Sunday 31 October 2021

Shetland 2021 - the long-(toed) drive home

It is always exciting driving up to Aberdeen on the way to Shetland, somehow the prospect of a week of quality autumn birding seems to make the 550 miles pass extremely quickly. Conversely the return journey can always seem rather a slog, especially as the only things waiting at the end of it are a family who have been saving up jobs for you (Dad hasn't done the washing up for a week, it must be his turn) and a return to the confines of an office and the daily joy that brings.

You can get lucky though with one last hoorah before all this hits, and as we went to sleep as the boat chugged down the east side of Shetland our thoughts were firmly fixed on Swillington Ings in West Yorkshire and a very small Chameleon of a wader.

This had started off life a few days earlier as a Temminck's Stint, and as better views were obtained and more photos taken had been promoted first to a Least Sandpiper, and finally up another notch to Long-toed Stint. This is about as mega as waders go really, and to have one present just five miles off our route south was surely too good to be true? Would it stay?

It would! I can't remember exactly when the news came through, but I am pretty sure we were on the road about an hour south of Aberdeen heading towards breakfast at Forfar. Matrix signs on the motorways continued to inform the convoy of birders all doing exactly the same as us that it was still there, and as such the 350 miles passed very quickly indeed. I eBirded the whole way, adding Jay to every county list we passed through, and just after lunch we arrived at RSPB St Aidans, an enormous old gravel workings. It was about a mile walk to the scrape the bird was showing on, and despite stiff legs we made it remarkably quickly.

A lot of people we had seen on Shetland were already there and more arrived after us - we were distinctly mid-table, no doubt the cost of breakfast and a loo stop spurned by real twitchers. The bird was miniscule, and did indeed have rather a long middle digit, and showed really well on a small island. Given the extent of the site and the layout of the pools, the bird had probably chosen the easiest and closest place to feed, remarkable really. As it was we saw it immediately and were then able to have a short stroll around the rest of the reserve before celebrating with an ice cream. 

I am not a big twitcher these days. A few pangs of regret this week about the stonking Varied Thrush on Orkney, but realistically I am not much into this kind of thing any more. This Stint was ideal, only a very short detour, and probably one of the rarest birds I have ever seen. I doubt I would have travelled from London for it, but everything fell into place and amazingly I got to see it. Back in the car I also realised it was BOU 450, so quite a milestone and one I did not think I would ever reach. Many years ago this would have been a huge total, but today big league drop everything twitching is 530+. I am glad I am not part of that scene, but that does not mean that I don't really enjoy seeing rare birds, I absolutely do, and this was a fitting end to a great trip with excellent company.

Thursday 28 October 2021

COVID Diary from Chateau Plague

Well I caught COVID, as was perhaps inevitable given Government (lack of) policy. And this is despite being quite cautious. Not to the point of hiding indoors, but given how I see other people behaving I am basically a Saint. I've been on public transport only a handful of times, and I've followed all the health precautions for both myself and other people around me when I've done so. I've used tons of squirty hand gel everywhere I go, and if I'm in the office or at home I wash my hands constantly. My social life is borderline non-existent, no pubs no clubs, and when I meet people it is outside. 

But I do have children. Children who might have been vaccinated during the summer holidays under a competent regime, but who instead all went back to school with no protection whatsoever. My eldest daughter succumbed just under a couple of months ago, a lateral flow followed by a positive PCR confirmation. We confined her to her room and took food up for the first week, and she came down and ate with us at a different table for the second. Somehow none of us caught it.

And then two Saturdays ago, around lunchtime, my youngest daughter complained of not feeling very well on a car journey. The round trip took four hours, after which she slept for around 18 hours. Hmmm. A lateral flow test once we had woken her up confirmed our worst suspicions....

Day 1

The following day the four of us that can currently take tests accurately all went to the local testing site for another round of PCRs - track and trace would insist we do this anyway so we might as well get it over with in one hit. On the way back home I popped into Boots and had the flu jab, as is currently being recommended. I'm sensible like that, you know believing in vaccines and medical science. Needless to say I felt pretty chirpy.

