Thursday 19 December 2013

Marsh Harriers

I have just been looking back through this years notes and again picked up on a superb day on Fetlar. With a couple of bus tours led by Martin Gardner and Gary Bell and a few other cars on the ferry we soon lost them as we decided to go direct to Loch of Funzie. Typically over the last couple of years the Red Necked Phalaropes were not coming out to play, so instead we turned our attention to the Three Red Throated Divers over the far side of the Loch. An Artic Skua was constantly dive bombing them so they must have brought back food, perhaps a sand eel.

Moving on a Whimbrel landed close by and call, which drew our attention to 5 snow buntings feeding opposite the lay by, as it turned out these were Siberian Snow buntings (Later identified by Martin Gardner), a number of Dunlin also fed in the same area with a couple of Golden Plover.

After some great views we made our way over to the hide on the mires of Funzie, just in time as it started to rain. Not much on except a number of Snipe so after a good scan around we made our way back to the car and down to the Brough Lodge in the hope of seeing an Otter. I just got out of the car to get my Telephoto lens out and saw a large bird of Prey coming in off the sea in the fog. As it approached it could be clearly seen as a male Marsh Harrier, it passed straight over head and then close to the lodge was mobbed by Hoddie Crows. After evading them it moved off North to be lost in the mist and although both tour mini buses came round the corner at that time they failed to see it. Good job I managed to get a few photos, shown in an earlier blog

This is not the first time we have seen Marsh Harriers in Shetland during our spring visits, on two other occasions we also saw individual birds at Loch of Spiggie. Birds of prey of any kind are not common in Shetland as only Merlin breed with the occasional Peregrine. Most birds in Shetland arrive in May , 2012 didn't prove very good but back in 2011 several May birds were present in Unst, Fetlar and the mid- mainland. This bird is still a very scarce bird in the northern isles.

I remember when Marsh Harriers was down to only 1 pair of breeding birds, in Suffolk back in 1971, but thankfully they have recovered to such an extent that you can see them at most reed bed sites. One of the best near to us is at Goole, Blacktoft Sands where in winter around 30 birds gather to roost, a great sight. Another good spot is in the Camargue when back in 1990 we saw 33 birds in the air at once as we scanned left to right.

There seems to be plenty of food in the reed beds, and several times we have seen them catch rats, even doing a handover in mid air which was a superb sight.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Little Egrets

It still seem odd seeing Little Egrets  in Shetland where they seem out of place, well for now. There has been a massive expansion of Little Egrets in the UK. They bred in Britain for the first time in 1996 and never looked back, the BTO has estimated a massive 16, 350% increase since then. Its good to see that some birds are on the up.

Its very easy to recognise with its all white plumage and yellow feet. It can be found beside water, marshy areas and even on the coast. It is very numerous in France and we have seen many all over but especially in the Camargue where massive heroines occur. At one site over 250 pairs could be seen along with other herons such as Night Heron, Grey heron and Cattle egrets. Very noisy but will live in my memory for along time.

The most I have seen in one place in England is down at Frampton Marsh where 28 could be seen together, more local to Sheffield birds are often seen at Old Moor Wetlands (RSPB), Rothervalley Country Park, Potteric Carr at Doncaster and odd birds elsewhere.

In Shetland we first came across one bird at Loch of Spiggie many years ago, but Shetland has a habit of turning up Mediterranean species. I doubt whether they would breed in Shetland as they nest in trees, which are rarer than the birds. You never know though, you could find them at Kergord or Halligarth (Unst) in 20 or so year time, keep your eyes open they are hard to miss

The other week one bird turned up in Unst, they can be found any time April - December and have been seen over 20 times in the isles.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Shetland Blackbirds

While Blackbirds may not come top of most birders lists they are an important species in Shetland. With only around 70 regular breeding species it is one of the top five most seen birds. Very few records are submitted to the Shetland bird Club so you can make a difference by sending in your records.Recent estimate tend to be around 2000 pairs throughout Shetland and increasing. Interestingly most birds are found around human habitation, breeding around crofts, in villages and towns

I love to hear Blackbirds in song, its a great sign of spring and birds usually start singing around early February in Shetland although  they tend to sing less that those on the British mainland. Song posts such as telegraph  poles, wires and tops of buildings are frequently used.

