Thursday, 18 September 2014

Falling Into Place

17th September
Well, the sun didn’t exactly come out, but the rain eased from around 6am and the cloud starting lifting (although it lingered around the higher ground, causing the cancellation of flights for the second day) resulting in birds being able to find the island and being able to be found by a dried off Wardening team.
Perhaps surprisingly, there was no real new rarity amongst the many birds that had arrived, although the Pallid Harrier remained (and the Gadwall was relocated!). Several scarcities including a Richard’s Pipit (heard in the fog over Ward Hill; the first of the autumn), Little Bunting (unringed, so not yesterday’s bird), 5 Yellow-browed Warbler, 4 Barred Warbler, 3 Red-breasted Flycatcher, Common Rosefinch and a Lapland Bunting. The real highlight though was the variety and increased number of migrants, with highest counts of the autumn so far being posted by several species, including: 68 Song Thrush, 26 Chaffinch, 29 Blackcap (including 10 ringed at the Obs, suggesting that even more were probably lurking around the island),  17 Grey Heron, 13 Goldcrest, 13 Chiffchaff, 11 Whinchat, 9 Robin, 9 Redstart, 6 Tree Pipit, 6 Lesser Whitethroat, 5 Brambling, 5 Jack Snipe and 4 Redwing whilst 4 Dunnocks and a Mealy Redpoll were the first records since the spring. Kestrel numbers were impressive, with one of the highest ever counts seeing 13 recorded, with a Sparrowhawk also newly arrived (and 2 Hen Harriers and a Peregrine lingering and adding to the raptor haul). Also adding to the variety were the first Woodpigeon since early August, the first Sand Martin of the month and the second Spotted Flycatcher of the autumn.
In common with the rest of the UK, we're enjoying a good spell of Red-breasted Flycatchers, with one of today's birds trapped and going on to show well at the Obs. The pale wing-bar shows that this is a first-year bird.
Wader numbers were generally down, but there was an increase in Golden Plover to 94, whilst a cracking breeding-plumaged Grey Plover on Meoness was the first record of this species since 2012 (so was technically our ‘bird of the day’, although that accolade may have gone to the Citrine Wagtail heard in flight over Pund had it been relocated, hopefully that’s one for tomorrow…).
The conditions look set to be fairly similar tomorrow and, although prolonged easterly winds often see falls ‘blow themselves out’, I suspect that we haven’t seen the last of the new birds associated with this weather yet. Will it be more common migrants, more new species for the year list, or maybe that mega that this weather system has been threatening? It seems to be a feature of Fair Isle falls that they often produce the bigger numbers of commoner birds first, with the rarities maybe following a day or two later, in which case, the next couple of days could prove quite interesting...

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The sun'll come out tomorrow...

11th-16th September
Yellow-browed Warbler by Ciaran Hatsell
With the wind starting in the south, then switching to SE and E later in the period, it looked promising and there have indeed been some good birds. The weather hasn’t been all favourable though, with fog dominating the first three days, clearing on 14th-15th but being replaced by low cloud and heavy rain on 16th, which severely hampered attempts at birding. The forecast for continued easterly winds but drier, brighter conditions on 17th has got everyone on Fair Isle rather excited though...
The Pallid Harrier remained throughout and could occasionally be seen in the company of one of the two Hen Harriers that have been present since 14th, whilst the other rarity, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, remained until 15th at least (it has been quite elusive at times, so could easily have been overlooked today).  Technically also a highlight was the Gadwall that lingered to 15th, whilst a smart Pomarine Skua that cruised over the Good Shepherd on 13th was the first of the year (they are less than annual on Fair Isle, although this is the third year in succession with a record from the Good Shepherd – the last land-based record was back in 2009).
There has been a good showing of scarcities as well, with a Little Bunting (found sheltering in the Quoy garage!) on 16th, daily sightings of Barred Warblers (peaking at 5 on 11th), up to 2 Common Rosefinch and the first Red-breasted Flycatchers (daily from 14th) and Yellow-browed Warblers of the autumn (or the year, in the latter’s case).  The latter arrived on the 14th, with numbers peaking at nine the following day during a decent fall of warblers including 50 Willow Warbler, 14 Blackcap, 12 Garden Warbler, 6 Chiffchaff, 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 3 Whitethroat and Reed Warbler, along with 6 Goldcrest, 2 Redstart, 2 Whinchat, 5 Pied Flycatcher, 2 flava Wagtail, Tree Pipit, 3 Song Thrush, 2 Brambling and the first 2 Redwing, 2 Snow Buntings, Chaffinch, Jack Snipe, Great Northern Diver and Goosander of the autumn, along with an impressive 1087 Meadow Pipit  – a canny day all in all, and a sign of some of what’s to come when the conditions improve…

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Ginger Nuts!

