Monday, 25 October 2021

Unst, part 1 of 3 (29 September-07 October 2021)

I am very fortunate to have very good friends, Dave Cooper and Brenda Kay, living in the north of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetlands. I had a great time with them in October 2019 (see and was very keen to return. Scottish Covid rules prevented that in 2020 but thankfully not this autumn. 

Wednesday 29 September. Josh drove me to Brighton Station at 05:30 although we were nearly stopped at the Holmbush Roundabout in Shoreham by cars queuing around it to get into Tesco for petrol. I caught the train up to Gatwick (having to go from Brighton due to night-time works between Hove and Shoreham). There I boarded my EasyJet flight to Aberdeen with my two pieces of hand luggage. We departed on time and arrived ahead of schedule. Outside the airport a bus into the city was waiting and I was at the Northlink Ferry Terminal before 11. A much more enjoyable experience than the overnight bus from London last time. I collected my boarding pass, dropped off my wheelie bag and walked out to Girdle Ness where I spent several hours seeing 3 Bottle-nosed Dolphins, 22 Eider, 2 red-head Goosanders, 3 Ringed Plover, 3 Curlews, 20 Kittiwakes, a colour-ringed Herring Gull, 70 Guillemots, 2 Razorbills, 3 Red-throated Divers, 60 Shags, a Whitethroat, Grey Wagtail, Rock Pipit, 7 Linnets and 7 Goldfinches. I returned to the ferry terminal by 17:30, collected my boarding pass and bag and made my way on board. I dumped my bag by my allocated reclining seat near the bows and sat on deck until sunset. Back inside my seat wasn’t particularly comfortable so at 21:00 I laid out on the reasonably thick carpet beside it listening to music before dozing off. Shetland here I come.

locally colour-ringed Herring Gull T:601 at Girdle Ness
Shags at Girdle Ness
Goosander on the River Dee
Guillemot on the River Dee

Thursday 30 September. I was on deck at dawn and saw 60 Eider, 20 Black Guillemots and 4 Razorbills, as well as a few Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Gannets and Shags before docking in Lerwick at 07:30. I crossed the road to the bus stop and after a 20 minute wait, enlivened by speaking to Susannah Parnaby who was on her way back to Fair Isle via Tingwall, caught the bus up to Toft. It was then ferry to Ulsta on Yell, connecting bus up to Gutcher, ferry to Belmont and connecting bus to Saxa Vord. On the journey I’d seen 30 Rock Doves, 30 Kittiwakes, 19 Black Guillemots, 7 Hooded Crows, a Wheatear and 2 Rock Pipits. At Saxa Vord I was met by Dave Cooper and a few minutes later we were at Millfield enjoying a cup of tea with Brenda. It was great to see them both for the first time in 18 months. After a quick catch up Dave and I visited sites around Norwick seeing a superb male Long-tailed Duck, 2 Sanderling, 2 Swallows, a House Martin (rump looking normal), 5 Hooded Crows, 3 Ravens, 3 Blackcaps, a presumed blythi Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Wheatears, single Citrine and Grey Wagtails, 80 Chaffinches, and 20 Brambling. After lunch we visited Lamba Ness and Skaw seeing 8 Teal, 2 Golden Plover, a Bar-tailed Godwit (Dave’s first of the year), 5 Common Snipe, Blackcap and Spotted Flycatcher. An enjoyable start to my visit.

Kittiwake at Toft
Citrine Wagtail at Norwick
its ear covert surround was only discernable at certain angles

Friday 01 October. We birded sites around Norwick from 07:00-12:00 walking Dave’s normal route. After returning for lunch we headed out to a very exposed Lamba Ness and covered the southern section between 13:00-16:30 when we were halted by heavy rain. Heading back the weather improved and we diverted to NorthDale where we spent the best part of an hour along the road and around the crofts. The more interesting sightings for me were the Long-tailed Duck, 15 Rock Doves, 2 Golden Plover, 9 Common SnipeGuillemot, 10 Hooded Crows, 5 Ravens, 13 BlackcapsGarden WarblerLesser Whitethroat, 2 Shetland WrensSpotted FlycatcherRedstart, 3 Wheatears, the Citrine WagtailTree and Olive-backed Pipits (the latter at NorthDale), 100 Chaffinches, 140 Bramblings and Little Bunting (also NorthDale).

