The unsound approach

UNST 2009

Featuring Alex Lees, Rob Martin, Rik Addison and James Gilroy

Predictably we couldn’t let spring pass by without a little bit of nettle-thrasing up-country. The magic wheel was spun and the arrow landed pointing to Unst. We tried spinning it again, but the bastard wouldn’t land anywhere else, so our fate was set. Unst it had to be. At least we knew there would be Puffins.

Well, it makes loads of sense on a map, especially in spring. Everything is heading north, so birds from further south should always be filtering up there no matter what the weather does. Anything that reaches Hermaness and looks out at that cold expanse of sea will inevitably fancy its prospects in the Skaw spearmint patch. Plus, the island's recent track record for late May has been pretty special, largely thanks to the sterling efforts of Ashley and Stef McElwee on their annual half-term holidays.

As usually happens, a week before our trip the weather charts were looking awesome. Bluethroats were raining down on South Mainland, and the long-range forecast was predicting more of the same. Tragically, just a few hours before we set off, a dirty low-pressure swung in from the north and bitchslapped us with a week of westerlies:

Still, we knew the deal. Good weather conditions might bring you buckets of scarce eye-candy, but real rarities can turn up independent of weather. "The biggie travels alone", as the old timers say. And it's true - most of the spring megas on Shetland turn up on weather charts that are pretty rubbish. Check out these blasts from the past (thanks to the wonderful




You can't argue with history... These charts show the conditions that brought a selection of previous Shetland spring megas (top row right Caspian Plover 2/6/96, left Pallas's Sandgrouse19/5/1990 , bottom row left Thick-billed Warbler15/5/2003 , right Blue-cheeked Bee-eater 19/6/1997). Note how none of them arrived in what you'd consider "ideal" conditions... The same goes for most big rarities - check some charts yourself if you don't believe.

So to find something proper, you’ve just got to get out there and slog your guts out no matter what. So our guts were duly slogged... The only trouble is, slogging your guts out when you're not seeing anything is pretty miserable work. Truth be told, spring birding on Shetland can be pretty dire when migrants aren’t arriving. It just gets really, really dead. You don't get any of the steady Yellow-brow trickle that keeps you going in autumn. The breeding stuff is lovely and all, but the bonxie-redshank-wren monotony starts to get tiresome after the twentieth straight hour. You find yourself desperately willing a migrant to appear out of every iris bed or rose bush. Anything will do, even a Robin. Please God, just give me a Robin! You scour every fence and wall, becoming increasingly outraged at the absence of phylloscs and flycatchers.

Shetland magic (RA & AL)

Shetland desperation; a classic one-two Chiffchaff-Dunnock double near Burrafirth for AL on the peunultimate day, this was our best haul of the day... (AL)

Still, you’ve got to keep ploughing on, because all you need is one bird. Even when it’s dead as hell, eventually you’ll bump into a migrant if you keep persevering. And those are the important ones, the birds you need to find – the random singletons that have failed to keep up with their allotted pattern. Eek out enough migrants on dead days and you’re guaranteed one of them will turn out to be something good.  This in mind, we kept going, squeezing out new migrants here and there despite the overbearing drudgery. But frustratingly, they just kept on being common. The lesson, as if we needed it again, was that one week is NEVER enough (c.f. the arrival of this beauty a few days after we left, on a crap weather chart as well...).

The trip started reasonably well, with the exciting (if semi-predictable) find of a summer plumaged Franklin’s Gull at Norwick. It was obviously the same bird that Mark Chapman had found two weeks earlier on the Mainland. Two weeks and 30+ miles is enough to “count” according to the rules, but it wasn't exactly the out-and-out new rarity we were after. Nevertheless, it did provide some momentary excitement for JG, followed abruptly bya prolongued spell of gut-wrenching worry.

