Summer migrants move in as winter birds leave

Last week a steady trickle of summer migrants moved into the North Isles.

The first day of April produced a stock dove and pied wagtail at Saltness and chiffchaff at Skaw, all in Whalsay, while the same day the first bonxie for the North Isles showed up in Fetlar.

Two days later a wheatear and two woodpigeons were found on Lambaness, Unst, while on the 4th a swallow was at Baltasound and a male blackcap at Skerries, which remained until the 5th when it was joined on the isles by seven chaffinches and two greenfinches.

Also on the 5th, the first sand martin of the year flew around Burrafirth, while a common redpoll was at Skaw, Unst, and a long-eared owl in Norwick. Not a bad start to spring.

But not all the migrants were summer visitors; winter visitors were also passing through. Four brambling were at Skerries on the 5th, this having been an extremely scarce species across the isles this past winter. Redwing and fieldfare have been moving through in dribs and drabs, with eight fieldfares on Lambaness last Monday the highest count. Four snow buntings“ two males and two females“ were near Clivocast in south Unst on the 1st, the same day that 12 were noted at Gloup in north Yell, while last Monday a small group were on Lambaness.

Right now, male snow buntings are looking very smart as they are half way between winter and summer plumage, the latter attained by a partial moult and the wearing down of some feather tips to reveal their black and white breeding plumage.

I must confess I prefer their winter plumage when they have a mixture of lovely rusty hues with the white wing patch so obvious when they fly“ no wonder these delightful birds are often referred to as “snowflakes”.

It seems that way back in the 19th century snow buntings were significantly more numerous in the isles, so much so that they formed a small but important food source in parts of Shetland. Even as recently as the 1970s they were noticeably more numerous here than they are today, There were far fewer skylarks at North Dale last week“ about 30 last weekend. The rest have probably moved on, but the shore lark was not motivated to go as well“ that was still on Lambaness last Saturday.

Counting birds is very important and can often be good fun but because these are usually timed counts, it isn’t possible to linger to watch little cameos of wildlife that I so enjoy. But on Wednesday of last week, celebrating the arrival of April, I drove around Unst to see what was about.

Arriving at Westing, I quickly noticed seven purple sandpipers with turnstones on the beach but not a lot else. Out to sea a few gannets were fishing.

But then a movement caught my eye. The very low tide had exposed quite a causeway coming out from Brough Holm, and up and down this two otters were running. Both roughly the same size, they were probably well-grown siblings. After several more forays over the boulders they finally jumped into the sea with a huge splash.

This proved too much for a nearby common seal which promptly propelled itself off the boulder it was hauled out on and likewise hit the water with an exaggerated splash. And just as quickly it was all over, but it was difficult not to think that they were just enjoying themselves. Which brings me, finally, to a pod of seven killer whales noted by the ferry crew as they made their way through Yell Sound on the evening of the 31st.

Wendy Dickson


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