You can guess what happened next. I do not normally have hypocondriacal tendencies, I just get on with it. Perhaps post a photo of a damaged appendage, that kind of thing, but generally you would never know. But this has been quite different, and so I took notes on my phone each day out of morbid curiosity. I apologise now. Perhaps it is the shock of actually being ill - after all the various enforced lockdowns, working from home, no travel and vastly reduced contact with other people in all areas of life have meant that many of us have enjoyed a long period without getting sick at all. Maybe I had just forgotten what being ill is like? Without wishing to sound too melodramatic what I have just gone through makes up for all of that. It was interesting to chart, and who knows, it may be useful to anyone else unlucky enough to get this thing under whose shadow we have now been living for nearly two years.

Day 2

A gradual headache begins to build over the course of the morning. I'm a bit hot, a bit cold and although I'm working I have to have an afternoon nap. I assume this is just an adverse reaction to the flu jab but late that evening I get an unexpectedly positive PCR result. Here we go!  My youngest is unsurprisingly also positive. The other two test negative, lucky them! It is too late to do anything today so I go to bed, but tomorrow promises to be a lot of fun and games - NHS track and trace, and also the unhappy task of unwinding the first foreign trip I had planned for 18 months and which I had been due to leave on in under a week. I'd already booked and paid for my fit to fly test....non-refundable, as you would expect in Tory Britain.

Day 3

I don't sleep well at all, and call work first thing to say I'm sick. I now have a banging headache that is impossible to shift, paracetamol has no impact at all, and proper shivers. I spend some time in bed with the electric blanket on to get warm, and subsequently overheat. Yay, this is being ill as I remember it! I have the first hints of a cough, but very minor. Still, I can't remember the last time I had a cough at all. And my eyes hurt for some reason, bright lights really sting and exacerbates my headache. I put my phone away. Overall I am very achy, particularly my hips. 

Day 4

Another crap sleep and at one stage I wake up damp. Did a fever break? I didn't think I was that hot but I must have been. My frontal headache is now almost unbearable, it's as if my head is in a vice and about to split. Additionally there is real pain in the left side of my skull, my ear and throat are throbbing like anything and my jaw feels stiff. Room service during the working day isn't possible and so I have to go down and make lunch for the invalids. Climbing the stairs afterwards is exhausting, and by the afternoon I'm feeling short of breath even just lying in bed. Imagine what real non-vaccinated COVID must be like? Sitting on the side of the bed mid-afternoon doing a few admin jobs has me in a cold sweat and back under the covers. By the evening I have a few cold like symptoms, big wet sneezes and a more persistent cough. Interestingly my sense of taste and smell are definitely less acute. Toothpaste and aftershave registered, but my own bedridden aroma after two days of sweating is undetectable, and a risotto which is usually so delicious was like wet mush.

Day 5

A broken but better sleep, and I woke up with clearer airways, although once I got moving some sniffles and sneezes returned and I gradually got more bunged up as the day went on. Frequent cold sweats all morning, and still this unbelievable headache. My throat is still very sore but this morning the disease appears to have moved away from my left ear and jaw, and the headache is I think slightly less awful. I've never really had an illness that you can chart moving around your body so precisely as this one, it seems to slowly and ponderously target one bit after another. I had a coffee mid-morning, the first I'd had since this whole thing started. I could taste it was bitter, but I could not smell it at all, nothing, and I couldn't have told you it was coffee but for my brain knowing what I was drinking. What an incredible virus. I hope I am not one of the ones for whom their sense of smell does not return, or where it takes ages. Red Burgundy....imagine not being able to smell it? It occurs to me that if I cannot smell coffee I probably cannot smell myself either and take a shower, the first in days. I can't smell the soap or shampoo either, but I come out of it feeling more human. Looking in the mirror confirms I'm not at my best though, I look haggard.

By the afternoon my headache has reduced somewhat, the first positive sign I've had in days. This is a huge relief as this has been the worst aspect of COVID so far. The disease seems to have moved to the right side of my head - exactly the same as earlier on the left side. Is this where it takes its leave? In one ear out the other? Apparently not as by the evening I can feel a creeping stiffness beginning to build, starting in my neck and working downwards, and I am once again short of breath. It is almost as if it is tracing a circular route around my body. In fact I've heard it said this is a vascular disease rather than a respiratory one. Perhaps this explains Covid toes, the last place the disease hits as it departs?

