Finders-in-the-field: Mourning Dove, Lerwick, Shetland Dec 2015
Boxing Day, it was fine, cloudy and not very bright, but that didn’t matter since I wasn’t planning on going too far today. In fact another relaxed dinner with the family followed by a get together at a small local hall with friends in the evening was all we intended to do after the excitement of opening presents and eating far too much the previous day. Or so I thought.
It was late morning by the time I decided I’d better get dressed and go and get my partner’s parents, who were joining us for dinner again that day. I was getting dressed in the bedroom, which overlooks the back garden, with its various trees, Pampas Grass, shrubs and a variety of bird feeders that, together, attract a reasonable variety of birds, though seldom anything terribly unusual. At that moment there were a good number of starlings on the ground, on the feeders and hanging round in the perimeter trees, together with a couple of Collared Doves and a Rock Dove. However, my eye was instantly drawn to an altogether different dove to any I’d seen before, it was smaller, darker and less uniform than the Collared Doves I often see. My first thought was that it was the Oriental Turtle Dove from Scalloway – I hadn’t seen that bird but knew of it because of all the excitement it had generated.
I needed to get a photo as a record and to verify its ID, so I rushed through to the dining room where my gear was and because there’s more chance of opening a window without disturbing the birds from that location than from the bedroom. I know from past experience that doves tend to be very easily spooked and just the sound of opening the window latches is usually enough to scare them away. So I took a couple of photos through the glass before I even tried to open the window, just in case those were the only shots I got.
Gingerly I opened the window, initially just wide enough to get a shot of the dove, though with the window frame obstructing the sides of the image. But it remained calmly feeding on the seeds on the ground below the feeder so I opened the window wider to get a good clear shot. Fortunately the other doves in the garden didn’t appear to notice me so all the birds remained oblivious to me manoeuvring my camera and tripod around the window opening. It was just a few minutes after Noon but the light was poor, as it often is here in mid-Winter, so I had to up the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed – the first few shots were not sharp. But then it all came together; a clear shot with the dove side on, looking in my direction and still just long enough as the shutter fired. I had it! A reasonably good shot that I would be happy to share. Then, without warning, the dove flew off over neighbouring houses and was gone; my next door neighbour had come out into her garden so she probably disturbed it. It was 12:09 PM.
It was all over in less than five minutes and I thought I’d get a photo uploaded to the Nature in Shetland Facebook page, still casually thinking it was the Scalloway bird. I downloaded the few shots I’d got, selected the best one and readied it for upload. I then searched for the photos of the Oriental Turtle Dove but quickly realised that my bird was nothing like it so I then did an image search for doves and very quickly came across images of Mourning Dove – there were many images of this bird from various angles and it was easy to see my bird was in fact a Mourning Dove.
From the moment I sat down to upload the photos I had been on the phone to my sister, so I hadn’t given it my full attention and, because I now had to go and collect our dinner guests, I didn’t have any time to do any further research. Even a quick check would have shown me that the Mourning Dove is “…one of the most abundant and widespread of all North American birds.” (Wikipedia) That would have been my first clue, it wouldn’t have been hard to then discover how infrequently it makes it to Britain - though I had no idea it hadn’t ever been seen in Shetland.
Anyway, about 45 minutes had passed by this time and I had to go so quickly posted the image with the comment “Mourning Dove (?) briefly in my garden this morning before being disturbed by neighbours”. Though, of course, I wasn’t in any doubt. 12 minutes later one of the local birders phoned, rather excited to ask if it was still there and tell me it was a first for Shetland. I was just heading out of the door and over the next half an hour or so my phone didn’t stop pinging with notifications and text messages about my find! I was driving of course, so it was some time before I got to check and reply to the comments but while I was out it dawned on me that there would probably ben a collection of twitchers at my house by the time I got back!
Sure enough, many of the local birdwatchers had already arrived, some from quite a distance away. Shortly after I got back home a friend from round the corner phoned to ask “Austin what have you done?” He was amused by all the sudden excitement and all the cars, binoculars, telescopes and long lenses that had suddenly appeared in this normally quiet residential street! I had a short walk round the block to chat with the birders and I saw the dove again briefly in a neighbour’s tree; there was about 6-8 birders at this time but I know several others came to look from their posts, messages and notifications. I didn’t look out again for it that day because there was dinner to be had and, in any case, it was already beginning to get dark by this time.
The next day dawned calm, dry and clear and there was already a few birders around when I got up. Soon enough it was spotted again and, about 10:30 AM it was calmly sitting in one of the Alder trees along the back fence of my garden; several birders keenly watching and photographing it. The dove calmly watched as I added some seed to the garden feeder and the ground round about – it’s not as easily disturbed as the doves that normally visit. I managed to get another photo, this time in much better light than that of the previous day – so now I had a photo of it both on the ground and in a tree and I was happy with that.
Quite a number of birdwatchers visited the area that day, which turned out to be a stunningly clear and calm day – though the temperature started to fall below freezing soon after lunchtime so it soon got cold standing around outside. But with the clear sky it remained light enough for observations to continue until after 3 PM by which time most of the watchers had gone. The following day was very poor, with heavy rain and strong winds all day. There were a few visitors and the dove was seen briefly but not by me. Today is the 4th day and the Mourning Dove has again been providing some good views in and around my garden and those of my neighbours. Although a bit windy, today turned out a fine day with sunny spells in the afternoon; there were a few visitors again today, though mostly local. I imagine that the time of year will have made it difficult for many visitors from south to get here, not least hampered by the fact that the ferry from Aberdeen has been suffering delays due to the storm force winds yesterday and last night. Best of luck if you travel up to see it over the coming days!
30 December 2015
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