Best Stays With Skerries Birds 3 – October 2017

Lone Whooper that was around throughout the trip

There was a lot of coverage of Skerries in the autumn of 2017. A group of Scarborough birders had found a Yellow-breasted Bunting, a bird it was thought at the time might never be seen again in Britain. It was so unexpected that some birders chartered the island ferry on a day it didn’t normally run to guarantee seeing it. I went on late dates and hoped for at least something worthwhile if not in that league.

Whilst marking time at Vidlin waiting for the boat I bumped into leading Shetland birder Paul Harvey who was checking the plantation there in his lunch break. We had both noticed some south easterlies were forecast later in the week and mused over whether they might deliver. Paul wasn’t sure if they might actually be too strong and I could see his point, it was clearly going to be a case of strapping in and hopefully enjoying the ride.

In the calm before the storm there were a few migrants lingering, but nothing exceptional that could be confirmed. Both myself and Edwin Tait who lives on the isles saw a candidate Arctic Redpoll, but it was extremely skittish so remained one that got away. Even though they turn up on Unst annually in groups these days I’ve still to confirm one on Skerries.

Arctic Redpoll from Fair Isle in 2019 for illustrative purposes, the only confirmed one I’ve ever seen

On the 19th the robust, rain soaked south easterlies hit and it was clear that the answer to ‘would they deliver birds’ was an emphatic yes. The geos (cliffs) were alive with thrushes, gold crests and robins. Initial scarce birds in the throng were a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a Great Tit (yes, a Great Tit, context is important). Then mid afternoon sifting through ‘crests in a narrow geo behind Rocklea I saw the lemon rump and head stripes of a Pallas’s Warbler. This was the first I had ever found anywhere and always a great bird to see.

Pallas’s Warbler by Archibald Thorburn used under creative commons licence

On the 20th I was watching the double geo along from the Pallas’s Warbler for Ring Ousels when I saw a smaller and odd looking bird shuffling up a rock. Raising my bins I was astonished to see a Treecreeper. By the time I had set the camera up it flew as I pressed the shutter. The upshot of contradictory information was that the brief ‘it was a Treecreeper’ description I wrote that night needed serious revision as the northern race of Treecreeper is considered by the British Birds Rarities Committee.

I spend a lot of time on the 20th trying and failing to get a decent shot of the bird as it remained on the treeless geo trying to be helpful. I thought I had blown it when I finally got decent images on the 21st. You can see the level of improvement below:

Level of proof of subtle subspecies features by close of day 2
Day 3 – and relax as the colder, frostier upper parts of a Scandinavian bird are finally captured properly

I probably didn’t miss much clinching the Treecreeper but the 22nd was calm and with winds still in the east felt promising. I had a Mistle Thrush early on which was encouraging. Soon after this a bird popped up near me at the Housay marina and I was surprised to be looking at a Firecrest, the first Skerries record. It didn’t hang about and was never seen again, but was part of the biggest ever influx in Shetland.

Firecrest by Alexis Lours, used under creative commons licence

That afternoon I also found a Bluethroat which featured in my last blogpost. Edwin Tait informed me he had seen a Great Grey Shrike and I eventually caught up with it just down from Rocklea, it remains the only one I’ve ever seen on Skerries.

The Great Grey Shrike (and washing line)

The following day I had a Pallas’s Warbler again briefly, I thought it must be a different bird but it was accepted as the same and I guess one birder can’t see everything every day on an island so who knows. Yellowhammer was another addition.

The winds switched round to unhelpful north east. I spend a day in Lerwick getting a change of scene and stocking up on food on the 25th. The 26th I was covering the ground more in hope than expectation. I was walking up Bruray Hill past the old satellite dishes for the school when I was stopped in my tracks by what seemed to be a Wheatear with an enormous amount of white in its tail. I wasn’t seeing things, and it was a young male Pied Wheatear. The second new species for Skerries I had found on the trip, and in a rather higher league than the Firecrest.

I should probably have stalked it and got some better pictures. What I actually did was hot tail to Edwin’s house to tell him the news, and go back to the flat to put the news out. It was great that Edwin was able to connect with the bird distantly from the airstrip before he saw it head off to Grunay, I still don’t know why the news was so urgent when no boats or planes were running.

In summary I had two firsts, a second and a third for Skerries. There were also masses of birds when the wind and rain came in, seeing multiple Ring Ousels was memorable. It left me with the obvious late Shetland specialities like Pine Bunting and Hume’s Warbler to come back for another year. In actual fact subsequent visits have yielded the first Dipper and second White’s Thrush so those goals remain as a target for this year when I go late again.

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