Garganey is earliest visitor

There was a really spring-like feel in the air at the end of last week, with a few migrants coming in to liven up the North Isles wildlife.

A lone, small duck on some flood water at Burrafirth immediately made me suspicious that it might be something unusual. A quick look through binoculars gave it away as a male garganey on the very early date of 11th March, equalling the earliest Shetland record of one in Fair Isle on 11th March 1973. Garganey is a very attractive, small dabbling duck, about the size of a teal. The male in full summer plumage is striking, with its most prominent features being a cream stripe going just through and over the eye, while long black and white scapular feathers droop over the closed wing. This particular individual was not yet in full summer plumage, the eye stripe still a little muted and the scapular feathers only just starting to grow. Possibly it was a young bird of last year. While males are quite easy to spot, females are much more like female teal and probably some get overlooked.

The first accepted Shetland record of garganey comes from the North Isles – a male obtained by Thomas Saxby in Unst on 14th April 1907. Classified in Shetland as a very scarce passage migrant, one or two usually turn up in the North Isles each year, with May being the most likely month to see them. Probably fewer than one hundred pairs breed in mainland Britain but it will be interesting to see what the current distribution is when the new national breeding atlas is published. The majority of the population breeds through Europe across to far eastern Russia. In winter most gather in large numbers on wetlands in places like Senegal in sub-Saharan Africa.

A few mistle thrushes were seen in Unst last week. This is our largest regular thrush species, with a very bold, confident character. Once again the first acceptable Shetland record of this species comes from Unst – a bird found at Baltasound on 10th March 1863. Nowadays considered as a scarce passage migrant here, most records come from March, April and October. Distinguished from fieldfare by a rather uniform greyish-brown plumage, mistle thrushes have bold spots on the breast and a very upright stance. And surely the sound a football rattle makes was based on this bird’s “rattling” very distinctive alarm call. Elsewhere, a stonechat was at North Dale, Unst, last Sunday, while the year’s first lesser black-backed gulls also put in an appearance at Baltasound. Meanwhile, the seven tundra bean geese on Lambaness seem finally to have moved on, but caused a lot of interest during their prolonged stay in Unst. It was good to see a pod of at least six harbour porpoises in Burrafirth last Sunday. And the recent cold winter weather hasn’t prevented the frogs spawning. Last year much spawn was destroyed in freezing temperatures – let’s hope those are behind us for this winter.

Wendy Dickson


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