Sunday, 26 April 2015

Gone West.

14th-25th April
Shag on nest, we're all hoping for a breeding season as good as the last one...
A long time since an update, but not a huge amount to report. I'm currently looking after Freyja who's down with a cold and I'm starting getting some feeling back into my face and fingers after censusing Buness and the Havens and doing the Beached Bird Survey this morning in a rather cold NW wind. Once Susannah's back from Kirk, I'll be heading out round the rest of North, which I'm not expecting to be an entirely enjoyable experience!
Shetlantarctica. The scene on Saturday as winter returned to the Northern Isles, although we got away with just a few wintry showers on Fair Isle.
The recent period has seen largely westerly winds, with a calmer period over 17th-20th that brought a few more signs of spring, but with north-west winds dominating the forecast for the foreseeable future, it looks like the early part of this spring is going to be a real contrast with the amazing spell of late-April migration last year.
Calm weather was enough to encourage the family down south for a picnic, and was even nice enough for coats to be shed (although not the wooly hats!).
We've not been without a few highlights though, chief of which was the brief appearance of a pale-bellied Brent Goose in South Haven on the morning of 25th, the first Brent on the island since spring 2010. A general theme of the highlights not being passerine-based was continued with the arrival of first one, then three, then five Gadwall from 20th-22nd, sadly the increase didn't continue and we were left with just the second-largest ever Fair Isle flock. I've mentioned before the 'island-network' of news, and it's interesting that Noss and the Isle of May have both recorded Gadwall in the last week, islands where they are even greater rarities than Fair Isle. It's the sort of species that doesn't feature on Birdguides, so perhaps a larger than normal movement of them wouldn't get picked up so easily - anyone else out there recorded Gadwall on their patch when they didn't expect it? Other wildfowl have been generally thin on the ground, although the first Whooper Swan of the year appeared from 21st and a couple of Pink-footed Geese have also passed through.
Two of the Gadwall being photobombed by the still present Mute Swan. I wonder if the swan hangs on until the autumn and gives a few of our regulars a Fair Isle tick? It seems to have made friends with the Whooper Swan recently, which could be interesting...
Other avian highlights have included a smart breeding-plumaged Slavonian Grebe (19th-23rd), only the 5th spring record in the last 18 years of this species which is a more regular autumn visitor.
The rather smart Slavonian Grebe, it could be watched chasing fish underwater in the clear waters of the North Haven, where it moved with impressive speed.
Wader passage has brought the first Whimbrel (16th), Knot (17th), Greenshank (18th), Black-tailed Godwit and Common Sandpiper (both 19th) of the year, with the first Arctic Skua of the year returning on 25th. Other migrants have largley turned up despite the weather rather than because of it and numbers haven't been great as we've been relying on the brave (or foolish) individuals that have pressed on regardless. First arrivals have been represented by Willow Warbler (14th, with just a few after that), Blackcap (18th, with no more than two since), Tree Sparrow (a flock of 3 that arrived on 20th at the Obs and increased to 5 two days later), House Martin (21st), Sand Martin (22nd), Grasshopper Warbler, Tree Pipit and 2 Kestrel (all of which turned up in unpromising westerly winds on 25th).
A few White Wagtails have been passing through, as well as a few 'Greenland' Wheatears, both typical migrants in westerly winds.
One thing that isn't weather dependent is the arrival of cetaceans and after three unidentified dolphins were seen on 19th, we got the one that most people were after - Killer Whales. Initially seen by Jane as she was searching for colour-ringed Starlings in South Harbour, the three animals (including two adult bulls), moved up the east coast, with the rest of the Obs team (well, all of the team except me, as the sighting occurred at exactly the time I was called up to the airstrip for fire duty for the incoming plane) able to get out onto Buness or Roskillie to get good views as they went past.
Killer Whale photographed by island resident Joe Butler with his phone as it swam under the cliffs at Buness.
Interestingly, one of the bulls had a fin that was totally collapsed to the right hand side, exactly the same as one that spent several hours off Fair Isle in a group of 15 animals in June 2013, there has to be the chance that the same animal is involved in both sightings (although unfortunately, it wasn't photographed on this occasion).
So, it just goes to show that it's always worth being out there, whatever the weather - and if we keep telling ourselves that in the next 10 days of westerlies, we might start to believe it!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Gentilis Relish

11th-13th April
A couple of blustery days brought a few bits of note, with the 11th seeing a few Pink-feet on the move and a small fall that included 10 Fieldfare, 2 Brambling and a Sparrowhawk, with Wheatear rising to 28, then Shoveler and 82 Golden Plover on 12th. Full details, as ever, can be found on our latest sightings page, which is updated more regularly than this blog if you want to keep up to date with daily sightings from Fair Isle.
Wheatears are finally arriving in slightly more reasonable numbers (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).

