Wednesday 13 October 2010

Shetland: Day 5: Unst

Wednesday October 6th

The wind was still strong today, and after the trials of yesterday we decided to go up to Unst, the most northerly of all the islands, where a long-staying Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll was still doing the business.

To get to Unst you have to drive north past Lerwick, and then take two ferries, the first of which goes to Yell. Poor Yell, it seems most people only go there to get to Unst. You have to drive the length of the island to another ferry terminal, and from there a short crossing takes you to Unst. The Redpoll was at the northern end, in Norwick, which is less than 200 miles from Norway. By contrast Google Maps suggests it is 808 miles from Wanstead.

In increasingly poor weather, the Redpoll was incredibly difficult to find. Unusually, I employed caution when looking at candidate birds. We found a number of excitingly white-looking ones, which back home I would have called cast-iron Mealies, but I knew that my quarry was unlike any Redpoll I had seen before. Redpolls are very confusing birds, as I know from bitter experience. Basically they range from small and browny to large and white. Where one species ends and the next begins is anyone's guess, but Hornemann's sits at the very far end of the scale. Think Polar Bear, but with a beak.

We caught up with a Little Bunting in a weedy field at the top of the village, and I found a Redstart feeding with some Robins, but there was no sign of the Redpoll. We tried another site and came up with another Yellow-browed Warbler and a flock of over a hundred Brambling, but still no Arctic Roll. Five and a half hours later, and just as we were about to leave empty-handed (and totally gutted), we noticed a bird fly into a rose bush. Looking through the foliage, all we could see was white. Yes! It finished eating the Seal it had caught and then went and had a bath in a ditch, before briefly having a preen on a fence right in front of us. Hard work, but well worth the effort. Probably the bird of the trip.

Running Bird count: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler Sykes Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler x 5, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Little Bunting, Black-headed Bunting.


  1. That redpoll is spectacular! Very different from our common redpolls as well.

  2. Bird of the trip Laurel, simply fantastic. The 5 1/2 hours to find it probably helped up the fantasticness when we eventually clapped eyes on it.