Red-backed Shrike, Culsetter

This has been a remarkable week in several different ways.

Whilst I was on Skerries last Friday, Hugh Harrop (no relation as far as I know) discovered a male Green-winged Teal on the Loch by his home at Hillwell. When he went to see it, sharp-eyed Roger Riddington noticed that the female it was with had a striking head pattern and suggested that it might be a Green-winged. I first saw them the following afternoon, and waited until I had a clear view of the female’s wing pattern. It too supported identification as Green-winged (the greater covert bar was extensively pale cinnamon-buff – paler on the outer feathers – and of relatively uniform width, similar in width to the tips of the secondaries). RR also saw the wing pattern later that afternoon, and thought it looked consistent with Green-winged (though his interpretation of the precise pattern was slightly different). Since then RR has managed to get some good flight shots which confirm that its wing pattern is consistent with carolinensis.

The arrival of the first wave of migrant moths and butterflies (Silver-Y moths from 13th and Red Admiral butterflies from 14th) was followed by the arrival of some very rare vagrant birds elsewhere in Shetland. Some of these (Marmora’s Warbler, Crag Martin) presumably arrived on the same warm southerly vectors which brought the insects, but others are harder to explain (Black-faced Bunting, Song Sparrow.) Locally there was a Terek Sandpiper at Virkie – which I managed to see from the house! Other notable migrants have included two Red-backed Shrikes, Crane, Hawfinch (also added to the house list), Bluethroat, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Garganey, Tree Sparrows and an interesting Acrocephalus at Ackrigarth which on the basis of the available evidence (poor views, clearly heard calls, and photographs) seems to have been either a slightly atypical Marsh or a fuscus Reed.

Whilst rare and scarce migrants are exciting, breeding bird surveys and the fortunes of our regular and ‘common’ migrants are of primary importance. Some of those which I have NOT yet seen on Shetland so far this spring – but did see last spring – are Turtle Dove, Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, Redstart and Whinchat. The very low numbers of some of these migrants are a cause for concern.

Red Admiral, Geosetter

Any way the wind blows

Bearded Seal, Lerwick

After missing one on Yell several times a few years ago, this Bearded Seal in Lerwick yesterday was one of the highlights of the spring. Other recent mammal sightings have included more Killer Whales and close encounters with Otters.

Since my post in late April, avian highlights have included returning Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns, White-billed Diver in breeding plumage at Kirkabister, a couple of Jackdaws including one fairly striking ‘Nordic’ at Kergord, the first Bluethroat of the spring at Grutness (photos on my Twitter feed), Wood Sandpiper and Tree Pipit.

On Skerries yesterday the scarcest bird I saw was a Water Rail; the most conspicuous migrants were a small wave of Wheatears including a few ‘Greenland’ birds. This Red-throated Diver was unusually confiding:

Red-throated Diver, Out Skerries – one of last year’s juveniles

Breeding Bird Surveys

Wheatear, Lerwick

Each year we visit our BBS squares and by (more or less) accurate recording accumulate data which underpins patterns of distribution and abundance. Although there are occasional pleasant surprises, often the work illustrates depressing declines of species which were formerly ‘common’.

In the East Midlands, it has become apparent in recent years that agricultural land in particular is no longer an environment which supports healthy populations of birds. The data, of course, confirm what has already happened so require prompt interpretation if they are to inform ‘conservation’. Even then they may be contested, in conflict with other interests, or at the mercy of broad environmental changes which are difficult to control.

In Shetland, populations of many species are at much higher levels than further south in Britain but even here there are areas of concern. Declines in some seabird populations are well known, but there has also been a significant decline in traditional crofting which reduces the food available for some breeding (and migrant) birds. For example, Corn Bunting has been lost from both Shetland and Rutland in my lifetime.

It sometimes feels as though we are devoting more and more time to recording fewer and fewer birds. The solutions lie not so much in the recording as in the wider management of the countryside. It is possible to mitigate the impact on other species of human activity, so long as there is a collective will.

Shetland Wren, Lerwick

The April lull

Lapland Bunting, Huxter

Those who study butterflies will be familiar with the ‘June lull’ between the spring and summer flight periods. With birds, there is sometimes a lull in spring migration between the first large wave of arrivals in mid-April and a second wave beginning in early May.

There has been a lull in south Shetland during the past week, though there have been a few highlights including lingering Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Spotted Redshank at Scatness which also provided further views of the American Wigeon, this Lapland Bunting at Huxter, and Jackdaw.

It has been a good week for marine mammals: we have enjoyed watching our first Killer Whales of the season (two males off Grutness), and this Otter hunting crabs at Bridge of Walls.

Otter, Bridge of Walls

As you were

Eiders displaying, Out Skerries

Although we haven’t enjoyed the heatwave which reached the British mainland, the past week has seen the arrival of many more spring migrants and has provided some echoes of last year. As ever it is a joy to watch Shetland’s breeding birds.

Notable sightings have included 2 Sandwich Terns at Toab, some interesting redpolls including both ‘Mealy’ and ‘Lesser’, Black-throated Diver still in Bay of Quendale (where I saw what may have been the same bird last spring), American Wigeon at Spiggie (see my Twitter feed for photos), White-billed Diver at Kirkabister (not yet in breeding plumage), and Stock Dove at Vidlin.

Also, the garden list has reached 115 with the addition of Woodcock and Ring Ouzel, and a neck-collared Greylag Goose which was ringed as a juvenile in 2015 at Clumlie has moved to Vidlin where it will presumably breed (thanks to Dave Okill for its history).

Twite, Quendale