Sunday 11 October 2015

Fair Isle - Part eight

An early start this morning. Up at 5am for the ferry at 6am. It was dark and cold as i stood on the pier while they loaded a car onto the deck.

I reckon I have pretty good sea legs. I was only ever sea sick once and that was in a force ten gale on the southern Atlantic Ocean. But I had been warned that the Good Shepherd can be rough so I was expecting the worst - especially over four hours to Lerwick. As it happened it was fine, when I wasn't below decks dozing I was up in the wheel house or out the back looking at Tysties (Black Guillemots), Fulmars (including some dark ones) and Bonxies.

The bog door on the Good Shepherd - someone has a sense of humour

Sumburgh Head Mainland in the background
We sailed to Lerwick between Mainland and Bressay which afforded nice views of the Iron Age broch.

Broch, Bressay, Shetland
Arriving in Lerwick
At Lerwick I picked up a rental car but got a little lost looking for the local Tesco to buy lunch. I stopped and asked a local for directions who just so happened to be Dennis Coutts, President of the Shetland Bird Club. Dennis was very kind and sent me in the right direction, I was sorry afterwards that I didn't take a bit more time to chat with him.
For the rest of day I birded around Sumburgh Head, Sumburgh Lighthouse, Virkie Willows and the Pool of Virkie. At Sumburgh Hotel I had two YBWs in the garden.

Sumburgh Hotel gardens
At Sumburgh quarry I had a Lesser 'throat and another Lesser 'throat around the lighthouse compound.
By now the early start was catching up on me. I went back to the hotel and had a kip, but it didn't last to long. I was woken by a text from James Lowen "Thick billed Warbler quendale if you still on shetland". Holy cow!!!!
Within ten minutes I was parking up at Quendale mill and ten minutes later I had Thick billed Warbler on my life list. Like everyone else there I had flight views only. A large babbler-like / shrike-like bird, long-tailed, seemingly short winged and quite rufous. The light was almost gone so we all called it a day. Credit must go to James Lowen for texting me, the bird was gone the next morning and if it hadn't been for James's message I'd have missed it.
The next day I birded during the morning around Boddam, Virkie and Levenwick. The weather was beautiful but the only birds of note were two YBWs and a few Willow Warblers. I returned to the hotel and spent the afternoon trying to get some nice shots of YBW in the sycamores of the hotel garden.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Sumburgh Hotel Garden
At 5pm I dropped the car back to the airport and flew to Aberdeen where I overnighted. The next day my flight to Norwich was delayed by nine hours but I passed the time in the airport by reading Eric Dempsey's excellent book "don't die in autumn".
So that was Fair Isle for me. Would I go again? Yes, of course, but you pay your money and take your chance. You could score big-time on Fair Isle and see some amazing birds or see very little at all or somewhere in between, which I think is where I was placed. The best birds I had were actually on Mainland (Western Bonelli's Warbler and Thick-billed Warbler). But I was part of an unprecedented arrival of Yellow-browed Warblers, got some great shots of a Blyth's Reed and spent time in a truly awesome part of the world. And the autumn is not over yet - not by a long way!

Saturday 10 October 2015

Fair Isle - part seven

This was to be my last full day on Fair Isle. I got up early to do the trap rounds and was greeted by this sublime sunrise.

Sunrise over Buness, Fair Isle
One YBW and one Redstart in the gully was the best we had. Back at the Obs a Collared Dove on the roof was new in.
After breakfast I birded south once again. At Chalet a Whinchat posed briefly on the Angelica.

Whinchat, Chalet, Fair Isle

And a Common Rosefinch dropped in briefly too.

Common Rosefinch, Chalet, Fair Isle

Chalet, Fair Isle

Just before lunch I came across this Lesser Whitethroat in the garden at the shop. I came back later that afternoon to get some shots of it - the light wasn't great but the bird was reasonably confiding.

Lesser Whitethroat, shop garden, Fair Isle
At this stage there were very few new birds if any coming through. YBWs had decreased a little, the Pallid Harrier had gone although a Hen Harrier was still knocking about. The BRW was still there but had moved to Lower Leogh. On one hand I was sorry to be leaving Fair Isle but didn't feel I was going to miss out too much and I was rather looking forward to spending a bit more time on Mainland. I got to bed early that night because the Good Shepperd was sailing at 6am and it has a bit of a notorious reputation for being less than comfortable in high seas. Whats more it would be sailing to Lerwick not Grutness which meant a 4 hour crossing rather than 2 hours.

Fair Isle - part six

This morning I decided to join Dave Parnaby for the 7am trap round. The gully trap was empty but at the plantation it was a little better. A Robin and two Barred Warblers had joined a previously ringed YBW. Dave got the first Barred Warbler into the heligoland trap but the second had other plans and just as he had corralled it nicely into position, it doubled-back by flying straight between his legs. Not many can say they've been "nutmegged" by a Barred Warbler. We brought the Robin and one Barred Warbler back to the Obs for ringing.

