Pace slackens in North Isles

What a difference a week makes. In contrast to the previous one, last week in the North Isles was much slower paced.

A common crane was seen flying high over Baltasound in a north-easterly direction last Sunday. Meanwhile, a long-eared owl at Trolla Water in Unst caused some interest last week, especially when it spent part of its time sitting in the sun on a very visible perch, apparently unconcerned by its admirers.

An active kestrel was seen in various parts of Norwick, Unst, on the 18th. And after the record early drake garganey in March, another much more dapper male was seen at Haroldswick last Monday.

Probably the first whimbrel for the North Isles was found at Hamister, Whalsay, on the 17th. It’s always such a great experience hearing that distinctive seven-note call, and better still seeing, the first of these curlew cousins each spring.

A very late Iceland gull was also in Whalsay, in the Hamister area, for much of last week. And up to 22 woodpigeons were present in Unst midweek – surely the only place in Britain where they cause so much interest.

Folk are still asking me about the fate of Unst’s shore lark. It seems safe to assume it went on its way after an almost four-month sojourn on the island during which time it caused a lot of interest both locally and in the national birdy press, and was a new species for some who saw it. By now maybe it is close to its breeding grounds well to the north-east.

Blackcaps have been showing in small numbers. It is only the adult male that lives up to the name, females having a chestnut-brown cap. In late summer the recently-fledged young also have a brownish cap but as the season moves on it is possible to see the black feathers coming through on males.

Blackcaps are interesting birds. The first Shetland record was recorded by Saxby in Halligarth, Unst, on 12th August 1861. Since then they have become more common and they occasionally breed, though an attempt at Halligarth, also mentioned by Saxby, ended when one of the pair fell prey to a cat.

They breed widely across mainland Britain as well as Europe, and across to western Siberia, and extensively to the south of us. Until about the 1960s they were always regarded as summer visitors to Britain. But since then, while our breeding birds are still migrating south, a population of continental birds from central Europe began wintering in Britain.

Chiffchaffs continue to pass through the isles – six in Whalsay, a couple at Otterswick in Yell, for example. Goldcrests have also been seen and heard while five siskins were noted at Otterswick on the 14th. Meanwhile a stonechat and three black redstarts were reported from Skerries on the 15th. But still winter visitors depart with a handful of snow buntings, brambling, fieldfare and redwing, one of the latter at Skaw, Unst, last weekend lacking a tail.

A peacock butterfly at Quoys at the beginning of last week was a welcome sight. Last year was a particularly good one for these butterflies and this individual probably over wintered in an outhouse. Hebrew character and brindled ochre moths continue to appear in the Burrafirth moth trap along with a little cream-coloured micro moth, but hopefully the pace will quicken soon.

Wendy Dickson


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