1970 - 1980

Thick-Billed Warbler

23rd September 1971

At six years of age this is my first realbirding memory. My grandfather appeared in the evening with a bird bag and was obviously pleased with himself. The bird had been seen then mist netted in what is now the heligoland trap yard at Skaw. He went on to explain that a Thick Billed Warbler had only been recorded once in Europe (Fair Isle 1955). I have to admit a large brown Warbler is all the detail I can now remember. Due to the birds gross rarity it was decided to release the bird in Lerwick where there was a better concentration of trees, unfortunately the plan backfired as the bird was "catted". This bird remains ticked on my list despite seeing it at such a young age. I will however review this decision the minute our next one turns up on the isle!

Recently an old notepad from the 70s with a few of my grandfather's descriptions has been unearthed from their attic. All entries up to 1976 are from this source starting with two very productive days in October 72.

Arctic Warbler (JHS)

2nd October 1972

At Skaw on 2nd October 1972 I watched an Arctic Warbler feeding amongst long grass in the shelter of a dyke. It was very restless and kept flicking its wing and tail continuously. The yellowish-white eye stripe was very noticeable running from in front, above and behind the eye almost to the nape to end in a little upturned flourish of rather loose looking feathers. At close range I could see a dark stripe at front and behind the eye. The yellowish/white wing bars were easily visible, on one wing two bars were distinct, while on the other wing the short upper wing bar was absent. The leg colour was yellowish-brown brighter than the Arctics I have seen before.

Description - Whole upperparts Greenish/Olive, Sides of head yellowish/white, Eye stripe long and pronounced, running in front, above and behind the eye almost to the nape. Through the eye, brown stripe visible at close range, ear coverts mottled yellowish/olive wings brown tinged greenish, greater coverts tipped yellowish/white to give distinct wing bar on both wings while one wing only showed the median coverts tipped whitish to give a short but distinct upper wing bar. Under parts yellowish/white washed olive on upper breast and flanks. Legs yellowish brown. Bill horn coloured and rather big looking

Yellow-Breasted Bunting (JHS)

2nd October 1972

On 2nd October 1972 while I was still watching the reported Arctic Warbler a bunting flew low over my head calling a short zit-zit. It settled on a fence 25 yards away and sat there in full view for more than a minute. Using 10x40 binoculars I saw the yellowish underparts ,prominent buff eye-stripe, pale crown stripe and buffish double wing-bars. This and the overall pale appearance of the bird left me in no doubt it was a Yellow Breasted Bunting, I had seen two before. It flew onto stubble fields nearby where I watched it for 30 minutes at distance down to 25 yards, saw it in flight and heard its call many times.

Description - Head - pale buffish crown stripe separated from more distinct buff eye stripe by brown lines giving the head a striped appearance. the eye stripe ran from in front, above and behind the eye, the crown over centre of crown to back of head. Ear coverts brown/buff. Upperparts- nape, mantle and back were brown with faint dark streaking and feathers edged buff. Rump- brown with a hint of chestnut. Wings- median and greater coverts- brown tipped buff making two faint wing bars. Primaries- dark brown. Tail- brown with a little white on outer feathers showing in flight. Underparts- chin, throat, centre of breast and belly- yellowish-buff. Sides of breast and flanks- buff with some dark streaking. Auxiliaries-and underwing- whitish showing very light coloured in flight. Legs and feet- pale brown. Bill- brown. Call- zit-zit.

Pechora Pipit (JHS)

