Rough-legged Buzzard’s in Shetland

Three thrilling encounters in just four weeks…

With autumn and winters 2010/11’s influx of Rough-legged’s in Britain my enthusiasm to find one for myself was peaking and given there had been quite a few, was fairly sure I could be in with a chance. I had made several trips up the very rough track to Valla Field (a distinct advantage of driving a Freelander!) and Saxavord and other similar sites on Unst since late October as I figured they were fairly likely RLB sites although Snowy Owl and Gyr are also on my radar for these sites.
Persistence at last paid off when on the 29th of December my luck was in and there soaring along the very wild and rugged West facing rocky hill side of Valla Field was a stunning Rough-legged Buzzard. With a wingspan reaching up to 150cm and weighing up to 1.6kg they are indeed an impressive sight. How perfectly placed it looked in such a beautifully remote and dramatic landscape. Two days later I took my wife Vaila and one year old son Casey along and enjoyed good but distant views, all accept wee Casey of course who slept through the whole encounter!
The sheer rocky ridge along the west facing hill, not at all dissimilar to the Arctic landscapes they are so at home in which drops down to a flat and fairly green plateau called Collister which is scattered with small lochens and old ruined crofts which overlook the oceanic Atlantic horizon to the West. It is undoubtedly one of my favourite places in Shetland with its stark beauty well out of view of any main roads.
It was here that I was drawn to for my New Year’s Day walk (which is something of a personal tradition). Having walked the hills which lead to the North I had been slightly disappointed not to have seen the Rough-legged and continued down to Collister. To my surprise I met the Buzzard drifting north as I continued south along the cliff-tops.
I hurried across to the foot of the hills where I watched it gain height and begin to soar and glide in the up-drafts. But hold on a second I thought to myself as watched on in disbelief through my trusty Zeiss 10×42’s, a second bird drifted into my field of view, there was two of them!! I couldn’t and for a second didn’t believe my own eyes, two Rough-legged Buzzards together. I had ended the year by finding one only days before in 2010 and I began the year of 2011 by finding another, an RLB ‘double whammy’- Happy New Year indeed!

But there’s more…Only a day or so after the ‘double whammy’, a third bird was reported on Shetland’s Mainland not far from the Toft ferry terminal. Perhaps one of the Unst birds moving south I thought? But amazingly it was in fact a third bird, which I chanced upon after having enjoyed an epic encounter with a mother Otter and her three cubs (you can read about this at http://shetlandotterwatching.blogspot.com/2011/01/mother-and-three-cubs.html!).

As if my sightings of these awesome raptors had not been enough of a treat only weeks before, hear I was enjoying a third bird hunt, catch and eat a Rabbit only hours after enjoying the Otter families foraging along the shore! Stealthy predators of the sky and sea, fantastic!

All three of these Rough-legged’s were individually identifiable and recognisable by their subtle plumage differences and thanks to the ‘record shot’ style images I took of each one a clear conclusion could be drawn as to how many were around.

I wonder just how many have reached Britain this winter or are perhaps still lurking undetected around Shetlands remote and rugged landscapes?

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