Tirricks back in force and doing well in Unst

With winds predominantly in a west to south-westerly direction, and gales during the latter part, last week was a fairly quiet one for migrant birds around the North Isles.

A couple of blackcaps, one male and one female, were at Norwick in the first half of the week, where a chiffchaff was heard singing occa­sionally, while a lesser whitethroat was at Burrafirth. A handful of swallows were seen, while three sand martins were at Skerries on the 6th. A yellow wagtail added colour to Haroldswick on the 8th, the same day that a green sandpiper was seen there. A fine sight was a male hen harrier seen at Norwick on the following day.

A significant movement of knot took place last weekend, when at least 200 were seen moving north past Balta Isle off Baltasound on the Sunday morning.

Knot are medium-sized, dumpy looking wading birds. Outside the breeding season, their plumage is an overall grey. But in breeding plumage, it consists of a wonderful rusty-red, giving them their official name of red knot. It was this colour that alerted sharp-eyed Rosie Priest to notice some of the 50+ birds briefly feeding at the head of the voe at Baltasound.

Exclusively breeding in the high Arctic, knot are known for under­taking some of the longest non-stop migrations of any wading bird. Here in the North Isles, we more usually expect just a handful of these birds in spring, slightly more in autumn. It is thought that those occurring in Shetland originate from the population breeding on islands in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, which winter across western Europe.

On a smaller scale, but still significant, were 14 carrion crows, in company with at least four times as many hooded crows, at Balta­sound on the 9th, part of a wider arrival across Shetland. A further two were at Haroldswick, with another at Brough in Whalsay on the 7th.

The goldfinch remained at Uyeasound until at least last Sunday, making the most of a ready food supply in what was at times pretty inclement weather. While this fast food outlet consists largely of bird seed, when the opportunity arises, there is nothing goldfinches enjoy more than thistle seedheads, while males, with slightly longer bills, can also access the seeds of teasels. To protect them from the sharp spines, they have stiff bristles around the base of the bill.

Another finch with a sharply pointed bill, slightly smaller than the goldfinch, is the siskin, two of which were around Brough, Whalsay, early in the week. The siskin’s range in the UK has expanded greatly in parallel with that of commercial forestry plantations, coniferous forests and birch woodland being its preferred habitats.

Meanwhile the breeding season here is well under way. After a winter dearth, it is good to see wrens back on station in the garden, with the male defending his territory in strident song. A brood of recently-hatched mallard scuttered across the water at Haroldswick last Monday, as their mother led them to safety.

Meanwhile, golden plovers were seen to have exceptionally early chicks at Skaw in Unst last weekend. And a shag was watched carrying a large beakload of seaweed into the dark recesses of a cliff at the same location.

Shags tend to have quite a long breeding season, presumably the older, more experienced birds beginning earlier than the more inexperienced.

And finally, how good is it to see the tirricks now back in force, with Arctic terns particularly prevalent last Monday as they fished offshore and in lochs One at Haroldswick was seen to bring in a sandeel to present to its partner.

Wendy Dickson


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