3rd October 1972

On 3rd October1972 while looking for birds I flushed one from a ditch of rank grass and weeds. When it flew down the ditch and called I knew it was a call unfamiliar to me I also knew it was a Pipit. Fortunately for the next two hours I was able to watch and hear its call many times as it flew around the adjoining fields in the company of 30- 40 Meadow Pipits and 3 or 4 Rock Pipits. When flushed it flew 50- 100 yards to settle again on the ground, sometimes down in shallow ditches. There were several fences around which the Meadow Pipits would regularly land on but never this bird, it always went to ground. The call was the noticeable feature and certainly what put me on to it. It was similar to Meadow Pipits but noticeably lower pitched, sometimes given as a single explosive "pwit" (eg. when it first flew down the ditch) when it left the ditch and gained height the call was repeated 2-3 times, this was the usual call but on a few occasions it was repeated 4-5 times. During my watching, at one time it took a short bath in a small pool down in a ditch, this was where I obtained my best view. From 25 yards I saw the well streaked rump as it fluttered its wings open. Several times I saw the two pale stripes down the back, (Jack Snipe style) they were quite noticeable. The outer tail feathers were buff, I was able to compare them with the white of Meadow Pipit as the birds were flying together, which happened several times. Having read an asked about Pechora Pipit on Fair Isle, I was now convinced this was one and being satisfied I had obtained all I could get in the field I decided to fetch JL Simpson we returned about 1400hours and searched for sometime before we found it again 400 yards east of the first place still on rough grass (there were no crops in the area) we flushed it several times, again in the company of Meadow Pipits and heard it call lots of times. JLS agreed with my identification. The previous day I had found the reported Arctic Warbler and Yellow Breasted Bunting on the island. (First for Whalsay)

Red-Footed Falcon (JHS)

17th June 1973

On 17th June 1973 at 8pm, I found a small falcon at Brough. It was hunting food off the ground judging from the numerous times it was there. It perched freely on telephone wires, fences and dykes. At other times it did a lot of hovering "Kestrel" fashion but with a noticeable difference in body angle while hovering. This bird held the body about 45 degrees compared with the Kestrel angle of 90 degrees. Its hovering was mostly done low to the ground from 20-60 feet. After watching it for 2 and 3 quarter hours, it was still active at 10.45 pm when the light wasn't so good and I left it being satisfied it was a Red Footed Falcon, possibly adult female.

Description. Upper parts - Forehead Buffish/brown. Crown, back of head and nape orange/brown. Mantle, Back and rump slatish/grey bar black/brown. Tail grey, well barred blackish. Primaries blackish. Underparts chin creamy/buff rest of underparts orange/buff with faint dark streaking especially on flanks. sides of head buff with black/brown marking around eyes. Bill blue/grey. Legs and feet orange.

Pectoral Sandpiper (JHS)

9th September 1973

On the 9th September 1973 a party of Golden Plover flew past me and I noticed a small wader amongst them. the wader left the plovers and settled on the edge of the North Loch of Skaw. I was able to watch it all afternoon at distances down to 15 yards along with JL Simpson and J Bruce.

Noticeable features were, Heavily streaked breast ending abruptly against pure white lower breast and belly ending in a straight sudden line across the breast. It had 2 light stripes like braces down its back (Snipe fashion). It's call when flushed was a reedy trup-trup. The size was bigger than Dunlin and when alert and with stretched neck it was more like a small Reeve. Upperparts Crown black/brown feathers lightly edges buff, it had a dark capped appearance. Rest of upperparts - black/brown, feathers on back edged buff or cinnamon, 2 light stripes down back noticeable sides of head, ear coverts and sides of neck buffish/white streaked brown. Underparts chin whipped, whitish. Throat and breast buffish/white heavily streaked with brown. Lower breast and belly white. Bill blackish. Legs and feet yellowish/brown.

Thrush Nightingale (JHS)

15th May 1974

On the 15th of May 1974 I mist netted a Thrush Nightingale at the back of Johnnie Bruce's house at Skaw then re-caught it in Robbie Hutchison's yard on the 17th (this is now the Heligoland trap yard. JLI) and last saw in that yard on the 21st of May.

Description - about the size of a Redstart, looked a little bulkier. Very Colourless with no distinctive marking, just warm brown upperparts and dirty white underparts with a noticeable reddish/chestnut tail. Tail much duller than the flame red of Redstart. Tail also looked broad and square ended. The bird had the habit of cocking and spreading the tail as it ran and darted around the ground. Regards the dark spotted or streaked upper breast the book speaks about, it was very difficult to see when at close range and when in the hand could only be described as a dirty smudging on the upper breast. Great care should be taken when trying to identify the 2 Nightingales on this. The same applies to the brightness of the tail colour. The very skulking behaviour of the birds is a good field identification (applies to both Nightingales). It would run out from cover at surprising speed cocking and flicking its tail with wing points drooping either side of the tail. At the slightest movement or alarm it dived into cover which the bird always seemed to make sure wasn't far away. Any sort of cover would do, old wood, rocks, dikes, weeds, long grass or vegetables. When walking around all you were likely to see of this birds is a flurry of something reddish/brown diving for cover. Patience and silence must do the rest. This bird was measured, ringed and weighed by Brian Marshall.

