Thursday, 30 June 2011

Killer Whales, killer views!

Perhaps more so than any other call, the cry of 'Killer Whales!' down the phone is guaranteed to empty the Obs. Soup was left cooling in the bowls as Will's shift during the 24 hour Guillemot feeding watch was interrupted by a group of Orca offshore from Roskillie. Soon there were people dashing about all over the place as the animals showed incredibly well then made their way to the south of the island where the rounders match was temporarily abandoned and the island kids got to join in the excitement. After a prolonged show, they headed south out to sea. Wow.

A big bull Killer Whale being followed by two synchronised females as they head between Buness and Sheep Rock

The group (minus the bull who remained distantly offshore) then came into South Harbour where they were hunting seals, although apparently without success.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Summer Sun.

We hear that there's a heatwave in parts of the country? It's not quite reached that up here (in fact yesterday, at 12.1 degrees, Fair Isle was the coolest place in Britain) but as Dave Wheeler the island's resident weatherman has pointed out, we reached a very warm and pleasant 14 degrees today with 14 hours of warm sunshine and the island is looking generally beautiful. We look set to get a few more days of good weather yet, so hopefully everything will run smoothly for the official opening on Saturday.

Strange lumpy clouds yesterday that look like they've crashed into something on the horizon and are piling up.
Today saw much bluer skies with just the odd wisp overhead.
Bird wise it is about as quiet as would be expected at this time of year, although a few birds are obviously starting to move south with juvenile Cuckoo (on Sunday) and five young Siskins (today) showing the wonders of migration. These birds would have been eggs a few weeks ago, probably in a nest in Scandinavia and yet are now crossing the North Sea by themselves (and in the case of the Cuckoo at least, without anyone to tell it where to go). 

Spot the Wardens. Will and Jason counting gull nests on Goorn (notice the angry gulls overhead).

Home sweet home. The Obs in its peaceful and picturesque setting.
Tonight saw one of the big events of the year with the school's end of term concert - a fantastic showing of music, singing and various other talents from the kids and a chance to wish good luck to those who are moving on to Anderson High in Lerwick next year. The packed hall (I didn't get an exact count, but there were more people in the audience than live on the island) all appreciated the pupil's efforts, whilst I surely wasn't the only one to marvel at the Lego electric guitar!

Grace enjoyed the concert!
It might be a little while until the next update as the next few days are bound to be busy, but who knows, maybe I'll be able to report something interesting turning up soon (it felt like Bee-eater weather today!).

Sunday, 26 June 2011


A bright start to yesterday gave way to blustery SE winds and persistent rain, far more autumnal than summer weather (but then we are past the longest day I suppose). This morning is much birghter, but there is nothing new in to report so far. Perhaps the big one is lurking out there somewhere though...
An entertaining check of the breeding bonxies yesterday saw me take a couple of mighty boots to the head, the first time I've had a proper kicking off them. For those that haven't had the pleasure, it's certainly a good deterrent measure when it comes to protecting their eggs and chicks!

Feet down ready to kick, screaming and generally appearing as a terrifying 'tank of a bird' (good description Jason!).

That's what all the fuss is about, a Bonxie chick.

Friday, 24 June 2011

No 'arm done! *

There’s been a bit of drama for the family today when a slip from Grace saw her unable to use her right elbow properly and leaving her in some discomfort. The good folk at Direct Flight managed to squeeze Susannah and Grace onto the flight to Lerwick this morning and the Doctors popped the ligaments back into place. They’re both back on the island in time for tonight’s Fair Isle Thursday (it’s always a Fair Isle Thursday, whatever day it is actually on) with a talk by Dave Wheeler about the landscapes of Fair Isle and music from Fridarey, always an entertaining night.

Grace putting her newly fixed arm to good use.
Seabird work continues at full throttle (although that’s perhaps not the best phrase to describe the boat work as the Zodiac’s engine seems a bit temperamental at best), although still with the same sad results of dying auk chicks and virtually absent Shags.
A long way down (and back up again).
South Naaversgill as viewed from the bottom.
Searching for seabird nests.
Jason reflects on another job well done.
A female Red-backed Shrike at Barkland yesterday was the latest scarcity to turn up and today’s sightings included a rather unseasonal Redwing. More south-easterly winds are forecast for tomorrow, so perhaps there’s still time for something else…

* Punny headline © my Grandpa Parnaby!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The summer days continue with more seabird work, although yesterday was a slightly depressing one as it became apparent that Shag numbers in the population plots are well down and that the auks are struggling, with a number of dead and dying Guillemot and Razorbill chicks found.

