Saturday, 29 December 2012

Snow Buntings

My first encounter with snow bunting was back in the late 1970's up at Inverpolly, western Scotland, followed by sightings in the Cairngorms in the mid 1980's. This is a rare breeding bird in the UK, they normally are found breeding around the Artic from Scandinavia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland, we see more in winter.

In Shetland I was lucky enough to come across one in late May a couple of years ago on Ronas Hill, a superb male. Late May is normal for late spring sightings in Shetland and can occur anywhere in the isles.

This year snow buntings started to appear on the 12 September, with a bird at Lamba Ness. Birds continued to be seen throughout the month will larger numbers on Unst by the 29 September with 60 birds present. Throughout October numbers continued to build again with 120 at Belmont on the 8th, but by November numbers started to fall to 20-30 birds and the last 3 on the 28 November,  8 birds on Yell 30  December was the last of the year, with many birds moved south.
The excellent Nature In Shetland website great for details of sightings of all birds.

The white plumage evokes images of a snowstorm as the birds take flight. Being 70 + miles from the coast we don't come across birds in and around Sheffield, except for a few on migration and these are usually found calling while flying over.

Most snow buntings are found along the coast feeding in open weedy and grassy fields or along shorelines. I have come across flocks at Cleethorpes, Filey, and in Lincolnshire and North Norfolk. and they are normally very confiding . Two races have been identified, Iceland and Greenland / Scandinavia

Friday, 14 December 2012


With Shetland having yet more snow and ice recently which forced the closure of Sumburgh airport and several schools, its a worrying time for wildlife. They have to survive the cold and often deep snowy conditions. Those that cannot feed need to move south to more open areas otherwise they will die. Migration comes early to Shetland as winter visitors move through from October on and sometimes only stay in Shetland for a short time to feed and build up enough energy to continue their journey.


Most Waxwings left Shetland by the 5 December, having spent a  few weeks feeding up on berries, apples and pears.

Down in Sheffield, numbers of Waxwings have fallen from the 700 hundreds to perhaps just over a 100 birds, moving around trying to find berries.

 In 2010 Sheffield experienced one of the worst winters since the war. We live on a hill and had 24 inches of snow making it impossible for ground feeding birds to survive in their normal woodland habitat. Most moved to nearby gardens or left the area.

Walking through the woods nearby no birds were encountered on the snow days , with only the occasional Robin moving back in a few days later, finding shelter in holly bushes. Other people reported wrens sheltering in nest boxes, in one 34 Wrens were found in one box, finding warmth together. Roosts of Pied wagtails could be found on top of buildings, at Meadowhall I counted 78 one evening.

So it is important to keep feeding the birds and also putting out water as well, with such as massive drop in bird numbers these last few years we cannot afford to loose any more. Birds like the Kingfisher move away from inland haunts to the coast where it is generally milder and ice free
                                         Kingfisher at Kelham Island Sheffield

Next Blog will cover the snow birds , keep visiting

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


They are back in good numbers. They arrived in Shetland in October with birds seen around the isles, often very confiding, feeding on berries as well as apples and pears put out to attract them into gardens. Some lucky people were able to feed them while they sat on a branch only a few feet away.

They moved south with only a few remaining in Shetland as we speak. These birds were joined by new ones coming in from the east so that in Sheffield at this present time we may have more than 700 Waxwings . I saw a flock of at least 300 birds fly over Carterknowle Road in the south of Sheffield only a few days ago

Birds come into Britain when food is scarce in Scandinavia and are always great to see, even the none birdwatcher is excited to see them. I was photographing a flock the other day near a main road, and had several people come up and ask me what the birds were and when i told them it seem to make their day.

Trying to get a good photograph is very difficult, unlike Shetland were there are few trees, the waxwings in Sheffield tend to feed from Rowan trees which are always near other trees or have large numbers of twigs to clutter up the background. So getting a clear background is always a challenge.

Birds down in Sheffield also seem to have more competition for food, with aggressive Mistle Thrush and later Fieldfare chasing the Waxwings off, also Blackbirds and Redwing join in so berries soon disappear. In addition to this waxwings are attacked by Sparrowhawks on a regular basis making them very nervous and less confiding.

Birds have often been around until mid April but birds tend to linger later in Shetland with one seen on the 4 June in Unst the other year.So make a special effort to go out to see them this year.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

You sometimes forget you are in Shetland, in spring on a sunny day you might be lucky to be watching a bird that should really be down in the warmer Med. But this could easily be side by side, (well nearly) to a bird from America, the Artic or the East

Over the years we have been lucky enough to have seen a few bird that we have seen in France & Spain . While not a common visitor, the Little Egret is wide spread in England and moving north quickly as a breeder. Although herons are not that common in Shetland we have seen one at Loch of Spiggie a few years ago. As a tree nesting bird they will find it hard to find a nest site, perhaps at Kergord in 50 years time !!

Marsh Warblers are normally found towards the end of May and into early June, and have bred in Shetland. We have seen several and including this singing bird at Hoswick a few years ago and with no other birder present on the day.

