Going Northwest: Spring 2013 field expedition to Westray, Orkney


The north coast of Westray, looking west towards Noup Head and the lighthouse (Photo: Russell Wynn)

In recent years, increasing numbers have birders have ventured north and west to outlying islands off the coasts of UK and Ireland in search of rare birds. My own small contribution to this avian 'gold rush' was based around five expeditions to the small island of Foula, on the western margins of the Shetland archipelago, between 2003 and 2009 (spring 2009 expedition report). Regular peak-season coverage of the island from the mid-1990s onwards has enabled patterns of migrant arrivals to become established, and has demonstrated that Foula can more than match its more illustrious neighbours, Fair Isle and North Ronaldsay, for top-drawer rarities.

Foula does particularly well for trans-Atlantic vagrants because of its isolated position and large west-facing cliffs, making it an obvious target for any birds passing across the open ocean to the west (recent yank arrivals include Greater Yellowlegs, Upland and Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Buff-bellied Pipit, Veery, Swainson's Thrush, Common Yellowthroat and Bobolink). In addition, Foula is isolated enough to deliver Siberian gems when 'classic' large high-pressure weather systems are established to the east. For example, Siberian Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Pechora Pipit, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Blyth's Reed Warbler and Yellow-breasted Bunting have all occurred since 2000 in these conditions. This mix of 'east-meets-west' means anything is possible; in autumn 2012 alone, Foula hosted Blyth's, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed and Richard's Pipits, Eyebrowed and Swainson's Thrushes, and Sykes's and Blyth's Reed Warblers!

Solitary Sandpiper on Foula in spring 2009; the first spring record for the UK (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Since my previous visits to Foula I've been busy with SeaWatch SW and a variety of other projects, but by the end of 2012 these were largely finished or entering the writing-up phase. So as 2013 approached I started gazing again at the UK map and wondering about a new island challenge. Foula was now well established on the rarity map and receiving increased coverage by expert teams in both spring and autumn (e.g. see the recent summary of autumn 2012 on the punkbirders site), so where to go next?

One island that caught my eye was Westray, at the northwest fringe of the Orkney archipelago. Like Foula, its location and high west-facing cliffs should draw in birds over the sea to the north and west, and it also has a very inviting headland sticking out to the northwest that looked good for seawatching. I hypothesised that it could potentially be great for trans-Atlantic vagrants in autumn and northbound skuas in spring.

Satellite image of northern Scotland, showing the location of Westray relative to Fair Isle, Foula and North Ronaldsay. Westray is relatively shielded from drift migrants arriving from the southeast, but is well positioned to attract trans-Atlantic vagrants and to observe seabird movements passing to the west of the Northern Isles.

To test these ideas, I did a quick search of the BirdGuides archives which revealed that, since 2000, Westray has hosted Green-winged Teal, King Eider, Black Stork, Snowy Owl, Olive-backed Pipit, Great Grey and Red-backed Shrike, and Arctic Redpoll (presumably Hornemann's), with possible Sooty Tern and Arctic Warbler. Older archives from 1950–2000 revealed previous records of Steller's Eider, White-billed Diver, White Stork, Roller, Melodious and Icterine Warbler, Ortolan and Little Bunting. The most recent highlight was the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper of July 2012, found by the newly resident birder Don Otter. The only seawatching report from Noup Head was of 346 Sooty Shearwaters in 2.5 hours on 9th September 2002, although four Killer Whales were seen on 10th May 2009 and another seven on 11th June 2011.

So the relatively sparse coverage of the island to date had produced a rather random selection of rare birds from various points of the compass, but there certainly wasn't much evidence to back up my theories about American vagrants and seabird migration! Interestingly, the adjacent (and smaller) island of Papa Westray to the northeast has done much better for migrants coming from the south and east, with Crane, Wryneck, Hoopoe, Richard's Pipit, Bluethroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Barred and Icterine Warbler, Red-backed and Woodchat Shrike, Rose-coloured Starling, Common Rosefinch and Rustic Bunting all recorded since 2000. The only possible trans-Atlantic vagrant on 'Papay' was a single American Golden Plover.

