Rarity finders: Hermit Thrush on Shetland


Andy Denton and I had been on the island less than a week as we prepared for our fourth season as wardens of Noss NNR. It was Andy’s turn to spend the day in the SNH office in Lerwick, Shetland, so after dropping him off I set out for a lap of the island.

Highlights of the day had included the discovery of a new Raven nest at Cradle Holm and a couple of early Red Admiral records. After passing Whiggie Geo and discovering nothing more than a Common Chiffchaff, I expected little of note to appear in East Punds Geo on the north-east side of the island. When an American Catharus thrush hopped out after my brief clap, I knew I’d scored big.

My heart skipped as I reached for my compact camera to get record shots as quickly as possible, knowing that I’d found something rare. The strongly spotted bib, rufous red tail and rump, unusual wing pattern, distinct eyering and buff flanks were clearly visible as the bird perched atop a boulder at the bottom of the 40 m deep geo for a good five minutes while I watched and wondered.

I transferred a couple of my best shots from my camera to my phone while keeping an eye on the bird, and then called Andy in the office. My initial words were: “Help! I’ve got something that looks like a Hermit Thrush!” Andy and our colleagues Glen Tyler and Juan Brown had a look at the pictures I had sent through Whatsapp, and excitement levels immediately soared.

The Hermit Thrush gave cripplingly close views during its all-too-short stay (Rebecca Nason).

Phil Harris from Shetland Seabird Tours was quick to act, bringing his boat over with his partner and photographer Rebecca Nason and their young daughter Ayda. The first boatful embarked on the 20-minute walk up to the geo where the Hermit Thrush was still happily feeding away up the gullies and crevasses.

Phil’s passengers were led up by Andy and were afforded remarkable views as the bird hopped up to the top and out of the geo, allowing Rebecca to capture superb images of this, the fifth for Shetland, 12th for Britain and first for Noss.

Rebecca very kindly shared one of these images to our Birds of Noss Facebook group, where my own images and video were also uploaded. This was the first new species that I’ve added to the Noss bird list in my time as warden there, which I am particularly happy about, and what a bird it is to contribute.

It was a brief one-day stay for this North American vagrant and, with it being so early in the season, it’s still hard to imagine how we’re going to top this record in terms of exciting new discoveries.

We are, however, very fortunate to be custodians for another season over one of Shetland’s finest seabird colonies and that in itself is an honour. A visit from another mega rarity like this Hermit Thrush would certainly be an even greater bonus.

If accepted, this will be the 12th record for Britain, the most recent having been on North Uist, Outer Hebrides, on 22–23 October 2015.

The bird was first seen hopping around rocks in the geo (Craig Nisbet).

The Hermit Thrush posed at all angles for visiting photographers (Rebecca Nason).

Written by: Craig Nisbet

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