Category Archives: 24) Buntings

Yellowhammer with Pine Bunting bits

in the garden, but just passing through…

Martin Garner

Out at end of Flamborough head, light spring passage includes Chaffinches, Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer in small numbers at the moments.

Yellowhammer PB5 (1 of 1)

Martin Garner

I have had a little passion for Yellowhammers for quite a while. Looked at lots. Know the drill. Males with rufous in roughly the moustache/malar region are very common. Nowt out of the ordinary. However last Friday a male appeared in the garden with a rufous band under the throat. Now that grabbed my attention. I have personally never seen that pattern on a male Yellowhammer. Indeed I knew it was interesting. Why? Probably indicates some level of Pine Bunting ‘influence’. Check out a picture of a male Pine Bunting. The two places you expect chestnut to show on yellow Yellowhammer with Pine Bunt bits? The chestnut on the throat, a and chestnut around eye.

This bird had both. So I grabbed  a couple of  distant shots. Took me another couple of hours of effort over next 2 days to get better pics. And the bird appears to have moved on.

think I’m making it up 😉 ?

BWP text

“Birds with chestnut spotted or full malar stripe occur frequently in various populations, without clear trend; birds with patches of rufous elsewhere on head, throat or upper chest occur mainly in East European Russia and Asia, probably due to introgression of characters of Pine Bunting E. leucocephalus.”

Anyone can add to the picture, we are keen to learn. It may be vestigial characters on this individual (I can find photos of odd trapped Yellowhammer with rufous around the eye in W Europe by scrolling t’internet) or may be evidence of recent (several generations?) introgression- thus this individual is already ‘from the east’. Both scenarios or entirely possible.

Yellowhammer PB3 (1 of 1) Yellowhammer PB2 (1 of 1) Yelllowhammer 4 (1 of 1) Yellowhammer PB10 (1 of 1) Yellowhammer PB9 (1 of 1) Yellowhammer PB11 (1 of 1)


Lancashire December 2003

Meanwhile I think this is also one with more rufous, photographed by Chris Batty at Bradshaw Lane Head, Pilling Moss, Lancashire on 30th December 2003. We featured it HERE

yellowhammer30122003b yellowhammer30122003c


and this one with even more rufous (see how the pattern increases) from Calle

Sweden February 2015

“Hi Martin!

Saw your picture of the possible hybrid bunting on Twitter! I photographed a bunting earlier this winter (February 8th) in my garden in Sweden that I consider to be a Yellowhammer X Pine Bunting. Here are some pictures of it!

Best wishes,

Calle Ljungberg”

Calle hybrid Yammer pine bunt (1 of 1) Calle hybrid Yammer pine bunt 7 (1 of 1) Calle hybrid Yammer pine bunt 8 (1 of 1) Calle hybrid Yammer pine bunt 9 (1 of 1)

Calle hybird 14 (1 of 1)

March and April and good bunting migration/ movements months. I’ll keep looking.


Thanks to Frédéric Jiguet check out this bird written up in Dutch Birding:

Jiguet F 2003, Dutch Birding 25-5, 323-326. Hybrid Yellowhammer x Pine Bunting in central France in May-June 2002.

“Hi Martin,
Attached are the three photos of the male, presumed hybrid, that I caught at a breeding site in western France. Caught and ringed 27 May 2002, recaptured on site 24 June 2002.
This male had a very pale yellow head with dark bold blackish stripes (being the most Pine-trends), but deeper yellow on face, a very large rufous band on the breast (Pine-pointing too), pale lower flanks and vent.

The possibility of an hybrid Cirl x Yellow was considered but rapidly excluded.



fred y1 (1 of 1)

pho2fred y3 (1 of 1)


and a normal male in the garden yesterday in low evening sun

male yammmer 2 (1 of 1)


The Arctic comes to my Garden

Snow Bunting and Little Auk

A Thursday evening (23rd Oct.) walk out with Ebony, our collie cross bought me lovely views of these two birds. I wasn’t expecting to see much and came back a very happy chappy. It got me reflecting on my love of the arctic. I can’t go there all the time so sometimes the bird from there come to me. I know- not quite in my garden- but close enough.