So there lay the challenge: an island in a prominent geographic location with potential for new discoveries, over 75 km of coastline but only one resident birder, and some spectacular scenery with internationally important seabird colonies. My decision was made! I decided to plan my first visit around peak spring migration (13th–27th May 2013), with the intention of several further spring and autumn trips in 2014–15 to build up a picture of migration on the island. This first Westray expedition report therefore documents my discoveries in spring 2013, and will hopefully add another layer of information to our growing knowledge of bird migration on offshore islands around UK and Ireland.

Day 1 (14th May 2013)

Weather: SW5–3; showers and sunny spells with a drier afternoon

I wake early and am relieved to see that the strong winds and torrential rain that greeted my arrival on Westray the previous evening have subsided. My nine-hour journey north from southern England was largely uneventful, although the final hop from Papa Westray to Westray gave me a good view of the island I was about to explore (this 'hop' is apparently the world's shortest commercial flight, and according to my watch took about 80 seconds from take-off to landing!). It is worth noting that Orkney is almost 1000 km north of my New Forest home, and is therefore roughly as far away as Barcelona! The temperature on the island is about 9°C (roughly equating to the sea temperature), and it only deviates a few degrees away from this during my trip.

Satellite image of the northern Orkney archipelago, showing the location of Westray relative to adjacent islands. Note the prominent headland of Noup Head on Westray, which is well placed for seawatching.

I'm based at the Pierowall Hotel in the centre-north of the island, which is a comfortable and highly convenient base. Pierowall is actually at the hub of four 'sectors' of the island, with Noup Head to the northwest, the Aikerness peninsula to the northeast, the Westside to the southwest, and the longest arm extending southeast to Rapness. Most of the island is dominated by pastoral farming, with short grass or newly sown fields bound by drystone walls and barbed wire. Patches of more sheltered habitat, e.g. iris beds, gardens and small coastal valleys (geos) are widely spaced, necessitating a lot of walking. Prior scrutiny of the map indicates that to cover an individual sector thoroughly on foot will take most of a day, so each morning I will have to think carefully about strategy in light of weather conditions and what is happening elsewhere in the region. What I don't have to worry about is crowds of people, as although the island has over 600 inhabitants, few venture onto the coast during this busy period in the farming calendar.

The northern margin of Loch of Burness on Westray, with Noltland Castle in the background (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Today, the southwest breeze and frequent showers see me head to the relatively sheltered northeast coast along the Aikerness peninsula, which comprises a mix of open habitats including rocky shore, boulder beach, sandy bays, maritime heath and small lochs. Impressive numbers of Great Northern Divers are present offshore, with at least 21 in Papay Sound, mostly in their spectacular summer plumage. This shallow, tidally dominated passage is a traditional staging post for this species before they head to breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland. Careful scanning also reveals 150 Black Guillemots and 115 Arctic Terns in this area. Three Red-throated Divers are nearby in Bay of Pierowall and a drake Scaup is on Loch of Burness, with over 100 Tufted Ducks and three Goldeneye split between there and the adjacent Loch Saintear. Waders also feature prominently during the day, with a Greenshank, a summer-plumaged Spotted Redshank (very rare in spring on Orkney) and a few Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits on Craig Loch, and a roosting flock of 160 Purple Sandpipers at Bow Head.

Purple Sandpipers roosting at Bow Head; the left-hand bird was one of two colour-ringed birds seen, probably from nearby Papa Westray where Orkney Ringing Group colour-ringed 300 birds with this combination in 2007–09 (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Raptors included a smart female Hen Harrier flushed from an area of rough grass and two brief sightings of a marauding adult Peregrine. The passerine highlight was a migrant Hawfinch in a garden at Pierowall, although two separate two Snow Buntings came a close second. The only other passerine migrants seen were a Chiffchaff hopping about on a beach at Aiker Ness, and a handful of hirundines.

