Thursday, 1 September 2016

One More Day on Shetland then . . . Fair Isle

Let's get to Fair Isle. Yet first . . . . .

Monday 29th August fresh to strong SW very sunny

Hot on the heels of my Mum, Happy Birthday Dad. 85 years young and going strong.
New shoes! Now to get down to South Shetland where hopefully one or two of yesterday's will still be around, especially the booted and icterine warblers.
I count the roadkill victims along the way and sadly have a white wagtail, the continental form of our pied wagtail, die in my hand as I pick it up having seen it just hit by a van.
By the time I reach Cunningsbrough there have been nine dead hedgehogs, four polecats of various colours from all yellow to all dark, two rabbits, a couple of gulls and the aforementioned wagtail. The hedgehogs and polecats reflect a problem population of these invading predators.
News from The Oracle, Phil Andrews, an arctic warbler is at Geosetter. The wind may be in my face but the tarmac is good and the news puts impetus into my pedalling feet.
There is hardly a cloud and the strong sun is behind me as I search along the willows of the beck on arriving there. A warbler flits over from the adjacent crop field, famous for having a thick-billed warbler three years ago. It is a willow warbler. Further up the hill, as I cross a small bridge I see the arctic warbler and it dives into cover. It continues up the hill and eventually gives views when in a small valley with just a few less dense willows. It then flies uphill into the garden of a nearby house.
Roger Riddington arrives with another birder. Roger is the editor of the superb British Birds magazine and a brilliant birder. Together we circumnavigate the gate but can't find the arctic. Roger goes to the head of the valley and heads downhill. I go downhill and search uphill.
The arctic warbler shows itself in a small willow. Three more birders arrive; Chris Dodds from Fair Isle Bird Observatory, Hugh Harrop, the very well known bird photographer and author and Craig Nisbet from Noss. Soon having seen the bird extremely well most birders leave for pastures new leaving me and Hugh. He talks of the recent publishing of the bird identification book,
He talks honestly about the few errors that are in it and of the ten years it took to collate all of the images. Having seen the book in the bird observatory lounge at North Ronaldsay, it is a magnificent book.

Arctic warbler, bird number 278.
The cycle ride to Quendale in the sunshine gives beautiful views of Spiggie and the coast. Searching the bushes around the watermill doesn't give me yesterday's icky warbler, just three willow warblers.

Tuesday 30th August strong SW cloudy with mizzle

Cycling towards Grutness is only possible when going downhill and only then by leaning into the gale. The occasional larger vehicle, a lorry say or a transit van, has me almost fall off by the suck back from the wind.
Uphill I struggle as I push hard.
The barrier is down at Sumburgh airport and the guard relates the reasons why he is on the island; years in the army this mancunian (from Manchester – red/United by the way) is bitter over the way life has dealt him jobs that apparently have a habit of failing him. Still he is a pleasant chap and a warm handshake sends me on my way over the runway once clearance is given.

A visit of the Iron Age houses of Scatness is interesting; it is just a shame that the visitor's centre doesn't open until 10:15am. It would have been lovely to be re-acquainted with the staff.
To Grutness and into the harbour waiting room with its heater and magazines. These include a couple of British Birds magazines and BBC Wildlife, as well as the RSPB's Nature's Home and various chat ones.
I don't expect the Good Shepherd to arrive for the crossing to Fair Isle, surely the wind is too strong. Yet arrive it does and the less said of the next three hours of my life the better. Hell, sheer hell with vomit and fear, two of us in the hold and both sick; one moment the cry comes from aloft “hold on!” The boat makes a sickening and sudden dive and crash and I am hurled along the back bench. An hour of filling sick bags and listening to music to try to take my mind away from the motion goes by. Maybe I fall asleep. I know I dream.
Calmer waters, purgatory and then redemption and sanctuary, we arrive at North Haven, the harbour of the paradise that is Fair isle. Massive thanks to Neil Thompson, the Captain of the ship, a hug from Elena, a Fair Isle native and friend. A hug from Lee Gregory too. Actually I think he is shocked by the hug. I am just so happy to see him, a brilliant birder and friend. Rachel is there too, the kind young lady who last year allowed me to camp on her croft's lawn for three weeks.
Lee points out a long-tailed duckon the nearby rocks, the first of hopefully many Fair Isle birds. It is an earlier than usual arrival and has a wing depleted of flight feathers for some reason.
There is a booted warbler at Shirva and I cycle there past the magnificent building that is the Fair Isle Bird Observatory.
I search the small garden and on not finding the rarity turn around to find another friend perched on a stone up the grassy hill, Cath Mendez. Together we spot three people converging on the Meadow Burn and head that way ourselves.

