Tuesday, 20 November 2012

By Martin Heubeck

Reprinted from the Shetland Bird Club Newsletter No. 169

There are two freezers in the basement at Sumburgh Head into which dead birds get put, usually but not always in a plastic bag clearly marked with the species, date, location and finder. Every so often I box up some of the more interesting specimens and mail them to Bob McGowan at the National Museums of Scotland. This is what I did, in a hurry, on 7th March 2010 and I later emailed Bob a list of the birds I’d sent. One was the Brünnich’s Guillemot found on Scousburgh beach by Roger Riddington on 25th March 2007, which had been properly bagged and labelled, but there had been another Brünnich’s in the freezer, not in a bag and not labelled, which at the time I assumed had to have been that found by Mick Mellor at West Yell on 4th May 2006. However, I do remember being puzzled when I packed it, because I thought I’d already sent that one off; stupidly, I didn't check the photos of that individual, which was in summer plumage and clearly a different bird.

I’d forgotten all about this until I got an email from Bob on 9th August, who’d only just got around to defrosting and opening the box. The West Yell bird was indeed already in the skin collection – so where had this one been found, and by whom? Who had put it in the freezer, and why? The pale tomium (pale stripe along the upper mandible), the extent of black on the face, the blackness of the upperwing and the dark shaft on the outer primary all point to Brünnich’s Guillemot, but the only clues to its origin are that it is in winter plumage and appears to have been found on a sandy beach. Pete Ellis and Mick Mellor are certain they had never seen this bird before, it rang no bells with Helen Moncrieff, and few other people have access to the freezers. The twine around the neck and through the gape is highly unusual for a Common Guillemot, and had it been a beached bird survey corpse mis-identified as Common Guillemot it should have been recorded as ‘entangled’.

Upper left: The mystery bird. Upper right: The mystery bird (left) and the March 2007 Scousburgh Brünnich’s Guillemot (right). Lower left: The mystery bird (upper) and a curated Brünnich’s Guillemot upperwing. Lower right: The mystery bird (left) and a Common Guillemot. Photos: Bob McGowan.

A check of beached bird survey records found only two entangled Common Guillemots between January 2000 and February 2010. One, on Bardister Ness in Sullom Voe on 27th February 2003 (monofil) didn’t fit the bill, as Bardister Ness is rocky and the orange twine on the mystery bird isn’t monofil. The other, on Sands of Meal, Burra on Tuesday 28th January 2003 ‘unaged remains (rope)’ looked more promising. Dave Okill normally covers Sands of Meal but has no memory of picking up a guillemot tangled in twine, or of putting one in the freezer. Since that day was an Up Helly Aa Tuesday, Dave should have been at work, with no daylight outside working hours. It is quite possible I did this survey, but for me to have scored a Guillemot as unaged means there would have been very little left of it, and I can’t believe I would have overlooked the head features and not checked the outer primary shaft on such an interesting corpse.

This leaves us in the embarrassing situation of there being a 15th record of Brünnich’s Guillemot for Shetland, but with no idea as to when or where it was found. There can only be two reasons why somebody took the trouble to put this bird in the freezer (or asked somebody to store it). First, they knew or suspected it was a Brünnich’s Guillemot but forgot all about it and forgot to tell anybody. This seems most unlikely. Second, they didn't realise it was a Brünnich’s but thought the fact that it was entangled in twine was unusual enough for somebody to be interested in it. If anyone can shed any light on this mystery bird, please contact me, Martin Heubeck Mansefield, Dunrossness, Shetland ZE2 9JH.
Tel. 01950 460304. Email: martinheubeck@btinternet.com).