Flying to Fair Isle was an adventure in itself. Taking the 10:10 flight from Tingwall, Mainland - our transport was a BN-2B Islander - a cosy little plane for max 10 persons. Joining us were two HM Coastguard trainers visiting the island to train the Fair Isle Volunteer Coastguards. So just us, them, the pilot, and guaranteed window seats.
|Waiting at the Boarding Gate, Tingwall Airport|
|BN-2B Islander, Tingwall Airport|
|Fair Isle Airstrip "Arrivals"|
Greeted warmly at Fair Isle "Arrivals" by Chris a Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO) warden, we were taxied to the observatory (Obs.); checked in and received orientation - as well as a quick catch up on the state of birding that day. I exchanged phone numbers with Chris joining the text alert service run by the wardens. With a little time to spare before lunch - 13:00 prompt! - we took a walk out across the harbour to Bu Ness, and officially started our Fair Isle bird list. Robin, starling, rock dove, pied wagtail, meadow pipit, wheatear, rock pipit, shag and eider were ticked.
On Bu Ness arctic skua caused panic amongst the oystercatchers; returning along the harbour wall at South Haven we noted dunlin, turnstone; and then our first "Fair Isle" wren (Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis). The Fair Isle wren is an endemic sub-species of wren, originally identified by Kenneth Williamson - the first FIBO warden (fairislebirdsob.co.uk 2016). We were to hear the bird sing briefly, before it disappeared beneath the rocks of the beach.
|"Fair Isle wren" (Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis)|
A ring ouzel and redwing were by the Obs. After lunch, we went south along the road, past the Heligoland traps. We picked up a colour-ringed wheatear L274573 - ringed in 2012, as part of the Fair Isle wheatear monitoring scheme (C. Hatsall, Senior Assistant Warden FIBO Pers comm. 2nd June 2016).
|Northern wheatear L274573|
Moving on we recorded gannet, great skua, puffin, house sparrow, ringed plover, curlew, common gull, skylark, hooded crow, Arctic tern and twite.
At Chalet we nearly missed a skulking female red-backed shrike, but Ciaran FIBO warden arrived just in time to point it out, then it flushed and we had brief views. The bird was still around in the same location the next day, when I managed a record shot.
|red-backed shrike Chalet 20th May 2016|
This skulking behaviour was something we got our eye in on quickly, we had to! Most of the small passerines we saw, were either at ground level; or in the low vegetation of people's gardens; or low to ground along the walls and cliffs, using what little cover was available, to greatest effect. At the Shop / Post Office a common whitethroat whilst overhead raven, kittiwake and house martin.
20th May 2016
I awoke early to get a walk in before joining the warden for the 07:00 "traps round"; a single song thrush was at Plantation. Back at the Obs. common whitethroat and a chiffchaff were in the garden. On the "traps round" a dunnock was flushed but not caught at Gully trap, and a second song thrush had joined the first at Plantation, neither were caught, nor was the highly mobile lbj that defied ID.
After breakfast, South Haven added a purple sandpiper amongst the turnstones. At the junction by Upper Stoneybrek, David the head warden pulled over and advised us of a little egret at Da Water. "Had I got the text?". "Did we want a lift to see it?". As south coast birders - we were a little underwhelmed with all the hurry - until David informed it was the first record for Fair Isle. The text arrived moments later. At Da Water we watched the egret until it flew west across the island.
|little egret, Da Water; 1st for Fair Isle|
Dunlin and golden plover were noted in a field, west of the main track. My phone went again: "male bluethroat at the shop". At the shop a smart male redstart was sitting in the open, and then the bluethroat appeared out of the rose bushes. A UK tick for me, long overdue being some 12 years after Alison had seen her first UK bluethroat, at Church Norton, West Sussex.
As we watched the bluethroat, and got other birders onto it, the shopkeeper waited patiently for the bird to fly out of the garden before putting washing out on the line. This generosity of spirit and thoughtfulness of the Fair Isle residents was to be experienced throughout the visit, as they happily put up with birders endlessly stalking around the outskirts of their gardens and fields - and showing genuine interest in us and what we were seeing.
A female blackcap, was quickly followed by barn swallow, then we got onto the pair of wood sandpiper feeding in the wet flush just below the shop - my second UK tick of the day.
