Friday 31 October 2008

Sound advice

I didn't watch this video on the Grauniad website, as it appears to be about the American presidential election, and therefore likely to be coma inducing, but the headline says it all really.

And if you choose not to follow the advice, you've only got yourself to blame if, like one recent hapless contributor to the Surfbirds Stop Press Rarity Photos Page, you find yourself paying £130 to see a Red-backed Shrike...

Just say no.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Official - celebrities to blame for cold snap

A perfect example of the ridiculous ‘blame culture’ in which we now live: on the BBC’s interactive TV news this morning was the headline ‘Cold snap blamed on Arctic air’. Really? And there was me thinking it was the fault of Jonathan Ross and Russell ‘No honestly, I’ve fucked every woman in the world even though I sound like Frank Spencer and look like Amy Winehouse with a beard’ Brand.

Obviously I was wrong. But is it really the fault of the Arctic air? Clearly not, but since the BBC is now officially the televisual wing of the Daily Mail, someone or something must be to blame! Who shall we blame for the recession? I know – Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand! Yeah – it was all their fault for earning too much and having silly hair. I say sack the fuckers!

Whatever the reason, it was certainly cold this morning, and cold weather often equals good birds. There’s probably an equation for it, but being completely useless at maths I have no idea what it might be. So I went to Rutland Water, hoping to find a diver or a seaduck or something. But the most exciting bird I saw was a Rock Pipit at the dam. Actually that is pretty exciting in Leicestershire. I wrote it down in my spotter’s book. Also at the dam were a pair of Scaup and a rather late Swallow. After that I saw nothing else apart from this friendly Stonechat at Eyebrook, and I was back home by early afternoon.

Oh dear. I seem to have got stuck in ‘tedious birding diary type wank’ mode. Don’t worry - it’ll probably wear off soon.

Saturday 25 October 2008

Glad I'm not on Shetland now

I had a text from Rob this afternoon saying that the wind had recently gusted to 93mph in Lerwick (that's pretty fucking windy), and that he was currently without electricity. However, it wasn't all doom and gloom, as he'd added Grey Phalarope and Leach's Petrel to his house list! Who needs power when you can see birds like that from your house? What did you have for tea, Rob - that Wryneck in between two pieces of dry bread? We had a lovely toad-in-the-hole, with roast potatoes, glazed carrots, peas and gravy, and for pudding... sorry, I turned into John Hague there for a moment... where was I? Oh yes, he also found a White-rumped Sand on the pool, but that wasn't new for the house.

By the way, if you haven't looked recently, the waster's finally got round to updating his blog with all his gripping tales from September... and some rather less gripping tales from October.

Another thing to be glad about is that (unlike some) I didn't go to South Wales today to look for a dodgy-sounding Little Blue Heron. No, I stayed in all day, looking out of my window in case the Merlin that 'Beast' saw at Stoughton Airfield yesterday decided to fly past. It didn't.

P.S. we had some wine as well.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Funny bird

Well it obviously wasn't a Blackburnian Warbler or a Mugimaki Flycatcher, but I'm still not sure what my auntie saw in her garden the other day. Further 'pumping' has elicited the following additional information (bear in mind that she originally said the nearest thing in the book was Pied Wagtail): it was perched on top of a hedge, then flew down into next door's garden; it was about the size of a Blackbird or slightly larger, with quite a long tail; its plumage was 'more striped than a Magpie', and the orange was 'underneath'.

If you took that description at face value, you would have to conclude that it wasn't anything on the British List, and possibly not even anything known to science. Now, the chances of my auntie finding something new to Britain in her garden are remote, and the chance of it being new to science is zero. So, unless it was an escaped cagebird, it was probably something common.

But what? Bill Oddie said in his Little Black Bird Book that "99 per cent of laymen's funny birds refer to Jays." That's always a possibility, but the Pied Wagtail bit makes me think it was more black and white than that, and I think I'm coming round to the view that Great Spotted Woodpecker is the most likely candidate.

