Rarity finders: Western Olivaceous Warbler in Shetland


On 18 October, an extended period of south-east winds commenced in Shetland. At times it was really strong but with almost no rain at all.

A decent scatter of common migrants were found on Whalsay, with three Continental Coal Tits and a Northern Treecreeper on 19th adding a bit of quality to the large numbers of Goldcrests and Blackbirds.

The morning of 20th added little, with lesser numbers of the common species at the north end of the island. A look to the south produced a Little Bunting on a small rig at Sandwick in the afternoon, so I decided to try some of the tree plantations at Skibberhoull next. 

The usual suspects of Goldcrests and European Robins were found until I encountered a milky tea-coloured warbler with a javelin of a bill on the west edge of some spruce trees at a small plantation known locally as 'Frankie's' at 3.30 pm.

Western Olivaceous Warbler, Whalsay, Shetland (Penny Clarke).

Against type, the bird was very showy and approached within metres of where I was standing. I took a few photos – features noted included a long, broad-based bill with an obvious orange-yellow lower mandible, unmarked pale lores with a narrow whitish eyering, a dark eye, pale whitish underparts, uniform milky tea-coloured upperparts, a tail usually slightly cocked with narrow white edges to the outer feathers and strongish-looking, steel-grey legs and feet.

I sent for reinforcements on our island WhatsApp group saying 'eastern oli?'  and with a back-of-camera photo. All comments supported this view, so I put it out as an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Jon Dunn and Steve Jones quickly arrived on site. It performed really well for the rest of the afternoon, though it was never heard to call. Western Olivaceous Warbler was briefly discussed, though never seriously considered as we were all aware there were no British records.

In the evening, I got a message from a couple of prominent birders asking if the bird was dipping its tail, a regular habit of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. I admitted I hadn't seen that.

A bit of concern now arose as some plumage features looked good for Western Olivaceous Warbler – the species we had discounted out of hand a few hours earlier.

Luckily, the bird was still there on the morning of 21st and, as this is a regular island ringing site, Paul Harvey, Phil Harris and Roger Riddington quickly trapped, ringed and released it back into Frankie's plantation where it continued to be really active and confiding.

Measurements taken then confirmed it as a Western Olivaceous Warbler – a British first and a big deal for all concerned. 

Written by: John Lowrie Irvine

Related Locations