The unsound approach

The October island holiday; the most eagerly anticipated week of the year, the product of months of staring at Google Earth trying to decide upon which godforsaken island group lost birds from three Continents might make landfall. Traditionally there have been two alternatives - Scilly or Shetland. The former was massively oversubscribed, and after a subsequent decline in popularity has been performing poorly for at least half a decade. The later is massively undersubscribed, but recent years have seen a considerable increase in birder coverage, albeit without truly spectacular results*. Of course the list of suitable places does not end there, the Hebs are increasing in popularity with some excellent birds this autumn, and Ireland is still massively underwatched - one can only dream of the mixed species feeding flocks of Dendroicas which must have flitted through the trees in Kerry and Clare in the classic autumns of the 70s and 80s (when some valley** no-one has ever heard of in Cork had 2 Scarlet Tanagers) . Table 1. gives a rough indication of what we think are the relative merits of the “obvious” October destinations. Team PB has flirted with various sites: Whalsay in 2002, Scillies in 2003, Lewis in 2005, Shetland in 2006 and finally settled on Shetland again in 2007. Our sources told us that there were up to ten car-loads of would-be rarity finders roaming around Mainland, an unprecedented increase in coverage. In the days running up to our arrival the news trickling out from Foula made it sound better for sibes than Beidaihe and our pulses quickened. The new look Team Llama, now known collectively as the Drunkbirders (Rob Fray, Andy Mackay, Mark Reeder and Andy Lawson) were apparently hell-bent on friendly competition/revenge and had already sorted themselves out for a Paddyfield just prior to our arrival. All the players were in position....   

*nb Foula score this autumn, evidently Fair Isle must now be grossly underwatched. 

**Firkeel Irish Birds 3: 329

Table 1. Guestimated figures for the potential of various hotspots to produce sibes and yanks along with observer coverage (higher = more underwatched) and craic scores (Photo SMi).

Thursday 11th October 2007
We (AL, JG & Simon Mitchell [SMi]) left Norwich at 0320 in Alex’s Mitsubishi Death-star making the Scottish borders within 5 hours and then Aberdeen by the beginning of the afternoon. We had seriously considered poaching Newtonhill and visiting some of the funniest place names in the UK e.g. Blowup Nose and Craig David; but hunger meant that the best laid plans went to waste. After procuring food, stamps, IT services and running a few routines, we headed out to Girdle Ness. No Rubythroat for the 2nd year running, just a few Purple Sands and winter thrushes. Rick Addison (RA) and Mark Baynes (MB) rendezvoused with us there and we backtracked to the harbour and boarded the ferry. The crossing was typically uneventful; despite the presence of birding heavies we were not (this time) regaled at length with finder’s accounts for Blackburnian Warblers, to the relief of some of the party.

Friday 12th October
Rolling off the ferry at 0730, we all headed over to Helendale to kill time whilst waiting for the shops to open. The winds had now been blowing south-east for two days and conditions were looking monster. The 2nd passerine out of the car was a Yellow-browed Warbler and within ten minutes we had located a minimum of five (seven by midday). Other migrants included a smart Pied Flycatcher, several Blackcaps, Garden Warblers, a few Goldcrests, thrushes and Bramblings. MB and RA headed over to the supermarket and AL went back to town to find email in order sort networking for forthcoming Amazonian escapades. In the mean time SMi had found a juvenile Red-backed Shrike. AL returned to Helendale Drive to find JG suffering some sort of a breakdown for reasons that were not entirely clear - JG: “I hate Helendale, I hate looking in people’s gardens, we’ll never find anything here”, AL: “Look its obviously mungus, there’s loads of migrants, we need to keep working it”. At some point mid-argument, both parties started casually binning a dirty brown shape slipping through the sycamore in front of them, and JG continued “No, I want to go and do the cliffs, this is rubbish, I hate it here, actually that's a Blyth’s Reed Warbler…”. So, just two hours in and we had the first BBRC - not a bad start... Due to his recent breakdown, JG didn’t have his DSLR about his person, SMi barely had a camera and AL had achieved some digiscoped shots that at best represented an impressionistic canvas of what a warbler might look like. Steve Minton and co. rolled up independently and offered their help, but we had to wait for 2 hours before the bird returned on its feeding circuit, in a few seconds of viewing we finally digi-wasted it. With this find fully utb, we made our way out west. As Sumburgh Lighthouse wasn't available for the first couple of nights, we had decided to do some pioneering up in NW Mainland. After ditching our belongings at Ollaberry, we set out into the field again and tried the geos at Esha Ness. No yellow birds were forthcoming, just a Wheatear and a few thrushes. We found Baynes at Hillswick (Rick had gone south to twitch the Pechora Pipit - found by the Drunk’s AJM) and he had seen a single Yellow-browed Warbler. Further thrashing of the habitat produced a North-western Redpoll and a Blackcap. Doubts began to set in about west Mainland… After drawing a blank at Urafirth, the plantation at Bardister was the final destination where we found a single Yellow-browed Warbler and 3 Blackcaps. Meanwhile, on South Mainland, Rick had seen the Pechora and also Pallas’s and Yellow-browed Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatcher in the roses at Sumburgh. Head.