Migration is not quite at an end, with Blackcap and Spotted Flycatcher both caught and ringed yesterday and the trap rounds always throw up the chance of a good catch of Starlings, with the youngsters not yet as smart as the adult birds in avoiding the traps.

It’s also busy around the Obs as we prepare for our ‘official opening’ in just over a week’s time. Thankfully, with such a new building handed over to us in such a good condition by Hollie and Deryk, there aren’t many big jobs that need doing (although an official opening in the winter would have meant it didn’t clash with such a busy time for guests and seabird work!). One of the remaining tasks has been installing Sheila Scott’s artwork in the Visitor Centre, it’s looking really good in there now, so I’ll get some pictures posted when it’s all finished.

In the meantime, there are seabirds to count, migrants to look for and grounds to be tidied, so I’d best be off.
Charlotte (our domestic volunteer) and Ed do a great job in the garden and, who knows, maybe the blue overall look will catch on down south when Charlotte heads home? 

Moon over Sheep Rock, despite the Simmer Dim, we still get a bit of nightime here.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Longest Day.

Midsummer on Fair Isle, the party rages on at South Light, although without the wardens who are rather caught up in the seabird season, so have all chickened out early! We’re slowly ticking off the list of jobs as the summer progresses, with the good news coming from Gannets and Fulmars, both of which have shown population increases. Not all species are doing so well though; I watched a young Kittiwake today pecking repeatedly at its parent’s bill hoping for food. It’s prospects looked bleak at best, not least as its sibling was already lying dead in the nest beside it. As a Warden it’s hard to watch this kind of thing. The flat calm sea, with virtually no birds fishing in it told its own story and really should make people think about what we’re doing to our most valuable habitat.

On a slightly more cheery note, migration is continuing slowly with the occasional new migrant still being pulled out the traps including two Marsh Warblers this week, one of which has spent a few nights singing in the Observatory garden.

This Fair Isle Wren has been singing its heart out on the Obs fence recently, as the staff whose windows face out onto its territory will tell you!

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Vaadal do nicely.

The Hobby, Turtle Dove and Mealy Redpoll all remain, a breeding plumaged Great Northern Diver was in South Harbour but bird of the day (so far) is the young female Bluethroat caught in the Vaadal trap.

Jason admiring the Bluethroat (or is it the other way round?).
There's a cocktail party at the Obs tonight, but hopefully there will be some more birds to report before then.
A dreadful day's weather on Thursday will not have helped the breeding birds, although today was quite the reverse with a beautiful sunny day with just a hint of easterly wind. A small movement of birds saw several skeins of Greylag head south, our first Tufted Ducks of June appear, the first Bar-tailed Godwit of the year over Meoness and a small fall of migrants with Reed Warbler (singing in the Obs garden) and Mealy Redpoll the highlights amongst a scattering of common warblers. The day felt as though a biggy should have turned up, but the lingering Hobby and Turtle Dove were the closest we got.
Maalie counting continues apace; with 27,000 pairs last time, we know we have got a lot of work to do. Regular seabird monitoring continues, with plenty of that still to come as well. Puffins are starting to put on much better performances for visitors now, so we should also start to get more colour-ring sightings. Breeding bird news includes our first Eider ducklings of the year seen on Thursday.

Time for a nap, a Herring Gull chick looks exhausted after emerging from its egg.
Turtle Power. First seen on Meoness on Wednesday this Turtle Dove was showing well in the Lower Stoneybrek crop strip today.
Even when there are few migrants around, there is plenty to see, with the island being a beautiful place to live and work. It's hard to capture it all in pictures (you really have to come and see for yourself!), but here are a few images from the last few days.
The Thrift is putting on a fantastic display; the football pitch near South Light is the pinkest one I have ever seen!
A misty evening over the west cliffs.
The sun setting as viewed from the base of Malcolm's Head.
Finally, I'd just like to mention a couple of words about Billy Shiel, the boatman of the Farne Islands in Northumberland, who sadly passed away in the early hours of Friday morning (see Many people who are interested in Fair Isle will also have been to the Farnes and may well have met Billy. It was a privilege to have known him in my years working there, he was a character in every sense of the word and his passing has left a gap that will never quite be filled. Our sincere condolences to his family.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Arrivals continue.

