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Notes on Shetland Birds, Graves and Ralfe 1899

 

NOTES ON SHETLAND BIRDS.

By F.S. Graves & P. Ralfe.

 

The following notes were made during a visit to the Shetlands from 20th May to 4th June, 1898, when the breeding season of most species in these islands is commencing. Three days at the beginning and end of the time were spent among the shores and islands about Scalloway, and two days in Unst. The remainder of the excursion included a day on Foula, a hurried run to Papa Stour, and several days in the Walls neighbourhood, with whose dreary heather-clad waste and countless lochs we became very familiar. The weather, though dry, was for the most part cold, with high wind, which prevented much boating, and confined us largely to the land.

Wheatear (Saxicola œnanthe).—Very common everywhere. This and the Skylark are the characteristic small birds. Several nests with eggs found.

Whitethroat (Sylvia cinerea).—On the rocky edges of the little landing creek on Foula were a few warblers of this species. They were very shy and silent, and must have felt sadly out of their element, as there are no bushes there.

Wren (Troglodytes parvulus).—A few seen.

Meadow-Pipit (Anthus pratensis).—On the moorlands; common.

Rock-Pipit (A. obscurus).—The "Bank Sparrow" was numerous on the Scalloway islands, where we found a sucked egg. Under a detached piece of rock on Foula was a nest with two eggs.

Swallow (Hirundo rustica).—On the 25th May we saw two on Foula, hawking along the little sheltered burn which falls into the creek forming the landing-place. On the 28th we saw two near the Loch of Cliff, Unst.

Common Sparrow (Passer domesticus).—Seen in the neighbourhood of houses and outbuildings.

Twite (Linota flavirostris).—Frequent; principally on the coast.

Corn-Bunting (Emberiza miliaria).—About Walls and Baltasound, in the neighbourhood of cultivation.

Sky-Lark (Alauda arvensis).—Very numerous. The exquisite song, poured out amidst the high cold wind, enlivened the dreariest heaths of the country between Walls and Sandness. A nest with three eggs among the heather.

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).—Numerous on Foula and elsewhere. We found them nesting in a variety of situations, as below the eaves of a stable, on sloping ground between two boulders on one of the islands near Scalloway; and in Unst, in the loose stone base of a low sod fence within a few inches of a little stream. They seem to place their nests anywhere within shelter.

Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix).—Common. There was an occupied nest on the bell-gablet of the Wesleyan Church at Walls.

Raven (C. corax).—One on Foula, buffeted by an Oystercatcher. Two between Walls and Lerwick.

Short-eared Owl (Asio accipitrinus).—One among the rocks near Braga Ness, Walls, persecuted by Hooded Crows.

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus).—One seen in Unst.

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo).—Saw some birds, but no breeding place.

Shag (P. graculus).—Common. Owing to the rough weather we visited no nesting place.

Gannet (Sula bassana).—A few seen off the coast.

Mallard (Anas boscas).—Met with nesting both in Mainland and Unst, some of the nests being hidden in tall heather. In three cases the duck was sitting on nine eggs.

Teal (Querquedula crecca).—Two on one of the Walls lochs.

Wigeon (Mareca penelope).—Two drakes on Hulma Water, 21st May.

Goldeneye (Clangula glaucion).—Two on a small lake near Walls; others noted in Unst.

Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima).—Nesting on the islands near Scalloway. In two cases where there were three fresh eggs the nests were lined with down. Abundant off Papa Stour; we saw, as mentioned by Mr. Raeburn, birds among the Great Black-backed Gulls on Lyra Skerry.

Rock-Dove (Columba livia).—Seen everywhere on rocky coasts. In a cave on Fore Holm, F.S. Graves, with great difficulty, reached a nest in which were two hard-sat eggs. Close to this was another with newly-hatched young (31st May).

Corn-Crake (Crex pratensis).—Five eggs taken on Foula in 1897 were shown us.

Golden Plover (Charadrius pluvialis).—Only a few pairs seen, near Walls and in Unst; evidently nesting.

Ringed Plover (Ægialitis hiaticula).—Very common on holms and stony barrens; sometimes also on loch-sides inland. Abundant in the interior of Papa Stour, where the surface has been stripped of sods, leaving a waste of sharp-edged red and white shingle, with scraps of sickly vegetation. Nests found on the Scalloway islands. One on Hildasay was formed of the dry droppings of rabbits arranged in a well-shaped ring round the four eggs.

Lapwing (Vanellus cristatus).—A few here and there. Evidently breeding near Whiteness and Walls.

Oystercatcher (Hæmatopus ostralegus).—Common everywhere on the coast. Nesting abundantly on the Scalloway islands. One nest contained four eggs. We saw the birds buffet the Raven and Hooded Crow.

Common Snipe (Gallinago cœlestis).—We saw one pair at Snarravoe, Unst.

Dunlin (Tringa alpina).—A few pairs seen by grassy lochsides. We repeatedly heard their reeling "song," which was uttered when the bird was standing on a tussock, and not when on the wing. They were very tame. At one of the places they frequented were several small cup-shaped nests on the tufts of grass, but laying seemed not to have commenced.

Common Sandpiper (Totanus hypoleucus).—Two pairs met with near Walls on inland lochs.

