Sunday 9th October light E very sunny, warm
A peregrine is flying along the Hill Dyke stone wall as I climb towards the geos to search for yesterday's flycatcher. There's hardly a cloud and hardly a breath of wind. The sun is rising and the shadows are leaving the geos and cliffs.
A couple of hours I spend looking down at the Grey Geo but no flycatcher is there. A chance for a good bird dissipates.
I walk up Guidicom and around to Skinner's Geo. There are migrants, goldcrests of course and a couple of yellow-browed warblers. Chiff chaffs all seem to be of the nominate race.
The sea is amazingly flat, not a ripple and so blue! This is October and I need sun tan lotion.
I walk past the radio mast and around to view the sound between Shetland and Fair Isle; my hope is that cetacean or two will show themselves. They don't but this doesn't detract from the stunningly magnificent scenery and views.
Houses can clearly seen on Shetland around Toab and Quendale; the lighthouse stands proudly atop Sumburgh Head, an RSPB reserve.
I explore the island after breakfast at the Bird Observatory. Birds become secondary to the main motivation of enjoying a warm Autumn day.
Silver y moths are in the shop garden and migrant birds are still chasing flies. A perfect day.
Birds are obviously though still a focus. Little buntings in the thistles at North Shirva with reed buntings, twite and bramblings. All look fabulous in the perfect light.
Even the pechora pipit gives views at Lower Stoneybrek.
In the late evening I head up Buness to watch the darkness fall and the Moon rise. Such clarity and beauty. Unmatched.
Monday 10th October
Sunrise is incredible.
I am on the trap round with lee and Nina. The sun breaches the horizon as a distant nuclear explosion.
On the way back with a few bird bags full I spot a large splash half way out over the sea to the horizon. It has got to be a whale.
It breaches, once, twice then blows water six feet high as it breaths, a minke or a humpback I am not sure. Lee says minke. It tail flukes and is gone.
After breakfast there is only one topic of conversation. How can we get to the Shetland mainland fast? A first for Britain bird, a Siberian accentor has been found and all birders on the isle want to get there to see it.
The Birding Clams had it last night and whilst I was on Buness I had talked to them as they watched the bird on the phone. The fact that I could see the hill on which the mega rare bird was residing as I talked to the lads only added to the tension.
Hard moments of decision making, I determined that I needed to see it Green, that is use the Good Shepherd boat and not fly to it. The Good Shepherd would be leaving tomorrow, the plane today. Tough decision but necessary.
I watched the minibus leave with birders leave for the airport. I saw them all return half an hour later. The plane had broken down!
Lots of justifiable anger in the lounge, how can such a vital service for Fair Isle be with a plane that breaks down?
I am desperate for Lee Gregory to see it. He deserves to see it and I say that if the only way for lee to see the bird then I would pay my bit for the charter to help make up the numbers. Cath Mendez phones a company but no plane is available. The frustrated anger rises.
At this time the news is that the plane might be fixed for two days time. Birders are booked onto the Good Shepherd including myself (thanks Susannah).
I have appointments to visit Jim and Florrie, two original crofters in the south of the island and with Mati over a purchase.
The former aren't in and I spend a few hours chatting with Mati about love and hearing Mati's young daughter playing the keyboard. She will be a superstar at this rate as she composes her own pieces. Not bad for an eight year old.
I get back to the bird obs to find the plane has gone after all. The time it left, 5:15pm will mean that the birders who left will get ten minutes or so of decent light once they reach the bird they will have ten minutes of decent life. That is enough and I am chuffed to see that Lee has gone. Will that the bird stays for me tomorrow. A clear star-filled sky with a large Gibbous Moon doesn't bode well. The International Space Station flying over this is spectacular as are a number of shooting stars.
Tuesday 11th October light SE sunny intervals.