All of which only goes to show just how hard bird identification really is, and how much most of us take it for granted that we can quickly and easily identify most of what we see.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Is it spring yet?

No, thought not, but as I'm awake now I might as well post some drivel here.

Apparently my auntie had a funny bird in her garden the other day. Nothing unusual in that, you might say; most birders' relatives have had funny birds in their gardens at one time or another. My granny reckoned she had an American Robin in her garden in Rugby once! However, this particular auntie lives in Paignton, south Devon, so it might possibly have been something out of the ordinary.

"The nearest bird in the book was a Pied Wagtail, [so presumably it was basically black and white] but it had a flash of bright orange on it when it flew off."

I know that's a very brief description (and pretty typical for a non-birder) but what the fuck was that?!!

Answers on a postcard please, or if you're not still living in the 19th century, via comments in the usual way.

And anyone who lives near Paignton might want to go and have a nose around Swincombe Drive just in case it was a Blackburnian Warbler. Or a Mugimaki Flycatcher.

Wednesday 15 October 2008


Had Rob been at home this morning, he would have had a third house tick found by me, but as he wasn't, he didn't. Does that make sense? It's been a long day. Anyway, there was a Great Grey Shrike in the Virkie Willows first thing this morning, but it had flown off towards Scatness by the time Rob got there. The reason for his delay was that he'd relocated yesterday's Coal Tit in Toab, and was helping the assembled masses to look for it.

However, he did have one house tick today - there was a Goosander on the Pool just after I left. I looked for it out of the plane window when we took off, but I couldn't see it.

When I got in to Birmingham airport this evening I switched my phone on to find a message from Rob saying that he'd caught up with the Long-tailed Tit at Sumburgh Hotel today as well - photos on the Shetland website.

I'm going to hibernate now - next post will probably be in the spring...

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Two tit dip day

With one or two obvious exceptions (which I won't go into), tits are rare in Shetland, so it was a surprise to hear of a Long-tailed Tit at the lighthouse this morning. It was only about the 5th Shetland record, so despite the fact that I see them in my garden every day we went to have look for it. Unfortunately it was only seen by the finder, and then promptly disappeared.

Amazingly, Rob found a Coal Tit later in the day, probably only the 5th record for Mainland Shetland, although there have been a few on other islands (about 15 records in total). As you'll have guessed from the title of today's post, I didn't manage to see that either.

However, before all this, almost the first bird I saw when I left the house this morning was this Long-eared Owl in the Virkie Willows. It was very approachable, but difficult to photograph as there were so many branches in the way. Mark (visible at the bottom left of the second image) got some better ones.

Definitely drinking in the Last Chance Saloon, Mark and I went to Levenwick this afternoon, where this stunning adult male Red-breasted Flycatcher jumped out in front of us. Only 'scarce' maybe, but a cracking little bird, and only the second one I've ever seen that actually had a red breast.

The rest of the day was spent not seeing tits and generally farting around in the south, but we didn't see anything else of note.

So that's it for another year - we saw a few common migrants, a handful of scarce and not a single BB rarity. Unless I see anything else tomorrow morning, my holiday list finished on 96, 12 down on last year. All that's left to do now is pack and get on the plane tomorrow morning, leaving Rob to a Shetland winter of alcoholism, Long-tailed Ducks and vitamin deficiency now that Mark won't be here to cook for him.

Monday 13 October 2008

Still here...

...but looking forward to going home! Weather still shit westerlies and heavy showers; migrant birds still almost non-existent. We can't even see other people's birds now - there was a Richard's Pipit in the fields beind the Toab shop this morning, but it had disappeared by the time we got there (the pipit that is. The shop was still there last time I looked, although it could well have blown away by now).

A trip to Sandwick in search of some pie action resulted in yet another disappointing dip, and seemed to confirm Mark's theories on the mysterious relationship between pie availability and rare bird occurrences. Nearby Hoswick wasn't much better, with just a Pied Flycatcher and a Lesser Whitethroat. The latter was the first of the trip, which shows just how quiet it's been.

