Friday, 9 September 2016

More Days on The Fair Isle

Monday 5th September                              fresh to strong SW       
                          cloudy start then sunshine day!

The day after the banquet and everything is quiet. I walk around the south of the fair Fair Isle. The red-throated diver is asleep as usual in South Harbour and Tommy's Guest House, Da Haa has a greenish warbler in the garden. 
Into the graveyard I look at each headstone. The ages of the people interred here are mostly in the 80 years bracket and there is even one gentleman who lived to be 101.
The War memorial details the names of eight men who died in WW1 and one in WW2. Such a high figure for such a small island.

Utra has a single dunlin probing its mud. Will an American wader drop in on the island soon? There are reports of buff-breasted sandpipers on North Ronaldsay. Send one here please.

A quiet day for me with some time spent pensively atop clifftops. I do though venture down a very steep incline to access a beach. The surge of the sea here is thunderous and the cliffs to my left of Malcolm's Head are huge. Plastic on the beach, long lengths of rope and a lesser black-backed gull, a juvenile, that doesn't look as though it will sadly last much longer. It is being battered by the waves and every time it gets purchase on a rock it immediately gets washed off again.

The evening log at the Bird Observatory details ten species of warbler; 35 willow, 4 garden, 3 lesser whitethroat, 2 chiff chaffs and singles each of icterine, greenish, booted, blackcap and whitethroat. 135 wheatears, a couple of redstarts, 9 lapland buntings and 11 pied flycatchers.

Tuesday 6th September Fresh SW High cloud and sunny later.

A spotted flycatcher around Pund first thing; Pund is my favourite starting point for a day's migrant search.

On the trap rung with David Parnaby a new robin is caught, as is a meadow pipit, three rock pipits and a willow warbler. Of great interest though is a pied flycatcher with a Norwegian ring on it's leg. This is the first ever occurrence on Fair Isle.
I set off down to North and South Haven, ostensibly to clear these two beaches of plastic rubbish washed in on the tide. A bin liner full latter, I find a set of wings and the gruesomely bloody head of a sanderling. There's a bird of prey around somewhere.
Beaches cleared I head for the south of the island again. Now by the Kirk a lapwing has been seen by everyone else but me for the last week. Come log time, Lapwing? One.
Today I have it walking amongst grassy tussocks that have been hiding it.

Down to Meadow Burn and the booted warbler is still there. The Raeva geos have a single redstart and Lower Stackhoul has a lesser whitethroat. 
My daughter's birthday yet I have to be happy enough that I can message her on facebook. My mobile phone is dead and I have no other way to say . . . HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Looking at the feral nature of the so-called rock doves here I may be able to send a message by carrier pigeon. Pure rock doves they are not

Wednesday 7th September calm with light SW High full cloud cover

A male Greenland wheatear is caught on the trap run this morning. Great to see one in the hand, a favourite bird.
Lee Gregory shows me some of the detail to be seen on the dead sanderling I found yesterday including the lack of a hind toe, a diagnostic feature of the bird.
I walk the cliffs away from the Observatory and via the Gully, where a dunnock is hiding in the small patch of bushes, I head for east of the island and views over to Sheep Rock. The weather is benign and mild, a little soporific and I spend a long time sitting on cliff edges watching the activity of rock pipits and fulmars on and around the steep cliffs and beaches.

Thursday 8th September Fresh to very strong E cool, thick fog mid-morning, heavy rain all afternoon. Clear skies and Milky Way to lead me 'home' around 10:30PM.

Up early, I set off before sunrise towards the south west of the island. There aren't many migrants but there are the usual good numbers of bonxies. Maybe you know them better as great skuas but they are one of my favourite birds. Big, bulky and occasionally quite aggressive, they come to investigate as I walk near to them. By North Raeva a flava wagtail keeps going just over the next rise as I try and get good views of it.
I decide to seawatch at South Lighthouse but can't for when I arrive there fog descends and I can't even see the sea!
Walking back along the road towards the Observatory I take the small track to Setter, my friends Gordon and Perry Barnes' croft back in the sixties and through to Hill Dyke. With the wind freshening I stay sheltered by the long tall wall but sensibly think that searching the geos won't be a safe activity.
Instead I make my way down Sukki Mire, adjacent to the apirstrip, and watch as a greenshank gets chased by a bonxie.
On reaching the Observatory boot room I am feeling that the morning has been OK; not one where rarities were everywhere but a nice solid morning's birding. Tony Vials soon changes my mood. Ortolan bunting!
I had just divested my thick waterproofs and jumper. I put my coat back on a trudge to search the area where the scarce bunting was last seen. After two hours of squelching through wet grass and along broken stone dykes still no ortolan. I need this bird!
Tony and Cath Mendez join in the search. Tony hears it and points to some grass where he thinks it has dropped in. We circle it and tighten the circle. No bunting. I head off towards the Gully trap. Three birds land on some rocks nearby. The first two are meadow pipts. The third has a large moustachial, a very distinct eye ring and a pink bill . . . ORTOLAN!!!
photograph by Lee Gregory
It pops behind the stones. The three of us go nearer and it flies over our heads calling, plopping down into the long grass some distance away.
Rain starts to pour and Lee Gregory arrives. We both want to find the bird for Cath Mendez to see. We go in search of it and find it. Turning to call Cath over we can only see her departing along the stone wall back to the dry warmth of the Bird Observatory. Fair weather birder!
Lee and I laugh and enjoy reasonable views of this skulking flighty bunting.


