Rarity finders: American Yellow Warbler in Shetland


On 5 September, the Foula ferry had to leave much later due strong WSW winds overnight making for rough sea conditions. Geoff works on the ferry so this meant we had a bonus morning of birding together.

At midday Geoff left for work, but soon messaged me to say that the ferry would be back around 6 pm, staying on Foula for 30 minutes only! It then had to make another five-hour return trip because there had been a technical problem with the plane and there were passengers that needed to get off Foula.

At 2 pm I spotted our first autumn Blackcap in the garden and thought it was worth another look around. As I approached Ham Yard, I saw something bright yellow partially obscured in a willow at the east end. I got my camera out ready and took a few hopeful photos. It didn't show again, and for something so bright yellow, it seemed to vanish into the dark dense willows.

My mind was in overdrive trying to process what I had just seen. Small, bright and yellow. I was fairly confident it would show itself again and be identified. Meanwhile, I messaged Geoff something along the lines of 'found a bright yellow bird in willow in Ham Yard, only brief views, got poor shots, phone me when you can'. I searched very quickly around the area just in case it decided to move out. I was now getting worried that I wouldn't see it again and that it would be left unidentified. I really wanted to avoid regret and self-reproach.

The American Yellow Warbler was Shetland's third and the first since September 2005 (Donna Atherton).

I reviewed my poor distant photos and could see a blurred head shot of a golden bird with a fine bill. Then, suddenly the bird flushed from a small shrub – it was bright yellow all over!

I relocated it back in the yard and managed some poor shots through the murky, dim conditions. The bird moved so fast through the canopy and it was difficult to pin down. I reviewed my latest photos, blinked and swallowed hard. I immediately sent back-of-camera photo to Geoff. His response was unrepeatable!

With scant views I sat tight where I had last seen it enter a willow. I was in a position where I could see the Foula ferry entering the harbour. Geoff soon joined me and, within a few agonising minutes, he had clapped eyes on it. I wasn't sure if the images or views I had were good enough to identify it, but luckily it gave decent views in its favoured bush. We dashed home, opened up The Sibley Guide to Birds and identified it as an American Yellow Warbler! I put the news out on the Shetland WhatsApp group and received lots of kind congratulations.

Geoff went back to work with a couple of swiftly made sandwiches thrust in his hands – but looking very happy. Next time I saw him it was midnight and we were both tired but still smiling.

The following day the bird was still commuting between the walled garden (Ham Yard) and its favoured bush, often calling a high-pitched metallic tchee. It moved so fast that by the time you pressed the shutter button on the camera, it was gone. There was nothing relaxed about this bird.

The mist and strong wind caused havoc and prevented any chance of any transport on or off Foula. Eventually, on 7th, boats and planes made it into Foula enabling others to see it, and the bird lingered until 11th. As the weather improved in following days, so did the views and photos.

The bird would linger several days, favouring the garden at Ham Yard (Rebecca Nason).

Written by: Donna Atherton

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