Plantation Heligoland trap

Warden Dave Parnaby with a ringed Robin

Barred Warbler
After breakfast I headed over towards Setter and Pund. But a north wind and persistent drizzle made the going difficult. At Pund I had three Wheatears.

Northern Wheatear, Pund, Fair Isle, Shetland
And from a nearby crop strip I flushed two YBWs and a Common Rosefinch.

A rather soggy Common Rosefinch
A text update reported a Wryneck near the north light. With not much else about I turned on my heels to see that (I have a soft spot for Wrynecks). I stopped at the Plantation where a Common Redstart had dropped in, but the rain got too heavy for decent photos.

Common Redstart, Plantation, Fair Isle
I contined on towards North Light for the Wryneck but the weather really closed in so I canned that plan and instead stopped for lunch at the Obs.
In the afternoon I went to Quoy to try and find the 'eastern' Yellow Wagtail. It was a little tricky to find the right field but in the end I got there. Photos were difficult though, the bird was flighty and you can't really sneak up on a bird in the middle of a field with no cover - hence the ropey record shot.

'eastern' Yellow Wagtail, Quoy, Fair Isle, Shetland
I then headed to Haa and birded around Tommy Hyndman's garden (which is where Britain's first Citril Finch was found) and the fields in front of it. I had two Swallows, two House Martins and flushed three YBWs from the Iris bed in the field.

Scene of Britain's first Citril Finch

Flushed three YBWs from these Irises
I headed back to the Obs via South Light.

At Upper Leogh came across an unringed Barred Warbler sitting in a Rosehip bush - could this have been the one that "nut-megged" Dave earlier that day or a new bird - don't know and it didn't hang about for photos either.

Barred Warbler, Upper Leogh, Fair Isle, Shetland
That evening back at the Obs I decided to change my travel plans and get the Good Shepherd off the island on Thursday morning instead of flying off on Friday afternoon. All week long I had seen flights being cancelled due to low cloud or strong wind. I had a connecting flight from Sumburgh to Aberdeen to catch Friday evening, if my flight off Fair Isle was cancelled I would be 'goosed'. Better safe than sorry and I could bird around Sumburgh on Thursday and Friday. It was to be a decision that would pay off well!
At the log call that night, Dave announced the winners of the BTO bird race which had taken place that day. It was BTO Head Andy Clement's team who won - I reckon they let the boss win ;-).

Tense moments as the the BTO bird race results are announced.
I enjoyed a couple of bottles of this really excellent ale and then hit the hay.

Fair Isle - Part five

After all my BRW fun it was back to the Obs for lunch. In the afternoon I headed towards Haa to look for a Corncrake that had been flushed from an Iris bed. The Iris bed was in a field with a locked gate so firstly I thought better of climbing over the gate or fence and secondly I wasn't going to walk in and start thrashing the Iris bed just to flush out a tired migrant - so Corncrake still eludes me, still on my lifelist as heard but not seen.
Anyway, one thing that was becoming clear was that there were lots of Yellow-browed Warblers all of a sudden. And I mean lots! They were everywhere, every stone wall, ditch, iris bed and croft had one (or more), they were even hopping around on the turf like wagtails. Many say that Fair Isle is an afternoon island. Birds arrive overnight and move during the day from the cliffs and geos into gardens and crofts. It seems that there had been a significant overnight arrival of YBWs and by mid-afternoon they were starting to pop up everywhere. In fact by now they were the commonest migrant, easily out-numbering Willows, Chiffs and Blackcaps. You would never call them junk birds though, how could you ever tire of these sublime little Siberian waifs! And so confiding for photos.

Conservatively I reckon I had twenty eight birds myself (I tried not to double count). At the log that night Dave Parnaby considered that the island count was fifty-three. The highest ever single day count for the species on Fair Isle.

Fair Isle - Part four

Monday morning - first of all there was that smug and happy feeling of being on Fair Isle rather than going through the usual round of morning meetings in work.

Fair Isle Bird Observatory

I started from the Obs and headed over to the haven to look for migrants. Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Rock Pipit and Twite were the best there. Several Eiders were loafing around the harbour, sadly not males but at least they were nice and close.

Eider, North Haven, Fair Isle, Shetland

North Haven, Fair Isle
I then made my way southwards and decided that if nothing else was being found I would spend a couple of hours with the BRW (which was still present at Upper Stoneybrek) and try for some photos.
I got to the garden and AW Lee Gregory had stopped there too, fortunately the bird was showing well. Lee was mid-census so couldn't stay too long, once he left it was just me, the BRW and a Yellow-browed Warbler. The light was poor so I had to hike up the ISO but the bird still posed nicely from time to time.