Tomorrow is our last full day, so we'll be giving it as high a percentage as we can muster (perhaps about 87%?) in the hope of finding something rare before we go home on Wednesday. There must be something in South Mainland - Unst had a Blyth's Reed Warbler yesterday, and there was a White's Thrush at Kergord today, so at least some eastern vagrants are battling through against the wind.

Sunday 12 October 2008

The Inglorious Twelfth

Today we had a plan: sack off the south, and head north to Esha Ness, a big, virtually unwatched headland in the north-west of Mainland. Here we would almost certainly find an American wader on the tundra-like areas of grass and pools, or a rare passerine, either in the geos or in various plantations and gardens on the way.

Here is the list of places we tried: Voe, the Busta House Hotel gardens at Brae, Sullom Plantation, Esha Ness (where we walked about 4 miles in total), Collafirth, Gluss,Voxter Plantation and Loch of Tingwall.

Here is the list of vaguely noteworthy birds we saw: 1 Red Grouse somewhere near Tingwall (a Shetland tick for me); 3 Snow Buntings at Tangwick, Esha Ness; 1 Pied Flycatcher at Gluss, and the regular drake Ring-necked Duck & 1 Slavonian Grebe on Loch of Tingwall. Rob also gripped me and Mark off with a Yellow-browed Warbler and a Lesser Whitethroat at Collafirth, but it was raining by then, and we couldn't be arsed to walk to where he'd seen them.

Conclusion: there are very few migrant birds in Shetland at the moment.

Some photos:
Mark reads all about the history of Esha Ness lighthouse

A small part of the birdless expanse of Esha Ness

A birdless geo

Another birdless geo

P.S. How could I forget the highlights of the day - tea and chocolate cake at the Braewick Cafe, and a hearty fry-up cooked for us by Mark this evening.

P.P.S. apparently there were a few birds around today, including a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Voe. So an alternative conclusion would be that we're just incompetent.

Saturday 11 October 2008

Still windy. Still not many birds

So, what can I say about today? Very windy and wet in the morning. 5 Pale-bellied Brent Geese on the Pool provided a brief diversion on our way to clean Rob's other house after the No-hopers left in a hurry the other day. Fortunately John had taken his 'special interest' magazines away (dirty boy!), and there weren't too many nasty stains on the sheets.

In the afternoon we went to the windiest place we could find (some godforsaken bit of moorland called Yaafield, on the west side of the Maywick valley) just in case there were any American waders on the pools. There weren't.

At Boddam we saw yet another Brent Goose, and I had a valuable Shetland tick in the form of a pair of Pintail.

This evening, the Little Bunting was still in the same place behind the Toab shop, and that was about it for the day. Tomorrow we hit the north. I have to go and prepare a detailed itinerary now...

Friday 10 October 2008

Pished off

If nothing else, I'll be a bit fitter by the end of this holiday. Yet again, we walked miles today, but failed to find anything new. I think all the birders who've visited Shetland in the last couple of autumns have been somewhat spoilt by the weather - this year it's constant strong southerlies or south-westerlies with frequent heavy rain, and consequently much more difficult to find anything.

But at least we're trying. This morning we thought we ought to have a look for yesterday's possible Lancy at Toab. We didn't really expect it to be there, so we were surprised when Mark flushed a Locustella from the ditch at the side of the road, just up the hill from where it was seen yesterday. Unfortunately it was an absolute bastard to get anywhere near; it flew four or five times (always long before we got to where it had gone down), and we eventually lost it in gardens at Hestingott.

Identifying Locustellas is tricky enough even with good views, but in flight the only relevant characters you can see are size, tail length and general coloration. I have to say that with the views I had of it, I would probably go for Grasshopper rather than Lanceolated - it didn't strike me as being particularly small or short-tailed, and looked rather olive-toned. Probably best left at that really, given that we didn't get anywhere near seeing it on the ground!

Next we went to Garths Ness, which was a silly idea on the face of it, as it was very exposed there, but the plan was to walk up Burn of Garth. It proved to be sheltered but birdless. Mark and I carried on over the hill and walked all the way to Quendale Mill, while Rob went back to the car and met us at the mill. Quendale Burn was also sheltered, but mostly devoid of birds, apart from 5 or 6 Blackcaps and a Chiffchaff.

