The unsound approach

'Frontier' birding on the Celtic Fringe

Foula 21 September – 5th October 2012

Team: Dan Brown, Paul R French, Bill Aspin, Gav Thomas, Garry Taylor (also on island: Andrew Greave, Kevin Shepherd, Keith ?, Geoff & Donna Arterton, Ken Shaw)

Finding rares on Shetland in autumn is as easy as putting a hat on” or so it was once said. Turns out in 2012 that statement wasn’t far wrong; but only when the weathers right! The first six days on Foula shelled out no less than 7 description birds - not a bad. The next eight days delivered hideous westerly based winds, frequent monsoonal downpours and a periodic gripping texts from the likes of Fair Isle, Unst, Cork and Galway - bad! Still I think we can hobble away pretty happy.

Foula is not for the faint-hearted. Firstly there aren’t any cafes on the island. Secondly you will go home broken in every possible way if you actually work it as hard as it needs working; and thirdly you have to deal with daily avian controversy ranging from single-shot snipe to fly-over Blyth’s Pipits and flight-only Blyth;s Reed Warblers. Foula is the polar opposite to a stroll around Titchwell (thank god). At least if it all gets too much you can throw yourself off the highest sheer cliff in the UK, and hope your final sighting is this…. or this….

Its difficult to summarise two weeks on Foula succinctly but needless to say that emotion went from stratospherically high in light south-easterlies, to  the bottom of the last Tennents can during howling south-westerlies. The first six days proved to be some of the best birding of my life. The timing was perfect. The previous week had only produced a Buff-breasted Sand, and with the winds swinging to a light SE we knew we’d be in for a treat.

Saturday dawned clear, sunny and amazingly warm, and with this the scarcities descended: 24 Yellow-browed Warblers, a probable Blyth’s Reed Warbler (later confirmed), a Marsh Warbler, a Barred Warbler, a Bluethroat, a Common Rosefinch, and a Wryneck., not to mention three ‘eastern’ Lesser Whitethroats. Given that the first Yellow-brow only arrived in the UK the day before, this total is pretty significant especially as it’s a considerable underestimate (maybe as many as 50 on the island!). With this deluge of scarce to fire us up we were prepared for all hell to break lose!

 

 

The next four days became a blur of BB rares and excitement.  Sunday, more sun, and an air of great expectation. PF started the day very well by discovering a Red-breasted Fly with a couple of Pied Fly’s and Willow Warblers on the cliffs next to Ristie. Yellow-broweds were still much in evidence and a couple graced the ‘garden’ at Ristie. Mid-morning and it was time to ramp up the standard.

Having birded Harrier we headed south to Burns before continuing onwards towards Ham. A small derelict croft to the west of the road was next on the hit list of sites to check. As I approached Gossa Meadow a bird in flight caught my attention on the far side of the croft before dropping into the wet grassland and iris beds. Before I could bin it up, it took flight again and through bins I immediately caught the stunning underwing pattern of a Catharus thrush! I radioed the rest of the team knowing that they were just over the brow of the hill on the road. The bird ditched again before immediately carrying on over a low rise and out of sight. 

Sprinting across the bog I found the thrush clinging to the top wire of the fence. Swinging the DSLR round I got some shots off. the warm buffy facial tones rendering it a Swainson’s. Radioing the news straight through. PF quickly arrived alongside me to enjoy great views of the bird which had now moved 30m further down the fence. The remaining crew binned and ‘scoped the bird from further back before it took flight and headed away across the moor.

Garry Taylor relocated the bird down the burn half an hour later before it took flight again and headed out across the moor. A further half an hour later the bird was finally pinned down to Da Loch croft where it remained around the derelict building and associated road and ditch giving excellent views for the rest of the day.

