Tuesday 12 October 2021

Shetland - The Journey Up… 29th September - 1st October 2021

29th September:

A leisurely start saw me heading into Essex after the rush hour and decamping at Blue House Farm for a walk on my way to Colchester.  The scrape looked fantastic but was disappointingly quiet for waders although I did see three Ruff, Green Sandpiper and several Snipe around the margins as I whiled away an hour chatting to Dave Wagstaff in the hide.  Marsh Harrier, Buzzard and a huge female Peregrine were around and several White Wagtails were with Pieds out on the mud.  Fast moving parties of House Martins and the odd Sand Martin and Swallow headed west and there were one or two good Barnacle Geese amongst the mixed parentage flock.

On to Abberton where several Great White Egrets fed along the shoreline from the Layer Breton and a female Goldeneye was out diving in the middle. On to Wigborough Bay (and a good catch up with Daryl Rhymes) where Ruff were the only waders of note but Great white Egrets increased the total to a healthy 13.  

Great White and Little Egrets

There were large numbers of duck tucked out the back out of the wind and closer in flocks of Wigeon, Gadwall and Pintail were following around the Coot flocks who were in turn following the diving Pochards who were stirring things up.  Amongst them a female Red-crested Pochard was also getting in on the action.  Black-headed and Common Gulls were feeding on the green sward and two adult and a crisp 1st winter Med Gull were found amongst them.  A couple of Buzzards were seen and a juvenile male Peregrine was frantically trying to catch a Black-headed Gull but obviously needed more final strike practice.  With the weather closing in I headed into Colchester to the Bradnum residence for a relaxing dinner and good nights sleep before the long drive north the next morning.

30th September:

We were enthusiastically on the road by 6am and heading west to pick up Peter Moore in Cambourne along the A14 and by 8am we were at our very first birding spot not far from there at Ouse Fen – a new RSPB Reserve for me.  I think that we entered from a public footpath rather than a formal site entrance but this brought us swiftly to the main lake where hopefully we would find the eclipse drake American Wigeon.  It was covered in wildfowl but I eventually picked him out as he fortuitously dabbled with almost the closest group of European congeners. A subtle but striking bird with obviously pinky flank and the makings of his full head pattern coming through, especially when seen head on when the forehead was already looking very pale. 

American Wigeon and friends

All the other typical dabblers were seen with a surprising number of Pintail amongst them. Swallows and House Martins dropped in in small groups and seven Egrets in some island trees resolved themselves into six young Cattle Egrets still on their nests with a single parent dropping in to check up on duo.

 Cattle Egretlets

It was now time for a big push north in what was to become very wet weather but thankfully by the time we got to RSPB Blacktoft Sands it had let up again and the short walk to the First Hide was all that was required to see us staring at the adult White-tailed Lapwing sitting somewhat forlornly outside.  It was quite literally the only bird on the pool (after a Grey Heron departed) and was obviously having some down time as it only had a few shuffles around during our stay but did show off those amazing yellow legs and juvenile Sabine’s Gull wings and white tail.  It seems to be going through its moult and having already notched up six weeks it seems set to stay a little longer yet.

White-tailed Lapwing

There was less to see than we hoped but five Marsh Harriers included a red wing tagged juvenile (C1 I think) quartered the reedbeds.  I picked up four Hoverfly species sluggishly feeding on the Bristly Oxtongue with Sphaerophoria scripta, Helophilus pendulus and both Eristalis pertinax and tenax

Marsh Harrier

We soon decided to push on but not before a final chat with Pat the reception volunteer who despite being at Blacktoft for 16 years now still remembered me from her visits to Rainham when visiting family in Essex.

Eristalis tenax

Bombus pascuorum

It was grim

It was long roads and heavy rain from here but once again it cleared as we got to our last biring site at Druridge Bay on the Northumbrian coast.  We were greeted by the cacophony of yapping Pink-feet as we got out of the car and watched them descend onto the pools.  This has always been one of my favourite parts of this drive up to Aberdeen with the certainty that I shall encounter vast flocks of these wonderful Geese moving back and forth across the landscape.

Pink-footed Geese

The Pectoral Sandpiper refused to reveal itself but there were a few duck to look through and three Roe Deer were feeding in the sedges around the margins while the Exmoor Ponies were doing a good job and grazing the water meadows.  There were a few Bumbles still around and a couple of Hogweed flowers were covered in Nettle Tap moths and a few Eristalis pertinax.

Exmoor Ponies

Roe Deer


Bombus pascuorum on Vipers Bugloss

Nettle Tap and Eristalis pertinax.

Nettle Tap 

We bimbled across the road and up through the dunes passing what I am sure is Bloody Cranesbill on the way. 

Bloody Cranesbill

Coquet Island - I did not realise it was so tiny!

The sun even poked through and illuminated a pretty calm sea littered with flocks of Common Scoter, Guillemots and Razorbills, Red-throated Divers and the odd Eider and Merganser.  One or two of the Red-throats were in full summer plumage and the sun glinted like there was a sparkling ruby embedded there.

Three species mix 

Peter picked up a large Diver offshore and asked us to have a look. It was swimming with its head and bill tilted upwards and he had passed it off as a Red-throat on posture before realising it was way too big and the alarm bells started ringing.

