Rarity finders: Dusky Thrush on Whalsay


Crisp winter days are something of a novelty in Shetland, so when 5 December dawned calm and frosty I decided to make for Skaw Taing, the most north-easterly part of Whalsay, which has been my home for 45 years. We have a Jack Russell which, although nine years old, still has almost boundless energy and the Taing is one of my – and his – favourite stomping grounds, despite having to share it with small numbers of golfers, it being the site of Britain's most northerly golf course since 1976.

The golf course at Skaw Taing, Whalsay, is the most northerly in Britain and a regular birding spot for Brian Marshall (Laurence Eunson).

The frosted grass was crunchy beneath my feet and the views to Mainland, Yell, Fetlar and Noss were spectacular. I enjoyed the evocative calls from a party of seven Whooper Swans on North Loch and as we walked round there were occasional On Golden Pond sound effects from some of the 19 Great Northern Divers offshore.

I combine my dog walks with undertaking BirdTrack counts but, after an hour, when I was nearly back to my car, the only passerines I had noted were singles of Blackbird, Redwing and Fieldfare, as well as the usual Common Starlings, Rock Pipits and a Eurasian Wren.

Then, at about 11.45 am, as I approached the first tee, a thrush flew and landed about 50 m away. I expected another Redwing, but when I raised my binoculars, I was staggered to see a Dusky Thrush. Slightly bigger than a Redwing, my eye was immediately taken by the blackish chevrons forming a breast band and extending densely down its flank, while the creamy-yellow supercilium, chin, upper breast and sides of neck were equally striking.

The black 'chevron' markings on the underparts, rufous wing coverts and striking head pattern allowed for a straightforward identification of the bird as a Dusky Thrush (John Lowrie Irvine).

I managed to get hold of John Lowrie Irvine (JLI), another keen Whalsay birder, who was checking the eider flock at the other end of the island and, as a result, was some distance from the road and his car. After what seemed like an interminable wait, he arrived and we both enjoyed great views and JLI, who is almost permanently welded to his camera when birding, got several excellent photos.

Then, for no apparent reason, the bird lifted and flew out of sight. It took us a considerable time to relocate it further out on the Taing and it continued to be flighty until, at 1.30 pm, just as the only two Shetland Mainland birders able to make it to Whalsay were almost within sight, it lifted and flew off to the south behind a small hillock. It was not seen again despite continued searching that day, nor the next two days, when our efforts were hampered by strong winds and driving rain.

There are three previous accepted records of Dusky Thrush in Shetland, including a September 1968 record on Whalsay, found by the late Johnnie Simpson, who is JLI's grandfather.

Dusky Thrush, Skaw, Whalsay, Shetland, 5 December 2018 (John Lowrie Irvine).

Written by: Brian Marshall

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