Birds, birding, birdiness and twitching

by Tom Morton -

It has been the time of birds, the coming - or rather the briefly stopping off, for the most part - of migrant species from the north, fleeing winter as they head to warmer climes.

And the coming, too of the birdwatchers. Some of them affectionately known as ‘twitchers’, a term usually reserved for those in search of rare birds to add to their ‘life lists’. Where did it come from, this word? The general excitement of those who find a rarity may be the answer, though the person who suggested that it was their inability to focus binoculars due to trembling hands may just have been trying for a little sarcasm.

Most of the birdwatchers who come to Shetland for the autumn birding season are well-rounded, delightful folk as much interested in the islands, its people, culture and other wildlife as in any feathered acquaintances they may make. The truth is, nearly everyone in Shetland is a birdwatcher, takes a keen interest in the wildlife around them. Binoculars are only most windowsills. And that’s ‘most windowsills’ in any given house. Well, anyway, there are four or five and a telescope in ours. You never know what you might want to look at more closely.

Nearly everyone in Shetland is a birdwatcher

Over the peak period, which is from late September to mid- October, anything up to 200 pre-booked birders a week can be coming to the isles, and it’s reckoned that this late-season boost to the local economy is worth up to £1m a year. This year, the calm and sunny weather was an asset, for the most part, though those of a more severe birding disposition pointed out that it meant migrating birds might not stay as long as they otherwise would.

Shetland is infamously tree-light, and so the search for birds that have decided to take a wee rest centres on shelter in gardens, quarries and plantations such as those at Sullom and famously, Halligarth in Unst. The more remote islands such as Fair Isle and Skerries are booked out at this time of year, but as one visitor who had been to both islands told me, the bigger mass of the Shetland mainland and ro-ro ferries to Unst and Yell makes the keen, motorised birdwatcher more likely to build up a wide range of sightings. Except that on Fair Isle, with its observatory, permanent team of RSPB experts and research ‘catching nets’ , you can get up close and personal with species and if they’re coming through, they are likely to be seen.

Actually seeing ‘small brown jobs’ - and many of these rarities to the layperson look very similar and sparrow-like - is the key. It’s a kind of treasure hunt, with target areas, mobile alerts via pager and phone, and local veterans scouring usual and unusual haunts, then letting others now.

Serious rarities, such as this year the Siberian Accentor that turned up at Scousburgh, can result in sudden influxes of one-off twitchers - from all over the UK. The Siberian Accentor was a British first, and while it did not result in the overwhelming numbers who flocked to Unst in 2013 to see the Cape May Warbler - the closed Baltasound Airport had to be reopened on that occasion to charter flights - dozens of top birders packed Flybe flights to the isles.

It's a kind of treasure hunt

As for me, I felt sad, as two regular visitors at this time of year, who book our holiday cottage and are both huge fans of Shetland and inveterate birders, missed the Accentor by just 12 hours, as they had boarded the ferry south the previous night.

But never mind. They’ll be back. And so will the birds.