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Little brown jobs

Marsh Warbler, Quendale

Some of the most instructive birds I have seen this autumn have been ‘little brown jobs’. For example, it took me two attempts to identify this Marsh Warbler at Quendale – partly because views on the first occasion were poor, partly because it looked ‘warmer’ than I was expecting. In fact its plumage tones are within the normal range of variation of 1CY Marsh (compare with the excellent IL plate in BWP below). In addition to the features visible in the image, including long wing-point similar in length to tertials and pale-tipped primaries, prolonged observation revealed the following pointers to Marsh in probable order of importance: soft ‘tucc’ call, quite thick-looking pale yellow legs and feet, and relatively short-looking blunt-tipped bill. It is worth noting that all these features are quite subtle, but taken together they point strongly to Marsh and away from Reed (including fuscus).

ICY Marsh W in BWP by Ian Lewington

Other notable little brown jobs this autumn have included the Buff-bellied Pipit and this Thrush Nightingale at Sandgarth which gave an unusual opportunity to study an autumn bird at close quarters – the dark crescents on the tips of the undertail-coverts were quite obvious on this individual.

Thrush Nightingale, Sandgarth
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Shetland in October

Buff-bellied Pipit – note how the flight feathers are darker than the rest of the upperparts

During the first week of October the number of common migrants has declined, but sightings of rare birds have increased.

My personal highlights have included Brent Goose (with a large roost of Great Black-backs), Parrot Crossbills (see previous post), this Buff-bellied Pipit at Grutness, Rustic Bunting, a flock of 250 Twite (which is becoming a fading memory on the English east coast), my first Shetland Pheasant, 1CY hornemanni Arctic Redpoll (at the other end of the Arctic Redpoll spectrum from the worn exilipes which I found in the spring), and a splendid Siberian Stonechat.

A Red Admiral was still flying in Toab on 8 October.

hornemanni Arctic Redpoll – note the striking buff ‘mane’

Parrot Crossbills

Male Parrot Crossbill showing classic bill

One of the most exciting events of the past week, and indeed the autumn, has been an influx of Parrot Crossbills. Their irregular irruptions tend to be further south so they are rare rare birds in Shetland, where despite more recent influxes in England there has not been a record since 1994. I therefore took the opportunity to study a flock of up to four at Sand, west mainland, yesterday.

The birds had found a relatively sheltered spot amongst the pines, where they fed unobtrusively though they were quite vocal (including a brief snatch of song). In my experience, Parrots are quite consistent in appearance unlike the more mercurial Common Crossbill. In addition to their distinctive bill structure, they appear flat-crowned with thick necks. As a result, the large bill does not appear large in relation to the head. One of the males had narrow but distinct pale fringes on the outer web of its tertials, which Parrots often show.

As they worked the cones they opened the scales right out, which is characteristic of Parrot Crossbill.

Female showing large head and neck (so bill does not look disproportionately large)
Worked cone, with scales opened right out 

September into October

Red-breasted Flycatcher, Sumburgh – this bird could see and catch insects about 75 feet away

The ebb and flow of migration has continued. Many pipits, wagtails and Wheatears have departed, whilst there has been a significant increase in numbers of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, and the first Bramblings and Lapland Buntings have appeared.

A nice variety of scarce migrants in south mainland has included Red-breasted Flycatcher, a couple of Little Buntings, Great Grey Shrike, and Wryneck.

Interesting waders have included a possible longipes Oystercatcher – though the nasal groove of Oystercatchers is more variable than some literature suggests – and Faeroe Snipe (see previous post).

Lapland Bunting, Quendale

Plumage variation in Snipe

Faeroe Snipe (right) with Common Snipe, Shetland

Despite seeing a Yellow-browed Warbler and Redstart at Toab, the weather conditions today made looking for migrant passerines very difficult so I turned my attention to waders. At Boddam I saw this striking Snipe amongst a small group of Common Snipes. It looks a good match with faeroeensis.

The Snipe breeding in Shetland are currently treated as faeroeensis, but don’t look like this (most look like nominate). The historical treatment of this taxon has varied from being described as a distinct species by Brehm (1831) to being considered a colour morph (BOU 1950). BWP describes faeroeensis as similar in size to nominate, but more deeply tinged rufous on hind neck, scapulars, throat, breast and undertail-coverts, especially in fresh plumage; rufous markings on upperparts finer, more clearly forming bars.

Ageing snipes can be tricky, but from what I can see this looks like a 1CY (see BWP and Garner 2014 for help with ageing). Interestingly, the legs look thicker and a paler greenish yellow than those of the accompanying Snipe (which was also the case in the field).

Birds like this are distinctive, and in my experience uncommon. They deserve more attention.