Citrine Wagtail now on Norwick Beach

Sanderling on Norwick Beach
Willow Warbler in Norwick
presumed blythi Lesser Whitethroat in Norwick

Hooded Crow on Lamba Ness
Olive-backed Pipit at NorthDale (photo: Dave Cooper)
Little Bunting at NorthDale

Saturday 02 October. Between 07:00-12:00 we birded sites around Norwick on foot seeing the Long-tailed Duck, 3 Common SnipeRazorbillMerlinHooded Crows and Ravens, 2 Chiffchaffs, a Yellow-browed and 3 Willow Warblers, 4 Blackcaps, 2 Barred Warblers, another presumed blythi Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Icelandic RedwingsSpotted FlycatcherBluethroatTree Pipit, 100 Chaffinches, 100 Brambling and a Twite. We returned for lunch and in the afternoon visited sites around Haroldswick seeing about 40 Golden PloverRuffSparrowhawk, another Merlin, a flighty Marsh Warbler and 3 Blackcaps.

Bluethroat at Leawart
it had an exceptional amount of red on the breast

diving Long-tailed Duck at Norwick
a very smart male

Ringed Plover on Norwick Beach
Song Thrush in Norwick
Marsh Warbler near Haroldswick (photo: Dave Cooper)

Sunday 03 October. Very strong winds, gusting over 55mph, made birding difficult although we avoided the heaviest showers, partly by going out late. From 09:30-14:45 we covered sites around Norwick on foot seeing Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, 4 Sanderling, 4 Common Snipe, Kestrel, Hooded Crows, Ravens, Chiffchaff, 2 Blackcaps, 30 Redwings, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Whinchat, Wheatear,15 Meadow Pipits, about 100 each of Chaffinch and Brambling and a fly over Siskin. Best of all and the highlight of my visit so far was an Otter at Valyie that walked up through the small wood completely oblivious to our presence. We stayed completely still expecting it to bolt at any moment but it continued, passing on the muddy path within six inches of my left wellington (fortunately I'd changed my socks that morning), stopping for a brief drink in a puddle when less than five metres away and casually disappearing around the bend and out of sight. I was absolutely gobsmacked. We returned for a late lunch and headed out for Skaw at 15:30 hoping that with the wind having shifted to SSW it might offer some shelter. The burn offered minimal shelter but no birds but if anything the winds were stronger on the headland. There we found a Lapland Bunting but our being buffeted by the gale made viewing hard and photography more so. We returned to Norwick at 17:30 to discover an island wide power cut which lasted until midnight.

Otter at Valyie (photo: Dave Cooper)
it kept coming closer and closer (photo: Dave Cooper)

The Devil's Fingers
temporary waterfalls turning into spray in the strong winds
Lapland Bunting at Skaw

I found it very difficult to keep my camera still in the gale force winds

Monday 04 October. Between 07:30-12:00 we birded sites around Norwick on foot seeing the Long-tailed Duck, 40 Rock Doves, a Wood Pigeon, 9 Sanderling, Great Skua, Razorbill, 6 Hooded Crows, 4 Ravens, 3 Willow Warblers, 3 Blackcaps, 20 Redwings, 4 Song Thrushes, the Bluethroat and Red-breasted Flycatcher, 3 Wheatears, 100 Chaffinches, 80 Brambling and 2 Siskins. Dave also saw a silent large pipit fly over Holsen’s Road which had the feel of a Richard’s (I dipped) and 2 Redpolls I saw poorly (misidentifying the duller one as a Twite!). One was a juvenile Mealy Redpoll the other Dave thought most likely Lesser Redpoll. After lunch we visited Skaw finding an Olive-backed Pipit by the car park and seeing 40 Golden Plover. There were 7 Dunlin and 14 Snow Buntings but little else at Lamba Ness. News of a Richard’s Pipit coming and going on Norwick Beach had us returning there and we had good flight views, accompanied by several explosive calls. We finished the day near Saxa Vord seeing a Jack Snipe.

the Bluethroat had moved towards Valyie

Wheatear at Norwick
Willow Warbler at Norwick
Cormorant and Shags at Skaw
Skaw rainbow
Olive-backed Pipit along the burn at Skaw
Dave and I both exclaimed 'Olive-backed Pipit' at the same time as it flitted from cover to our side of the burn

Dunlin on Lamba Ness
Snow Bunting on Lamba Ness, one of a very flighty flock of  14
Wheatear on Norwick Beach
tail-less White Wagtail on Norwick Beach