Snow Bunting at Aiker Ness (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 2 (15 May 2013)

Weather: SW4–E3; frequent showers and sunny spells with more cloud in the afternoon

An initial check around the Pierowall gardens produced a thin scatter of migrants, including two Goldfinch and single Brambling, Blackcap and Willow Warbler. A scan of Loch of Burness confirmed the continued presence of the drake Scaup, before I noticed a drake Teal about 100 m away that looked ready to take flight. A quick scan with the bins revealed a bold vertical white stripe on the foreflank....Green-winged Teal! I managed to rattle off a series of record shots with the DSLR as the bird took off, before it landed alongside three Eurasian Teal and promptly disappeared into an iris bed on the far side of the loch. This may have been the bird found by resident birder Don Otter on 21 April at a small loch nearby on Noup Head. However, it was not seen between the two sightings and I never saw it again during my trip, so it could have been a different one-day bird (it may even have been the bird subsequently found at Loch of Hillwell on Shetland on 20 May). Although my conscience doesn't allow me to count it as a new UK self-found tick, it was nevertheless an encouraging start to the trip!

A record shot of the drake Green-winged Teal at Loch of Burness, with the vertical white flank stripe just visible (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Noup Head, and the adjacent cliffs and geos, were the primary target for today's exploration, but apart from a furtive Sparrowhawk, a Blackcap and a couple of Whimbrels, there were few migrants around. However, the spectacle of thousands of breeding seabirds on the cliffs was impressive, with Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Fulmars, Gannets, Shags, Black Guillemots, Puffins, Arctic Skuas and Great Skuas all present, in roughly decreasing order of abundance.

The seabird colony at Noup Head RSPB reserve; photos don't do justice to the sight, sound and smell of thousands of nesting seabirds! (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Guillemots, including birds of the 'bridled' form (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Gannets; this species is a relatively new colonist on Westray, but already there are several hundred pairs on the cliffs at Noup Head (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Black Guillemot; small numbers were present on the lower cliffs, from where their plaintive whistling calls could be heard (Photo: Russell Wynn)

The day took an unexpected turn when I found what appeared to be a dead swan in the bottom of a small geo on the north coast adjacent to Noup Head. As I scrutinised it with binoculars I was surprised to see a slight movement of the head; the bird was alive and was a Whooper Swan! It was clearly in a bad way as, after a precarious scramble into the geo, I was able to carefully pick it up with little resistance. Leaving it in place would have meant certain death, as it was not strong enough to fly and there was no shelter or fresh water for several miles. I therefore made the decision to transport it to one of the larger lochs, so after wrapping it in a rucksack cover I hauled it underarm for 5 km over the hills to Loch of Burness. Upon release at the water's edge it rapidly quenched its thirst and, although forced to evade the attentions of a territorial male Mute Swan, it appeared in slightly better shape by the evening.

The moribund Whooper Swan as it was found (top), ready for transportation (middle), and after release on Loch of Burness (bottom). Only it knows what ordeal it went through before its discovery, but my best guess was that it came down on the sea to the west or northwest of Orkney, either through exhaustion and/or injury, and drifted east until it reached Noup Head and the small geo where it could finally get out of the water (Photos: Russell Wynn)

Birding on Westray doesn't stop when the sun goes down, as the island is host to a small population of Corncrakes that are surveyed annually by RSPB. I have agreed to help out with surveys to locate singing birds, and consequently get out after dinner for a nocturnal walk. I quickly locate a singing bird, but the rasping call takes longer to pin down as the sound carries on the wind and is audible over 1 km away! I also locate three different singing Water Rails before I crawl into bed at 1am, after a total of 11 hours in the field!

Day 3 (16th May 2013)

Weather: SSW–SE4–3; bright and sunny

The relocated Whooper Swan was unfortunately found dead at Loch of Burness early on and there was no sign of the Green-winged Teal, although the drake Scaup remained and a Wood Sandpiper was a new arrival. The switch to an inviting southerly wind encouraged me to check the sheltered northeast coast again, but it was relatively quiet with Sparrowhawk and Whitethroat the only new landbird migrants. An oiled first-summer Shag twice evaded capture, and a set of otter prints was found along the strandline at The Ouse (the closest I got to one during my trip).

