As ever, 2009 was a busy year for wildlife spotters in Shetland. Here, JOYCE GARDEN reminds us what was there to be seen.
January began with two national rarities in their previous locations – the white-billed diver at Kirkabister, South Nesting, and the drake king eider in Mousa Sound. A coal tit, which arrived during the autumn migration, was at Sandgarth, Voe, and a shore lark remained in Unst until early April. Three tundra bean geese, a locally rare species, were in the South Mainland.
There were several records of glaucous and Iceland gulls, with up to 12 Icelands around the Shetland Catch factory, Lerwick, on the 7th, and a couple of little gulls were at Westings, Unst. Woodcock were reported from several areas. A goldfinch was at Gulberwick and there were scattered reports of chaffinches, with a large flock of 140 at Veensgarth, Tingwall, on the 5th. Flocks of this size are unusual in Shetland in winter. Other records included meadow pipit, fieldfare and song thrush. A flock of 60 snow buntings was seen at Kettlaness, Burra. The first sighting of killer whales was a pod of four off Sumburgh on the 2nd.
During February there were several records of over-wintering passerines including the coal tit, greenfinch, stonechat, dunnock, song thrush and chaffinch. On the 5th, the chaffinch flock at Veensgarth increased to a record 220 birds. There were several records of jack snipe; there is often an increase in reports of this wintering species during frosty and snowy weather. Seven tundra bean geese were at Lambaness, Unst, until early April. On the 3rd a sooty shearwater was recorded off Fetlar. Other migrants this month included a flock of over 100 fieldfares in Fetlar, long-eared owl, common buzzard, peregrine, carrion crow and song thrush. A skylark was singing in Skerries on the 28th.
March brought increasing signs of spring such as bulbs blooming, lesser celandine in flower, snipe “chippering”, curlews displaying and frog spawn in the pond. Winter visitors were still around, such as the 46 great northern divers between West Burrafirth and Papa Stour, 12 Iceland gulls in Lerwick and 60 grey herons near Voe. Waders were on the move with 29 knot at the Sletts in Lerwick. There was another tundra bean goose at Sandwick. Goosanders were at Unst and Strand Loch, a very early garganey was at Burrafirth, Unst, on the 11th and there was a scaup on Clickimin. Other records included woodcock, wood pigeon, stonechat, mistle thrush, common redpoll, greenfinch, chaffinch, robin and yellowhammer.
The first bonxie was recorded on the 1st of April in Fetlar. On the 12th a white-tailed eagle was seen flying over the South Mainland, and on the 16th a male wood duck appeared on the Loch of Brow. This is an American species which is kept in many wildfowl collections in Europe. All British records of wood duck have been considered to be escapees, but genuine transatlantic vagrants have been recorded in Iceland. This bird was fully winged, didn’t have a ring and was very wary.
Notable migrants in April included stock dove, ring ouzel, black redstart, swallow, house martin and goldfinch. There were also hawfinches at Unst, Whalsay and Cunningsburgh, and a hoopoe in Whalsay on the 10th. On the 9th there was a common crane at Lambaness in Unst and, towards the end of the month, an osprey and a marsh harrier were recorded on the island, while there was a summer-plumaged white-billed diver in Bluemull Sound. There were two tundra bean geese in Mousa, the male ring necked duck was on the Loch of Tingwall and there was a red-head smew on the Loch of Benston. Groups of 10-20 harbour porpoises were recorded off the West Mainland and Yell. A peacock butterfly was found in a shed at Voe with further records in Unst.
In the second week of May bird migration developed a distinctly transatlantic theme, with the following very rare and rare North American species being recorded – a brown-headed cowbird in Fair Isle, a Franklin’s gull at Sullom, two black ducks at Hillwell, a lesser scaup at Nesting and a laughing gull, solitary sandpiper and pectoral sandpiper in Foula. The rarest vagrant was the brown-headed cowbird which arrived in Fair Isle on the 8th and remained there throughout the 9th. This was only the second record of this species for Britain.
