Category Archives: Shetland

The Shetland Little Buntings

Celebration of the Bird that topped and tailed

Finally got my photos off the camera. Just celebrating. It’s the Little Bunting you see. So I am having a short reminisce on how the Little Bunting really has topped and tailed my Shetland experience. The beginning and the end and in-bewteen too! You’ll see what I mean. I’ll explain this rusty faced guy further down.

Little Bunting 2 (1 of 1)

First Group. First Find

The first group I guided in a storming week on Shetland in autumn 2010. Guess the first good ‘find’. Yep of course, not one but two Little Buntings dropped out of the sky at Valie, Norwick on Unst. These two got the adrenaline pumping from the off. You can read about the full amazing week HERE. It’s worth a read- still grips me! TWO! Syke’s Warbler and Lancy find topped the billing. I quite liked picking out the Black Duck hybrid in flight. but I am a bit of a nutter!

rustic bunting one lk (1 of 1)

Robbie Brookes photoed one of the two. I have pics of both but need to dig them out.

These bad boys spiced up the week:

rustic bunting one lkmm (1 of 1)

Lancy by Mike Penno!

rustic bunting one lkmm m (1 of 1)

Sykes’s Warbler – one of two

rustic bunting one lkmm mmm (1 of 1)

Black Duck- almost

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 05.54.36

find on the last day or so


Spring Time Singer

Spring time guiding produced this one. Delighted as it was a new world bird for some of our group. And they loved it! Much rarer than in the autumn, this fella took to singing at Skaw on Unst. Rather stunning scenery as it fed in the stream that ran into the sea.
Little Bunting Skaw one

Little Bunting Skaw 3

A cheeky Rustic Bunting

OK not a little. But it was find up the Feal Burn at Houbie. While leading on the best island ever. Fetlar. Photo by Andy Cook. A great friend whenever we visit. And of course Rustic Bunting really is a proper rarity :)


 rustic bunting one kj (1 of 1)

Rustic Bunting on Fetlar by Andy Cook-  a favourite island and top find spot for our groups. This one gave us a little runaround before we finally nailed the ID of a flying ‘ticking’ Bunting.

Brown Shrike friend

This one set us up to see the Brown Shrike – good ol’ Jim Nicholson got a great photosof the Brown Shrike. I got a rubbish one of the nearby Little Bunting.




Tame Autumn Beauty

This one – again at Skaw was an autumn scoop. Just the tamest bunting I think I have ever seen and great opporutnity for close up views of the nuances of plumage tones and the like. Spent a fair bit of time with this one. Beautiful.


Millfield Early Morning Joy – October 2015

This year. Wondered out the house on first proper morning of birding. And there on the road, only a few yards from the entrance to our amazing holiday house at Norwick- a Little Bunting. Never managed really close photo views but picked him or his mate up every day for the next few. And he loved the road! I say he, this was particularly richly brownish red over the head. Might not mean anything- just musing.

Little Bunting 4 (1 of 1)Little Bunting 3 (1 of 1)

Little Bunting 2 (1 of 1)Little Bunting 6 (1 of 1)

Thank you to the Little Bunting. Made Shetland extra special many times over.


Lapland Bunting origins, ageing and sexing

Greenland is a long way away

Distances birds travel sometimes just trip off the tongue. So here’s a thing:

Lapland Buntings are one of only two passerines (small birds) which I know of that routinely cross an ocean on migration. Bonkers!

Lapland Bunting 4th Sumburgh Headf (1 of 1)

It was argued for (with some opposition) a while back, that some of our Lapland Buntings were coming from Greenland and not Scandinavia. See Here and Birding World article HERE

Hans Schekkerman graciously wrote from the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago about his article from 1989 which I totally missed!

“Hi Martin,
This mail was triggered by the Lapland Bunting note on your latest blog post. I hadn’t seen the earlier posts nor your Birding World paper. Attached find a paper I wrote in the Dutch journal Limosa on Lapland Buntings trapped at the ringing station where I was (and to a lesser extent still am) involved. I argued that in autumn both Greenlandic and Scandinavian birds occur in The Netherlands, with Greenland birds predominating in the smaller numbers occurring early in the autumn. At least in males, wing lengths decrease over time (fig 5) and early-autumn wings were closer to published wing lengths from Greenland than from Scandinavia. There are English captions and a summary, and besides Dutch is easy..
Following this paper we started to measure bill lengths of our trapped buntings (as these seem to differ even more between the subspecies than wings), but unfortunately numbers trapped dropped considerably around that same time, and I have never come round to analyse whether the smallish sample produced anything interesting..
Best whishes, Hans”

Thanks Hans. Read his paper:

Schekkerman 1989 Limosa – Biometrie en herkomst van IJsgorzen in Nederland


First winter male at Sumburgh, Shetland

I have learnt some bits. Not surprising, but still. On Shetland recently, a little highlight especially for my companion Yoav Perlman, were close views of this Lapland Bunting. Featured briefly here.

