The ups and downs of the rarity hunter
Rewind to 6th May 2008. I'm heading down to the Hampshire coast at first light and have a crucial decision to make. Turn right and start the day with a seawatch from Hurst Beach, or turn left and check the wader flocks from Butts Point at Pennington Marsh. Encouraged by the memories of two years earlier, when I found a Broad-billed Sandpiper feeding with a passage Dunlin flock on 2nd May, I opt to turn left and head for the Butts. As expected, there's a good scatter of Dunlin and other waders, but nothing particularly noteworthy. As I finish diligently scanning the mudflats my mobile rings. It's my gleeful mates at Hurst informing me that a few minutes ago a Whiskered Tern had flown right over them in the company of two Black Terns! I drop the phone and frantically scan The Solent, but all I see are three distant shapes disappearing into the haze away to the east of me. The geography of the coast means that the Whiskered Tern must have passed within touching distance while I was grilling the waders. Gripped!
Later, while enduring the fifth rendition of 'Russ and the Lost Whiskered Tern' in the pub, I realised it was over two years since I had last nailed a BB rarity. I'm sure all rarity-hunters are aware of 'the itch', the need to regularly quell the hunting urge. And once the itch starts it doesn't stop. While on SeaWatch SW duty at Gwennap Head during the autumn it only got worse, especially when a Common Nighthawk flew in off the sea at The Lizard, which was clearly visible from where I was standing!
Although luck plays its part, consistently finding rare birds is about making the effort to get yourself in the right place at the right time, and then making the right decisions when you get there. I simply hadn't been making the effort to hit the right hotspots at the right seasons, and I was making bad decisions. So last winter I decided it was time to get back on track with a dedicated rarity-hunting session on a far-flung island. As with 2007 and 2008, SeaWatch SW commitments prevented me from contemplating an autumn trip, so I started looking into Scilly or Cornwall in late spring. But one name kept returning to haunt me...Foula. I had previously visited this remote Shetland isle during the four autumns from 2003 to 2006 (click here to read the 2006 report and here to see the 2003–2005 report). Although I had found a scatter of good birds, including a few BB rarities, I hadn't managed to go on a real rarity run like some of the other regulars.
But would Foula produce in spring? The Punkbirders thrashed it for a week in early June 2008, and although they encountered a decent variety and number of scarcities such as Icterine Warbler and Red-backed Shrike, only a single-observer Thrush Nightingale filled their rarity 'in-box' (meanwhile Fair Isle scored with Citril Finch just to put the boot in). Was Foula too far west and in the shadow of too many other islands to really deliver top-quality spring drifters and overshoots? And if I visited in the traditional Shetland peak period of late May to early June, would I be stepping on the toes of other birders? I knew I would probably have the place to myself if I went in early May, but was that simply because it was too early in the Shetland migration season?
I spent many winter evenings digging into the archives, looking for inspiration. And I found it. In the first half of May in recent years, Shetland has produced several top-class rarities including Caspian Plover, Ross's Gull, Snowy Owl, Scops Owl, Calandra Lark, Thick-billed Warbler and Collared Flycatcher. In addition, both Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow have appeared at this time, most likely through spring overshooting. Foula itself has hosted Upland Sandpiper in early May, which may also have been a new trans-Atlantic arrival. The potential to score with yanks at this season was appealing, as Foula, and its huge west-facing cliffs, lies further west than any other point in Shetland. OK, so it might not be the peak time for scarce migrants, and in easterly drift conditions I was likely to get gripped off by other islands. But the other attraction of covering Foula in early May was the potential for 'experimental' sea-watching from the island, in the hope of picking up White-billed Diver or passage skuas.
I knew it was a bit of a gamble, and I was aware that if the wind blew from the wrong direction I could be wasting two weeks of valuable holiday time. But I was also relishing the challenge of trying something new. The itch was becoming unbearable. I booked my flights. I got ready to scratch.
Day 1 (1st May 2009): Arrival on Shetland South Mainland
Weather: SSW6; rain clearing to sunny spells.
My pre-departure breakfast at home is spent scrutinising the latest weather forecast. Although the dominant southerly airflow of recent days has seen a few quality overshoots arrive on Shetland (including Great White Egret, Black Kite and Red-rumped Swallow), my arrival is coinciding with a switch to a vigorous southwest to westerly airflow. The forecast pressure chart looks more like October than May, and is perfect for trans-Atlantic vagrants. Game on!
