A superb spring of rare birds in Shetland

by Brydon Thomason -

Sitting between two Oceans, where the North Sea and North Atlantic meet, Shetlands geographical position makes it an ideal landfall for migrating birds. During spring and autumn migration seasons the islands have long been recognised amongst ornithologists as a true Mecca for diversity and numbers of migrants to make landfall here.

There are various influences that result in migrants and vagrants reaching us. Weather patterns tend to be the governing factor for migrating birds- in terms of both helping them reach their intended destination but also, unfortunately for them, sometimes preventing them.

It is the latter that usually brings them here and essentially way of course from where they need to be. Sometimes this can be simply due to them being caught up in adverse weather, sweeping them off course in fast moving fronts. There is also a theory that birds often have their navigational compass the wrong way round and so presents the 'reverse migration' theory.

Spring really has been an exceptional one. We enjoyed a truly rare spring of weather here on the isles. Blue skies, light winds and reasonably warm temperatures for several weeks saw us enjoying one of the driest and warmest and most settled springs for decades. This atypical weather certainly brought us an atypical cast of birds.

Although numbers of common migrants tailed off quite early in the spring season, there were plenty quality scarce migrants and some truly outstanding rarities recorded, particularly in early May. Good numbers of spring classics such as Bluethroat's were recorded as were Red-backed Shrike's whilst Great Egret, Woodchat Shrike and Ortolan Bunting were much rarer records.

Bluethroat. Photo: Dave Cooper

Great Egret. Photo: Rob Brookes

Woodchat Shrike. Photo: Rob Brookes

Ortolan Bunting. Photo: Dave Cooper

What was perhaps the most remarkable two days for rarities in Shetland history took place on the 14th of May. Over this magical day two new species were added to the Shetland list, Marmora's warbler, found on Unst by my good friend Dave Cooper and Crag Martin, discovered on Fair Isle.

As is very often the case in spring, it was Unst and Fair Isle that hosted the lion's share of show stopping rarities. In Unst, within an hour of the Marmora's Warbler (from the Mediterranean) being found at Baliasta, Mark Warren (leading a birding tour for Heatherlea) found a male Black-faced Bunting (from Asia) at Norwick! Either of these two species are 'headline mega's' in the birding world, the fifth and eighth records of each species for Britain so both on the same island, within an hour of each other was the stuff of dreams for birders.

Marmora's Warbler. Photo: Brydon Thomason

Black-faced Bunting. Photo: Mark Warren

But Fair Isle wasn't finished yet- the following day FIBO assistant warden Richard Cope found a Song Sparrow, all the way from North America! This transatlantic vagrant, the day after vagrants from various countries to the east truly was Shetland birding at its best!

Song Sparrow. Photo: Roger Riddington

As spring finally started to merge into summer, the point that for birders we begin to reflect on springs highlights and hope towards autumn for what may be, there was still a surprise or two in store. A Snowy Owl was discovered by Sarah Harris in the South Mainland, which was perhaps the bird that had been seen in Unst in May? Perhaps more predictably for early summer three Rose-coulored Starlings were recorded around the isles.

Photo: Snowy Owl. Photo: Ian Cowgill

Rose-coloured Startling. Photo: Roger Riddington

It's not always the case but most certainly was this spring - rare weather brings rare birds!

Temminck's Stint. Photo: Dave Cooper

About Brydon Thomason

Naturalist, birder, photographer & otter addict. Owner and guide of Shetland Nature. Co-author of 'Otters in Shetland'.
View profile