Green Year list – 282. This is twenty five ahead of this time last year. This day last year was my first birding day on Fair Isle, a day in which I saw a citrine wagtail and an arctic warbler. The latter was just before a group of orcas went past North Lighthouse. What a welcome! 

Monday, 5 September 2016

Fair Isle 1st to 4th of September

Thursday 1st September fresh to strong SW cloudy and cool

Early morning trap run with Lee, the trap run is when the warden or one of his assistants walks each of the Heligoland traps trying to catch birders to be rung with a small metal numbered ring and processed. Details measured and taken include primary feather length, weight and age.
Today just a re-trapped robin is caught.
A walk down to North Haven. Three arctic terns are noisy and the long-tailed duck is busy diving. Interesting to watch how a black guillemot deals with a small flatfish that it has caught.
I spend a short time collecting the plastic bottles and such that I missed the day before on the beach at South Haven. One bottle has a language on it I don't recognise. I photograph it and put it into a rubbish skip in the harbour.

Back at the observatory yesterday's rose-coloured starling, found by Cath Mendez, puts in an appearance. The only other bird I see is a greenshank accompanied by a dunlin over Pund later in the day. Now that could be because I have a wonderful time with Neil Thompson, the Captain of the ferry, The Good Shepherd IV. He has a new guitar to show off and plays U2, Floyd, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Queen and Bad Company songs for a long while.
The evening's bird log details that the booted warbler is still present; as are 65 wheatear, 17 willow warblers, singles each of barred and garden warblers, 2 lesser whitethroat and a goldcrest. The latter is the five gram miracle, a bird weighing half a teaspoon of sugar that can fly over the North Sea and beyond. Meadow pipit numbers are at 752.
The plastic bottle from the morning beach clean? Well the language turned out to be Haitian creole, the bottle a chlorine-based water purification product. Haiti to Fair Isle is 7,000 kilometres in a direct line; the bottle is here due to the hopefully here forever Gulf Stream.

Friday 2nd September light to fresh SW Rain – AM, sunny PM.

A barred warbler is in the Observatory's garden and a kestrel flies over nearby. The goldcrest from yesterday is still down in the harbour area, as is the long-tailed duck. From the state of her wings, she isn't going anywhere fast.
A day spent walking the south of the island, particularly around the crofts and South Lighthouse.
I have a task to perform that may save the ocean. Louise Forsyth of Orkney, who I visited last week, has given me a large, heart-shaped whitish crystal. This she believes has powers that will help the ocean. From an elevated position on a cliff at the southernmost tip of the island it is thrown into the surging waters.
Louise's website detailing her work in this is:-

Actually this is the third crystal that I have placed around Fair Isle. The first was back in 2010, thrown from the Good Shepherd IV into the waves north of Fair Isle. Last year the crystal flew from atop the high cliff at Sumburgh Head, South Shetland.
The evening log has the wheatear count up at 227, a large increase on yesterday. Also up, yet less markedly are willow warbler at 23 whilst the number of barred and garden warblers has doubled with two of each. Meadow pipit numbers are rising fast, now at 822. How David, Lee and Ciaron count them is beyond me. Clouds of them in any field are extremely difficult to assess.
Maybe Louise's crystals do have magical powers for tonight there is the best Auroroa borealis I have ever seen. It is so good that a decesion to walk all the way to the North Lighthouse in the dark seems the correct one. It is such a shame that my camera won't take a photograph that shows the curtain and flare against a green misty background.

Saturday 3rd September light to fresh S Sunny start, sunny intervals later.