Snow Bunting

This is an  individual of the nominate form nivalis quickly recognized by the obvious paler greyish mantle area contrasting with darker browner scapulars. Appears to be a first winter male. We get two taxa each winter in Britain. The nominate form as here is considered to be the less common of the two according to information from ringing and birds assigned to subspecies in the hand. They could come from Scandinavia, Svalbard or Greenland.

Then there is the darker taxon insulae from Iceland. Identifying Snow Bunting to their correct age, sex and race can be both challenging and rewarding. Behind each birds lies a fascinating narrative from a species that can survive and thrive in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Taxonomy of Snow Buntings and MacKay’s Bunting of Beringia is a fascinating subject with the Siberian vlasowae of disputed range and validity. I don’t really mind. Birds with that Siberian characters look amazing whatever! I did an old post HERE and there is a paper HERE  (though he used the darkest possible Snow Buntings  specimens to make his point.) Hmm..

For ageing and sexing on this one amount of white in wing, pattern of underwings, white in primary coverts, shape and pattern of tail feathers.


Snow Bunting 6 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 7 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 1 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 4 25 Oct 14 1 Snow Bunting 5 25 Oct 14 1


Siberian Snow Buntings

And I hope one day in Britain to find one that looks like this. The Siberian form vlasowae.

There’s material for another book there…


above- male Siberian Snow Bunting- ssp vlasowae, Vardo, Varanger, March 2012.

Little Auk

Then directly below the cliff top on which the Snow Bunting was feeding, on a becalmed sea, sat this little chap. All the way from the High Arctic.

A very pleasant encounter indeed :)

little auk 3 little auk 4



Thank YOU!

Martin Garner

Just to say a huge thank you for all the personal well wishes  and very encouraging messages following this post. I have failed abysmally to respond to all of them, but I have been repeatedly moved by so much kindness.

So a little news. About four days ago I pushed my walking distance (only few hundred metres) and found I could do more than I thought. The next day, 25th March I tried a walk around Millennium Wood, Flamborough not sure how far I would get. Soon located the Northern Treecreeper ssp familiaris and even showed a visiting couple of birders who hadn’t seen it before. That kind of stuff spurs you on.  Andy Hood followed our visit and got some lovely photos:

 Northern Treecreeper





Northern Treecreeper ssp familiaris, Millennium Wood, Flamborough, 25th March 2014, all photos by Andy Hood

Lapland Bunting

2 days ago on 26th March, early news from dear friend and RSPB warden Keith Clarkson had seen a male Lapland Bunting on the reserve (and possibly heard a Shore Lark). Spurred on to attempt more, Sharon and I headed off early. Staple Newk is a fair walk and the wind was blowing a hooley! Nevertheless we made it. Not especially optimistic we were stunned to find 3 Lapland Buntings including one of the males  ‘singing its head off’. Well I fair hopped skipped and jumped my way back to the reserve centre!

So THANK YOU- for spurring on encouragements and messages and we (Sharon and I )  have taking them to heart and working on them :)

PS all photos below by me- wobbling about like a weeble while Sharon holds on to me- quite a comic sight.

Lapland Bun bt Bempton 26.3.14


Lapland Bunt d Bempton 26.3.14

Male Lapland Bunting in full song at Bempton RSPB, Flamborough

Lapland Bunt f  Bempton 26.3.14


Lapland Buntg Bempton 26.3.14


Silver Blacky… still

silver blacky

silver blacky.jpg2

Silver Blacky- probably a colour aberration know as ‘BROWN’. Still an on/off visitor to our garden.


Female Pine Bunting: Time to Look!

Martin Garner

Finding a female Pine Bunting in November 2003 at Flamborough Head let to the discovery that for every male Pine Bunting trapped on the near continent, 2 FEMALE Pine Buntings were trapped.  Female Pine Buntings seem to be overlooked in Britain (1 female to every 5 males in Britain).