6th-10th September
There are certain things that you can predict when birding on Fair Isle, but part of the fun is definitely the unexpected things that happen with surprising regularity.
So far this autumn, we’ve had some really good birding when the easterly winds have occurred, bringing some good numbers of scarcities and common migrants, although not actually that many rarities. However, westerly or northerly winds have brought us Paddyfield, Arctic and 2 Blyth’s Reed Warblers, showing that you should never be downhearted when birding Fair Isle even in the ‘wrong’ winds. The fact that the Wardening team go out on census whatever the weather (well, more or less –constant rain and gales sometimes limit us a bit) certainly helps as well of course (and does make me wonder what I’ve missed on previous local patches when I’ve maybe neglected the not so good weather, although I suppose there aren’t really any other local patches like Fair Isle).
The last few days have seen something similar, with light easterlies on 6th not bringing in that much of note, then a day of horrible north-westerlies and rain on 7th followed by another breezy north-westerly on 8th that saw a rather fantastic Pallid Harrier discovered mid-morning, which went on to show well until mid-afternoon on 10th at least.
The 4th Pallid Harrier for Fair Isle, with previous records in May 1931, 12th-15th August 2011 and 11th-14th September 2011. A bird seen in June 2014 and initially believed to be this species was later reidentified as a Montagu's Harrier (which would only be the third Fair Isle record of that species if it is accepted as such). Photo: Ciaran Hatsell
After having first flown over Richard’s head at Da Water, it was found independently by Craig Round of Speyside Wildlife and Deryk Shaw (who was working in his garden and had it hover over his polytunnel!) before eventually proving twitchable near Midway as it was watched devouring a Meadow Pipit (with over 500 present, there was plenty to spare!).
At times, the views were absolutely stunning. It may not be the Mega it was 20 or so years ago in terms of records, but as gorgeous rarities go, it still rates up there as one of the best. Photo: Ciaran Hatsell
An absolutely belting bird, it was surely appropriate that it was found just one day after 'Redhead Day' (held in the Netherlands), celebrating all things ginger.
Having a shake after eating a Meadow Pipit in full view of all the Obs staff and guests. Photo: Ciaran Hatsell
It was the fourth species to be added to the year list in September and, curiously enough, they all began with ‘P’ (following Paddyfield Warbler, Pectoral Sandpiper and Pintail).
The 9th saw light west winds again and a few new birds including a Red-backed Shrike at Wirvie (which was still present on 10th), then a switch in the winds on the afternoon of the 10th to light SE, saw us wondering what the next new bird would be, and if the ‘P’ theme continued, then surely Pechora Pipit or Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler could be on the cards. But no, in this ever unpredictable autumn, the easterly winds actually dropped in an American bird, with a Buff-breasted Sandpiper picked up as it flew over a visitor who’d just got out the car to try to see some Risso’s Dolphins that Ciaran had found off Da Burrian as we were driving past!
A smart find by Alex Ash, who commented that the wader that had just zipped over our heads looked 'a bit Buff-breasty'.
It went on to associate with a Golden Plover flock, although would drift off on its own on occasion. It's the 15th Buff-breasted Sandpiper for Fair Isle, although there have been records in 7 of the previous 9 years. All except one of the previous birds were found in September (the exception being in October 2013). 
The Risso's Dolphins that started it all. A group of at least four were off North Light the previous day.
So another slightly crazy rarity given the conditions, but surely with the forecast for south-easterlies, we’ll see some more conventional species heading our way soon. It looks like we’re potentially getting some rather promising winds stretching right across the North Sea and beyond, with Sunday onward looking best and a lot of next week hopefully enjoying similar conditions. As we approach mid-September, the possibilities start to seem endless…
A reminder of what could be coming up, with the BOURC today officially announcing that the Eastern Grasshopper Warbler found on 20th September 2011 has been accepted onto Category A of the British List. Although it is currently classified as 'just' a subspecies, it could prove a useful one to have seen, as a future split is certainly a possiblity. Maybe the next new Locustella for Britiain will be something more unequivocal, with the oft-predicted Gray's Grasshopper Warbler surely overdue in the UK.  Photo: Will Miles