PF's image

Elated with this DB, PF & KS then decided to head down to Hametoun Burn where an Acro KS had found had been proving elusive, the intention, to nail the little bugger. Before we could even start a flush the radio’s crackled into life with AG’s voice; “Interesting Hippo at Braidfit”. The Acro flush was suspended and we shot up the track to Braidfit. On arrival we split up and whilst AG & I were chatting the Hippo appeared in front of us.  A few seconds later the bird gave full views; AG turned to me and asked what my opinion was – a cracking Sykes’s! This concurred with his thoughts. Seconds later PF was on the scene and independently agreed. The bird then moved into a small paddock where KS connected with it and also immediately agreed. A very satisfying morning and a great find by AG! The following day the bird was re-found by DA up in Ham harbour where it stayed for a further seven days!

To finish the day off we headed back down to Hametoun to complete what we never started on the Acro. Re-locating the bird was one thing, but getting views of the bird in anything other than flight was impossible and we finally left with a handful of ropey images of what was almost certainly a Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

24th September was again a beautiful day and I decided to head up the north bank. By the time I reached the western edge of the north bank I had failed to locate anything of interest, and felt a sudden desire to ascend The Snueg up one of the steepest sections of slopes. Whilst suffering from a minor heart attack during the ascent I took a breather about 30m from the top of the ridge separating Da Sneug and Da Kame (the highest sheer cliffs in the UK). As I sat down the distinctive notes of a distant large pipit rang through and without thinking I radioed the bird out as a Richard’s as it flew towards me. Immediately after putting the message out the bird passed overhead still calling and my mind reeled back through Mongolia and Goa over the last year, to Mid-Wales several years previously and I immediately realised my mistake as the Blyth’s Pipit dropped down over the ridge.

Through the bins as well as obviously being a larger pipit, the tail was noticeably shorter than I’d expect from a Richards and spot on for a Blyth’s Pipit. The bird touched down on over the ridge and I bolted up just as it took flight, calling, and headed west over a shallow ridge never to be seen or heard again. I searched extensively over the entire area but without any success. The bird called eight or nine times before vanishing. The next few hours saw me zig-zagging the western slopes in search of the bird, but still no joy. By the time I final dropped down to the Sneck to join PF I was a broken  and disappointed man.

Concurrently to all this happening GT and WA located a cracking OBP up in Harrier which we later relocated in the roadside ditch at dusk.

The Sneck, a very narrow gully, had concentrated a fair selection of common migrants including a Yellow-browed and a couple of Pied Fly’s but nothing of note so we hacked back across Da Daal and into Hametoun. A quick check revealed the Blyth’s Reed still present.

Another day and another BB. The potential seemed limitless and we set out again in high hopes. Making the most of our man-power we lined up to tackle the iris beds at Ham. First sweep nothing. Second sweep and a plain, monotone, almost pallid Acro flushed from under us. The views were incredibly brief but it looked interesting. The second flush and the bird bolted before ditching, partially obscured, on the grassy bank across the bank. Everything looked good for a Blyth’s Reed. A few more flushes and PF managed to secure the necessary flight shots that nailed the bird 100% as a BRW – fantastic! KS then radioed up to say the BRW at Hametoun was also still present, so two on the island (the commonest Acro of the autumn on Foula, followed by Marsh Warbler).

 

By 26th things were starting to slow up a little and we felt like we were searching for just one or two birds. We kept the effort up though and once again it paid off. This time DB and PF kicked a plain-backed pipit from the canary grass close to Da Punds. Another flush and the OBP revealed itself in full glory. The only question now was whether this and the Harrier bird were the same. Scrutiny of the images later revealed they were in fact different, excellent, another BB! This latter bird loitered in the area for a further five days but proved remarkably elusive.

 

From 27th onwards everything started slowing up and we were desperately in need of a break. New birds were becoming increasingly difficult to locate and my attention turned to the local Eider flock. On the 28th careful scrutiny of the Eiders revealed 2-3 apparent Northern Eiders (s..m.borealis) increasing to 4 by 1st October. There’ll be more on these beauties in due course, that way you can chose whether or not you want to waste your precious time reading about Eider ID!

