Category Archives: Shetland

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.



Shetland in the Spring

Are you free in late May 2014?

Shetland Spring Birding

with Martin Garner & Tim Appleton – 2014 


“Quick – grab your bags” was how the spring 2013 holiday began. No time for gentle introductions – a pod of Killer Whales had just been spotted off Sumburgh Head by Brydon, who was leading a photo-tour. Once disbelief had been quelled, it was all aboard the bus for the dash to try to see them! With a little help from friends and team effort, we got everyone up just in time- the week could not have got off to a better start! Our first seabirds such as Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbill Puffin-sumboffered a fine supporting cast. Pumped up with adrenaline, all guests were happy to press on for a couple of hours birding before dinner. We left the Orca pod to try to see a beautiful female Red-necked Phalarope at nearby Spiggie with a bathing ‘club’ of about 40 Great Skuas (Bonxies) as a backdrop. While watching the phalarope some of the group turned around only to find an Icterine Warbler on the fence-line; the first record of the spring for the isles (away from Fair Isles). Superb! We were already finding our own good birds. The 1st summer Ring-billed Gull was still present on Loch of Hillwell plus a host of fresh water birds and a Glaucous Gull. It’s fair to say the first couple of hours of this holiday had more than met expectations!


That was just the first couple of hours! You can read the full review of the 2013 spring birding holiday with all the photos:

……>>>> FULL Spring 2013 Review HERE <<<<


Shetland Spring Birding

with Martin Garner & Tim Appleton – 2014

Holiday overview at a glance:

  • Expertise and leadership of two guides
  • Seven nights all-inclusive accommodation
  • Arguably the best hospitality & local cuisine
  • Be part of a team effort, bird finding experience
  • Late-night excursion for Storm Petrels
  • Boat trip to a world-renowned seabird colony
  • Friday 23rd May – Friday 30th May, 2014

Reviews from 2013: (notice one of the clients liked it so much he bought the company  is co-leading with me 🙂

“Landing at Sumburgh airport an impatient and ever excited Martin Garner whisked us away to the nearby headland, for waiting just off shore was a pod of killer whales, what a great start and each day just got better and better. Wildlife watching in the Shetland Islands is an incredible experience, I call it Wildlife rather than Birdwatching for one simple reason, the isles have it all. Something else that made the whole trip so amazing was around every turn in the road we were confronted by staggering landscapes.” 

Tim Appleton MBE,  Rutland Water Reserve Manager, Co-Organiser of Rutland Birdfair

A wonderful week in a delightful friendly archipelago with more Red-backed Shrikes than I could have dreamed of. Martin was a splendid guide and I could only marvel at his visual acuity, comparable to that of a Peregrine Falcon!

Charles Gallimore

Want to find out a bit more? Just click >>> HERE <<<.




Siberian Chiffchaff

Midwinter Delight

by Martin G.

Siberian Chiffchaff b Quendale 11 oct 2013Siberian Chiffchaff ‘tristis’, Quendale, Shetland, 11th October 2013

These are still a real midwinter treat. I’ve come across 5 Chiffchaffs on the outer head at Flamborough in the last couple of weeks. 4 look like straightforward western ‘collybita‘ – Common Chiffchaffs. But one seen too far briefly smelt nevertheless just like a ‘Siberian. These posts from around this time last year are getting plenty of looks right now. So if you want some light midwinter reading….

Siberian Chiffchaff Part One – Identification using plumage


Siberian Chiffchaff Part Two – Identification using calls


Siberian Chiffchaff c Spiggie 13 oct 2013Siberian Chiffchaff ‘tristis’, Spiggie, Shetland, 13th October 2013

Eastern flavas in Norfolk and Donegal?

Eccles, Norfolk, October 2013

by Tim Allwood and Andy Kane

'Eastern' Yellow WagtailApparent Eastern flava wagtail, tschutschensis?  Eccles, Norfolk, October 2013. by Neil Bowman

