Monday, 28 June 2010

Wandering Wildfowl

There is no single auditor of the ‘official’ Shetland List, it is something that has been developed by consensus over the years. Many people will remember that Dennis Coutts compiled a small checklist more than 20 years ago (it had a King Eider vignette on the cover). More recently, the authors of The Birds of Shetland, in conjunction with the local records committee, and the task of deciding what was in the main body of the book. Official national decisions were followed with one major exception, Category D species were included in the main list, in line with the policy of Shetland listers, who have always included Category D species on their lists. (For those who are unsure, Category D, which does not form part of the British List, is intended as a holding category for potential vagrants, until their true status is clearer).

Since the publication of The Birds of Shetland there have been no contentious issues, until recently. Compiling the Shetland Bird Report 2009 was trickier than usual, as a decision had to be made on what to do with two contentious species. At first, I admit, I took a hard line and was all for putting them in the appendix, but in the end I relented, partly because another contentious species turned up earlier this year. So here are some thoughts on three controversial wildfowl.

Wood Duck

The male found by Rob Fray on Loch of Brow on 16th April 2009 initially elicited some excitement (photo by Rob Fray). It was very wary and so there were hopes that it might be a candidate for Category A of the full British List. Its long stay did it no favours though, and when it was still around in early June it was being dismissed by several observers. Nevertheless, there are spring records from Iceland, so maybe it still has a chance of being wild, and while it probably doesn’t overcome the ‘credibility barrier’ it is another reminder that this species is a potential vagrant (which is what Category D is for). In The Birds of Shetland, Wood Duck was one of two species included in the main list despite not even being in Category D - it was termed a Category D candidate (the other category D candidate was Yellow-headed Blackbird, since moved to D). So, with two Category D candidates already on the Shetland List, another one is not a problem.

Ruddy Shelduck

A female found by Mick Mellor and seen briefly at Spiggie and elsewhere late on 30th April and early on 1st May 2009 was, perhaps surprisingly, the first ever seen in Shetland. Ruddy Shelduck is controversial among British birders as records are regular, but the only ones accepted as being wild are from the 19th century, and so in Category B of the British List. There are three possible origins for the Shetland bird – it could be wild, it could be from feral populations in Europe, or it could be an escape. It is difficult to say which is more likely in Shetland. Strictly speaking, to be an acceptable record this bird would need to be accepted into Category A of the British List, and this record does not have the credentials to overcome the problems that the species has in being accepted. But it is surely a potential vagrant in Shetland. Species can’t be in Category A/B and Category D in a British context, but is surely a Category D candidate in a Shetland sense.

Egyptian Goose

An Egyptian Goose was seen at various locations from 24th February 2010 (photo by Roger Riddington). Egyptian Geese breed in Africa, but there are feral populations in Europe, especially in East Anglia, so it is on Category C of the British List (for naturalised species). It is not in any category of the Scottish List, however, with all sightings believed to relate to escapes. Nevertheless, we soon had contact from regular Foula visitor Kevin Shepherd, who lives in Norfolk, who informed us that late winter and early spring was the time to see Egyptian Goose on ‘vis-mig’ past the Norfolk coast, while we also discovered that populations in Denmark and the Netherlands were larger than we thought. Bearing in mind the snowy weather at the time, surely this bird was a vagrant from a naturalised population.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Cetacean survey update

An update from Jane Evans concerning the Honestas charter.

On Tuesday the team worked off Fetlar, and had a successful day searching for Risso's dolphins, with a possible resident population being identified - further work will be needed over the coming months in order to confirm this, but the signs are good so far. 
On Wednesday they headed back north to look for Orcas but to no avail. However, a Minke Whale was spotted at the mouth of Yell Sound.  Thursday was better with some good sightings of Risso's again off Fetlar. With the weather blowing hard from the north on Friday we walked up to the point of Fethaland to do some monitoring from the shore.
Again if anyone has any sightings of killer whales or other cetaceans in the area please can they get in touch.  
With this in mind, we will report that on Shetland Nature's Midsummer Cruise on board one of the Yell Sound ferries on Sunday, single Minke Whales were sighted twice at the south end of Colgrave Sound, and 2 White-sided Dolphins were seen in the same area.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Surveying cetaceans

Jane Evans and Ben Wilcock of Highland Sea Charters have been in touch to let us know that this week the MFV Honestas (owned and run by Highland Sea Charters) has been chartered by Volker Deecke and a team from the Scottish Oceans Institute, to look for Killer Whales north of Shetland between Muckle Flugga and the Ramna Stacks. During the week they will also be working around Fetlar monitoring Risso's Dolphins.

It is a time to remind anyone that if they have any sightings of Orcas or dolphins then please pass the information on, as the more information we have the better.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Shetland’s first Iberian Chiffchaff

Brothers Stef and Ash McElwee have been annual visitors in recent years, coming to Unst during the English spring half-term holiday. They have found a good many records during the previous years, but this year they managed to add a species to the Shetland List. Here is their account of the find.

 Photo by Stef McElwee

Sometimes in birding, lightning can and does strike twice. This was certainly the case in the finding of Britain’s most northerly record of Iberian Chiffchaff at Halligarth plantation, Unst. Both of the finders of this bird have previously found or been in on the find of an Iberian Chiffchaff in the UK, at Stiffkey Norfolk this year (AIM) and at Newbiggin Northumberland in 2004 (SJM). When a strange yet familiar song burst from the plantation on the morning of Friday 5th June it is fair to say that both observers were primed for the event!