So what can we see to try to see of it’s a male or female and how old it is:

Lapland Bunting 3a (1 of 1)

A fairly bright bird with some nice reddish/ chestnut bits. Check out that nape… It also has a fairly obvious blackish ‘bib’ of spots (not streaks) just emerging on the breast. These are what I have looked for as having a greater bias towards males plumage than females. By comparison some birds – presumed to be females – have very grey streaked napes and streaked grey breast (not black spots). It is argued that adult females can have male-like features, so it’s not always straightforward. Here’s a lovely pic showcasing what could be a 1cy female recently at Bempton RSPB by Tony Dixon. See HERE

So using to the ‘ringer’s Bible,’ Svensson. The Sumburgh bird shows:

  • The bill base on this bird is brown (1cy) not yellow (adult)
  • The tail feathers look slightly pointed and frayed to me (1cy) and not broader + rounded (adult)
  • The crown feathers have quite extensive black fringe – better for male than female.


Lapland Bunting 4th Sumburgh Headf (1 of 1)

Lapland Bunting 5a (1 of 1) Lapland Bunting 6a (1 of 1)

Above: The tail feathers reach a gentle pointed tip and that right one is frayed :)

Lapland Bunting 8a (1 of 1)

Above: Good view of the crown reveals a lot of black fringing to the central crown feathers. Svensson indicated this is better for male than female.

So I do think the Sumburgh bird is a 1cy (first winter) male. The chestnut nape and black spotty breast stand-up :)

Lapland Bunting a 4th Sumburgh Head (1 of 1)


Greenland and Lesser Redpoll


Yes, a definite BOOM! They’re back!

Following our Geosetter visit, RR, PVH and I checked further south. A small crop yielded three redpolls. One obligingly perched on wires and was clearly a Lesser Redpoll, (as expected so far!). As it flew up one of the other two joined it and returned to the crop. A bit of luck and we managed some good view. OOF. Bird two was not a Lesser!

As we slowly took the bird in I could see a redpoll which was larger, longer-boded bird than the Lesser with a paler headed look. I was quickly struck by the crisp white wing bar- which was THIN and crisp white fringes to remiges and rectrices. Might be an odd way of going about it- but I kind of started in a Mealy direction but the wing bar was wrong. Then the flanks they were wrong for Mealy too. And the flanks were not Lesser for sure;  really heavily streaked but too swarthy in among the ground colour for Mealy. I had not (bizzarly!) not even thought about North-western/ Greenland Redpoll yet. With none reported in Shetland/ anywere in UK I guess I was not ‘in the zone’.

I think RR first articulated – ‘North-western’. YEP! What a star (the redpoll not RR).

So what in the slowish process of ‘taking it in’ grabbed me as most important in ID process (probably different every time!)

Not a Lesser (head colour, wing bar colour, ground colour to flanks etc)

Greyish looking head and thin white wing bar and fringes to flight and tail feathers

Flanks not deep buff (Lesser) but swarthy- not cleaner like many Mealy

Upperparts very plain deep earth- brown and lacking paler tramlines often present on Mealy.

Closer inspection/ discussion

Heavy streaking reaching right around to breast centre

DEEP bill base (compare bill depths of two birds below)

Heavy, broad undertail covert streaking- no buff tones visible

again emphasing long body shape, crisp white fringes and more UNIFORM tone to dark UPPERPARTS.

CALLS: Then both birds flew out of the crop and I got recordings of both calling. Get in! Impression? One call sounding deep-pitched than the other. I am waiting until back home to process the call recordings- worried about messing them up. However I was chuffed to bits with that redpoll encounter. Some NW Redpoll action and some calls to compare. Let’s go! Roger again came up trumps with the camera. Excellent photos of both birds in poor light:


Lesser Redpoll


Above. Lesser Redpoll, South Mainland, Shetland 5th Oct. 2015. Roger Riddington


Greenland (aka North-west Redpoll)



Above all photos. Greenland/ NW Redpoll, South Mainland, Shetland 5th Oct. 2015. Roger Riddington

Dusky Warbler and curious Goldcrest

Monday 5th October

I went a little slower and enjoyed Virkie’s shoreline. Yoav joined Pierre A-C to explore Walsay and I expect ended up talking forever about Siberian Thrushes! The ‘south ness’ had an increase in Barnacle Geese over and landing in good numbers as well as the more usual Pink-feet. Wild Geese. There is a magic about them.