A busy day of seabird work, but a few new birds in, with my highlight being a Hobby that whizzed underneath me as I stoon on the cliffs at Furse. The steady easterly breeze hinted at birds coming in and a Turtle Dove at Meoness was certainly a new arrival. An unstreaked Acrocephalus warbler at Chalet proved elusive although a brief snatch of song hinted at Reed rather than Marsh.
After many hours wandering and miles covered, it turned out that my best birding came from the van as I headed home from counting Fulmars in South Harbour. The Turtle Dove relocated to the road at Quoy, the Acro was seen briefly at Chalet, the Woodchat reappeared on the road at Field and the Hobby was found on a fencepost near the Shrike, not a bad few minute's driving! 

Yesterday's Woodchat remained, but didn't show itself until 6pm when it was in the Field area again.
A Hobby fly past at Furse was all too brief, but the bird was relocated near Field later.
You aint seen me, roit? Ringed Plover chick hiding near Wirvie Burn.
Away from the migrants, it was pleasing to spend the day wandering amongst baby birds on the uplands, with Wheatears, Meadow Pipits and Twite families abounding and careful searching amongst the heather finding Bonxie chicks and a variety of waders - all very pleasant.
The day ended with the breeze still blowing steadily from the east, so more birds are certainly possible, perhaps the switch back to westerlies on Friday will perform the usual trick of dropping something unusual in.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

How much wood could a woodchat chat, if a woodchat could chat wood.

Inner Stack from the North, how many Gannet nests can you count?
A busy time with seabird work continuing in between bouts of ferocious weather (lashing NE winds and rain can't be good for the nesting birds). Various productivity counts and population plots are continuing but the Gannet count is more or less over for the year, with the 4,000 pair barrier being broken for the first time on Fair Isle.
A happy twitch.
The easterly winds have also meant that we've been trying to make sure we get birding as much as possible in the hope of some more late migrants. The Blyth's Reed wasn't seen again, although three Marsh Warblers have put in an appearance during the last few days (including a ringed bird at the Obs that was presumably the one we'd trapped a few days earlier but had remained hidden in between appearances).
Star bird though was found this afternoon, when Will discovered a Woodchat Shrike at Chalet just before dinner. After disappearing for a while and disrupting the meal whilst it was searched for, it then reappeared just in time to disrupt Log as well - not that anybody was complaining as everyone enjoyed good views at Field.
Another new species was added to the year list when a Shoveler was seen at Utra scrapes although a Bar-headed Goose nearby failed to pass the test as a wild vagrant. The wind is back in the east tomorrow, hopefully not enough to stop the Good Shepherd sailing (we need the food order to come in!), but perhaps enough for a few more birds. Will the spring migration have time to stop before the autumn migration starts this year?!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Trap Happy!

Blyth's Reed Warbler in the hand (photo: Will Miles). Beautiful? We think so!
A day of Breeding Bird Survey, Guillemot monitoring, Fulmar monitoring, census and even a cheeky, but totally unproductive seawatch, saw us all kept rather busy. In amongst this were a great selection of birds, with the list slowly building through the day and the highlights including Blyth's Reed Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Icterine Warbler and two each of Black Redstart, Cuckoo and Quail.

The Heligoland traps have been busy today, with a recent quiet spell brought to an end with the trapping of an eclectic mix including the BRW, Cuckoo, Collared Dove, Mealy Redpoll, Redwing, a few Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitethroat. Most of them were 'bycatch' as Johan attempted to catch Starlings as part of his research, his patience was finally rewarded when he caught a few of his target species this evening!
It was Jason though who was the lucky Warden to pull the rarity out of the box though, as his solitary trap round was the one that produced the Blyth’s. It was instantly suspected as this species, but the name was barely whispered until the measurements confirmed it. Soon the red flag was flying as we rounded up guests and islanders to enjoy views in the hand. It was seen again briefly in the garden this evening, hopefully tomorrow will produce some decent field views.
With the wind forecast to be still in the east for a few days at least, perhaps there may be a few more good birds turning up – or is that just being greedy?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Going Greenish

After a few days of easterly, the wind has switched to the southwest and, as is often the way on Fair Isle, it is this change of wind direction that drops a few birds in. Tommy at Auld Haa phoned to say he had an Icterine Warbler and a phyllosc with wing bars in his garden. A few minutes later and Jason was on the scene to confirm Tommy's suspicions - Greenish Warbler! The bird showed well as it followed a feeding circuit around the front and back of Haa and across to Skerryholm. At one point it was chased off by the Icterine Warbler - they were the only two warblers I saw in the garden on my visit down there, a very Fair Isle experience! Another Icterine Warbler turned up at South Naaversgill and other birds today included Crossbill and Short-eared Owl, whilst a male Bluethroat was found yesterday by one of the islanders (seven year old Robyn!).
A lucky shot as it bounced past briefly alighting on a fence.