A few other common migrants have been on the move, including a couple of Collared Doves.
The 13th seemed even more promising when a very calm morning saw a few Redwing and Twite caught in the Obs mistnets, before Ciaran phoned with the startling news that he'd flushed a GOSHAWK from the wall next to Ditfield ('It was huge!'). Some frantic searching by the team failed to relocate the bird and so, after returning to the Obs for breakfast, we started to head out to census with the hope that we'd pick it up somewhere around the island. We hadn't even made it to the cattle grid (I hadn't even got my boots on in fact), when Ciaran heard the 'cronk' of a Raven overhead and looked up to see the Goshawk directly overhead.
An absolute whopper. As was pointed out on Twitter, a good ID feature is when you realise the 'crow' mobbing it is, in fact, a massive Raven! It was noticeable that the Raven tended to mostly keep a sensible distance from a predator that could almost certainly cause it some problems should it have wished.
You can follow FIBO on Twitter on @FI_Obs if you would like up to date bird news from Fair Isle.
It circled for a short while, then headed south with its, rather respectful, chaperone. It was later seen from Wirvie as it circled high and drifted north, presumably heading to Shetland as there were no further sightings.
We were even able to add the Goshawk to the kitchen window list as it performed a couple of circuits over the Obs. Only the 6th record for Fair Isle and the first since 1996, this one wasn't really on anyone's radar.
Interestingly, North Ronaldsy BO recorded their 11th Goshawk a couple of weeks ago, which lingered for a few days then appeared to drift off south. Could this have been the same bird making another attempt to return north? There certainly seem to be similarities between the Fair Isle bird (left) and the North Ronaldsay bird (right, photo by Stephen Rutt). Many thanks to NRBO for supplying the picture, as well as interesting comments about the similarities of the birds. Please let us know if you have any thoughts as to whether these are the same birds.
If they are the same, that gives us hope that we've still got a chance of catching up with the White-tailed Eagle that was seen on North Ronaldsay a few days ago!
Returning to the site it was first flushed from later revealed a freshly dead, partially eviscerated rabbit. Nearby was the plucking post, although most of the fur had blown away by the time we returned with a camera (photo: Ciaran Hatsell). The rabbit was pretty impressively dealt with, but the picture is a bit gory for the blog, so you'll have to email and ask for a copy if you're interested!
The rest of the day didn't really matter in some respects, but it still went on to produce the first Ring Ouzel of the year amongst impressive counts of Meadow Pipit (520) and Skylark (332), as well as an increases in Chiffchaffs (9) and Bonxies (at least 40 were back on their breeding grounds).
A flighty Ring Ouzel at Busta Geo was the first of the year (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
The recent run of interesting wildfowl continued with two each of Pintail and Shoveler, whilst the Mute Swan remained (although it had a little fly around today, so maybe it's looking to move on - although perhaps it's more likley that it was following someone home after they'd fed it!).
Quack. (Ciaran Hatsell).

Still all westerlies in the forecast at the moment, although we're doing reasonably well off them so far, so maybe we shouldn't get too disheartened, and it's still early...
photo: Ciaran Hatsell