Brydon Thomason and Mike Pennington found a female Pine Bunting on Unst, Shetland in November 2011. Here are Brydon’s photos in a reblogged post as we are ‘in’ the right time of year…

female Pine Bunting, Clibberswick, Unst, Shetland, November 2011. © Brydon Thomason

Follow-up notes on the 2003 Flamborough bird:

What intrigued me was that the bird did not make me immediately think ‘Pine Bunting’ (* see full account at end), given the field conditions and my limited experience, and I wondered again the likelihood of female Pine Buntings simply being overlooked in this country as they are so much less striking than males. Pine Buntings are likely to be buried away in Yellowhammer flocks under conditions whereby the flocks are often not easy to scrutinise. The following statistics might enable us to be better informed and more inspired in looking for Pine Buntings in Britain:

According to Occhiato (2003) the situation with wintering birds in Italy can be summarised as follows:

They arrive from second half of October, but chiefly in first half of November. Maximum numbers occur mid-December to mid-February. The last birds leave the wintering grounds during first week of March.

70% of 110 birds were first-winters.

Ratio of one male to every two females!

Of 12 trapped birds in December 1995, six were male, six were female and nine of the 12 were first-winters.

If we compare these figures with the vagrants occurring in Northwest Europe we find a significantly different situation. Of about 40 records in Britain up to 2003, only eight of these are listed as females, most of the rest were identified as males. Thus a rough ratio of about one female to five males. Also interesting is that of male Pine Buntings, half of the records have been recorded in mainland Britain, widely spread from Dorset, and London, through the middle of the country to the east and north east coasts. In contrast most of the female Pine Buntings  (six of the eight records) have occurred in the Northern Isles (five) and Scillies (one) where Yellowhammers are rare or scarce. The only accepted records of females on the mainland are the Big Waters bird 18th of February to 16th of March 1990 and amazingly a female found dead at a roadside in Ewhurst, Surrey on 29th January 1989.

To compliment this picture there have been 31 records of 32 individuals of Pine Bunting in the Netherlands. Of these, 24 were sexed as male and nine as female (a ratio of nearly one female to every three males) and most records concern birds trapped at ringing stations ( A. van den Berg pers comms).

It would seem to be clear that female Pine Buntings are being overlooked in mainland Britain and indeed in Western Europe. Targeting a few more winter Yellowhammer flocks would not be a bad pursuit!

Click on labelled images for larger size

female Pine Bunting, Clibberswick, Unst, Shetland, November 2011. © Brydon Thomason

Account of find and field appearance of Flamborough bird, November 2003

 * female Pine Bunting are overlooked

* could occur anywhere in inland Britain

* well worth a winter search for

 Looking for a Pine Bunting…

I am a glutton for trying to ‘target’ the finding of rare birds. Mostly it feels like chasing the wind, but once in a while the ‘genning up’ on, and making targeted attempts at, finding rarities has its payoffs. One species that has been in my sights over the last couple of years is Pine Bunting. I had been chewing on the theory that we must get more Yellowhammer/Pine Bunting hybrids/intergrades in Britain than are reported, particularly as ‘yellow hybrids’ (i.e. birds more like Yellowhammers but with some Pine Bunting characters) occur in a ratio of one hybrid to seven Yellowhammers, no further away than the Southeast Baltic and Estonia/ Latvia region (Panov 2003). I had even taken to ‘bothering’ various folk about certain ‘interesting’ Yellowhammers photographed in Britain, but no-one seemed that bothered! Undeterred, I figured I was probably not that likely to find a real Pine Bunting, but I could at least study the Yellowhammers a bit more and see if I could discern the presence of birds with hybrid characters.

With this background in mind, I decided to visit Flamborough Head on 12th November 2003, with the chief hope of seeing the Hume’s Warbler which had been present in Old Fall Plantation the previous few days. John McLoughlin had the same idea so we agreed to meet early morning at Flamborough. I was down Old Fall hedge before first light which eventually had the positive result of great looks at the Hume’s with no-one around but was also negative because the late arriving McLoughlin (new baby was the lame excuse) found two Tundra Bean Geese in the daylight which I had almost certainly walked past in the dark!