Booted warbler, bird number 279, goes onto the list but what a fast moving bird; one minute in front of us, the next half a field way.
Cath needs to get back to the Observatory where she is working as a volunteer and I go in search of birds.
I walk around the east of the island and inquire about the availability of Springfield, a self-catering croft in the south. Fully booked up I head back north via Daa Water and Pund.
I arrive at the bird observatory just in time to see Lee holding a mist netted barred warbler.
The Bird Log at 9-ish, with its usual tolling bell start details amongst others; 176 wheatear, 63 willow warblers, 106 white wagtails, 180 twite, 684 meadow pipits and singles each of barred, marsh and booted warblers and a common rosefinch.
Afterwards the walk back to my abode for the month of September is under a star-filled sky.

Wednesday 31st August light to fresh SW Sunny AM showers PM

It is a glorious, very sunny and calm morning. I walk to watch the trap run but miss it.
So to the North Haven and back along the road and dykes to the crofts Setter, Pund, Chalet and Barkland. Fascinating to see lines of wheatears on the stone walls and willow warblers sometimes in pairs on angelica stems.
At Shirva an acrocephalus warbler sp. eludes me. Twice it flies fast over the thick vegetation and twice it dives straight into the same. I try sitting on a pile of uncomfortable stones on the other side of the garden but it offers no views. It seems to be of a rather too warm brown to be anything other than a reed warbler but I would like views that would confirm that.
To the shop for provisions, I meet Mati, the wonderful Venezualan lady who is one of the crofters who makes original Fair Isle garments. She invites me to look at a book of indigenous tribes in the Amazon and I accept her kind offer of coffee at her croft half an hour later.
Years ago Mati and her partner David cycled from London to Greece with a two year old toddler, Sebastian in a bicycle chair. Incredible.
A friend of Mati's, Kathryn, calls in with her two young children. Kathryn talks about being a library analyst on Anglesey a few years ago and of her love for the bird artist, Charles Tunnicliffe. She relates about how funds were raised to buy the Tunnicliffe artworks that were put on sale at Christie's auction house of London by the Tunnicliffe family upon his death. The successful purchase by the Anglesey Library brought the collection back to the island he loved.
Outside once more, whinchat and wheatear, willow warblers and waders, the way is slowly made towards the Obs for the log call. A juvenile rose-coloured starling has been seen there, found by Cath Mendez.

Log -
wheatear down to 126, twite down to 145.
167 rock pipits. Now why does Fair Isle have 167 whereas North Ronaldsay, just twenty five miles away, have none?

No stars on the way back to my abode and the wind is strong in my face.

The Year List is 279, twenty five more than this time last year. Importantly the list includes twenty five birds I didn;t see last year.

Distance cycled/walked in August – 397.91 miles


Total mileage for 2016 – 5313.74 miles

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

And on to Orkney and Shetland.

Let's get to Fair Isle. Yet first . . . . .

Friday 26th August

The ferry ride is reasonably smooth and the disembarkation likewise. Into the library to check on a few internet things and then a cycle to Cottisgarth RSPB reserve. Here there is a fabulous visitors' centre with a remarkable resonance when one sings. I sing the evening away as the sun sets over the nearby moorland hills.

Saturday 27th August

A ride over the hills and down to Harray to meet with a dear friend, Alastair Forsyth, beside an Orkney loch. Alastair has no interest in LBJ's, little brown jobs. Not for him the thrill of a quick flash of brown or warm brown or buff. No tertials and primary projections for he. No, he prefers to look through a large flock of ducks and just maybe find the one with a slightly different head shape, a slightly different bill. And thank goodness for that. Alastair has found an American duck, actually a ring-necked drake in eclipse. Eclipse meaning that nondescript plumage that many ducks take on during the Summer.
Bird number 277 goes onto the list. A male hen harrier drifts past, as does a sparrowhawk and eight ruff fly over the far shore of the loch.
Alan Beach, the local RSPB manager joins us. He asks me to say hello to David Parnaby, the warden of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory when I get there. That will be a pleasure.