 Hi Martin,
 I recall a few posts of yours on eastern and plexa wags and thought you might like a look at a bird we had in October in Norfolk.
 I was birding my local patch at Eccles, East Norfolk when I heard a strange call in high winds and rain. I initially thought it may have been Richard’s Pipit but the conditions were not conducive to hearing the call with any clarity and I also thought it had some wagtail-like quality. Despite tramping around for a while I couldn’t locate the bird, but Andy Kane found it next morning and on flushing thought it was going to be a Citrine due to its greyness, clear wingbars in flight and sharp, almost buzzy call. However, on the deck views showed it defo wasn’t Citrine (no clear ear covert surround, slight yellow wash on undertail etc). It’s clearly an interesting bird, the call was often sharp and pipit-like with a fizzy or buzzy quality (a sort of “tsseeep!”) and the appearance is highly unusual – we’ve never seen anything like it aside from Phil Heath who saw a similar bird on Shetland many Octobers ago. Despite attempts to record the call a few times on my phone I never got anything satisfactory as it was always windy and despite making recordings they were all too noisy. We were also going to attempt to trap the bird on the first available weekend but were again beaten by conditions and ultimately the departure of the bird!
 The appearance of the bird changed markedly with the prevailing light and cloud cover etc. At times a pale grey and at others a darker grey. Some could see a faint olive tinge on the lower mantle in optimum conditions. The undertail wash also varied in intensity in a similar fashion. I wondered if there may be some thunbergi influence (?) due to the yellowish wash on the undertail and rear flanks, but the head pattern and particularly supercilium, lores and dark supa-loral were very striking, much more so than expected for thunbergi… and the rest of the underparts were very pale off-white to white. Similar looking birds (with a yellow undertail wash can be found wintering in India
 Andy Kane heard the bird the same day and also thought the calls distinctive and thought them pipit or even lark-like. It could occasionally give softer versions of the call, but the loud and striking explosive “tsseeeep” surprised us and wasn’t something we’d heard from a wagtail.
 I have read as much as I can find on wagtail systematics and taxonomy recently, and frankly it’s a minefield as I guess you are well aware! Is there an area where tschutschensis is known to intergrade with thunbergi as suggested by the map in Alstrom et al, so birds could have yellowish wash on undertail but otherwise appear basically grey/white and have eastern-type calls? The bird was present Oct 13th to Oct 23rd and arrived during the weather that brought a Red-flanked bluetail only a mile to the north at Happisburgh and similar vagrants to the rest of the Norfolk coast. However, the area where the bird was is a series of sheep fields that were in use at the time (the sheep were attracting the wagtail in). Although we have negotiated access for a very few of us, the farmer was still not particularly happy with more than a couple of us being in the fields. This fact, combined with wide ditches and wet ground, and the fact that the bird could go missing for long periods made observation difficult.
 Tim Allwood (and Andy Kane)
P1030516 TA

Apparent Eastern flava wagtail, perhaps tschutschensis, Eccles, Norfolk, October 2013. Tim Allwood.

.P1620559 ta.
P1620571 ta

above 2 photos. Apparent Eastern flava wagtail, perhaps tschutschensis, Eccles, Norfolk, October 2013 by Andy Kane


More grey and white flavas

by Martin G

Tory Island, October 2013

The story is not over yet on this next bird. A similar bird to the Eccles, Norfolk individual was present on Tory Island, co. Donegal, also in October 2013. It has been discussed elsewhere and I agree with sentiments that it really looks the business for an eastern bird, similar to many tschutschensis Eastern Yellow Wagtails. Strikingly the upperpart grey tone looks saturated mostly cold almost blueish grey, the white supercilium while fading towards the bill base is off set by blackish lores (at certain angles). However the only calls which were heard and recorded seem to be ‘sweet’ sounding like western birds, and not raspy like Eastern birds. Some eastern types have been recorded giving both ‘sweet’ and rasping’ calls elsewhere in Europe, so….  The final aspect of this one’s ID may come from DNA if it can be sequenced from the poo samples sent off…



 Grey and white flava showing characters of eastern taxa, perhaps tschutschensis, Tory Island, Co Donegal, October 2013 by Aidan Kelly (thanks Aidan!)


by way of comparison

Here are 3 other grey and white looking flava wagtails. Western birds do throw out young grey and white looking birds. However all I have come across seem to usually have warm slight brownish wash to upperparts (not so cold and blueish looking) with less striking wing bars and lack blacker lores and subcoronal marks bordering the upperside of the supercilia- found to varying degrees on seeming eastern birds. The birds below just don’t look rare enough! And when they call, they inevitable give very typical  nice ‘sweet’ western calls.

flava type western Nafcha Negev 8 nov 2013
.flava type b western Nafcha Negev 8 nov 2013
grey and white flava– probably thunbergi, Nafcha, Negev, Israel, November 2013. This was heard to give lovely ‘sweet’ western calls’. Photos MG
thunbergi b dale of walls sept 13
thunbergi dale of walls sept 13
grey and white flava- probably thunbergi, Dale of Walls, Shetland, September 2013. This was also heard to give lovely ‘sweet’ western calls’. Photos MG
grey-white-flava-rr3grey and white flava- probably nominate flava, Sumburgh, Shetland, October 2011. This was recorded and gave ‘sweet’ western calls’. Upper photo by Mark Payne, lower by Roger Riddington.