Otter tracks at The Ouse (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 4 (17th May 2013)

Weather: NE3–N5; cloudy and increasingly breezy and murky, with very light drizzle arriving

A series of new sites around the centre of the island were visited today. The stiff north wind ensured the morning was fairly quiet, with a thin scatter of migrants including Grey Heron, Golden Plover and Common Sandpiper. A further 15 Great Northern Divers were located in the Bays of Cleat, Swartmill and Tuquoy. Ravens were found nesting at Cleatonbrae and Nethergarth, with both nests (on abandoned buildings) containing nearly fledged juveniles. A long-dead dolphin species was found at Links of Garth, but the highlight of the day was an immature male Marsh Harrier arriving from the southwest at Bay of Tuquoy at lunchtime and slowly moving northeast.

Dead dolphin at Links of Garth (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Marsh Harrier escorted by mobbing Curlews (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 5 (18th May 2013)

Weather: NE5–6; cloudy with sunny spells but becoming misty in the afternoon

The day started well with a Short-eared Owl flushed in the morning at Pierowall, while what was probably the same Marsh Harrier as yesterday was seen again over Bay of Tuquoy. A gathering of 11 Great Northern Divers off Mae Sand brought the trip total to about 45 individuals. I then made the long trek north along the spectacular west cliffs looking for migrants sheltering from the stiff northeast wind. A few new arrivals were present, including up to three Common Sandpipers, two Pied Flycatchers, and single Redstart, Garden Warbler and Willow Warbler.

Birding along the west cliffs is challenging but spectacular, and small numbers of migrants were located sheltering in the various nooks and crannies from the stiff northeast wind (Photo: Russell Wynn)

However, these results are rather meagre compared to what nearby North Ronaldsay has been hosting in the last three days, with an influx of drift migrants including Grey-headed Wagtail, Marsh Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Common Rosefinch, and peak counts of ten Pied Flycatchers, 11 Redstarts and 32 Tree Pipits. Meanwhile, Foula has weighed in with Short-toed Lark and Ortolan Bunting, and birders on Fair Isle have enjoyed Wryneck, Bluethroat, Marsh, Melodious and Icterine Warbler, Waxwing, Red-backed Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Ortolan Bunting, as well as peak counts of five Grey-headed Wagtails, 19 Pied Flycatchers, 25 Garden Warblers and 45 Tree Pipits! It's quite demoralising knowing that so many good birds are just a few kilometres away, but it is an interesting comparison and demonstrates the 'shielding' effect of islands to the east. I remind myself that I'm not expecting to score much in these conditions, and that I need to keep positive for when the weather changes.

Day 6 (19th May 2013)

Weather: NE3–1; low cloud and mist clearing to warm and sunny

A Pink-footed Goose was a new arrival at Pierowall, but it was otherwise quiet there with no new passerine migrants. The walk along the northwest coast to Noup Head was also quiet, but on Noup Head itself a male Redstart was an obvious new arrival and a smart male Lapland Bunting was seen as the mist cleared. The trickle of common migrants continued during a trek across the hills back to Pierowall, with a further Redstart and Tree Pipit, Spotted Flycatcher and Garden Warbler all noted. Corncrake surveys in the late afternoon and evening produced five singing males, including two verbally jousting with each other in a lochside iris bed in broad daylight. After dark, two migrating Common Sandpipers were heard low overhead as the mist descended again.

This smart male Lapland Bunting was grounded on Noup Head in misty conditions (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 7 (20th May 2013)

Weather: NW3–4; thick mist and low cloud clearing but still light drizzle

The morning was a dead loss, as thick mist contributed to a rather uninspiring trudge around Pierowall and the west side of the Aikerness peninsula. However, visibility improved after lunch and there was plenty to see on the coast between Aiker Ness and Pierowall. Good numbers of divers remained, with 32 Great Northern Divers and four Red-throated Divers on view (bringing the island total for Great Northern Divers to about 50 individuals). In addition, a total of 85 Eiders and four Common Scoters were seen congregating around a fish farm off Ouse Ness. However, the highlight of the day was a fine adult Long-tailed Skua drifting west across The Ouse in the early afternoon. A nice selection of waders feeding busily on the sand flats there included 70 Sanderling, one of which was a colour-ringed male.

