Eagle Clarke – master of migration

The advance of spring (from Clarke 1912)

In his two volumes of ‘Studies in Bird Migration’ (1912), Eagle Clarke published the results of groundwork – 47 weeks in lighthouses and a lightship, and 14 weeks on St Kilda and Ushant – which established foundations for much subsequent work on migration through Britain. In the process he discovered Fair Isle, amongst others, and immediately recognised it as a site of outstanding importance. Those who have visited even a few of the sites explored by Clarke will know that they remain relatively inaccessible and require sustained physical effort to ensure reasonably complete recording. For example, a team of three wardens covers Fair Isle each day during the migration periods, which makes Clarke’s discoveries all the more impressive.

Amongst other things, Clarke was interested in the effects of climate and weather patterns on bird migration. It is reassuring that, despite the impact of climate change, the patterns he described a century ago (for example, the progression of migration during the spring) are much the same today. What has significantly changed is the volume of migration: the numbers of many species are now a fraction of what they were.

From the perspective of the age of the selfie, it is notable that nowhere in Clarke’s work will you find a photograph of himself. As Ticehurst put it in his appreciation in ‘Ibis’, published following Clarke’s death in 1938:
To his friends he was a very genial and lovable man, ever willing to help those who were keenly interested in ornithology, and a very great gentleman in all senses of the word. But he had no use for the dilettante or “pot-boiler,” and the only thing which would raise his ire and show that his tongue could be caustic on occasions was anything which savoured of humbug or of advertisement. 

Foula: the present in the past

Springs, Foula: my wife’s grandfather’s mother lived here

Foula has been less obviously affected by change than some other parts of Shetland, which probably makes human occupation hard but has benefits for wildlife.

Famed for its seabirds, especially skuas, it was the abundance of Snipe which I shall remember best. I have seen an estimate of about 100 breeding pairs, but would not be surprised if this is too low. They seemed omnipresent, and I even had the privilege of seeing an adult leading two peat-coloured chicks along the edge of the meadow behind the house.

During our stay we were lucky to see some migrants, including 2 Marsh Warblers, Icterine Warbler, and best of all a female Black-headed Bunting. Also of note was a presumed Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid.

Snipe, Foula
Last but not least – Black-headed Bunting


Halligarth today

Most of this information is derived from J Laughton Johnston’s ‘Victorians 60 Degrees North’ (2007), which is fascinating but sometimes hard to follow.

Laurence Edmonston and his family moved into Halligarth in autumn 1832. It was he who planted the walled area of trees which now form the woodland by the house. His son Tom was encouraged to take an interest in natural history, and in 1834 at the age of nine was directed towards botany in particular. Young Tom quickly learned the local plants, helped by a list which his father Laurence had made.

In 1837, Tom discovered two small flowering plants on the slopes of Nikka Vord which he could not identify. A chance visit by one of the sons of the eminent botanist W J Hooker led to the identification of one of Tom’s finds as Arctic Sandwort, not previously known from Britain, and the publication of Tom’s catalogue of plants (compiled when he was just 11). Tom made other significant discoveries around Nikka Vord and on the Keen of Hamar, including Northern Rock-cress and most famously Shetland Mouse-ear (Edmonston’s Chickweed).

The woodland planted by Laurence remains, but the house is now in poor condition. There are plans for restoration headed by the National Trust for Scotland, but these will require significant investment. It would be a shame if we were to lose such an important part of Shetland’s natural history.

Halligarth as seen by Henry Saxby in the 19th century

Phalaropes and flowers

Red-necked Phalaropes, Funzie, Fetlar

This week we have spent two wet days exploring Fetlar and Unst.

On Fetlar the highlight was this pair of Red-necked Phalaropes at Funzie – right beside the road, and indeed at one point on the road! As far as I know, this is the only British site where they can be seen within feet of a road. Please be aware that they come and go, so you may need time and patience to see them.

On Unst the avian highlight was a fine male Surf Scoter still at Baltasound on 6th. Our main focus, however, was flowers at the Keen of Hamar. As well as the endemic Shetland Mouse-ear (Edmonston’s Chickweed), we saw plenty of Northern Rock-cress and Frog Orchids amongst what is an impressive variety of flowers in a relatively small area.

We also payed our respects to the house at Halligarth (about which more will follow), where singing Cuckoo and Blackcap would doubtless have pleased the former owners.

Shetland Mouse-ear (Edmonston’s Chickweed), Keen of Hamar, Unst

Juvenile Shetland Starlings

Juvenile Starling, Toab

The Starlings on Shetland are generally treated as a subspecies, zetlandicus. BWP tells us that they are intermediate in size between faroensis and nominate vulgaris, with a slightly wider bill at base than nominate but similar wing length. The most striking difference is that juveniles are sooty brown, with little white on the chin and belly and bold black spots on the white throat.

Here are two from Toab, where they have appeared during the last few days: one which has just left the nest cavity, and one slightly older. Note how light affects the apparent shade of the plumage.

Juvenile Starling, Toab