Birdwatchers flock to Shetland to see a rare Pine Grosbeak!

by Misa Hay -

by Jon Dunn, Shetland Wildlife

I often wonder if Shetland has more birdwatchers per head of population than anywhere else in the UK. Certainly, Shetland folk seem particularly observant where something out of the ordinary in their gardens is concerned, and it's not at all unusual for keener local birders to get a phone call or an email from someone who's seen a bird they don't recognise.

Often, that call will be to alert us to one of the many thousands of migrant birds that pass through Shetland every year, but do not breed here. Perhaps a colourful Brambling, or a more subtle Chiffchaff; a funky Waxwing or a gem-like Goldcrest. Sometimes though, that unusual bird in the garden will prove to be the sort of thing that tilts the British birdwatching scene on it's axis, sets pulses racing, and makes the very keenest birders travel the length of the country at the drop of a hat just to see the rare visitor in question. And, just sometimes, that visitor will not only be an extremely unusual sighting in Britain, but will also be a visual treat, a stunning and beautifully marked bird.

So when in late January this year Collafirth resident Bert Ratter looked out of his window and saw an unusual bird in his garden, reached for his camera, and then sent the resulting photos to a birder friend in Shetland, he could have had no idea of the shockwaves he was about to send through the birdwatching community, nor the pleasure that his discovery was going to give to many people. Local birder Paul Sclater released the news on the local grapevine upon realising that Bert's photos in fact showed an ultra-rare Pine Grosbeak, and a steady pilgrimage of birdwatchers began to head north to see this charismatic bird, at first from within Shetland itself, but soon from as far afield as the very south of England.

Why the big draw? Shetland's well-known for being a place that attracts the very rarest species of bird seen in Europe, let alone the UK; but this bird was really something out of the ordinary.

Only the 12th of its kind ever to be seen in Britain, the 3rd record for Shetland, and the first 'twitchable' one since 1992, the rarity of a Pine Grosbeak is assured. Factor in that the species is normally only found in the remote taiga forest of northern Scandinavia, and that they're visually stunning – large finches the size of a Starling, in the case of this individual beautifully marked in a mosaic of soft grey and orange – and you've got an irresistible bird.

And so it proved – in the weeks following Bert's photos being released, over 150 visiting birdwatchers - some of whom even chartered planes - have been braving Shetland's notoriously fickle late winter weather to come and see his bird.

Though in a dramatic twist, it turns out that Bert in fact wasn't the first person to notice the Pine Grosbeak – way back in early November Urafirth resident Alistair Williamson had also noticed and photographed it! The bird had then quietly gone about overwintering in the scattered gardens and small stands of conifers in the North Mainland, unseen by anyone until Bert looked out of his window that fateful January morning…

So from all the birdwatchers who've seen this fabulous bird - from those locals like me who just "popped up the road" to those hardy souls who drove the length of the country and then came on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen - a heartfelt thanks to Bert and Alistair for noticing this most impressive visitor in their gardens, and to Paul for breaking the news.

Even in the depths of winter, Shetland can still spring an incredible birding surprise!

More great pictures of this bird can be found on the Shetland Wildlife Facebook page - just click HERE

For more information on dedicated wildlife holidays in Shetland, visit Shetland Wildlife. The company has been running wildlife and birding holidays in Shetland for nearly 20 years and offers week-long fully guided trips to all corners of Shetland. As well as offering organised group holidays, Shetland Wildlife also offers a bespoke guide service for individuals and small private groups. Fully bonded with the CAA: ATOL 9151