The supercilium meeting in front of the eye is a good ID pointer and this bird was also heard calling.

Ahoy there!

A slightly belated happy birthday to the FIBO Administrator (and my wife!) Susannah, who celebrated on Tuesday by getting up at 6am to prepare breakfast for guests leaving on the Good Shepherd and then had a full day of work in the kitchen, office and hall (setting up a stall for Becki and Charlotte to sell FIBO wares to the visiting cruise ship).
Busy waters as a cruise ship unloads its passengers by Zodiac shortly after the arrival of the Good Shepherd.
The evening was a bit different though as at 5.55pm we dashed out of the kitchen, brushed the chapatti flour off Susannah’s face and joined Frideray (the band based on Fair Isle) and Jimmy and Florrie Stout on a Zodiac to head out to the Clipper Odyssey.

The Clipper Odyssey awaits the arrivals from Fair Isle, we were even piped on board (with an enthusiastic, but random, selection of tunes that were not all appreciated by the ship's crew who had perhaps heard them a few too many times already!)

Frideray performing.
This rather nice cruise ship had sent around 100 guests from the travel company Adventure Canada ashore earlier in the day to enjoy Fair Isle. They all had a wonderful time finding out about the island's traditions, crafts, history and culture as well as getting some fantastic close ups of Puffins and even the Fair Isle Wren for a few of the keener birders. They were a lovely bunch of people and we all thoroughly enjoyed the evening of music, food, information and hospitality we received on board.

A happy Susannah heading home.
The following day they were due to explore the Aberdeenshire coast, landing just a few miles from where Susannah and I used to live! Thanks for the lovely evening guys and we hope the rest of your cruise went well.

An Australian couple on a Canadian voyage off Fair Isle, who own a car built in my home city of Sunderland! We were invited onto their table for dinner and had a very pleasant chat about everything from potato diseases to eating roadkill kangaroo! The tartan clothing was for a 'theme night' and the rather natty Fair Isle knitwear headband had just been bought from Hollie Shaw.
On the island, the spring migration has slowed down, although the easterly winds have kept our spirits high for something still to arrive. A Marsh Warbler was trapped earlier in the week, although this was perhaps slightly overshadowed by a Great Reed Warbler to the north of us and a Blyth’s Reed Warbler to the south (see the North Ron blog). Perhaps slightly more galling was the White-throated Robin in County Durham, I had that species as my prediction for one of Fair Isle’s big birds this year. The fact that it chose to turn up 20 miles from my home city (and I’ve had the usual messages from friends who have been to see it!) didn’t help. Still, as Jason pointed out, the rest of the UK is a big place and we can’t expect all the birds to turn up on Fair Isle!

Bon Voyage, the Clipper heads south.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


Yesterday was the first day since 23rd April that there were no Subalpine Warblers on the island, with Alby finally disappearing after a few days of becoming more elusive. Maybe he is just hiding after giving up on ever attracting a mate, perhaps he finally died (of a broken heart?), or maybe he finally realised that this wasn’t Turkey and headed back to where he should have been going in the first place.
However, before we had time to start missing him too much, another turned up at Schoolton today! Found by Nick and Elizabeth, this was also an ‘Eastern’ male, although it proved much more elusive and I only managed a brief view this evening. Nick was able to confirm this bird wasn’t ringed, so it was definitely a new bird and our fourth Subalpine Warbler of the year.
A blurry photo taken through the Schoolton kitchen window.
Our main job today was counting Kittiwakes, a six hour, round-island Zodiac trip and tremendous fun! We managed not to crash into anything and not even get too wet, although our claims that we’d had a hard day were scorned by Susannah and Carrie who had been left to help Ian with harrowing the crop strips and broadcast sowing seeds! We’re still adding up the figures, but it doesn’t look good for the Kittiwakes, with the dramatic decline of recent years apparently still continuing. News from Shetland generally doesn’t sound promising for seabirds this year and, although there’s still time for some things to improve, it looks like we’ll have to brace ourselves for a poor set of breeding figures.
On a lighter note, it looks like the easterly based winds are set to continue for a few days so a few more birds could well be on their way. As well as the Subalp, a scattering of common warblers were joined by a Marsh Warbler that was trapped in the Plantation this evening. I had predicted White-throated Robin as the big bird for Fair Isle this year, but Hartlepool have beaten us to it, so we’ll have to think of something else – Cinerous Bunting anyone?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Fun in the Sun.

