Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Water Pipit, a first for Shetland

Unst managed to turn up its second first for Shetland in 2010 with a Water Pipit at Norwick on 21st-23rd November. Here is a finder's account from Brydon Thomason.
Water Pipit at Norwick by Jim Nicolson
November is traditionally a month never to be underestimated when considering winding down an autumn birding in the isles. It is a month that seldom passes without at least one surprise rarity. Personally speaking, November has indeed been more than kind and has brought  a diversity of  rarity finds such as Gyrfalcon, Lesser Scaup and Hume’s, Arctic and Dusky Warblers, to name but a few - along with multiple King Eider and White-billed Divers.

With that said though, it can certainly be a hard month to keep motivation going when out in the field. Migrants can be very few and far between and suitable habitat and cover for a potential rarity is often all but weathered away.

Although birding time had been at something of a premium, I had still had my usual November aspirations of finding Pine Bunting or Desert Wheatear but, alas, once again it was to be a year of neither! But what I was to find, in a local context at least, was to be a much rarer bird than either of these ...

It was our son Casey's belated first birthday party so, with the Sunday dinner preparations all in hand, and along with my parents, wife Vaila and our birthday boy we set out for a nice pre- dinner outing. Having enjoyed a lovely walk at Skaw beach we made time for a drive along the shore-side road which overlooks one of Shetland’s iconic vistas, Norwick beach. 

As we drove towards the turning point, a passerine flitted over the verge and down toward the beach. I caught no more than a fleeting glimpse, but what I did see certainly intrigued me; the amount of white in the outer tail suggested pipit, but perhaps even a bunting or lark were all possibilities given how poorly I’d seen it. In any case any pipit, lark or bunting in late November is worth checking; they are few and far between by late November.

Leaving the car running and family in it, I peered over the bank and down onto the dead seaweed smothered beach only to see a female Black Redstart fly away from me - confused, my eyes quickly then fixed on my mystery bird flying off along the beach. It was certainly a pipit, but which? It showed quite a lot of white in the outer tail and seemed to show some brownish tones. I knew something was unfamiliar about it as I watched it fly to the far end of the beach. I quickly shouted to Vaila to come back for me ‘in a bit’, having no earthly idea how long that would be!      

I relocated the bird at the far end and got my first ‘on the deck views’. It was some 40-50yards away and I had no scope! The split second thoughts of Blyth’s (more by its apparent choice of habitat than anything else, feeding along the edge of dunes) were expelled instantly, not least on plumage tones and underpart streaking but also structure.

Its underparts were strikingly clean white, plus the white in the tail ruled out local Rock Pipit and I was fairly certain littoralis was not in the picture either. Water or Buff-bellied Pipit were all that were possible, I thought to myself. Without even getting the chance to stalk forward and get better views, a dog walker flushed it, causing it to fly over my head and all the way back to the far end of the beach, calling once as it went - a rather flat Rock Pipit like ‘psp’- surely it must  be  a Water Pipit?  

It had been several years since I had heard Buff-bellied Pipit in the States but I was pretty confident this was not one. I began to really train my thoughts on Water Pipit, a species I had never even seen in Britain, and not since a UAE trip many years ago, and even there I had admittedly paid them little attention. BBP was very much fresh on my radar having seen the bird at Eshaness only a few weeks previously, but this was just never coming across with a Buff-bellied Pipit vibe to me.

When I returned to the other end, my father was at the wheel of my Freelander and informed me the others were back home (only a few minutes up the road). I grabbed my scope but had no tripod with me. A blustery and very anxious few seconds through the scope for the first time appeared to confirm to me the following basics;
·          Tail, coverts and tertials did not appear strikingly blackish or crisply fringed as in BBP
·         The mantle appeared to be visibly streaked as opposed to rather plain BBP
·         Streaking on clean white underparts was quite bold all the way down flanks
·         Slightly browner tones around rump area
·         Perhaps most importantly the lores appeared to be quite distinctly marked and not open
·         Nor did it show the striking eye crescents of BBP - It had to be a Water Pipit I thought to myself.

Water Pipit at Norwick by Rob Brookes

All this had happened in under ten minutes, it was just after 1500 and light was failing fast, I had to get news out to the ‘Unst boys’. Unusually, I had no camera with me nor did I even have a field guide to hand. We drove off up the road to get phone reception and where Mr P (Mike Pennington) was my first and very definitely priority call. Thankfully he answered and within ten minutes was by my side followed swiftly by Robbie Brookes – I knew young Rory T was off island.

Water Pipit was certainly a first for Unst and I was also aware that it would almost certainly be a new species for all the Shetland ‘listers’ but didn’t actually realise at the time it was in fact a county first! Whilst anxiously trying to relocate the bird with Mr P I relayed all that I had noted. Thankfully without too much distress (although perhaps maybe with a little ‘tension’ in the air!) we pinned it down back feeding on the dead kelp on the tide line of the beach, which proved to be its favourite spot. We enjoyed fairly good and definitively conclusive views through a shared scope but with light that was by now bordering on appalling neither Mike nor Rob got anything better than poor record shots.

By about 1530 we had lost the bird due to poor light. On route home we put the news out and I was back home in time for getting the ‘tatties’ on and set the table - a county first and my son's first birthday party, the perfect Sunday!