The Eastern Subalpine Warbler at Yell

Shetland, Sept- Oct 2013

Eastern Subalpine Warbler Yell Oct 2013

This is just a quick post with more to come on this bird. Great find by Dougie Preston. Much debate over bird’s ID as it gave single note tack (slightly thicker sounding than Lesser Whitethroat), which was assumed to be exclusive to/ diagnostic of Western Subalpine Warbler. However there is more to come on calls but suffice to say for now this bird gave call that was fine (also ) for Eastern Subalpine Warbler. More importantly in this case the body plumage and tail pattern combination were diagnostic for Eastern– though I am not sure everyone believed us 😉

It was good to be able to share all this with our Shetland Nature group; new learning and how to separate the 3 different types (species!) of Subalpine Warbler. You can read more about how distinctive the tail patterns can be in this months British Birds Magazine (Nov 2013).

A few pics of the bird. More on calls/ sonagrams etc to come.

Eastern Subalpine Warbler d Yell Oct 2013

Eastern Subalpine Warbler b Yell Oct 2013

Eastern Subalpine Warbler c Yell Oct 2013Eastern Subalpine Warbler e Yell Oct 2013How are you on ageing these things? At the moment the very fresh plumage, blackish tail etc point more to adult but not 100% sure. Feedback welcome.

Eastern Subalp N matthewsNicola Matthews, a member of our group got this lovely shot showing the diagnostic pattern especially the white lozenge on the penultimate tail feather (t5). This is a dark feather with isolated white tip in Moltoni’s and Western Subalpine Warblers.

ESW robert wardle resizeanother shot by Robert Wardle showing the ‘Eastern Subalpine Warbler tail pattern’. 

Old Subalpine Warbler Records revisited

I am sure plenty of old subalpine warble records will be rechecked  for shots showing tail feathers. Did you see this bird at Spurn in May 2011. We can now say for sure it was a female ‘Eastern’.


tail of female Eastern Subalpine Warbler. The Warren, Spurn, May 2011 (Adam Hutt. Spurn Bird Observatory Trust). Little white wedge up t5 does it.

Shetland Nature.indd

Cape May Warbler on Unst

2nd for Britain (and everywhere else)

Gripping stuff. Spoke to Brydon Thomason earlier about Mike Pennington’s uber rarity find today at Alma Manse, nr Baltasound on Britain’s most Northerly Isle.

Brydon’s  photos from this afternoon. BOOM!




DSC_7645_Cape-May-Warbler_webCape May Warbler, Alma, Unst 23rd October 2013 by Brydon Thomason

Think maybe we should just go and live there for the whole autumn…?

Shetland Nature.indd


Mega Yellow-browed Warbler Year?


by Ben Sheldon

Yellow-browed Linosa MikiYellow-browed Warbler on Linosa in Nov 2011 by Miki Vigiano

Ben Sheldon got in touch furnishing more details following ‘rumours on Yellow-broweds’. This next month could be fascinating, featuring one of my all-time favourite birds!

Hi Martin

Don’t know if you’re aware, but something extraordinary is happening with Yellow-browed Warbler this autumn in Scandinavia.

Finland has had a lot – I think 350 already, probably already their best ever year, but the really amazing stuff has been the build up over the last three days in NW Norway. Husøy has built up to 50 today, Røst up to 80 and Værøy up to 160 today. They are not huge places – the first two only 1-2 km sq, the last a bit bigger (Røst and Værøy are pretty close to each other). Previous day record in Norway was 35 – further south on Utsira back in 2005.

Nearly 300 on 3 islands on one day…. seems like this species has really stepped up a gear to being a common autumn migrant to Europe. Not sure how long this flood will take to hit Shetland!



Prof. Ben Sheldon
Luc Hoffmann Professor of Field Ornithology
Edward Grey Institute
Dept of Zoology
University of Oxford

Roger Riddington and Brydon Thomason, ‘live’ from Shetland have added:

Hi Martin
 Yes, interesting. Very good numbers here but, unlike Finland, I don’t think the numbers in Shetland are (yet) exceptional compared with some recent years. They are exceptional compared with 20 years ago though, and something is surely ‘happening’ with Yellow-broweds. Plenty of time for this year to get exceptional of course…
Morning Mr G.
  Cheers for this, it’s very interesting indeedy! We were actually just talking about this very subject a couple of days ago here on Unst saying that even already with good numbers getting through so early that perhaps it could be a big year. It certainly sounds like something  very special is underway!
And we haven’t even really had wind from the east, asides from the nice calm cyclonic spells. Interestingly I also had a fairly early ‘Sibe’ Chiff last week, same time as my first Yellow-browed.

Shetland Nature.indd