Last November, I was delighted to be asked by Hugh Harrop who runs Shetland Wildlife to join two of his very popular Autumn birding trips to Shetland: the ‘Autumn Gold’ trip, based at the Sumburgh Hotel and on Unst, based at the Baltasound Hotel; and the ‘Fair Isle Autumn migration’ trip spending five days on Fair Isle, with single days on Shetland either end of the week. How could I refuse such an offer, especially as my good friend and Shetland Wildlife guide David Fairhurst would be leading me?
Autumn Gold – 1st October – 8th October
Leader David Fairhurst
Having arrived a day early, it was nice to officially meet up with the rest of the group at the Sumburgh Hotel on our first evening, Saturday 1st October, though in fact some of us had met at a little distance whilst watching an Olive-backed Pipit and a Pallid Harrier at Brake. On Shetland it is a temptation to simply go and see all of the good birds on offer, but it was nice that most of our days were balanced between spending time looking for many of the good birds already about and finding good habitat where we might be able to search for our own; one of the joys of Shetland is the fact that you never what is about or where – rare birds can be found anywhere.
Sunday dawned fine, but a little windy, and following a substantial breakfast, as we walked towards nearby Sumburgh Farm, David found an Olive-backed Pipit that sadly took flight soon after discovery and left high towards the east, calling as it went – a sign of things to come. Following this great start, we left for the Brake/Hillwell/Quendale area, where we looked again for the OBP and the Pallid Harrier, only to learn that the Citrine Wagtail that we had looked for yesterday was showing at Quendale.
Around the mill, despite searching, we could not find it though two or three Yellow-browed Warblers showed well, including a very grey bird that caused some discussion at the time. Then the call went up that it was ‘up the hill’ near Brake, so a quick walk and there it was on the dung heap.
The rest of the day was spent watching the Alpine Swift at Cunningsburgh, as we left and were driving south news came of an Isabelline Shrike at Levenwick, just as we were passing it. Pulling in, we had great views of this first-winter bird as it moved up the valley, showing well initially, but becoming more elusive as time went by – what a great bird!
The pattern for the next day was much the same, but with Shetland you can never expect good weather, and today the wind and rain were as dramatic as the landscape. Our search was not only for birds, but also for places where it would be sheltered enough to see them. Scalloway, one of David’s secret little spots provided us with Spotted Flycatcher and more Yellow-broweds; Kergord was good in that we found a Red-breasted Flycatcher and Pied Flycatcher. Driving over to the east, we tried again for the Isabelline Shrike at Levenwick, but were unlucky; then we missed the Citrine Wagtail at Boddam. It was a day to admire the unpredictability of Nature, admire the weather and landscape, but also be thankful for modern waterproof fabric….
Tuesday was exciting in that we drove north to Unst, having taken in the Citrine Wagtail at Boddam on the way – a smart young bird that had found a sheltered patch of hillside (and slicks of ‘slurry’) in the lee of a dairy far
Videoing into the teeth of the wind was tough, but was fun. Onwards and northwards we drove to catch the ferries, first to Yell then Unst, enjoying fine views of Gannet, Bonxies and especially for southerners like myself the Tysties (Black Guillemots) – watching them in ‘flight’ you wonder how they can make it anywhere away from the breeding grounds. The weather was very windy, with gloriously clean air and blue skies, yet driving squalls would rip through the islands at times, and one such squall greeted us as we left the van to watch a young Black-headed Bunting at Belmont. Perseverance paid off, as we had fine views as it perched in the shelter of a tractor, though in the wind it sounds on my recording as if a 1000 people are scrunching crisp packets into the microphone.
Towards the north of Unst, lies Norwick a lovely valley with a scattered village and one garden especially was pretty and sheltered, with Yellow-broweds, Pied Flycatcher and Common Rosefinch. Meeting John Sweeney here was great, as I hadn’t seen him for a while, and he let us know of an Olive-backed Pipit at Baltasound School. On the way there at Baltasound itself, we searched the local fields and gardens, then onto the school where the OBP performed well in front an admiring group. Finally, we arrived at the excellent and recently upgraded Baltasound Hotel, settled into our comfortable rooms and ate a very fine meal (the first of many here), whilst reviewing our day’s observations.
Wednesday, was our wettest day of the week and with the wind, shelter was at a premium, however, we ended the day with a fine tally of species: three Yellow-browed, Pied Fly and two Common Rosefinches at Norwick; several Whinchats and Wheatears along the fence wires; a Common Redstart and Willow Warbler at Burrafirth; an elusive Barred Warbler at Uyeasound hostel; then finally, back to Baltasound for mind-blowing views of the OBP - what a great bird and too close to focus at times.
Another Common Rosefinch, plus David called a fly-past Pectoral Sandpiper, which he the relocated in a flock of Golden Plover. A great end to another great day – the tatties and haggis with horseradish and cream sauce starter, was much enjoyed at the hotel.