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Swan Luck

3rd-10th April
Although we've passed the snow, the winds have remained largely westerly based and the spring has taken a while to get going. A bit of easterly on 3rd brought a few birds, whilst lighter southerly winds in the last couple of days have finally made it feel like we're out of the winter. There have been ten additions to the year list in the period, with the undoubted highlight being the Mute Swan found by Ciaran on 8th during a Tystie survey. After circling the island a couple of times, it settled on Da Water where it is still present. Interestingly, the first person who walked down to Da Water didn't flush the bird, in fact it swam straight towards them, suggesting it's come from somewhere where it's used to getting the odd bread crust or two! It's only the 10th Fair Isle record (and just the second in the spring) and our first 'any other birds' species for Log in 2015.
Quack. A classic island rarity, its circuits of the island before settling on Da Water allowed it to be added to a few house lists (and Susannah's kitchen window list). It also provided points for just two people in the Prediction Competition, with Henry from Haa the only person to get three points for a spring prediction. Photo: Susannah Parnaby.
Two Greenland White-fronted Geese (4th-5th) were the other main highlight from some (very) light wildfowl passage that also included the year's first Shelduck (3 in South Harbour on 8th).
Logan and Tommy added White-front to the year list when they saw these two birds fly in off the sea at Meoness, with views after that generally distant. Photo: Ciaran Hatsell.
The typical harbinger of spring for most of the country, the Swallow made its first landfall on Fair Isle on 9th whilst the first Wheatear (a far more typical sign of spring for Fair Isle) was late, with the first not arriving until 7th April and small numbers building up after that. Incidentally, as far as BBC Springwatch goes, the Swallow means that's us done for spring on Fair Isle as the other signs of spring for their 'Big Spring Watch' are: Hawthorn, English Oak, Orange-tip butterfly and 7-spot Ladybird, the first three of which are not found on Fair Isle and the latter's only live appearance was a stowaway that arrived in the Obs Christmas tree last year (to add insult to injury, they then missed FIBO off the map of British Bird Observatories, ha'way man Chris, get it sorted!)!
Here be dragons. I'm all in favour of an increase in the licence fee if it means the BBC can afford the couple extra inches of paper needed to include the whole country on their map next time! (image from BBC iplayer).
Other firsts for the year included some typical early season migrants, with Dunnock, Siskin, Linnet, Collared Dove and Cormorant all logged in ones or twos. Migration has been generally slow, with very few species arriving in any decent numbers. Meadow Pipits and Skylarks are now generally in three-figures, but, other than 37 Goldcrest and 20 Blackbird in light easterlies on 3rd and Redwings arriving from 6th to a peak of 91 on 9th, most migrants have struggled to get out of single figures.
A Linnet in the Obs garden, feeding alongside its commoner relative (on Fair Isle at least), Twite.
Signs of the start of the breeding season have been emerging as well, with Shags on eggs early this year (with the first noted on 4th April), Gannets also confirmed as incubating, Puffins returning to land from 3rd and the skies full of bird song whenever the sun has come out. An encouraging report as a follow up to last year's successful breeding season is the sighting of one of 'our' Shags on Noss last week (thanks to Andy Denton, the Noss Warden for the sighting).
Red HCE on Noss earlier this week. Photo: Andy Denton (SNH). 
'Red HCE' was ringed as a chick on Fair Isle on 11th July 2014 and was still here until at least 27th September and was then on Noss on 7th April. With 90 Shags colour-ringed on Fair Isle in 2014, there will hopefully be more sightings to help us understand the movements of our breeding birds. It's always interesting to get news from other islands, sometimes it's directly relevant (regular updates from North Ronaldsay BO about the White-tailed Eagle that turned up there yesterday were greatly appreciated for example, although unfortunately it chose not to continue north) and other times it bears no relevance to Fair Isle, but is fascinating none the less. An example being one of the Isle of May's more remarkable records, with a sea-going Red Grouse providing an unexpected first for the island. If ever anything shows that there'll always be unexpected happenings in birding, then this is it and it helps keeps our hopes up despite the forecast for at least ten more days of westerlies!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

What a difference a year makes...

Bright skies and optimism at the end of March.
Late March in 2014 saw some glorious sunshine, south-easterly winds and falls of Robins and thrushes, that brought a Red-flanked Bluetail and had seen the year list rise to 100 before we'd even started the official 'census season' on 1st April. Things have been somewhat different in 2015, with the small fall mentioned in the last blog update giving way to westerly winds, that got colder and dumped a load of snow on us for 1st April.
Snow joke. It's not unusual to get snow showers right until early May, but lying snow is a rare occurrence. There was enough on 1st for a (admittedly small) snowman to get built at the Obs, the second of the year!
Not ideal census conditions! Frequent blizzard-like conditions and a cold wind made birding unpleasant at times, especially as it had almost entirely halted migration in its tracks.
With very few migrants, and virtually nothing that wouldn't be expected (although a Goldfinch on 27th was the earliest ever for Fair Isle), the year list stands on just 83, with a small amount of corvid passage from 26th March bringing the first Rooks, Carrion Crow and Jackdaw for the year, whilst Puffins and Bonxies returned from 29th March and 2nd April respectively. Iceland Gulls are still well represented, with four on 28th the peak, emphasising how wintry it still feels at times.
The season's first two Rooks head south over Gilsetter on 26th.
A Snipe feeding just outside the library window.
However, there is some hope... The forecast looks like the winds tomorrow will be heading our way from the northern coast of France, which sounds promising for encouraging a few more birds in our direction. Saturday also looks quite calm, hopefully enough to get a Tystie count in (we've tried one already, but the relatively low total was likely to have been influenced by the sea state and wind) and that may well see the first few Wheatears and the likes coming our way.
It certainly feels like we may have used up all our spring luck last year, but birding doesn't really work like that and I'm sure there'll be some surprises yet in the next few weeks, especially as spring migration often doesn't really kick off in earnest until late April or even May. More than one person has suggested that they think we're in line for a really good autumn as well! Whatever happens, we'll be out there looking for it and I'm sure we'll enjoy the year ahead...
Grace's new kite got a run out before the weather turned foul. I imagine that it won't get a chance to be airborne when the Bonxies return to their territories!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Here We Go!