I was more than happy with the shots I got and this last one grabbed me my first Birdguides Photo of the Week which pleased me no end!

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland and Birdguides POTW :-)

Fair Isle - Part three

Sunday would be my first full day on Fair Isle. After a full Scottish breakfast I headed south once more to bird around the crofts and gardens. The Pallid Harrier was still about as was the Yellow-browed Warbler that I saw the previous evening. However around 11am a text went around that a probable Blyth's Reed Warbler had been found at Upper Stoneybrek. The bird had been seen briefly  but well before disappearing into a thick patch of Michealmas Daisy and Rosehip. The finder, James Walsh, had gotten enough on it to be pretty sure it was a BRW.
Anyway, we all gathered at the spot looking into the garden from the road but by now the bird was keeping to cover and all we could see were occassional glimpses and shaking plant stems.
Birders wait for the probable BRW to show
After a good forty minutes of nothing it was decided to put a net up.

Assistant wardens Ciaran Hatsell and Lee Gregory put the nets up
A bit of gentle pishing and bird bolted from cover and straight into the net. Rather than bring it back to the Obs it was processed in the Bird Obs van and first thing measured was wing length which at 60mm was well within the range for BRW. All the other features and biometrics stacked up and so the ID was confirmed. Once the bird was ringed it was held up for us to get some photos.

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland
After that it was released and immediately dived straight back into its favourite patch of Michaelmas Daisy and Rosehip. There it stayed giving only occasional views until late that evening when it started to become more confiding as it fed around the Angelicas in the garden. I got some okayish pictures then but thought that if it stayed it would be worth giving it some time the following day to try and get some better shots. My only previous BRW ever was one on Mizen Head, Cork in 2007. That was considered the first Irish record at the time (although since usurped by a Cape Clear record from 2006 that was initially considered a Reed Warbler until re-identified from photos). There is also a very interesting account of an Acrocephalus spp. found on Cape Clear in 1969 by Clive Hutchinson, Ken Preston and Tim Sharrock which certainly has all the right credentials for BRW (see Partricide by Anthony McGeehan). Anyway, my views of that 2007 Mizen Head bird were fleeting and I haven't seen the species anywhere else since. It was interesting to see the bird in the hand but I really wanted some smart classic images if possible. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Fair Isle Part two

An early breakfast at the hotel and we headed back up to Sumburgh Head Lighthouse so Bert and Steve could check for the Western Bonelli's Warbler. However, it had sadly departed overnight so we headed towards Lerwick to pick up supplies (especially required in Steve's case as his luggage had not yet arrived).
From there we drove on towards Tingwall airstrip in plenty of time for our flight to Fair Isle. Careful packing had meant that my luggage weight was bang on maximum allowance of 15kg (basically 11kg of camera gear and 4kg of socks, jocks, t-shirts and stuff!).

This had meant leaving my tripod and head behind and instead making do with just a monopod. As it happened it worked out fine and it was far easier to carry my lens and camera around on a monopod rather than drag a tripod and wimberley head around with it too.

Terminal One - Tingwall International

Flight 001
Our flight was full (four of us and the pilot), pre-flight checks out of the way and we were up in the air. Within half an hour we were passing over the northern tip of Fair Isle and minutes later we touched down smoothly on the island's air-strip. We were met by the Bird Obs mini-van which transferred us to the Obs for lunch and an introductory briefing.

North Light, Fair Isle

Checking nothing fell off en route

The smug look of a man who is just about to begin his week on Fair Isle
After lunch I dropped my stuff up to my room (a family room - en suite with a double bed, a bunk bed and a view of the observatory garden...nice!!). And then it was time for some birding.

By Fair Isle standards the first afternoon was uneventful. I enjoyed watching the Bonxies flying around the moorland and the Fulmars gliding along the cliff edges. Cronking Ravens overhead and flocks of Twite were something you don't see too often in Norfolk either. I birded the south of the island at first, getting to know the lie of the land and the names of the some of the places (Setter, Pund, Chalet and so on). The still present juvenile Pallid Harrier made a few passes, quartering low over the stone walls, the crofts and (of course) the sheep.

Juvenile Pallid Harrier, Fair Isle, Shetland
At least two juvenile Hen Harriers were present also and it was useful to make the comparisons.
At Chalet I stopped to take some photos of the resident Twite flock as they perched on the fences and preened.

Twite, Fair Isle, Shetland
The first afternoon flew past, as the shadows lengthened it was time to make our way back to the Obs.

Looking north towards Chalet
As I strolled back I flushed a small bird from the edge of the ditch onto a stone wall. Yellow-browed Warbler, the first one of the autumn! It posed nicely on a lichen covered stone before dropping over the other side of the wall and out of sight.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Fair Isle
With that it was back to Obs for dinner, a bottle of ale and the evening log.