juvenile Red-backed Shrike, Helendale. This bird even regailed us with periodic long bouts of calling (AL)

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Helendale, Furtadoed fresh off the boat; note the stub-mungus wing and two very clear primary emarginations (JG)

Blyth's Reed "giving good face" (JG), and the commonest warbler on Shetland (RA)

Red Jungle Fowl, NW Mainland; found skulking under a bush with YBWs, this species breeds within the wintering range of many Sibes. We collected this individual to obtain tissue samples for stable tope analysis. Unfortunatley the specimen was 'lost' into a particularly nice jalfrezzi and we ate the shark the following day (AL) 

Owing to the sensitive nature of Shetland landholdings, we always asked for permission when entering gardens etc., and frequently had to stop to retropsectively identify unusual birds, drink people's tea and contribute our gametes to guard against local inbreeding depression. Unfortunately, the token youth accompanying us on the trip had not studied the Shetland techniques page of skills learnt from our Sensei (who lives in a shed in the wilds of Breckland). This failure of preparation meant he was easily outwitted by this fence. Despite the smile, this was apparently extremely painfull (AL).   

The rivals' birds: Pechora Pipit, Toab & Pallas' Warbler, Sumburgh Lighthouse (RA)

Saturday 13th October
Out pre-dawn, the first stop was the two tiny plantations at Haggrister, predictably the most abundant migrant that wasn’t a thrush was still Yellow-browed Warbler, with 5 here alone.  The nearby plantation at the Gaza Strip was dead but we did meet up with Peter Stronach and Andy Seth, just finishing their own successful Shetland bird-finding mission. Continung south-west we did Voe, where for once Eastern Chiffchaffs outnumbered Yellow-browed Warblers 3:1, Blackcap and Garden Warbler also slipped through the trees here. Kergord begged to be conquered and a quick-n-dirty assessment produced a Pied Flycatcher and 8 more Yellow-browed Warblers. Time was now against us, and we had to blast down south to pick up RMa from the airport at 12.40. Arriving in Sumburgh we could scarcely believe how many birders there were. Mitchell pleaded for the Toab Pechora Pipit, which he got, whilst the remainder of us did the big crop field on the hill, producing Yellow-browed and Willow Warblers. Feeling claustrophobic we sacked the extreme south and drove to Boddam. Fanning out failed to yield anything better than a Yellow-browed Warbler in cattle pasture and more Eastern Chiffchaffs. Then SMi caught a glimpse of a small passerine with “white in the tail” and before AL could get to the door of the house to ask permission a Red-breasted Flycatcher flew through his legs and perched on a pile of peat sacks. SMi hurried over but before AL could set the scope up to get a better record than the digibinsed image below, JG rang through with the news “there's a White’s Thrush, Sumburgh Farm”.

The team quickly reassembled and the Deathstar headed at subsonic speeds (AL was actually the only low-lister on the team that needed Z. dauma) back south. JG, veteran of 2 Shetland White Thrushes, decided that he had to make a move, so he opted to be dropped at the turning to Scatness…. At Sumburgh, RMa jumped out of the still-moving car and had seen the bird in flight before we even pulled up. After a frantic five minute wait, we all got crippling views on the deck and in flight, of the beast right out in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, on Scatness, JG had largely sacked off the gardens and was running for the cliffs. Luckily, the rare-radar kicked in as he passed the last garden, and he turned around just long enough to get a split-second view of a Red-flanked Bluetail perched atop an ornamental greyhound. The bird immediately followed the rarity-find protocol by disappearing into thin air, but JG got the news to us, causing some confusion at the White’s twitch. At the time, the thrush was entertaining onlookers by trying to hide under Hugh Harrop’s van, as well as nearly crashing into the crowd. The rest of us decided to pay homage to the ‘tail, which had soon been relocated and was giving porn views to all (except JG, who had still only seen it for 2 seconds). The team was briefly hit by a widespread outbreak of crazy-eye, no doubt brought on by the heavy scent of copious rare in the air. We dealt with it by heading out to the birdless geos on Scatness, which provided the perfect calming tonic. The last of the light was spent burning up the boulder field at Grutness, where we kicked a Jack Snipe, and grilling the gardens, which produced the day’s final Yellow-browed Warbler feeding on the lawn. James got the thrush, as had Mark and Rick after some specialist driving….