There were clearly some migrant birds following the overnight rain and a blustery southeast wind , so I decided to check  South Landing next, where I found good numbers of winter thrushes, and continental versions of Chaffinch, Robin and several pale Dunnocks. Encouraged I grabbed a bite of lunch and headed off more purposefully with Yellowhammer study in mind. Having checked out Holmes Gut, I then decide to tackle the northern section of the outer head which I knew to be one of the best areas for Yellowhammers due to a Pheasant rearing programme and the consequent abundance of seed. I came to wish that I had not then decided to call at the house of an affable Mike Pearson’s for a brief ‘hello’, as he informed me that Andrew Allport had seen a Pine Bunting the previous day near the road at the end of Old Fall hedge. As my plan had been to look through the Yellowhammers anyway, I was obviously excited at the prospect of a real Pine Bunting being around and really frustrated as any chance of a ‘self-find’ would be contaminated by prior knowledge!

I spent about an hour walking down to Flatmere, checking the feeder areas and attendant Yellowhammers, with the highlight of two day-flying Barn Owls and a redpoll over. Walking back up the hedge not far from roadside pool, there were clearly quite large numbers of birds around a Pheasant feeder, mostly Yellowhammers (about 40) with a few Reed Buntings, Linnets and Tree Sparrows. Unfortunately most of the birds were hidden, feeding in a ditch, periodically rising up through a section of hedge where they could be seen. I opted for a wait and see strategy and after about 20 minutes one bird in particular caught my attention.

Perched facing slightly away from me and a foot or so ‘into’ the hedge was a ‘Yellowhammer- type’ bird but eye-catchingly colder, paler and particularly greyer above compared with other female Yellowhammers. There was no yellow immediately visible, but this did not trouble me much as (particularly young) female Yellowhammers often give a first impression of lacking yellow in certain views. The supercilium was particularly broad and buffy-looking with no hint of yellow or olive. At this point I had no sense of adrenaline rush, having checked many ‘dull Yellowhammers’  in the past, which kept me rather cautious, so  I casually glanced down at the primary fringes which were in clear view ( as the bird was only about 30 feet away). It was immediately apparent that most of the outer edge of the outer three (ish) primaries was white; not just white, but as I focused my telescope ….gleaming white! I know in theory this meant that this bird had to be a Pine Bunting. I was still rather non-plussed about it. I had only seen male Pine Bunting, and as these are so vivid I suppose I expected a female Pine Bunting to be equally striking. For some reason (perhaps, my recollection of reading about the ‘Big Waters Pine Bunting’) I expected a bird with an obviously whitish supercilium and looking grey and white overall and perhaps obviously so around the face. The feature that most bothered me at the time was the big buffy/light brown supercilium…it wasn’t what I expected for a female Pine Bunting.

I then spent the next five minutes or so noting all that I could see of the bird. As it continued facing slightly away, part of the lower belly was obscured, so I moved around to try and get a better view. Unfortunately this created general disturbance in the bush and my interesting bird dropped down, out of sight. A further disturbance then caused most of about 30-40 birds to explode out of the hedge and fly off in different directions. As daylight was beginning to fade I headed back to the car with a mix of emotions. It definitely had white primary fringes, and was clearly colder grey brown in plumage tones with no yellow in the plumage, but it looked so ‘relatively boring’ and I had expected more obvious white to jump out at me in the face pattern. Was that big buffy supercilium okay for a Pine Bunting? Fortunately I had a copy of the Collins Bird Guide with me in the car and to my delight it appeared the features I was struggling with on this bird appeared to be normal for Pine Bunting. So all things considered it seemed to be one. Now I had another dilemma. The bird was on private land (for which I had permission to visit) and the landowner, I knew, was particularly sensitive about NOT wanting hoards of people near the Pheasant- rearing area. I made the assumption that this must be A.A.’s bird from the previous day (even though I did not know what sex his bird was) and as he had seen it near an area open to the public, there was every chance the bird could fly back here.  I rang John McLoughlin with the news, though I still wanted the opportunity to find out more about the appearance of female Pine Buntings once back at home, to remove any niggling doubts due to my lack of experience. Also as I had not seen every part of the plumage (seeing the central part of the lower belly had eluded me) I asked him to put out a cautiously worded message in the hope that the bird would revisit the public area with the roving Yellowhammers.