Finally, this evening a couple came into the shop at Toab and told us they'd seen a Little Bunting just round the corner, so we went and had a look at that. Comparing photos of this bird with the one at the lighthouse, it looks like a different bird, as the flank streaks are blacker and more sharply defined.

The weather forecast for the next couple of days at least is for more of the same. I shall need a change of scenery soon - last year Andy L and I had a day out in West Mainland, which is massively underwatched. We didn't see anything, but 'a change is as good as a rest' as it used to say on the Durex adverts. Never did understand what that was supposed to mean!

Oh how we laughed

Laugh? We nearly shat.
We had not laughed so much since Grandma died
Or Auntie Mabel caught her left tit in the mangle.

Pager message this morning: No sign of the Alder Flycatcher at Nanjizal.

Right, that's the first part of the very predictable script played out. Now, where's that mega here...

Thursday 9 October 2008


I mentioned in a comment recently that there were very few records of Nearctic landbirds in Shetland. Being the sad bastards that we are (and also bored), Rob & I have just been through the Birds of Shetland book and the website archives since 2004 to see just how many there have been. And the answer is... (yes?) IS..... (YES?):


Very appropriate.

Furthermore, we have established that exactly half of them have been on Fair Isle or Foula, and the majority (24) have been in September. In fact, there has only ever been one Nearctic landbird in South Mainland in October, and that was a Blackpoll Warbler in the Sumburgh Hotel garden on 6th October 1990.

So, despite the fact that it's raging south-westerly at the moment, and Ireland and the South-west are drowning in Yanks, it's highly unlikely that we'll get one here. On the other hand, you could say that South Mainland is overdue another one in October...

We've seen plenty of common and a few scarce, but no rare

Mark and I won the race to be first to the lighthouse this morning, but it didn't do us any good - all we saw was a Reed Bunting. Heading down to the Sumburgh Hotel garden was a much better idea, as there was a Great Grey Shrike in it! It was very flighty and difficult to get close to (as many birds seem to be here when they first arrive), but I managed to get this record shot:

Also in the hotel garden a possible Blyth's Reed Warbler got pulses racing until we got closer and noticed the diagnostic Fyffes sticker on it:

After a veritable pie drought at the Toab shop recently, we weren't optimistic, but today's visit brought the welcome sight of no less than SIX Lasagne Pies on the shelf! This number was rapidly reduced to two, making Mark in particular very happy. Also in the Toab area was a Yellow-browed Warbler; always nice to see, even if they don't even rate as scarce these days.

The rest of the day was spent flogging South Mainland as usual - a Jack Snipe at Sumburgh Farm was new for the holiday list, and this Red-breasted Flycatcher kept up my run of seeing this species at the lighthouse every time I've been to Shetland in the autumn:

Mid-afternoon we heard the surprising news that the Nordagerdi crew had all decided to go home today - Andy Lawson to twitch the Alder Flycatcher in Cornwall (will it be there tomorrow?...), and John and Dave because they'd decided the weather looked shit for the next few days. Almost immediately it looked as if they might regret this decision, as a Lanceolated Warbler was reported at Toab, but predictably we couldn't find it when we went to look for it.

Personally, I don't think the weather looks at all shit, and I fully expect to see a rare before I go home next Wednesday. There was a positive side to this strange decision though - on hearing the news Mark and I immediately raided their kitchen, and carried off a fine selection of provisions, including chicken breasts, several bottles of beer and the ingredients for an apple crumble (plus a tin of custard). Thanks guys - we shan't have to do any more shopping for a few days!

Mark is currently in the kitchen making a chilli, and singing 'Ring of Fire', which hopefully isn't a prediction for tomorrow!!

Wednesday 8 October 2008

A 'Little' Better

Various forms of substance abuse last night not surprisingly led to a sore head this morning. However, even in my still semi inebriated state, and before I'd put my contact lenses in, I managed to find a Yellow-browed Warbler in Rob's front garden. Amazingly, given that it's usually the commonest warbler here in October, this was a house tick for him.