Perhaps the most exciting bird was the sub-alpine warbler found at Skaw on Unst, yet gain no other birders around . This was present for about a week. We saw it collecting nest material and moving in and out of a spearmint patch near the stream. It sang a number of times. One visiting birder managed to identify the song from that of an Italian raced bird. It goes to show that the level of expertise is fantastic, not just of recognising the song, but others are able to pin down the race of other species from looking at the birds plumage etc. This takes a tremendous amount of work and dedication to birdwatching and often involves many trips abroad to gather the knowledge.

One bird that was instantly recognised was a Bee-eater which we watched at Vidlin. It seem incredible that this could survive, but it stayed around Shetland for over a week and looked totally out of place as sheep walked past.

Turtle doves are very rare around South Yorkshire, but I have caught up with quite a few in Shetland, usually getting good views. Earlier this year we visited Royan in France where Turtle Doves seemed to be reasonably plentiful. Its surprising any are left as the French shoot about 100, 000 per year as they migrant over the Pyrenees

Black Redstarts are one of my favourite bird, we are lucky to have a pair or two breeding in Sheffield, one of the few cities in the UK. In Shetland they often appear late autumn and early spring and are always nice to find.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Shetland attracts all sorts of migrants, both in spring and especially in autumn. Both periods are exciting as you never know what will turn up.  In Shetland birds can turn up anywhere, much depends on the wind direction. When you think about it you could be watching birds from America, Asia, the med or the Artic all within a few miles of each other. That's the great attraction , expect the unexpected !!

When we saw the Killdeer in 2007 it was unexpected as it was first discovered at Banna Minn on the 6 April, so we thought it would have gone before we visited Shetland at the end of May. So to find that it was still there but now down at a little pool near Exnaboe was a big surprise. Most spring birds don't tend to linger, this one however decided that Shetland was a great place to stay and eventually continued to frequent the area until 15 April the following year !!!!!.

It seemed to be paired up with a Ringed Plover, spending all of the time around the small pool

Another one of my favourite american birds is the American Wigeon. These arrive late either in spring or autumn with an exceptional  flock of 10 birds, which included 6 males at the Loch of Hillwell in the southern mainland on the 9 October 2000. Recent spring arrivals have occurred in May and June with the latest being a male on the 9 June 1992.

It is interesting that a ringed bird seen in Shetland in 1966 had been ringed in Sheffield (my home town). Birds are brought to Shetland in westerly gales and during northward migration in spring. The green sheen around the head on these birds are truly memorable

more rare migrants to come soon

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

With Britain's second ever Chestnut- eared bunting recently identified at Virkie we can expect to see another rush of twitchers reach the isles, which is great for Shetland's economy. Many other interesting birds are also around, but based on previous experience most will only have eyes for the bunting.

This bird is a mega, as it is  a National rarity , other birds just depends on whether its rare to you and this is governed by your experiences in general and your location in the UK.

Being 70 or so miles from the coast its always a pleasure to encounter seabirds, not that they are rare to us, but sometimes you do see special birds such as the Storm Petrels on Mousa and the long gone Black Browed Albatross which could be found at Saito on Hermaness between 1972 - 1995, although missing for a couple of years towards the end. It was on our third visit that we finally saw Albert as Shetlander's named it, sitting on a ledge half way down a cliff. It was a very windy day and not the best for photography.

Common Cranes seem a regular spring visitor to Shetland, sometimes in flocks of 4-5 birds, others singles. We have come across a couple over the years, the most memorable on Yell. We had just left our B&B in mid Yell and started to drive down the track when a crane took off from a ditch , it was gigantic. We watch it fly in front of the car before coming down about 300 yards further on where we got excellent views.

Any raptor usually sends the pulse racing, especially an Eagle on Shetland. We came across this Sea Eagle a few years ago while driving south near to Spiggie. This wing tagged individual originated form the Scottish population and made its way up to Shetland via Orkney , to the displeasure of the local birds.

More to come next time

Saturday, 13 October 2012

October is the silly season.

At one time October used to be the month when twitchers descended on the Sicily Isles but in recent years many have decided that Shetland has become the premier bird spot for autumn bird migration. But it doesn't take long to give all  `birders' a bad name when a minority cause problems.

Already this year people have disregarded warnings by the Shetland Bird club to avoid going into peoples gardens , or on land which is sensitive, leaving gates open, parking problems, being rude the list goes on.

Some Shetland birders have had enough, with one already closing his blog. Others in the long term may be reluctant to share information if the problems get worse. Have some respect for the local people, property and the birds
                                                              Large gatherings put me off !!

Birding is exciting and very rewarding but I tend to avoid big crowds, I am just as happy to look at the more common birds, something that doesn't seem to appeal to a large number of twitchers. To venture a long way from home just to see one or two birds and disregard the rest seems mad to me. With many dipping out on the rare bird of their dreams it becomes a costly experience.

Others get caught up in mass twitchers, some people viewing a bird have just relied on others to identify it while others can identify a rare bird but struggle with common birds. I know I am showing my age but in my early birding days we took time out to develop our identification skills, undertook surveys and made a contribution to the birding world by submitting bird records. I have heard a number of times that the Shetland bird club doesn't receive enough records of the common birds , but that's a problem with other bird groups as well.

