Me and a group of birding mates had flights booked to Shetland for Saturday 1st October, where we would be rarity hunting for 9 days. As Britain's northernmost outpost, the Shetland Isles attract more than their fair share of outrageously rare birds. Getting up there at short notice is fraught with stress and no little expense, so at this time of year it makes sense to just be there anyway.
It's exciting times. Every bush, every wall, every patch of nettles could be harbouring a scarce or rare bird.
I'm not going to list every bird we saw or every place we went. I'll just give a few of the highlights.
|My last Fenland sunset for quite a while|
- I know I'm going somewhere good when I'm here in the middle of the night
Ok. It's not Shetland.
As I said, plans change.
On 28th September a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was found by a friend of mine who had put himself on the Isle of Lewis for a week on account of this weather system, which was always likely to bring yanks across the Atlantic.
Having already dipped two of these, one on Orkney and one in Cornwall, I was very keen to go for it. It didn't make sense to come back South afterwards, so I hastily packed for my Shetland trip and headed north towards Inverness airport.
|Airport lounge, early morning.|
Back of camera shot sent to me by Dan
The closest I ever got to seeing the bird
We spend the rest of the day checking out gardens in the area, not finding very much. Then, late afternoon, Dan gets a message. EASTERN KINGBIRD on Barra.
This is MEGA. There have only been two ever, both in Ireland, both dipped by me. Barra is only two islands south of Lewis in the same island chain.
We began wrestling with ferry timetables, only to quickly realise that we were stuck on Lewis for the rest of the day.
|We'd rather this had been sunset on Barra instead of Lewis|
|Just whiling away the time taking in the scenery|
|At last, boat ahoy!|
|Come on, hurry up!|
One ferry crossing, a drive across the Uists and
now another interminable wait for another boat.
If only we could work out how to drive this boat...
Or find the owner of this one.
We rolled off the ferry, packing four friends into the back of the car, and burned the narrow lanes the couple of miles to where the bird was being watched. Since news broke, we had covered 140 miles in 21 hours!!! On this occasion, surely the slowest twitchers in Britain!
That was until it flew up into the air and headed into the sky, further and further and further away, above the clouds, over the hills and far away. Gone!
We had got there with 50 minutes to spare.
A very exclusive bird for the seventy or so birders who had managed to see it. Let's spare a thought for the two twitchers who missed it by a minute or so.
|More scenery on Barra|
|Double rainbow (just) at Loch Eynort in South Uist|
Saturday 1st October - finally onto Shetland
We had been carefully watching the wind forecasts for a couple of weeks and they had steadily got better and better for our time on Shetland, with a constant stream of Easterlies almost guaranteed to bring a host of Siberian waifs to the islands.
|Flying over Fair Isle|
Interspersed between the highlights were:
Hundreds of Yellow-browed Warblers, a few Siberian (that word will crop up again!) Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps in every garden, Thrushes and Bramblings coming in, flocks of Twite, a few Lesser Whitethroats (including a very pale eastern type - aka Siberian!).
Finds for the group were a Bluethroat and a Barred Warbler, a brief Olive-backed Pipit, a Hawfinch, a smart male Red-backed Shrike, a very stripy Pallas's Warbler and a tecking Dusky Warbler. There was also a Garden Warbler out in the open at point blank range which James announced as another Barred Warbler - a plethora of Barred puns followed, not that we would want to remind him of his mistake!
Birds we twitched were a showy Blyth's Reed Warbler, five Little Buntings in one day, a WHITE'S THRUSH which mega'd just down the road from where we were (only my third ever), a Red-breasted Flycatcher, an American Golden Plover, an amazing LANCEOLATED WARBLER (my second ever) and four KILLER WHALES - ok, I know they are not birds, but they certainly competed with the Lancey as 'bird of the day'.
Birds we dipped were:
A SIBERIAN THRUSH. Had news broke an hour earlier we might have made it onto Unst, but as it was the drive and two island ferries was just too much. Needless to say it wasn't there in the morning. The whole team needed that one.
A BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, despite being about 3 miles away when it was found. We did see a chakking thrush with a large Sparrowhawk in hot pursuit!! Oo er!
An ORPHEAN WARBLER. Again we were close but not close enough. News of this bird broke just before the Siberian Thrush mega, so not a great afternoon.
We could have seen a few more very rare birds, but decided to spend most of our time hunting out our own rarities away from other birders. This tactic can misfire, as when birders pour into an area to see a rare bird it is not uncommon for something else good to be found.
Anyway, that's enough of bird names. Here are a few photos to sum up the trip. Please don't ask me to explain what's going on in them all.
|We named this sheep Dan.|
|There's a Lanceolated Warbler in there somewhere.|
|Ah! There it is!|
These pigs, we later found out,
belong to Mad Mackay who told us to
"fook off doon the sooth mooth and geet an the fookin boot".
Or something like that!
|We named one of these seals Dan.|
Scene of the White's Thrush twitch.
It's on the path just beyond the gate to the right.
It never moved while we were there!
I found this on top of a stone wall at Eswick.
In fact, I put my hand straight in it!
|Just don't ask. The rest of us were looking for the Orphean Warbler.|
We spent what we had of Sunday hunting in vain for rarities before it was reluctantly time to head back to the airport.
But this is Shetland! Ruiner of plans.
Just shy of checking in for our flights, the pager mega went off. More often than not it's something we've seen. But this message had me reading each sentence in an increasingly high pitched voice as it just got better and better.
(A first for Britain and a good looker at that)
(A first for Britain and a good looker at that)
(But which island?)
(That's where we are)
(just down the road)
So do we catch our flights or do we go and see a stunning first for Britain just down the road?
Well of course, if it was up to me I would have got on the plane since I would be leaving Sue slightly in the lurch with the plasterer due tomorrow. But I had no choice. The van was no longer going to the airport. Sorry Sue! I will buy you a proper Shetland jumper one day. I promise.
Ten minutes later we were here.
|Back of the camera!|
Monday 10th October
Finally back in Aberdeen, just a day late.
Dan headed North for a Two-barred Greenish Warbler. I would have liked to, but it would have been pushing things back home.
So instead I just got in my car and began the 450 mile drive back south.
2 miles from my house, news of this filtered through.
I need that.
I've just had this on the garage roof.
The first Grey Wagtail for the farm.
But I'd still rather be back in Shetland.