The colour-ringed Sanderling at The Ouse (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Thanks to a very prompt reply from Jeroen Reneerkens, I discovered that this bird had been ringed at a breeding site in east Greenland on 2nd July 2009 and just 12 days later it was seen on return migration at Baltray Beach in northeast Ireland. The following spring it was seen moving northeast between Fouesnant and Kerlouan in northwest France on 11th and 15th May. It was next seen three years later at Fouesnant on 9th May 2013, which was 11 days before I discovered it on Westray where it remained until at least 24th May.

Day 8 (21st May 2013)

Weather: NW4–3; cloudy then sunny spells with a few showers

With a steady northwest wind forecast, and news of a good skua passage off the Outer Hebrides yesterday (209 Long-tailed and 110 Pomarine passed North Uist), the objective for the day was seawatching from Noup Head. However, the walk north took longer than expected due to the finding of a stunning male Red-backed Shrike by the road at Noltland. This coincided with a major influx along the northeast coast of the UK, e.g. up to 12 on Holy Island, Northumberland and four on Fair Isle the same day.

A record shot of the male Red-backed Shrike found at Noltland (Photo: Russell Wynn)

The subsequent seawatch at Noup Head from 1030–1800 hrs provided the first real opportunity to test the theory that this location should deliver results in a northwest wind. It certainly did deliver, with 153 Long-tailed Skuas, three Pomarine Skuas, 13 Long-tailed Ducks, five Manx Shearwaters and a Red-throated Diver noted moving north amongst commoner seabirds. There were also four sightings of at least one Minke Whale (including some close views) and two sightings of a pair of Risso's Dolphins. The Long-tailed Skuas moved through in flocks of up to 25, mostly distant but with a few at one-mile range. The movement was picked up elsewhere, with 68 Long-tailed and 13 Pomarine Skuas passing Wats Ness, Shetland, up to 1200 hrs, but only maxima of 147 Long-tailed Skuas and 17 Pomarine Skuas from the Outer Hebrides. As well as the migratory seabirds, there was also a persistent feeding flock of Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns and auks along a tidal-topographic front a few hundred metres off the headland, which also attracted the attentions of the Minke Whale.

Kittiwake carrying nesting material to the cliffs at Noup Head (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 9 (22nd May 2013)

Weather: NW5–7; increasingly frequent and heavy rain/hail showers with sunny spells

Another seawatching day at Noup Head, but the increasingly frequent and severe showers, together with onshore gusts to 45 mph and a drop in temperature after lunch to <5°C meant that conditions were challenging! Nevertheless, a total of 33 Long-tailed Skuas and 24 Pomarine Skuas were recorded moving north from 1000–1630 hrs. It is likely that many more were missed when observations had to cease during heavy showers, while several distant birds remained unidentified because of poor viewing conditions. The brisk walk back along the headland in the late afternoon produced a very pale and bleached immature Iceland Gull feeding on fields with other large gulls, but it disappeared before the scope was set up so a specific age was not obtained. In the evening I discovered that an incredible movement of at least 1450 Long-tailed Skuas passed North Uist in the afternoon, suggesting there would be more to come past Westray tomorrow!

Stormy conditions at Noup Head (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Pressure chart for midnight on 22nd May 2013. The low pressure northeast of Iceland and the high pressure over the north Atlantic generated a stiff northwest airflow across the UK, perfect for pushing northbound skuas against the northwest coast of Scotland (Image: UK Met Office)

Day 10 (23rd May 2013)

Weather: NNW6–7; windy and cold with blustery showers and sunny spells developing

The wind was again gusting to 45 mph and, with conditions similar to yesterday, another 7.5 hours of seawatching was undertaken (1000–1730 hrs). The results were spectacular, with a total of 542 Long-tailed Skuas and 26 Pomarine Skuas recorded moving north (this is a new record count of Long-tailed Skuas for the Northern Isles). The hourly totals from 1000 hrs were 68, 72, 67, 169, 104, 28, 29, 10, with the peak passage in the early afternoon including a long loose flock of 91 birds! The strength of the wind and the more northerly component ensured that many birds took a closer line than in the previous two days, allowing some record shots to be obtained.

