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!

Monday, 26 January 2015

Oycxiting Times

18th-25th January
The Big Garden Birdwatch was a highlight of Saturday. In the absence of  having taken many other pictures during the week, I'll pepper this update with BGBW shots.
After a dark, windy winter it is still pretty windy, but getting a bit lighter now and there are a few reminders that it will eventually be spring again. Although Oystercatcher is not really a summer migrant, it is one of the many species that abandon us (Turnstone, Redshank, Curlew, Snipe, Purple Sandpiper and possibly a few Woodcock are the only waders that remain right through the winter, whilst passerines are limited to the resident Fair Isle Wren, House Sparrow, Starling, Rock Pipit, Hooded Crow and Raven, with the four common thrush species usully present in varying numbers, a handful of Robins and a few Skylarks and Snow Buntings often overwintering), so it was good to get one in the Havens whilst doing the Beached Bird Survey yesterday, the first on the island since 10th November. The BBS produced, amongst other more typical finds, a dead juvenile Herring Gull that had been ringed in one of the Fair Isle breeding colonies in July 2014.
Rock Pipit was an expected one for us, but counts as an 'other species' on the RSPB form, as there won't be many British gardens that expect this species.
Other new birds owed more to the bad weather than any signs of spring, with juvenile Iceland Gull sightings on 19th, 23rd and 25th and Glaucous Gulls on 23rd (and adult and juvenile), 24th (one juvenile) and 25th (two juveniles), with a bit of seawatching producing Little Auk and blue Fulmar (20th) and Great Northern Diver (23rd). Cold weather further south and south-easterly winds were probably responsible for our first Lapwing (21st) and Brambling (22nd) of the year, with the latter also the first January record since 2003, along with Golden Plover (20th-21st), a flock of 25 Twite (20th) and a small increase in Fieldfare and Song Thrush.
Not countable on the BGBW (it didn't land in the garden), but this Glaucous Gull (bottom bird) flew over, having clearly annoyed these two Great Black-backed Gulls, which harried it for some time.
Amongst the wildfowl, the Shoveler and 2 Barnacle Geese both lingered and there were 8 Wigeon and 2 Long-tailed Duck, whilst other species still present included Peregrine, Merlin and Water Rail.
The House Sparrow flock peaked at 11. They don't always stay at the Obs throughout the winter, but as we haven't been away on holiday, they've had a constant supply of feed, so haven't had to decamp down the island this winter.

Starlings were the commonest species recorded, with a peak of 24. They made amazingly short work of fat-laced pine cones and slices of apple.
Wintering Blackbird numbers across the island seem to have dwindled a bit recently, this immature male is the only one using the Obs garden regularly. The only other bird to call in was the wintering Robin (Rock Dove and Fair Isle Wren managed to miss our chosen hour).
Guillemots had returned to the cliffs early in the period as another reminder that spring will get here eventually, but as the wind increased, they dissipated again. The bulbs daring to start poking through in the garden are having a similarly stop-go start to the year, with fresh green shoots being regularly burned brown by wind and salt spray.
Preparing food for the BGBW. The Good Shepherd sailed fairly recently, so we've not had to rely on lard-filled pine cones for ourselves yet. Mmmmm lard.
The girls were quite excited and Grace managed an impressive 45 minutes at the window before being distracted. The culprit being ...
...a Fair Isle Mouse (a slightly larger form of the Field Mouse), which took advantage of some bird seed that had  been dropped at the back door.
As we cling to the few signs that spring is on its way, there's also the chance to relive last year's excellent birding, with an article on Birdguides summarising the excitement of breaking the Fair Isle year list record (subject to the various rarities committees accepting all the rarity records of course)  and start to wonder what 2015 will bring. We'll be running the Prediction Competition again this year, so get your thinking caps on (check the tab above for last year's rules, which I'll be updating shortly) and start dreaming. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

You aint seen nothing like the harlequin.