After touchdown at Sumburgh Airport in the mid-afternoon, I quickly transfer to my accommodation near Sumburgh Head and get the gear unpacked. I will be spending a couple of days here exploring Shetland South Mainland, before my flight over to Foula. A brief scan out of the nearest window produces a couple of Carrion Crows (much scarcer here than Hooded Crow, but still strangely underwhelming), and plenty of the regular seabirds and waders. It then starts to rain. Hard.
Fortunately the front clears by early evening and I venture out into the field for a couple of hours. Grutness holds single Lesser Whitethroat and Chiffchaff, while the waters below Sumburgh Head are host to a spectacular whirling array of Fulmars, Gannets, Shags, Eiders, Kittiwakes, Great Skuas, Puffins, Black Guillemots, Guillemots and Razorbills.
Day 2 (2nd May 2009): Shetland South Mainland
Weather: SW–WSW6; sunny with scattered light cloud.
An Arctic Skua drifting passed the window at breakfast, and a Black Redstart flicking around the hotel grounds, set the tone nicely for a long but varied day. The aim is to walk the coast from Sumburgh to Scousburgh, checking the sandy bays in order to reacquaint myself with the bewildering range of plumages shown by Great Northern Divers at this time of year. In West Voe of Sumburgh I immediately find two Great Northern Divers, as well as a flock of 35 stunning Long-tailed Ducks and a few Sanderling and Purple Sandpipers working the tideline. The sheltered Bay of Quendale is also productive with at least ten Great Northern Divers and a Harbour Porpoise. The divers are educational, ranging from first-summers remaining in their grey and white winter garb, through to patchwork second-summer birds and resplendent adults in full summer plumage.
Next stop is Quendale Dunes, and I manage to dig out a first-summer Iceland Gull amongst the gull roost, at which point Roger Riddington (BB Editor and Quendale regular) and Deryk Shaw (Warden of Fair Isle Bird Observatory) appear. They're both very polite, and suppress their obvious excitement about the Iceland Gull in order to discuss my forthcoming jaunt to Foula! Interestingly, despite it being early May and a Saturday, Roger and Deryk are the only two birders I see walking anywhere all day.
Moving on, Loch of Hillwell and Loch of Brew hold a scatter of regular wildlfowl and a few Swallows and Sand Martins, while at Loch of Spiggie I connect with the Great White Egret that has been present for a few days. At least 45 Great Skuas are having a wash and brush-up, and single Lesser Whitethroat and Chiffchaff are in adjacent gardens.
Bay of Scousburgh holds a further four Great Northern Divers, and also a pair of Common Scoters. A switch to the southeast coast during the early evening produces about 60 Purple Sandpipers along the rocky shoreline, but the lack of any sheltered bays means that divers and seaduck are few and far between. The highlight is a smart pale-phase Arctic Skua getting harassed by Lapwings and Common Gulls, providing a nice photo opportunity in the evening sunshine.
Day 3 (3rd May 2009): Shetland South Mainland
Weather: WSW2–W5; rain clearing then sunny with occasional showers.
An early-morning check of the hotel grounds produces single Whimbrel and Chiffchaff, while Arctic Terns have evidently arrived en masse with well over 100 in Grutness Voe. A look on the sea off Grutness produces a Red-throated Diver and a Harbour Porpoise, with a Sparrowhawk escorted south towards Sumburgh Head by an agitated Curlew. A Sedge Warbler and a Blackcap are in a nearby garden, but small migrants appear to be few and far between.
I then catch the bus to Channerwick, passing another first-summer Iceland Gull in a field at Levenwick on the way! A walk over the hills Bigton is made more exciting by some heavy showers, and the resulting rainbows are spectacular.
A scan of Bigton Bay produces four Great Northern Divers and a female Common Scoter, while St Ninian's Bay holds a further three Great Northern Divers, a pair of Red-throated Divers and five Long-tailed Ducks. A wander around picturesque St Ninian's Isle is fairly quiet although the views are impressive, with single Whimbrel and Chiffchaff being the only migrants seen. I don't see another birder all day.
Day 4 (4th May 2009): Arrival on Foula
Weather: SSW–WSW6–7; heavy rain then cloudy with showers.
A strong gusty wind and heavy rain give me the typical Foula welcome! The temperature is 9°C, which is about the average value during my first week. Although the conditions are typically hostile, the first bird I see upon arrival at my lodgings is a Hawfinch! It's also good to see that 'Bob the Bonxie' (probably the world's tamest Great Skua) is back in residence!
A walk around Ham and up the east coast produces a scatter of common waders and wildlfowl, including three lingering Whooper Swans. Single pairs of Red-throated Divers are seen at Hiora Wick and Burns Loch, but small migrants are limited to a few Blackcaps, Lesser Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Swallows. A quiet start!
