Monthly Archives: October 2010

Robin – last good bird on Shetland

Yes Robin. I like Robins!

Last day on Shetland. 10th October 2010. Just 3 hours pre-flight to ‘bird’ Sumburgh area with RR and PVH. Not a bad start as even before getting out of the car a Great Grey Shrike flew across the road from the quarry causing Paul to shout and slam on the brakes all at once. It continued down to the farm. A scattering of migrant kept interest alive though clearly many birds have departed from the previous day’s fall.

Shetland doesn’t really have many resident ‘garden bird’ species. No British Robins – the one they get are migrants – mostly from Scandinavia of the nominate form. I like ’em. have found nominate birds in Sheffield and in N Ireland before – well worthy looking for.

So here’s one which just mooched around a stone dyke at Grutness looking all of the amazing migrant it was . It had very cold  and very olive uppers (no brownish/ rusty tones) and paler YELLOW- orange breast (especially in middle and on throat – Yellow) marked it out from the my garden breeders in Sheffield.

Can you see what I mean – coming to your area this winter – Robins from Scandinavia (or even further east)

Continental Robin, Grutness. 10 October 2010

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll

Are they coming?

A small  arrival of more Twite -sized Mealy Redpolls alerted ‘Fetlar’ Thomason to arrivals not from the NW but from the NE. So when a similar sized bird with white rump was located in Baltasound school plantaion – it shouted ‘exilipes’– or Coue’s Arctic Redpoll.

Nowadays you have to be careful about putting your head above a parapet on redpoll identification. It’s a  scary zone to enter- with plenty of rhetoric, pale/ Arctic or otherwise Redpolls often generate more heat than light.

Its looking good for Mealies so far this week which might just herald an Arctic (exilipes) Redpoll invasion – about time. I use ‘Stoddart’s Law’ which states that for every 10 Mealy Redpolls there is at least the possibility of an Arctic – though it can be as few as 3 Mealies. I have found a bird widely ticked as a Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, using this law- so I know it works (though I never submitted the record – shock, horror!)

Are the Arctic Rolls coming?

Make for a great winter if they did!

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll (or something that looks very much like one!) Baltasound, Unst. October 2010. Brydon Thomason

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll (or something that looks very much like one!) Baltasound, Unst. October 2010. Brydon Thomason

Olive-backed Pipit

Or Two!

9th October 2010. Dawn to Dusk birding with Messrs. Riddington and Harvey. Spent the morning working the Sumburgh area and Scatness, quick lunch at Paul’s and afternoon in the Quendale area. Dusk at Roger’s the previous evening (8th October) had incoming Redwings and Goldcrest in number suggested ‘arrival’. With wind in SE (2-4) and some overcast/ low cloud conditions good. Morning brought definite arrival.

Sumburgh area

Little Goldcrest  ‘carpet’ at Sumburgh -(up to 50 birds), Reed Buntings (6), Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher (2 – one still sporting juvenile breast and mantle feathers), Robins, Chiffchaff, migrant Dunnocks and LOTS of Redwing and Song Thrush – a Fall! Best was the Pallas’s Warbler at Sumburgh Farm (found by Mark Reeder late previous day).

Pallas’s Warbler, Sumburgh Farm. 9th October 2010. Gary Bell. The one species our tour group thought they had missed. Not so, all members present the next morning – short walk from their hotel rooms. Nice finale before flights home.


