24 Feb 2019

24 Feb 19 - Exploring Mainland Shetland

When I booked the flights for the Shetland trip, the Tengmalm's Owl wasn't being seen every day & therefore I was trying to maximise my chances of connecting by being on Mainland Shetland for two days. But my hope was that with a few more people looking on a weekend, then I would see it on the first day & I would then have the chance to go Birding in a part of the UK I hadn't visited very often. Many twitchers, myself included, end up travelling long distances, hopefully see the Bird & then head home as quickly as possible. Sometimes, it's time pressures of work or other commitments that make it a necessary strategy, but with offshore islands I am generally keener to spend some time on the island & do some exploring & general Birding if possible. Having seen the Tengmalm's Owl I now had most of the second day for some exploring. I was up at first light for breakfast after a good night's sleep in a hotel in Lerwick. I expected to be grabbing snacks for the rest of the day, so I might as well take advantage of prepaid hot food & drinks. The previous evening, we had been asked to not visit the Tengmalm's Owl garden before 09:00 & told there would be limited access during the day, as there was a family get together planned. It seemed another good reason for going Birding elsewhere on Mainland Shetland. There were a number of other Bird highlights on the island, including a Pied-billed Grebe, an overwintering Scarlet Rosefinch, as well as, the more expected Iceland Gulls etc in the fish processing part of the Lerwick harbour. However, my plan was to avoid all of those & go looking for Otters & Orcas in the North of the island, as well as, some general off the beaten track exploring & Birding. As I walked out to the car, I was pleased to see the wind had dropped noticeably. There was still a wind, but I can't believe that there are many genuinely still days on Shetland. But it was dry & still really mild so about as good as it was going to be for late Feb.
Hooded Crow: A common species on the Shetlands. I had only got a few hundred metres from the hotel when I found this individual feeding on some seed thrown onto the pavement
Hooded Crow: Trying to improve the background for me
The first site I was aiming for the ferry slipway for Yell. It was still early & I was hoping that one of the regular Otters might be enjoying itself in the water: unfortunately not. But there was a selection of commoner Wintering species.
Otter sign: Unfortunately, this was as close as I got to an Otter
After drawing a blank around the Yell ferry slipway, I returned to the main road to the North & carried on explore the North West corner of mainland around Hillswick, before heading further out onto the peninsula.
Bay en route to the Yell ferry slipway
I spotted a sign for some toilets in Hillswick: But there were no more signs after I parked the car. Then I realised the more subtle clues
There was running water in the toilets: So, these outside facilities were no longer needed
Carrying on beyond Hillswick, the small road leads onto the open boggy moors with occasional crofts.
An isolated croft
The moors are very boggy
Shetland Sheep: The numbers of Sheep must outnumber the humans by well over ten to one. The Vikings wandering around Lerwick on the celebration days still can't complete with these Sheep for elaborate headgear
Shetland Sheep: They look even better from head on
Greylag Goose: The standard Shetland Goose species. They can be seen commonly across the Shetlands, but they were immediately wary & start moving away as I stopped the car for photos
Greylag Goose: They seemed a lot more interesting than their tamer cousins around Poole Harbour
Whooper Swan & Wigeon: There were a few parties of Whooper Swans on lochs, but none were particularly close. This must have had a muddy bottom given how dirty their heads are. On this loch, every party of Whooper Swans had at least one accompanying Wigeon, which were clearly picking up smaller bits of food brought up by the Swans
Rock Dove: It's commonly known locally the lack I interest I have in the local Feral Pigeons, but I do enjoy seeing their wild relatives. I saw a number around the island during the two days, but this pair were the only ones I got to photograph
Carrying on towards Eshaness lighthouse, the coastal scenery became even more exposed to the elements: but the nearest land to the West is the Southern tip of Greenland. I was looking for places to look for Orcas, but it was going to be a long shot finding the Orcas along this coastline.
The seas aren't forgiving on the offshore rocks
There must have been offshore rocks close to the surface
There were large numbers of Fulmars, Kittiwakes & the occasional Gannets flying along the coast. These Fulmars seen later in the day were a bit closer.
Fulmar: The local Fulmars were clearly keen to start settling down to breed
Fulmar: They generally seem quite graceful with their landings, but this one was making a hash of its touchdown
I had time for a quick look at Ollaberry on the North East coast.