The onset of howling westerlies wasn’t entirely disastrous and we used the opportunity for some habitat creation, cue the appearance of Loch Ristie. Its just a shame the Stilt Sand didn’t drop in whilst we were there. We also used the poor weather to prepare tens of Tennents cans for recycling, as well as come to a mutual consensus as to who has the best tits in the UK!

ecosystem engineering

Frenchy and Garry checking out the tits – BBRC (British Breasts Rating committee)

The birding continued with Gav and Bill  showing us softies the art of hard graft in the face of adversity and frequent dowsing of cold rain.  On 2nd October a small breakthrough occurred when DB and PRF flushed a scarily grey snipe from the Hametoun marsh. The bird gave three fly-bys and was also independently seen by GavT and KS both of who agreed it looked interesting. Unfortunately we failed to get any shots (you’d think we’d be more professional by now!).

The following day we headed back down to the marsh in an attempt to relocate it. In an effort to prepare for the moment it flushed I started shooting at any snipe that went up in front of me. One such bird allowed me to get three shots of it. Unbelievably, on reviewing the images the second shot was pretty sharp and revealed a solidly barred underwing – eeek! I showed PRF and he agreed that it looked very interesting indeed. The downside was that neither of us actually looked at it and the bird had disappeared over the hill. Over the following couple of hours we reviewed the image again and managed to facebook a picture out to Micky Maher who subsequently forwarded it to Roger Riddington and Paul Harvey for comment. We organized a complete flush of the marsh mid-afternoon but failed to see the bird, or the grey bird from the day before again.

That evening with the image on the computer and more comments from Martin Garner and Ash Fisher we further analysed the bird. All comments looked favourably on the wing pattern though the general consensus of opinion was that this bird needed to be seen again. A task that was never fulfilled. So this is what I have…

Have a think and I’ll deal with a full analysis of this bird in the very near future.

So rather than going out with a bang and an Eastern Kingbird, it ended with a slight hangover and a controversial snipe- hmmmmm!

So the full breakdown…

Daily Log

21 September  – NNW 1-2, dry and sunny.

Highlights: Lapland Bunts, Snow Bunts, islandica Redpolls.

22 September  - variable 0-1, Sunny, warm, and still.

Highlights: 24+ Yellow-browed Warbler, Barred Warbler, Bluethroat, Marsh Warbler, Common Rosefinch, Wryneck, prob Blyth’s Reed Warbler

23 September – SE 3-4 scattered cloud and sunny spells, cool

Highlights: Swainson’s Thrush, Sykes’s Warbler, 14+ Yellow-browed Warbler, Barred Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, prob Blyth’s Reed Warbler

24 September – SE veering ENE 2-5 , bright and sunny with scattered cloud.

Highlights: Blyth’s Pipit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Sykes’s Warbler, Olive-backed Pipit, Richard’s Pipit, 7 Yellow-browed Warblers, Barred Warbler, Rosefinch.

25th September – NE 6 decreasing 3-4, overcast with occasional sunny spells, cool.

Highlights: Sykes’s Warbler, 2 Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Richard’s Pipit, 3 Yellow-browed Warblers, Rosefinch.

26th September – NE veering NNE then NW 4 decreasing 2, dry and overcast but cool

Highlights: Olive-backed Pipit, Sykes’s Warbler, Richards’s pipit, 3 Yellow-browed Warbler, Rosefinch,

27th September – NW veering SW 1 -2 (3), bright and sunny becoming overcast at 1700, rain 1830 onwards.

Highlights: Sykes’s Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Richard’s Pipit, Rosefinch, 3 Yellow-browed Warblers, 1 Ring Ouzel.

28th September – W veering SW 4-5 inc 5-6 (7) heavy showers in am becoming dry in pm. Cool.

Highlights: Sykes’s Warbler, 2+ Northern Eider, Richards Pipit, 1 large Pipit.

29th September -  WNW 5-6 (7) frequent heavy showers interspersed with occasional sunny spells, cold.