Having unsuccessfully scouted the area east of Burkle for the highly mobile/elusive woodchat shrike, we adjourned to the Chapel and admired the stained glass windows and communion table tapestry.
|Interior detail of the Chapel|
Another text: "Crane heading south over Hoini now" but we didn't know where Hoini was? So we looked north, and Alison spotted the bird heading towards us. It was our second common crane of the Shetland trip, having flushed the first at the Keen of Hamar, Unst on the 16th May. Unfortunately, we had been a day too late on Unst to twitch the green warbler.
|common crane (and snipe)|
That evening reviewing the photographs of the crane, I noticed for the first time, a single snipe captured flying above the much larger bird.
At Muckle Uri Geo below the Skadan Lighthouse we twitched the nationally scarce oysterplant (Mertensia maritime) that was growing both within / without the sheep exclusion - not quite in flower. This species has been in long term decline in Shetland, known from 49 sites in 1769 - down to only a dozen sites in 2002 (Harvey, P. 2004).
|oysterplant, Muckle Uri Geo|
Failing to find the reported female bluethroat at Walli Burn, we managed to get onto a second female red-backed shrike, a spotted flycatcher, lesser whitethroat, common whitethroat and willow warbler.
21st May 2016
The 21st was supposed to be our day of departure from Fair Isle, with a curry night planned in Lerwick. However, with deep fog covering the top of Fair Isle, we were advised that the scheduled flight might be postponed or even cancelled. With no scheduled flights on a Sunday, if the flight was postponed - we would be forced to have two extra nights on the island. Excited as I was at the prospect of additional Fair Isle birding, the morning itself was unsettling - as we had to wait until lunchtime for our travel arrangements to be confirmed either way.
We walked north to Skroo Lighthouse. Visibility was - as to be expected, very poor, and getting worse the higher we climbed. Bird life was invisible until we reached the lighthouse itself, where an oystercatcher with a "broken wing" lured us away from it's newly hatched youngsters, nestled at the foot of the lighthouse wall. We counted two young, and it was confirmed later that these were the first Fair Isle Oik chicks of the year.
|Skroo Lighthouse in the gloam|
Back at the Obs. for lunch it came as no surprise that we would not be getting off the island until Monday. I was gutted! No seriously, I was gutted?
The fog began to lift during the afternoon, although our post lunch walk remained muffled for a while. We dropped into the Kirk, enjoying the stained glass windows, and the simplicity of this sacred space.
|Interior detail the Kirk|
At Walli Burn, we bumped into the warden lead bird-walk, and Chris got us onto the female bluethroat, that had been skulking! in the iris. My previous encounters with bluethroat had all been males, so this was another good bird for me.
After the excitement of the bluethroat, we reconnected with the lesser and common whitethroats, added Lesser black-backed gull, and a whimbrel in song flight.
Our return to the Obs. by mini-bus was rudely interrupted by a text confirming "woodchat shrike between quoy and burkle"; the bird was distant and made for a very poor record shot, but it was another UK tick for me - and it made the delayed departure from the island even sweeter.
|woodchat shrike (distant record shot)|
Black-headed gull finished the day's tally.
22nd May 2016
The couple of Laphroaigs that I had the night before, had ensured a good night's sleep and I missed the early morning "traps round". Sedge warbler, common sandpiper, and 4 collared dove were around the Obs. and South Haven; a red-breasted merganser was added at Muckle Uri Geo. The other birds of note included a single fieldfare at Lower Stonybrek, a female blackcap at Plantation, five collared dove at Old Haa, and the reappearance of the common crane over Kenaby.
By lunchtime I had got fidgety and asked Logan one of the volunteer wardens for a heads up on the ortolan bunting at North Naversgill, and the reported icterine warbler at Burn of Furze. I didn't know where these features were, and was keen to get onto the birds.
Logan was generous, and offered to join me on his afternoon off, so we could both tick off the birds. We reached Burn of Furze just in time for a very showy icterine warbler - before it disappeared undercliff. The icky was a Lifer for me, and I was made up.