Greenish Warbler (JHS)

14th September 1974

On the 14th of September 1974 I found and eventually mist netted a Greenish Warbler at Skaw. I saw it around the crops in Skaw until the 19th September. Greenish Warbler is very like Chiffchaff in size and appearance but its more pronounced eye stripe and wing bars should leave you in little doubt in regards to common similar migrants in Shetland, Chiffchaff and willow Warbler. Great care should be taken in separating it from the very similar and very rare Arctic Warbler. Several differences are mentioned in books but with such restless birds it is usually very difficult to get good views, moreover individual birds of both species can vary considerably for instance this Greenish Warbler showed two faint but distinct whitish wing bars which could be seen with binoculars at 20-30 yards. Nearly all books speak of Greenish Warbler only showing one faint wing bar. Arctic Warbler especially in winter plumage showing double wing bars which can be very obscure in worn plumage. Differences which may help are leg colour Arctic yellowish/brown or flesh/brown brighter and lighter than Greenish which are dark greyish/brown. Eye stripe, Arctic brighter and thicker especially at the end which usually finishes in a flourish. Greenish tapering more to the end. Arctic is a little bigger and has a bigger bill but those points are difficult to estimate when the other species isn't there for comparison. This bird was measured, ringed and weighed by Brian Marshall

Terek Sandpiper (JHS)

20th - 21st June 1975

At 8.30 pm on the 20th of June 1975 I found a wader on North Loch of Skaw. At 100 yards judging from size it looked like a Wood Sandpiper but the streaking on sides of breast was more like Common Sandpiper. I saw it had yellow/orange legs. The bird was moving around the loch in my direction, after waiting and watching for half an hour I was sure its long black bill was upturned. When it flew onto a rock I saw its rump was grey/brown. This along with other features convinced me it was a Terek Sandpiper. I then called on Brian Marshall who agreed with the identification. We flushed the bird several times, saw its white trailing wing edges and heard its various call the bird stayed at the loch the following day and was photographed by BM and Dennis Coutts it was last seen about 9.30 pm on the 21st of June but was gone by 11.30 pm and not seen again. The following description is by Brian Marshall from notes taken on the spot.

Size - about as Wood Sandpiper, considerably larger than Dunlin next to which it was seen. Call - Subdued Whimbrel-like titter on several a penetrating twee-twee or twee-twee-twee, a rather like common Sandpiper. Frequently heard especially on evening of 21st. Turnstone like rattle given on 2 or 3 occasions when bird was flushed. Behaviour - walked along narrow muddy edge of loch, feeding very actively, daintily picking food (? Probably small insects) from water and aquatic vegetation, frequently reaching up to pick at the stems of over-hanging grasses. On several occasions flew onto rocks at the pool edge. Bobbed on 1 or 2 occasions, though this was not a noticeable feature. Flight - generally only for short distances, low with rather whirring wing beats, tendency to spread tail when alighting. Eye was dark. Legs moderate length (a relatively longer than Dunlin but shorter than say Redshank) conspicuous yellow/orange, colour at once noticeable at long distances. Bill - long, 2 and a half times length of head fairly broad at base, becoming fairly fine towards tip markedly upturned especially outer half. Black, with a little orange at cutting surface, extreme base. Plumage overall - greyish/brown above whitish below. Crown, nape and back of neck paler than the mantle and wings. Rump paler and greyer than back/tail. At rest, dark streak down either side of back (probably over scapulars). Upper part of wings - as back, some dark smudging on coverts. Obvious dark line round carpal joint, white trailing edge to wing visible in flight. Sides of face - dark line through eye, with a pale super cilium, which extended from base of bill to part way behind eye. Lores, ear coverts rather grey/white. Chin, throat, upper breast - white, streaked greyish quite dense greyish smudges on either side of upper breast, not meeting in the middle (rather like Common Sandpiper). Rest of underparts - whitish, except for under wing which was not seen and under tail coverts which were dark, which were perhaps brown (this was thought to be due to soiling).

(I was also present at the finding of this bird and for some reason so was my grandmother Lizzie Ann who, as a hard working woman had no patience and no interest whatsoever in birds, so the endless wait as the bird slowly moved our way didn't fill everyone with excitement! JLI.)