A flock of 14 Long-tailed Skuas passing Noup Head, surely one of the best sights in British birding! (Photo: Russell Wynn)

The strong headwind encouraged an unprecedented overland skua movement further south in mainland Scotland, with 1084 Long-tailed and 19 Pomarine Skuas moving through Corran Narrows apparently heading for the Great Glen. There were also widespread reports of smaller numbers of both species at sites all across northern Scotland, but peak counts elsewhere on Orkney were an order of magnitude lower than the Noup Head total, e.g. 45 at North Ronaldsay and 46 off Brough of Birsay around midday. Also seen moving north off Noup Head were ten Manx Shearwaters and at least one European Storm Petrel, with up to five Harbour Porpoises offshore. The wintry feel was emphasised by the presence of the Iceland Gull again in fields on Noup Head, seen well enough to age as a second-year bird, and two Snow Buntings there (including one confiding individual that posed well for photos while feeding in a sheltered burn).

Immature Iceland Gull at Noup Head, the bird fourth from right (Photo: Russell Wynn)

A confiding Snow Bunting sheltering from the wind at Noup Head (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 11 (24th May 2013)

Weather: N2; cloudy with light drizzle; becoming sunny and warm in the afternoon

Light winds and sunny skies in the afternoon were a real contrast to the previous three days, and provided an opportunity to check a few sites on the Aikerness peninsula. Craig Loch was a hive of wader activity, with 64 Knot, six Bar-tailed Godwits and four Sanderling of note. There was also a Yellow Wagtail and two Snow Buntings there, the first of a good total of six for the day.

A pair of Snow Buntings at Aiker Ness, part of an unusual influx into the Northern Isles in late May (Photo: Russell Wynn)

The Ouse was also occupied by a large flock of waders, including 215 Ringed Plovers, 70 Sanderling, two Bar-tailed Godwits and a Grey Plover. The colour-ringed Sanderling from 20th May was still present at 1600 hrs, suggesting that these birds had been held up by the strong northwest winds of recent days. At Loch Saintear the highlight was a dainty first-summer Little Gull, while the Pink-footed Goose remained with the flock of 124 Greylag Geese.

Ringed Plovers and Sanderling refuelling on the sandflats at The Ouse (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 12 (25th May 2013)

Weather: W–NW2; sunny and warm with light cloud

Another sunny and warm day started with a Corncrake singing near Pierowall at 1030 hrs and ended with another found during a nocturnal survey just before midnight, bringing the total of singing males found on the island to at least six. The mini-influx of Snow Buntings continued, with a further three birds located bringing the total to 11 in three days. This influx was picked up elsewhere in the Northern Isles with up to 42 on North Ronaldsay and 47 on Fair Isle, possibly related to the strong northwest winds of the previous few days. There was also a mini-influx of first-summer Little Gulls, with up to three seen during the day. Otherwise, there was just a thin scatter of common migrants to be seen.

A female Mallard with chicks enjoying the spring sunshine (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Day 13 (26th May 2013)