Day 6

Not as good as yesterday. The headache has returned, albeit in a form that paracetamol can partly deal with, and my energy levels remain extremely low so I remain upstairs in bed for the whole day again. I have nearly lost a week of my life at this point. The killer sore throat is back on the left side again. Still all sorts of aches and pains, though some of these could simply come from gross inactivity - I tend to seize up during periods where I do nothing, the same thing happened during difficult lockdown periods when I had motivational problems. The day ends with some shortness of breath and a stomach ache. My tummy is a sensitive area at the best of times, so nice of COVID to have a go at that too.

Day 7

A bit bunged up this morning, and still quite tight-chested, but sore throat much reduced and only a minor headache to contend with. Painful stomach issues resolved and by mid-morning I'm feeling pretty reasonable all things considered. Tomorrow is the day I would be travelling to America. Hey ho. For the first time I notice I have no sense of smell at all, not even aftershave, vaporub or essential oils give me anything. It is very strange. My maternal Grandmother had no sense of smell for almost her entire life, I have no idea how she managed. It is only once it is gone you realise how much you actually use it and how much you miss it. Really hope it comes back. No real change during the rest of the day.

Day 8

I worked for most of the day, an immoveable annual deadline that I had to meet - unfortunate timing. Looking at a screen for so long didn't help my eyes nor my headache, but the odd paracetamol hit kept me going. Still absolutely no sense of smell, but it feels like the worst is definitely behind me.

Day 9

A headache continues to plague me but isn't a bad one now. My sense of smell has returned very slightly and strong smelling substances now do register a little bit. I expect that this will continue to improve, fingers crossed. Apart from these two symptoms I feel as if I've just come out of the other side of a heavy cold, and am in the process of shaking off the remnants. Could this be nearly over?

Day 10

Nope, not quite! Tight chested, coughing fits and a headache. Brilliant. But I did manage a full day at work albeit with a nap in the middle as I am still really tired.

Day 11

My final day of isolation and another full day at work. Still tight-chested but no headache, and I'm pleased to say my sense of smell is now returning. It may yet take a few weeks to feel fully back to normal, but I have survived this ordeal. Two weeks of my life I won't get back, but I suppose with two COVID vaccinations, the flu jab and some recently home-grown COVID antibodies I must be in pretty good shape for the winter to come.

I apologise for writing this. It is very self centered and extremely indulgent, really not me at all, but once I had started it I felt loathe to stop it. Maybe somebody will find it interesting, or at least partly reassuring in that if an unfit middle-aged codger like me can get through it, then they can too. It has been awful, worse than the worst cold I've ever had, and worse than the flu. I am so lucky that I have been vaccinated, facing this from zero would be incredibly hard. As it is I feel completely shattered. However I am very much looking forward to getting out on the patch again, I have not been out of the house the whole time, and it has been driving me mad not being able to go birding.

Shetland 2021 - Day 8

Our final day! The number or birds on the islands had been on the wane since about the halfway point, but we were still adding at least one good bird a day. We had not been off island at all, so in the absence of much happening on the mainland, today we decided to head north to Yell which seemed to have the best birds that we had not seen yet - a Ring-necked Duck, another Great White Egret, and dare I say it, a SHELDUCK

We packed up the car and sorted out the house as we would not be returning. This made for a rather full car, but in this we had no choice. Various items we needed for both the day and the overnight ferry crossing were left near the top, and off we went. As we were about to depart we got news of a Baikal Teal at Loch of Benston, the same direction we were headed. Given the bird recently on Fair Isle this seemed entirely plausible, but there were also suspicions of Garganey. Either would be a great bird on Shetland, and by now we were fully bought in to trying to see as many duck species as possible no matter how plebian.

