Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Rob Fray's 2013 Review - Virkie/Toab/Exnaboe

Winter in Shetland can be pretty bleak. There’s not usually much to see, particularly as it doesn’t get light between November and February (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but a prolonged period of over-exuberance and over-sleeping can mean days, if not weeks, can pass by without seeing daylight). January 2013 brought 48 species, including a flock of four White-fronted Geese around Toab, not an annual visitor to the patch. Highlight, though, was the continuing presence of a wintering Blue Tit on my nuts – a proper rare bird in these parts, and still the only one I’ve seen in the patch. Should be worth much more than one measly point in my opinion.

Blue Tit
What can be said about February? Not a lot. Five species added, including Common Scoter and the first Skylark of the year.

For much of the country, mid to late March spells the beginning of spring, with pretty things like Sand Martins, Wheatears and Little Ringed Plovers brightening the days up. Not here though. Just seven species added, although that did include major bonuses in the form of a Mistle Thrush in Toab and a Goldfinch in my garden, neither of which are annual. As it happened, Goldfinch proved to be ‘common’ in the patch this spring, with another eight or so by the end of May.

The list shot up from 60 to 88 during April, as spring finally lumbered into view. Most of the species added were to be expected, although Sandwich Tern, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull and Rook (!) were notable. The big bird of the month (and possibly the year), however, was a Coal Tit at Hestingott – only the sixth record (seventh individual) for mainland Shetland, although sadly not a patch tick as one of the last records before the Hestingott bird was one I found in Toab a few years ago.

Coal Tit - Courtesy of Jim Nicolson
I always look forward to May. May can be brilliant in Shetland. But May can also be terribly frustrating if the weather isn’t favourable. May 2013, fortunately, was a stormer, with several periods of ‘good’ weather. The first three weeks brought a nice selection of commoner migrants, including Short-eared Owl, Black Redstart, Stonechat, Grasshopper Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Wood Sandpiper and, best of all, a Grey-headed Wagtail at Exnaboe (my first ‘six-pointer of the year). A pair of Shoveler on May 22nd (only my second ever patch record) heralded the beginning of a slightly crazy week. A Buff-breasted Sandpiper along the coastal path near Exnaboe on the 24th was both a patch tick and a self-found tick, with a Common Rosefinch four days later, also at Exnaboe, bagging me another six points. The month ended with a flourish on the 30th, with a bonkers hour or so in my garden: whilst running around trying to relocate a male Red-backed Shrike which literally fell out of the sky in front of my eyes, I flushed a Thrush Nightingale, which remained faithful to the garden for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, the aforementioned shrike reappeared and started singing! A fabulous end to a great month had seen the list shoot up to 115 and my points total go through the roof to 177.

Common Rosefinch
Just the one addition this month, a singing Marsh Warbler in a neighbour’s garden. A singing Common Rosefinch took up temporary residence in the Virkie Willows on the 8th, whilst intriguingly a female Red-backed Shrike found the same willows to its liking for four days late in the month.

Usually a quiet month, July 2013 proved to be anything but. Common Crossbill, Swift and Ruff are three species I tend to add in July, but a group of four Red-necked Phalaropes on the Pool of Virkie for a few minutes on the 16th was highly unexpected. I was working on Unst at the end of the month, which coincided with the worst dip of the year – a Roseate Tern outside my house for one evening. However, I did catch up with a wandering Gull-billed Tern at Virkie that had originally been found at Scatness, along with a bonus drake Scaup.

Red-necked Phalaropes - Courtesy of Roger Riddington
A slow start, but an excellent finish, added nine new species. Along with many other patches on the east coast, late August brought a decent fall, with useful additions including Icterine Warbler, Barred Warbler and Wood Warbler (all on the 25th), Marsh Harrier on the 28th, and a self-found Citrine Wagtail that spent the best part of a week around the Virkie Willows from the 29th. Another couple of rosefinches appeared during this period too.

Citrine Wagtail

September in Shetland. Anything can happen. With the influx of visiting birders, it’s all very traumatic – will somebody roll up to the Pool of Virkie whilst I’m at work and clap eyes on a Willet? Fortunately for me, that didn’t happen, and I was lucky enough to find the best wader of the autumn at Virkie this year – a fine Lesser Yellowlegs on the 16th. Other waders around at this time included Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, although probably the major event of the autumn from a local point of view was the huge avalanche of Black-tailed Godwits. My peak count was 208 – the largest flock recorded in Shetland before this was 47!

Lesser Yellowlegs
Obviously, Shetland in September is not really about waders, it’s passerines, and the period from 21st to 24th was especially productive. I’d had my eye on a tattie crop at Exnaboe all autumn, but until now it had produced nothing. Then over the space of two days, it held a Short-toed Lark, a Bluethroat and a Richard’s Pipit. Three year ticks, 18 points, one field. Get in. Other notable migrants during the month included a Wryneck in my garden, another six Common Rosefinches and the inevitable deluge of Yellow-browed Warblers (conservative estimate of 19 over the last week of September). The best passerine, however, was a Western Bonelli’s Warbler (I can be forgiven not finding this, as it was in the BB Editor’s garden!).

But September died a bit of a limp death, and from 24th onwards there was not a patch year tick to be had. I finished the month on 144 species, seven short of my record of 151 set in 2010. A decent October should see me there or thereabouts...

October began as September finished. It was hard work. There were a few Yellow-browed Warblers still hanging on, but nothing else. Things changed on the 8th, with another Richard’s Pipit (which kindly added itself to my house list), followed by a Turtle Dove in Toab on the 9th. The 10th was a nasty day, with a northerly gale blowing, so I foolishly gave myself a day off. Bad mistake. A Pechora Pipit was found 100 yards from my house! I did manage to see it the following day, as well as relocating a White-rumped Sandpiper at Virkie that had initially been flushed from a beach at Scatness. A nice run of new birds over the next few days included a Great Spotted Woodpecker in Toab (a long overdue patch tick), three Hawfinches at Exnaboe and a Lesser Redpoll, again at Toab. A Woodcock on the 21st equalled my record of 151. What would be the record-breaker (if indeed there was to be a record-breaker)? Rather pleasingly, the magic field at Exnaboe produced the goods on the 26th, with a patch-tick Shore Lark – a fitting way to set a new record. A Waxwing in Toab a few days later was the final addition to the year list.

Pechora Pipit - Courtesy of Roger Riddington
November and December
The autumn finished in late October. Nothing to report over the last two months of the year. No additions to the list, although I did have a nice holiday in Arizona.

So, I ended the year on 153 species, and 298 points. The points per species ratio finished at 1.947. If only I’d found that bloody Pechora Pipit, I’d have had 306 points and a nice round 2.0 points per species.

I rather suspect it will be challenging to beat 153 species in future, as 2013 was an excellent year in my patch. Six ‘BB’ rarities, plus four local rarities and a host of scarce migrants will be difficult to better, not to mention a grand total of eight patch ticks. That said, there were at least five species seen in my patch in 2013 that I missed (Roseate Tern, Reed Warbler, Slavonian Grebe, Hen Harrier and Cuckoo), along with another five fairly glaring omissions that I see most years (Long-eared Owl, Reed Bunting, Greenfinch, Brent Goose and Barnacle Goose). I was lucky this year to find a lot of the good birds – this isn’t always the case in a patch like mine, where there are several top-drawer rarity finders living close by (including two of the most prolific rarity finders in Britain!) and an influx of other birders during the best weeks of the autumn. Roll on 2014...

Rob Fray

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