More Lapland Buntings (15-20), Redwing and Song Thrush numbers increasing – flocks numbering hundreds of Redwing. Several Wheatear and this wacky looking partial albino Wheatear which has been around for while. 1 Ring Ouzel, abietinus Chiffchaff, Reed Bunting and plenty to see.

partial albino Wheatear, Scatness 9th October 2010


Olive-backed Pipit number one

Bottom of Quendale Burn. Met Mark and Andy coming down. Chatted with Mark then headed up burn. Noticed RR and PVH with focused attention. caught them up – Paul said Roger had seen interesting Pipit. Just then ‘the bird’ flew up – obvious strong flyer Tree Pipit type- flew fairly close past – even in flight BRIGHT plumage tones olive/ yellow, black and white – “looks like an Olive-backed Pipit” – just as Roger had strongly suspected despite limited/obscured views on the ground. It promptly landed on dyke and all 3 of us agreed, no doubt now. It’s an OBP: weakly streaked olive mantle, strong head pattern, bold black streaklng on white over underparts. The flew back into burn. Rang Mark Reeder to get them back. Bird very ‘jumpy’ flew up and over our heads and called- classic OBP call -softer, shorter than Tree and less buzzy at the end – more on that later. One more flight and distant landing  on fence post-then lost.

No photos, no recording of call – just enough for a submission!

We proceeded up the burn now accompanied by Messrs Reeder and Mackay. Long walk and much searching collected already present: 2 Yellow-browed Warblers, a calling but elusive Dusky Warbler, a Red-breasted Flycatcher (photo of the bird here:,) odd Robins and Chiffchaff, 20 plus Goldcrest, 800 plus Redwing ‘circling’. At the very top of the burn, news and photos from Brydon. Our Olive-backed Pipit seemed a little eclipsed by Brydon and James finding a PG Tips  (Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler) on Fetlar.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Quendale, 9th October 2010. One of 2 two, the second of which was slightly duller and made me wonder about Hume’s (no calls heard), though not seen again by me.

Olive-backed Pipit number two

Late afternoon we decided to finish off with a circuit of the fields above Hillwell Loch and the Eel Burn. Surprisingly, searching of the burn was interrupted by several unmistakable calls of an Olive -backed Pipit. Unlike earlier the bird was sitting very low in the vegetation -almost preferring to run than fly. When in flight very short distance covered before pitching and moving on ground through thick vegetation. This time I managed a few poor photo as and sound recordings. First view of the underparts and it seemed remarkably heavily streaked – perhaps more so than earlier in the Quendale burn. At one point Roger stood  ‘over’ the bird and despite failing light managed very acceptable photos. We mused about this being a second bird – but didn’t think we would sound very convincing.

However one feature suspected of the bird in flight, later easily evident in the photos, it was that a significant chunk from the inner part (some tertials and inner secondaries) of the left wing was missing. We were confident that at Quendale the bird was fully winged (no gaps) – well seen in flight overhead.

Our 2 bird optimism would probably have stayed as a private conversation – except that 4 days later, Roy Hargreaves discovered a flighty, fully winged Olive-backed Pipit at the top of the Quendale Burn. Our reasonable speculation is that this was the bird first seen at the bottom of the Quendale Burn (our bird number one) and the  ‘clipped wing’ Eel Burn bird was once only observation (bird number two).

Photo below all of the Eel Burn bird. OBP number two!

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel Burn. 9 October 2010. Check out the heavy streaking on this a true ‘Sibe’.

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel burn. 9 October 2010. Dusk!

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel burn. 9 October 2010. Roger Riddington.

We had certainly talked earlier in the day about the possibility of seeing this species – chiefly because multiple records of Dusky and Pallas’s Warblers had arrived in Shetland in the past 24 hours and, with Olive-backed Pipit, the 3 species often turn up in Britain at the same time.

Calls of OBP

I have waffled on for a while now that I think the calls of Tree Pipit and Olive-backed Pipit, often described as indistinguishable, seem to me to be sufficiently different as to be useful in the field.  The encounter with these 2 birds and their calls, immediately made me think of OBP and not Tree Pipit. I think the sonagrams show why. The OBP has no strong modulation at the end – it fades a little  whereas the Tree Pipit has obvious strong modulation at the end. Roger described it better than I can thus:

“…(re Quendale OBP)… which I transcribed as a reedy “tzeeee”, differing from Tree Pipit in the fact that the “zz” was at the start of the call and the ending of the call was a clean “eee”.”