Failing to connect with the local blue fulmar, we crossed the island to North Naversgill for the ortolan bunting. It wasn't there. So we sat and waited hoping for a show. A cuckoo flashed past. It wasn't long before we were joined by a third birder, who confirmed the bunting was still in the area. We waited. Logan spotted the bird as it lobbed over the top of the cliff, in our direction. The ortolan bunting was my second Lifer of the day.
|icterine warbler, Burn of Furze|
|ortolan bunting, North Naversgill|
We sat at Troili Geo, trading birding stories, and comparing county lists. Logan told me about the only known pair of peregrine breeding on Shetland, whose breeding success was extremely hampered by their proximity to fulmar, whose "oiling" practice when threatened - had a life-threatening impact on any inexperienced juvenile peregrine, who might try to take one.
We didn't manage any new birds at Troili Geo, so went south crossed the hill dyke - and almost immediately bumped into Andy Burns and his guide David from Shetland Nature. David - sharp-eyed - had spotted the cryptic plumage of a turtle dove hunkered down in a recently ploughed field. I grabbed a record shot before the bird was flushed as we crept forward hoping for / but not getting a better photo.
At Da Water we failed to connect with the recently reported black-tailed godwits, but Logan managed to pick out a pair of teal, hiding in the marginal vegetation, before we turned for home. During our return to the Obs, we had a fly past of Shetland bee, and shortly after enjoyed cracking views of the turtle dove as it flew below us, before dropping out of site behind the low stone wall between Hill Dyke and the plantation.
After dinner, the minibus was launched to twitch the red-throated pipit just found by Ciaran on the road between Chalet and Setter. We arrived just in time for the bird to flush and fly north over Setter. A thorough search of the fields and moorland between Setter, Hill Dyke and the airstrip failed to reconnect with the bird. With no call heard, and the light too poor to get much meaningful information on the fly-past, I relied on Logan's record shot to confirm the species. As such I remain entirely hesitant to add it to my UK list; although having seen good views of the species on farmland in Luxor, I happily didn't need the bird for my Life List.
The last bird of the day was a lesser redpoll trapped and ringed at the Obs. garden
In the Obs. garden singles of wood warbler, common and lesser whitethroat, and chiffchaff were about before breakfast - both whitethroats, being trapped and ringed. Down at the harbour a Fair Isle wren sang endlessly for us, and enabled some very confiding photographs. It was a lovely finish to a very exciting and full on FIBO birdwatching trip.
|Fair Isle birding|
|Fair Isle wren - in full song|
|BN-2B Islander coming into land, Fair Isle|
|Fair Isle "Departures"|
1. Sea kale (Crambe maritima). Mainland, 23rd May 2016
At Troili Geo, Logan had told me of this very rare Shetland plant, which he had found and recorded - only the third record for Shetland - and only in such good condition because it occurred on a stretch of beach that was devoid of grazing.
Living in Portsmouth, we are used to seeing this plant regularly occurring on the vegetated shingle of Eastney and Southsea beach. So used to it in fact - that to be honest - if we had walked passed it on a Shetland beach, we probably wouldn't have given it a second glance had Logan not told me of its significance.
|sea kale, Mainland|
2. The one that got away! Sumburgh Airport, 28th May 2016
We had missed a few good records on Fair Isle, by not being in the right place at the right time including 7! SEO's, a couple of black-tailed godwit, garden warbler and a harbour seal seen in South Harbour. On our day of departure I was getting texts about LRP, fem. pied / possible collared? flycatcher and osprey as the day proceeded.
The bird that gripped was seen the morning of 28th May. We were at Sumburgh Airport; having just checked in - gone through to the departure lounge and cosied up with a beer or two - waiting for our flight to be announced. I signed into Facebook - and noted with astonishment the FIBO status update:
"Black-browed Albatross off Fair Isle this morning! The boat crew saw it sitting on the water, before it circled low over Buness and Mavers. Still present with Gannets behind Sheep Rock."
Now that would've been a grand bird to add to the FIBO List!
Fair Isle Bird Observatory can be found at: Fair Isle Bird Observatory
Logan's Shetland Blog can be found at: Logan's Nature Blog
Andy Burns website, which includes his 2016 Shetland Trip portfolio can be found at:
Andy Burns Photography
Shetland Nature can be found at: Shetland Nature
Fair Isle Bird Observatory and Guesthouse, 2016 [Online] Fair Isle Wren, Retrieved from: Fair Isle Wren 10th November 2016
Harvey, P. 2004 Species Action Plan "Oysterplant" Living Shetland Action for Shetland's Biodiversity, Retrieved from www.shetland.gov.uk 10th November 2016