Fire up the walking boots, sharpen the biros and gird your binoculars my friends, for the 2015 season starts here.
After a largely wet and windy winter that delivered very little in the way of avian surprises, we've had a couple of spring like days recently, with SE winds and migrants coming in. The 26th coincided with my return from holiday (a very pleasant week and a bit of birding in Nepal with my Dad - good weather, great birds, fantastic wildlife and a lovely chance to spend some time father/son time that wasn't just trying to get the Transit fixed or replace a door) and the first full-team census of the year. A good arrival of birds was evident, especially on the more sheltered north and west cliffs, with counts including 56 Goldcrest and 76 Blackbirds, along with smaller numbers of other common migrants. Today has started with bright weather, although there is likely to be rain soon and it looks like we'll get Saturday off as heavy rain is forecast for the day, but it's maybe good to ease ourselves into things slowly!
A Goldcrest trapped yesterday (photo: Ciaran Hatsell)
A Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, not trapped yesterday. This one was at Chitwan and was one of many wonderful animals we saw, although we just missed out on seeing Tiger (we were on a watchtower just round the bend in the river from where a large Tiger crossed just out of sight from us).
Grace decided to make up for it though by making herself up as a Tiger and hiding in the garden when I got back (whilst Freyja joined in as a Leopard, although we did see one of those!). As a consequence, Grace has gone to school this morning looking like she's wearing fake tan. At some point I'll have to sort through the hundreds of photos to put together a talk about the Nepal trip.
Whilst I was away, Ciaran and Chris returned to the island and between them (and Susannah), have racked up a few impressive sightings, including a peak count of 7 Stonechat (the highest count since 2010) on 17th, along with other typical early migrants including Chiffchaff, Moorhen, Grey Wagtail, Black Redstart etc. You'll find all of March's sightings on the Latest Sightings page of our website.
A Moorhen was seen in Gilsetter before being trapped the following day (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
We'll soon be getting the Domestic team arriving and then it isn't long before our first guests, but will we get our first rarity before then? Green-winged Teal is a possiblity at this time of year (following our first three records, all of which have occured in early spring since 2009), whilst last year's late-March Red-flanked Bluetail was a pleasant surprise and a reminder that anything is possible. Perhaps the late surge of American birds that occured in October 2014 (coupled with a fairly mild winter), could see a Transatlantic theme to our first good bird as a wintering vagrant reorientates, or perhaps, on a simlar theme,  a rare accentor has secretly wintered somewhere in the UK and could be picked up on its return north...
If you have any thoughts on what we might be going to get (or just fancy having a guess for a bit of fun), then be sure to take part in our easy to enter Prediction Competition, although you'll have to be quick as enteries must be received by first light on 1st April to be in with a chance of winning the prize.
Also coming up soon is the deadline for the last couple of roles available at FIBO this year, including an Assistant Warden job. Click on this link for details.
Right, time for census, let's see what today brings...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Quack Quack Tick