The bird materialised in his scope whilst he was eating a bowl of pasta in the garden, but strangely de-materialised before he could get around to taking any pictures. Facing the classic “put-news-out / don’t-put-news-out” dilemma, he opted to phone RBA despite the lack of documentary evidence. After all, it was a Franklin’s Gull – surely it couldn’t stay missing for long...? Four hours later, with every birder on the island checking all suitable locations, there was no sign. After repeatedly answering the question “did you get any pictures?” with a rueful shake of the head (whilst trying to hide the massive DSLR behind his back), things were looking bad for JG’s reputation. After 30 hours without a sign, it was all going seriously Holloway - he was already contemplating moving to Papa Stour and severing all phone connections. Thankfully, salvation finally came via the McElwee brothers, effortlessly re-locating it at Westing and bagging some professional images. We then caught up with it over Loch of Snarravoe, where we bagged some amateur images:

Franklin's at Loch of Snarravoe (RA). It became clear at this point why no-one had seen it in the intervening period – it was shunning the fields and marshes, choosing instead to feed by hawking over the moorland. Quite a lot of moorland to hawk over on Unst...

After those ups and downs, things were pretty quiet for the rest of the week.  RA and JG took a particularly cruel blow when they flushed a 'ticking' bunting from the irises at Burrafirth on the 25th, in an episode so dreadful it deserves its own page. Little else happened until the 28th, when a switch in weather (from strong south-westerlies to light north-westerlies) brought a handful of half-decent birds –the McElwees bagged a nice Golden Oriole, whilst we picked up two or three Icterines, plus a brace of Quail. Spirits were briefly lifted, but over the following days the wind blew up again, sapping our remaining strength. Eventually we had to limp south with disapointingly little to show for ourselves.


lovely oriole (RA)

Arch-professional record shots of Quail (RMa) and Icky (AL)

thunderbirdgeii wag (RMa)

It ended in ignominy. A few hours before catching the ferry back, we found ourselves committing the most debasing of acts – we tried to twitch a Wood Duck. Hard to believe, but it’s true. That’s what south westerlies can do to you. It took a full two circuits of Spiggie before we realised what we were doing. What the f*ck? We shook ourselves vigorously, slapped Rik repeatedly for suggesting it in the first place, and then sped off towards Quendale.

Arriving in South Mainland felt like coming home – the misery of Unst lifted as soon as we passed the fields of Sandpigeon and loch of Needletail. The feeling was redoubled when we piled out of the car and Rob immediately found an Icky at the watermill. Minutes later a Honey Buzzard drifted overhead – not the one that had previously been chowing shag on the cliffs, but a shiny new bird. Why the hell didn’t we spend the week at Sumburgh again? It clearly beats the chops off of anywhere except Fair Isle and Foula. We spent the last hour dashing around Grutness hoping for some injury-time magic, but with the minutes ticking down we eventually had to admit defeat.

Scruffy Honeymonster over Quendale on 30th (JG). Note the solid dark underparts and plain chestnutty underwing coverts - clearly a different bird to this one that had been tarting around South Mainland in previous days.

Quendale Icky on 30th (RA). The other leg had a shiny ring on it. 

It was a slow week. At least we consoled ourselves with the fact that it was pretty quiet elsewhere while we were up there. That said, the Skerries’ Great Reed would have looked nice in the irises at Norwick. The Fair Isle River Warbler would’ve hurt us badly, but thankfully it didn’t arrive until we were already south of Scotch Corner. All in all, we didn’t fare too badly in the grand scheme. You’ve got to expect a few below-average trips in this business, and this was one of them. At least we had the foresight to take a Frisbee.

AL & RA found this angelic vision floating in a geo at Lamba Ness on the 25th (RA), a Honey that had managed to travel the length of Shetland unseen before presumably being pummeled, drowned and eaten by the local Bonxies (below), these weren't available for comment (AL)

Some obligatory dross pics:

Iceland Gull at Norwick the whole week plus the Lesser Scaup (picture taken out of the window of a moving car...) (RA)

First afternoon excitement, the only Redstart of the trip shared a garden with 3 acredula Willows (AL)

When the going gets tough, the tough, er, go look at Puffins.... (RA, AL)

Rob's attempt at recreating some Wendy Dickson magic

Difficult to say who was more bored, the photographer RMa who took the time to use panoroma assist to take a still life photo of the living room, or Rick, who had by this time slipped into a coma.