Best Stays With Skerries Birds (Part 1)

Pechora Pipit by Hyun-tae Kim, used under wikipedia commons licence

The title is a nod to the Classic Days series from the journal British Birds a number of years ago. Coincidentally the 1989 compilation of these stories of great birding experiences includes one by David Fisher from Out Skerries in August 1975. I’ve never day tripped the islands like Shetland birders do, so I’m going to do these at trip level.

At some point in 2007 Stuart Piner asked if I was up for accompanying him to Out Skerries. I had been to Fair Isle in 1997 and 2004 (Chestnut-eared Bunting anyone?) but didn’t know a lot about Skerries. Stu had been in 2006 and seen some nice birds including an Oliver-backed Pipit and a Citrine Wagtail, which were both national rarities at the time.

For some reason I can’t recall Stu had booked flights from Tingwall rather than the ferry, and sods law fog meant that planes were grounded. Some other birders who had brought a van over on the ferry took us under their wing and we went to Wester Quarff for a first winer drake King Eider that was lingering in the flock around the salmon cages. A good start.

first winter King Eider by Omar Runolfsson, used under wikipedia commons licence

We managed to get some digs in the Helendale area of Lerwick, a good birding sight in its own right. I don’t think the lady who owned the house had put visiting birders up before and was a bit bemused by us but still friendly and welcoming. A day late we were able to fly from Tingwall, this was the only time I ever arrived on the isles by plane and the descent past the sea stacks and lighthouse was spectacular.

We were staying at Rocklea, the main B&B on the isles. Davy one of the owners was waiting by the airstrip to transport our luggage. I can’t remember if we got in the car or just dumped the bags in his Citroen Xsara, but I vividly recall being surprised the journey was around 250 metres. Even with Fair Isle and Lundy experience the small scale of Skerries was becoming evident.

We had understood that there were no other birders on the island. In fact Dave Waudby and his wife were overlapping with us for a few days. Whilst we had been on the Northland news of an Arctic Warbler they had found reached us. At the time we were a bit exasperated about this, with the benefit of hindsight it was good to have something to look forward to.

Arctic Warbler used under wikipedia commons licence (author unknown)

We saw the Arctic Warbler several times over the next couple of days, it probably felt at home in decidedly robust weather. The Waudbys left and Stu and I generally worked as a team covering the islands intensively, though I couldn’t always go at his frenetic pace. We had a brief Barred Warbler Stu picked out on Housay, and finally the weather looked promising overnight on 27th September into the 28th. To quote from the finder’s account for the Foula Siberian Thrush (of which more later) in the 2007 Shetland Bird Report:

“There was a good high over Siberia and the weather was fine and drifty as we headed south … on 28th September… . The previous week had been very quiet … Today, we felt, was going to be better…” (Gordon, Crowle, Lauder and Shaw, 2007).

We’d thrashed around Bruray a bit but I needed to ring my eldest Sabine as it was her birthday (I know, I know) and the only decent mobile reception was near the cemetery on Housay. I wandered over on my own and as I walked along the side of the drystone wall by the heligoland trap wall a bird popped up onto a fence post. Incredulously I found myself looking at a clear Pechora Pipit, a dream find.

I am going to truncate the rest of this account a bit, partly because Stu doesn’t like me banging on about it. The good conditions had also dropped the aforementioned Siberian Thrush on Foula, and a Swainson’s Thrush on Fetlar. The magic of Shetland in a nutshell, great rarities from east and west on the same day. Stu left to try and see the former thrush, and ended up seeing the latter in an island hopping adventure whilst I decided to stay put.

There wasn’t much else to see over the remainder of my trip, but I do remember some benign weather and the kindnesses of several locals. Mike McKee and Trevor Warwick arrived at Rocklea the last night I stayed there. We had a good chat about how I had got on and what there prospects were. On 2 October they found a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, the rewards still available from birding Out Skerries in autumn remained as clear as they were in the eras of Bobby Tulloch and Bill Oddie. I was hooked.

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