Red-breasted Flycatcher, Boddam, under-appreciated because of... (AL)

...White's Thrush, Sumburgh cosmic mega, not useful yeartick. (AL)

Scatness Bluetail on the rocks (JG)

Bluetail in the skank (JG)

Bluetail fanciers (AL)

Sunday 14th October
After spending our final night in North Mainland, we decided to concentrate our efforts “while we’re here” up north, weighing up the issues of concentration effects with the fact that the area is massively under-watched. First stop was North Collafirth, the plantations held a medley of warblers: 2 Blackcaps, 1 Lesser Whiethroat, 1 Eastern abietinis Chiffchaff and 2 Yellow-broweds. Then SMi excitedly crackled over the CB “…Redpoll, on fence, lost it, big…”. JG and AL chose to ignore the message, presuming he had got his first Greenland on. But after scoping him up falling over fences and losing his CB, it was obvious he was onto something (and had failed to press the button before he said Arctic). The team reassembled and SM described a brief view of a big white Redpoll. Fortunately it reappeared with a flock of Twite in front of AL and SMi; a massive abominable Redpoll the size of a small Polar Bear. Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll! Monster! We relayed the news to MB and RA and continued north to Isbister. The habo here looked amazing, and we spent 3 hours working the gardens and iris beds, although much effort was only repaid by 2 Yellow-browed Warblers a Blackcap and a Lesser Whitethroat. MB and RA in the meantime had failed to refind the Horny Roll, but instead made an early break for the south, and connecting with the Quendale individual, together with the Paddyfield Warbler at the same site. After finishing in the north, we tracked south again to find a similar warbler selection at Voe to the previous day, then on to Helendale (2 YBW and 2 Chiffs). Hoswick held an assortment of Common Redpolls, looking most like islandica/rostrata phenotypes, plus lots of Chiffchaffs and single Yellow-browed and Willow Warblers. The day finished at Channerwick, which produced a Common Redstart, Garden Warbler and fulvescens-type Chiffchaff. Under cover of darkness we moved back into our spiritual home in the Sumburgh Lighthouse….   

Horny Arctic mega-crippler, North Collarfirth. Note this bird has no legs but comes fully equipped with a poupousse (JG) 

Arctic Redpoll ssp hornemanni & Paddyfield Warbler Quendale (RA)

Monday 15th October
The team largely dispersed on foot today throughout the southern tip, but despite big effort there was little reward. RA had the Pallas’s in the roses, 4 Lesser Whitethroats appeared for people at various spots, Lapland Buntings were available for all around Toab and the Killdeer appeared in front of AL at Virkie much to Rick’s chagrin. Garden Warbler, Dunnock, Arctic Terns and lots of Wheatears failed to inject any excitement. The wind was now firmly in the south-west. 

Killdeer with stoners and tundrae Ringo (AL)

Candidate "Eastern" Lesser Whitethroats var. blythi or even halimondendri, although variation is too subtle to warrant recognition of Siberian Lesserthroat blythi as a valid taxon, these brown backed and hooded birds (about 15% of the LWTs we saw) were highly distinctive. Compare with this, and this (top at Vidlin, JG, bottom at Sumburgh, AL).

Tuesday 16th October
More south-westerlies and more big walking, but with nothing much to write home about. SMi, JG and AL tried Scalloway and the Burra, the highlight of which was 5 Yellow-browed Warblers at Scalloway, a Northern Bullfinch and a nice rainbow on the Burra. Rob had a 1st winter Glaucous Gull at Quendale. MB and RA did west mainland and RA found the bird of the day: a Common Rosefinch at Wester Skeld.

