Tuesday, 26 September 2017

An adventure of a lifetime

Its been a plan in the works for the last few days but a plan for a great cause.

On Wednesday 26th September 2017 news broke of a female Siberian Thrush on Unst and a Yellow-breasted Bunting on Outer Skerries (I managed to nab the Sibe Thrush on the day but I would have to wait a few more before I even managed to go for the Bunting) , I was really wanting to go for the Bunting as it has been a dream bird of mine for years, after hearing of the plight of the species further east, with the population suffering a serious crash of over 90% since the 1980's due to extreme overhunting in China, it seemed like it was going to become a mythical species that I might never have the chance to see. It used to be annual in Shetland up until the early 2000's, but now it seems it could easily be extinct within my lifetime.

Two frustrating days later on Friday the 22nd my plan was finally able to roll out.  After being unable to go on Dan Pointon's Charter and day tripping earlier on in the day due to school I instead caught the regular 1730 ferry from Vidlin, Mainland to Outer Skerries.
Thanks to my always extremely helpful grandparents I was fully stocked with food and sleeping equipment on my first solo trip to Outer Skerries(but hopefully it won't be my last one of the autumn)
The Skerrie's Ferry, the Filla, coming in

Getting loaded up

First sight of Skerries

The sun setting over the waves

The ferry trip over to Skerries was great with the setting sun behind us, but it wasn't all set yet and that's what I was banking on.
The ferry arrived in at 1835, 25 minutes earlier than what it had said on the timetable, and there was still enough light left to try and see a certain bird.
I'd met Phil Harris back on the Vidlin side before the ferry and he said the bird had been hanging around a derelict croft with a cannon in the garden! So when I arrived that's where I raced off to.
I wasn't 100% sure where I was going most of the time but there's really only one road on the islands so it can't be that hard to find where you are going.
Well somehow I did manage to take the wrong turn, the map I was reading showed the Chapel and the graveyard in the same place but they weren't, one was on one road and one on another and I'd taken the wrong road. A quick turn around and a left turn later I reached the graveyard and there was no birds in sight, it only took a second to find the croft which was adjacent to the graveyard so I trudged off there, hoping I'd be more successful.

A few 'pssshs' later around some very promising clumps of grass and nothing had flown up from the croft, I gave it another go and tried a fenced in patch of grass behind a small shed and this funny LBJ (Little Brown Job) flew out, it had back markings I had never seen before and it was completely wrong for a Meadow Pipit in shape and colour, it just screamed at me 'Bunting'.  With my heart racing I just knew this had to be the Yellow-breasted Bunting but in the back of my head I could hear myself saying 'don't get excited it's only the Little Bunting that's been hanging around', those agonising seconds took ages to pass but the bird eventually alighted on a dyke and I got my bins up to look at it, typically my binoculars weren't even focused but I could make out a very noticeable yellow breast! with bins finally focused I saw it, there in all its glory was the Yellow-breasted Bunting!!! I got one photo and then spent the rest of my time just looking at it, I couldn't believe that I was admiring my dream bird that I had come so far to see.

My one and only photo of the Yellow-breasted Bunting 

It could of been an age or only a few seconds later but the Bunting eventually flew around the back of the croft and out of sight, with that my bird was gone but I was still relishing from the excitement and happiness of seeing it, its still not gone now even though its been four days.

After the bird had left I went to celebrate with a cup of tea, I phoned my grandparents to tell them the news (without them I probably would of been a bit worse for wear as they helped supply me for most of the trip so thanks!).  I'd just ended the phone call and I was about to make my celebratory cup of tea when I noticed something fly in towards the back of the croft and perch on the dyke, I sprang into action and got my bins straight onto the bird, it had a very familiar, striking yellow breast, the Bunting had returned!! I started making my way back towards the croft to try and get another view of this eastern gem.  By the time I'd arrived the Bunting had dropped onto a rough grassy path behind the croft and gave some decent views in the poor light when it alighted on a nearby dyke, it was too dark for photos so I watched in awe for a few minutes before the Bunting appeared to drop into cover for the night so I left it in peace.

Finally I was able to sit down and drink my cup of tea, watching the sun's final rays touch Skerries for the day, it was an amazing end to a truly magical day.

But that was not the end of my adventure......

