29 Oct 2013

29 Oct 13 - Unsted

Any of the family reading this post will assume this post refers to my Mother's side of the family, the Unsted family, whereas, the birders will realise it's a reference to my recent visit to Unst, the most Northerly of the Shetland isles.

For the last week or so, a Cape May Warbler has been seen in the gardens in the small village of Baltasound, Unst. This is only the second British & European record and with the first bird only being seen for a single day in 1977, it was effectively a British tick for everybody. I was considering driving to Aberdeen & taking the overnight ferry or taking a flight from Aberdeen, but both options were going to result in the bird having to stay for a further 2 days from the time I left the house. Then I saw a pager message for a charter flight from Yorkshire with the added bonus of not taking off until we knew the bird had been seen that day. This fitted in well with my general approach of not going for a bird until I know it's been seen that day. Whilst not a cheap option, it didn't work out any more expensive than the plane from Aberdeen & cheaper than flying from English airfields.

I signed up for the flight & tried to forget about the cost. Arriving at the small flying club airport at dawn the following morning, the only person there was Franko. He was quickly on the phone to birders on Unst asking them to get out early to look for the bird & to let us know the news. Meanwhile the other passengers, Simon Slade, Alan Whitehead (duffbirder blog) & Gorden Ellis, had arrived. By the time Dave the pilot had arrived and had the plane ready to go, we knew the bird was still there.
 Sumburgh: Sumburgh head and the airfield
Just over 2 hours later, we could see the Sumburgh head and the airfield at the Southern end of the Shetlands and a few minutes we passed over the island's capital, Lerwick.
Lewick: Capital of the Shetlands
Baltasound: Airstrip with the Cape May gardens beyond the far end of the airstrip
We were soon on the ground & only had a few minutes wait before the second plane arrived with another 4 birders from Nottingham, just as the minibus arrived to take us the 5 minutes or so to the Cape May Warbler's favourite garden.
Our Charter Plane: With the flaps down (more to come later)
Arriving at the garden, we found a couple of local birders & Ewan Urqhart (from Oxfordshire) who had been watching it earlier, but nobody was sure if it was still present. A quick bit of pishing & a couple of the guys had seen it briefly in the left hand of 3 stunted Sycamores. Although I caught the movement, I hadn't got the bins onto it & not tickable yet. After 3 or 4 minutes, I picked it up on the ground feeding in front of the middle tree: don't know how it got there without me seeing it move, but it stayed long enough on view for everybody to get onto it & to get some nice views. Excellent - it's always a big relief when you get to see the bird. Now I could settle down and try to get better views & some photos. My camera was still in the rucksack as it had been raining since we landed.
Cape May Warbler
Every few minutes we had short bursts of views, but usually it was partially obscured by branches or leaves. It also disappeared for periods of time & we eventually realised it was going over the wall and feeding on insects on the grass beyond. It moved slowly in the trees compared the way Chiffchaffs bounce around and frequently dangled to grab an insect.
Cape May Warbler: I'm sure I saw some food on this leaf
Here is a great photo from Simon Slade who was on my plane & who has allowed me to add it to the blog.
 Cape May Warbler: Copyright Simon Slade
After about 90 minutes watching the bird on & off, it suddenly flew off & was seen dropping into a garden about a 1/4 mile to the North. That seemed a good point to phone the minibus to take us back to the cafe for some refreshments.
Raven: A pair came over to check out what we were doing. The Shetland Ravens have a really soft call compared to the harsh macho call I'm used to in Dorset
At the cafe, we were able to get an update on the plane from Dave. After landing, the flaps refused to move back into their normal aerodynamic position. Dave confirmed he hadn't been able to get the problem resolved. Franko quickly came up with a phone number for the mechanics at Tingwall airport and the working plane headed off to collect a mechanic from Tingwall.

With no opportunity to consider heading South, Franko, Simon & myself decided to head out birding again to the nearby wood at Halligarth. Halligarth is a ruining house, once lived in by Dr Laurence Edmondson, a local doctor and naturalist who first catalogued much of Shetland's bird life in the early 1800s. These studies were continued by successive generations of the Edmondson and Saxby families. The house and walled garden was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1999 with the hope that the property could be repaired.
 Halligarth: The ruining house & extensive wood
The wood was pretty quiet, with just a couple of Blackbirds and singles of Robin, Goldcrest & Chiffchaff. The Chiffchaff looked a similar colouration to a typical Chiffchaff, but with a slight wingbar, but none of us thought it was a Siberian Chiffy: presumably just one of the many intergrades between our Chiffys and the Siberian Chiffy end of the species. These 5 birds were trying to avoid the Merlin which was making regular around & occasionally into the wood. A couple of Whooper Swans were on a nearby pool. We failed to find much else, before heading back as we were starting to run out of light. Anyway, we were expecting the plane to be fixed or a replacement from Yorkshire to be arriving soon after dark.
Lichen: Impressive Lichen in the wood at Halligarth
We got back to the cafe to learn that our plane had departed to Tingwall with the mechanic & the replacement aircraft wouldn't be able to get into Baltasound as the lights on the small runway weren't working. Therefore, we would have to be taxied the 77 miles down to Sumburgh with 2 ferry crossings to negotiate, where our replacement plane was heading. It was after 17:30 before the taxi had reappeared & we were told Sumburgh airport was shutting at 20:15. When I was looking at journey times when I was considering flying to Sumburgh it was about a 2.5 hour journey, so we knew it was going to be tight. The cafe owner took us down to the Southern ferry from Yell to Mainland Shetland & assured us there would be another taxi waiting on the other side. Fortunately, it was there. We finally arrived into Sumburgh at 20:05 and departed a few minutes later. With a tail wind we were back in Yorshire in just over 2 hours. A successful, but eventful day with great company. It was a real good job, we didn't end up landing en route to Shetlands (as had happened to one of the charters the week before).

I rarely have dilemmas about my plans for birding, but the next day was looking problematical. The severe storms over the weekend had brought in 2 more extreme American rarities. On the Monday, the third British record of Mourning Dove had been found on the small Hebridean island of Rum (with a further 3 Irish & Isle of Man records), while, a good mate from Southampton, Ken Arber, had found Britain's 9th record of a Hermit Thrush (with a couple more Irish birds). But after no sleep the night before, I was too tired to go for either bird, so it was great to be allowed to kip down overnight in the warm flying clubhouse.