Rarity finders: Blackburnian Warbler in Shetland


I arrived on Shetland late afternoon on 25 September 2023. I always stay at Bigton and, for some years, have adopted Geosetter as a local patch. So, on the morning of 26th, at about 9.30 am, I set off up the burn. Goldcrests were calling and flitting about and, as I climbed the slope, a Redwing flew over. I always stop at the top to look into the willows below as I have found that they provide more shelter than the bushes lower down the burn. Today was no exception and it was relatively sheltered from a strong southerly wind. 

As I reached the last of the willows, I flushed a small bird which flew into deeper cover. I saw almost nothing of it except for what seemed to be an awful lot of white in the tail. I was intrigued but did not expect the bird to be particularly unusual. I sat and waited. Four or five times what was obviously the same bird flew within the trees. Each time I was only able to pick up the white in the tail feathers.

After about five minutes it tired of this game and perched in view for perhaps 20 seconds, still within the willows. I found it hard to believe what I was looking at. A bright yellow chin and supercilium with a black eye stripe, yellow throat and upper breast, dark upperparts with obvious streaking to the flanks and two stonking great wing-bars. It was obviously an American wood warbler – but which one?

Will couldn't believe his eyes when he first glimpsed the Blackburnian Warbler at Geosetter (Penny Clarke).

I have never been a twitcher and have limited knowledge of the American warblers. I would like to be able to claim that I maintained my composure and calmly began to note the salient features which would build up to a comprehensive identification. In fact, I almost went to pieces, fighting rising panic. I don't carry a camera and there is no phone signal at Geosetter. All I had was my notebook. I scribbled a few notes on the spot. My handwriting went completely to pot and those first notes are almost illegible. 

The bird appeared once more in front of me. This time I didn't bother with notes and tried to hold my binoculars steady as I again took in the bird. It was superb. I began to search the memory bank for inspiration and recalled the photos of last year's Blackburnian Warbler on Scilly and became confident that this bird was of that species.

I realised that I had a choice. I could either stay alone with the bird and my notebook and pencil, praying that someone else turned up, or I could get myself somewhere with an internet connection and put the news out on the Shetland WhatsApp group. It was a no-brainer and I left the bird, which seemed settled where it was. I drove back to Bigton and checked some images online, which confirmed my thoughts as to identification and sent the message: "American wood warbler at Geosetter, looks like Blackburnian."

I was back at Geosetter within five minutes. A tour group led, I now know, by Dave Fairhurst and Judd Hunt, had just arrived. I told Dave that there was an American warbler in the willows, which I thought was Blackburnian. His reply was monosyllabic, unscientific, and completely appropriate.

I was first back to the willows. The rest were not far behind. The wait for the bird to reappear seemed to last an eternity. It was actually about five minutes before it was seen. To my immense relief it did not take long for the identification to be confirmed. After that I could actually begin to enjoy the bird. What a gem – not just very rare but also one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen.

Shetland's only previous record was on Fair Isle on 7 October 1988 (David Cooper).

By 11 am there was a crowd of perhaps 100 birders. The top of Geosetter forms almost a natural amphitheatre. The bird could be viewed from both sides and everyone saw it well. It seemed to put aside any initial shyness and now gave a proper performance, sometimes at very close range. At about 11.30 am it suddenly flew strongly down to the bottom of the burn. I think that many of us thought it had gone and I left the site. However, it reappeared sometime later.

I returned at about 4 pm to have another look. I last saw it sitting on the wire fence in the company of a Yellow-browed Warbler. I could not help wondering how often those two species might have been in each other's company. The bird stayed until dusk but could not be found the following day.

I don't expect to repeat this experience any time soon and probably not ever. It feels like real once-in-a-lifetime stuff. It was particularly pleasing that the bird was new to many of the local birders. They have been more than helpful to me over the years, and it was great to be able to repay them for that.

Written by: Will Carter

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