Wednesday, September 29, 2010

in defence of shetland

A certain on-off-on blogger from Seaton in Devon has recently produced an in-depth analysis of whether Shetland or Scillies is the best option for a birder looking to brighten up his/her autumn - see here. And seeing as how I'm just back from 4 bird-filled days on Shetland, I thought I'd put the case for the northern option.

To summarise (if not plagiarise), Haig (2010) concluded the following:

Shetland pros

  • Gets lots of rare birds, heaps of scarce birds, more than its fair share of megas  - I could add that it seems to get hardly any common migs these days! Blackcap was our commonest mig, with c.15 seen, with only single lesser whitethroat, whitethroat, pied flycatcher and spotted flycatcher seen - compare this to 9 yellow browed warblers and 7 barred warblers - madness! But good fun too!

  • No vegetation taller than 6 inches - not quite true, sadly, but certainly a lot less than Scillies or Galley, come to that.

Job done, it seems. Stacks of cracking birds, and nowhere for them to hide. But...
Shetland cons

  • Birds can only find Shetland when assisted by easterly winds - easterlies certainly help but birds can (and do) turn up in any winds

  • Every single birder on Shetland is red-hot and keen as mustard - they will see everything before you do - the good thing is, not even the Shetland lads can be out every day, so there's still possibilities to get in amongst it when they're not looking!

  • If the wind turns to NW and is accompanied by rain, suicide will seem an attractive option - I asked my mate if he'd ever not seen anything on a trip to Shetland, and he said the worst time was 5 days of north-westerlies - tough going but he still ticked white's thrush

  • There are only so many Common Rosefinches a person can take - Its been 11 years since I last saw a rosefinch, and I saw 3 rosefinches in 4 days

  • If you muck something up, the best birders in Britain will be on hand to witness your ineptitude, and blog about it witheringly that same evening - there's always a chance. but luckily Brydon was very good about the sedge warbler!

  • Do you really want to follow in the exact same sheep-like footsteps as every other thinking birder in the land? N0! Which is why I'd go to Shetland every time!

  • Shetland doesn't do proper scones, and if you did find some clotted cream you certainly wouldn't be able to trust it - forget scones and twitch pies! The Voe Bakery does some fantastic ones - macaroni & bean pie, tattie & bean pie plus I'm told the sweet chili chicken pie is great! Hard to find at times though, and you do have to be pretty ruthless getting into the various shops and checking out both the hot counter & fridge sections before the rest of your carload beat you to it! I'm sure there'll be lots of hot pie action from the Isles here very soon!

Aren't rosefinches brilliant?

Although we dipped the white's thrush (we were on Unst, it was 1 mile from our gaff),  the last 2 hours were among the most exciting times I've had birding - after stumbling over, and then losing what was almost certainly last weeks river warbler of punkbirder fame (we had a large dark locustella with well-marked under tail coverts at the same site), a pale, sandy warbler then gave us the run-around for ages. Twice we had it seemingly pinned in a small stand of nettles, and both times it vanished! Cobbling together a composite description, it had to be a paddyfield warbler, confirmed beyond doubt once 2 of us had departed for a well-earned pint and the plane home, when it began to settle down a bit. It was joined by a blyth's reed warbler out of nowhere later that evening - madness! Can't wait till next autumn to go back!

 The only scottish tick of the trip - melodious warbler  - belter!