Barnacle geese 5th oct 2015 (1 of 1)

Barnacle geese 2 5th oct 2015 (1 of 1)

Paul and Roger, together with Peter Colston and Tony Quinn went to Sumburgh and scored a Dusky Warbler at Grutness. RR aced a lovely photo showcasing superbly key Dusky Warbler features:


Dusky Warbler, Grutness, Shetland 5th October 2015. Roger Riddington.

Goldcrests from further EAST

Rather predictably Goldcrests and  Robins became a little more evident today (often goes with Dusky Warbler finds). I was nevertheless taken aback when near octogenarian Peter Colston (Mr Tring Museum for a VERY long time) began ruminating on ‘eastern Goldcrest’. WHAT!

We were birding together at Geosetter and watching and photographing several Goldcrest (plus Yellow-broweds and a curious ‘grey’ 1cy Pied Flycatcher).

coatsi Goldrest!

He was drawn to this Goldcrest by the ‘extra grey’ extending from the nape onto the mantle. Maybe it’s no big deal. Maybe it’s even the ‘angle of the dangle’. Can you see how there is more extensive grey, contrasting with olive green- but in the mid-mantle region rather than at the base of the nape. Often specifically British Goldcrest show almost no real contrast between grey- olive head and olive mantle. Nominate/ continental birds range from obvious contrasting grey heads to some more like British birds. See Yoav’s blog from yesterday for examples)

I have long been interested in greyer heads/ identifiable ‘Continental Goldcrest’ (see me illustrations in last month’s Birdwatch magazine). I never knew about birds from further east… other taxa…but then this is Peter Colston I got to go birding with! I checked out Goldcrests from further east and discovered a taxon- ‘coatsi’ Goldcrest. The range is east of nominate regulus. This is how they are described on the Birds of Kazakhstan website:

“Mantle is lighter, grey on rear-neck more developed than in regulus.”  Birds of Kazakhstan

Now this is only a little exploration. We may never get ‘coatsi’/ birds from that range in W. Europe but its fun to explore and learn. And we were also watching a Yellow-browed W as Peter pointed out. So here’s the bird. It’s how I explore and learn :)

Goldcrest Peter C Geosetter 5tboct 2015 (1 of 1)

Olive-backed Pipit.

I finished my day with a stunning (rarely are they not) OBP at Scatness. Not easy to see. Not everyone getting on to it. I was indeed fortunate to be wowed by the head and underparts and it meander through rank grass.


Too Much to Blog About!

Shetland. Wildness everywhere.

I enjoy. Well pretty much everything with Birds and Nature :)

Some wind in the west has cut down numbers of migrant birds. I hope Yoav is still enjoying himself- off today with PAC to explore another island. Being a little less mobile I just go a little slower and stay more local.

I am not short of things to look at. Indeed I have had lovely couple of days both with birds and wildlife and with great people company.  I have too many subjects I would like to explore further. But can’t do them justice!

So here’s what I am wrestling with about whether to ‘blog’ about and will try to look into more…

Yellow-browed Warblers – call variation

Yellow browed W (1 of 1)

Mono-syllabic in hand call:

Two birds calling to each other- normal di-syllabic calls

They are everywhere. I can see 2-3 Yellow-broweds outside the windows most days. They also have both a well known disyllabic call and less well know other calls. Roger and I recorded the trapped bird giving alternate calls (which trapped birds do anyway). I have however heard and recorded Yellow-broweds giving mono calls in the field and seen them fool folk into thinking , maybe it’s a Hume’s Warbler. More on that maybe..

Pink-footed Geese – grumbling!

Each morning flocks fly over. Every time I smile. Straight in the Iceland/ Greenland/Svalbard?. Wow! Most continue south. Some land. This flock of 6 flew south close. It’s sounded as if one or more were grumbling. The flock flew over Sumburgh, turned around and back over my head presumably to land in fields north of me. The grumbling had stooped.

Teenage Pink-feet. Have a listen on the first pass after 30 seconds the grumbling kicks in…

Then on return a few minutes later when the long trip is cancelled- for now.

Lapland Buntings – from where?

I raised this a few years ago now. The assumption that Lapland Buntings all arrived in Britain from Scandinavia– tosh-me gosh! This one yesterday could have easily come from Arctic Canada. Now there’s a thought! Lapland Buntings join Northern Wheatears in being one of the only songbirds which routinely crosses an ocean as part of their migration. Bonkers!