It did indeed end up being a Garganey, so perhaps not quite the same kudos as a Baikal, but nonetheless it was a Shetland tick for all of us and is a rare bird anywhere in Scotland. With another duck inked off we quickly nipped across to Kergord for a Bluethroat which had been located in the same plantation as the Rustic Bunting. This showed very well, but once again I had not bothered to bring my camera from the back seat of the car. Oh well. We then realised that our singular fixation with the Garganey meant we had neglected to scan the rest of Loch of Benston and thus missed a POCHARD. Gah! I insisted that we go back immediately and rectify this glaring wildfowl omission. It was kind of on our way to the ferry, so we did, but I'm not sure the car ever came to a complete standstill.

Crossing to Yell we finally got our first Bonxie of the trip. Normally we see these all over the place, but for some reason they were absent, and it wasn't that we hadn't been looking. The ducks were all at the top end of the island, so the usual race across the island became the usual race across the island. The RN Duck had apparently flown from its usual loch and gone to another nearby, and heading there who should meet but Adrian, fresh from lobbing a few bricks. He had just seen the duck flying from the new loch back towards the old loch that we had just passed, and also delivered the hammer blow that the Shelduck hadn't been seen for a few days. The trip was falling to pieces at the last hurdle! Try as we might neither Adrian nor ourselves could relocate the bird on any of the nearby water bodies (naturally it came back once we were gone...) so we gave up and went and had some tea and coffee chez Kettle, passing a miserable looking Great White Egret on the way. He has a lovely house with a fantastic vista across mid-Yell, and has been busy adopting most of the local wildlife, including the most pampered Sheep in the whole of Shetland that has very quickly gone soft and spends its time looking disdainfully at its former colleagues from a comfortable byre in the garden.

These sheep will probably be living with Adrian by the end of the month, possibly the Egret too.

All too soon our time was up and we had to get back to the mainland and Lerwick. There was just time to snag another King Eider off Wester Quarff, much better looking than the first, get changed out of our wet weather gear, and head to the boat. We stuffed ourselves with pie again and bedded down with hopes of a very small wader in Yorkshire in the morning.

The final reckoning

Wednesday 27 October 2021

Shetland 2021 - Day 7

Our penultimate day on the islands, and one last chance to go north and explore the barren headlands of Eshaness and around. Yesterday's foul weather had departed, and under clear skies we started birding at Veensgarth which is up near Tingwall, so kind of in the middle. Our target was a
Little Bunting in a small weedy patch with various bushes and a burn running through it, and where a visiting birder called Cliff had also seeded a small area. We had tried this area before with no joy, plenty of Sparrows and a few Redpoll, but no small cinnamony Buntings. That was also the case today, albeit that we did find a Reed Bunting.

We dropped in at Busta seeing as we were passing and birded the hotel's walled garden which was quieter than I can ever remember it. In years past we have had all sorts in here, but nothing this time even though we gave it a bit of time. One of those thermal imaging things would have been useful! Onwards!

Gradually we left the 'populated' bits of Shetland and got into the proper wilds. Not many people live up this way, and you can see why - a bleak but beautiful landscape of short grass and rock. At Tangwick Haa we explored the small garden near the museum - a few Chaffinches, but a real surprise was an eclipse drake Pintail in flight over the bay which we relocated a short while later hunkered down on the side of one of the many small lochans that dot the area.

After some snacks near the lighthouse we started to admire the scenery. One of the team decided to mess about with a small panther. This state of calm was shattered by Howard shouting something about ceteceans which got lost in the wind. The next shout was louder and clearer - Orca! A proper OMG moment as the team converged just north of the lighthouse and started looking out to the west. I've seen Orca once before of Shetland, but in retrospect that was a pretty ropey view off Scatness. By contrast this was amazing - at about a half mile range a pod of eight animals were slowly making their way north - a large male with several other adults, and probably two calves. Signal is so-so at Eshaness but we managed to get the news out, and as the pod remained in view for about 45 minutes a number of people managed to get up, including Donald and his dog who we seemed to bump into most days. As we were watching the pod a Sooty Shearwater glided through my scope southbound, a Shetland tick for all of us. Gradually the pod moved further out, and we reverted to plan A, heading down the short grassy slope to walk our traditional route around the shallow lochan where Pete put up a hoped-for Snow Bunting, and some Twite buzzed around. What a good decision it had been to come up this way.