Weather: W3–N1=SE3–4; sunny and warm with light cloud; cooler and breezier later

Another day of superb weather, and the switch in wind direction produced some great birds on my last full day in the field. However, the first scarcity of the day was found while I was still in bed! At 0700 hrs I awoke to hear a whistled repetitive "pleased to meet you" coming through the open window of my room. I quickly came to my senses as I realised it was a male Common Rosefinch, but by the time I threw on some clothes and dashed outside it had disappeared. Nevertheless, this encounter changed the course of the day, as after breakfast I delayed my planned walk up to Noup Head and searched the gardens of Pierowall in the hope of relocating the elusive finch. Although unsuccessful, the search route took me across the golf course west of the village where, at 1100 hrs, I discovered a superb Woodchat Shrike perched on a barbed-wire fence. This was a new UK self-found bird for me, but better still, it wasn't showing any white at the base of the primaries suggesting it was a bird of the distinctive Balearic race badius! I rattled off a series of images as the bird gorged itself on bumblebees and other insects (it stored several of the bees on barbed-wire larders), and then made a quick dash back to the hotel to double-check the key features and put the news out. This done, I returned to the site to settle down and enjoy some great views of what was the first Balearic Woodchat Shrike for Scotland and only the tenth record for the UK. A southern overshoot was certainly not what I was expecting from the trip, especially one whose home range was 2000 km to the south!

The first Balearic Woodchat Shrike for Scotland (Photo: Russell Wynn)

A flight shot of the Balearic Woodchat Shrike; note the very restricted pale bases to P5–8, further supporting the identification as badius (Photo: Russell Wynn)

After lunch I quickly headed up to Noup Head in search of other arrivals, but this drew a disappointing blank. However, while slogging back over the hills towards Pierowall, a distant scope scan of Loch of Burness from the adjacent hillside revealed a potential Red-backed Shrike on a fenceline bordering the southwest loch shore. It was a bit too distant to confirm with my 30× scope lens, so I was faced with a long trudge along the tarmac road running along the western loch shore to make sure of the identification. I should add that at this point the daily routine of 10 or so hours trekking across the island carrying several kilos of birding kit had started to impact on my physical condition and, rather like a marathon runner crossing the finishing line, the finding of the Balearic Woodchat Shrike and the prospect of heading home tomorrow had reduced me to a somewhat debilitated state. Nevertheless, I maintained my discipline and limped a further kilometre or so until I got good enough views to confirm the second male Red-backed Shrike of the trip, just a few hundred metres from the Woodchat! My efforts were also rewarded with good scope views of a singing Corncrake, and my first Whinchat of the trip. That sorted, I then hobbled along to the golf course to have a final look at the Balearic Woodchat Shrike, joined by a couple of islanders. It was present up to 2000 hrs, but in an increasing southeast breeze and clear skies I suspected it would be gone by the morning.

Alan Drever, owner of the Pierowall Hotel, photographs the Balearic Woodchat Shrike under the watchful eye of a couple of local residents! (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Pressure chart for midnight on 26th May 2013. High pressure is dominant across the UK, and the clear skies and warm weather evidently encouraged the Balearic Woodchat Shrike to keep penetrating northwards (Image: UK Met Office)

Departure (27th May 2013)

Weather: SSE4–5; light cloud and breezy

A quick check of the golf course area early in the morning revealed no sign of the Balearic Woodchat Shrike, although the exposed nature of the site meant the bird would likely have moved anyway if it had remained overnight. I was slightly concerned that if it had departed the island in the stiff southeast wind it would likely have perished somewhere in the North Atlantic. However, a twist in the tale came several days later when Ken Shaw emailed me to say that the same bird had, by a huge coincidence, been found on Foula two days later on 28 May!!

A view of the north coast of Westray, with Loch of Burness in the foreground (Photo: Russell Wynn)

My journey home south that afternoon gave me time to reflect on the results of the previous two weeks. Westray had delivered the first Balearic Woodchat Shrike for Scotland, a record-breaking Long-tailed Skua passage, a series of scarcities such as Green-winged Teal, Red-backed Shrike and Common Rosefinch, and some spectacular scenery in relative solitude. I had managed to put in a total of 136 hours in the field in just over 13 days, averaging about ten hours a day, and had seen a total of 119 bird species. The island had certainly revealed its potential for seabird migration in suitable conditions and, although a poor relation to sites further east when it comes to attracting drift migrants, it evidently has the ability to draw in the odd 'big one'. I will definitely be back for more in 2014!


Many thanks to Alan Drever and this team at the Pierowall Hotel for keeping me fed and watered during my trip. Thanks also to Jeroen Reneerkens and Colin Corse for providing details of colour-ringed waders.

Written by: Dr Russell Wynn