A short history of Whalsay's birdwatchers past and present.

Johnnie Simpson (1917 - 1976)

Johnnie Simpson at the Snowy Owls nest on Fetlar in about 1970. (photo by Bobby Tulloch)

My grandfather Johnnie Simpson got me hooked on bird watching at pre school age. He would cover paintings of common birds, perhaps leaving part of a wing sticking out for me to identify. He would regularly take me out migrant hunting in his mini, this is one of my favourite childhood memories and very exciting for the budding birder. Migrants were unlikely to be missed as we crawled around, probably holding up the rest of the traffic. If the speedometer reached 30 mph this meant there was a rare bird somewhere! Patience was his style, we would sit motionless in a likely spot waiting sometimes for ages for a good bird to appear. As a hyper child this was about the only chance of me sitting still for any length of time. Although not a ringer he had a licence to mist net, and for any child this would be highly exciting. Trapping migrants in his garden was commonplace and as there was a Cotoneaster bush below the sitting room window, trapping Waxwings in early winter was wonderful.

Johnnie was one of only a small band of birdwatchers in the 60s and 70s, (he had become interested through his uncle Sammy Bruce) and found many rare birds including Britain's fourth Dusky Thrush and perhaps most notably Europe (and Shetland's) second Thick Billed Warbler.

As a younger man he was like most, a fisherman. Also in his youth he was a talented athlete and I have heard of him vaulting all the fences on his way to a local football match. Tragically tuberculosis struck and after 7 YEARS! in a sanatorium Johnnie was left with only part function in one lung. In later years he would tell people I was "his legs" and I was a very willing foot soldier in the pursuit of rare birds.

Due to his ill health Johnnie died in 1976 at only 59 years of age. Although I had only reached 11 years the birding gene had been passed on to the next generation.

John L Irvine (me)

Me and our dug Jessie at Lungi geo Isbister June 2011 (photos by Angela Irvine)

As stated above I was learned about birds by my grand father at an early age. My first rare find was a Firecrest in my parents garden at age 11. Luckily JHS and BM eventually saw the bird confirming the sighting (5th for Shetland at that time). Nowadays my job on a pelagic fishing boat sees me home at both migration seasons giving plenty of scope to find my own rares.

I doubt I will ever catch the twitching bug though I will occasionally go for a major rarity elsewhere on Shetland if the mood takes me. Obviously I keep a Whalsay list and my unlikely goal is to reach 300 species seen on the isle before I keel over. I reckon I need to average about 3 new birds every 2 years to be in with a chance.

Ringed Plover eggs Houb 2011

Tirricks eggs Houb 2011

Brian Marshall

Brian Marshall photographing a Little Stint he found at the Houb 12/6/11

Brian became the doctor for Whalsay in 1973 after a year or two as a locum. I don't imagine he still expected to be here today and still working! Though he had been threatening to retire completely, lack of a permanent GP has kept him at it up till a few months ago. For most of the 38 years Brian was on call 24/7 without a locum and was awarded a much deserved MBE for services to our community a few years ago.

One of the main reasons for moving to Shetland was of course the birds. A keen birder and qualified ringer he became good friends with my grandfather Johnnie Simpson. They had often discussed building a heligoland trap at Skaw and this became a reality in 1977, unfortunately a year after Johnnie passed away.

Brian has become something of a mentor to me down the years, confirming (or otherwise!) rare birds I had found. Brian has found and continues to find many rare birds. He still lives at Marrister with his wife Linda and has three grown up children that have now flown the nest.

Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn leading a tour (of horses?) possibly not on Whalsay.

Jon Dunn bought a house at Skaw, moving up from Kent in autumn 2003. On one of Jon's first visits he was greeted by a Red Breasted Flycatcher on his drive followed by an Olive Backed Pipit shortly after moving in. Autumn 03 also produced Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Buff Breasted Sandpiper and Great Grey Shrike all within a few hundred yards of his front door confirming the suitability of the location.

When living "sooth" Jon was heavily into the twitching scene and has a ridiculous British list in excess of 450 somewhere. Despite such a huge list of birds he has managed to make one or two additions since moving here. Mega birds such as Brown Shrike, Veery and Corncrake!!

He now works for Shetland Islands Council and also leads tours for one of the Shetland wildlife companies so has limited time to find rare birds on Whalsay. Notable successes has been finding our second Red Flanked Bluetail (the first was in 1947), identifying our first Hume's Warbler and co-finding our only Sardinian Warbler.