Birding In Shetland – A rarity finding round up of 2012

From a birding perspective there is a magical air of aspiration and eager anticipation that fuels my optimism throughout the year. Arguably there is nowhere better in the British Isles for finding your own rarities, which can happen at any time of year and often under any circumstance. It may well be a pre-empted effort searching for a particular species in a particular habitat at a particular time of year having followed weather patterns and forecasts in hope. It can also just as likely be a trip to the post office, a day in the field leading a tour or even a trip to the beach with the family.

When, how and where ever it happens, it has been a huge inspiration for me ever since I began birding. I hope this posting of some of my ‘favourite finds’ of this year illustrates and perhaps even inspires the potential and excitement of finding your own birds in Shetland.

Mid-winter months can often be challenging to say the least this far north, for man, bird and beast alike! Statistically speaking, the chance of finding rare birds are greatly reduced, however if you do find a good ‘un, chances are it will be a GOOD ONE! Gyr Falcon and Ivory gull for example have been memorable mid-winter finds for me, cue the optimism…

Finding a Rough-legged buzzard on the first day of the year fuelled my optimism for 2011 being a good year of birding discovery for me. A young drake King Eider all the way from the High Arctic just a few weeks later in February proved that persistence pays off. Remarkably whilst this youngster was still present I came upon another King, a resplendent drake just a few miles away the following month.

Spring saw the arrival of a few special birds too. May in particular provided some enjoyable finds and two of which were whilst leading tours. Both of these rarities were of American origin; Pectoral Sandpiper and Ring-billed gull and showed how birds can appear when you least expect them and in turn are often all the more exciting, especially for guests on a tour! Bird of the spring for me however was a stunning Goshawk which I found in the trees of Halligarth right next door to our house (yip, I even got it on the garden list!). A raptor as awesome as this is a treat anywhere but even more so in a local context.  This is a very rare bird in Shetland and was the first in well over a decade. A Rustic Bunting next door, which also ended up on our garden list was also a nice spring find.

The autumn kicked off to an exciting and early start with two Two-barred Crossbills, which continued my run of luck on the local patch. Nearing the birth date of our second baby (who arrived on the 4th September) my priorities focussed with great joy on family life however my good fortune continued even though my time in the field was at a premium. A Booted Warbler led me and co finders a bit of a run around before we finally nailed it, followed by the first of two Arctic warblers just over a week apart on Unst and on Fetlar.

Adding two new species to the Fetlar (my beloved old patch) list was the highlight of September, (falling way, way short of the birth of our second son Corey of course) in the forms of Western Bonelli’s Warbler and Pallid Harrier. Interestingly the Pallid, although new to the island list, was a bird that was proven by images to have been seen on Mainland Shetland over four weeks previously!

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Although October produced some superb birds throughout Shetland the best of my own findings was an Olive-backed Pipit, especially as I found it whist out with the family heading to the beach! The wonderful thing about it was that we flushed it from cover whilst teaching our two year old son Casey how to ’pish’ birds out from cover, it certainly works!

The bird of the year for me was yet to come however, a Pine Bunting on Unst in early November. A ‘team effort’ find with Mike Pennington, this was a Siberian vagrant I have dreamt of finding for many years and one that from a personal perspective at least, quite literally optimized late autumn rarity hunting in Shetland. It is one of just a handful of late autumn/November specialities avid birders hope for as an autumn draws to an end.  Another very unexpected find was a Bittern on Unst, the first on the island in over 100 years! This really was a treat to watch and enjoy views of such an iconic bird and especially this far north.

A second Olive backed Pipit later in the same month was again found whilst out for a walk with Casey, there can’t be many two year olds to get their name on the finding of a rarity! A joint father and son find, even though admittedly Casey probably never actually saw it as his interest was more in playing hide and seek in the long grass! This Siberian rarity was a lovely end to an awesome year’s birding, I wonder what will the next one bring?

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