The rest of the day is spent at Alastair's nearby house, with his wife Louise and one of their two daughters, Ellen. A lovely family of friends, we chat, observe what moths are within the moth trap from last night and look for hoverflies in their large garden. Alastair has a superb knowledge of both insect groups. The many moths in the trap include Northern spinach, snout, square-spot and rosy rustic, lesser bordered yellow underwing, dark arches and any large yellow underwings. There is also a new one for me, a chevron and one that has Alastair exclaiming with delight, a pink-barred sallow.
They talk of their garden birds after a hen harrier flies overhead, especially of Louise's thrill of seeing a white phase gyrfalcon on a fence post.
Louise believes that crystals give protection and she gives me a large whitish, heart-shaped crystal. This is for me to place in the ocean south of Fair Isle. The third one given, the other two are already in place; one protecting north Fair Isle, the other protecting the sea just south of Sumburgh Head, Shetland. I placed these thereon my previous Biking Birder trips; the former in 2010, the latter in 2015.
Ellen has a fascinating pet, a bearded dragon and holding him, well actually watching him climb my jumper is thrilling. Ellen has a beautiful Orcadian accent, a sing-song lilt lacking in my Brummie (Birmingham) monotone.
All too soon it is time to leave, the sun is setting and I need to get to the port in order to take the overnight ferry to Lerwick, Shetland.

Sunday 28th August

The ferry crosses a mill pond smooth sea and as Shetland place names come and go as the ship heads north towards Lerwick harbour; Sumburgh Head, Virkie, Channerwick, Mousa, I chat with an army veteran, Garry who is here to help ex veterans with a project called Military Veterans Agricultural Project.

Only the Cooperative supermarket is open on this the Sabbath and my dire need of new shoes will have to wait until tomorrow to be sorted.
I book into the Lerwick Youth Hostel and meet two Swiss girls from Berne.
After walking through the deserted town in order to suss out a suitable shoe shop, I return to more mundane things with laundry duties at the hostel. The hostel is a large Edwardian house with shining wooden stairways and large, high ceilinged rooms. A group of young under 12 year olds from Orkney are here with their teachers and coaches for a football tournament against their local rivals, Shetland. Considering their age they are remarkably quiet. Graham is a native of North Ronaldsay, the island I have just left and we talk about the people of the island, the Tullochs and of the observatory.
I receive a text from George Gay, the volunteer back at that Obs. “just had an icky warbler. You should have stayed.”
An hour or so later, another message; a Sykes warbler has been caught and ringed. Originally found by the ex-warden and announced as a booted warbler, the bird on being netted turned magically into a Syke's as measurements were taken. I am thrilled for everyone there. With an early morning wood warbler, that makes three birds that would have been new for my year list. I can only imaging the hilarity and excitement amongst the wonderful youngsters. They deserve such good fortune.

I watch an animation film, Megamind on Netflix and talk with an incredible German couple, Claudia and Michael from a town in Bavaria. They are cycling tourists practising for a three year cycle together around the World that they will start next year. They are preparing a website, www.2like2bike. I must keep in touch to see how this inspiring couple are getting on. Maybe we will meet up in Peru!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

More Days on the Superb Birding Island that is North Ronaldsay.


North Ronaldsay, Orkney, here are the highlights of another great week on this wonderful island with wonderful people:-

Saturday 21st August



A barred warbler has been caught in the mist nets at Holland House and I cycle hard to get the bird onto the list. A regular scarcity I know (hope) I will be seeing more in the field but at least this bird in the hand is securely onto my Green Year list.
From Holland House I decide to survey Section A and search along the dry stone walls that head towards Gretchen, a large pool not far from the Observatory.

A couple approaching the hide there flush almost everything but once the three of us are settled inside waders soon start to return and what variety. Over the next hour a wood sandpiper drops in, nine black-tailed godwits, two ruff, fourteen dunlin, three ringed plover, seven redshank, a lone lapwing and the icing on the cake occurs when five little stint fly in together.

Heading along the beach north and searching the walls once more, a pied flycatcher is fly catching.
Back at Holland House, the ringers have packed up and sitting on a squat folding chair I watch an area of sycamores for an hour. The barred warbler with it's silver engagement ring is seen, a tatty ringed chiff, two willow warblers in better condition, a blackbird, lots of house sparrows, linnets and a few meadow pipits pass.

The afternoon surveying section E with Larissa the highlight is when we watch and count the waders on Westness beach. Twelve species of wader can't be bad for an Orkney island; knot, ruff, dunlin, turnstone, ringed plover, redshank, oystercatchers, curlew, golden plover, a few sanderling, a single curlew sandpiper and four little stint. Brilliant.


Sunday 22nd August

Early in the misty morning George Gay and I do the trap run, that is we see what birds are around the Heligoland traps around the Bird Observatory to catch and ring. It is a cool and foggy morning and a lesser whitethroat is caught at the first trap but an acro eludes us by diving over the stone wall.
A barred warbler flies from out of cover at the next trap and flies hard across a field. One 'in the field', knew I would get one. Willow warbler are taken with the lesser whitethroat to be rung.




