24th March 2019
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Birdwatching circus hits Unst to catch sight of rare warbler

28 comments, , by , in News

A vast flock of birdwatchers descended on Unst this week in search of one of the tiniest birds to have ever flown across the Atlantic.

The Cape May warbler which has attracted birdwatchers from across the UK. Photo: Jim Nicolson

The Cape May warbler which has attracted birdwatchers from across the UK. Photo: Jim Nicolson

The Cape May warbler, the first ever seen in Shetland, is more commonly found in northern North America and is believed to have been blown off course during its seasonal migration to the West Indies.

Over 200 twitchers meanwhile headed north by ferry, scheduled and chartered flight, with 11 planes carrying birdwatchers landing in Unst alone.

The Cape May warbler is a first for Shetland, and only the second ever to have been recorded in Scotland, the UK and indeed Europe – the other sighting having been in Paisley on 17th June 1977.

Baltasound Junior High School teacher Mike Pennington first spotted the diminutive songbird during the school holidays last Wednesday and was “utterly stunned” when he realised what it was. Luckily, Mr Pennington is also a keen birder and said he had a “pretty good idea” it was an American warbler.

He made repeated calls to fellow north isles birder Brydon Thomason to try to confirm the identity of the passerine, which is in its drab winter plumage, rather than bright yellow summer colours.

He added: “It is one of those things where you need someone to come up and tell you you are not hallucinating.

“It’s a sort of grey coloured thing. American warblers are famous for being very colourful and that is about the dullest one that could have turned up.”

The warbler seemed to have an “ecclesiastical bent” being first spotted in the manse garden beside the school. Since then it has fluttered between the old manse at Hillside, the surgery and the Baliasta kirkyard with the Hillside manse garden being its favourite roost.

According to Mr Pennington, most of the dwellings it has favoured are luckily unoccupied, so people are not getting bothered by a horde of twitchers gawping over their garden dyke, with up to 40 or 50 people on scene at a time. Unst airport has returned to its busiest in 15 years, with five charter flights arriving at one time and two coming in on Tuesday this week.

Local birders were first to the punch with binocular-bearing enthusiasts flocking to see the warbler as soon as word was out on Wednesday night. Mainland twitchers then caught on and transport links with the south were soon unseasonably busy.

Mr Pennington had hoped the bird would continue on its way on Tuesday night, when skies were calm and clear, but it was still hopping around on Wednesday, finding insects among falling leaves. The warbler will need to score an alternative food source over winter as it normally uses its specially adapted tongue to feed on nectar during its stay in the Caribbean.

The bird, known in Latin as (Setophaga tigrina), is commonly  named for Cape May, in New Jersey, but it breeds throughout southern Canada, the Great Lakes area and New England. It is insectivorous and lays larger clutches in years when the spruce budworm is abundant.

About Peter Johnson

Reporter for The Shetland Times. I have also worked as an employed and freelance reporter and editor for a variety of print and broadcast media outlets and as as a freelance photographer and film maker/cameraman. In addition to journalism, I have experience in construction, oil analysis, aquaculture, fisheries, the health service and oral history.

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  1. Dave Hambidge

    The sad fact is that this “poor birdie”, nay a rarity will die quite soon as it is so far from its winter food in the tropics. Do the Twitchers ever consider that?

    (COI Non twitching RSPB Life Fellow)

  2. Robert Wishart

    Quick – kill it, stuff it and stick it in the museum.

  3. Johan Adamson

    No Robert, begin a campaign to get a plane to take the birds to where they should be at this time of year

  4. Tony Armstrong

    Of course twitchers are aware that these trans-Atlantic wind blown waifs are lost and that many probably do perish but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t marvel at their ability to get this far or appreciate their beauty while they are with us. In my experience the ferry,plane and car rental companies’ staff also appreciate the extra business we bring at a time of year when I don’t see many other tourists beating a path to Shetland’s stormy shores.