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Happy as Paddy

5th September 
Ciaran did well to find a rather skulking rarity despite all the dense, tangled growth (the Lower Leogh roses).
A grey and drizzly start to the day gave way to some glorious sunshine and, although the wind was a light westerly, the conditions were clearly encouraging birds to move, with Meadow Pipits the the most visible species (small flocks could be seen coming in over the sea from the east during a quick seawatch from Buness for example), the final total ending up at an impressive 619 birds. Other common species on the increase included 143 Wheatears and 70 Skylark.
Amongst the new migrants caught up in the excitement, the highlight was definitely the Paddyfield Warbler found at Lower Leogh by Ciaran during morning census.
Recorded for the 3rd succesive year, this represents the 23rd Paddyfield Warbler for Fair Isle (following the first for the UK found in 1925), with the majority of records falling in September. It's our earliest autumn occurence though, with 13 of the autumn records coming after the midway point in September and the only other records at this season on 8th Sep 1993, 9th Sep 1995 and 13th Sep 2008. Incidentally, North Ronaldsay's bird (found the day before) was still present, so was obviously not the same individual.
The Pectoral Sandpiper went on to show very well on Da Water, with the Short-toed Lark still at Kenaby (although it was less cooperative).
Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper on Da Water (photo by Ciaran Hatsell)
Short-toed Lark. Species present for comparison: sheep. (photo by Ciaran Hatsell).
Other scarcities were represented by a new Wryneck, 3 Barred Warblers (including another bird caught in the Gully), 5 Common Rosefinch at Quoy (with the same ones having been seen going to roost at Schoolton the day before), 2 Lapland Buntings and 3 Dotterel on Ward Hill. The count of the latter species is actually one of the highest autumn counts of this species, which is more frequent in spring and for which occurences in this season tend to be of one or two birds.
Saturday should be another fine day, although it looks like northerly gales and rain on Sunday before a spell of westerlies. Although it is likely to see a reduction in migrants, we're in the autumn, it's Fair Isle and anything is possible.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Dazzling Pectacular

31st August – 3rd September
You're barred.
The pleasant conditions on Sunday did indeed bring a good selection of good migrants and, whilst there was no headline-grabbing rarity (although let’s face it, we’ve not done badly for that sort of thing so far this year, so we’re not complaining), the birding was very enjoyable indeed. The highlight was probably the remarkable 10 (ten) Barred Warblers, with three ringed during the day, (10 Barred Warblers as a day count has been bettered or equalled only by 12 on 10th and 14 on 14th September 1969 and 10 on 24th August 1983) with other notable migrants including 4 Wryneck, a smart male Red-backed Shrike, 2 Wood Warbler and the Short-toed Lark still present (until 4th).
Barred Warbler is a distinctive beast, even in flight.
The good autumn for Wrynecks continues.
Counts of commoner species included 59 Willow and 23 Garden Warbler, giving the island a good ‘fall’ feeling. A similar spread of species was noted over the next few days, with the odd Common Rosefinch thrown in for good measure (four were ringed at the Obs over 2nd-3rd) and a light turnover of other migrants including the first autumn records of Lapland Bunting (1st) and Goldcrest (2nd).
Garden Warblers registered a good count and, whilst some lurked suspiciously in thick vegetation, others were more showy.
Wheatear numbers have been unremarkable, but what has been noticeable is that most (or possibly all) of the half a dozen or so trapped in the last few days have been Greenland birds (subspecies leucorhoa). This monstrous male had a wing of 110mm, around 2cm longer than the smallest European birds.
A few Sooty Shearwaters have been noted from the Good Shepherd and wader passage continues to be reasonable, with the highlight found in bizarre circumstances on the night of 3rd. Having wandered down to the Havens but found it was too breezy for trying to catch Storm Petrels, we decided to try our hand at dazzling some waders or wildfowl. Despite the cloud, it was still quite a bright night and we weren’t having much luck, though when we got to Muckle Uri Geo at 10.30pm a few birds looked they might be catchable. One in particular was noticeable for its bright mantle stripes, a Snipe maybe? Nope: it turned its head and the bill was mid length and slightly decurved, ‘that looks rather Pec Sandy’ was the quote at the time and as we approached closer, everything seemed to fit, although we couldn’t really believe we may have found Fair Isle’s 33rd (not 32nd as I think I put on Facebook earlier, sorry) Pectoral Sandpiper by torchlight! Although we managed to get within two metres of the bird, we didn’t get to catch it, but the distinctive little ‘prĂ¼t’ call it gave was further confirmation. Thankfully, we didn’t have to rely on a description form with such entries as ‘Optics used: torch’ as the Pec Sand was present again at South Light this morning.
The Pectoral Sandpiper (feeding on the South Light football pitches this morning between a Dunlin and a Ringed Plover) is the first of the year.
The rise in occurences of Pectoral Sandpiper in the UK has been mirrored on Fair Isle, where the species has now been recorded for five consecutive years.
So far today, conditions have been potentially better for migrants than we’d been expecting and there are a few new bits in, but more updates on that later, both here and at the somewhat less waffley and more fact-packed:

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Subalpine Surprises

Subalpine Warbler is a scarce migrant to Fair Isle with 85 records (including the five this year that await formal acceptance by the relevant committees). All bar four have been seen in the spring and there have been 50 males, 31 females and 3 left unsexed.
So far, so simple, but various papers have been published looking at the relationships of the differing subspecies found within the Subalpine Warbler complex, culminating in Lars Svensson (2013) proposing a three-way split, namely:

Western Subalpine Warbler Sylvia inornata, comprising S.i.inornata of northwest Africa and S.i.iberiae of Iberia and parts of southern France and northwest Italy. The males of this species are generally extensively orange-brown below and both sexes show a small, rounded white tip to the second outermost tail feather (T5).

Eastern Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans, comprising S.c.cantillans of southern Italy and S.c.albistriata of northeast Italy, Greece, western Turkey and the Balkans. The males of this species are generally brick-red on the throat (more orange on S.c.cantillans) and upper breast, with usually a more distinct cut-off from the white breast than Western Subalpine Warbler. T5 shows a distinctive pointed white wedge.

Moltoni’s Warbler Sylvia subalpina Found in Corsica, Sardinia and northern Italy, the males are more salmon-pink below than the other species and both sexes show a similar tail pattern to Western Subalpine Warbler, making identification of females a somewhat unknown quantity.

Most of the Fair Isle records are currently unassigned to any of the three species (being accepted as ‘Subalpine Warbler’), but prior to this year, at least 13 had been attributed to Eastern Subalpine Warbler. [It’s worth noting that the recent taxonomic work has seen the various scientific names changed around a bit (cantillans previously being used for Western birds for example).]
Annual records of Subalpine Warbler on Fair Isle (there is also a record from 1908). The species is now a virtually expected scarce annual migrant on Fair Isle, with the last blank year back in 1999.
This year has been a very good one for Subalpine Warblers on Fair Isle, with five birds recorded. One of these (a male at Schoolton on 13th June), wasn’t trapped but was a fairly clear Western Subalpine Warbler based on the extent and tone of the colour of the underparts and the tail pattern.
The Schoolton bird showed very well (often alongside a Blyth's Reed Warbler!).
A bird at Burkle from 3rd May to 21st May also showed the underpart colour and tail pattern (and also call) of Western Subalpine Warbler.
The Burkle bird was heard singing on several occasions and was typical of the extended stay of several individuals of this species in recent years on Fair Isle (photo by Deryk Shaw).
DNA analysis of the other three birds has thrown up some surprising results:

First of all was a bird trapped late in the evening of 25th April, which lingered to 2nd May, although it was rather elusive as it toured the island and was seen on only three dates during this spell. It was largely lacking its tail when it was found, although the regrowing feathers appeared not to show any white wedge. The restricted pinky throat patch appeared a closer match to Eastern though and given the damage to the tail, it was provisionally identified as such, with the knowledge that a DNA sample would be able to confirm (or otherwise) the identification, allowing the bird (caught just before dusk and very light, presumably having just arrived on the island) to be released as quickly as possible. The DNA results have now come back and showed the bird to be a Western Subalpine Warbler after all.
Note the typical tail pattern of Western Subalpine Warbler, but the pinkish colour restrictedto the throat and upper breast, more typical of Eastern. The lighting in the ringing room may well have effected the apparent tone of the pink colour.
A male identified in the field as Eastern Subalpine Warbler on 8th May was trapped in the Gully and the identity confirmed by the distinctive tail pattern. DNA analysis went a stage further though and showed it to belong to the subspecies S.c.cantillans, the first confirmed record of this subspecies in Britain. DNA analysis of the first British specimen of Eastern Subalpine Warbler (a male collected on Fair Isle in May 1908) showed it to belong to S.c.albistriata (Collinson et al 2014), so Fair Isle now boasts the first British records of both subspecies of Eastern Subalpine Warbler.
It's interesting to compare the extent (and tone) of the underpart colour of this Eastern bird compared to that of the Western bird above. This subspecies was previously lumped with Western birds and, apart from showing the distinctive tail pattern of Eastern, it is easy to see why.
Finally, a female trapped on 16th May, which lingered at the Obs until 27th May showed the rounded white tip to T5 that suggested it was a Western Subalpine Warbler, however, DNA analysis has proved that the bird was a MOLTONI'S WARBLER. There is currently only one accepted record of this species from Britain, a bird collected on St Kilda in 1894 that was identified from DNA analysis (Collinson et al 2014), with two further records (both from Shetland in spring 2009) currently being assessed by the BBRC (Stoddart 2014).
Presumably, Moltoni's Warbler has been overlooked in the UK, especially as females are apparently virtually identical to Western Subalpine Warbler. However, since a popular bird on Unst in 2009 that brought the key identification features  (particularly of the distinctive males) to the attention of many British birders, I'm not aware of any other claims of Moltoni's, which suggests that they may well still turn out to be rather rare. 
Assuming that the three-way split is adopted by the BOU, this will prove to be a bonus tick for anyone who enjoyed this showy little bird (and adds to the already very impressive list of very rare birds recorded on Fair Isle in the spring).
So, a somewhat surprising turn of events and an example of how birding is being aided by advancing technology. Perhaps we may be able to contribute to using confirmed records such as these to try to identify ways in which female Moltoni’s may be identifiable in the field (the distinctive Wren-like rattling call of this bird was not heard).

The next stage for FIBO is to try to identify as many of our previous records as possible, which is where we are appealing for help from anyone who has photographs (particularly of the tail pattern), field notes or sound recordings of any records of Subalpine Warbler from before 2011 (or the female in April 2011). Please get in touch if you do as we’d love to be able to attribute as many of our previous records as possible to the correct species.

Many thanks to Professor J.Martin Collinson for the work on the DNA analysis and, of course, to my Wardening team and the others who were responsible for finding the birds in the first place!
Collinson, J.M., McGowan, R.Y. & Irestedt, M. 2014. First British records of 'Eastern' and 'Western' Subalpine Warblers. Brit Birds 107: 282-297
Stoddart, A. 2014. Assessing and recording Subalpine Warblers. Brit Birds 107: 420-424
Svensson, L. 2013. Subalpine Warbler variation and taxonomy. Brit Birds 106: 651-668

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Sunday Funday?

30th August
Willow Warblers have been around in decent numbers in recent days, with most crofts and geos holding the odd one or two.
Arrivals continued in the pleasant birding conditions on Saturday and, with the team out in the field all day, there was a pleasantly full feeling to Log. The highlight was our first Short-toed Lark of the autumn, found by Richard on Meoness, with other scarcities represented by 3 each of Wryneck and Common Rosefinch and 2 Barred Warblers.
Recent Rosefinch sightings have mostly been from the few small patches of oats around the crofts, or the dense rose bushes in various gardens. These two were found on the slightly atypical habitat of the cliffs of Copper Geo before moving to Moss Geo.
Grasshopper Warbler, Redstart and Blackcap (3) also made their seasonal debuts, whilst notable counts of other species included 5 Little Stints (the highest count for 6 years), 13 Pied Flycatcher, 44 Willow Warbler, 4 Garden Warbler, 3 Whinchat, 3 Fieldfare, 2 Swift and a Reed Warbler (which was trapped in the Gully, bringing the number of Reed Warblers ringed this year level with that of Blyth’s Reed).
Little Stints are annual on Fair Isle (just about), but often only one or two are seen a year, so today's count was notable. This one was on the wet flush behind North Naaversgill.
Most of the Pied Flycatchers were on the sheltered west cliffs, this bird was at Dronger.
It’s been a good year for easterly winds, but that seems set to come to a (hopefully temporary) end from tomorrow, with westerlies forecast for the next week and beyond (not that they are always without birds of course). However, the forecast for today does look rather promising indeed, with easterlies stretching all the way from the far end of Scandinavia.
Taken from the brilliant, this shows where our winds are coming from this morning.
For a few days now we’ve been predicting a classic ‘Sunday lunchtime rare’, I certainly think we’ll have more birds today, but is this very pleasant birding spell about to be topped by something even better? We’ll find out soon…

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