This year marked my 13th autumn visit to Shetland and, along with Julian Allen, I was hoping this 'unlucky' number wasn't going to prove a bad omen! Arriving on 7 October, we quickly saw a few of the leftovers from the previous week (White's Thrush, Eastern Subalpine Warbler and so on), but the much-desired Veery had unfortunately left.
The weather forecast was generally poor with lots of rain and winds from the west – finding any migrants was going to be difficult. I fancifully suggested a chance of some mega American passerines, but I am not sure I believed it myself. However, on 10 October we survived some horrendous weather to see a White-crowned Sparrow on Fetlar. Perhaps 'Yanks' were in play?
After a washout the day before, Julian and I left our digs in Leebotten at the crack of 9 am on Thursday 12 October. An hour later we were in Hoswick, ambling around, seeing absolutely nothing. Out of duty we went into the Orca Country Inn car park area, as this is generally the best spot in the village.
I noticed some movement in the bushes at the far end and went to investigate – the three Goldcrests were a small victory and showed there was a few migrants around. Then it happened. Out of the corner of my eye I saw bright yellow bird drop to the ground from some willows in the garden below the Orca Country Inn. 'What was that?' I pondered. I gestured wildly for Julian to come and join me.
He arrived full of the joys of spring but soon had his game face on when I recounted what had happened. A minute or so later, Julian saw a yellow flash go back into the willow. And a few seconds later, a bright yellow warbler with a beady black eye was in my binoculars. We both thought it, but I was first to say: "That's a flipping American Yellow Warbler!"
I took a quick mental description: very bright yellow all over, more so on the underparts, with a black eye and some black in the wings and tail; Common Chiffchaff-sized but sturdier with a heftier bill. It could be nothing else, but I checked a few images on the internet. Confirmed – news released!
The first birders arrived within five minutes, but in the excitement, we had lost the bird. The next half hour was excruciating – we had to refind the warbler for the building crowd, for reputations are built and lost on such things. At 10.35 am, Hugh Harrop and myself saw the bird again in the top of a spruce tree and he managed to get a record shot. I could start to relax now. Julian, on the other hand, was playing it very cool as always!
The bird was very mobile and soon headed over to the other end of the village. Eventually, at midday, the bird gave itself up to the crowds in a stand of willowherb. It even started flycatching from a telegraph pole.
We got a lot of congratulations and offers of alcohol, but the buzz of everyone seeing the bird was good enough for me. There were plenty of happy faces all round.
The bird was still present when I left Shetland on 18 October and showed very well at times, particularly when the sun was out. This was the ninth American Yellow Warbler for Britain, including three previous birds in Shetland. One of our friends dubbed us the 'Heroes of Hoswick' – we'll take that!