There was also a record of Franklin’s gull in Unst on the 24th. A solitary sandpiper found in Foula was only the second Shetland record for this very rare vagrant. On the evening of the 27th a black kite was observed flying over Sandwick. This was the second Shetland record for this very rare European vagrant. Another very rare species from Europe was a little egret in Fetlar and one at the Loch of Spiggie where a ruddy shelduck also appeared, although records of this species are considered to be from captive or feral populations. On the 28th there was a great reed warbler in Skerries. Other migrants included subalpine warbler, dipper, honey buzzard, nightjar, wryneck and bluethroat.
Sea mammal sightings included a pod of six to eight killer whales 35 miles off Sumburgh Head, a minke whale off Sumburgh, seven killer whales in Weisdale Voe and a group of 25 white-sided dolphins off Unst. At the end of the month painted lady butterflies began to be recorded in increasing numbers – part of a huge invasion of these butterflies into the UK. On the 29th Mike Pennington found an eyed ladybird, the second record for Shetland.
Many of the May migrants persisted into June such as the laughing gull, the lesser scaup, the subalpine warbler, the honey buzzard, the wood duck and the little egret. On the 8th June a rare subspecies of warbler, a Moltoni’s subalpine warbler, was found in Unst. There was a common crane in the West Mainland, a lesser grey shrike in Bressay and a marsh warbler at Hoswick. Other migrants included tree pipit, turtle dove, chaffinch, icterine warbler, willow warbler, spotted flycatcher, golden oriole, hawfinch, quail, common redpoll, whitethroat, common rosefinch, chiffchaff, wood sandpiper, curlew sandpiper, brent goose, Canada goose, common scoter, surf scoter and Iceland gull.
Towards the end of the month there was an irruption of common crossbills. My favourite birding moment of the month was enjoying some superb views of a white-tailed eagle while walking with a friend in the West Mainland. Volker Deecke and the killer whale research team were back in Shetland this summer and provided fascinating information about the identity and behaviour of pods of killer whales seen around the islands. On the 13th a basking shark was in Mousa Sound in the afternoon. Another personal highlight of June was going on the midsummer cruise around the North Mainland, organised by Brydon Thomason of Shetland Nature Cruises & Tours.
During July, the common crossbill invasion continued with widespread records and a peak flock of 90 at Scatness on the 12th. Marsh warblers were singing at Virkie, Hoswick and Voe. Other migrants included swift, cuckoo, chiffchaff, quail, sandwich tern, green sandpiper, sanderling, little stint, hobby and a flock of 24 Canada geese at Eshaness. An osprey was seen at Sandwater and there was a flock of 70 knot at Virkie. Studies of seabird productivity showed an improvement on previous seasons, with Arctic terns fledging reasonable numbers of young. Killer whale sightings included a group of 20 off Unst feeding on herring. There was a record of 15 Risso’s dolphins and a group of around 40 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were in Lerwick harbour on the morning of the 15th. The second Shetland Nature Festival took place, offering a variety of great talks and excursions.
At the start of August there was a small influx of migrants including spotted redshank, little egret, great white egret, greenshank, sanderling, knot, whimbrel, green sandpiper, ruff, sand martin, reed warbler, garden warbler and cuckoo. South easterly winds brought more migrants later in the month with a marsh warbler at Fetlar, a common crane at mid-Walls, a wryneck and a dotterel in Unst and a rare black tern at Virkie. Elsewhere there were records of willow, wood, icterine, garden, barred, grasshopper and reed warblers, chiffchaff, spotted flycatcher, tree pipit, siskin, greenfinch, stonechat, and whinchat. Records of painted lady butterflies began to increase – the offspring of the adults involved in the record migration earlier this summer.
September brought nationally rare bird migrants with Arctic warblers in Whalsay, Unst, Yell and Scalloway. A booted warbler was found at Channerwick on the 11th. A citrine wagtail was recorded at Unst on the 18th and Quendale on the 21st. On the 27th a taiga flycatcher appeared at Tresta, Fetlar. It subsequently relocated to Gloup, Yell, where it remained until mid-October. This was only the second Shetland, and third British record of this species which was formerly regarded as a sub-species of the red-breasted flycatcher.