Day 5 (5th May 2009): Foula
Weather: W8–6; heavy blustery showers and sunny spells.
The wind strengthens overnight and reaches gale force early in the morning; consequently new migrants are in short supply. Two Great Northern Divers are sheltering in Ham Voe, while a hardy female Mallard with about 11 chicks is seen at Hametoun.
A brief seawatch in a sheltered spot off South Ness from 1500–1615 hrs produces a pale-phase adult Pomarine Skua drifting northeast, with four Purple Sandpipers on the rocks. Other migrants include a scattering of grounded warblers, as well as Collared Dove, Siskin, and five Whimbrels. The forecast predicts gale-force westerlies for a further three or four days...it's going to be a yank or nothing.
Day 6 (6th May 2009): Foula
Weather: W6–4 to S6; sun and scattered showers with rain by late afternoon.
The day starts with little change in the weather and no obvious cause for optimism. A walk up the northeast coast from Ham produces a Great Northern Diver again off Ham Voe, and a couple of pairs of Red-throated Divers. A slight easing of the wind allows me to seawatch off the north end from 1115–1315 hrs. The results are encouraging, with three single pale-phase adult Pomarine Skuas moving northeast, and a further two probables seen very distantly. More surprising are two Carrion Crows heading north out to sea (and later returning southwest) followed by another single shortly after. A Swallow also moves north, a Curlew drifts southwest, and five Whimbrel circle overhead.
The day begins to change direction soon after. At 1300 hrs I pick up what looks like a distant Common Gull heading towards me while I'm scoping the horizon, and mentally note that it's strange to see one arriving from the northwest. However, the bird disappears behind Gaada Stack and I think no more of it. In addition, my hands are starting to go numb in the cold wind (I had forgotten my gloves when I set out in the morning), but my anal discipline kicks in and I decide to hang on until 1315 hrs to make it a full two-hour seawatch.
This turns out be an inspired decision, as shortly after I pick up a dark-mantled, black-headed gull drifting west into the wind about 400 m offshore. Its size and rakish profile mean it has to be a summer-plumaged LAUGHING GULL! My first reaction is to scope the bird quickly and get the head, bill and upperwing pattern. This achieved, I know I then have just seconds to play with before it disappears behind the cliffs of Soberlie Hill, so I grab the DSLR and rattle off a series of record shots. The bird then drifts out of view, tantalisingly pops up once above the clifftop, and then disappears again, presumably off down the west side of the island. Stunned, I quickly review my shots and am mighty relieved to see enough detail to be 100% confident of claiming the record. Nailed it!
I want to be totally sure the gull has moved on so I quickly pack up my stuff and head towards the base of Soberlie. However, I only just reach Ristie, about 200 m away, when a small wader flies over my left shoulder and disappears into a gully ahead of me. Two things catch my attention: a single call note (a subdued too-eet) and an apparently dark centre to the barred uppertail. My eyes are telling me SOLITARY SANDPIPER, but my mind is refusing to believe it! My state of denial helps me stay curiously calm, and I quickly prepare the DSLR and move to get the sun behind me so I can get some record shots in case the bird flies. I proceed to squelch across a series of boggy ditches until the light is in my favour, and then inch forwards. However, I misjudge where the bird landed, as it's suddenly there bobbing up and down no more than 10 m in front of me! I slowly squat down and rattle off a series of shots, and then proceed to grill it with binoculars. On the ground everything looks good for Solitary Sandpiper, but I want to see the uppertail again and try and get a photo. Although the bird is feeding hungrily, and is presumably newly arrived, I'm aware that the surrounding valley floor is covered in suitable pools and streams, and so it's unlikely to flush very far. I decide to go for it, but actually find that the bird is remarkably tame and reluctant to fly, preferring instead to run along the stream with me lumbering along behind! Eventually it flies a short distance to an adjoining pool and I just manage to get a single shot of the uppertail. It really is a Solitary Sandpiper, and I've just nailed two yank rares in the space of a few minutes! I then proceed to sit down on an adjacent mound and get some detailed field notes, while grilling the bird in the scope. It's a real cracker!