This seemed a good sign, so after a hearty bird-finding breakfast we headed down south. There seemed to be more birds around today, but we didn't see anything of note until about midday. As we were driving up to the lighthouse this Little Bunting appeared on the road in front of us. Rob managed not to run it over, and we got some photos before it flew off down the road and disappeared over the cliff (it was seen again later).

Fucking typical - you walk miles all over South Mainland seeing nothing, and then a good bird appears in the road in front of you! Perhaps the way forward is not all this Punkbirder-style route marching, but just staying in the car?

News of a White's Thrush on Fair Isle encouraged us to keep going, but despite thrashing the whole of the Sumburgh area we couldn't find anything else (the Nordagerdi crew found a Siberian Stonechat after we'd left, which showed that new birds were still arriving in the afternoon). Geosetter was dead, and another Yellow-browed at Channerwick was the only other vaguely interesting bird we saw.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Comfort food for a cold wet day

Chicken stew. Showing well near Pool of Virkie this evening. Prints available on request.

Check out those dumplings!

Tedious birding diary

Strong south-easterlies again today, which ought in theory to be good. However, it's been pissing it down all day, which has made birding almost impossible. A walk around Toab produced very little apart from a couple of Bramblings, a Fieldfare and a Greenland Redpoll, and the 'Ditch of Delights' was once more completely devoid of birds. I've walked through it five times now, and have yet to see a single bird in it.

We then spent half an hour or so trying to see a very skulking Acro in Sumburgh Quarry before eventually deciding that it was just a Reed Warbler. While we were trying to identify it, a Ring Ouzel flew over, and there was also a Blackcap in the quarry.

Burn of Geosetter is usually worth a look, and today it held a Yellow-browed Warbler, a Chiffchaff, a Goldcrest and a couple of Robins.

After that the rain really set in, so we retired to the house for tea and toast. I suspect we shan't get out again today unless the forecast is very wrong. Tomorrow looks calmer and drier, so that may be the day to get out and find whatever's come in on these south-easterlies.

Monday 6 October 2008

A propos of nothing in particular

Except that this song has been going round in my head all day and I've now had quite a lot to drink/smoke:

Smells Like Teen Stringing

Gen up on gulls and bring your bins
It's fun to string and to pretend
It's over there, I think I've scored
Oh no, I saw a dodgy bird

Hello, hello, hello, new low?
Hello, hello, hello, new low?
Hello, hello, hello, new low?

At the lighthouse it's less dangerous
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
A Parula on the pager
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
A Wilsonia
An albino
My Pipilo

I'm sure that was a Double-crest
And for this tick I feel blessed
A Little Blue is what I need
And always will until the end

Hello etc

And I forget just why I twitched
Oh yeah, I guess I needed it
I found a lark, it was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind

Hello etc

At the lighthouse it's less dangerous
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
I've seen Hoopoe, and Falcated
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
A Wilsonia
An albino
My Pipilo
A denial
A denial
A denial (etc)

My legs hurt

Spurred on by light south-easterly winds and an apparently new Barred Warbler in the Nordagerdi garden first thing, Mark & I put ourselves through a punishing Punkbirder-style dawn-dusk marathon in the field today. We walked miles around Toab, Scatness, Exnaboe and Sumburgh, but saw pretty much nothing apart from a Snow Bunting at Toab and a Brent Goose at Scatness.

Sunrise over Pool of Virkie - just to prove I really was out of bed

By mid afternoon, things were so bad that we were reduced to twitching this newly-arrived migrant Hedgehog at Sumburgh Farm, as it was a Shetland tick.

Not only could we not find anything ourselves, we couldn't even see birds found by the Nordagerdi crew, including their Barred Warbler and a Yellow-browed Warbler at Sumburgh Farm.

Highlight of the day was undoubtedly another tasty curry for tea (beef Madras this time), followed by several beers, including this fine specimen - the only Punk spotted on Shetland this year!

