon, but could not be relocated next day.

Five white-fronted geese were at Baltasound on the 28th, while four Slavonian grebes were seen off Baltasound on the 30th, the same day that Fetlar was graced by a black redstart.

But that doesn’t mean to say there weren’t birds that folk were pleased to say. A good scattering of robins, some of them quite long-staying, saw in the new year across the isles, while song thrushes were seen at both Cullivoe in Yell and in Fetlar.

A few redwings have also been about, and fieldfares have been noticed by several folk. For my money, fieldfare is the most exciting of the six thrush species that we can normally expect to see here. With their fantastic plumage colours of grey heads and backs offset by rich chestnut wings, the whole tending to look best in really frosty weather, they exude wildness with their loud chak chak calls.

Fieldfares breed right across northern Europe, from where those we see in Shetland originate. I suppose you could say that migration has already begun as these birds seem to be making their way back northwards.

A phone call from Mary Ellen Odie in Burravoe over New Year commented on three gannets feeding close inshore in the voe there in the last days of December, an unusual sight there at this time of year, but probably attracted by young sillocks. So that set me off on a little challenge that if I went to a suitable location in decent weather I would be able to find at least one gannet on any day during the winter months.

So next day found me in south Unst, where an amazing conglom­eration of birds greeted me in Skuda Sound between Unst and Uyea Isle. At least 300 shags were in a spread-out group on the water, and sure enough, there were at least six gannets fishing.

Next day, off Lambaness in north-east Unst, after 10 minutes two or three gannets drifted past. At the end of the breeding season, gannets spread themselves far and wide in a general southerly direction, with younger birds moving further south and many of these not coming back to their natal area until they are more mature, around three or four years.

With the moth trap not pressed into service so early in the year, I don’t often see winter moths, but one showed up at the shore station on 3rd January. Overwintering as an egg, the larvae emerging around April feed on a number of plants including moorland species, before pupating underground around early June.

Common in most of Britain, the single generation of this species of which the female is flightless, flies between October and January. However, it is well-known that in some years there can be huge numbers which in some mainland conifer plantations, can reach pest proportions. Reports suggest that there was a large emergence of these insects across the north isles and probably right across Shetland at the end of December.

Wendy Dickson