Chiefly like a Yellowhammer in overall plumage patterns, with the following features noted: Bill bi-coloured as Yellowhammer. Crown well streaked with evenly fine dark ‘ticked’ lines. Facial pattern overall like Yellowhammer but with strikingly broad (looked broader than most Yellowhammer) buffy or light brown-washed supercilium. Head pattern overall felt a little ‘stronger’/ more well defined  (especially dark area around ear coverts) than Yellowhammer. Paler, creamy submoustachial stripe and throat with dark ticks of streaking down from malar point. No yellow whatsoever in facial pattern, submoustachial area or throat (carefully looked) thus this area was overall lighter in tone than Yellowhammer. Underparts not fully visible, but flanks well streaked dark brownish/ to  blackish (some) on light buff -washed flanks, buff colour fading to dirty whitish/ off white towards belly and lower breast. Central belly frustratingly not visible. Undertail coverts just visible appeared buffy-white/off-white again with no yellow tones in all visible area parts of underparts, despite scrutiny. Nape greyish and paler than Yellowhammer, with whole of rest of upperparts dark streaked and with dark centres to flight feathers, but ground colour colder, paler and greyer looking than any other Yellowhammer (this is what first caught my attention in particular the greyish background colour to the mantle and  scapulars). Wing coverts tipped buffy/cream. Gleaming white fringe to most of the visible length of about three or more outer primaries (I was too busy determining in my own mind that these fringes really were white and not subtly yellow to count exactly how many feathers were involved). Rump also stood out somehow as different from Yellowhammers, with the rufous feathers looking cleaner and paler than on Yellowhammer, with clean, crisp whitish fringes. Tail feathers fringed white, again no yellow apparent. No call heard.

Wild Weekend: Shetland Spring Extra

More and More

by Martin G.

a Greenish Warbler Quendale May 2013This Greenish Warbler was a bit of a highlight find over a Shetland Nature ‘Wild Weekend’.

Following on from the Shetland Spring Birding holiday, I lead a shorter ‘Wild Weekend’. A new group with similar itinerary. We saw many of the expected highlights and specialties and adding some new rare bird finds. Feedback is always appreciated :)

“Hi everyone at Shetland Nature,
 I finally have time to write to you to thank you for the fantastic holiday I have just spent with you.  I was on the Wild Weekend trip from 31 May to 4 June. I just wanted to pass on my appreciation to you all for the well planned, compact and thorough itinerary on this holiday.
 I especially wish to send my thanks to our tour leader, Martin Garner, who made this a very special trip for me. Martins knowledge, enthusiasm, patience and caring nature was fantastic. He managed a group with differing abilities with great skill and humour.
 Many thanks to you all again, and I hope to have another holiday with you soon (Autumn Birding? Martin trying to persuade me!!)
Kind regards, Jonathan Russ”

Jonathan did very well too, as we always hope for guests, finding some of his own ‘good birds’ including his male Red-backed Shrike:

Red backed Shrike spiggiedrake Red-backed Shrike at west side of Loch Spiggie. We found 2 males in the space of 10 minutes around Spiggie. What a treat! This was a ‘from the van’ find.

Bonxie b Spiggie June 13

Bonxie Spiggie June 13Near the shrike this Great Skua flew up from a bathing club on Loch Spiggie. This one has ‘extra white’ in both wings.

wild weekend group june 13

Our wild weekend group with stunning backdrop of South Mainland, Shetland on day two. the group had juts been watching Snow Buntings on Compass head. Little did we know what lay ahead…

We left Compass and in my mind I thought we could head to Quendale Mill. Lovely tea shop, local history and maybe chance of the odd migrant bird. Main aim was a cup of tea! The migrant quality was slightly higher than expected. Arriving at Quendale I took the group  into the shop. Having ordered drinks I though I’d have a quick look in the garden. A quick ‘spish’ and up popped and striking looking acrocephalus Warbler- quick check of features. Superb! A Marsh Warbler. I ran back to the shop and called the group out:

Marsh Warbler d Quendale spring 2013

Marsh Warbler Quendale spring 2013

Marsh Warbler a Quendale spring 2013

Marsh Warbler in the garden at Quendale Mill. A slightly odd bird, with, like the Great Skua above, extra white in the plumage, most obviously with an all white central tail feather.

