Tengmalm’s Owl, Shetland: Tumblin’ dice.

The “now you see me, now you don’t” day on/day off performances, lamped by neepheads on Saturday and completely invisible on Sunday – all this conspired to ensure the Shetland Tengmalm’s Owl pushed optimism to the limits.
Long odds indeed.
Despite this, with minimal cajoling I managed to get Mike Stocker, June Watt and Jason Stannage committed (some would say we should be) and booked NorthLink foot passenger tickets from Aberdeen to Lerwick for Sunday night and we motored up to the Granite City with June at the wheel.
Ignoring the lack of sightings yesterday around Tumblin Road at Bixter, it was time to put a brave face on things and push north.
All the way north.
We landed at Lerwick at 7am yesterday morning, where the excellent Bolts Car Hire team had a sparkly MG3 waiting on the quay for us (many thanks Laureen).
Vroom vroom.

Only a short drive (30 mins or so) round to Bixter, I pulled up by the small, but frustratingly dense windbreak plantation, on Tumblin Road at about 8am.
Despite fully-sanctioned checks of the plantation by two experienced observers who were prepared to inch under the trees on their backs in the hope of finding the owl roosting in the branches, and thorough scrutiny of the edges by 20-odd fellow birders who’d pushed north in the face of the odds, it was pretty clear the Tengmalm’s was not there.
The wonderful householder Jackie wished us all the best, and calling in Shetland birder Jim Nicolson, they did their utmost to help us relocate the bird (brilliant hospitality – many thanks), giving us access to the garden and allowing a long, but fruitless search of the site.
It just wasn’t happening.
I began to reflect on how I would never be able to stare a festive spruce in the baubles again unless there was a drastic improvement in the tree to owl ratio.

Shetland Wrens became a focus (look at that bill!!!, how different is the song etc etc), while Ravens and Red Grouse laughed at us from the mist-shrouded moorland.
The feeling of a monumental long-distance dip was beginning to seep in as surely as the fog and chill of an early Shetland spring crept upon our bones.
Common Frogs and Rock Doves started to receive an unhealthy amount of attention.
This was not good.
Then at about 1.45pm three words drifted across the garden and changed the day.
“It’s at Tresta”.
The vehicle manual for the MG3 says the car can do 0-60mph in just over ten seconds.
Actually it can accelerate a whole lot quicker than that, and we pulled up at Tresta, a click or two down the road, almost before we set off…

In a pine break at the back of Lea Gardens, the Tengmalm’s Owl was dozing just under the crown of a straggly tree, occasionally waking to glare at the small crowd below it.
Top work by visiting birder Michael McKee who dug the mega out of the deep dip chasm and hauled it blinking into the misty afternoon light.
The lovely Rosa Steppanova has carefully planted up the meadow with a collection of spring bulbs which will doubtless be spectacular in future.
Once she learnt what was going on, Rosa stepped on over and had a good ‘scopeful of the Tengmalm’s.
Her verdict?
“It looks like a Hedgehog”.
I could kinda see what she meant, but confusing Hedgehog with Tengmalm’s does perhaps explain why it has been so long since the last one on this superb archipelago was found in 1912.
Tengmalm’s Owl or Tengmalm’s Hedgehog?
Who cares?
Happy birders.

Thanks Jackie, thanks Jim, thanks Mike, thanks Rosa.
The owl got a bit more animated and it became obvious that it had designs on the corpse of a Ringed Plover it had wedged on a branch about four feet away (keen-eyed readers may just be able to make out the bundle of feathers and yellowly legs on the left hand side of the second pic in this entry – it’s at the end of the long horizontal branch).

What a beast.
Once we were fully owled-up and the fog really closed in, we motored back to Lerwick.
Shetland was getting all atmospheric, as the fog welded sky and sea together and Slav Grebe flocks melted into the mist.

Conditions weren’t much better at Lerwick, but around the Shetland Catch quay we were able to pick out Iceland Gull and Long Tailed Ducks amongst the Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots and Eiders.

A startled Otter surfaced just feet below us before crash diving under the quay, as the NorthLink Norseman emerged from the murk to beckon us back to the mainland.

All aboard and setting sail south from Lerwick at 7pm last night (no planes were flying because of the fog), we jammed on our Viking drinking helmets and toasted the Tengmalm’s Owl, the lovely people of Shetland, and of course the stunning landscape.
Owl or not, just go, Shetland is a marvellous place.