Overlooking Ollaberry bay
This was more sheltered than the West coast. Over the years, there have been a lot of stories going around about the honest of some of the big listers & the veracity of their lists. What I hadn't expected was that one of the top listers had a property in this part of Shetland.
Fiblister: I wonder which of the big listers owns this property?
Finally, it was time to turn round & start heading for Sumburgh for my late afternoon flight off the Shetlands. I hadn't seen anything exceptional on my travels, however, I would rather have had some time to go looking than follow the beaten route that many of the other twitchers had been taking involving a distant Pied-billed Grebe, an erratically showing Rosefinch & some Iceland Gulls. I will be back on the Shetlands in the future & maybe I will be luckier with Orcas next time. The Loganair flight left on time for Aberdeen.
Flying over the RSPB Loch of Strathbeg & Rattray Head: I visited Rattray Head for a Desert Wheatear the day after I came off the Shetland ferry after the Pine Grosbeak twitch in Feb 2013
 After a ninety minute wait, I was boarding the plane to Heathrow & was back indoors before midnight: seven hours after taking off from Sumburgh. The end of a memorable weekend. It hadn't been a cheap weekend, but the weather had worked out well, I had seen the Tengmalm's Owl as soon as I had arrived & I had enjoyed the chance to have a general look around Mainland Shetland. Crucially, I hadn't had to take any days off work on my recently started new job.

23 Feb 2019

23 Feb 19 - The Tale Of Twat-boy & Pratt-boy

Last week I had a phone call from my twitching buddy Peter Moore while I was at work, as he knew I would want to know about the breaking news of a Tengmalm's Owl on Mainland Shetland. He was working on a principle that a problem shared would double the stress for all involved, so psychologically he wouldn't be the only stressed local Birder. It showed well to a number of locals who managed to get there that day, but was not seen the following day. Given the time of year, it seemed likely to me that it would still be around, but it had just found another roost for the day. Therefore, I wasn't surprised when it was relocated & showed well for most of the Thursday. The good news Peter seemed less stressed having accepted he couldn't head up, but I spent the day with a weekend trip going around in the back on my mind. Each of these island twitches are different & they may or may not appeal. It was on a relatively accessible island & it was an Owl: one of my favourite families. I wanted to go. The problem revolved around how to give myself a good crack at an intermittently showing Owl, whilst not impacting work. Being self-employed these days, my life revolves around two different patterns. Not working & therefore having the time to fit lots of Birding in & having time for extended twitches. Alternatively, I'm working with limited free time & secondly, I don't get paid when I take time off. Had it been December, then the decision would have been easy, drive to Aberdeen & head over on the boat or plane for as long as it took to see the Tengmalm's Owl. But I've recently started a new contract & work is hectic, with little chance of taking a day or two off for the extended trip. That left a weekend trip as the option, but I still needed to ensure I wasn't going to lose the Monday due to not having any sleep the night before, due to an overnight drive back from Scotland. I hadn't seen a lot about charters being offered. But after the recent publicity from Alan Whitehead & friends, who were involved in a very nasty charter plane crash in Sep 17 on an aborted twitch for the American Redstart, I wasn't keen on a charter from a small northern airfield. This got me looking at flying up from one of the main airports for the weekend. To cut a long story short, there was a flight first thing Saturday from Heathrow to Aberdeen with a connecting flight to Sumburgh. I could return the same way late on Sunday afternoon which would get me home before midnight. It wasn't cheap, but when I factored in the lost income if I took at least one day to drive up to Aberdeen, the costs balanced up. Flights were bought, a hire car was booked for the weekend on Shetland, Heathrow parking booked & I sorted out some accommodation for Saturday night. The following day I nervously checked RBA a few times, but it was negative news all day: clearly there was a pattern of different roost sites & the alternative roost sites had not being sussed out. As I left work that evening one of the local Tawny Owls was calling: was that a good omen? Perhaps not as good as the comet was for William the Conqueror, but time would tell.