I have found  a few birds nesting in rabbit holes, this may be unusual but they are away from any predators such as the passing Skua. With very few bushes to nest in most are found nesting in buildings with open access  They seem fairly successful and i have seen young at many sites, even on the cliffs at Sumburgh.

Come Autumn migrant Blackbirds arrive in force generally in October and November and fly in with other thrushes such as Redwing and Fieldfare. Sometimes hundreds of blackbirds can be seen which is always an impressive sight. Birds ringed in Shetland have been recovered from Norway, Iceland , Finland, Germany, France and even one in Spain.

Most of the food is collected on the ground although they do love a berry so those planted in gardens become very attractive when the ground is hard with frost or snow. They face competition from the more aggressive Fieldfare and even the occasion Waxwing if conditions are right.

Cats seem to take there toll on numbers and with many feral cats in Shetland it may be a big problem. The traffic is not the problem as it is in Sheffield, many birds are killed as they fly low across roads, although I gather that some are now learning to fly higher to pass over such dangers

Thursday 31 October 2013


Shetland can boast of five different species of diver visiting its shores. Just before we arrived in Shetland this May, a Pacific diver was seen at Grutness. Previously a few have been seen down south of the coast of Cornwall but this is a rare diver.

Black Throated Divers are very rare as well in Shetland again with only the odd bird seen mostly in Winter

Shetland is also one of the best places to see White Billed Divers with a few each year. These  can occur during the winter or spring but most April to June and this species is normally  found breeding in the Arctic. Bluemull sound and Kirkabister are regular places these birds turn up. Our only sighting was back in 2003 when one turn up at the end of May on Fetlar.

One of my favorite birds is the Gt Northern Diver, its a classy bird, with bold black and white markings and a large beak. Although larger numbers are seen in winter there are always a good number summering around Shetland and most years we see several birds some of which are in superb summer plumage.

This year we got the closest views ever  with the adult plumage bird at Scalloway marina which was very confiding and gave excellent  views.

It always seem to do a circuit ending up close to the boats. Other close views of adult birds have occurred at Grutness on a few occasions and Scatness, on Fetlar and Unst. The largest flock in June was 5 at South Nesting several year ago, but all these were immature birds.

We when first visited Shetland in 1987, Red Throated Divers seem to be on every loch, but like most birds that rely on sand-eels they have declined although with a closer look you can still find them on waters and the sea throughout the islands.

They nest on small peaty lochs where an island is used for nesting.  Breeding success seems to have been better in 2012 than the previous year although water level were down due to the lack of rain at some regular breeding lochs

Shetland has been blessed by a number of very rare birds which has created a massive interest in the birding world. The highlight is the Cape May Warbler , only the second for northern Europe and the first twitch able since 1977. This was found by Mike Pennington on Unst and within days over 200 twitchers descended on Unst, some by ferry and the more wealthy by plane, with 11 planes landing directly on Unst. 

Friday 11 October 2013

Shetland House Sparrow

While everyone is out chasing rare birds, just give a thought to the more common birds such as the House Sparrow. Back in the 1980's I have a very interesting chat with a person who just chased rare birds, he had no time for the common ones, he had seen one so why look again !

Common birds are really the bread and butter of birding, yes Shetland turns up many rare birds and they are worth going to see, a vast amount of information is collected on these. Just stop a minute and check out the recent Shetland Bird reports and you will see the words, ` very little data received' or there may be a few comments, but people don't see the need to record information on this or other common birds.

Go on to say 2050, house sparrows are in decline in most places, they have become the rare bird !!!
Take London where sparrows have declined by around 68% in the last 17 years. No clear cut information is available but several theories have been put forward such as:
A chemical additive in `environmentally friendly fuel' , cats, magpies and Sparrowhawks

Nationally the BTO has studied the problems , a 71 % overall decline since 1971. Farmland sparrow are fairly well understood, but urban one not so much
Again they give five main reasons 1. Loss of favorable food 2. increased predation 3. loss of nest sites 4. Increased pollution and 5.increased levels of disease.