When your mind is elsewhere…

I watched the small Canada Goose (Todd’s?) with the Pinks on and off for an hour or two last Sunday, but it was always distant.
No sign of it today though as I walked north from the Sandplant up to Crossens over the high tide.
Earlier part of the wintering Twite flock were pushed over the seawall to feed on the grass/car park between Pleasureland and Ocean Plaza on Southport seafront.
Plenty of geese about at the marsh, including two Barnacles, but the tide fragmented them, with birds on Crossens Inner, in the outer marsh vegetation and large numbers on the fields inland of Crossens Channel out towards Banks.
Merlins zooming around, and clouds of waders swirling over the advancing tide.
One of the male Hen Harriers was over the marsh off Crossens, with Peregrine etc.
My first Coltsfoot of the year was breaking into flower along the pavement just north of the Sandplant too.

A good high tide at the marsh then, but I confess my mind was elsewhere, far far away.
579.5 miles to the north east to be precise.


Not the nasty type of “weekly shop” when you are supplied with a huge list and loadsa bags, then dispatched in search of obscure and predictably unavailable herbs – no this was the easy, “just pick up these bits” type of shopping.
Which meant there was more than enough time to detour to Crossens Outer to enjoy the goose fest in warming February sunshine this morning.
Occasionally you come across an almost perverse pleasure in “goosing” on the type of damp, raw, misty days that only Lancashire can conjure up in its murkiest winter mood, but it’s much nicer watching the geese like they were today.
A few thousand were strung out across the cropped turf of Crossens Outer, perfectly lit, with Skylarks singing overhead and flurries of Pied Wags and Mipits dropping in as if rehearsing for spring.
The first Avocets can’t be far away.
Further out in the deeper vegetation of the marsh were thousands more geese, and small groups were coming and going all the time, promising surprises amongst the Pinkie horde.
Graham Clarkson, Stuart Darbyshire et al were already on site and enjoying the spectacle when I arrived.
A dark bellied Brent was a good distance out, but much closer to the road were a fine Tundra Bean Goose and a young Eurasian Whitefront.

You can just about make out the Brent, head down in the middle of this picture above, but the others were far more co-operative.

The big Bean was a real star as it sashayed amongst the smaller Pinks… far better than shopping, no matter how short the list.

Fast food

A lazy, “cut right through you, rather than go around you” north westerly today, but the skies were blue and the Ribble was full of life…
At Marshside Black Headed Gull was trying to chase down Teal around Polly’s Creek – strange behaviour, and inevitably unsuccessful, but perhaps it had been watching the GBBs hauling down Wigeon?
Two Merlin were tearing around Crossens Outer, repeatedly scorching through the Lapwing and Golden Plover flocks – I did wonder if this was a sneaky tactic in that the Merlins were hidden in the swirling and panicking waders, which they seemed to ignore, so that when one dropped down onto a Redshank on a channel, it never saw death coming.
The Golden Plover accelerated away from the terror as rapidly as only they can.

The Merlin seemed to pounce on the Redshank while it was on the deck – which I’ve never seen one do before.
Come to think of it, I’ve never seen one take a Redshank either, but it has been recorded elsewhere (British Birds, June 1988).
Smug as the Merlin appeared, it managed to hold on to its lunch for no more than two minutes before a Carrion Crow flew in and snatched it.
That’s pool.
Up at Hesketh Out Marsh I spent a while enjoying 3,000 odd Pinkies, a fine ringtail Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier, and Peregrine.
Whistling Wigeon confetti filled the air every time the falcon launched itself into the sky – or two marauding GBBs lumbered through.
Magnificent, if nippy.

The Rezillos made me do it.

It always strikes me as unfair, or at the very least cosmically ironic, that the older and better you get at bad behaviour, the longer it takes you to recover.
So while Saturday night was great, yesterday was all a bit of a fuzzy blur.
You could almost hear the celestial laughter.
Personally I blame The Rezillos.
Better today though, so I headed north for round two with the Fylde’s invisible Snow Buntings.
True to form, there was no sign of them on the dog-raddled beach north of the sandplant at St Anne’s (inevitably they had been there earlier in the day) and after two hours of cursing pooches, I took a break.
Time for a short drive inland to Lytham Moss, where a Todd’s Canada Goose had been lurking with a few thousand Pinkies.
Presumably it was last week’s bird from our side of the Great Divide, so it was certainly worth the ride.
But there were no geeses there, only birders, including Mickey Boy Stocker. They had thousand yard stares and no Todd’s.
The day was hardly shaping up as planned, so I drove back to the beach for a final crack at the Snow Bunts.
After all they’re a bit like Frosties – when you know there’s some there, you’ve just gotta have ’em.
No sign again, but after walking the length of the place, I glanced back just before leaving at 2.40pm (always a good idea) and there was a distant Snow Bunting sitting like a discarded potato out on the sands.
It scurried back into the dunes as I approached.

I circled round behind it and saw both birds on a ridge fairly close, before they ran back out onto the beach as the afternoon light began to fade. Mike joined me and we watched the sneaky little weasels for 15 minutes or so.

Possibly the most devious Snow Buntings I’ve come across in a long while – these critters can run AND they can hide…