Olive-backed Pipit. Eel burn. 9 October 2010. Sonagram of calls

Tree Pipit, Spurn, East Yorkshire. September 2010. Sonagram of calls.

Red-flanked Bluetail

Last day blues – of the best kind

Couldn’t resist a pre-dawn assault on Skaw and Norwick- checking for visible (and audible) migration. Clearly Brambling, Siskins and Redwings were on the move- expect new birds today me thinks. The 2 Little Buntings called too each other very early and seemed to fly off south.

Just offshore the educational duo of juvenile terns: 1 Common and 1 Arctic Tern showed well  plus 2 1st winter Little Gulls. The Black Duck hybrid thing flew around. Nice morning. Heading south we had another ‘from the van’ find. Graham picked up a Barred Warbler along a stone dyke at Haroldswick- just before the phone purred to say a Dusky Warbler had been found at Halligarth.

Scored at Halligarth everyone heard and got good if brief typically views of the Dusky Warbler plus 2 Yellow-broweds and several Swallows over. While Otter searching, news broke of Red-flanked Bluetail  on south Mainland.

By the time we had reached the North Mainland there was a choice. 2 Bluetails. One at Geosetter and one at Tresta. We opted for the Tresta bird found by Punkbirders.

Siskin, Norwick Unst 8th October 2010. Migrating Siskins, Bramblings and Redwing heralded ‘news birds’

Another ‘from the van’ find. Noticed by Graham – a Barred Warbler on stone dyke at Haroldswick. Pink-footed Goose was new for the week here also.

Lapland Buntings continued to be seemingly ‘everywhere’. We must have seen or heard some hundreds of birds.

Call of the Bluetail

Little story: Having been directed Stu Piner and finder Dan Brown I went on the other side of walled garden away from  the rest of the group as we  awaited the appearance of the Tresta (mainland not Fetlar) Bluetail. Needed a wee. My mid-stream urinating activity  flushed the Red-flanked Bluetail from the wall’s base. Right in front of me! So I watched as it sat on branch only c 10 feet away- no bins needed- nor easily used! Result: my best ‘pish’ ever.

Short time later bird is hidden again and I hear an odd call. Kind of like a certain call of Chiffchaff but wrong; an odd warbler? I went through a mental warbler list but couldn’t attach the sound to a species. Then  it called again – with almost chat like – stonechat like quality as well.  I realised -it must be the Bluetail calling. Excellent! For me  better than brief views of the bird. Seen Red-flanked Bluetail before but never heard the call. A new call tick!

my description of Red-flanked Bluetail call:

sort of cross between Chiffchaff ‘swee’ call and a Stonechat.

Red-flanked Bluetail. Tresta, 8th Ocotober 2010. Dan Brown. I got a very similar view as I flushed the bird by pis(h)sing.

Red-flanked Bluetail. Tresta, 8th October 2010. Dan Brown

Then a final drive to drop off our excellent tour group of Paul, Andrew, Graham and Chris at the Sumburgh Hotel. 1 week and some 115 species later. New ‘life’ birds for everyone and some top-notch scare and rare bird finds. Not sure anyone was keen for it to end. The only slight regret through the day was that a Pallas’s Warbler had been seen well up the Skaw burn. We predicted that the Sumburgh area was a likely spot for one to turn up before flights home the next morning. Must try that prophesy thing more often! Next time then!

Black Duck

OK – maybe Genes of Black Duck

In a week of mostly rare passerines (small birds) – a duck remains unidentified. First seen early in the week, independently by me and Brydon flying around Haroldswick. The bird was with a small flock of Mallard and was outstanding due its darkly pigmented body contrasting with bright white underwing ‘linings’. From underneath- looked like it might be a female Black Duck. Couple days later we found out Mike P had seen the same bird and had similar thoughts. The upper wing does show obvious white borders to the colourful speculum- so it’s certainly no pure Black Duck.