Some people get hooked on adding a new bird to their list, last year in Shetland I was on a boat trip to Mousa I got talking to a father and son, the lad had already amassed 365 birds and he was only 14 years old. On the way back he talked about the lack of good birds !!!!, on the other hand I was excited with the views I had just had of Artic tern, Artic skua, Black Guillemot, Red Throated Diver, various waders, close ups of Skylark, Wheater and Eider duck, while I would have consider a rarer bird a bonus. Look at the bigger picture and you will never be disappointed.

 A Long tailed tit, a common bird in England, but when one appeared this month on Unst it was only the 5th record for Shetland, and the first one on the island for 151 years

Shetland reveals its secrets slowly, over the years we have seen rare birds, but as it has been in spring when few twitchers can react quick enough, birds pass through the islands quicker, on their way to the breeding grounds, than in autumn.

On the next blog I will share some of the rarer bird sightings.

Monday, 1 October 2012


The familiar sound of the Kittiwakes is less evident now that it was when we first visited the seabird colonies at Hermaness, Noss and Sumburgh back in 1987.

Kittiwakes have been studied for some while in Shetland and it has been found that 58 colonies exist. Back in 1969-70 Operation Seafarer Census discovered over 47,000 nests and in the early 1980's numbers increased to over 54,500 (1981). Since then numbers have been dramatically reduced due to food shortages, especially Sandeels which then normally collect near the surface of the sea. In the 1992-02 survey numbers dropped to 25,800.

It is thought some Kittiwakes abandon the colonies in Shetland and moved south to Orkney where numbers increased in the late 1980's. Laying is often delayed to coincide with food availability  but even in good years eggs are taken by Ravens and Hoodie crows, with the young taken by Gt Skua and Gt BB Gulls, keeping numbers low.

At Sumburgh a well studied area, during 2001-2003 productivity was nil, with only a slight improvement the following year.This colony has remained stable since 2005 with around 355 nests, this being mainly due to the adults being long lived.

Kittiwakes have moved to another food source with the preferred food, Sandeels getting harder to come by. These are pipe-fish which seem to be more abundant. But having watched an adult bird taking around 10 mins to swallow one, you can see why so many young birds choke to death.

Monday, 24 September 2012


While autumn migration brings some stunning birds to Shetland, including the Magnolia warbler found on Fair Isle yesterday along with a Lancolated warbler and various American jobs on Shetland mainland, the pride of place being a Red eyed Vireo on Unst, Shetland offers much more as well, including the seabirds which I am particularly intersted in.

Many of you will know that Seabirds have been having a very poor time for a number of years. Not just in Shetland but all over the north. The lack of food, particularly Sandeels is to blame. This months Shetland bird study newsletter indicates that the early part of the 2012 breeding season was poor, but due to increased food opportunities in the form of sillocks (young saithe) made it a better second half of the breeding season. 

Seabirds are long lived  so hopefully they may recover, some are able to delay the laying until suitable conditions occur, others have more than one brood.

When we first visited Shetland in 1987, seabirds were already on the decline, although it seemed to us when we viewed the colonies at Sumburgh head, Noss and Hermaness that they were doing well, with thousands of birds present. Its only when you start regular counts that you notice the declines and I have every admiration for those involved in collecting data. 
                                                     Sumburgh Head back in the late 1980's

Over the next few blog I will be looking at different seabirds and for now the Shag comes under the spotlight.

The Shag looks dark at a distance but in fact it has a nice green sheen. It breeds along the cliff face and in caves. They have an extended breeding season which helps the species. Laying starts as early as April but often the rough seas wash out the nests as they tend to be low down the cliff face. 

It was estimated that about 10,500 pair were present in the 1969-70 count reduced to 6,000 pairs in the 1995-2001 survey, despite improved counting techniques. At Sumburgh head 288 pairs we present in the 1998-2001 survey and in 2010 -290 pairs so little change.

Egg laying can take place up to September in Shetland, but with of species of bird looking for food eggs get predated by Raven and Hoddie crows, and if young hatch then Gt Skua and Gt Black Back gulls swoop down to take the young from the nests.

Shags can be seen throughout the year in Shetland, often moving to sheltered bays in winter.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Whooper swans

It was good to hear that Whooper Swans had bred for the first time in nearly 100 years at the RSPB Spiggie Lock in the southern mainland of Shetland, the first breeding record from this Lock came as far back as 1910.

Although they resumed breeding in Shetland in 1994 when a pair successfully bred in the north mainland they have since bred most years , with approx 6-8 pairs in recent years.

                                                              Spiggie Lock- RSPB

Shetland holds around 50% of the UK breeding birds. Breeding occurs in Northern latitudes from Iceland to Scandinavia to Siberia. We have seen birds in May & June in the south and west mainland and in Unst. On one occasion a whooper swan was seen fighting with a mute swan which also breeds in small numbers.

Numbers are swelled by migrant birds from Iceland during autumn, with  Spiggie Lock hold around a quarter of these birds. A count made by the Shetland bird club in November 2010 revealed 225 present in all parts of the isles.