My personal plane thanks to Loganair: 37 seats to choose from as long as it was one of the four on the back row
I had two days so my plan seemed OK, but I went to bed on the Friday, still wondering if I was doing the right thing. 02:00 the following morning & the alarm was going off & I had managed a half night of sleep. It was incredibly misty as I left, but fortunately that improved as I left Dorset & I made good time to Heathrow. It was a good flight into Aberdeen. On arrival, I checked RBA & there was negative news on the Tengmalm's Owl. Everything was paid for so there was no turning back now. I headed to the gate when the Loganair flight was announced. There were about twenty people at the boarding gate. I was expecting to see other Birders, but couldn't pick any out. I guessed they would arrive soon as the boarding gate had just been announced. After twenty minutes they announced they were ready for boarding the plane. As I stood up, one of the ground crew came over & asked if I was going to Sumburgh. I replied yes & was bemused as to why I was being asked. It became clear when he turned to his colleague & said we've found the passenger. The other twenty people sitting at the gate were going elsewhere & it was just me on a 37 seater plane: this was now getting very surreal. Having got on the plane I expected I would have a choice of seats, but told I still had to sit at the very back to help balance weight. It was a very personal service from Claire the flight attendant & I did ask for a photo on the plane. I couldn't ignore the safety briefing as it was a one to one briefing, followed by good service on the hot drinks & biscuits front. I'm guessing they had people on the flight off Shetland & that's why the plane went with just me on it. I was relieved it wasn't cancelled.
Arrival at Sumburgh: Less than three hours earlier I was at Heathrow waiting to take off
With the lack of other passengers, we arrived about thirty minutes earlier than expected. As the plane came to a halt at Sumburgh, I turned the phone back on & the Tengmalm's Owl had been found: game on. The hire car was waiting & about an hour later I was arriving at Bixter. There was one free parking space & a small crowd on the homeowner's driveway. There was a scope set up & I was told to go straight to it, as everybody there had already seen it. I had hoped it was going to be obvious, but it was sitting deep in cover behind leaves & twigs. It took a few seconds to look through the obvious front branches & focus on the Owl further back. Once focused on it, it was fairly obvious. I left the scope to allow a young local have a look, before going back for another view. After getting my bearings & trying a few places, I finally managed to find a place to set my scope up to get a view. Over the next two or three hours, it stayed pretty much in the same place, but every now & then it had a scratch or preen, before dozing again. Talking to some of the other Birders there, my gamble of going had worked perfectly: they had spent nine hours there on the Friday with no joy.
Tengmalm's Owl: It was sitting between the leaves in the centre of this photo. Once you got your eye in, then it was fairly obvious that it was filling about half of this photo, not that anybody will believe it from this photo. On a number of occasions, it woke up, moved around & when it looked in our direction, the white of the facial disks were obvious: but not to the camera
Finally, I got chatting to a couple of the local Birders there & it turned out one was Jon Dunn. I've read many of Jon's weekly summaries for RBA, but never put a name to the face. It was good to meet Jon. My plan B for the weekend was if I managed to see the Tengmalm's Owl, I would spend time looking for Orcas & Otters. I must admit that was just a vague expectation, but on asking if there had been any recent Orca sightings, Jon & the other Birder who name I didn't catch, both said some had been repeatedly seen at the Northern end of Mainland Shetland that morning: wow. I've not seen any sightings on RBA for weeks, but it turns out that was down to the sightings not getting on to the query I normally used. Jon had a quick look at their movements & said I was likely to be disappointed as they had been moving North along the NE coast, but had past the last point visible from a road a couple of hours earlier. Therefore, unless they turned around, there was little hope. It was now about 14:00. I could spend the next few hours watching the Tengmalm's Owl sleeping or do some exploring. I chose the latter option with a view of getting back for 17:00. It was interesting looking around the bays to the South of North Roe, as well as, North Roe itself, but Jon was right: I wasn't going to see any Orcas. I arrived back about 17:00 & found the crowd which had been around a dozen while I was there, was now about sixty people. After about fifteen minutes, we were told by another of the locals who was organising the twitch, that we would be allowed to move closer to the front of the house. The hope was it would allow us to have a better viewpoint & it might appear out of the trees before heading along their coniferous treeline close to where people were standing. When we were allowed to move, various people headed closer to the trees so they would be able to look along the side of the garden, as well as, seeing the front garden where the Tengmalm's Owl was roosting. I opted for a different position where I could see close to the roost area. On the Thursday, it had appeared & sat around for fifteen minutes before heading off along the side of the house to hunt. Everybody quietened down as it was getting darker. I set the camera up on 16000 ISO as I figured I was going to need every single ISO in that 16000 given how quickly the light was fading. Then to my amazement somebody about eight metres quietly played a recording. I don't know who it was, but he will be forever known as Twat-boy. I did look into the group, but couldn't figure out who had played the recording. Everybody present will have seen the Tengmalm's Owl as it had been on view nearly all day. It was still on view for all the time I had been back. So, there is absolutely no excuse for anybody to play a tape to try bringing it out of cover, except for the individual to have been a Twat. It was only played once, so I assume he was told to behave by people around him or maybe he was just so proud up for being the only person to have thought to play a recording, that he didn't feel he needed to show off again. Totally unnecessary & for the record he just confirmed he was a Twat.