I love fulmars. They are curious of anyone walking the cliffs and come close to watch you pass. They cuddle up in pairs or small groups on the cliffs and swirl en masse against a coastal aspect of such magnificence that it takes one's breath away.
Today my walk takes me south once more, this time staying close to the cliffs and geos. Geos are rocky inlets in the high mound-like hills that have very steep inaccessible cliffs and some grassy slopes. Migrant birds have a habit of congregating near the top of such. Sometimes though it is worth sitting down and watching the cliffs themselves.
Starting at the top of Hill Dyke, a long high dry stone wall that bisects the western half of the island between the heather moorland of the north and the fertile fields of the crofting land to the south, a large female peregrine causes some alarm to the other birds.
Down by the Raevas three swifts are zooming about and in a field here are seven ruff and ten black-tailed godwits.
Down at the South Lighthouse more waders are on the shore; sanderling and knot, turnstone and dunlin.
Two lapland buntings are by the school.
Most of the day is spent photographing the beautiful island in all its different aspects; crofts, landscapes, sheep!

The birders present, well that is Tony Vials from Northamptonshire, a birder who has been coming to the Fair Isle for many years and has many tales to tell, and I as well as the Observatory quartet, have been waiting for the south west wind to change. During the afternoon it does, the sun comes out to celebrate the famous south east wind. Tomorrow could be good.
Back in the Midlands, the land of my birth, the nature reserves have been having an all-dayer, that is a birdwatching competition where each reserve tries to beat each other over how many species they see in a twenty four hour period.
My all-dayer on Fair Isle gave me 47 birds, a barred warbler late in the day being the last. The Fair Isle birding team; David, Chris, Lee and Ciaron's total is 68.

Sunday 4th September very light E-NE very warm and sunny, almost no cloud all day. Not typical Fair Isle weather!

Trap run with Lee again, and with quite a group of visitors too. The 'Speyside' group have joined the run. There are more birds around today; my cycle run to Observatory before had seen willow warblers and wheatears along the dykes and walls. By the end of the six Helogoland trap run Lee has five birds in five bags; 2 wheatear, 2 meadow pipits and a reed warbler.
The sun is a shining on a beautiful morning. A text, wood warbler at South Raeva. A fast cycle ride down the island, the bike thrown against the shop wall and a dash over a field. Wood warbler on the list, bird number 280. Thanks Lee Gregory.

Walking back to collect the bike another text comes in, this one from the warden David Parnaby. Phyllosc with a wing bar, South Naversgill.
After collecting some nuts and raisins for my breakfast I make my way to Hill Dyke and see David coming down the other side of the high dry stone wall. Thanking him for the text and then walking towards the west end of the wall, a large warbler lands on a nearby barbed wire fence. I shout to David who turns to look at the icterine warbler. Another new bird for the Green Year list and this time found by me. This is going to be a special day!

The rest of the day in glorious weather is spent exploring each and every geo from Gunnawark to Skinners Glig on the west coast of Fair Isle. Each geo has a small group of migrants; mostly willow warblers yet also pied flycatchers and the occasional different bird. Reaching South Naaversgill, or Tyneside just south of it, Isit down and remember the red-flanked bluetail of last year. There are three willow warblers down in the shadows. No there isn't. There are two. The other has a very faint wing bar; a greenish and my third of this fabulous year.

The height of the cliffs is exhilarating and the views of roosting gannets massed on grassy slopes is enthralling. The views down high vertiginous cliffs is captivating and each geo has its own distinguishing features. One may have grassy parapets, another sheer rock face cliffs. Grey Geo has the latter and on the sun-facing cliff a barred warbler is sunbathing. Motionless the large warbler just perches on a small jutting out rock face. 

The next geo has a large bowl-like quality with Alum Bay like colours. It also has yet another icterine warbler hopping around the top. It doesn't allow me to get close,popping over the cliff edge and away.

I pop my head over the cliff edge and find a lesser whitethroat sitting just below me.
To the top of the highest point on the island, Ward Hill, 217 metres high. Searching amongst the ruins of WW2 concrete no birds show themselves.
Down at the large radio mast two noisy arctic skuas are resting and another pied flycatcher flits around.
To the Observatory eventually in the evening, the log details a remarkable day.


Green Year list – 281. This is twenty six ahead of this time last year and I only reached the heights of 281 on 18th of November with a long-billed dowitcher at Newbiggin Pools, Northumberland.

To see more photographs from these days then please take a look at either the Biking Birder 2016 - Quest for 300 Facebook page or my personal Facebook page - Gary Brian Prescott.