We had lunch overlooking Ronas Voe, where Howard picked out a Common Scoter in with one of the Eider rafts, but none of the mega gardens along the road had much going on. Around the corner at Voe, the garden and plantations at the head of the loch had a Spotted Flycatcher and a Blackcap, and at the end of the road at Isbister a walk around the farm and cottages produced a handful of thrushes and a nice flock of Goldies. We quickly stopped in at Loch of Flugarth where we found some Pink-feet and another Slav, but our final mission of the day was on Collafirth Hill where we hoped that we might stumble across the Snowy Owls that may or may not live there.

This is an incredible Cairngorm-esque landscape of boulders, diminutive alpine plants and bog that stretches across the top of north mainland, from Ronas Voe in the west to Houssetter and Isbister in the east. There are no paths to speak of, but you can drive up a short track to a radio mast to start your walk. We headed out north-west to a ridge where we hoped to be able to scope a vast area as dusk approached. We did manage a short session, during which the only bird we found was a Wren, but then the cloud descended and the birding day was over. We navigated back to the car using GPS and contour lines, hearing Snow Bunting and Red Grouse in the mist. So Snowy Owls might be there, or they might not, and after our short visit this remains inconclusive. If they are there then they have a magnificent place in which to live - barren and untouched, and highly likely to remain so.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Shetland 2021 - Day 6

Another weather day.....  The morning was spent indoors mooching and drinking tea. This was OK, I mean it is still a holiday so why not just chill out, it's not like we had to work on spreadsheets or write essays is it? And it beat the alternative hands down, which was being soaked to the skin by an incessant wind-blasted rain that did not let up until lunchtime. 

After lunch we skipped down south to St Ninian's and then Spiggie in order to bolster our trip list. This was a great success with Goldeneye, Slavonian Grebe, and both Coot and Moorhen. A Black-tailed Godwit was an unusual sight in a stubble field otherwise populated by Rock Doves.

At Papil we greedily ticked Gadwall, a rare bird in these parts, and then in an effort to get rid of the peat from my trouser and boots after yesterday's incident I decided to fall into a harbour. This was almost a huge disaster - walking down a slipway to try and get lower and closer to a Black Guillemot I lost my grip and started sliding upright gracefully towards the water. There was nothing I could do, but I had the presence of mind to gently lay my camera on the slipway above me before I slid in. Luckily that stayed put, but I collapsed in a partially submerged heap and got a partial soaking whilst ripping a few shreds in my waterproof trousers and coat. Life buoys were not required thankfully, and I was able to pick my way back to safety, retrieve my camera, and go and clean up again in a nearby public toilet. Eau de bog was replaced by Eau de seaweed, and we returned home via a Common Rosefinch at Hamnavoe (NB there are thousands of Hamnavoes on Shetland but this is the one just beyond Trondra on the west side of the Mainland).

And that was the day, very limited birding for all of us, and for me a bit of a flirt with disaster. To soothe my shattered nerves we splashed out some hot smoked salmon and other nibbles washed down with Bourgogne chardonnay.

Monday 25 October 2021

Shetland 2021 - Day 5

The day started with low cloud in Hoswick, and an early walk was damp and uninspiring, despite a rainbow that indicated promise. We sought out better weather further south, first wandering around fields above Brake which was very birdy. Loads of Rock Doves (up here the real deal), tons of Skylarks, Twite and Chaffinch, an out of place Rock Pipit, and in a small quarry at the end of the track a very damp and rather friendly Northern Wheatear. The first Fulmars of the trip were seen gliding around the cliffs to the east.

With H for dramatic scale

At Quendale we picked out some more Great Northern Divers with a Red-throated congener in the Bay, and a small flock of Sanderling scurried along the beach. At the Mill there was another Wheatear, and thankfully Bradders did not flog us up the valley and instead took us to Geosetter, one of my favourite spots that always looks rare. Today it was common, a Pied Flycatcher the best bird.