Birding on Unst in the preceeding week had been hard work due to very small numbers of common migrants, yet rewarding due to quality birds being found such as Bluethroat and Shetland’s third Black Stork. With this in mind, we continued to work the sites on north Unst on Friday.

At mid-day, we arrived at Halligarth plantation to be greeted by a Willow Warbler in full song. Ash also detected another bird singing more distantly in the plantation.  On arriving level with the derelict house both observers heard a snatch of the song again, “wheet wheet, tif tif, tif".  Although jumbled and not classic in phrase, both observers looked at one another and said “ I know what this is going to be” and calmly walked into the wood with Ash’s Remembird sound recorder at the ready. 
True to form, the bird began to sing loudly, and in prolonged bursts from the canopy. “Tif, Tif, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, De De De, De De De" is an attempt to transcribe the persistent and ringing song flowing out of the canopy above our heads! It is difficult to describe the surreal experience of recognizing a Shetland first without seeing the bird. Stef looked at Ash and said “come on bird, please call”, to which it duly did, a piercing downward carrying "peeoo", similar in pitch to a Siberian Chiffchaff but with an obvious downward carrying note at the end.  Knowing this call note is pretty much diagnostic of Iberian Chiffchaff we were faced with the bizarre dilemma of needing to phone out a Shetland first without having seen the bird! Knowing the importance of the record we decided we had better see it to check it actually looked like an Iberian Chiffchaff!

Thankfully it did! Ash had good views of the characteristic spikey bill with an orangey pale lower mandible, the whitish underparts with yellowy wash to the fore supercilium, throat and upper breast and the mossy green upperparts and longish looking primary projection. Enough was enough and the news was phoned out to the Unst birding population and Roger Riddington. Paul Harvey and Rory Tallack arrived soon after (Paul was working on Unst that day) and they were able to confirm and enjoy the bird already described. The bird continued to show well for periods for the rest of the day and could easily be located in the plantation by the clear ringing call already described. The bird sang strongly for the remainder of the morning but was much less vocal on a cloudy afternoon. There was no sign of the bird the following day.


A very distinctive Phyllosc with a bit of Wood, Bonelli's and Willow Warbler thrown into a Chiffchaff’s clothing.  This bird was on plumage and structure quite similar to a Willow Warbler and I wonder if not singing or calling how many birders would simply misidentify one as such! Certainly the strongish supercilium and longer-looking primary projection would hint at this species. The pattern and combination of white, yellow and green is not dis-similar to a poorly marked female Wood Warbler.

Head: this bird showed a strongish supercilium, notably yellowish in the fore area, with the super extending to the rear of the ear coverts. Supercilium aside, this species has a very characteristic open faced appearance due to the relatively plain and unmarked ear coverts. The bird showed a weak eye ring most notable around the lower half of the eye. This bird showed the bill structure that appears quite distinctive of this species. Best described as longish / spikey with an obvious pale orangey lower mandible.

Upperparts:  the crown, mantle, scaps and coverts were a warmish green colour with notable greenish fringes to the secondaries and the tail feathers. The primary projection was longer than a typical Chiffchaff, approaching Willow Warbler in projection. This long winged appearance was very noticeable in the field and added to its particular jizz.

Underparts:  bird had quite cleanish white underparts with a subtle yellowish wash to the throat and upper breast. The undertail coverts appeared to have a yellowish wash but this may have been a trick of the light as the bird was viewed above observers heads.

Bare Parts: bill already described. There was much debate as to the leg colour. I thought that the bird had quite pale orangey pink legs but other observers described them as much darker than this. It will be interesting to analyse images to assess this.

Song:  Ash has recorded and assessed the sonograms of this bird and has described both the song and calls as classic.  I have already described the typical song above but it should be noted that this bird, particularly in strong bursts would produce a variety of different versions. It would sometimes sing “tif tif wheet wheet wheet tif” and would miss the characteristic third part rattle from the end of the song.  This is fairly typical of British vagrants, the Newbiggin bird certainly did this throughout its stay.  The gap between the "De De De" notes also varied, sometimes issued as a rapid trill, other times with bigger gaps between notes.

 Sonagrams of song (upper) and call (lower) by Ash McElwee

(both go to external links - click 'back' to return to this page)

In conclusion, the subtle plumage features, structural differences, characteristic song and diagnostic call make Iberian Chiffchaff a relatively straight forward identification if care is taken with the exact components of the song and the diagnostic call is noted. We expect it will not be too long before Shetland birders can look forward to another of these superb leaf warblers.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The wanderings of a Hungarian Black Stork

When a Black Stork turned up on Unst on 2nd June 2010 this was exceptional enough, as it was only the third Shetland record. The bird was, however, carrying a colour-ring. This immediately told us that this was the same Black Stork that had been in the Outer Hebrides earlier in the spring, as this was also carrying a white plastic ring. A quick e-mail to friends there soon confirmed that they had seen the ring but not read it, so getting the code was a priority.

On the stork's second day on Unst it went to roost on the cliffs in the late afternoon, and this gave us the opportunity to get close enough to read the ring. After a little effort we had it - 50P9.

It was then off to the internet to track down the bird's origins, and within 24 hours we had an answer. The bird had been ringed in northern Hungary, close to the Slovakian border, in June 2007. Even more interestingly, it had already been sighted on two previous occasions - in SE Hungary, close to the Romanian border, in September 2008, and in the NE of the Netherlands in March 2009.

It was probably first seen in Scotland on 8th May this year, when a Black Stork was seen flying over the Findhorn valley. All the sightings in Scotland are shown on the following Google map.

View Black Stork 50P9 in a larger map