Tuesday 05 October. A relatively calm and sunny day, ideal for finding birds but few seemed to have arrived while there had been a significant clear out. We started at Valyie where there was a Water Rail, Chiffchaff, 5 Blackcaps, a Goldcrest and Brambling numbers had reduced to about 75. Nick Preston and his friend Justin Liddle joined us at Valyie having come up from Brae where they were staying with some of Justin’s relations. News of a Lanceolated Warbler near Baltasound had Nick, Justin and me heading down there. Little more than a ten minute drive, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. However on arrival we discovered it had not been seen for at least an hour. After almost an hour of seeing nothing we had a quick look around Clingera (Spotted Flycatcher) and the pines at Setter’s Hill Estate (unsatisfactory brief views of Olive-backed Pipit for Justin and me). We returned to Norwick and rejoined Dave (who had seen little at Skaw and a few other local sites) and discovered the Lancy had actually been a Grasshopper Warbler. Nick refused the offer of returning for a cup of tea (time was against them but I would have appreciated a short break) and we carried on to NorthDale (missing Olive-backed Pipit and Little Bunting by a narrow margin although we did see Yellow-browed Warbler and Redstart), Saxa Vord Hill (Muckle Flugga and distant views across to Fetlar, Yell and North Mainland), Quoys Quarry (superb Bluethroat) and Burrafirth Burn (Whinchat and Siskin). The road to the Shore Station was closed due to helicopter operations (dumping materials to upgrade the boardwalk on Hermaness) and Nick was keen to try Setter’s Hill again on their way down to the ferry (still no Olive-backed Pipit but they did see a White-billed Diver on Mainland). Dave and I tried a few sites around Haroldswick on our return with a Whooper Swan which flew out towards Balta Island the highlight. Similar numbers of Redwings (30+) and Blackcaps (10+) were around but there were generally fewer birds to be seen and at times it was hard work, not helped by others seeing more than we did.

Bluethroat in Quoys Quarry
a more typical looking autumn bird

Wednesday 06 October. A lovely still morning with a distinct chill in the air, the wind picked up and a few showers developed although we managed to miss most. We birded sites around Norwick between 07:15-11:00 and after an early lunch spent 13:15-17:40 at Skaw, Lamba Ness and Valyie. It was generally rather quiet with some birds having moved on and few new birds arriving. We saw the smart Long-tailed Duck, 4 Eider, 40 Golden Plover, the Bar-tailed Godwit, 2 Jack and 14 Common Snipe, 5 Sanderling, Guillemot, 2 Razorbills, Black Guillemot, Great Northern Diver, 250 Fulmars, 200 Gannets, 8 Hooded Crows, 10 Ravens, 3 Chiffchaffs, 14 Blackcaps, 3 Shetland Wrens, 55 Redwings, 3 Robins, Whinchat, 4 Wheatears, 50 House Sparrows (a noticeable increase), just 20 Chaffinches, 70 Brambling, two flocks totaling 70 Twite, 2 Siskins and a Snow Bunting.

Twite at the sheep pens on Inner Skaw

Snow Bunting not being any more approachable on Lamba Ness

Thursday 07 October. A miserable day. It was dull and drizzly with a strong wind. Birds were very few and far between and the few we saw were keeping their heads down. We went out three times during the day, for a couple of hours on each occasion. First we went to Skaw where nothing was evident on a quick look around. We returned to Valyie where a moribund Water Rail was an early indication of how our day might be. Finch numbers were way way down too. Two male Long-tailed Ducks off Norwick Beach were to be the day’s highlight. As the weather deteriorated we came back, venturing out again after an early lunch. We visited the Inner Skaw which was very exposed then continued on to Skaw where we walked up the burn. At least it was fairly sheltered although still birdless and deteriorating weather had us heading home again. A mid-afternoon break in the weather tempted us out again and we walked down into Norwick and on to Valyie where we sheltered in the barn from the heaviest rain. Walking back we were caught in a shower and decided to call it a day. During the day I also saw 3 Eider, 20 Rock Doves, 40 Golden Plover, 3 Sanderlings, 11 Common Snipe, a Razorbill, Moorhen, 2 Hooded Crows, 2 Ravens, 2 Chiffchaffs, 4 Blackcaps, 15 Redwings and fewer than 10 each of Chaffinch and Brambling.

Common Snipe at Norwick