The next forty minutes were spent watching it as it fed at varying distances offshore before concluding that we were indeed looking at a winter plumaged White-billed Diver.  The bill was pale horn coloured regardless of the how the light changed with a dark basal third to the upper mandible  and a steady sweeping upcurve on the all pale lower one. We also found two Great Northerns at about same range – if not further out- and at no stage did they hold themselves in the same manner and the bills were even keeled and always silver grey looking. Both appeared slightly smaller and darker than the WBD and on the latter there was the suggestion of some chequerboard pattern on the upper part of the mantle.

White-billed Diver

We put the news out as a probable half way through our viewing but by the time the first two locals arrived the light had deteriorated and the bird had drifted out of view which was a shame.  In the meantime we had also added Sandwich and Arctic Terns to the list and a swirling mass of a couple of thousand Pink-feet accompanied the walk back the car.

Dark-lipped Hedge Snails

unknown small Snail

Heavy skies inland

More Pinkies

After checking in at our YHA in Wooler in the dark and immediately headed out to the Black Bull in nearby Lowick where we had booked a table for dinner.  A fine Bambi Burger followed. We left for the 15 minute journey back to the YHA and about a mile down the road I realised that I could not find my phone.  I knew I had walked out of the pub with it but it had vanished. David spun the car round and we zoomed back to the pub so that I could check the car park.  No sign anywhere. David was searching the front of the car and happened to glance at the roof where my phone was quite happily sitting having seemingly enjoyed its ride up and down the lanes and round the bends.  To say that I was relieved was an understatement and I accepted there and then that any jokes during the trip about missing items being on the car would be fully justifiable…

1st October:

An early rise saw breakfast in Berwick by 7.30 before entering Scotland on the coast road. The weather had closed in again by the time we reached Musselburgh but we persevered and had a quick scan from the prom nearest the Esk river mouth.  There were flocks of Eiders mooching up and down and Guillemots and Razorbills were feeding close in along with a few Red-throated Divers and Mergansers.  


Lesser Black-backed Gull

Red-throated Diver




It was very chilly and the wind was biting but not did not seem to bother the Gannets careening up the Firth towards Edinburgh or the Knots, Grey Plovers, Barwits, Redshanks and Oystercatchers heading off to feed.  I found a distant Scoter flock and had one Velvet wing flap but it was too choppy and windy and they were too far out to give Surf Scoters too much time.  Shags and a Goosander fed in the river and Pintail were with the Gadwall, Wigeon and Teal on the shingle point.


The Forth Road Bridge in the sun

Having missed the rush hour it meant a painless circumnavigation of Edinburgh where a flock of Canada Geese overhead were probably the unlikely highlight!  Picking Jono up from his parents’ beautiful gaff in Glenrothes was the next port of call before crossing into Dundee and then on up towards Aberdeen.  Pink-feet were seen in large flocks and a Hooded Crow was a good roadside find this far south of the Cairngorms.

The new out bypass took us swiftly around Aberdeen and on towards RSPB Loch of Strathbeg where a trio of American waders were holding court.  I had not been here since we stayed the night with Dom and Tish Funnell and their growing family in May 2006.

After some initial confusion we managed to get ourselves onto all three targets with both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs feeding loosely together on the flash below the centre and the Pectoral Sandpiper accompanying the 33 Dunlin in the middle.  The sun came back out and we were treated to a fine show from all three and in fact had them all feeding together at one stage.  Single Redshank and Greenshank joined the party and although closer together betting all four Tringas in the same view was just not quite possible.  The Greater Legs was a moulting adult with still some vestiges of summer garb with a few black centred mantle feathers and some scalloping on the breast and flanks while the Lesser Legs was a crisp first- winter bird.  

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs left and Greater Yellowlegs right

Both Yellowlegs and the Pec Sand

Lapwing and the Pec Sand

Lesser Yellowlegs right and Greater Yellowlegs left

 Greater Yellowlegs and a Redshank

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Two Ruff and seven Black-tailed Godwits were present and several hundred Whooper Swans and Pink-feet were grazing in the fields beyond with Konik ponies for company and skeins of duck were being put up by at least three hunting Marsh Harriers but of the Cranes there was no sign.

Whooper Swans 

Whooper Swans, Pinkies, Koniks and a Buzzard on the old windmill

Whooper Swans 

As with all those years ago there were still Whooper Swans  on the feeders and two Mealy Redpolls bounded over before we headed for the southern end of the Loch where Scaup and Pochard were added to the list along with magical flights of Whooper Swans as they moved from the Loch to the field behind us that were already full of Pinkies, Starlings and Lapwings.

Whooper Swans 

Lapwings and Starlings

With the ferry to catch at seven we started to move back south adding a Wheatear and Ravens at Colliston where there were a few auks offshore and unfortunately several dead ones on the beach.  The waves were crashing against the rocks and I was mesmerised by the spumenado created as the water was pounded through a small arch in the base of the cliff…

By 6pm we were on the MV Hrossey and having dinner, finishing in time to watch us leave Aberdeen behind with its granite church spires silhouetted against the last vestiges of the sunset.  

I stayed up on deck until we cleared the harbour walls and were seen off by the winking lighthouse of Girdleness. I offered to a prayer to the Gods of the Sea for a smooth crossing to distant Shetland and retired early for the night.

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