Being at home as much as I was this year brought fresh perspective on some changing aspects of the natural world at the end of the island on which I live. Despite nothing having changed in the land use of any of the crofts here in the intervening period, there have been declines – and outright losses – in the breeding birds that were here in some numbers when first I moved to Shetland.
Back then, some 20 years ago, it was impossible for anyone to walk along the gravel airstrip behind the house during the summer without being divebombed by territorial Lapwings that were defending nests on the heath margins on either side of the airstrip. Their squeaky balloon calls and towering flights would alert me to the presence of people nearby – but this summer, when folk walked along the airstrip, there was silence. The Lapwings are gone – and I assume that probably means something has happened to their population as a whole rather than locally.
Similarly the Common Gulls that once nested, garrulously, on the hillside that faces the back of my house. There were, years ago, dozens of pairs of them dotted across the northwestern slopes – and again, they’re now gone altogether. I’ve plenty of questions about why these birds have vanished as local breeders, but no ready answers.
Certainly, this past year, I was more aware of their absence. On a positive note, being home meant I was also more conscious of the birds that thrive here to this day. The first Skylark song of the spring was a welcome tonic, though the local Wrens had maintained their usual compact of singing throughout the year, even in the dead of winter. Come the summer, they were boldly holding territory amidst the lichen-clad drystone walls that provide shelter to my vegetable yard.
So too, a little further from the house, were several pairs of Wheatears. I remember, as a boy, seeing my first ever Wheatear in Dorset – a migrant bird, heading north to some distant place, driven by zugunruhe to keep moving until it reached who knows where – the uplands of Wales, mainland Scotland, the Scottish islands, or maybe further afield still. Some Wheatears don’t stop until they reach Iceland, or Greenland; some of them are compelled to go further still, to northeast Canada and even Alaska.
I see some of those pioneering birds passing through here every year. They breed here in Shetland too, known locally as stanechackers, a name that runs like a thread through much of Scotland. They’re confident and obvious birds, perching in prominent places to monitor their territories. They seem universally popular. On the Scottish mainland, an old Galloway curse warns against interfering with them:
Deevil tak! / They wha hany my nest / Will never rest, / Will meet the pest! / De’il brack their lang back / Wha my eggs wad tak, tak!
Both Wrens and Wheatears alike seemed to be having a good breeding season this year, with many fledged young suddenly all around me as the summer wore on. Autumn, for birders, begins as early as July, when some shorebirds begin migrating south from their Arctic breeding grounds. By August, there’s a chance of passerine, or perching, birds on the move too which, with a following easterly wind, can be blown off course from Scandinavia to Shetland. As the autumn unfolds through September, October and November, passerines from much further afield can, if one’s very lucky, be found too – birds from Siberia, and beyond.
My autumn started well. When I first moved here, there was no garden surrounding my house, just fields. I fenced a small area, put in windbreaks, and planted trees. For years, they did very little – Shetland’s not an easy place in which to grow, if you’re a tree – but after a while they got established and now, while none are more than a handful of metres high, they’re big and thick enough to offer cover and the chance of somewhere to forage for tired migrant birds. Movement amongst them caught my eye one day in August, and proved to be the garden’s first Greenish Warbler.
In the weeks that followed, more warblers arrived in the garden – a huge fall of Blackcaps filled the garden for days and, with them, much rarer birds too made an appearance – a Radde’s Warbler, and then a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.
When, in 1856, Gustav Radde found “a skulking warbler in a kitchen garden in the heart of Central Asia” he’d stumbled across a hitherto undiscovered species – the warbler that was to bear his name for posterity. Having spent many long hours this autumn trying to get a decent view of the Radde’s Warbler that occasionally visited my croft, I can vouch that they’ve not changed their secretive ways in the intervening years.
It’s perhaps testament to just how skulky they are that Peter Pallas, one of the greatest naturalists of the 18th century, failed to find and describe one for himself. In his prolific career he described dozens of new species of bird, mammal, insect, fish and even fossil. One of those birds, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, also has a penchant for hiding in dense undergrowth. Unlike Radde’s Warbler, which are seen almost annually down the east coast of Britain, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler is something of a Shetland speciality with many of the past British records owing themselves to the archipelago.
One of those was near my house in 2003 – a bird I contrived to see through a spotting scope from the bedroom window, so desperate was I to add it to the house list… This year’ bird was much more obliging – it spent days in one of the fields of my croft, occasionally showing well for a steady stream of visitors and, in the quiet times, even made forays up into my garden.
Nearby, the birds just kept on coming. A Red-flanked Bluetail, once unthinkably rare in Britain, was found by local birder John Lowrie Irvine a few hundred metres down the road from the house. A Bluethroat, once a regular spring migrant in Shetland but now considerably scarcer, appeared in a neighbour’s vegetable yard. An invasion of Blue Tits from Scandinavia swarmed into the islands and, in the two birds I saw in the garden, were my first of their kind at my Shetland home.
As the autumn wore on, the last rarity of all appeared right outside the kitchen window one day – a fine Ortolan Bunting. It didn’t stick around for long, but was the perfect reminder that, in Shetland, you never quite know what’s around the corner where birds are concerned at that time of year.
Never was that more the case than on the neighbouring island of Yell in late September where local birder Dougie Preston stumbled across one of the rarest birds of all to be seen in Britain this past year – a Tennessee Warbler, freshly arrived from across the Atlantic Ocean. A wonderful bird to see, of course, but with hindsight for me it couldn’t hold a candle to the daily thrill of wondering what birds would blow in from hundreds of miles away to appear within walking distance of home. Every day felt like playing a birder’s lottery of the very best kind.