Tengmalm's Owl: This was taken on 0.5 second, 16000 ISO & with the lens close to 100 mm to grab every extra bit of light. I was balancing the camera on the top of the scope as I had given up on any chance of a photo. It looks light, but that is more a testament to the quality of modern cameras than any light in the sky. It was also taking a second or two to focus & I was having to guess when the autofocus might be OK
Eventually, the Tengmalm's Owl appeared & sat just exposed on the front of the wood: half in & half out of the trees. It was there for a few minutes & I tried the camera. It was taking two or three seconds to struggling to focus & had long exposures, even on 16000 ISO. But it was still quite a reasonable view in the scope as being old-school, I had taken my scope with me. Quite a few only took their bins & were probably struggling to hold them still enough in the poor light. Then to my amazement, some idiot turned a bright spotlight on & put it straight on the Tengmalm's Owl. It immediately looked away. After twenty or thirty seconds the light was turned off. Again, another totally unnecessary & thoughtless action. I've no idea who the idiot was, but he will be forever known as Pratt-boy. He was standing close to where Twat-boy was & might even have been the same person. There has been a lot on twitter about irresponsible use of torches & I totally agree with those sentiments. If people had taken their scopes, they would have been enjoying reasonable & totally identifiable views: my Leica scope was still working well given the lack of light & I assume some other scopes would still have been OK. Other Birders near me were equally pissed off when the torch went on, including another Birder with a camera who complained about the light. The problem was, for us to have told Pratt-boy to turn the torch off, we would have had to raise our voices enough, it might have disturbed the Owl. But the torch was off. But a couple of minutes later, the torch was back on again. This time it stayed on for a minute or two, but was aimed at the trees near where the Tengmalm's Owl was sitting: so that it wasn't directly on it. Again, there was absolutely no need for this bad behaviour & I'm as annoyed at the people near Pratt-boy who let him act like the dickhead he was. Eventually, the torch went off, but came on for a third time. Then people realised it was getting later to catch the ferry back to Aberdeen & there was a mass departure, which appeared to include Pratt-boy amongst them. I waited for another ten minutes as there was no point in trying to take the Lerwick road with a lot of people driving fast as they had left it close to the point where they might struggle to get the ferry. Even the scope was past being useful by this point. Here is a photo I took while the torch was turned on. Personally, I would have been much happier to have not had the light to take photos with, but given it was on & Pratt-boy was too far from me to be able to do anything about it, I decided I would take advantage of the light. But this photo does not excuse the bad behaviour or express my sympathy for the recordings or torches being used. For me, this is no different to the bad behaviour of photographers who are so selfish that they feel they have the right to get really close to a rarity so they can get a good photo, without any consideration for other Birders, both who are there or might be arriving later. Bad behaviour like the use of torches, is only going to run the risk of pissing both the local Birders off, as well as, also the home owners, who had been so welcoming & allowed us to stand on their driveway for the day. At lunchtime, they had also been offering the small group soup & hot drinks.
Tengmalm's Owl: Best of my photos with the light on
The trip had seen to be a big gamble given the cost. But I was happy with the result. I still had most of the Sunday to go Birding on Shetland. I'll cover that in the next Post. I felt with the track record of the last few days of it not showing, then I had a good chance of predicting the lottery ticket numbers. Perhaps I need to keep them to myself to pay for the flight. But then it was worth the money with the craic of having my 'own' private plane. I can't see that happening again.
The front garden at dusk: The Tengmalm's Owl was still tucked into its roost above the right-hand Pampas clump
Finally, I would like to thank Jackie & Erik Moar for allowing us access to their garden & driveway & for the welcome cup of coffee. Thanks for the chance to see such a cracking Owl, even if my photos don't do it the justice it deserved.