The windsock at Sumburgh Airport was so rigid you could hang your coat off it as a relentless westerly airstream battered our visit to magnificent Shetland.
I drove north from the Long-toed Stint on Saturday, 9/10/21, with Neill Hunt and Duncan Rothwell aboard, meeting up with the Thomason Twins (Paul and John) at Aberdeen for the ferry to Lerwick.
Conditions were challenging, with the wind and rain barely letting up for seven days as we checked gardens and greenery for migrants from dawn to dusk.
It was great fun, with plenty of scarce thrown in, although the Shetland flag at the Sumburgh Hotel where we stayed, continually reminded us who was in control – the westerlies just kept coming.
We stamped out each morning at 0730 to split up and check the dry-stone walls, fields, gardens and outbuildings around Sumburgh and Grutness, and even if our hoped for self-found rares didn’t materialise it was never less than exciting scouring the headland as small numbers of autumn migrant arrived in varying numbers depending on the severity of the weather.
Barking Barnacle Geese, Greylags, Redwings, Fieldfare, Snipe, Jack Snipe, Brambling, Blackcap and Wheatear kept spirits up alongside the resident House Sparrows, Shetland Wren, Starling, Twite and Ravens.
After the morning patrol a quick conflab at 1030 would see us trying to work out the more sheltered parts of the archipelago to check further, while calling in on anything unusual on the way.
South Nesting Bay had a superb White-Billed Diver, which took us two attempts to locate, alongside numerous Great Northern Diver (seven plus), Black Guillemot, Harbour Porpoise and Kittiwakes.
The excellent long range shot of the Banana-bill below is by Neill Hunt.
Likewise it took us two cracks at the Eider flock at Trondra by Wester Quarff to find the moulty male King Eider amongst the distant raft.
On my long range blur shot it is the bird with the greyish head behind the nearest white blob Eider male in the centre – easy to pick out right? Now try it in a force seven westerly with spicy squalls… great fun!
Other birds were marginally more obliging including a young Woodchat Shrike at Aith on 10/10/21 (wind-blasted YouTube clip here) and a similarly meteorologically challenged Bluethroat at Kergord on the same day.
The Bluethroat hopped out of cover occasionally when the squalls eased, but it was hard work following it…
Neill managed to get a bit more colour on the breast with this effort below…
Religiously we checked the gardens, shelter belts and burns of Quendale, Hoswick, Levenwick and even the green hell of Geosetter, but largely these hotspots were deader than the feral Polecats that litter the island’s north-south main drag…
The best we managed apart from a few Chiffchaffs, Blackcap and Redpolls was a Red Breasted Flycatcher found by Neill at Hoswick.
Ridiculously hyperactive, it did at least sit still long enough to rule out Taiga – nice find Neill.
Lovely Gulberwick had a young Yellow Wagtail feeding amongst the sheep whose buttery tones on the vent and a call that was audible after we left put a stop to any Eastern Yellow Wag claims. Unlucky Trops.
Although my experience with these critters is very limited, it was tricky working against the wind and rain as the bird scurried about the herd, disappearing behind livestock and flying short distances.
A frankly parky vigil just before midnight revealed the mirrie dancers trying to peak out beneath the cloud base behind the lights of Sumburgh Airport, on 11/10/21, but they were better when we last spent a week up here five odd years back.
You can just make out the glow in my rubbish shot behind the glare of the airfield…
Rubbish Northern Lights are better than no Northern Lights at all though.
Loch of Spiggie had an elusive and scruffy Ring Necked Duck lurking amongst the Tufties, Scaup, Slav Grebes and Long-Tailed Ducks, while Purple Sandpipers fed on the rocks of the magnificent wind tunnel that is Spiggie Bay.
A young Bonxie there appeared to have ideas above its station as it decided to attack a family party of five Whoopers on the water.
It was quickly encircled by the swans, and had to make good its escape. Nowt wrong with thinking big though…
An American Golden Plover kept hopes alive as it joined a flock of a few hundred European Golden Plover in the fields at Fleck close to Boddam and we caught up with it on 14/10/21, although it was distant across the fields… Hugh Harrop eat your heart out (!!!!)
If you think that’s bad check out the long range video hand-held video clip on YouTube here.
There’s more to the northern isles than birds though (even in autumn) and we were treated to a pod of 20 odd White Beaked Dolphins, with two nearby Risso’s Dolphins, leaping about beneath Sumburgh Head on the evening of 12/10/21.
As a subsitute, the mini Orca lookalikes weren’t bad, but the real thing remained cruising around Unst far to the north during our visit.
Neill managed this long-range shot of a youngster trying to keep up with the rest of the powerful blubber…
The wind and rain were no respecters of even the righteous – check out the wonderfully weathered old sign on the gospel hall at Hoswick – but it did make for some brooding landscapes.
Suitably inspired, we tried listening to a bit of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in car as we criss-crossed the island’s road network. It is important to broaden one’s horizons whenever the opportunity arises.
It was all quite confusing, but fortunately Duncan was able to shed some light on proceedings, and as I understand it now the cycle is all about some ladies who live under a river, some screechy shouty people, stolen goods, giants and a baseball player called Babe Ruth.
We all agreed that the bit from “Apocalypse Now” was best.
It was hardly a surprise to learn my assessment from the Shetland Board of Education, although accurate, was not encouraging.
Or maybe this was just a reflection on the absence of autumn birding action. Typically on our final morning the wind dropped and the sun broke through – it was warm enough for Red Admirals to totter across the road at Quarff and promised new birds for those still enjoying these wonderful islands.
Thanks for the companionship and laughs fellas, and thanks to the hospitality of the Shetland Islanders.
I can’t wait to get back again…