Craig Nisbet is one of the seasonal rangers working on our Noss National Nature Reserve in Shetland. This is his last post from Noss this year as the island reserve will soon be closing and Craig will be flying south. He’ll be back on Noss next spring but in the meantime you can keep tabs of what he’s up to on the Loch Leven NNR blog.
Noss may now be closed to the public after another busy season but some visitors are only just beginning to arrive. The wardens will stay until mid September and hope to find a few more passing through before their own migration south. Shetland is an important location for passage migrants, being the last point of land before the long crossing over the North Sea. Two distinct seasons are noted for migration, as thousands of birds make their way north to breed, or south to winter. Autumn migrants start to arrive in August, with numbers picking up through September and October.
Throughout August wader numbers begin to build, as many breeders and non-breeders flock together in preparation for their southward journey. Dunlin, ringed plover, turnstone and redshank may eventually be joined by early juvenile migrant sanderling, purple sandpiper, knot and ruff from Scandinavia.
A key factor for bringing migrants in from the North Sea is the direction of the wind. Strong easterly winds blow large numbers of birds in from their sea crossing, and they are invariably keen to rest at the first sight of land to re-fuel. Early in August we were visited by a young willow warbler, looking very fresh and yellow and clearly in need of a good feed, actively hopping from stem to stem amongst the hogweed and nettles.
A few days later the first garden warbler of the year appeared on the cliff dyke. Renowned for being characteristically plain in appearance, this one brought a smile to both our faces!
The next species appeared fleetingly at first; a wryneck landing right in front of me as I ate my lunch near the cliff dyke. There was only a moment to reach for the camera before it was off. But spirits were raised with the anticipation of more to come.
Sure enough, after a couple of days of easterly winds toward the end of the month, a day both wardens had been waiting for arrived. Saturday 30th August started with the discovery of 2 bar-tailed godwit on Nesti Voe, a stone’s throw from Gungstie, our accommodation on the island. A species recorded annually but the first visit of the year this season.
A couple of willow warblers in the garden were present, along with a couple of juvenile white wagtails flitting between beaches. The second wryneck of the month was discovered shortly afterward, in the lower levels of the new stick tree, created specifically for these birds to find cover during their brief stay. Our hard construction work had already paid off!
The next discovery was arguably the find of the day; only the fourth record for Noss of curlew sandpiper, and the first record involving more than one bird. A beautiful passage wader, they can be distinguished from dunlin at this time of year by their longer bills and prominent supercilium.
Andy set off up the hill with a good feeling in his bones, and his optimism was rewarded with views of pied flycatcher, redstart, sparrowhawk and black redstart.
As he returned down the hill he saw me skulking around in the garden. I had just seen a notoriously elusive bird for the first time, and was keen to get a better look. Eventually the individual hopped up onto a fence line for just long enough for a quick shot, before it was off into the nettle patches again. Barred warblers are larger than willow warblers, and their distinctively barred vent can be seen even in juvenile plumage.
This rounded off a thoroughly satisfying day of birding, in which we recorded four new species for the year. Another couple of days like this before we set off would be fantastic, and you can’t help but wonder what may turn up in our absence. Oh well, there’s always next spring!