Lee Fuller and I had been talking daily about a potential twitch ever since the Tengmalm's Owl first turned up on Shetland. With the bird having relocated to Tresta and now showing daily, we headed up with Lee's dad Mick and Ian Wells on Thursday, taking the evening ferry sailing from Aberdeen.
It didn't take too long for Lee and myself to relocate the owl roosting in an evergreen bush on the opposite side of the garden to where it had been favouring in the previous days, largely thanks to the panicked calls of the Blackbirds and Chaffinches that had discovered it, which allowed us to identify the right bush. Initial views were rather obscured, but we were just pleased to have seen it and could now take solace in the fact that we knew where it was for the hoped-for evening showing.
We took a trip around various sites in South Mainland, seeing various bits and pieces including the resident Pied-billed Grebe at Loch of Spiggie, several Long-tailed Ducks at Grutness and two Tundra Bean Geese at Leebitten. This was my first Shetland visit outside of the migration season and it felt a bit strange to be driving past garden after garden with complete disregard! However, the weather was just about as nice as I ever remember enjoying on the isles – conditions were bright and still, complete with the occasional burst of early-spring sunshine, making it a very pleasant day indeed.
With reports of multiple white-winged gulls at the Shetland Catch fish factory in Gremista over the previous weekend, we were keen to give the site a go. Unfortunately, despite offloading six loaves into the waters at the pier there, just two juvenile Iceland Gulls made appearances and neither seemed particularly interested in the wholemeal offerings. It was in fact the Kittiwakes that provided the best larid entertainment. At least the local Black Guillemots were very confiding, albeit not particularly great for photos in the flat light.
Back at the owl and, completely unsurprisingly, we found it sat in the exact same spot. It wasn't until around 17:30 that it became more active, looking around in alert fashion, preening, stretching, and eventually hopping out onto a more exposed perch, where it sat for a few minutes before flying off past us and into the main garden. Cue much celebration among the 30 or so gathered birders, before the crowd began to thin out. As it turned out, most birders walked right past it sat just above head height in a sycamore, right by the access track. I took a couple of record shots, but it just would not look our way, meaning my best Tengmalm's photos showed the back of the bird's head. Excellent.
After a celebratory curry in Lerwick and a welcome night in a bed, we returned to Lea Gardens on the Sunday morning, where a dozen birders were already looking for the owl. It quickly became apparent that a mass frog orgy had broken out across the gardens, with hundreds of vocal adults all over the lawns and flowerbeds, and huge piles of spawn being laid in the pond. Unfortunately there were a few under-foot casualties and the owners' dogs also took to mercilessly removing the heads of some of the hapless amphibians ...
Some time passed before the sound of an alarm-calling Blackbird saw us hone in on a bush, where we figured the owl must be. A few minutes of careful scanning and Lee once again picked it up, extremely obscured, in the middle of the bush. Cue the typical rush from birders yet to connect, excitedly lapping up just about anything they could decipher from amid the foliage. With the bird seemingly very much buried in the bush and fast asleep, we decided to leave the newly arrived birders to it and head off for pastures new.
We headed up to South Nesting Bay, where the White-billed Diver was eventually picked up at extreme distance (its bill was barely visible on a grey day). With the views leaving much to be desired, we headed back south to Lerwick harbour, although the primary excitement there proved to be a very confident Grey Seal that spent time playing 'fetch' with the slices of bread I was throwing out for the gulls. A third-winter Iceland Gull did make a brief appearance.
We made another trip south for the wintering Common Rosefinch at Cunningsburgh, but managed to dip it again (though I can't say I was particularly gutted about this), before returning to Lea Gardens for the fourth and final time. It was a pleasure to talk with owners Rosa and James, who clearly take great pride in their work here and have done a wonderful job in developing the gardens into what they are today. You have to wonder how many rares have been missed in here over the years – the habitat is fantastic. Anyway, back to the owl, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that it had shuffled out into the open and was showing very well indeed, as close as four metres away (if you were in the right position along the path).
By chance, one of the owners' dogs came over to the owl's favoured spot and started rooting around in the flowerbeds below it, generating quite a reaction from the bird. Although completely unphased by humans, this bird takes dogs to be a more serious threat ...
Although the bird wasn't particularly happy about the dog's presence, it's fair to say that the crowd was. The pooch's comings and goings ensured that the owl would regularly stir from its slumber and look down towards the crowd peering back up at it, its look varying from mildly irritated to completely and utterly seething.
Finally, after an entertaining half-hour spell, the dog retreated back to the house and the owl went back to sleep. It remained dozing until around 17:15, when it suddenly woke up and became more active, preening and looking around. A few minutes later it flew out of its roost and, astonishingly, landed on a branch no more than two metres away from the closest birders. It looked around, slightly bleary eyed, before hopping up to another branch and proceeding to preen and stretch more intensively while also keeping an eye on the terrified Blackbirds, which were alarm calling in the vicinity. Here it remained until it got too dark to see.
The above photo is barely cropped and was taken at 135 mm focal length, just to illustrate how close this bird was to the assembled 15 or so birders. An amazingly intimate experience and one that will live long in the memory – and yes, I have to admit that, in contrast to a recent tweet of mine, the owl is most definitely as good as a Caspian Gull. Needless to say it was a high-spirited ferry journey back to Aberdeen that night.
Many thanks to Lee for driving to and from Aberdeen and Ian for organising the logistics on Shetland. Everything went very smoothly and was in good company.