The Marsh Warbler then flew out towards the embankment by the mill. As not everyone had seen it well we headed over to view the bank.  a few minutes later and the above mentioned Jonathan, said- “is this it”. I looked up to see not an ‘acro’ but a phylloscopus flitting against the light. “No”, I said “it’s a phyllosc”… hold on, did I just glimpse a wing bar, suddenly a full view- YES! it’s  a Greenish Warbler!
Greenish Warbler  3 Quendale May 2013

Greenish Warbler  4 Quendale May 2013

Greenish Warbler  2Quendale May 2013

a Greenish Warbler Quendale May 2013

Greenish Warbler at Quendale Mill. A grand few moments of bird finding. I quickly rang Roger Riddington to put the news out on the Shetland grapevine- I knew Paul Harvey was keenly pursuing a record year list for Shetland. 


The next morning we headed north to Unst.

Common Crane b unst May June 2013Unst was most enjoyable as ever and the 1st summer Common Crane out on wee show for us every day.

Here was one of the reports we put in to the Nature in Shetland Website:

“UnstCommon Crane at Haroldswick. Red-backed Shrike, 8 Tree Sparrows and Brambling at Norwick”

Doesn’t so that amazing but the Brambling was smart male and 11 Tree Sparrows ( I thought it was 11 and not 8- must look it up) in Shetland was easily the most I’ve ever seen.

Otter Unst June 13

A post dinner walk along the south shore at Baltasound. I am more novice at Otter tracking but we scored very nicely. This fella spent about 25 minutes diving into the water, catching some seafood special and climbing back out on the same rock to munch its way through dinner. Fantastic, and prolonged views for all the group.



Red-throated Diver, Fetlar,  photo: Brydon Thomason. These give lovely views on Loch of Funzie, but the Red-necked Phalaropes, late arriving and sparse in  number didn’t show for us.

We also DIDN’T see the next very interesting bird, but I suspect we could have done and just overlooked it. We arrived back at the ferry terminal to see Richard Ashbee. We got chatting and he asked me to check photos of a Marsh Harrier he had seen (good bird on Fetlar) and some Snow Buntings. The Snow Bunting pics were immediately a bit of a shocker:

fetlar snow buntSnow Bunting showing characters of Siberian Snow Bunting ssp. vlasowae, apparently a 2cy (1st summer male) on Fetlar, early June 2013 photo by R. Ashbee website. Richard photographed this bird in the field north of Loch Funzie. We were there, just never  looked in that direction. Compare the upperparts with (below) this male Snow Bunting at Compass head which is a male has all white rump which means it is of the nominate form ‘nivalis‘. Male Icelandic Snow Buntings (ssp. insulae) have a dark centre to the rump.

Age? Certainly these 2 Snow Buntings are males. They look like they might be the same age. The bird below at Compass has dark tipped primary coverts but some white at the base of the primaires. The bird above  (vlasowae candidate) has dark tipped primary coverts and no white at base of primaries. Adult males often have all white primary coverts and some white at base of primaries. I think that means the vlasowae candidate is 2cy (1st summer) male. That means it will get even whiter (and an even better candidate)! Just wish I had seen it. :(

Snow Bunting Sumburgh May 2013Male Snow Bunting at Compass head which is a male of the nominate form ‘nivalis‘, possibly a first summer (2cy) male.

Red Backed Shrike kobylini like North Dale b Unst May 2013

male Red-backed Shrike showing more extensive grey and reduced brown above and paler tertial fringes of kobylini, the eastern form. Will do more on this bird and ones like it very soon. This one was with ‘normal’ male at Northdale on Unst in week one. In total I think we found at least 10 different Red-backed Shrikes. Nae bad!

carbo cormorant and shags Lerwick may 13


Cormorants compared in Shetland. Top photo: 2cy  Atlantic Cormorant (‘carbo’) with similar aged Shags (Martin Garner). Bottom photo 2cy Continental Cormorant (‘sinensis’) at Hillwell Loch (Roger Riddington). We saw the ‘sinensis‘ on the first week.


Lots more seen in jam-packed long weekend. We finished with lunch sitting in beautiful surroundings ending our trip list with a bit of quality: This  drake Ring necked Duck (photo by Larry Dalziel) at Asta Loch.

wild weekend guys

Some of our guests enjoying Sumburgh Head and the very close Puffins

female Eider Sumburgh may 13

Eiders were encountered in lots of places, including occasionally almost tripping over a female in long grass…

and next spring 2014?

