The unsound approach

Bunting nightmare on Unst

J Gilroy & R Addison, May 2009


When you're on Shetland in the last week of May, expectations are always high. Every time you flush a bird you're expecting it to be rare. Invariably it isn't. Every now and then, however, the magic happens - you flush something and straight away you know you've got something good. You can't fail. Your ship is in. But birding can be very cruel sometimes, as this woeful tale will tell...  

It happened at Burrafirth, whilst trudging through yet another patch of birdless irises. From under RA’s shoes came a bunting. It wheeled over our heads and gave a series of calls – “tic... tic... tic... tic...”. Back of the net!

It towered away, but eventually turned back and plunged into long grass. Everything looked good – very white underneath, bright chestnut-rufous above, long shape, pinched-in face. We figured it must be a Rustic, although there seemed to be something worryingly dark about the face... Maybe a Rustic with a very wet face? That’s plausible – you can’t hang out in Shetland irises without getting a wet face...

After a few more flushes, it finally perched up on a fence, albeit at a distance, and it became apparent that it was all going Su-Bo. The bird wasn’t wet. It was just very ugly. There was absoultely nothing stripey about the face, just a horrid black mass. It flew again, still ticking away, but showing a distinct lack of wing-bars. Zooming in on the LCD confirmed the worst – a thoroughly Reedish face and what looked like blackish flank streaks. What the hell?


It kept ticking every time it flushed, not exactly like the sharp staccato efforts of Rustic, more like the quiet lispy stylings of Little. But it looked horribly like a Reed. Then again, for a schoen’  it had some anomalous plumage features . Most obvious was the bright brick-red nape and hindcrown, very much like the tone of a spring Rustic. The same bright rufous tone was present on much of the scapulars, the lesser coverts and the rump (no grey!) when it flew. Also, despite having the face of a male (or old female) Reed, it completely lacked any hint of black bib, having only a couple of semi-heavy malars. Otherwise, the breast was bright white with just a few dark streaks, none of those typical Reed blotches.


The wing bars were white, although not anything like as striking as you would expect on a Rustic. The shape seemed subtly wrong for Reed, with a very long tail, high-crowned head, pointed face and small two-toned bill with straight culmen.

What the hell was it? No idea. We wracked out brains at the time trying to think of any obscure eastern buntings that might fit the bill, but nothing came to mind. Given the calls and bill shape, we obviously tried hard to crowbar it into a Pallas's Reed, but unfortunately the lesser coverts were emphatically rufous. Anyone care to make any suggestions? Could it be a hybrid Reed X Rustic? Not sure how that would ever come about, given their utterly different breeding habitat preferences... Some other hybrid combination? Pallas's Reed x Rustic is perhaps a better fit given the combo of features (and range/habitat overlap) - but for that to turn up in Britain? No chance.  

Whatever its origins, it's definitely an abomination. Given the circumstances, it was hugely frustrating. A nice spring Rustic would’ve gone a long way towards rescuing an otherwise disappointing holiday... In anyone’s books, finding a ticking bunting on Shetland ought to mean you’re onto something good. Sadly not.  Still, it was an “interesting bird” as the saying goes.

Answers on a postcard please...