The Good Shepherd leaves on time and I am on deck with Ellen, the Fair Isle nurse who is on her way to Rumania, and Marc, a Belgian photographer, author and journalist. The sea is relatively calm but still the Good Shepherd rolls from side to side, occasionally throwing me about. I cling on to the rails. Sailing on this boat always seems to double time and the slow crossing takes it's usual age. The views of the distant Shetland islands are clear and Foula can be seen to the NW.
Sunrise, a Japanese flag of sunbeams.
Guillemots pass in groups of three, a single razorbill and a single sooty shearwater.
Past Sumburgh Head and around into Grutness Harbour, I already know the news, the Siberian accentor has gone.
Lee Gregory is at the quayside awaiting his return trip to Fair Isle. He saw the accentor last night and shows me photographs of the First for Britain bird. I am thrilled for him. Lee deserves this bird. It is sure to bring his mojo back!
My mojo is disappearing fast. I find that a gear cable has rusted through leaving me with a single gear. Oh well, my mother, bless her little positive socks, always says that troubles come in threes so I look forward to the third.
Boddam, well just before it has a field to the east with waders and in with a single ruff, a few redshank and curlew and a number of golden plover and lapwing, is an American wader, a buff-breasted sandpiper. Bird number 301 goes down onto the list. At least that went well.
I head off for Quendale to have a walk. I don't feel like a long cycle to Bressay despite the fact there is a mega rare bird there. Frankly I am tired out. I was late getting to bed last night and early getting up this morning to take down the tent, pack and get the boat. I need a rest.
Wednesday 12th October light SE sunny intervals
Down to Quendale again, I meet Julian Allen, a Midland Birder, the one who sneaked onto a recent photograph of The Birding Clams celebrating the Siberian accentor. A natter and good luck wishes both ways, I head off along the valley and search the quarry and iris beds. I don't stop at the head of the valley but continue up the slope over the heather moorland to the top of nearest hill to the radar station. I have the vain hope that the Siberian accentor has relocated to this hill.
It hasn't and a text to say that there is a pallid harrier down the bottom of the hill has me careering down the hillside.
That's gone too.
A little bunting down the alley doesn't tempt me. Fair Isle withdrawal symptoms. I need my mojo back.
Thursday 13th October fresh SE cloudy
I head back towards Quendale. A text from The Oracle.....
black-faced bunting still at Gunnista, Bressay.
I turn around and pack the bike. Let's go for the bunting!
I reach the harbour at one and take the quick ferry across to Bressay. Gunnista doesn't take long to reach and the search begins for the elusive and mobile rare bird. There are derelict croft buildings and barns, each with bits of garden or weeds. graveyard has an interesting ruined church.
Also piles of manure in a field and a pampas grass garden some way down a grassy slope. All are searched and a male redstart, a robin and couple each of goldcrest and rock pipit reward me for my efforts.
A local farmer comes up to me on a quadbike. “It was in the turnip field this morning,” he tells me.
How many times should one go around a large turnip field before saying enough is enough. I try five times clockwise, then five times anti-clockwise trying to change my luck. There are birds, twite, house sparrows, skylarks and a single brambling. Also there are a couple of rather tame chiff chaffs and a wren. No bunting.
Getting dark and cloudy with the wind strengthening, I put up my tent. I will get it tomorrow.
Friday 14th October strong SE occasional bits of rain, cold
Somehow the tent managed to collapse on me overnight as a gale blew. Not surprisingly it lead to some interrupted sleep.
Awake early, I go around the turnip field again, same birds, few more pigeons, and around the manure heaps, the graveyard and the farm buildings. Same redstart and robin present.
Two birders arrive, Neil from Holt, Norfolk and John from Holbeach. John sums up the situation succinctly. “What a hell hole!”
Together we search all of the areas already mentioned. No luck.
At 11:00AM they go off to fetch another birder, Dan Poignton. T legendary bird-finder, Dan will find the bird.
John, Neil and I are by the turnip field. A call on John's phone, Dan has found the bunting.