A pectoral sandpiper, another rare migrant from America, was at the Pool of Virkie. Local rarities included a black-throated diver and a buff-breasted sandpiper in Whalsay, another buff-breasted sandpiper in Burra, and a marsh warbler and American golden plover in Unst. A grey phalarope was recorded flying past Eshaness. There was a further influx of common crossbills, and a two-barred crossbill put in a brief appearance. Other notable migrants included icterine, barred, yellow-browed and grasshopper warblers, wrynecks, lapland bunting and bluethroat. Large numbers of turnstones were on the move with a flock of 200 reported from Melby. Also, there were at least 800 pink-footed geese over Virkie and Sumburgh on the 27th while sea-watches revealed several sooty shearwaters passing Sumburgh and Eshaness. On the 29th a buff-bellied pipit, a very rare vagrant from North America, was found in Foula. Peacock butterflies were recorded at Cunningsburgh and Scalloway, and convolvulus hawkmoths from Yell.
On 1st October a veery, another very rare American vagrant, was recorded in Foula. This was only the second Shetland record of this thrush. There are only a few other British records of veery so it was amazing when another veery was found in Whalsay the next day! The Foula veery remained for about a week, and the Whalsay veery was at Symbister for a further few days, allowing birders good views.
Pechora pipits, rare Siberian migrants, were found in Foula, Unst, Whalsay and Skerries. Other national rarities arrived with a Blyth’s reed warbler in Fetlar, olive-backed pipits at three Mainland locations plus Foula and Whalsay, lanceolated warblers at Scatness, Skerries and Unst, with Arctic warblers and Hornemann’s Arctic redpolls recorded at several locations. Another rarity, a Western Bonelli’s warbler, was found near Bigton on the 10th. The next day a juvenile spotted sandpiper, a very rare vagrant from North America, was in the Quendale/Garths Ness area where it remained for the next week. On the 12th a red-flanked bluetail, a very rare vagrant from north east Europe, was at Sandgarth, Voe. A black-throated thrush, a rare vagrant from Siberia, appeared at Sumburgh on the 14th. There was also a good showing of local rarities such as short-toed lark, red-throated pipit, little bunting, buff breasted sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, surf scoter, woodlark, spotted crake, ortolan bunting, green-winged teal and a firecrest.
Migration continued into November, with a rare dusky warbler on the 6th in Whalsay and a Blyth’s reed warbler at the Burn of Quendale on the 29th. A Richard’s pipit, a short-toed lark and tundra bean geese were also recorded. There were several very late records of commoner migrants – a bluethroat on the 1st, a tree pipit on the 8th, a barred warbler on the 9th, a garden warbler on the 14th, a wheatear on the 21st and a goldcrest on the 26th. Other migrants through the month included robin, blackbird, blackcap, dunnock, chiffchaff, red-breasted flycatcher, stonechat, yellow-browed warbler, common redpoll, reed bunting, snow bunting, waxwing, mistle thrush, song thrush, skylark, greenfinch, chaffinch, bullfinch, firecrest, grey wagtail, jackdaw, woodcock, jack snipe, water rail, long-eared owl, short-eared owl, yellowhammer, black redstart, wood pigeon, stock dove, hen harrier, peregrine and sparrowhawk. Waterfowl included an American wigeon and green-winged teal in the South Mainland, along with European white-fronted geese, a dark-bellied brent goose, pink feet and barnacle geese. There was a red head smew in Unst and 15 common scoters off Dales Voe.
The Blyth’s reed warbler was still at Quendale on 1st December and a red-necked grebe was recorded off the South Harbour in Fair Isle on the 5th. There was a white-billed diver off Fetlar and a king eider at Haroldswick. As the year drew to an end, there were records of over-wintering passerines from various locations. These included dunnocks, blackcap, chiffchaff, song thrush, stonechat, common crossbill, chaffinch, greenfinch, grey wagtail, pied wagtail, robin and skylark. The last record of killer whales was on the 8th when a pod of eight passed Fetlar.
I should like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has provided me with wildlife information during 2009, including Mike Pennington and the Shetland Nature website at www.shetland-nature.co.uk.