Citrine Wagtail (JHS)

16th September 1975

At midday on the 16th of September 1975 I found a Wagtail feeding around a small water pool in the Hamister meadow. I noticed its prominent double white wing bars and edging to tertials and next noted the absence of any black bib or breast spotting of young white wagtail which it nearest resembled. After 3 minutes of watching at 30 feet the bird flew across the meadow and I could not find it for a bit but about 1.30 pm I found it in the meadow again feeding amongst short grass. I watched it there for about an hour flushed it several times and heard its call several times. The fact that the bird was decidedly grey above White Wagtail, probably a little darker the prominent double white wing bars, white on tertials and its call "twseep" like Flava Wagtail, possibly a little harsher left me in no doubt it was an immature Citrine Wagtail, I had seen one before on Skerries on the 23rd of September 1973.

Description. Upperparts - Grey, a little darker than white wagtail 2 prominent clear white wing bars and very noticeable white on tertials. Tail - black with white outer feathers. Head - grey, a bit lighter than body, white eye stripe behind eye, grey smudging on ear coverts. Underparts - white with faint grey wash, strongest on sides of breast, no dark bib or spotting on breast as in White Wagtail. Call - like sweet twseep of Flava Wagtail, a little harsher. Bill and Legs - Black.

White's Thrush (JHS)

11th October 1975

At 5 pm on the 11th October 1975 I found a White's Thrush at Isbister. I watched it for more than and hour in company of Fieldfare, Song Thrush and Redwing at distances from 30-100yards at rest and in flight several times. At rest its golden plumage heavily mottled with black and white crescentic markings was striking. In flight the under wing pattern was also striking. it had a broad black stripe running the whole length of the under wing, bordered by clear white, very noticeable. In size it was noticeably bigger, especially longer than nearby Fieldfare.

Description. Whole body from forehead to tail, including rump and tail coverts, golden, heavily mottled with black and white crescentic markings giving very scaly appearance. Tail - brown with white/buff tips to feathers. Upper wing - brown, less mottled than body, more panelled in brown and gold, noticeable panel of light golden brown on secondaries. Under wing - broad black stripe running the whole length of the under wing, bordered by clear white. Very striking as the bird flew. Underparts - Chin and upper throat buff, rest of underparts whitish with heavy black and white crescentic markings, heaviest on breast becoming light on lower belly and vent. Bill - brown. Legs - yellowish/brown. flight - very undulating.

Radde's Warbler

3rd - 4th October 1976

As an eleven year old most of the details of these early birds are hard for me to remember, anyway here goes....

On the 3rd of October 1976 I was out migrant hunting with my grandfather (JHS). As we were driving past "Beenies" yard at Skaw a very dark brownish Warbler popped up on the road side fence. JHS quickly identified it as a Radde's Warbler. This would be an exciting find today but in 1976 there was still no records for Shetland (indeed in the next 10 years there would only be one more). Understandably Johnnie was highly excited. BM was called and mist nets were erected in Beenies yard and the lower yard at roadside. I was watching the "Roadside" net while the adults flogged around trying to re-find our Warbler. Suddenly a "Redstart" flew in getting caught in the net. I went over to make sure it wasn't going to escape, saw it wasn't badly tangled and as BM and JHS were nowhere to be seen extracted the bird myself. I soon found BM and presented him with the bird. "Do you know what you've got there?" Brian said. "Yes its a Redstart" I said confidently. BM has never raised his voice to me ever but I think I came quite close to a bollocking that day. He marched over to Johnnie saying "Johnnie I'm not happy about the lad taking birds out of the net, he's just handed me a Thrush Nightingale !". Brian got little backing as JHS simply smiled and said "That's a Start". Later the action switched to Beenies yard and again I was in the thick of it. What we thought was the bird was among the grass close to the net so I went towards it flushing it into the net. It bounced twice by which time I was close enough the second time to catch it between two hands with a dive to my left. The bird was bagged by JHS and I was sent to fetch BM. When Brian heard we'd caught it he ran up the field hurdling fences in excitement. Anti-climax time it was either a Willow Warbler or a Chiffchaff (can't remember now).

That's all I can remember but it was apparently still present the next day and seen by BM and Willie Arthur. It was later accepted by BBRC.