Pied Flycatcher

Rustic Bunting #3

Heading north we stopped again at Kergord as the Rusting Bunting from the previous day had been relocated in one the plantations south of the road. This gave itself up quite easily, though was only seen perched very briefly. Always a great bird to see, and just my third after my first on Unst and then the bird on Wanstead Flats found by Nick in 2018. In fact this was something of a theme for Shetland this year, only one new life bird but a second (WB Diver), lots of thirds (Greater Yellowlegs, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Bonelli's Warbler, OBP, Radde's Warbler) and a fourth (Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll) - so these are birds that on average I see once every five years at best, and if this isn't an indication of quality then what is?

We swung by Nesting Bay briefly so that Pete could catch up White-billed Diver and are treated to an incredible Merlin flyby. I didn't have the camera ready so it went unrecorded, but trust me it was sensational. More recently I've been more birder and less photographer. Partly I'm really enjoying birding without the drag of a camera, but also my main camera broke over the summer and I've yet to get it fixed - normally I would do this as part of the morning commute into London. This year that doesn't really exist. I took its predecessor up to Shetland, the now venerable Canon 1D mk IV, and whilst it is still a perfectly fine camera that I took hundreds of lovely photos with back in the day, somehow it now feels old, tired and distinctly low-res and clunky. Instead I ended up using my toy camera almost the whole time, a much more snazzy and modern Canon 80D, but one that is far less intuitively good at taking bird photos with, and much much noisier than my 1DX. The compromises were too much for me with the result that it stayed in the car quite a lot of the time. For Pete, who if separated from his camera for more than about five minutes starts to panic, this was almost unbelievably reckless, but there you have it. 

A lovely peat-stained Whooper, one of a family group

Howard photo-bombs another landscape

At Vidlin we were treated to a Greenshank as we drove past a small lochan, which was yet another new Shetland bird, but our real target was a Dusky Warbler at Hamnavoe on Lunna. This wasn't immediately promising with a few people looking and not seeing, but eventually Pete refound it in a small plantation as it flew out calling into a patch of feeding habitat. The rest of us joined him whereupon it promptly flew out again, called once as it did so, and disappeared back into the plantation never to be seen again. Was that worth an hour and a half? Probably not - you see many big lists from Shetland, lots of rare bird news hits the internet, but what you don't know is how many of these are fleeting glimpses, or are just seen by one person and then vanish.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Shetland 2021 - Day 4


The day dawned bright and clear, a real treat on Shetland. We spent the first part of the day properly exploring Hoswick, during which I plunged beyond my boots into a peat bog and had to return home to try and clean up as best I could. This wasn't very effective and for the rest of the day a persistent eau-de-bog aroma could be detected in the car. And all for a poxy Jack Snipe, unlike me too light to sink. I need one of those thermal camera thingys that birders are beginning to use up here - rather than wade through habitat you just point it at ditches, plantations, bogs etc and it shows where the birds are. Ok so that white blob in the viewfinder might be a Wren, and you'll have to go and find it to be sure, but the real advantage is when nothing at all shows and you have just saved yourself a tiresome slog, and potentially also a soaking.

News of a Lanceolated Warbler on Unst pulled us away from Hoswick. Not in a tyre-screeching  way, but in a "let's head north a bit just in case" kind of way. Three of were reasonably relaxed having seen this elusive and often confusing species before, we were also a little sceptical at this stage based on past experiences of "Lanceolated Warbler" found by people we had never heard of. Pete however still needs it (note tense) and was chomping at the bit to go for it. Our quandry was solved by Nick and Claire being a few minutes behind us and offering him a lift up there, and so reluctantly we split up, passing him a Double Decker in case it did turn out to be one.

Howard, DB and I continued to Fladdibister where we put up a Lapland Bunting, the only one of the trip, and at Wadbister a search for a previously reported Shetland tick in the form of a Black-throated Diver netted two, along with the long-staying King Eider again. 