Female Woodchat Skrike near the famous bus shelter, Baltasound, Unst (photo by Unst’s man and the bird’s finder: Mike Pennington who runs the Nature in Shetland site). This bird only stayed for one day and was the one rarity we came close to seeing, but didn’t. Shame it’s feeding zone was just along from the Baltasound Hotel where we stayed. We arrived one day too late. There’s always next SPRING.

Now we are planning for May/ June 2014. Details coming soon!

Shetland Spring Birding Part 2

1/2 hour of Migrant Madness 

It was on Unst where the most favoured memory (amoung many) of the week’s holiday with Shetland Nature happened. So let’s fast forward:

Marsh Warbler at Skaw May 2013 RBMarsh Warbler at Skaw, Unst (Robbie Brookes). Part of a half hours of scarce/ rare migrant fun. below right- one of the 2 female Red-backed Shrikes that shared the same patch.

Team effort is a key element for Shetland Nature holidays, both in the group and working with Shetland residents. Tuesday afternoon, Unst resident Robbie Brookes contacted us to say he’d seen and acrocephalus Warbler at Skaw that looked interesting. Worth a check, red backed Shrike female skawwe arrived at Skaw to banks of mist rolling in on NE breeze. Woah, special conditions. We soon located a Garden Warbler, a Spotted Flycatcher and another bird ‘flew’ in’ to join them but remained obscured. With a little effort we were soon having great views of a spring Marsh Warbler and discussing the finer ID points. Up in the background popped  a female Red-backed Shrike. Fantastic! 2 minutes later another Red-backed Shrike, both on view at the same time. Hold on. Fog, nor’ east winds Now we’re cookin’. In the next half hour we found 6 Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitehroat. Then the icing on the cake: 2 of our guest returning from the beach said a couple of bird had been flitting about on the stream. Quick stroll down and BOOM! a Little Bunting; regular in autumn but very rare in spring. What a stunning bird and a life tick for most of the group.

Little Bunting Skaw 5

Little Bunting Skaw one

Little Bunting, Skaw, May 2013. This was like a little wee jewel feeding along the stream at Skaw. Having already seen Marsh Warbler, 2 Red-backed Shrikes and bunch of other migrants the previous half hour, this rare spring bunting (c 11 spring records ever in Shetland), brought adrenaline to a peak

Spotted Flycatcher  May 13Spotted Flycatcher– c 6 at Skaw in little rush of migrants

Garden Warbler Skaw unst May 13Garden Warbler, in same patch of Spearmint as the Marsh Warbler

Sanderling  May 13Sanderling– beautiful in fresh plumage and bound for the high arctic; one of the background birds on the beach at Skaw, Unst

Dunlin GutcherDunlin, on seaweed strewn beaches around Unst and Yell. Dunlin gave lovely breeding displays with wing-lifting and trilling calls. Both the Shetland breeding schinzii subspecies and more northerly bound ‘alpina’ were seen, the latter often with the Sanderling. This presumed shinzii was unusual in having such obviously white tips to the scapulars…

Against this peak birding moment in Unst we savoured the majestic Hermaness with oodles of  Bonxies, singing and displaying Dunlin and Golden Plover, another majestic  seabird cliff, stunning spring Snow Buntings on Hermaness and Lamba Ness, Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns.

Here some off the Unst ‘regulars’ –  seen on most days:

Snow Bunting Sumburgh May 2013

Twite male Sumburgh June 13

Whimbrel Unst June 13

Snipe unst June 13

Arctic Skua Unst may 2013

and the Bonxie (Great Skua) show on Hermaness couldn’t fail to impress, beginning with superb views of Golden Plover:

Golden Plover Hermaness June 2013

Bonxie 2 Hermaness June 13

Bonxie 4 Hermaness June 13

Bonxie 5 Hermaness June 13

Bonxie 6 Hermaness June 13Tim Appleton get close and personal…

Bonxie Hermaness June 13

Bonxie7 Hermaness June 13

John and Bonxie hermaness


Mount Hermon’s Breeding Birds

+ surprise new species (not fully identified!)

by Yoav P.