Thursday 6th dawned a touch overcast, but the strong winds of the past two days had eased a touch. Our time searching in the morning, found three more Yellow-broweds, a new Barred Warbler at the Post Office, and the sun had come out allowing us to appreciate the wonderful landscape of this fabulous island. We started the drive south (back over the two brief ferry crossings), stopping for coffee at the ‘Windy Dog’ (plus a piece of cake), then the drive back down the length of mainland Shetland, not before a stop at Collafirth. Here a fine adult male Red-breasted Flycatcher fed in a small copse, and gave good views despite being a touch elusive; nearby the Little Bunting showed briefly in a crop of oats (the second of the week following one at Geosetter earlier in the week). However, again the best was saved until last, as we were alerted by Hugh to another Isabelline Shrike that had been found at Hillwell (this time an adult female).
When we arrived we enjoyed fine views in the late afternoon sun as it fed on its larder and perched on a washing line at incredibly close range.
Our final day was one of ‘second please’. Having searched our own sites, we had a return visit to the Fleck Citrine Wagtail, then the Hillwell and Quendale area for more views of Isabelline Shrike, with two Rosefinches and fly-over Lapland Buntings. In the afternoon, we walked up Quendale, but it was relatively quiet, but we were determined to find an American Golden Plover amongst the Goldies, and after a little searching there one was! A young bird that showed well, if a little distantly, though some were sidetracked by the Pallid Harrier nearby. The Sumburgh Hotel was welcoming at the end of a long and fine day, and we enjoyed our last evening meal together as a group.
David had been a super leader, providing lots of insight into the islands and local history, and we had seen some great birds. The list of birds really doesn’t do justice to it, but I will end with my own personal highlights: top of the list would be the views of the Olive-backed Pipit at Baltasound (one of three we saw during the week and one of which David found); followed closely by the Isabelline Shrikes; two Pallid Harriers at Hillwell; the American Golden Plover we found; Alpine Swift, Black-headed Bunting and Citrine Wagtails are always great to see; two Red-breasted Flycatchers (one a fine adult male), two Little Buntings, two Barred Warblers, at least five Common Rosefinches, many Yellow-browed Warblers and the local Tysties.
The birds coupled with the sweeping Shetland landscape created a great atmosphere; then there was the food and accommodation; it all added to a fun week. I’d like to thank everyone, especially David, for putting up with me during the week; and to Hugh for inviting me - bring on Fair Isle!
Fair Isle Autumn Migration - 8th – 15th October
Leader Judd Hunt
Well if birding Shetland wasn’t enough, the chance of spending time on Fair Isle was an enormously exciting event, never having been there. Our group of five plus leader were gathered together on our first Saturday evening at the Sumburgh Hotel, with a good deal of anticipation about the week ahead, plus a wonderful talk by Hugh on the delights of Autumn migration on Shetland an Fair Isle, illustrated by some of his amazing photographs of birds.
Sunday dawned a touch cool and breezy, but there were good numbers of thrushes moving and we had the chance of going to see the Citrine Wagtail at Fleck, still in the fields, and a call sent us up to Hoswick where we had great views of a different juvenile Pallid Harrier that quartered the fields below us – a very smart-looking juvenile indeed. A large flock of Golden Plover was searched through for the American Golden, but the marvelous female Isabelline Shrike at Hillwell eventually pulled us away. We found it easily, its larder in a rose bush stocked with a Twite and blue-bottles; it fed on bumble-bees as we watched and it just seemed so easy – who would’ve thought there were so many?
Around the edge of the field amongst the Twite were two Common Rosefinches, and quartering the fields were both Hen and Pallid Harriers. At Quendale we walked up the valley towards the dam, but apart from Redwings we could not find any Yellow-broweds. The Buff-bellied Pipit was also proving elusive, but everybody had seen the bird on Saturday thanks to Judd (and to Martin Garner for finding it!). Following lunch, the American Golden Plover showed very nicely in a field above Hillwell, then we went to search for our own birds at Scalloway and at Channerwick, where we ended our day in the shelter of the houses and willow-herbs, finding a couple of Goldcrests and a single Yellow-browed Warbler. It had been a fine opening day’s play.
Monday was our day of travel over to Fair Isle, and so having packed we drove to Tingwall for our flight. It was a touch breezy and there was some enjoyment in the landing on Fair Isle, watching squalls cross the island whilst parts of it were lit by bright sun was fantastic – it seemed just like a large rock between Shetland and Orkney. Tommy Hyndman picked us up at the airport building and transferred us the short distance to the Auld Haa Guest House at the southern end of the island, our home for the next five days. Tommy and Lizzie, who run the Auld Haa, made us so welcome and as for the food and the company, well it was fantastic! Gathering our ‘bits’ we made our first stroll up to the store (for some chocolate), birding as we went and beginning to gain our bearings on the island. Lunch at the Haa was followed by a walk along the western cliffs and geos, we checked all the thrushes as we went, but also simply took in the scenery. The strong sunlight created deep shadows in the geos and lit the green slopes; looking west deep gouges of blue sea and white waves tore down from the sky. We got as far north as the Hill Dyke that divides the island in two, before returning south back to the Haa, where we ended our day in style by finding a Citrine Wagtail in the Walli Burn by the cottage. Our copious evening meal was followed by a glass or two of whiskey for some….