  5. Dave Hambidge

    Tony, wife and I spent 3 weeks at Aith in June 2013 and will return for the same period in May 2014…OK?

  6. rosa steppanova

    Here’s hoping these doomed rarities meet a swift, and relatively painless end at the claws and fangs of some Shetland moggie, rather than slowly starving/freezing to death.

  7. David Spence

    Well, just think folks, by the year 2040 something like 30% of all mammals will become extinct due to human activity (predominantly as a result of greedy capitalists not caring about the environment, eco-systems or life itself as long as they make their quick buck)………….which will no doubt have a drastic affect on other species……………and on that positive note, I shall stop.

  8. Jonathan Wills

    That’s odd: when I said (partly in jest) that Rosa’s cats probably killed more birds in a year than a windfarm ever would, I seem to remember being told, quite crossly, that they were little angels who’d never touched our feathered friends. And now it seems they’re being encouraged to massacre migrating rarities. I assume the targets do not include whimbrels.

  9. ian tinkler

    David Spence, For the benefit of the ignorant, the world’s greatest polluter at this time is the Peoples Republic China. The most toxic polluter of all time was the U.S.S.R. Hardly your greedy capitalists. I think you may find the are more of your political expression.

  10. Robert Duncan

    That may be true on the whole, but I would accept David’s general point given the vastly higher emissions and pollution “per capita”, given the total emissions of China and USA are a lot less dissimilar than their populations. I believe the story is similar for the likes of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and South Korea.

    Not that I wish to justify China’s own terrible issues with pollution, I just think there is more than one way to read the statistics.

  11. Ted Knight

    Correct on all counts, Mr Tinkler…which fetches to mind the abominable pollution left behind by the comrades in East Germany for their successors to clean up not a decade ago.

  12. John Tulloch

    Who would buy all the manufactured goods from China, India, South East Asia, etc., if the Western Nations hadn’t pioneered the use of fossil fuels?

    Would they be able to make them?

    How many roads and runways would there be in Africa, a continent whose economy is currntly growing at an average six percent per year? South America?

    Do we really want to keep these folk poor?

    The Luddite view never changes, it still lacks any discernible logic.

  13. David Spence

    Actually Ian, the USA still has the highest carbon footprint per person in the world than what China does………strange as this may appear.

    China only recently took first place over the USA as the worlds number 1 polluter quite recently……….given the fact that much of the industrial infrastructure in the USA is, literally, decades behind Europe due to lack of investment due to, needless to say, the so-called quick buck mentality where profits proceed anything else……… including investing and upgrading your industry.

  14. ian tinkler

    David, your a bit quiet about the USSR. Most toxic state in history in virtually every aspect. No wicked capitalists there to rant on about.

  15. Robert Sim

    ‘Private Eye’ used to have a brilliant spoof online forum called ‘From The Message Boards’, in which the same inveterate posters, in their individual styles, gradually take the discussion further and further away from the original subject. Wonder what they had in mind?

  16. rosa steppanova

    Oh dear, I seem to have set the cat amongst Jonathan’s pigeons.

  17. ian tinkler

    – Jonathan Wills, Good to see you return to these columns. I note your astounding interlect and humour, taking a dig at Rosa and her cat, as always, so utterly puerile and o, how very negative. A bit rankled are we that the wicked SS has been found as correct in the High Court. Lady Clark, good move, lets protect Shetland from the greedy, incompetent and illegal exploitation of its environment

  18. Dave Hambidge

    Any sighting of the remains yet?

  19. Dave Hambidge

    Rosa. I feel a bit responsible as well for starting the comments…

  20. Cats killing birds, how un-natural , this is a case for the RSPB,

    look out here comes the cruelty man with his collars and bells to attach to the moggies.