During the last 6 weeks I have been coordinating an extensive Breeding Bird Atlas Project on Mt. Hermon. This is Israel’s highest peak, and our only alpine habitats are there. Therefore, 17 species breed only there in Israel. The structure of the bird community on Mt. Hermon closely resembles those of E Turkey and Iran.

The bird community of the mountain was not properly surveyed since the late 1980’s, and we desperately needed better data to protect the vulnerable habitats on the mountain. I worked with a fantastic team of very skilled birders, who climbed mountains, crawled through dense bush, under Syrian mortar fire, just for me – thanks Tuvia, Dotan, Nadav, Noam, Asaf and all the others. We reached some parts of the mountain very close to the Syrian and Lebanese borders, that were never visited by civilians before. That meant that in these sensitive areas we had military escort with us.

So let’s begin with the birds. In the lower elevations (1200 to 1700 m), nice open Mediterranean scrub on rocky mountains provides proper habitat for a good range of species.

Black-headed Buntings arrive rather late, but leave very early. High-speed breeders and real crackers:

Black-headed Bunting

Western Rock Nuthatch breeds in good density in these elevations. They enjoy the rough Karst rock formations. Tough little birds – check those powerful feet!

Western Rock Nuthatch

Sombre Tit is very dominant at these elevations:

Sombre Tit

Syrian Serins arrive very late too, which is quite puzzling. They leave their wintering grounds in S Israel by mid March, but don’t really arrive before early May. Where are they in between – just 250 km to migrate in such a long time. In early June we already had flying juveniles – speedy!

Syrian Serin

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear breeds in large numbers on Mt. Hermon, which is encouraging because they’re doing pretty bad in other parts of the country.

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, 2cy male

Woodchat Shrike is the commonest of four shrike species that breed on the mountain – Red-backed, Masked and aucheri Southern Grey are the other three. Our breeding woodchats are of the Middle-Eastern ssp. niloticus.

Woodchat Shrike female ssp. niloticus

Female Red-backed Shrike:


Lower elevations

One of the most interesting discoveries of our work was a breeding population of ‘chiffchaffs’ in a well-vegetated valley at about 1300 m. First found by Noam Weiss and myself, we then discovered 20 breeding pairs in that one specific valley! At first we thought they could be Mountain Chiffchaffs, as they looked pretty brown and sounded funny, but further field investigations never produced a definitive answer to their identity. They might be something like brevirostris Chiffchaff that breeds in S Turkey. Tomorrow we’ll try to catch them and take some DNA samples – hope to get back with more news on them soon.

Anyway, Chiffchaffs: some of them look very brown (thanks Zohar)

Chiffchaff sp., Mt. Hermon, April 2013 (Z. Weiss).

While others look more standard Chiffchaff greenish (thanks Lior)

Chiffchaff sp. Mt. Hermon June 2013 (L. Kislev)

They were always difficult to watch and photograph, spending most of their time in canopies of tall trees. Here’s a recording of the brown one. Either way, chiffchaffs have never been recorded breeding in Israel before.

High-altitude birding is a different story. No plant cover but often strong winds that make birding difficult. 

Crimson-winged Finch is one of the most difficult Hermon species, but we did quite well with them and found many breeding pairs.

Asian Crimson-winged Finch

Horned Larks breed up there – ssp. bicornis:

Horned Lark ssp. penicillata

White-throated Robin is a beautiful and rare breeding bird. Normally very difficult to find, we scored well with 11 breeding pairs.

White-throated RobinHill Sparrow (AKA Pale Rockfinch) is a plain but neat bird. A small population breeds normally very high up (about 2000 m), while once in every few years we have a breeding invasion into the deserts of southern Israel – they are highly nomadic and opportunistic. This year we found them in one valley only but in exceptional density, about 50 pairs in one small valley. Their cicada-like song filled the air there.

Hill Sparrow

Northern Wheatear replaces black-eared in high altitude. Our local breeding ssp. is libanotica.

Northern Wheatear ssp. libanotica

High altitude

High altitude panorama

You can read more about the survey and my daily accounts in my blog.