Tuesday 11th was another squally day and was marked by a good movement of Greylag Geese, mixed with a handful of Barnacles and Pinkfeet, plus a couple of ‘whooping’ Whooper Swans. We walked along the eastern cliffs pre and post breakfast with Short-eared Owls and a Ring Ouzel perhaps the highlight; at Pund a Hen Harrier and a couple of Merlins feasting on the thrushes perhaps that lingered on the slopes and in the geos. Though perhaps the birding was quiet today, we still had the fine landscape to take in.
The 12th was also marked by more geese and Whooper Swans, with one Whooper Swan ringed yellow E6F, settling at Setter – later it was found that this bird was ringed at Martin Mere WWT in February 2010 and seen at Welney WWT in winter 2010/2011. One or two Jack Snipe, Whinchats and Blackcaps were seen, plus Merlin and Hen Harrier (two today), but we were having to work hard; in some ways the stars today were the Snow Bunting, which had increased to 46, and Lapland Buntings, with five seen in flight or ‘on the deck’. Tommy showed us his studio near the Lighthouse, where we saw his paintings and hats, though a round of golf was not taken. The promise of the winds turning south-easterly tomorrow kept our spirits up.
Our pre-breakfast walk on Thursday gave us good views of Fair Isle Wren, of Fieldfares ‘tchack’ing overhead and a good appetite. However, as we sat enjoying our breakfast, some on their fourth sausage and third egg, a ‘phone call alerted us to a Lanceolated Warbler in the Field ditch, and put a sense of urgency into us. The ‘Lancey’ had been found by the observatory cook and was somewhere in a small patch of rank grass, so having gathered together (our group transferred by Tommy’s car), a series of gentle ‘pushes’ produced both flight and perched views, but typically never for long. At one stage it flew to a wet, but open ditch where it ran, crake-like for a minute, but it soon flew back to its patch of grass, where it was left in peace.
At last a Fair Isle speciality and it was amazing to think how far this small bird had flown. It gave us heart and throughout the rest of the day our concerted efforts produced three Reed Buntings, several Whinchats, another Jack Snipe, but perhaps the nicest were the Yellow-broweds, of which we watched three – the first at Chalet, then another in a crop at Lower Leogh, which then fed actively in the middle of a field. Whilst leaving the field this bird was in, a dark Locustella flushed from the roadside ditch and flopped into the grassy field before putting its head down and running. Despite a co-ordinated push across the field we did not find it (or anything else) in the field – one that got away.
Our last day on Fair Isle, the 14th, started with the news that a new Lanceolated Warbler had been found dead at Pund – a less streaked bird and slightly washed yellow below. However, we were determined to find something: half the group were taken up Ward Hill; the other worked the southern fields. At some short reeds at Meadow Burn an unstreaked Acrocephalus was flushed, refusing to call, but looking short-winged and oddly short-tailed in flight, plus quite olive-hued. It then pushed into the garden at Schoolton, where with some patience it showed well if a little briefly: noted as quite pale and grayish olive brown above and with short wings and a strong face pattern, it still refused to call. A hint of warmth to the flanks suggested Reed Warbler, but the rest looked okay for Blyth’s Reed. Yet it still refused to call and flew off north.
Our bags packed and left in Tommy’s car to be taken to the airport, a small group decided to walk to the airfield whilst the others would come later in the car with the bags. As we neared the airport a Yellow-browed flew low across the field and into a some small trees, but as we sat at the airport, waiting and relaxing a message from Tommy said ‘Blyth’s Reed Warbler at the observatory’. Thirty minutes to our flight, no problem and we raced down the hill, hitched a lift in a passing car and, joined by the rest of the group, Will Miles kindly showed us the bird. Maybe it was the same bird as that we had found at the Meadow Burn, who will ever know? What a way to end our stay, but as we stood attentively and quietly an Olive-backed Pipit flew over calling – amazing.
We caught our flight with ease, buzzing with excitement, and returned with a strong tailwind in good time. Collected by Hugh, we had enough time to visit the Isabelline Shrike again (who could resist?), to enjoy a young Hen Harrier, but time finally brought play to a close. Our week on Shetland and Fair Isle had sadly come to an end, but we had seen some great birds: without a doubt the birding highlights would be the Lanceolated Warbler, Isabelline Shrike, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and group-found Citrine Wagtail and Judd’s Olive-backed Pipit. However, in many ways the experience of being on Fair Isle, the changing moods of the weather and its effect on the island was the memory we will take away with us.
My thanks go to Judd for leading so admirably in the second week and if you'd like to join an organised birding tour to Shetland in autumn 2012, look no further than those offered by Shetland Wildlife. Shetland's track record for attracting rare and scarce migrant birds every autumn is second to none and, though every year is going to be different, Shetland Wildlife's track record for getting visitors to see them is unrivalled.
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