Another lovely day, the spare engine was fixed, the Zodiac was seaworthy and off we went.
Monitoring Puffins on Greenholm (a small islet off the south of Fair Isle). Getting close to Fulmars is a constant danger, but Jason knows no fear!
Thanks to Deryk for helping out during the day.

A quick check of Guillemots on the way back showed that the ledges were not exactly packed, although it will be a few weeks before our monitoring reveals how things have changed since last year.

Sheep Rock from the east - that slope is where the sheep were taken up from boats, a dramatic way of crofting that is no longer carried out.
Everyone enjoys the sunshine, although Grace goes to the beach in any weather!
Anything that involves Zodiacs and seabirds will always be fun and today was certainly no exception. The main purpose of the day was to monitor the Puffins on Greenholm. Recently hatched chicks were found, but it's too early to say how they'll do, we'll find out in later visits during the summer.
The flat seas resulted in our first cetacean sighting for quite some time when two Porpoise were seen from South Light, not quite as dramatic as the five Killer Whales seen to the south of us off North Ronaldsay but very pleasant none the less.
On the bird front, migration is slowing down but Hobby and Yellow Wagtail were seen yesterday and a Wood Warbler was trapped at the Obs today, whilst the Crossbill invasion gathers pace (eight were seen today: a flock consisting of two red, two orange, two green and two brown birds!). A large pipit flying over the Obs was probably a Tawny, but could not be relocated, hopefully something for tomorrow...

Friday, 3 June 2011

Feeling hot, hot, hot.

Dave Wheeler, Fair Isle's resident weather man, has reported that the 18 degrees that the temperature hit today is the highest recorded on the island since June 2009! At times it did feel somewhat sweltering and there are wardens and visitors now wandering around in various shades of pink. The summery feel was further helped by a profusion of young birds, with fledged Starlings abounding in the south of the island and the first House Sparrow and Rock Pipit chicks venturing out of their nests.
Scarcer birds were represented by the Eastern Subalpine Warbler singing in the garden, a few reports of Crossbills totalling a minimum of six birds (perhaps the start of an invasion?), our second Common Buzzard of the year circling high north, a Common Rosefinch and the pretty much resident Canada Goose! Only a few birds were trapped but did include a Whitethroat with a well developed brood patch.

All in all a good day, although the Zodiac's maiden voyage was somewhat overshadowed by the spare engine breaking as soon as it was used - not ideal as we approach a busy season of seabird work. Still, I'm sure we'll manage to get it up and running soon (I don't fancy the idea of having to row round the island to count all the Fulmars!).

The answer to the Ringed Plover question from yesterday - can you see the nest yet?

After having the first clutch predated, these Ringed Plovers have found a natural cage in which to try their second attempt - a smart bit of thinking and good luck to them! If you check yesterday's picture, you can just make out the incubating bird's head!

Flaming June.

After a day of drenching rain and howling westerlies the weather improved, although things were still fairly quiet on the bird front. Alby the Eastern Subalp gave us a scare when he seemed to disappear, but thankfully Log revealed he was still present and had just remained hidden for most of the day. A few birds have appeared including Short-eared Owl, a couple of Crossbills, Redwing, Blackbird, Redstart and another Snow bunting - just enough to keep us hoping for something a bit better perhaps...

This very approachable juvenile Crossbill was feeding on peanuts at Auld Haa today, thanks to Tommy for the call and access to the garden.
As June approaches things get very hectic on the breeding bird front, with monitoring and ringing getting into full swing. It's too early to say how the seabird season will go, there'll be more updates during the season, but signs from Shetland generally don't seem to be too promising so far.
After having the first clutch predated, this pair of Ringed Plover seem to have found somewhere safer this time round - can you see the incubating bird?
Even if things are relatively quiet on the migration front, the daily census is still a very enjoyable experience as the island looks rather bonny at the moment, although we're all hoping the easterly wind forecasted for early next week brings a few good birds as well!

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