  21. David Spence

    Well Ian, ever since Boris Yeltsin took power after Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign, the country of Russia went to rack and ruin as a consequence of letting the elite private sector bosses (aka capitalism based economics) (aka russian mafia (want for a better description)) hold and controls Russia’s economy, the country quickly went down hill to the point where crime, prostitution, drugs etc were totally and utterly out of control and, in affect, under the control of cartels, corrupt government officials and basically Russia becoming very much a country where war, civil war was dominating due to the complete breakdown of society……….Putin, despite what the west may say, quite rightly, is trying to take control back to the State and not the minority rich (capitalist system similar to the US) have military, politically, economically and social control of the country, and where it is the value of money which determines the values of the previously mentioned criteria (sadly, something the UK, is regretfully becoming).

  22. ian tinkler

    David Spence, USSR, Boris Yeltsin? At least get your history and geography correct. Russia is not the USSR, Russia is no longer Socialist and is no longer spewing toxic filth all over Eastern Europe. Stop insulting the intelligence of Shetlanders with your politically motivated dogmatic rubbish. You are an insult to the philosophy of Marx, just like the Soviets were.

  23. clive munro

    Good try, Robert.

  24. David Spence

    Ian, if you care to read what I said, I never did say anything connected to the U.S.S.R. I was referring to Russia, as it was called then and still is after Perestroika, and its political downfall after Yeltsin took over after Gorbachevb’s reign.

    It was a consequence of this drastic change to Russia’s political and economic circumstances, not to mention Yeltsin’s total incompetence in controlling Russia’s internal affairs, that resulted in the demise of Russia as a Super Power (although some may say it was due to US Military Technology – Stealth or the cost of controlling so many satellite states being too much in terms of its economy).

    As well as the reforms under the Yeltsin Government, which happened far too quickly, the private companies (especially those connected to Russia’s energy resources) were having too much political as well as economical powers (due to no regulation at all) within the Yeltsin Government (call it corruption of the highest order and price) and it was this which drove the Russian people to elect Putin, whose agenda was to put back into state control Russia’s resources, economy, military and convince the people of Russia that they indeed had a government they could believe in………as Yeltsin proved to be the complete opposite and where the power of money and wealth (capitalism) drove the political ideals at the cost of the people suffering more before Perestroika took place.

  25. David Spence

    Changing the subject some what……..well, back to what it was to begin with… lol

    Did you know that 95% of all indigenous birds of Hawaii have become extinct due to alien species been brought in by human activity, which in itself has caused the demise of many other species apart from the avian.

    It is good for tourism that Shetland can attract twitchers from afar because of its location and is a good stopping point for migrating birds.

    Can anybody tell me when there was the last a breeding pair of Snowy Owls on Fetlar? I think it was the early eighties, but one is not sure? As well as this, I believe the Snowy Owl is no longer in Shetland, and has not been for quite some time?

  26. John Tulloch

    Oh, David, trying to curry favour with the “Sam the Eagle” of these columns!

    Surely not, a man of your revolutionary credentials?

  27. David Spence

    lol What irony John, speaking of birds and this of social ideologies and how the symbol of American Imperialism being not Uncle Sam but the Bald Eagle, and its almost extinction in the States in the 50’s due to the use of the pesticide DTT

    (which affected the calcium metabolism thus making the bird sterile or unable to lay healthy eggs. It also made the shell of the egg brittle and too weak to withstand a brood)

    (use the cheapest method to gain and maximize profits philosophy regardless to the long term damage done to nature) as a cheaper alternative to tackling crop destruction brought on by natural forces, lets say.

    If the Bald Eagle didn’t have such a powerful symbolic meaning to the people of the USA, I am sure it would be well and truly long gone from the country.

    I am pretty sure it was people with a greater conscious than this of money (probably devoted twitchers and alike) that brought the plight of the species to the forefront and where conservation measures were then put in place (1940, 1962 and 1972) so as the species could breed without the persecution, and, probably, put in legislation to ban the use of DTT which was done in 1972.

    After DTT was banned, the population of the Bald Eagle’s increased significantly to where there are now around 50,000 breeding pairs in the USA and Canada.

  28. Dave Hambidge

    Still no news?


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