At 1500 hrs the brief respite from the gales and showers is coming to an end, and incoming cloud and a freshening southwest breeze mark the arrival of the next Atlantic weather system. Although I'm reluctant to leave such a great bird, I really want to try and relocate the Laughing Gull in order to get some better photos. I'm also (rather greedily) aware that I'm on the verge of scoring a hat-trick of yank rare finds in a day, and if these two have just arrived on the back of the westerly gales, there surely has to be a yank duck or sparrow somewhere on the island! I therefore head south, and quickly cover most of the eastern half of the island before the rain starts to fall at 1730 hrs. There is no sign of the Laughing Gull, or any new arrivals, and a final check at Ristie at dusk sees me fail to relocate the Solitary Sandpiper. So I didn't get a hat-trick, but I wasn't complaining, especially as I would probably have missed both birds if I had given up on the sea-watching just 15 minutes earlier!
Day 7 (7th May 2009): Foula
Weather: SW9–7; sunny spells and showers with severe gales.
A beast of a day, with gusts up to 70 mph ensuring that even staying upright is sometimes a challenge! A few birds are sheltering in Ham, including the long-staying Hawfinch. A quick walk up to Ristie fails to relocate yesterday's rarities, and sea-watching is impossible due to the strong winds. A return walk down the northeast coast into the howling gale is 'refreshing', and after three hours of staggering around like a drunk I admit defeat and return to the B&B to write up my notes from the previous day.
Day 8 (8th May 2009): Foula
Weather: SSW–W6; sunny spells and showers.
The persistent westerly airflow continues, and today sees the arrival of a third American vagrant! An adult Pectoral Sandpiper shows well at Hametoun in the early afternoon, and after some careful stalking I manage to get a few record shots. However, as with last year, Fair Isle scores with the really big one: Britain's second Brown-headed Cowbird!
Despite the weather, a few other new migrants have arrived, including single Merlin, Woodpigeon, Grey Wagtail and a scatter of common warblers. The Hawfinch is still at Ham, and a group of 45 Grey Seals are hauled out in the shelter of Ham Voe.
Day 9 (9th May 2009): Foula
Weather: WSW6; sunny spells and showers.
My first visit to the northern part of the island for a couple of days sees the Solitary Sandpiper back at Ristie. Fortunately, resident birder Geoff Atherton is now back on the island and he eventually manages to get good views of the bird. The Pectoral Sandpiper remains at Hametoun, but otherwise the only new birds are a Sedge Warbler there and at least 16 returning Arctic Terns over the airstrip.
Day 10 (10th May): Foula
Weather: NNW4–1; sunny spells and showers.
As the wind moves in to the northwest sector and eases, I decide to catch my breath and have a (relatively) relaxing day watching seabirds. A seawatch off South Ness from 1115–1215 hrs produces a group of three pale-phase adult Pomarine Skuas moving northeast, and a Carrion Crow arrives from the south. The easing of the wind allows some of the breeding seabirds to resume nesting activity, and it's a real joy to seawatch alongside countless Shags and Black Guillemots.
An afternoon walk over The Noup to The Daal sees many hundreds of photogenic Puffins on the west cliffs, but the highlight is a superb male Lapland Bunting in summer plumage. There is no sign of the Pectoral Sandpiper at Hametoun, but the Sedge Warbler remains and a Tree Pipit is new in at Ham. A further seawatch from 1530–1730 hrs off Ham produces another pale-phase adult Pomarine Skua moving north, and two Great Northern Divers offshore.
Part 1: Summary
So my first ten days were coming to an end. Physically I had taken a battering, with the wind rarely dropping below Force 6 during the whole period, and some serious mileage under my belt. But I was well satisfied with the results. Sea-watching in westerly winds from the southeast and northeast tips of the island had produced small numbers of Pomarine Skuas passing north, even on days when observers watching from the west side of Shetland Mainland had failed to score. And although I hadn't had a sniff of White-billed Diver or any scarce migrants from the south or east, I had found and photographed a trio of trans-Atlantic vagrants!
The yank arrival was eventually picked up elsewhere in Shetland, with two Black Ducks, Lesser Scaup and Franklin's Gull all found between 9th and 12th May, and of course the Brown-headed Cowbird on Fair Isle. However, a final thought. No yanks were found on Shetland Mainland in the period from 6th to 8th May, even though Foula and Fair Isle had already scored. Imagine if remote west-coast locations, such as Papa Stour and Esha Ness, had received intensive coverage during this period? The birds found must only represent the tip of the iceberg, and I suspect that even prime sites in South Mainland were not always thoroughly covered during periods of inclement weather. So although Shetland is now receiving more coverage than ever before, there is still huge potential for intrepid rarity-hunters to find their own birds.
The second instalment of 'Foula 2009' will cover the final week of the expedition, when the winds gradually swung into the southeast. Would I be able to keep my run going, or would Foula be overtaken by events elsewhere instead of setting the pace?
The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.