November into December

Kittiwake in Lerwick – always a pleasure

Wintry weather over the past week has not brought any surprises from the Arctic, though good numbers of Glaucous Gulls have raised interesting questions about the extent of variability in the species, the possible occurrence of extralimital taxa, and hybrids – areas which need more work. The kumlieni-type Iceland was again present on 29th. Another interesting identification challenge – the possible longipes Oystercatcher at Sandwick – has developed a pale collar which looks narrower than typical of that taxon.

Wildfowl have included two fine male Goosanders at Catfirth (scarce in Shetland) and the 2CY male King Eider at Quarff which I saw on my fourth attempt (for a photo by Larry Dalziel see: ). It became apparent why it is so elusive: following a tip-off from local resident Russ Haywood I arrived within 30 minutes and saw it immediately with the Eider flock; ten minutes later, a boat working on the mussel lines flushed the flock, which disappeared down the sound.

The non-avian highlight was provided by one or two Humpback Whales at Gulberwick on 28th; November seems to be a good month for this species in Shetland.

Finally, we have added Iceland Gull and Snow Bunting to the garden list, which now stands at 113.

Typical winter scene at Toab, Shetland 

November springs surprises

Long-tailed Ducks, Sumburgh

November often produces a few surprises, and after Cory’s Shearwater and Ferruginous Duck in Rutland earlier in the month the past week on Shetland has produced a few more.

The first surprise was a Pied-billed Grebe at Spiggie (18th) which had been identified by Roger Riddington earlier in the month. The main surprise about this was that it was a first for Shetland; it has been recorded in Rutland once, though I was away at the time.

The second surprise was a White-fronted Goose at Scatness (for images see: – scroll down), which I first saw on 20th when it was asleep. RR alerted me to the possibility that its initial identification as a Greenland White-front might not be the whole story, so I returned the following morning for a proper look. I was assured that the bird was not there and spent the morning searching goose flocks in south mainland only to return to Scatness and discover that it WAS there – a nice example of the adage that even if there’s nothing there there might be something there. Anyway, the bird’s differences from typical flavirostris included a longer-looking bill which narrowed towards the tip; the bill looked pinkish yellow in the field and yellow-pink in images, but was not bright yellow-orange; and the dark barring on the underparts was less extensive. In short, the possibility that it might be gambelli is being explored. Some droppings have been collected so it may be possible to derive genetic data from those.

The third surprise was a King Eider at Wester Quarff. You would think that a flock of 200 large black-and-white ducks would be relatively easy to find, but on two occasions during the week I have failed to find the Eider flock. What was that adage?

In addition to these surprises, more regular highlights have included close flocks of Long-tailed Ducks and small numbers of both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, including one of the latter which resembled kumlieni (25th).

Iceland Gull, Lerwick

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

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