Autumn Migration

Apologies for the lack of updates over the last few weeks, a combination of staff holidays and end of season report writing has taken up a large portion of our time.

One of the truly special things about Shetland is being at the vanguard of bird migration. In autumn Shetland is the first land hit by south bound migrants spilling out of Scandinavia and from central and eastern Europe caught up in easterly airflow.

That constant flow of easterly winds along with the perfect timing for birds setting off on their migration, has resulted in some truly breath-taking numbers of migrant birds around Shetland including on our sites.

A little stint, a wading bird, probes the mud at a loch edge
Little stint

Starting at the southern tip of Shetland, our Sumburgh head reserve is a great place to look for migrant birds, as they often fuel up here or double back to the headland after having second thoughts about setting out over the sea to the south. From the last few weeks of August until now there has been a constant arrival and build up of passage birds. The first indication of this was on August 23, when in the early afternoon and low band of cloud and drizzle over the south of Shetland forced birds to seek refuge and drop to the land to feed and shelter. I headed out of the office for a quick walk around the headland and birds were dropping in from high.

A barred warbler was the first bird to herald the new arrivals, a scarce “drift” migrant that breed in Scandinavia and  across eastern Europe. A chunky warbler which is always nice to see here.

Pied flycatchers were perched along the fence posts, tree pipits buzzed over head and another scarce arrival in the form of a citrine wagtail bounded around restlessly. A splash of colour with juvenile willow warblers frantically feeding on insects.

A pied flycatcher, a small bird, brown on top with dark and white barring on wings and pale underbelly is perched on a fence post
Pied flycatcher

This trend continued on and off for the last few weeks with significant arrivals of common passage migrants, that quite frankly have become sadly not that common due to declines in populations. However this arrival has probably been the biggest in numbers of early autumn migrants for c20 years.

Species such as Common redstarts, pied and spotted flycatchers, willow warblers, whinchats and garden warblers have all arrived in superb numbers. Amongst their throngs, scarce migrants have also been around in larger numbers than previous years- species such as wrynecks, common rosefinches, barred warblers most notably.

A wryneck, a brown bird in the woodpecker family, perches on the edge of a straining post

A more unusual arrival although certainly not unprecedented has been the arrival of Great spotted woodpeckers their arrival from Northern forests coincided with an influx of siskins

A great spotted woodpecker, black and white with a red cap just visible
Great spotted woodpecker

Rare arrivals from this period have included- Western Bonelli’s warbler, greenish warblers, a small arrival of Arctic warblers and  a booted warbler.

The easterly winds have stopped for now, but a switch to a North Westerly airflow whipping past Iceland, might well see the first push of pink footed geese heading south as well, a truly nostalgic sound of autumn.

 A siskin, a green and black finch, feeds on a flower head

Recent sightings

Loch of Spiggie-

5 little stints, Pectoral sandpiper, greenshank, Osprey, marsh harrier, redstart, whinchats, bar-tailed godwits, knot. Small increase in whooper swans and wigeon

Sumburgh head -

Barred warblers, pied and spotted flycatchers, great spotted woodpecker (flying around the lighthouse) redstarts (8 at once) citrine wagtail, tree pipits, willow warblers, reed warbler

Funzie -

Cuckoo, redstarts, pied flycatchers, willow and chiff, golden plovers