I head off for the harbour to do survey work along the shore line. Eight purple sandpipers are the highlight, as confiding as ever once I sit down to watch them. A redstart is a new bird for my Year North Ronaldsay list.
Late afternoon, Sam has found a greenish warbler. Right at the far end of the island in the back garden of a croft in Section F, the bird is seen by all. Sam is on a roll having found wrynecks, barred, icterines, the last I missed despite searching the area, and now a greenish.





Monday 23rd August

Happy (spoiler alert) 84th birthday Mum! Who loves you? Xxxxx

Ringing with the Three Musketeers again, Erin, Gavin and George, twenty eight birds involving twelve species caught including pied flycatchers, swallows and a wheatear.
This is at Holland House again with the twelve mist nets.
Around the buildings a black redstart flits about as a sand martin flies with the swallows.

Cycling around a few key locations, Ancum Willows is first. Here whilst talking with the ex-warden Pete Donnolly, who still lives on the island, a whitethroat is amongst the iris flags and a wryneck comes out onto the low stone wall nearby. It flies past us and lands on wires and even comes down onto the road nearby.
Later Lotti's garden has a barred and a willow warbler in it. The Post Office garden has a lesser whitethroat.
Back at the Bird Observatory, Bryony points out two red-backed shrikes.
In the afternoon it is Larrisa's turn to do the seawatching session and together we sit in the seawatching hide. A couple of sooty shearwaters pass west bound and nine manx. More exciting though is the appearance of five Risso's dolphins. 


After getting Larissa onto them we phone the Bird Observatory and a full Land Rover arrives with the crew. Luckily everyone gets onto the dolphins albeit a bit distantly as they have drifted north west.
Continuing seawatching alone another group of Risso's, six of them come past. Three storm petrels do likewise and a summer plumaged great northern diver.


In the evening one of the red-backed shrikes enters a Heligoland trap and is rung to the delight of all of the visitors in the Obs. My evening is spent with two lovely Swiss ladies, one of whom is a contempory dancer who started dancing at The Mac in Birmingham.


Tuesday 24th August

Up at 5:00am the fog is the thick and there is a light westerly. A garden warbler is caught at Holland and a lesser whitethroat is amongst the buildings. 


The crew are great fun and have such phenomenal energy. Up most of the night and still out there early doors. Brilliant, inspiring group.
The black redstart is still around.
Larissa and I survey Section B once more. We do the first part together and there are good numbers of snipe, or snips as Larissa likes to call them, and willow warblers. We split up as last time. Larissa heads towards Stromness and I to Bride's.
The golden plover is close and numbers over a thousand yet no American or Pacific is hiding amongst them. A fulmar has managed to get itself trapped in a ruined croft and I pick it up carefully, avoiding the spit out oil, and take it to the shore.

Wednesday 25th August

Bryony has found a possible marsh warbler at Bride's! Sam, doing the survey with her, is convinced the acro' is a marsh. 

I am at the seawatching hide alone when the news comes in. I am there because George had a Cory's shearwater pass earlier in the day. The crew assemble at the field where the possible rare warbler was last seen and a mist net assembled to try to catch it. Each attempt the bird misses the net by inches each time; the last attempt has the bird land seemingly at the bottom of the net but as Gavin rushes towards it it appears behind the net and skips over the wall.

Beside the field is a huge area of iris flags and the bird flies off into the cover of these. Sam is not giving up though and heads off in pursuit. Gavin, Erin and George remove their boots and follow. The fun that ensues is immense as the boys wade through thigh deep water in search of the bird.
Eventually the search is called off and most people return to the Observatory with a question mark still hanging over the proper identification.
Sam and I stay and for two hours search, find and get superb views of a . .. marsh warbler. Bird number 276 and a great relief after what happened in May in Lincolnshire. You may remember that I found a marsh warbler, photographed it yet persuaded myself after a couple of hours that I was not sure I was correct. My photographs mostly pointed to marsh but I didn't count it. Now we had the bird and Sam was happy. He is phenomenal with his knowledge of birds and I stand in awe as he reels off the subtle ID features.


Thursday 26th August

My plan had been to stay until the end of the month but the winds seem all wrong for further migrants (how wrong can one be!) and I decide to leave and head for Fair Isle via the Orkney mainland.
Sam and I are out at 5:30am though hoping to re-find the marsh warbler. My aim is to get better photographs especially of the tertials and primaries.
We search but don't find it and after two hours return to the Obs via Holland House garden.
Just time to shower, have breakfast and say the last goodbyes to everyone. 

A team photograph then a team hug ends in a mass tickle.
Onto the ferry, a phone call from George and as the boat heads off across the bay five distant figures wave. Tears and thanks.


North Ronaldsay is superb and the potential to find your own birds is great. Visit and you won't regret it.

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