My Best Day Out with Scotland’s Birds

Finding rare birds is one of the ultimate thrills for a birder. They don’t have to be mega rarities to give you a serious buzz, and even more ‘run-of-the-mill’ things like Barred Warblers and Bluethroats can make a day. There are only two things better than finding a rare bird – finding a very rare bird, and finding more than one rare bird!

A group of us had been on Sanday, Orkney, for the best part of a week, and we were looking forward to calm and clear conditions for our last day on the island. Half of the group were nobly heading over to Hoy to look for migrants on that under-watched island. The other half of us headed to the east end of Sanday having promised the others that we’d do our best not to find too much – tongues firmly in cheeks, of course. For much of the morning, it felt like a promise we might well be keeping; there were obviously some new migrants around but nothing to write home about.

I started around the garden at Salties with a view to heading into the dunes and Ragworts afterwards. Over the next hour or so, I picked up plenty of Redwing, a Yellow-browed Warbler and the odd Lapland Bunting out in the fields. I’d also spent what felt like an age trudging through waist-high Marram grass and was in need of some easier terrain. With that in mind, I waded north through the clumps and met the track that heads towards the Gallery – possibly the biggest patch of cover at the east end of the island.

Cover is a double-edged sword when looking for rare birds. Naturally, lots of migrants like it so it’s always worth looking at, but with the increased pull for the birds comes a much bigger headache for the birder – it’s much harder to find things! Whenever I look at the Gallery, I wonder what proportion of the birds within it get seen, and I always figure that it’s low. However, thick cover means shelter, and that can mean that sometimes the birds will come to you if you put yourself in the right place.

Using absolutely no skill whatsoever, I happily found myself in the right place as I came to the end of the track. With the sun shining on the east side of the garden and no wind, there were birds foraging in the roadside Fuschias and Rosas, so I raised the bins and began to scan. Goldcrest, Goldcrest, phyllosc… hmmmmmm..big Supercillium…. OHHHH, a tidy little wing bar! It was a little more elusive than the Goldcrests but was obviously a Greenish or Arctic Warbler. Glimpse by glimpse, checking the leg colour, the primary projection, the head pattern and the underpart tone, it did indeed turn out to be a rather late Greenish Warbler (pictured above), and I felt very pleased with that. I put it out onto our Whatsapp group and, within a minute, one of the team said he would head over from the other side of North Loch for a look.

I waited and tried to re-find the bird but it had slinked into the thick Rosas, so I ducked into the garden to try another angle. Around the back, I bumped into another Yellow-browed Warbler and a handsome Common Redpoll, but there was no more sign of the Greenish. Likewise, there was no sign of my friend who I then spotted loitering around the edge of an Iris bed a few hundred metres away. A message soon came through from him about a skulking warbler he’d had very poor views of, so I decided to head towards him instead. When I got there, he was reluctant to put any sort of name to his find, given the views, but instinct told him it was worth pursuing, so we crept into the Irises. Soon we’d flushed a tiny brown warbler, weakly fluttering between Iris hiding places. We looked at each other and knew it was going to be tough to identify without hounding it out. Getting anything worthwhile on the bird with the bins was going to be impossible so we switched to the cameras. Two flushes later and we got lucky – a selection of photos that showed some plumage tones, a nice bulging fore-supercilium, short primary projection and a short second primary. We were reasonably happy that the bird was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler (pictured below) and informed the others, their groans almost audible from the Hoy ferry! Soon enough, the Sanday ranger turned up and managed to get some photos that clinched the identification. While we were piecing this bird together a Water Rail flushed out of the irises and a Hawfinch flew over – classic Northern Isles birding!

The last remaining member of our team had been on Start Point, a few kilometres to the south of us. Phone reception is poor here but when he crossed back over to ‘mainland Sanday’, his phone lit up with our messages and he hastily headed up to see our good birds. Having ‘only’ bagged a Long-eared Owl on Start, he wasn’t in the mood for dithering but it’s hard not to have a look at the garden at Salties when you’re passing by. It’s one of the best spots on the island and even though I’d checked it a few hours beforehand, this time there was a Little Bunting sitting on the roof of one of the outbuildings! Either I’d missed it, or it was fresh in – both equally likely – but it was great to share the spoils of a terrific morning between the three of us.

Together, we had a look at the Irises again, where it became clear that there were two ‘acros’ (Acrocephalus warbler), both of which looked like Blyth’s Reed Warblers, but we could never get enough on both birds to clinch that double ID and we didn’t want to cause them any more disturbance. Back at the Gallery, the Greenish Warbler put in another very brief appearance but it was soon time for us to head back.

We’ve found rarer birds on Sanday but the combination of us all finding something good and on a balmy, still, sunny morning, with excellent ‘extras’, will always be a favourite memory of mine.

Mark Lewis
SOC Birding Officer

Photos © Mark Lewis


Do you have a favourite moment with Scotland’s birds that you would like to share?
Birders love reading about good days in the field. It doesn’t need to be rarity-focused; it can be anything from a rewarding day’s fieldwork, a day on the patch, or a particularly memorable encounter. If you can write something a similar length to the account above and would like your story to be considered for publication, either as a future blog or as a feature on our social media platforms or in our publications, we would love to hear from you. Email your story to Mark Lewis.