Whimbrel (Numenius phæopus).—Heard the characteristic cry from the steamer while in Bastavoe, Yell.

Curlew (N. arquata).—A few only seen, both on the moors and coast. One apparently breeding on Hermanness, Unst.

Arctic Tern (Sterna macrura).—Noticed none on our first visit to Scalloway islands (20th May); on second visit (31st May) they were numerous at their well-known stations, and noisy, although no vestiges of nesting were yet to be seen.

Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus).—Seen at two places; a few perhaps breeding on the shore of a voe near Weisdale. There is a colony on a rocky knoll in the middle of a loch in another neighbourhood. This little island has steeper sides than is usual, and a luxuriant growth of Luzula. On 21st May there were about twelve nests, empty, or with one, two, or three eggs. The eggs in each nest agreed in colour.

Common Gull (L. canus).—Common, and nesting in many places, on the low rocky brows of the Scalloway islands, in swampy lowlands near Whiteness, and at the tide-edges at Littlure, near Walls. Most of the lakes of the Walls district had a few pairs, the characteristic sites for the nests being little knobs of rock or boulders rising a foot or two above the water-level, with a hollow on the top just large enough to accommodate a single nest. Few of these by the end of May contained their full complement of eggs. In a little shallow pond on the Chingies, Scalloway, were nests similarly placed. The cry of the Common Gull, a kind of harsh croak, is very characteristic.

Herring Gull (L. argentatus).—Common on the coast; we did not observe it nesting inland. Innumerable Herring Gulls, however, were resting on the Loch of Cliff. Opposite the Rusna Stacks, Walls, we saw nests with eggs on 23rd May; at the end of the month others on the islands at Scalloway had also their complement.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (L. fuscus).—Common. A few pairs nesting on Hildasay, both on a loch which that small island contains and on its coast; others on the cliffs near Walls. In many of the lakes of the Walls district are islands on which this species was gathered, sometimes in large numbers, for nesting purposes. These islands had lost the ling which carpeted the lake-sides and other islets, and were richly verdant, and in some cases delightfully adorned by flowering marsh-marigolds, at this season almost the only conspicuous wild flower of Shetland. (On verdure produced by Gulls, see Mitchell, 'Birds of Lancashire,' p. 253, second edition.) On one or two of these spots which we visited on 23rd May nesting operations had only just commenced; we saw no eggs during our stay.

Great Black-backed Gull (L. marinus).—Odd pairs breeding on some of the Scalloway islands. We saw (across a chasm) the colony of Lyra Skerry, described by Mr. Raeburn (Zool. 1891, p. 131), and great numbers of the birds, mixed with other species, were assembled on the shallow ponds in the interior of Papa. The darker colour of the mantle, as compared with that of L. fuscus, was very noticeable. We were shown some eggs, taken recently (25th May) on Foula, where, we were told, the bird is rather scarce.

Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla).—Common. There are great colonies, as is well known, on Foula, and in Burra Firth, Unst. On the former island we saw innumerable Kittiwakes flying from a bit of wet ground inland to the cliffs, each with a morsel of moss in its beak.

Great Skua (Stercorarius catarrhactes).—We saw the colonies both on Foula, and, by permission of Mr. Edmondston, on Hermanness. At the former laying had just commenced. On 25th May we saw a number of empty nests, others with one egg, and about twelve with their full number of two eggs. The nest was usually a scratched hollow about a foot across.

Richardson's Skua (S. crepidatus).—Saw them nesting on Hermanness and Foula, on the latter in two places, near the Great Skua, and, in larger numbers, on the level not far from the landing place. On 25th May, on Foula, we saw one egg only, where a very large number of Skuas was collected; yet we were several times actually struck by the birds, which never occurred with the larger species, nor indeed with this species on Hermanness, where in a few cases two eggs had been laid on 28th May. In both colonies dark-plumaged birds seemed to be in the majority.

Razorbill (Alca torda). Guillemot (Uria troile).—Abundant on the sea; we saw little or nothing of their breeding.

Black Guillemot (Uria grylle).—Very common and abundant; quite the characteristic sea-bird of Shetland. Laying scarcely commenced by the beginning of June.

Little Auk (Mergulus alle).—On the top of the brow near the Kaim, Foula, we picked up a part of a skeleton with the wings attached.

Puffin (Fratercula arctica).—Numerous; nesting abundantly on Foula; eggs seen. One we picked up had been carried some distance inland, no doubt by a Raven or Crow; it was undamaged except by a small dent, probably caused by the bird's bill.

Red-throated Diver (Colymbus septentrionalis).—A pair on a small loch near Walls, 21st May. We afterwards probably saw one of the same birds, flying overhead with outstretched neck, and uttering its strange unearthly cry. These were the only Divers seen, except a single bird on the sea near Yell, which was perhaps C. glacialis.

Storm Petrel (Procellaria pelagica).—Their nesting-holes were shown on an island near Scalloway. We saw also some eggs taken in 1897 at Brindister.

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus anglorum).—We saw, on Foula, an unblown egg which had been taken on 18th May.

Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis).—Multitudes on certain parts of the Foula cliffs, as at the Kaim and Smalie. They had just begun to lay; we saw an unblown egg taken about 25th May. The increase of this species, which established itself on Foula some time between 1870 and 1880, is very remarkable.