Incidentally, rumours of South Mainland Shetland being overrun by hordes of birders this autumn seem to be completely unfounded. Apart from the Nordagerdi lot, we only saw two other visiting birders today. Presumably the crowd at the Red-throated Pipit was due to it being a Saturday, with most of them just passing through on their way somewhere else.

Fans of Sparky the dog will be pleased to know that he's still going strong; pictured here with his good friend Ginger Cat, hogging the sofa as usual:

The forecast for tomorrow is more of the same, but with added rain. I can't wait.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Slight improvement

Still very windy today. Mark and I had a kick around Toab & Virkie in the morning, including walking down the 'Ditch of Delights' behind Rob's house where Marcus Lawson found a Paddyfield Warbler and a Thrush Nightingale a couple of weeks ago, but for little reward. OK, no reward.

Then in the afternoon we got a message about a Red-throated Pipit down the 'Valley of Plenty' (otherwise known as Clevigarth, just north of Exnaboe). I wouldn't normally bother twitching something like this, having seen several before, but as the alternative was probably seeing fuck-all we went to have a look.

Some entertainment was provided by a halfwit thinking that a perfectly normal Meadow Pipit was the bird ("it's a very bright one!"), but we had to make do with hearing the real bird call a few times and seeing it in flight. There was further egregious stringing when several people claimed to have seen it on the ground, but all we could see was a well-marked Meadow Pipit. Eventually we gave up (although Rob still hadn't even seen the bird in flight) and went to the shop to get some food for this evening.

Thinking that it might be easier to find the bird once the crowds had gone (yes - crowds - on Shetland!!), Mark, Rob & I returned late afternoon, and immediately located it in the same general area. Without the presence of large numbers of cretins it was much easier to get close to it, and we had excellent views of it on the ground. Not the best-marked Red-throat I've seen, but still very distinctive.

The real highlight of the day, however, was the splendid four bean curry (that's four types of bean, not four individual beans) cooked for us by Mark this evening - who needs Andy Lawson?...

Finally for now, an illustration of the sort of undesirables who are coming to Shetland these days - we heard an account of some absolute cock twitching 2 Song Thrushes at Brae (fucking miles away in the north, up near Sullom Voe) because he needed it for his 'trip list'. Even funnier - he dipped!!

P.S. photos of the Red-throated Pipit on Surfbirds and the Shetland website - as you can see, it was a bit of a scrubber!

Saturday 4 October 2008

Rain and snow. No birds.

After an agreeable evening spent in the company of Mr Daniels, Mr Whyte and Mr Mackay, we woke this morning to the sound of absolutely pissing rain.

As usual there was no food in Rob's house, so for breakfast we had to make do with the only thing we could find in the freezer:

Actually that's a slight lie - there was a Meadow Pipit in the freezer as well, along with a bag of prawns that I'm sure was there last year!

Around midday the rain turned to sleet, snow and hail. This finally stopped, and we thrashed Quendale and Channerwick. The 'highlight' was a Robin at the latter.

Terrible news - Andy (pictured above - you can tell he's a 3 Michelin-star chef from his assured frying pan technique) has defected to the Nordagerdi No-hopers, so we'll have to do our own cooking this year. I can see a lot of fry-ups being consumed...

Friday 3 October 2008

Cold. No birds.

Arrived at Sumburgh after a predictably tedious day mostly spent hanging around various airports. Fuck me - it's cold here! I can't remember it ever being as cold as this in Shetland in October. The wind is currently strong north-westerly, which accounts for the coldness, and also for the general lack of birds (apparently there's not a lot about). Not that I've done any birding yet other than standing outside Rob's house for half an hour or so.

Rob's prediction for the next few days - "we've got a good chance of finding an Arctic Redpoll or a Walrus."

The forecast is more promising for the next few days, although it looks like it's going to stay windy for a bit longer yet.

Andy Lawson has kindly brought a bottle of whisky with my name on it (literally), so that's this evening sorted. I may or may not get out tomorrow...