23rd September 1971
THICK BILLED WARBLER
At six years of age this is my first real
birding 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 grandfathers 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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