Lapland Bunting 4th Sumburgh Headf (1 of 1)


Redpolls and the Redpoll Code

Always want to wade in to this. A scattering of redpolls in Shetland and all so far have proven to be identifiable Lessers – and that is unusual for Shetland, where Lesser is generally the less common taxon. This adult male shows off some easy ID features. Red in the breast- already becoming visible here means only 2 one of two taxa could be involved. but then you would know that. #redpollcode

Lesser Redpoll- adult male by Yoav Perlman

Lesser Redpoll- adult male by Yoav Perlman

Already the Lesser Redpoll, photographed by Yoav near Sumburgh Airport- above shows pinkish- red over the breast and flanks- adult male signs, in a deep rich buffy plumage. Cracking photo!


Yoav and I came across this perplexing individual which did have us initially a little foxed. Like a miniature Common Goldeneye. Head shape wrong. Little bill. Vague whitish patch over lower cheek (not visible in pics). What the heck??. A very small, perhaps late hatched juvenile Common Goldeneye. Tim Jones and those nice chaps form the NGB followed up my waffle and got some pics the next day:

Goldeneye juv 4 (1 of 1)Goldeneye juv 3 (1 of 1)

goldeneye 4 (1 of 1) Goldeneye juv 2 (1 of 1)

bird on far left (top)

and I have not even started on (see what I mean)…

Snow Buntings, Redwing, Wader calls, vagrant Canada Geese…




The Mike Yarwood bird

Even writing that title makes me realise how old I am. For younger readers: Mike Yarwood used to do impressions. I can remember as a small child in the 70s his show was one of my dad’s favourite TV programmes. I was impressed too, even though I was only dimly aware of half the people he ‘did’. I recall that Enoch Powell was a favourite – I assumed he was a cartoon character and couldn’t work out why he never came on after Jackanory. Anyway, I digress. Birds that do impressions: in Shetland there are basically two that are really good at it. The Starling is one and this is the other.


Starlings get me going all the time, but when Wheatears first arrive back on territory they can be as good if not better. They do a fantastic Green Sandpiper, and plenty more besides. How long do such birds retain other species’ calls in their repertoire? I’ve often wondered – and maybe there is some good research on the subject out there? For example, the Starlings at the back of our house were doing a very nice Swallow song ten days or so ago – well before the Swallows (which have bred in the sheds out the back for the past two years) arrived back. Those Starlings might have seen the odd Swallow this year before that but I can’t imagine they had heard any singing.

Also at the back of our house, I was pulled up sharp last Wednesday by the call of a Citrine Wagtail. It sounded pitch perfect to me, I was looking round frantically and eventually spotted the source of the calls as a smart drake Wheatear sat on a stone dyke. Where had that bird got the call from? I walked around all the wet bits within a mile of the house and found… three White Wags.

This story has a happy ending however, as the very next day, stepson no. 2 and I were down at the bottom of the garden discussing rhubarb-growing strategies when that Wheatear started calling again – except that this time it was coming from the edge of a sludgy pool in the next field and a quick look revealed:


Moral of the tale – always listen to bird mimics, they can be good for your find list!

Blyth’s Reed Warbler

Magical Moments 2013 #6

by Martin G.

BRW f Sumburgh 11th Oct 2013 MG

BRW d Sumburgh 11th Oct 2013 MG

What: Blyth’s Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum

Who: Richard Petley, my Shetland Nature group and Chris Heard

Where: Sumburgh Head, Shetland

When: 11th October 2013

Why: Just one of those birds. Simply impossible to identify apart from in-the-hand when I began birding with near mythical in status in Britain. During 2 weeks in Shetland this autumn I saw 3 Blyth’s Reed Warblers, one Marsh Warbler and only one Eurasian Reed Warbler. This bird bombing around a mini- building site with no other cover. I identified it in the last hour on the last day of a week-long birding holiday which I was leading. Can’ think of a better finish , even if the images aren’t great! Chris Heard who we had met nearby at the Toab Pechora Pipit was able to ‘twitch’ it before dark.

BRW k Sumburgh 11th Oct 2013 MGManaged to just capture the ‘plumage jizz’ of BRW. Bit greyish/olive and cold above, rather white and cold below, little short wings with flashing nice bronzy wing patch.

BRW h Sumburgh 11th Oct 2013 MGModern cameras are amazing. With dusk approaching and skulky warbler, it was still possible to capture photos showing the emarginations on the outer primaries. Normally just one on Reed and Marsh Warblers but 2-3 on Blyth’s Reed.