10th-17th January
So, not only did my attempt to conjure up a Harlequin on Fair Isle fail miserably, I also managed to curse my attempts to see the Aberdeen bird – a total lack of planes during the week meant I was stranded on the island and had to Skype into the FIBOT Directors’ meeting. In fact, there hasn’t been a plane since 8th January (and there was only one managed to make it in that day, which was fully booked, so the last chance to leave Fair Isle if you weren’t scheduled on that one was on 6th January!), but the Good Shepherd made its first voyage since the first week of the month yesterday, so the island is now stocked up on perishable foods. We’re always grateful to the ferry crew who endure some rough crossings at this time of year to make sure the island is still capable of functioning (whilst we could have managed without salad for a while, the delivery of all the island’s fuel, animal feed etc also relies on the Good Shepherd running) and thanks to Robert and Fiona for the late-night opening at Stackhoull last night to make sure everyone can have a boiled egg for Sunday breakfast (Freyja was so excited by the greenery that came back from the shop that she's been wearing a cucumber as a hat!).
The weather has continued with the strong (sometimes ridiculously so) westerly wind, which has shifted slightly more NW in the last couple of days, making it cooler, so the accompanying showers have become increasingly sleety. It looks like next week could well be more settled, with the wind coming more from the east, which may encourage a bit of bird movement.
If I had been able to get off the island, I'd have had 36 hours on the Northlink in return for 5 hours in Aberdeen. I'd then have got stuck for a night in Shetland before having to come home on the Good Shepherd. With seas like these, it was probably the first time I've ever been glad the plane didn't come in.
Things have been very quiet for new arrivals, although Susannah turned up a Shoveler on 15th (which was still present on 16th). A very rare bird at this time of year (only the second January record for the island in fact), I wonder what the odds are that it was actually from across the Atlantic (the weather would certainly have helped and there have been Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals arriving on Orkney)?!
A rather old-school record shot of the Shoveler.
A Long-tailed Duck (in Ditfield on 16th) was the only other addition to the year list, with 3 Tundra Bean Geese, Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Peregrine, a Mealy Redpoll (a small, darkish individual that was probably the same one seen earlier in the month), a small handful of Water Rails and Woodcock amongst the lingerers.
The Tundra Bean Geese teamed up with the two lingering Barnacle Geese for a short while.
The main interest remained in the gulls though, with 7 Glaucous Gulls on 10th (one of which was an adult, so a different bird to the 9 seen the previous day) and 2 Iceland Gulls on the same day, with one or two juveniles of each species remaining throughout the period. The 10th and 11th also saw further sightings of the 2nd-winter Kumlien’s Gull, which seems to be using Fair Isle as shelter when the weather gets too bad for its presumably largely pelagic lifestyle.
Another ropey record shot, this time of the Kumlien's Gull (left) with a rather manky Glaucous Gull. There has to be a chance this is last year's bird returning.
So, much of a muchness here so far, but it’s been a good week for getting on with the office work and hopefully there’ll be more time in the field next week and more to report.
Boy oh buoy. The oddest catch of the week, this fender must have taken an interesting journey to get to the top of the Gully trap in westerly winds. It may have come from somewhere down the island, otherwise it's had to make its way up the cliffs somehow. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

Gull Force

9th January
A Rock Pipit; just because this little fella has been faithful to our garden all winter (with only House Sparrows, Starlings, Rock Doves, a Robin and the occasional Blackbird for company), so I thought he (or possibly she) should get headline billing in a blog post.
The gull nests on Greenholm will have been nicely cleaned off for the start of the next breeding season, with some high seas in recent days.
With the Shipping Forecast for sea area Fair Isle warning of a Force 12 westerly last night (in the end, it was very windy, but the worst of the conditions passed to the south of us), we knew we were in for a blowy time, and hopefully the sort of conditions that would see large numbers of gulls sheltering around the island.
Gull flock on Ditfield, how many white-wingers can you find?
In the end, numbers weren't actually that impressive this afternoon, probably only around 300 or so gulls were present, but amongst them were an impressive 9 (nine) Glaucous Gulls, with 5 in a loafing flock at Ditfield, another flying around in the bay there and 3 together in South Harbour (alongside an Iceland Gull) amongst a group of gulls feeding around the tideline. That's the highest Glaucous Gull count on Fair Isle since 1996 (although somewhat short of the record count of 300 on 24th November 1969!). Interestingly (well, sort of) 1996 was also the year I saw two Harlequins at Girvan (the first of three mentions of that species in this blog post...).
Iceland Gull riding the waves in South Harbour (and doing so a lot more successfully than the Great Black-back to its left!).
The 3 Tundra Bean Geese reappeared for the first time since 1st January and other typical winter fodder included Merlin, Snow Bunting and Peregrine (the latter being the first of the year).
Peek-a-boo. The three Tundra Bean Geese that have presumably been lurking in a ditch or back of a field somewhere for the last week or so. 
Merlin at Upper Stoneybrek shortly before it went off chasing a Snow Bunting.
Field views of the first Peregrine of the year.
So, we've survived the first big blow (thanks to everyone who got in touch to check we were ok), and the forecast tonight is 'only' a violent storm 11. We've got some strong westerly winds forecast for the next wee while, but hopefully enough of a calming in the weather mid-week to let me get down to a meeting in Aberdeen (just ten minutes or so walk from the Harlequin that turned up a few days ago...). Perhaps there could be more white-wingers turning up soon, I'm not sure that westerly gales in January will bring much else, but who knows, after all 11th January is the 50th anniversary of a pair of Harlequin (I'm working on the Beetlejuice theory that because I've mentioned it three times, a Harlequin should turn up here now) and the 45th anniversary of Great Bustard on Fair Isle...
Not really relevant to this blog post, but here's a picture of a Woodcock in the Obs garden in December. Very small numbers of this species probably winter on the isle.
The light and sea at this time of the year provide a constantly changing display that is just one of the reasons that Fair Isle is a special place to live in the winter (picture: S.Parnaby).