Common Rosefinch, West Mainland (RA)

We unleashed Mega-roulette in Scalloway, everyone ran for cover, but we never got a fall of yanks...(AL)

North-western Roll, Hoswick  (AL)

Northern Bullfinch, Burra, honest Guv its not a Grosbeak... (AL)

Wednesday 17th October
A Lesser Canada Goose appeared offshore with a flock of Greylags and was seen independently by RA and SMi. AL drove MB to Lerwick to sort his health out and then headed west to the Walls area where Blackcap, abietinis Chiffchaff and Icewit were the highlights, a ticking bunting got away from MB and a lark flushed to infinity by AL might have been a Calandrella. The rest of the team were having more success. JG had forgotten his phone but managed to flush a White-rumped Sandpiper from the dune slacks at Quendale at midday. It never showed on the deck, but he succeded in getting some record shots (below) as it buzzed around and then towered off. At least two Yellow-browed Warblers made their presence known at Toab. Trudging back to Sumburgh, Rob booted a large pipit from the dunes - it proved to be a complete backstad and never showed on the deck, but after multiple flushes (giving opportunity to appraise structure) and multiple schreep-chup-chup calls, the team members in the vicinity were happy with Rob’s suspicion that it was our 2nd Blyth’s Pipit in two years*. JG bowled over, flushing and loosing a probable Hippo' on Scatness on the way, and the White-rumped Sandpiper reappeared overhead again before being relocated on Virkie by the Fray.

*it is tempting to speculate (although highly unlikely) that the Blyth's, Pechora and Pallas's which all arrived on near identical dates and in identical places were the same birds as the previous year.

Arch-proffessional record shots of the Blyth's Pipit (RA) and the White-rumped Sandpiper at Quendale (JG)

On top of 200m high cliffs is an ideal place to practice the Ministry of Funny Walks sketch... (AL)

Thursday 18th October
RMa opened the day with a bang with a brief Olive-backed Pipit at Sumburgh Farm, the same bird was probably heard going over Virkie by AL and over the Blyth’s Pipit by HH (who was patient enough to actually see the latter on the ground) a few minutes earlier. In the meantime, the Fray gripped us of with a conciliatory (albeit brief) Radde’s Warbler at Toab. RA found an elusive Barred Warbler at Sumburgh Farm whilst searching for the pipit. AL checked  Hoswick on the way north to fix the Deathstar (which was now making some weird-ass noises) where a warbler medley included the three commoner Phyloscs. Whilst waiting for the garage to open a 1st winter Glaucous Gull put in an appearance and the remains of his day were spent at Kergord where in perfect conditions 5 Yellow-browed Warblers, 6 Chiffchaffs, 8 Blackcaps and a Garden Warbler flitted through the tree-tops. RMa meanwhile relocated the Fleck Buff-breasted Sandpiper (last seen 10 days before) at Quendale and he and RA had a Yellow-browed Warbler at Quendale. Great Northern Divers and Long-tailed Ducks were very much in evidence by now; winter had arrived in the Northern Isles, but where were the Pine Buntings?

Barred Warbler, Sumburgh Farm (RA)

Glaucous Gull, Lerwick, anyone got any sick bags? (AL)

Yellow-browed Warbler, somewhere, can't remember (JG)

White-rumped Sandpiper, Pool of Virkie (RA)

Friday 19th October
Desperate times called for desperate measures: still no change in wind direction, so JG, RMa and RA got up early and caught the ferry to Whalsay. AL, SMi and MB had a more leisurely start, albeit a bitter one when Mitchell flushed and lost another ticky bunting at Grutness which couldn’t be refound. A Woodcock booted from the quarry and a thrash round the 'Wicks produced a Lesser Whitethroat and a single Goldcrest at Noness. Whalsay was dire, 2 Goldcrests and 1 Chiffchaff and the mainland team blazed across to Bressay where after checking 97% of gardens couldn’t do better than 2 Goldcrest. Insult to injury was added by Minton and co. who found a Horny Arctic Roll in the one remote garden that we didn’t check. Back on the mainland the Whalsay team managed a concillatory Yellow-browed Warbler.  


Mitchell lost it and went on the rampage on Bressay when Team Minton scored Arctic rollover jackpot (AL)  

abietinis Chiffchaff (JG)

Saturday 20th October
The day started well with some evidence of renewed finch and thrush passage, but despite big effort no easy rare was forthcoming. SMi refound the White-rumped Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Fleck before the former flew back to Virkie to join the Killdeer and the latter vanished again. Things got so desperate that people were reduced to twitching Smew. RMa had a pub lunch and made an early return to the Lighthouse at 1615.  Continuing his run of outrageous form he found a 1st winter Red-breasted Flycatcher in the 1st geo east of the head followed up by a hyper-elusive Bluethroat that careered around the walls in the last of the light (but was at least seen well by RA and AL). Allegations of performance enhancing drugs and threats to shrink-wrap Rob in cellophane echoed around the light that evening. 

