22nd – 24th September – Shetland   Leave a comment

On the 22nd I flew from Southampton to Sumburgh via Edinburgh arriving at 1330. I picked up my hire car and headed for Pail and Liz Harvey’s house, where I would be staying for the next two weeks. Paul had just got back home and was with his friend Roger Riddington, the editor of the famous British Birds journal. It was a beautiful warm day, almost unprecedented by Shetland standards and we had a spot of lunch in the garden. The first bird I lifted my binoculars too proved to be a Yellow-browed Warbler, a scarce but regular autumn visitor from Siberia.

In spite my soaking up the glorious sunshine and the stunning view over Sumburgh Head with Fair Isle in the distance, Paul reminded me that the wind was in the east and there were good birds to be found. Roger, Paul and I headed for Sumburgh Farm where we stomped around the edge of the fields and eventually saw an obliging Barred Warbler near the farm-house.

Although almost all Shetlanders welcome birders onto their land, a few do not and at nearby Grutness ‘private gardens – no loitering’ signs have been erected. This seems a bit unfortunate as the garden is on the opposite side of the road from the house, so privacy isn’t being invaded, nobody actually enters the garden and being the first cover birds encounter after making landfall on the Head, it’s a cracking birding spot. Whilst briefly pausing there and attempting to make our loitering as inconspicuous as possible, we saw two Lesser Whitethroats and an incredible three Yellow-browed Warblers, the first time I have seen more than one of this species anywhere in the UK.

One of the best gardens for rare birds in southern Shetland (photographed on a dull day later in the week)

Lesser Whitethroats showed well but the following species stole the show, at least as far as I was concerned.

High in a sycamore a tiny fast-moving warbler showing a pale supercillium and an obvious wing bar is glimpsed, this is the stuff that drives birders to endure rain and autumnal gales on remote headlands. Most like this will prove to be a Yellow-browed but the much rarer Hume’s Leaf, Arctic, Greenish or even the ultra-rare Green or Two-barred Greenish Warblers remain possible.


I first met Paul when I moved to Poole in 1978 and it was he, along with Ian Alexander and Pete Christian who first introduced me to ringing. Since he left the job as warden on Fair Isle, Paul’s ringing has mainly involved seabirds but we had agreed that during my stay, if wind conditions allowed, we would try some ringing in his garden. We erected a 40 foot net and immediately caught a few Blackbirds and Sparrows, pretty standard fare for anywhere in the UK, but just before dusk we trapped a Yellow-browed, a new bird in the hand for me. What an excellent start to my stay in Shetland.

I have had a long-standing wish to see a Yellow-browed Warbler in the hand, unfortunately the light was fading by the time it was caught.

During the evening Paul and I joined a number of other birders for a drink at the Sumburgh Hotel. I had a chance to former Birdquest leader Iain Robertson, who I had travelled with to South Africa and Madagascar in the early 90s and top West Palearctic lister Pierre-Andre Crochet who is a member of the BOU taxonomic sub-committee. However the early start of the last few days was really catching up with me and by 2330 I was pretty much out of it.

On the 23rd Paul and I birded on the Scatness peninsula but saw little of note. Paul phoned Roger to see if he had see anything and Roger invited us round for a cuppa. He also has a lovely house with a view over Grutness Bay. Roger had been out early that morning but like us had found little. Whilst we were there we were informed that a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been found on Scatness, on the very pool we had walked past a short time before. We hurried down to Scatness, where along with other Shetland birders, we quickly located the sandpiper, a bird whose breeding range is almost totally confined to arctic Alaska. It was in the company of a Sanderling and gave cracking views until it was flushed by a Merlin and disappeared in the direction of the airport.

All the way from Alaska, yet Buff-breasted Sandpiper is one of the commoner North American waders to reach the UK……

…. and a shot showing the buff breast.

Suddenly the Sanderling and Buff-breast took flight. The startling white underwing is used in display where the wings are raised one at a time.

The culprit wasn’t inconsiderate birders or over eager photographers but this Merlin.

Later in the day we stomped around the ditches and iris beds at Quendale, but the best birds were seen close to the road by the old water-mill. A Red-breasted Flycatcher and three or four Yellow-broweds flitted around the bushes and even allowed photo opportunities. By the time we had climbed over multiple gates and styles and thrashed around along the stream bed I was really knackered and after checking out a number of roadside spots we returned home.

The characteristic white bases to the tail of this Red-breasted Flycatcher can be easily seen in this shot.

Although there were good birds in south Shetland it was clear as the afternoon that the best were on the remote islands of Foula and Fair Isle. Paul suggested I try to fly to Fair Isle on the 24th as they had ringed a Lanceolated Warbler that afternoon, a UK tick for me, however before I could even consider this he received the stunning news that a Magnolia Warbler had been found on Fair Isle that afternoon. This was only the second record for the UK of this American warbler and would be a British tick for just about everyone. Then Paul’s phone went crazy with local birders trying to arrange a visit. Paul explained to me that although I was staying with him, first places on any flight would have to go to the top seven Shetland listers. In the end they managed to get on a school flight to Fair Isle, albeit at considerable cost, (the plane normally goes out empty and returns bringing Fair Isle kids to school on the mainland).

I had a fairly troubled night but was up at six, Paul suggested I drive to the little airport at Tingwall just in case any of the seven Shetland top listers was a no-show. As expected this wasn’t the case; they all headed off to Fair Isle but the Magnolia had gone (although several other rarities provided some compensation).

I drove north to Muckle Roe where a Citrine Wagtail had been seen yesterday. It was a lovely location with great panoramas but there was no sign of any vagrant siberian wagtails. However I was able to relocate a somewhat distant male Surf Scoter with a flock of 200 Eiders. Not a year tick for me but a more attractive bird than the female I saw in Devon early in the year. I also birded in the Vidlin area but to little avail. Not content with seeing a load of good birds on Fair Isle, Paul and Roger met me at Quendale in the late afternoon where another three Yellow-browed were seen.

The beautiful vistas of Muckle Roe

Fresh in from Iceland, these Whooper Swans showed well.

A migrant from northern Europe or Iceland or a local breeder? the origins of this Golden Plover is unclear

Posted September 25, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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