Monday, 10 December 2012

Patch of the day, Virkie/Exnaboe/Toab, Shetland - Rob Fray

Lots of birders will have visited my patch at some time. Some may even have had a tick or two in my patch. For about 49 weeks of the year, I have my patch pretty much to myself. For three weeks in the autumn, I can’t move for birders! My patch is the Virkie, Toab and Exnaboe area in south mainland Shetland.

I finally put roots down in Shetland in June 2007, after a rather protracted move from Leicester. Anybody who has birded the Virkie Willows, or looked on the Pool of Virkie from the well-known turning-circle, will have seen my house: it’s the one closest to the Virkie Willows.

I define my patch as per the map below: basically, the bit of land between Sumburgh Airport to the south and Ward Hill to the north. The area lives in the shadow of Sumburgh Head somewhat, which steals a lot of my migrant birds, but a bit of persistence over the years has certainly paid off.

The obvious focal point is the Pool of Virkie, possibly one of the best sites in the whole of the UK for rare waders over the years. I can see much of this tidal pool from my kitchen window, which is handy. The list of wader rarities recorded on the pool is enviable: before my time in Shetland, such cripplers as Western Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Least Sandpiper and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper were recorded, not to mention Britain’s first Great Knot. Since my time here, I’ve found Shetland’s second Marsh Sandpiper on the pool, along with three different White-rumped Sandpipers and a couple of Pectoral Sandpipers. Initially found by others, Killdeer, Semipalmated Sandpiper and American Golden Plover have all found their way on to my patch (and house) list too, although a Baird’s Sandpiper during the summer of 2007 was a bad dip for me. Being a shallow tidal estuary, the pool isn’t much good for wildfowl, but as my patch lacks any fresh water at all (bar the odd puddle in a field), it’s the only place where I might encounter such species. Long-tailed Duck, Eider and Goldeneye are regular in the winter, and I’ve managed to scrape up Slavonian Grebe, Scaup and even a King Eider on the pool over the years. Occasionally ducks fly over the patch, the best by far being a pair of Black Ducks that had been nearby at Scatness and which, knowing they had just been flushed by a dog-walker, I managed to get on the patch list by climbing onto the roof of my house and watching them fly along the west side of Toab!

Away from the Pool of Virkie, my patch consists of the settlements of Toab, Exnaboe and Eastshore, and the adjacent agricultural land. Farming in my patch is mainly of the sheep variety, therefore much of the area is grass fields which aren’t usually of any great interest ornithologically. However, there are usually four or five small crop fields each year of neeps and/or tatties (or turnips and potatoes if you prefer), and these are a magnet for migrants in the autumn. Neeps are the best, as they tend to stay in the ground for longer and aren’t harvested until much later in the autumn. During my time, such crops have produced a couple of Pechora Pipits, Yellow-breasted Bunting, Short-toed Lark, Arctic Redpoll and Little Bunting amongst others.

The gardens of Toab are well-known to any birder who has visited south mainland Shetland, and have a good list of past glories, including Black-throated Thrush, Pied Wheatear and Black-headed Bunting. Despite getting on for six years of thrashing these gardens myself, the best I’ve found has been an Olive-backed Pipit, a Radde’s Warbler and a Coal Tit (the latter being by far the rarest in Shetland terms!), whilst an Isabelline Shrike in Toab during the autumn of 2012 was very popular with visiting and resident birders alike. The Toab gardens will virtually guarantee me Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Common Rosefinch, Icterine Warbler and Barred Warbler each year – all easy as ‘self-found’ birds and one of the many advantages of living in Shetland.

Less well-known are the gardens at Exnaboe, which are my favourite gardens in the patch (probably because they are less well-known, and therefore less visited, by other birders). They seem particularly attractive to rare phylloscs – over the last few years I’ve found Arctic, Greenish and Dusky Warbler in these gardens. One of these days I’ll find something truly spectacular there. Exnaboe was also the site of the Sandhill Crane in 1991.

Finally... Eastshore. Not a site that will have registered with many people before October 23rd 2012. The Eastshore road is the one that runs along the northern edge of the Pool of Virkie. At the west end, nearest the main road, are the famous Virkie Willows, which have produced many a good bird, including Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and ‘Caspian’ Stonechat (both before my time), and Pechora Pipit and Ortolan Bunting since I’ve been here. My own garden is now maturing nicely – best bird so far actually in the garden is Subalpine Warbler, but I’ve had multiple Bluethroats, Wrynecks, Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warblers and Yellow-browed Warblers too, and the Pallid Harrier I found from my garden will live long in the memory. I have high hopes for my recently-dug pond, which I am convinced will one day attract a Siberian Blue Robin – for now, my ‘pond list’ consists of House Sparrow, Starling, Blackbird, Willow Warbler, Waxwing, Rock Dove, Blue Tit and my dog!

There are a few other gardens along the Eastshore road, which nobody ever looks in (and I somehow manage to ignore much of the time too). I’ve always thought they had potential, and this was realised somewhat joyously, yet painfully, on the date mentioned above: Chestnut-eared Bunting! (The recent write-up in Birding World will explain the pain behind this bird).

And then there’s the Magic Ditch. There is nothing ever in the Magic Ditch. I plod along it every day in the spring and autumn, seeing nothing (although the dog likes the walk). The reason I continue to look in the Magic Ditch is because, over the space of three fateful days in September 2008, there was a Paddyfield Warbler and a Thrush Nightingale in the Magic Ditch. Since then... well, I did find a Great Snipe adjacent to the Magic Ditch in 2011, but apart from that the highlights have been a Robin, a Sedge Warbler and several Meadow Pipits. Looks good for a Pallas’s Gropper though...

So far, this description of my patch has concentrated on migrants/rarities – so what of the ‘regular’ stuff? Typical Shetland birds such as Twite, Rock Dove, Bonxie, Arctic Skua, Whimbrel, Black Guillemot etc are all easily seen. However, breeding landbirds are restricted to House Sparrow, Starling, Blackbird, Sky Lark, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Wren, Wheatear, Hooded Crow and Raven, whilst a small population of Linnets (still a scarce bird in Shetland away from south mainland) has recently become established. ‘Common’ birds elsewhere in the UK can be difficult to come by: Blue Tit was a mega patch tick this autumn, a Stock Dove this November was only the second I’ve seen in my patch, I was gutted to miss a Long-tailed Tit in Toab a few years ago, I still need Yellowhammer, Little Grebe and Pochard, and have next to no chance of Magpie, Jay, Willow Tit, Tawny Owl or Little Owl!

My personal patch list currently stands at 212 and, after a bit of investigation, I think the total number of species recorded in my patch is probably 258. My goal for 2013: surely it’s about time I found a bluetail in Toab?

Sorry to have waffled on so much...


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