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By Jon DunnSeptember 15th 2021
Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn first visited Shetland as a naive youngster keen on spotting rare birds, and left amazed. Thirty years later he lives here and still enjoys the thrill of witnessing the autumn migration.

When I first set foot in Shetland, way back in 1992, I thought I’d packed everything I’d need for a week’s holiday. Binoculars, a notebook, and a camera with a 200mm lens dating to the 1970s I’d saved for months to afford to buy. Like many a visitor to Shetland before and since, I’d also unwittingly packed a few harmless preconceptions…

Chief among those was the size of the place. It’s a running, rueful, joke here that cartographers have, for many years, lazily dropped Shetland in a box somewhere east of Edinburgh on maps of the UK.

While I knew full well that this was wrong – Shetland was famous, after all, among birders for being close enough to the Arctic Circle to have attracted breeding Snowy Owls for some years - I’d not really appreciated just how big the archipelago actually was.

Shetland was famous, after all, among birders for being close enough to the Arctic Circle to have attracted breeding Snowy Owls for some years ...

I blame the Isles of Scilly for it.

The previous autumn, I’d taken myself down to Scilly for a week. In those pre-internet and mobile phone days this had, rather quaintly, involved going to a travel agents to arrange a return ticket on the Scillonian and to find myself a bed and breakfast on the main island, St Mary’s. There was a certain need for secrecy, as I was still a schoolboy and I knew my parents would not approve of my plans for a solo holiday.

Scilly, back then, enjoyed an enviable reputation as the destination in autumn for birders hoping to see rare birds – lost, vagrant birds migrating from their breeding grounds in North America or Siberia to their wintering quarters, blown thousands of miles off course. Hoping to see whatever blew in, every October thousands of birders would head to Scilly to spend a week or two walking the narrow lanes of the islands, peering through thick, lush hedges into sheltered bulb fields. The next bird could be the big one, a Hermit Thrush from the USA, a White’s Thrush from Siberia, or who knew what…

The critical part of this was the walking. Scilly’s inhabited islands are pretty small and, provided you’ve a reasonable level of fitness, you can get around them entirely on foot. I’d thoroughly enjoyed my first birding holiday and, the following year, was ready to spread my wings further afield.

Fair Isle, Shetland’s most famous island, was also renowned amongst birders for attracting rare birds, and that was where I was heading when I landed at Sumburgh.

The only problem was that, lulled into a false sense of security by Scilly’s compact size, I’d spectacularly underestimated the scale of Mainland Shetland alone. Tingwall, the airfield that services the outer islands, was over 25 miles away from Sumburgh. Who knew Shetland was so big?

It didn’t look that large, sat in the little box on the television weather maps.

I was, of course, an idiot, and should have done a little more research before I arrived. I was also a penniless idiot – as I was booked to stay at the world-renowned Fair Isle Bird Observatory, where every meal was not only provided but a feast in itself, I’d come with very little cash in my pocket. I’d spent every penny on my travel, and that camera…

A taxi was out of the question. There was nothing for it, I’d walk and try to hitch a lift, woefully aware that I might miss my flight from Tingwall if a lift wasn’t quickly forthcoming. I was barely a mile up the road before the second car to pass me stopped, reversed, and the driver asked where I was heading.

“You’re one of those birdy men?” he asked, noticing my binoculars. “That’s fine, I can slip you at Tingwall. But you’re maybe wanting to see the Sardinian Warbler at Cunningsburgh? It’s been there all summer…”

This was my first taste of how, in Shetland, even non-birders took a keen interest in unusual birds in their neighbourhood. My saviour took me to Tingwall via Cunningsburgh – before I’d even got to Fair Isle, I’d seen my first rare bird.

This was my first taste of how, in Shetland, even non-birders took a keen interest in unusual birds in their neighbourhood.

No thanks to my ignorance of the scale of Shetland, and entirely thanks to the kindness of a stranger, I arrived in time to catch my flight and, no sooner had I and a handful of other birders climbed out of the small Islander plane on the Fair Isle airstrip than we were bundled into the back of the Observatory van with the exciting news that Shetland’s first ever Solitary Sandpiper, an outstandingly rare American wading bird, had just been found on the island.

As introductions to birding in Shetland go, this was heady, intoxicating stuff.

I suppose it could have gone either way, in the wake of those two week-long holidays. Maybe I would have ended up living on Scilly, had I not also been to Shetland.

A seed was planted in Shetland, a seed that took me back year after year, for longer spells each time, exploring the full length and breadth of the isles, my initial naivety replaced by a hunger for more – birds, yes, but the people and the islands themselves too. In due course, I’d move here for good.

Since that first visit, there’s been a subtle shift in the British birding scene. Where once birders came to Shetland in September to spend a week or two on Fair Isle, now they come, in greater numbers than ever before, to spend a holiday looking for birds elsewhere in the islands.

Meanwhile, the huge numbers that went to Scilly every October have waned somewhat. That’s not to say that Scilly isn’t still a great place for visiting birders – it really is – but so too is Shetland. Scilly once enjoyed a particular reputation for being the best place in Britain to bump into American birds, but that perception has changed now – Shetland consistently delivers the goods, and not just on Fair Isle.

For example, last autumn local birder Dougie Preston found an achingly rare Tennessee Warbler near to his home in Yell, only the fifth ever to be seen in Britain. Rarities can turn up anywhere in the islands – it just needs someone to be looking for them to be found.

Meanwhile, I’ve especially fond memories of 2nd October 2009, a day when two friends birding at opposite ends of Whalsay, the island on which I live, simultaneously found a Veery – a small, cute, rufous American thrush – and a Pechora Pipit, a streaky, handsome Siberian bird. Birds from thousands of miles apart on opposite sides of the world coincided that day on Whalsay – east met west.

Birds from thousands of miles apart on opposite sides of the world coincided that day on Whalsay – east met west.

One, the pipit, even came into my garden, and meanwhile visiting birders from all over Britain came to see them both. I couldn’t have imagined, walking out of Sumburgh airport in September 1992, that I would one day live in the heart of such an incredible place in which to witness bird migration – but neither could I have foreseen that so many birders would come here every autumn to share the experience.

The autumn birding scene in Shetland has evolved beyond all recognition. Despite what a certain excellent crime drama on TV might have you believe, mobile phone coverage here generally isn’t bad at all and, connected by WhatsApp groups dedicated to individual islands, and the archipelago, breaking news of a new rare bird spreads instantaneously.

The regular inter-island ferries run by Shetland Islands Council make getting around the isles straightforward – on one occasion in recent years, the council even laid on a special ferry run to Out Skerries to allow birders an opportunity to see a globally endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting!

Self-catering accommodation throughout the isles means visiting birders get a chance to pioneer wherever takes their fancy, to have a small corner of Shetland to themselves for a week, and maybe find their own birds.

I sit here writing this on the cusp of another autumn. The first good birds have already been found in Shetland.

I’ll see you at the next big one…

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