In Shetland the population seems OK, and it is always a joy to hear the short chirping call, or the males aggressive trilling. Without proper research  while numbers may look alright, how do we really know. We need to provide alot more information to the Shetland Bird Club , or see the work of a group in Skeld, Shetland by visiting

They are catching and ringing sparrows to check distribution and numbers in the area. Keep up the good work. Why not start by recording how many sparrows come into your garden during the week, its a great way to make a contribution without much effort and everyone can do it.

Any counts are important , while walking along the shore line at Virkie I recorded a maximum of 214 House sparrows over five walks. Back home in Sheffield, we had no house sparrows in our first garden for 6 years before moving to another house in the south side of Sheffield. Because we are the only house to have a bush this is used for nesting and sheltering, without this we wouldn't have any !!, so even a small area can make a difference.

Its near relative the Tree Sparrow is a rare breeder and is usually best seen either late April or May in very small numbers . In recent years autumn passage is light with only the odd bird present September - November

Friday 4 October 2013

Great week

Shetland has certainly come up with the goods again this Autumn and its barely started. This week a Hudsonian Curlew ,  Brown Shrike a recent Baltimore Oriole, Pechora Pipits, Little Bunting, Artic Warbler and Artic Redpoll could be seen. Its not a season we have visited Shetland so we are looking forward to the time we are able to get to see the whole season and see what turns up.

One thing that is always impressive is any large flock of birds. This time Snow Buntings, possibly around 3000 birds at present with 1500 in one flock in Unst. What a sight this must be, the largest one I have seen was 70 and that was impressive.

 They look like little snow flakes and the fly past. Having already seen Snow Buntings in breeding plumage , including a group from Siberia on Fetlar, I will be looking forward to a trip- 70 miles + to the coast to try and find some, looks like a good year. This is the only problem being so far away from the sea. Occasionally the odd Snow Bunting turns up on the Derbyshire Moors but these are difficult to find. The coastal birds always seem very confiding.

It was good to hear about the ruling on the Viking wind farm on Wednesday, the campaign group Sustainable Shetland are claiming a major victory against the Scottish Government when a judge quashed the decision to grant consent to Viking Energy to erect 103 wind turbines across central Shetland. Parties will have 21 days to appeal against the decision.

                                                                Good news for Whimbrel

I received the Shetland bird report 2012 this week and as usual it is superb, with some great photos and detailed accounts on the birds recorded its a must to buy. Copies can be obtained from Rob Fray , Sunnydell, Virkie, Shetland ZE3 9JS. I do like the more detailed reports on how the seabirds are doing, most unfortunately are not doing well again

Friday 27 September 2013


Mute swan

Its hard to imagine an area without Mute swans, but it wasn't until 1992 that Mute Swan nested in Shetland, on the Loch of Tingwall. This was after an arrival of  birds over a period 1970 to 1992. Back in the early 1900's 4 attempts were made to introduce Mute Swans to Shetland, with birds brought up from Orkney, but these were wiped out when men returning from the WW1 shot all 10 birds.

Birds now usually breed each years with varying success. In 2011 six pairs nested but only 3 pairs were successful all of these in the west mainland. The previous year 12 pairs nested but little information is available on their success.

While mute swans are now common throughout the UK, I can remember when only one pair nested in the Sheffield area, and while they were successful one of the adults was shot by an air gun but somehow managed to survive. Birds at this time were suffering from lead poisoning from ingested lead shot from fishing., thankfully this doesn't happen now.

Whooper Swan

This is a bird I have always liked, a true wild bird that from 1994 has bred in small numbers throughout Shetland. Chicks fledged in 6 out of 8 years between 1994-2000. Some birds are very territorial and conflict occurs with mute swans trying to nest in the same area. In 2011 9 pairs bred of which 5 raised young. The best year was in 2009 when 8 pairs raised 23 young, which was also the best year for Mute swans as well which raised  16 young from 9 pairs. Shetland has around 50% of the UK breeding population

In November the Shetland Bird Club organises a survey to record how many birds arrive in Shetland. Counts in the past reveal that numbers of birds in Shetland have declined from the 1980's when as many as 300+ birds arrived, now counts of around 200 or less are the norm. Birds don't stay around long and start to move on in December when food starts becoming scarce

For me the sound of incoming Whooper swans means that winter has arrived.