Birds of prey featured in the North Isles last week. One of the best was a male marsh harrier, first seen flying south from Haroldswick over the Heogs on the 21st and again on Friday.
The male marsh harrier is a striking bird which, in flight, displays silver-grey on the outer half of the upper wing with black wingtips, while the head and upper body are an umber shade of brown. A little larger than hen harriers, they often characteristically fly just above marshy vegetation, gliding on raised wings with the legs slightly down. While marsh harriers have an extensive breeding range stretching across western and central Eurasia and north-west Africa, those individuals visiting Shetland, where it is only a rare migrant, come from the population breeding in Europe as far east as Mongolia.
The marsh harrier’s history of breeding in Britain has been of a see-saw nature. Having become extinct in 1899, it re-colonised in 1927 and numbers are steadily increasing, the latest estimate (from 2006) being possibly as many as 370 pairs, mostly centred on East Anglia.
Another bird of prey that caused a lot of interest last week was a very active and obliging osprey around the Uyeasound area, eventually moving to Belmont last Saturday. It obligingly flew across the road in front of folk and perched on nearby fenceposts where it inevitably got mobbed by the local crow population. Meanwhile a kestrel at Quoys was watched just feet away from a window devouring a small bird over a period of about 20 minutes.
But birds of prey didn’t totally eclipse the scene as a summer-plumaged white-billed diver was located in Bluemull Sound last Saturday, with a “northern” eider nearby next day.
Arctic skuas are starting to show up, with up to six at Norwick last Saturday. Last weekend a female goosander was at Burravoe, Yell, while two male and one female pintail were at Uyeasound. Another male garganey at Haroldswick last Monday continues the good run of sightings of this species this spring.
A few swallows were passing through, particularly last weekend. Hunting over both fresh water and the nearby beaches, maybe a handful of pairs will remain to breed this year. However, damp weather is crucial when they are nest-building in order to obtain the necessary mud with which to bind the nest material.
A house martin was at Gutcher, Yell, on the 21st, while two sand martins graced Haroldswick on the 25th.
A lovely bird to see is the linnet, two of which were seen in Out Skerries on the 23rd. First cousin to the twite, the males of these finches are a lovely chestnut brown on the back with red on the forehead and upper breast and a distinct white patch on the outer wing. Common breeding birds on mainland Britain, males characteristically sit atop a gorse bush delivering their rather varied melodic song.
It was a pleasantly calm day last Sunday when two of us undertook the first of our breeding bird surveys at Burravoe. Visibility was good and we soon managed to get a twite, feeding close to sheep troughs. A couple of rock pipits and then meadow pipit gave themselves up for counting – such overlooked species but important ones to get. Skylarks soon began tuning up, periodically out-competed by oystercatchers. Golden plover and lapwing were notable for their absence, while dunlin would not be expected until the second count in a month’s time. But it was a good start to what we hope will be a successful breeding season.