Unknown to we three there is a cabbage patch about 200 yards from the turnip patch. The bunting is in there. It flies out and amazingly lands on a five bar gate and just sits there. Telescope views show a bunting with a black face and
Phew! Hours of hell in wind and rain and the bird is now secured onto the Green Year list, black-faced bunting, bird number 302. This is a very rare British bird, just six seen. I saw the first at Pennington near Wigan, Greater Manchester back in 19 with a few of the Birding Clams. On that occasion I was so excited over seeing the bird that I left an expensive Barbour coat there.
We all want more views of the bird and continue to search for it for the next two hours. At no time though does it settle, it just keeps going on a circular tour of it's favourite places. One distraction on the bunting chase is provided by the most confiding jack snipe that just lays down in a ditch thinking we can't see it as we stand ten feet from it. It's prostrate form with two very clear mantle braces is comical with it stretched out as flat as it can get with beak on the ground in front of it. What a moment to have left my camera in the tent.
Time to go, I pack the tent in the gale and head back to Lerwick. I am just pushing my injured bike up a steep hill out of the town when I receive a text in capitals from The Oracle....
PIED WHEATEAR, SCATNESS.
The Oracle, Phil Andrews, even phones me.
“Have you got the message?”
“Yes, that's why I am pushing the bike up this hill!”
The wind is punishing and I get as far as Cunningsborough where I camp for the night.
At about one in the morning I am disturbed by some lads making a right racket in a car. Their empty Coca Cola bottles and chip papers are there in the morning. They live hard these Shetland teenagers.
Saturday 15th October fresh to very strong SE cloudy to rain
Pied wheatear is still present so I must get to Scatness as soon as possible. First though I need water. With the amount of effort that is needed to cycle a one gear bike twenty five miles, I am using up my water quicker than usual and I didn't have any left before retiring last night. The toilet block at Cunningsborough saves the day.
I reach Boddam to buy some food, having been tooted at by passing birders on my way, then it's down to Scatness and a feeling of confidence that the rare wheatear is going to be still there. A friend, the brilliant birder High Harrop is on the other side of a dry stone wall by the beach.
“Come on Gary. It's still here.”
Pied wheatear, bird number 303 and what superb looking bird. I lie down to watch it as it quickly goes from rock to rock chasing sand flies. A common wheatear comes too close and the pied soon sees it off. Wheatears are one of my favourite bird groups and this bird is a definite highlight of the year; the first rare wheatear I have seen whilst Biking Birding.
The bird flies off along the beach and I follow it. Hugh comes and joins me and I congratulate him on he and Judd finding the recent First for Britain, the Siberian accentor. To hear the story of that bird's finding from the man himself is a humbling and humorous privilege. No expletives used, he couldn't have been excited enough.
Hugh tells me that Roger Rddington, the British Birds magazine editor, had a Siberian stonechat briefly this morning and I text him for directions. From Roger's reply I spend the afternoon searching the thistle beds and sand dunes around Toab and Quendale. No sign of the rare stonechat, I am surprised to be almost slapped in the face by a very brave red admiral butterfly. A goldcrest is by my feet quietly feeding as I video it, always a special birding moment to be graced by the presence of a 'five gram miracle.'
On the way down to the sand dunes I meet a mother with son, Anna and Lucian who have just been clearing the beach of some plastic. These wonderful people deserve a badge at the very least but I have left all of mine in my panniers hidden at Scatness. I take one off my coat and say that they have really given me a great boost by their action. They continue towards Toab and I go around the sand dunes.
No sign of the stonechat, I go back to where I have left my bike. Some farm workers are having a laugh taking turns riding a bike with a badly buckled back wheel.
I find my own less damaged vehicle only to find that Anna and Lucian have left an expensive bar of chocolate in the margarine tub I have attached to the front bag. Wonderful kindness, that will be a donation to the charities.
Later in the evening another great birding friend, Trevor Girling of Norfolk, phones to ask how things are going. He has been concerned at my lack of internet presence lately and the long chat is very greatly appreciated. Brilliant to hear from him. The world of birding brings wonderful friendships.