Highlights: Sykes’s Warbler, Olive-backed Pipit, , 2+ Northern Eider, Richard’s Pipit, Glauc,, 2 Yellow-browed Warblers.

30th September – SW 3-6, occasional heavy showers in am becoming dry in pm. cool.

Highlights: Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Richards Pipit, Northern Eider, Sooty Shear, inc in Snow Bunts

1st October – SW 4-7, occasional heavy showers interspersed wit sunny spells, cool.

Highlights: Sykes’s Warbler, Richards Pipit, 4 Northern Eider, Sooty Shear

2nd October – SW 5 dec to 2 thru day. Heavy showers in am becoming bright and sunny. Cool.

Highlights: Little Bunting, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 1 Yellow-browed Warbler

3rd October – S 1 veering NW 6 by afternoon, heavy rain over lunch, cold.

Highlights: controversial Snipe

4th October – grim, wet and windy.

Highlights: 63 cans of Tennents

5th October – SW 0-2, sunny and bright and dry, cool.

Highlights: arriving back in civilisation

Migrant Haul

Whooper Swan – 3 on Mill Loch (21/9), 4 (22/9), 3 (24/9-2/10), 5 (3-5/10)

Greylag – 25 on 21, 14 on (22/9), present there after, 28 (24-26/9), 34 (27/9), 30+ (28/9), 45 (29/9), 17 (30/9), 55 (1/10), 100+(3/10)

Barnacle Goose – 91 in three flocks (2, 40, 49) (26/9), 1+ (27/9)

Wigeon/Teal/Mallard – present

Tufted Duck – 1 fem Mill Loch (1-3/10)

Red-breasted Merganser – 1 north (25/9)

Eider – 1 borealis type reported (24/9), 65 Ham (25/9), 70+ of which 2+ borealis type at Kinglya, 118 inc 2+ borealis Kinglya (29/9), 1+ borealis nr Kinglya, also 1 possible south of Ham (total 156 birds) (30/9), 167 inc 3-4 borealis (1/10)

Long-tailed Duck – 1 fem Ham Harbour (2/10)

Sooty Shearwater – 1 past South Ness KS (29/9), 1 north of Ristie (30/9), 1 Stremness (1/10), 1 Ristie (2/10)

Blue Fulmar – 1 Ristie (30/9). 2 Ristie (2/10), 2 (4/10)

Grey Heron – 1 1st W 21-(23/9), 1 ad (22/9), 1 (24/9), 2 1st W – new birds (26/9), 2 (27/9), 2 inc 1 adult (29/9), 1+ (1/10), 1 (3/10)

Merlin – 1 imm fem (21/9), 1 fem type (27/9), 1 (29/9), 2-3  inc 1st yr male (30/9),  3 (1/10), 3 (2/10), 2 (3/10)

Kestrel – 1 juvenile Sneck (24/9), 1 (26/9)

Ringed Plover – 8 (22/9), 3 (27/9), 5 (28/9), 7 (29/9), 3 (30/9), 11 (1/10)

Golden Plover – 8 (21/9), 33 (22/9), 46 Hametoun (23/9), 41 (27/9), 17 (1/10), 27 (2/10), 51 (3/10)

Lapwing – 13 (21/9), 13 (22/9), 31 (24/9), 33 (26/9), 31 (28/9), 34 (1/10), 25 (2/10), 30 (3/10)

Sanderling – 1 (22-26/9)

Purple Sand – 3 (21/9,) 1 (22/9), 4 (29/9), 6 (30/9)

Dunlin – 2 (22/9 -1/10)

Jack Snipe – 10 (22/9), 2 (24/9), 1 (25/9), 3 (26/9), 3 (27/9), 1 (28/9), 1 (2/10), 4 (3/10)

Snipe – 40 21/9, 100+ (22/9), 50 (2/10), 50 (3/10)

Bar-tailed Godwit – 1 (21-23/9)

