Busy week up north as migrating birds flock in

Star bird in the North Isles last week was an adult Franklin’s gull that put in a brief appearance at Norwick last Sunday morning before relocating to Westing and Snarravoe the following day. Could it be the same bird that was at Graven in mid-May?

A female golden oriole showed well at Baltasound on the 20th/21st, while a little egret did a short tour of north Unst on the 19th before heading south.

Four dotterel at Skaw, Whalsay, on the 17th was an unusual sight, as these migrants usually opt for high ground during brief stop-overs on their migration.

Skaw in Unst, meantime, had two grey-headed wagtails on the 17th and 18th. Grey-headed wagtail is one of four distinct sub-species of yellow wagtail that occur here, the males distinguished by a slate-grey crown and nape, dark upperparts and yellow underparts, with females a slightly more subtle version.

Raptors included a marsh harrier at Skerries, two sparrow hawks at Symbister, with another at Norwick, and kestrel at Haroldswick.

It was another cracking week for sightings of red-spotted bluethroats – several males of the red-spotted race (the other being the much scarcer white-spotted), along with a few females which lack the blue and red throat gorget, were seen across the isles.

Up to five were at Skerries on the 17th, three each in both Fetlar and Whalsay two days later, with several singles elsewhere. With the strong south-easterly winds, they were probably blown off course en route to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and points east.

A few cuckoos usually pass through the North Isles each year, but one that moved between Skaw and Baltasound last week caused more attention than normal. That is because it was one of the rare reddish-brown, or “hepatic”, colour forms that only occur in females.

There were also good numbers of a lot of other migrants including wryneck, red-backed shrike, several icterine as well as other warblers, ring ouzel and tree pipits.

Hirundines were in good supply, mostly swallows but quite a few house martins also. A bird that sometimes gets confused with hirundines but is no relation whatsoever is the swift, of which a few were seen across the North Isles.

Let me finish with a bizarre tale concerning one individual. The two-storey Shore Station at Burrafirth is currently totally encapsulated in scaffolding from roof level. Just outside my first-floor kitchen window, the rubbish shoot passes down, consisting of giant, scarlet, interlocking, bottomless buckets joined by chains on either side.

One evening last week two of us watched a swift flying round the building. Several times it came and perched briefly around the chain area of the shoot, once seeming to almost crash into it. But then … the next time it came in, it disappeared through one of the gaps between the buckets.

Unfortunately, due to the walkway, we couldn’t see it come out of the bottom, but it certainly did, coming round to repeat the exercise at least once. Swifts are incredibly aerial birds, spending their entire lives on the wing except when nesting.

Was this bird looking for a potential nest site, or was it attracted by the scarlet colour? Had it landed on the ground at the bottom of the shoot, its long, sickle-shaped wings and tiny legs would almost certainly have prevented it taking off again. With no more than a foot’s clearance at the bottom (fortunately the receiving skip was not in place) that was precision flying at its best. An extraordinary bit of behaviour.

Wendy Dickson


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