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.

7 thoughts on “Tengmalm’s Owl, Shetland: Tumblin’ dice.

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