Curlew – 11 (21/9), 12 (22/9,) 13 (22/9,) 15 (24/9), 19 (27/9), 16 (28/9), 14 (29/9), 13 (30/9), 9 (1/10), 10 (2/10)

Redshank – 4 (21/9), 2 (22/9), 1 (24/9), 6 (26/9), 3 (28/9), 3 (30/9)

Turnstone – present, 55 (1/10)

Bonxie – still 200 on island, 27/9 – fewer birds on the island today, 28/9 fewer still

Common Gull/Herring Gull/Kitiiwake

Glaucous Gull – 1 juv South Ness KS (29/9)

Guillemot/Razorbill

Wryneck – 1 North Harrier (22/9) DB

Skylark – grey bird reported (27/9) KS, 58+ (28/9), 70 (29/9), 30 (1/10)

Sand Martin – 1 juv South Ness (26/9), 1 Ham (27/9)

House Martin – 1 juv Harrier (26/9)

Richard’s Pipit – 1 Hametoun north slope (24/9) KS, 1 The Manse then Mill Loch (25/9) GT/BA, 1 Ham flying south (26/9), 1 flew north Burns then south past Church  (27/9), 1 still Hametoun (28/9), 1 Hametoun (29/9-30/9)

Large pipit sp – 1 Mucklegrind (28/9) different to Richard’s at south end.

Blyth’s Pipit – 1 Da Kame (24/9) DB

Olive-backed Pipit – 1 Harrier (24/9) GT/BA , 1 Da Punds new bird (26 & 29/9-1/10) DB/PRF,

Tree Pipit – 1 between Niggards and Hametoun Burn (3/10)

Pechora Pipit – the last crackle of the radio before turning it off and boarding the plane indicated that KS may have just located a Pech… to be confirmed (5/10)

White Wagtail -1 (21/9), 1 (26/9), 1 (27/9), 1 (30/9), 1 (2/10), 2 (3/10)

Robin – 1 (22/9), 1 (26/9), 1 (3/10)

Bluethroat – 1 Ham (22/9) KS

Redstart – 1 Braidfit (23/9), 3 (24/9), 1 (25/9)

Whinchat – 1 Ham (22/9), 1 Braidfit (23/9), 1 Hametoun (24/9), 1 Cemetery (26/9), 1 Cemetary (29/9), 1 Braidfit (1/10), 1 Cemetary (2-3/10)

Wheatear – 45 (21/9), 55 (28/9), 40 (30/9), 40 (1/10), 30 (2/10),  15 (3/10)

Swainson’s Thrush – 1 Gossa Meadow and then Da Loch (23/9) DB

Blackbird – 30+ (24/9), 30+ (25/9), 20 (26/9), 50 (28/9), 28 (29/9), 20 (30/9), 20 (1/10), 35 (2/10), 25 (3/10)

Ring Ouzel – 1m (27/9)

Fieldfare – 2 (24/9)

Song Thrush – 4 (24/9), 6 (25/9), 12 (26/9), 15 (27/9), 23 (28/9), 11 (29/9), 15 (1/10), 15 (2/10), 10 (3/10)

Redwing – 7 (24/9), 5b(25/9), 1 (26/9), 2 (27/9), 1 (30/9), 1 (2/10), 2 (3/10)

Marsh Warbler – 1 Niggards (22/9 and previously present but not ID’d) PF/KS

Blyth’s Reed Warbler– Hametoun Burn (22/9 – 2/10) KS, 2 (25/9) 1 Hametoun Burn & 1 Ham Iris bed GT/BA/PRF/DB

Sykes’s Warbler – 1 Braidfit (23/9) AG, same bird Ham river mouth on rocks (24/9-1/10) DA

Blackcap – 1 (23/9), 6 (24/9), 2 (25/9), 3 (26/9), 11 (27/9), 5 (28/9), 4 (29/9), 2 (30/9), 3 (1/10), 8 (2/10), 3 (3/10), 3+ (5/10)

Garden Warbler – 1 nr Burns (22/9), 1 Braidfit, 1 Burns (23/9), 2 (24/9), 2 (3/10)

