On the back of a quiet trips in 2009 I decided to go in the peak of the autumn season. I was staying at Hillside Cottage by the airstrip. The regular crew of Mike McKee, Chris Turner, Marek Walford and Trevor Warwick were at Rocklea. We travelled out in atrocious conditions where the swell was so bad the Filla went north of Whalsay from Lerwick to reduce exposure to the winds. It wasn’t an auspicious start to what proved to be a brilliant trip.
Four pairs of eyes are better than one, and it wasn’t long before the crew scored with an Olive-backed Pipit on 1 October. This was a welcome new bird for me, and at the time was a national rarity so the first ‘BB’ of the trip. It was a couple of years before I found my own on Skerries on 21 October 2012 and I’ve not seen another definite one in the decade since despite them being increasingly regular in Shetland these days.
My fellow birders on the island were cooking on gas as the following day they texted me to say they had a Black-headed Bunting on Housay. This bird was perhaps hungry and exhausted from a long journey, and stayed from the 2nd to the 8th. It was often attracted to seed put out at Richard Price’s cottage and some excellent photographs were obtained.
I was finding nothing and beginning to get a tad frustrated. After a restorative cup of coffee at the cottage mid afternoon I headed down the track by the burn and saw a monochrome wagtail. When it gave a Yellow Wagtail like call rather than that of a Pied or White it was clearly interesting. I suspected an eastern Yellow Wagtail or some kind, but the face pattern showed despite the very late date it was in fact a Citrine Wagtail.
Like the bunting the Citrine Wag found conditions to its liking. It stayed even longer, until 10 October a very late date indeed for this species in Shetland. Skerries was punching above its weight and the mainland was quiet so several groups of visiting birders came over for the twin attractions. Whilst one of these groups were having their sandwiches on Bruray not far from the burn they found a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.
I was about as far away on the fairly compact Skerries as I could be when this bird was found. By the time I got the news, made my way across one island and over the bridge and onto the next one there was no sign. Mike McKee was firmly of the view that it would still be in the grassy area where it was found. Eventually it was relocated and then stunning views for such an arch skulker were had as it sat on the rocky shore.
The other sulky locustella warbler everyone hopes to see on Shetland in autumn is the smaller Lanceolated Warbler, or Lancey for short. To cap off a remarkable run of birds the crew found one of these in an apparently random piece of drystone wall some way up the hill on Housay. It’s easier for a group of birders with birds favouring drystone walls as there’s less opportunity to hide, but to be honest when I got to join them this one was bold as brass.
The supporting cast wasn’t to be sniffed at either. There were showy Long-eared and Short-eared Owls present on several days, Mike has some excellent shots of these. The third and fourth Little Gulls for Skerries were found, a first winter by the crew then an adult by me. It was a period where Skerries delivered the kinds of rarities birders dream of finding in quantities that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Foula or Fair Isle. It was great.