Next plan of action for me in the non-existent light was to find a place to kip for the night, I had not planned to stay anywhere or booked anything so I was taking my chances.
My options for the night were:
  1. Sleep in the chapel 
  2. Sleep in the ferry terminal toilet area
  3. Outside
Personally I thought the safest idea was the second option and it turned out to be not a half bad idea, for a public toilet it was very well maintained, clean and had most of the facilities one would need, heating, a toilet, sink and shower as well as a place to put my bike, making it a pretty good sleeping quarters for the night.  A bit of a sweep up later with the broom that was already supplied (another good feature of the place) and it was good enough to finally get some rest, bed gear was soon deployed and some of my food rations were consumed before I lay down, ready for day two and what it would bring.....
Home Sweet Home for the night

Day 2

My sleep was patchy with at least a few good hours behind me, I had breakfast at 0430 as I had woken up a bit peckish so a big meal was not needed when I woke up again 0600, I had planned to try and get to the Yellow-breasted Bunting site for 6.30, so after my miniature breakfast, I got dressed and when I looked outside about 20 minutes later I expected it to be pitch black but there was an orange and red glow coming from the horizon! that definitely encouraged me to get going and within the next ten minutes I was gone back to West Isle (Housay) to try and locate the Bunting.

On the cycle over to Housay from Bruray I managed to add a few more species to my Skerries List but nothing overly noteworthy even though I checked a few sites given to me by Dave the night before.  I arrived on Housay about 0700 and already I added Hooded Crow and House Sparrow to my Island list, a look around the derelict croft produced no Yellow-breasted Bunting though it was still early hours.

 The haunt of the Yellow-breasted Bunting, quite a nice peerie croft

I decided to try and find some more sites Dave had suggested to me and so I began trudging north towards Ward Hill to try and find a marsh.  After around an hour the only birds I'd really picked up were some Snipe, Meadow Pipits and Rock Pipits, Vogan's Voe especially was teeming with them, but since I hadn't really found much I decided to turn around and try again for the Bunting, this was when I finally spotted human life, in the shape of a fellow birder.
Within a few minutes I was deep in conversation with one of the finders of the Yellow-breasted Bunting, it was great to trade sightings (well the few I had) and get to thank one of the guys who found the bird because without them I would never of seen it!
But there was birds to be found, and we went our own separate directions, I did try again for the Bunting but with no success, as it had obviously left the island.
I decided to give another go at the iris bed by the graveyard on the way back to my bike, I was just deciding which part of the irises I would cover first when a medium sized, rusty brown bird flew in from the right, I quickly got my bins onto it and realised it was a Corncrake!! a few seconds later it lazily dropped into the irises and I couldn't believe what I'd just seen, I've only ever seen two before and it certainly wasn't a bird I was expecting to find on Skerries.
I decided not to try and look for the bird as I'd probably just got the best views that I was going to get, a further walk along the iris bed didn't produce any Pallas' Grasshopper Warbler so a migrant Wren and a Willow Warbler along the roadside were good enough for me.

A Skerries' Endemic, obviously not scared of humans

Over time I slowly headed back towards the ferry terminal, checking sites along the way but never coming up with much, I hanged around the ferry for a good 30 minutes earlier than the leaving time just so I didn't miss it.

One of several cannons around the island, many pulled up from ships that have wrecked on the coast

Finally the ferry pulled in about 9.35 and we left about 9.45 as I was the only passenger aboard, with that we left the island and my adventure of a lifetime had ended.

A great many thanks to the finders for finding the bird as I would never have seen the bird without them, many thanks also goes to my grandparents for all the supplies and gear for the trip, it made it a lot more easy to survive!

Rare Bird Alert Finders in the Field Link:

After that amazing trip my Skerries List obviously gained a few birds so in a rough order here they are:
  1. Gannet
  2. Shag
  3. Fulmar
  4. Comorant
  5. Starling
  6. Meadow Pipit
  7. White/Pied Wagtail
  9. Grey Heron
  10. Curlew
  11. Rock Pipit
  12. Herring Gull
  13. Great Black-backed Gull
  14. Great Skua
  15. Redshank
  16. Rock Dove
  17. Hooded Crow
  18. House Sparrow
  19. Snipe
  20. Raven
  21. Song Thrush
  22. Corncrake
  23. Kittiwake
  24. Wren
  25. Willow Warbler
  26. Twite
  27. Eider
  28. Tystie (Black Guillemot)
  29. Turnstone
  30. Purple Sandpiper


  1. I'm slightly unkeen on sleeping in a toilet myself, reckon you'd get disturbed

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