Barred Warbler – 1 (21-23/9) Ham, new bird? Punds (24/9)

Whitethroat – 1 Freyers (22/9), 1 Niggards (3/10)

Lesser Whitethroat – 1 Ham (21/9), 3 (2 Ham, 1 Burns) (22/9), 1 Hali Niggards , 1 Burns, 1 North Harrier (23/9), 1 curruca Ham (25/9), 2 (27/9)

Chiffchaff – 2 (21/9), 6 (22/9), 1 (23/9), 3 (24/9), 2 (25/9), 4 (26/9), 2 (27/9), 2 (28/9), 1 (29/9), 2 (30/9), 1 (1/10), 1 (1/10), 1 (3/10)

Willow Warbler – 2 (21/9), 9 (22/9), 7 (23/9), 7 (24/9), 3 (25/9), 6 (26/9), 5 (27/9), 2 (28/9), 1 (3/10)

Yellow-browed Warbler – 24 + (22/9) : Harrier 2 Ham yard and valley 7,  Post Office garden 2, Manse 2, Puns 6,  Hametoun Burn 3, east-cliffs 1, Profs garden 1, 14+ (23/9), 8 (24/9), 3 (25/9), 3 (26/9), 3 (27/9), 2 (29/9), 1 (2/10)

Goldcrest – 1 (23/9), 9 (24/9), 2+ (25/9), 1 (26/9), 3 (27/9), 3 (28/9), 8 (29/9), 3 (30/9), 10 (1/10), 6 (2/10), 7 (3/10), 2 (5/10)

Spotted Flycatcher – 1 (21-25/9)

Pied Flycatcher – 2 (22/9), 3 (23/9), 3 (24/9), 3 (25/9), 3 (26/9), 3 (27/9), 3 (28/9)

Red-breasted Flycatcher – 1 Trolli Geo (23/9)

Chaffinch – 4 (25/9), 1 (26/9), 2 (27/9), 1 (28/9), 3 (1/10), 1 (2/10), 1 (3/10)

Brambling – 1 (22/9), 6 (24/9), 15 (25/9), 15 (26/9), 12 (27/9), 2 (28/9), 4 (29/9), 4 (1/10), 5 (2/10), 3 (3/10)

Siskin – 1 (30/9), 1 (2/10)

Twite – 35 (12/9), 100 (22/9), 60 (27/9), 25 (28/9), 20 (29/9), 40 (30/9), 21 (1/10)

Common Redpoll – 12 islandica (21/9), 1 (22/9), 4 (23/9), 4 (24/9), 4 (24/9), 2 (26/9), 10 (27/9), 3 (28/9), 5 (29/9), 16 (1/10), 2 (2/10), 8 islandica, 1 rostrata Leraback (3/10)

Common Rosefinch – 1 Ham (21/9), 1 Harrier (22/9), 1 Harrier (24/9), 1 Harrier (25-27/9)

Little Bunting – 1 Harrier (2/10) GavT

Lapland Bunting – 24 (21/9), 10 (22/9), 6 (23/9), 30+ (24/9), 10 (25/9), 7  (26/9), 24 (27/9), 3 (28/9), 5 (29/9), 14 (30/9), 10 (1/10), 5 (2/10), 9 (5/10)

Snow Bunting – 17 (21/9), 2 (22/9), 1 (23/9), 3 (24/9), 28 (25-26/9), 4 (27/9), 56 (28/9), 68 (29/9), 99 (30/9), 101 (1/10), 72 (2/10), 33 (3/10), 100+ (5/10)

Just to highlight the need to check EVERYTHING here’s a quick breakdown of common versus rare  on Foula :

Pipits: OBP 2, Tree 1

Acros: Blyth’s Reed 2, Marsh 1, Reed 0

Phylloscs (max day count): YBW 24+, Willow  9, Chiff 6

Buntings: Little 1, Reed 0

 

Dan Brown