Siberian visitors feed up before returning to tundra

Large numbers of greylag geese were feeding on Lambaness in north-east Unst last week, presumably migrants building up reserves before their return flight to Iceland.

But in among them Rory Tallack managed to locate seven Tundra bean geese – by far and away the most interesting sighting in the North Isles last week. Seven is a significant number of this rare and smart-looking migrant that is not guaranteed to put in annual visits to Shetland.

Although superficially similar to the larger greylags, once you got your eye in they were relatively easy to pick out from the surrounding flock. Presumably uplifted here because of cold weather on the continent, they remained at least until the snow came, anxious to feed up before returning to their tundra breeding areas of northern Siberia.

Once there, around mid-May, the females apparently seek out the protein-rich seeds of cotton grass though, in years of large lemming populations, these feisty little rodents are unwelcome competitors. Eggs are not laid until around the first or second week of June.

Some folk living around Easter Loch in Unst watched an unfolding drama on the ice on the Thursday morning. Three whooper swans – two adults and their juvenile – were apparently stuck in the ice.

With no apparent signs of movement, the worst was feared, but after some time, two of the birds began moving their heads around. Although the temperature was just about freezing, by now the sun was shining from a clear sky and gradually the ice began to loosen its grip on the three pairs of sturdy legs.

It seemed it was the juvenile that was iced in the most, but gradually all managed to free themselves and, much to everyone’s relief who was watching, the birds eventually managed to take off.

The shore lark was relocated on Lambaness again after having not been seen since 14th January. It certainly has staying power, but I do wonder if it managed to survive last weekend’s fairly significant snow fall. But there’s always the shore.

Cold weather affects some birds more than others. It was probably a combination of cold weather and inexperience that resulted in the remains of a grey heron being found on Burrafirth links during the week. When the water surface freezes, those birds trying to eke a living from fresh water areas are unable to access sufficient food items to sustain themselves. And when there are rough seas on the coast, that option is also denied them. Or the prime places are being defended by stronger, more experienced birds.

Wendy Dickson


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