James Lowen 

At the end of our first afternoon, we were birding the community forest at Brae. There, Peter flushed a bird that stumped him. He called Phil over (ignoring me looking on curiously from 100m away) and together they saw it briefly in flight before it headed from a nettle-rich dungheap into a pine wood. On the brief views garnered, in failing light, neither could make head nor tail of it. We resolved to return the following day. By the time Sunday's rain had cleared, it was 15h00. We headed over to Brae, and within seconds, at the very same place, flushed what was obviously a large, plain Locustella warbler, with uniform upper parts. While it was in flight - fleeing to a hummock in an adjacent grassy field some 60m away - I think River Warbler was already being mentioned. And as soon as sight was caught of a strongly streaked breast as the bird perched atop said hummock, that was firmed up. Photos were frantically taken - appallingly in my case (see below) but better (and, critically, identifiably) by Peter. The bird then flew back to the bank containing the nettle-rich dungheap. A walk through failed to flush it, so we put the news out. Despite no further sign that day, it was refound at dawn the following morning, staying for several days and typically being seen running about pine branches, oddly. As far as I am aware, only one other photo was taken of it. If anyone knows different, please let one of the team know, as we'd love a better photo to accompany the BBRC description.

And this is the thing about Shetland. Not only is a moderate day here better than most good days in Norfolk, but despite the small number of passerine migrants, you stand a really good chance of finding something decent. Put in the work - and make it enjoyable by going with a great group of birding friends, as I was lucky enough to do - and you cannot fail to love the place. Thank you David, Peter and Phil!

A Barred Warbler and perhaps 15 Yellow-browed Warblers aside, we didn't actually find anything else (and even the Barred transpired to have been found the previous day). At least, not that we nailed. One, possibly two good birds sadly got away, melting into pine-dominated plantation. But the less said of, and thought about, those birds, the better. Onto twitching... So let's flash back to the drive up. En route, we made three stops in Northumberland, seeing Red-breasted Goose at Budle Bay and a juvenile Red-footed Falcon near Alnwick. The latter was the first of this age any of us had seen in the UK.

That brace of red birds did its best to compensate me for dipping the Blacktoft Sharp-tailed Sandpiper the previous day - a bird I have yet to connect with, so most frustrating. As we headed north, news broke of two big American vagrants on Shetland - Veery and Tennessee Warbler - which got us licking our lips and frantically booking ferries to and from Fetlar. Sadly, the Tennessee vanished, but the Veery at Lunna was certainly pleasing enough, being a tick for all of us. And one that showed well to boot.

Although River Warbler was clearly rarer, our other main find was somehow more pleasing. While waking down to a couple of isolated gardens on the east shore of Ronas Voe at Voe, we were optimistic of finding something good. "As long as it's not another bl++dy brown bird,' Phil quipped. As Phil and David reached the second garden, a bird popped up in front of them and pulled a banana shape on a fencepost. "Blyth's Reed," they cried. Their instantaneous ID proved correct, but now we needed evidence. Over the next hour, Peter and I gained a series of photos that showed the key features of Blyth's Reed Warbler: short primary projection, wings more rufous toned than mantle, rump paler than mantle, alula dark centred with pale outer web, relatively plain tertials, supercilium extending back behind the eye, grey legs. All this on a bird that was decided milky-tea in colour - and just looked pale with the naked eye. 


10 October 2023 River Island

I have just returned from eight days birding on Shetland, in the fine company of David Bradnum, Peter Moore and Phil Saunders. We stayed on Muckle roe - which we found to have decent potential for finding passerine migrants - and, with the exception of a morning on Bressay, concentrated our 100K steps on Mainland. As David tweeted on our final day, it was exhausting stuff - with off-path, through-bog, up-irisbed yomps being the standard course of bipodal business. 

The other big bird was a tick for Phil, and a Shetland autumn classic: White's Thrush, on Bressay. Having enjoyed stunning views of a bottom-wiggling bird on the deck on Unst in 2016, I was keen to see a White's in flight. Which was just as well, as we only saw it in flight.

The supporting cast was good - and typically Shetland, by and large. Indeed, the only classic Shetland autumn bird we failed to uncover was Little Bunting. So here are a few of the supporting act - several of which would make headliners on any birding day in Norfolk.

Our main aim was to find rare birds, rather than twitch them. That said, team policy was to twitch a bird if one or more team members needed it, or if it was photogenic. But the vast majority of our footfall was in search of our own birds. And we did well. This made us happy... far happier than this photo - taken after we found a River Warbler - might suggest.

Once the evidence package was pieced together, we released the news. A picture of the incipient twitch characterises birding Shetland.