4th-17th February
A trip off the island for the BOC AGM saw me making the long haul down the country to Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, so it would have been rude not to have made the most of it with some birding as I went. Although it was nice to catch up on a few species that are unlikely to make it to Fair Isle (Tawny Owl, Pheasant, Green Woodpecker etc) it was also a good chance to call in on a couple of lingering rare ducks (and catch up with family and friends of course!). Sadly, I also made it to the Stadium of Light, but we'll skip over that one for now.
The BOC meeting was interesting, it was a good chance to catch up with representatives of other Observatories and the BTO and share experiences of our work and thanks to SBBO for being excellent hosts.
Not much was happening bird-wise as I left Fair Isle (the snow gradually melted over three days or so), so I was fairly relaxed about being off the island and was even more pleased when I met up with David Steel (heading up to his new role on the Isle of May) and we picked up the Black Scoter off Cheswick in Northumberland (and fish and chips in Seahouses).
Rather fortunately, the sea was fairly flat calm and, although the bulk of the Common Scoter flock soon drifted out to quite a distance, a small group remained closer in. This group contained the Black Scoter, as well as Red-breasted Mergansers, Red-throated Diver and a couple of Slavonian Grebes (all of which are technically visible in this photo).
Although it was a very distinctive bird when viewed through the scope (butterbill being a great name for the male of the species), the distant meant that views through the camera were not as convincing. I think this is it!
The journey back saw me in Aberdeen on a glorious sunny day, with around six hours to spare, so a walk up to Donmouth to finally get a crack at the Harlequin seemed the obvious choice. After a brief period where it was hiding from view (although Dipper, Kingfisher, Goosander and other species were good to see), I met the finder of the bird, who told me where to stand to expect a view.
A distant Kingfisher through a fence - a rarer bird on Fair Isle than Harlequin!
Within a minute, a dumpy duck [it's more Micky than Niall (harle)Quinn] had flown up the river and landed alongside us!
Harlequin in the company of a Goldeneye.
It eventually swam to the riverbank then came back towards us, where it sat on a barrel in the river about four metres away!
With a 400mm lens, it was pretty difficult to get the whole bird in view as this uncropped image shows! What a great bird! 
Anyway, after a day where we almost flew back to Fair Isle, but then didn't, I eventually arrived home in time for a little flurry of new arrivals for the year as SSE winds encouraged birds to get on the move.
Oystercatcher numbers have built up to at least 36.
A Ringed Plover on 13th was followed by a Hen Harrier the following day (the first winter record since 1997) then Woodpigeon and Red-breasted Merganser on 16th, whilst this morning has seen a flock of four Chaffinch in the Obs garden.
There's nothing like getting excited over a Woodpigeon to remind you of what it's like birding in the Northern Isles in winter!
Chaffinches are often one of the earliest migrants, but this is an early date for birds to be moving through (although small numbers are not unusual as overwintering birds).
There are a few daffodils in the garden, new birds coming through and the deadline for staff applications coming up at the end of the week, it's starting to feel distinctly sort of spring-like.
A wonderful aurora last night wasn't matched by the quality of my photos, but it was nice to get back to the family and have the bonus of Northern Lights and birds coming through.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Do you want to build a snowman?

26th January - 3rd February
If you've got small children, you've probably seen Frozen at least once and are likely to have some of the songs stuck in your head. We certainly have today, after a rare day of lying snow on Fair Isle, a 'snow day' for the kids and some sledging out the back of the Obs. Having brought one sledge to Fair Isle (which has been, if anything, too many sledges since we arrived), we've since had another child -  so we were very thankful to friends who had previously found a sledge washed up in Busta Geo, scrubbed off all the algae, seaweed etc and delivered it to the Obs this morning so we could have a sledge each for the girls!

The first snowman we've built in the Obs garden I think (the last one we made was two years ago and was up at the airstrip).
Of course, it's not all sledging and snowmen (although a day of that never does anyone any harm) and the office work continues to take up a fair bit of time as we get ready for the ever approaching 2015 season (and with bookings opening for 2016 on 1st March, that as well!). A couple of things to be aware of, are:

  •  The 2015 Prediction Competition  - have a go, you could win a couple nights at the Obs 
  •  There are just over two weeks to apply for Job and Volunteer vacancies for the 2015 season, please help spread the word amongst your friends if you think they could be a part of the FIBO team this year.

I also managed to briefly get my email inbox empty (for the first time in my history I believe) and work on the 2014 Annual Report is coming along nicely. If anyone has photographs that they think could be suitable for the report and would be happy for us to use them, then please get in touch.
Juvenile Glaucous Gull (centre), on a snow-dusted rock in Mavers Geo on 1st February . Do you have better photos than this?!
Bird sightings have been largely unremarkable since the last update: 4 Pink-footed Geese on 1st were the first of the year and seemingly arrived with a few more Greylags (152 were counted on 2nd), a couple of Iceland Gulls and a Glaucous Gull were seen and the Buzzard and Sparrowhawk reappeared, whilst a small arrival of thrushes at the end of January saw Fieldfare numbers rise to at least 57. Full details of recent sightings are updated regularly on the FIBO website .
At least two Water Rails remain, although mostly elusively like this bird on Barkland on 30th January. 
A few Twite have returned to the garden in the last couple of days. Another poor photo, but can anyone else produce a picture of Twite on a nyjer seed feeder in the snow?!

It looks like the snow may hang on just long enough to scupper flights for the next day or two, but if there is any transport, I'll be away for the next week or so. Hopefully that won't be when the snow melts to reveal a Gyr Falcon or something similar lurking on the island!

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