So there are 2 options.  Genes from one of the dark bellied farmyard ducks in Norwick. Or (our currently slightly more favoured option)- a Black Duck X Mallard hybrid. The presence of a drake Black Duck on the Faeroes in recent years, producing a number of hybrid offspring (per Mike P), may explain our Unst duck.

Need someone to see and perhaps photograph on the deck – if your on Unst, in the Norwick/ Haroldswick area – please bear it in mind!

On out last morning it was flying around at Norwick and Brydon managed a few shots. Hope you can see why it drew our attention:

As yet unidentified dabbling duck. Suspected of being Black Duck X Mallard hybrid– but unresolved. Norwick, Unst 8th October 2010

Greenland Redpoll

Big as a Sheep

…was our size estimation for Greenland Redpolls. I think we saw them everyday in various places on Unst and Fetlar and even a couple on south Mainland (latter only fly overs). Almost Brambling-sized in direct comparisons. Plumage tone varied from warmer and browner to slightly colder and greyer. Constant though were striking 3 broad lines of ‘cat’s claw’ streaks dominating the body plumage, a white background to the heavily streaked rump- on some the white extending right up into the mantle.

Bet there’s one or two of these somewhere in mainland Britain already. With records in Norfolk and Hampshire last winter, who will be looking?

Greenland Redpolls. Unst, Shetland. October 2010

Blyth’s Reed Warbler

Tricksy Acro gets there in the end!

End of day 6th October 2010. Brydon rings me. “Any news from Unst?”. Yea Brydon –ITS A LANCY!!” Various near-expletives from Brydon and congrats. We had left Brydon and James McCallum on Fetlar to try and nail our so far unidentified pallid acro with the groovy super(cilium) at Aith.

Brydon rejoined-  “and do want some good news? Its a BLYTH’S REED WARBLER!!

So ends a remarkable day. Up the next morning we all agree we wanted to see the Aith Acro again, and properly, for ourselves. We had a little time before the ferry, so headed to Skaw and enjoyed the Lanceolated Warbler in sunshine with grateful twitchers. We then headed for the ferry. As we left Baltasound I noticed the large form and slightly undulating flight of ‘big finch’ flying past the minibus. Slammed brakes on as it dived in some garden Rosa rugosa. All jumped out just in time as a HAWFINCH exited from the garden and carried on north. One of the group in view of our island of choice, gave us our own team moniker: UNSToppable!

3 Long-tailed Ducks from the ferry and we we were soon at Aith, Fetlar. Thankfully this time the warbler showed much better. First perched out on wall and fence line and then at closer range amoung the docks. My own regret? I don’t think it was identifiable on day one – least not for me. But I do wish I had the tenacity to ‘go back’ the next day. To stay with it until the ID was more fully resolved.

Here is is. Lovely bronzy wing patch subtly contrasting with cold sandy upperparts. Rather shortish primary projection. Tertial centres on the bird did not look especially dark centred -though bit more so than some BRW’s- perhaps slightly exaggerated in the profile shots. Rather whitish underparts with some colour on lower flanks and even in the vent – not deeply pigmented like most Reed Warblers. Didn’t call.

If any one has other photos of the bird – I’d be keen to see them

Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Aith, Fetlar 7th October 2010

Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Aith, Fetlar 7th October 2010

Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Aith, Fetlar 7th October 2010

Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Aith, Fetlar 7th October 2010

We then worked Funzie and Tresta notching up young Turtle Dove, several Whinchat and Yellow-browed Warbler. A late Sand Martin was a surprise

juvenile-1st winter Turtle Dove. Tresta, Fetlar, 7th October 2010

Back on Unst we picked up a Yellow-browed Warbler in flight from the minibus – spicing up the birding! The 2 Little Buntings, Hornemann’s Redpoll and a bunch of Greenland Redpoll at Norwick.

As the sun began to set, Paul picked up a calling Richard’s Pipit coming up from Norwick beach. Unstoppable!