White-rumped Sandpiper at Fleck (SMi)

North-western Redpoll ssp. rostrata (JG)

Happy lighthouse family (AL)

Sunday 21st October
Determined to go out in a blaze of glory, we thrashed South Mainland to within an inch of its life. Things started well when a late Yellow-browed Warbler appeared in front of AL and RMa at Garth’s Ness and obligingly perched on a Telegraph Pole after flushing from a ditch. An abietinis Chiffchaff flitted through the willows at Virkie, spurring JG to make his third ever plunge into the magic copse. Unfortunately it was third time unlucky, completely failing to produce a Shetland special, or anything else for that matter (his previous two walk-throughs famously turning up a Pech in '06 and a Tips in '04). After checking everywhere available, we found ourselves losing the will to live and the birding day ended prematurely in idiocy in a field at Wester Quarf. We then left Sumburgh in the hands of the Fray and the mighty YNB.    

Yellow-browed Warbler, near Quendale (RA)


Biscuit or cake, Zeiss or Tyco, we all face tough decisions in life (JG)         


Don't ask, it was like this when we got here (JG)


So there you have it, we had 3 days of good conditions during our stay when there were rares aplenty for all.  Most of the holidaying birders had left by Monday and we were left with the whole of Mainland largely (but not exclusively to ourselves), the weather was rubbish and after much hard graft, our team found a pretty pleasing haul of birds. Had we been blessed with better weather, the finds haul would have been considerably better, but as things stood, six birders in seven days found Blyth's Pipit, Red-flanked Bluetail, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Olive-backed Pipit, Arctic Redpoll ssp. hornemanni, White-rumped Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch, Red-breasted Flycatcher (2), and Barred Warbler (not to mention a final inornometer score of c. 45). We also saw White's Thrush, Killdeer, Paddyfield Warbler, Pechora Pipit, Pallas's Warbler, and another Arctic Redpoll without really making any effort. Had we been so inclined, we could have seen (on Mainland alone) Rustic and Little Buntings, Radde's and Dusky Warblers, American Golden Plover, Short-toed Lark, Melodious Warbler, King Eider, Ring-necked Duck etc etc. Imagine that as a haul on Scilly? Had we spent the same period on Scilly we could have seen Wilson's Snipe, Blackpoll Warbler, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Penduline Tit, Radde's Warbler, Little Bunting and Lesser Yellowlegs. Now we aren't big twitchers,  but that isn't much cop. Of course, we weren't there and maybe we could have added a few birds but the point is the potential for Shetland to produce rare birds far exceeds that of Scilly.

Sumburgh (AL)

Unlike Scillies which is a small easily-worked group of islands, with fairly uniformly suitable habitat to attract migrants, Shetland is a huge expanse of largely 'unsuitable' habitat with a few 'well-worked' hotspots. Even these might not get checked every few days in the peak season. Shetland is massively hard work. The locals tend not to go out unless the wind blows from the east - it is simply too soul-destroying to trudge round for no reward on the bad days, because on the good days finding rare birds is as easy as putting on a hat. Some of those bad days are probably the best times to find yanks, but West Mainland gets checked ultra-irregularly. If Mainland Shetland received the same birder-density as Scillies, a south-easterly in October would see bird news operatives dealing with counts of hundreds of sibes. Just look at Foula and scale things up... These birds are arriving on a broad front - it's all very well checking the 'classic spots' such as Virkie Willows, but a 1st winter Siberian vagrant that has just crossed the North Sea does not have the foresight to know where these spots are - we regularly found the same YBWs living for days in some patch of nettles in the middle of a moor, miles from the nearest sappling. Most people search for rare birds based on a biased anthropocentric approach that assumes that birds perceive landscape elements (recognise good habitat) in the same way they we do. In all probability they don't.

Of course, finding rare birds is not the only criterion for deciding where to go in autumn, cost is a factor (see this useful discussion on Birdforum), we should state that we love Scilly to bits, its a far nicer place than Shetland, its got nice pubs and beautiful scenery and Andy Holden, but if you want to find rare birds, nay if you want to see rare birds even, then if the balance of coverage were shifted from Scilly to Shetland then the results would be catacalysmic, don't act like I never told ya

ID challenge, answers below...

Answers: Dunlin & Chiffchaff, but then you knew that didn't you.