Monday, 5 January 2015

Happy New Birds (and some old friends from 2014)

Happy New Year to you all. It’s been a rather blustery start to the year, with some strong winds, heavy rain showers, a bit of hail and a rather nice display of Northern Lights.
A visit to North Light on the night of 4th January failed to produce any of the hoped for Northern Lights, but despite it being too cloudy for any aurora, my Dad still managed to get arty with his camera (photo: D.Parnaby Snr).

The Christmas festivities have seen a Panto, Carol Service, Guising, New Year Party, 'Christmas Tree' party, another New Year Party and a good deal of socialising besides. We're back to work now though, with Directflight taking bookings for 2015, so plenty of calls and emails to get through about people staying at the Obs this year as well as report writing etc as we look forward to what is bound to be another exciting year on Fair Isle.
Birding has produced some decent bits and bobs, but actually very little that hasn’t been lingering since the back end of 2014. The Buzzard is the pick of the bunch amongst those, in fact it’s such a scarce bird in Shetland that it has been added to the local description list at the start of 2015 – so it becomes our first description of the year, despite having been present since October! Three Tundra Bean Geese (re?)appeared on 28th December and also made it to the New Year (although they have been dropped as a local description species after several influxes in recent years), whilst other highlights include Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Mealy Redpoll, Water Rail, Merlin and, more unusually, two Sparrowhawk, amongst the 48 species now recorded in 2015 (thanks to Logan for the regular text updates during the last few days letting me know how he was getting on with building the year list up).
A wintering male Sparrowhawk was joined by this immature female from early January, which became the first bird to be ringed on the isle in 2015 when it was caught in the Plantation today (photo: Dave Parnaby Snr).
So, whilst things are relatively quiet, I’ll have a quick review of a few things from 2014, starting with some darvic-ringed wildfowl that were seen by quite a few of our visitors. It was a good year for sightings of these individually marked birds, with the first two being Whooper Swans ‘Yellow BTB’ and ‘Yellow BTD’ that were both ringed in Iceland on 5th August 2013 (and seen again in Iceland on 20th April 2014) before being seen on Fair Isle on 29th September 2014. The next Whooper to be individually identified in a strong autumn passage of the species was ‘Red BLL’, ringed in February 2012 at Martin Mere WWT (in Lancs), next seen in December 2013 at Welney (Norfolk) before turning up on Fair Isle on 7th October.  Long-staying Whooper Swans on Fair Isle rarely do well (there are only about seven years where birds have successfully overwintered and two of those years were a bird that hung around with domestic geese!), so when BLL was still present with a couple other Whoopers at the start of November and ignored the chance to head south with a few small groups of her species that moved through the island, it didn’t look good. Indeed, with the death of her occasional companion on 24th November it seemed only a matter of time before BLL also succumbed. However, one islander took pity on BLL and went out every day with food (to the extent that we had our own mini-version of the WWT ‘swan lake’ events, with BLL flying in every day at the same time to the field where she was being fed) and this did the job as she was last seen on 1st December, having apparently continued her migration.

BLL pictured in late October by Ciaran Hatsell. Keep your eyes open for her in Norfolk (and elsewhere) as we'd love to know where she's gone.

Also of interest was the flock of 130+ Barnacle Geese grounded on Fair Isle by poor weather from 6th October for a few days. Amongst these, we were able to pick out four darvic rings: NAP, SAZ, SID and PVI. NAP was ringed as a female gosling at Aalesund (Norway) on 2nd August 1996 (making her older than some of our staff!), SAZ (the partner of NAP) was ringed as an adult male at the same site in July 2000, with both birds having not been seen since spring migration through Norway in 2013. PVI was ringed as an adult female in July 1999 and was last seen in March 2014 at RSPB Mersehead. Despite the name, SID was actually a female, ringed as a yearling in July 2000 and last seen on spring migration in Norway in 2014. Interestingly, the last sighting of SID in winter was at WWT Caerlaverock in November 2011, whilst SAZ last winter record was from the same site in December 2009 – so I wonder where they now spend the winter? Many thanks to the WWT for getting back to us so quickly with the details of these records.
Part of the Barnacle Goose flock that contained the darvic-ringed birds.
FIBO 2013 Annual Report - out now. The front cover features a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll photographed by Steve Arlow.
On another subject entirely, the 2013 Annual Report is now available, with copies having been sent out to FOFI members in the autumn. If you’d like a copy, please send a cheque for £12 (which includes p&p to UK addresses) or phone with your card details.  As well as the systematic list, ringing report, seabird report and monthly summary there are write-ups on the remarkable Swinhoe’s Petrel records (including a paper on biometric, sound and DNA analysis), Red-eyed Vireo, Sykes’s Warbler and Collared Flycatcher, a short paper on DNA in modern birding by Professor Martin Collinson and plenty more besides.
Some of the displays of Aurora have been pretty impressive (more so than my camera allows me to show here), always one of the highlights of a winter on Fair Isle.

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