17th - 21st October 1976

17th of October 1976 was to be the date of my first self found rarity. I was outside the family home at Saltness with friends when I became aware of a small bird moving through the small Fuchsia in the front garden. I can clearly remember the feeling that it was going to be something good. On coming to the outside of the bush it was obviously a "Crest" but with the usual yellow crown stripe it had a broad black lateral crown stripe and a broad white supercilium. Even an eleven year old can identify a Firecrest so I got on the phone to my grandfather who, predictably was out bird watching.

By the time JHS and BM got to hear of the bird it had disappeared and the record looked destined to be lost. On the 21st I was engaged in trapping Starlings. A circular net with a metal frame was held up by a stick. Underneath was baited with bread crumbs and a line tied to the stick ready to be whipped away. Amazingly no birds were ever injured in this dodgy pass time. One notable capture was of a Starling rung on Heligoland off Germany. While peering around the corner of our house, line in hand the Firecrest suddenly landed on the fence behind my "trap" before flitting into a rose bush. This time JHS and BM came immediately and secured a first for Whalsay and a 5th for Shetland at that time.

Subalpine Warbler

21st May 1979

After the death of my grandfather in late 1976 I had a few years of little bird watching. The period from 1977 to late 1978 is completely undocumented by me as, without the blue mini turning up regularly at our gate I neither had opportunity nor desire to go looking. A change came in late 1978 when my friend Michael Williamson decided to take up the hobby. My appetite flared up anew as we went around counting everything. Entries from my diary in early 1979 are hilarious as MW being new to the game got a few things wrong. Although I had a reasonable grasp on identification I obviously still had little concept of when migrants could and couldn't turn up. First there was a Swift 19/1? Reed Bunting 28/1, Little Stint 28/2 and best of all a Red Footed Falcon 22/3. All these were added to my diary without question. Should I attack these entries with tipex for accuracies sake? I would say no to this as most of us have to endure a period of learning and mistakes. We did however manage to improve a bit over time.

We established a "patch" from my house at Saltness around the shore at the North Voe to the Symbister Meadow and back. A strange choice of mostly boring coastline, my diary bulges with exotics like Turnstone, Redshank and Oystercatcher. Fate smiled on us when the White Billed Diver (which was to overwinter from 79-91) entered the voe on the 15th of April.

The 21st of May 1979 saw us as usual doing the patch. Two Sand Martins in the Hamister Meadow was a good start before heading off around the shore. As we passed a small yard at lower Saltness a Warbler came up on the wall. The combination of Ash-grey back, orange/pink throat and breast, white moustachial streak and red eye ring had us doing cartwheels in the field. It was a male Subalpine Warbler and we knew it! BM was called and soon turned up with his net. The net was set up in front of the only small bush in the yard and the bird was caught almost immediately completing a memorable day.


5th - 7th June 1979

This story is brief I'm afraid and would be much better told by Brian Marshall who turned up one of the most beautiful birds to grace Whalsay.

Early June 79 must have enjoyed south easterly winds judging by my notebook. A good list of migrants including my first Marsh Warblers (two trapped by BM) at Alma, Isbister on the 6th of June and my first Bluethroat on the 7th of June. These birds were completely overshadowed by the Roller BM had found near his house at Marrister on the 5th of June. My diary records the fact that "we came to late" whoever "we" were I cant remember. One thing I certainly wont forget however was the 7th of June. The Roller had been re-located between Brough and Isbister at the roadside just east of the "red grind" quarry. I watched the bird in company of Michael Williamson and Willie Arthur and remember being amazed at the different blue shades of its plumage. We got onto the bird just in time as, sadly it was picked up dead on the 9th of June.

Western Bonelli's Warbler

23rd September 1979

After seeing the Roller in June my next Lifer was a Nightjar sitting motionless on top of a straining post at Vatshoull on the 3rd of August. This bird was "only" seen by myself and Michael Williamson so was never recognised but I can still clearly remember it and there is no doubt about the record. The 8th of September saw a trip to the south mainland with BM for a pair of Blue Winged Teal at Scatness, plus various common Waders I still needed.

On the 23rd of September 1979 Brian continued his role of finding me new birds when he trapped a Western Bonelli's Warbler at Skaw. The rest of 79 was quiet but after finding my first BB rarity and seeing a Roller and a Western Bonelli's Warbler there could be little to complain about.