Thursday, 12 September 2013

THE GOOD OLD DAYS: 2nd to 5th September, 1994 Out Skerries, Shetland Islands.

We were staying on Out Skerries on an extended birding holiday and on the 2nd September, I was making my way back after visiting the south end of the Islands. I had already seen a numbers of migrants including Barred Warbler etc and I approached an empty croft and looked over the wall into an overgrown garden and this was one of my regular birding sites.

I had been looking into the overgrown garden for several minutes when I noticed a small bunting suddenly appear into an unkept rose bush probably some 20 yards from me. I looked at it through my binoculars for several minutes, before it flew and disappeared behind the garden wall. At this stage I was unsure as to its identity, other than realising it was a small bunting. I quickly scribbled a few plumage details while it was still fresh in my memory and then went searching for it, to see if I could relocate it. I spent around 10 minutes looking for it without success and therefore decided to return to our caravan to research my field guides and to contact the island birder Edwin Tait.

On checking  A field guide to the rare birds of Britain and Europe, I quickly looked up Chestnut Bunting, and Ian Lewington's superb plate in this field guide and I was able to identify this Bunting as a female or 1stW. Chestnut Bunting. It breeds in southern-central and south-eastern Siberia and migrates south-westwards to winter in Burma, southern China and southeast Asia and I had previously seen a male on a visit to Nepal.

With Edwin and Doreen, we again searched the area where I had seen the Bunting but without further success and I therefore contacted Bird line with my sighting and asked them to inform the birders on Mainland Shetland with the news as there was a ferry due to come to Out Skerries in the morning.

On the following morning, around 12 Shetland birders including Paul Harvey (ex Fair Isle Warden). Pete Ellis (a BBRC member). They immediately went to the area where I had seen the bunting and made a thorough search of the area. Doreen and myself joined them shortly after they had arrived and Paul informed me that they had obtained some distant views of it, it appeared very wild and flighty, but their views were not satisfactory to be able to confirm my identification. Luckily they had brought a couple of mist-nets with them and I suggested a couple of sites were the bird may fly to. The nets were quickly erected and Edwin had now joined us. We then made a sweep of the area and the Bunting was flushed and flew directly into one of the nets. It was quickly taken out of the net and Paul with all his Fair Isle experience was able to confirm that it was a female Chestnut Bunting. He then carefully checked for any damage to the bird in connection with the cage bird trade but found none, he measured and ringed it and I was able to take several photographs of it in the hand. It was then released and flew onto a nearby fence where I was able to obtain some distant photographs of it before if flew off. It was not  seen any more that day after it was re-leased.

The 4th September rained most of the day and I did not see it, but the 5th was now dry and calm and I again came across the Bunting feeding on the ground close to my original sighting. I watched it for around 5 minutes before again it flew off strongly and was lost to view, and this was my final sighting of the Bunting. The night of the 5th was very clear and quite cold and it probably left the Island then.

Paul offered to do an article with his description and measurements for Birding World and this was published shortly afterwards. I submitted the record to BBRC after we returned to Sussex and the record was duly accepted and submitted to the BOURC as the four previous British records had all occurred on various islands and all in June between the years of 1974 to 1986. These four records were placed into Category D as it was considered that they may have escaped from captivity.

My record was in early September, but the BOURC also placed it into Category D. even thou it was very wild and flighty and showed no signs of wear and tear from the cage bird trade. It also has a similar range to the Yellow-browed Bunting another rare Bunting to the UK and the Yellow-browed Bunting is automatically  accepted to the British list. There have been other Chestnut Bunting autumn European records from Norway, Netherlands, Malta, and these appeared to have been fully accepted. One of the reasons given for placing this record into Category D was that I found it on the early date of 2nd September whereas most of the accepted records in Europe were in October and November. In October,1996 an article published in British Birds vol 89 No. 10 stated the following:

The species leaves its breeding grounds in August and is a 
fairly common migrant along the Yellow Sea coast during 
late August and September, with passage continuing into 
October; most pass through Hong Kong in the middle two 
weeks of November (Chalmers 1986). It arrives in its 
winter quarters during November-December.

On the same date as I found the female Chestnut Bunting a dead Red-necked Stint was picked up on nearby Fair Isle.

Female Chestnut Bunting, Out Skerries, Shetlands
2nd-5th September, 1994.