Siskin, Kergord

Continuing up towards Nesting we were diverted from scanning the sea by news of a Rustic Bunting close by at Kergord. This had done a runner by the time we arrived, but in looking for it Bradders stumbled on a Radde's Warbler, possibly a better bird in a Shetland context. This  initially proved extremely elusive in what was not a particularly big plantation (not the main wood), but eventually gave itself up. The biggest issue was that you could not freely walk around the whole perimeter, and of course the bird showed right on the corner just around from where me, Howard, DB, and Donald W were standing. We could see the people watching it just a few metres away, hear their camera shutters pounding, yet were about a million miles away from seeing it ourselves, we might as well have been in the next valley. Donald and I threw decorum to the wind and hurtled around the plantation, arriving just in time to get views of it as it worked its way along the top side and then slunk back in. A lovely bright bird, beautiful, and what a super!

First views...

With the bird confirmed and details of people who had photos taken we went back to the coast and continued where we had left off. Great Northern Diver was our target, and at our second stop we immediately picked out three birds together off Skellister. Howard called one as having summer plumage, and it did indeed look much more dark and contrasty than the other two. Once we had our scopes up it also looked a bit..... wait a minute. I think it was Bradders who said "Er, look at the one on the right!" but we already were. Ooof! A summer-plumaged White-billed Diver! The team had already found one of these in Northumberland on the way up, a party I was sad to have missed, but I was here for this one. My various crappy records shot do it no justice whatsoever, but this bird was a stunner. News travels fast on Shetland, and with so many birders nearby looking for the Kergord birds it was not long before more people arrived. We got these arrivals onto the birds, now slightly more distant, and moved on feeling very pleased with ourselves.


Our last stop was at Swining, a lovely house surrounded by a mature garden. We dug another Yellow-browed Warbler out here, but the real prize went to the dog Otter that more or less swam up to us on the shore of the voe, not spotting us at all, and only became aware of our presence upon hearing my camera shutter. It looked quickly in our direction, and slipped back into the sea.

So quite the day, and a shame that Pete had not been there for the exciting bits. The Lancy had slightly predictably turned into a Gropper by the time he got to Unst, more disappointingly there had been photos that could have been published and saved people the trip. Still, he had seen a very showy Bluethoat, a Little Bunting and a Ring-necked Duck, and scooped the Radde's on the way home, so ultimately had seen more rare birds than we had, only missing the Diver which would no doubt still be present for the rest of the week.

Day 4

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Shetland 2021 - Day 3

We birded a few sites on south Mainland all morning with no great expectations. Always wise on Shetland. A few Flycatchers were the best of the bunch, including a very showy Spotted Flycatcher and quite a friendly Red-breasted one. Later we turned up a Yellow-browed Warbler at a different site, but only the briefest glimpses were had - this species was really scarce this visit. In years gone by you could have guaranteed one almost everywhere you look - not in 2021. I think I came away with three birds in eight days, a very poor showing.

With little happening we twitched and dipped another Western Bonelli's Warbler, and then along with every other birder on Shetland headed to Brae where a relatively long-staying Red-eyed Vireo was leading people a merry dance up and down a thin strip of woodland. I got flight glimpses in an open space before realising that the best views were going to require patience and sitting down in one spot and letting the bird come past me. This paid dividends pretty quickly, with three passes in under an hour, but the views were still frustratingly poor. Only when I moved spots did I then get a more prolonged look but even so this remains one of the briefest ticks I have ever had, and zero chance of a photo.

This twitch ate up most of the afternoon, and with few options we headed down south towards our digs, throwing away more time in search of an elusive Bluethroat at Wester Quarff, getting only brief views of Barred Warbler in a known-to-be unfriendly garden before wisely moving on. We then arrived just minutes too late to see a much showier Red-eyed Vireo in Sandwick - after entertaining birders all afternoon it had flipped over a hedge and gone to roost. And was never seen again.

Here's the list - a day of brief encounters, but one where I got a new bird for my sluggish UK list - this happens very infrequently as I hardly ever twitch long-distance any more and everything I need seems to turn up in Northumberland and Yorkshire rather than in London. To celebrate I prepared an enormous pan of Italian Sausage Pasta, one of just three dishes I know how to cook, and which seemed to be well received. By that I mean all the recipients immediately fell into a stupor from which they did not recover that evening. Another early night.